Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Totalization of Shadows, Part XVI

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately. Then, I went to the library for the very same reason. Nowadays, I go back and forth in a way which I think entitles me to consider myself extraordinarily privileged.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear, nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to 'glorify God and enjoy him forever'." Thoreau, Walden,from near beginning (1840’s).

I can’t figure out whether I have discovered life mean or sublime, however. I'm deliberately indecisive. Nevertheless, I will publish, (publicize), via this blog, my wavering meandering and indecisiveness—it is, I discover, a dream of publicity which wins out, no matter.

“Is there not a God, or some being, by whatever name I may designate him, who causes these thoughts to arise in my mind ? But why suppose such a being, for it may be I myself am capable of producing them? Am I, then, at least not something? But I before denied that I possessed senses or a body; I hesitate, however, for what follows from that? Am I so dependent on the body and the senses that without these I cannot exist? But I had the persuasion that there was absolutely nothing in the world, that there was no sky and no earth, neither minds nor bodies; was I not, therefore, at the same time, persuaded that I did not exist? Far from it; I assuredly existed, since I was persuaded. But there is I know not what being, who is possessed at once of the highest power and the deepest cunning, who is constantly employing all his ingenuity in deceiving me. Doubtless, then, I exist, since I am deceived; and, let him deceive me as he may, he can never bring it about that I am nothing, so long as I shall be conscious that I am something. So that it must, in fine, be maintained, all things being maturely and carefully considered, that this proposition (pronunciatum ) I am, I exist, is necessarily true each time it is expressed by me, or conceived in my mind.” Descartes, MEDITATION II, section 3 (1641).

"Something" or not, good man, don’t you wish to live? I would have liked to see you take to the woods, (or your body.) You certainly have a strange uncertainty about your life, even that you have one. Whether it was of the devil or of God, you do hastily conclude your chief end here in the gold-tinged fogs is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

I had always previously assumed Thoreau was remarking on observations he’d made about his fellow New Englanders. Now, I think maybe he was reading Descartes, though that he was doing both is not out of the question.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Yusef, for this stimulating post.

Just a couple of quick responses (in no particular order of relevance):

1: About the same time as Thoreau was seeking solitude and clarity in the woods in Massachusetts (btw on land owned by Emerson) Kierkegaard was wandering the inner streets of Copenhagen (and hating "nature") seeking the same clarity in observations of the multitudes of people around him.

2: I can’t figure out whether I have discovered life mean or sublime, however. I'm deliberately indecisive.That's indeed the most productive space that we should all try to create, also on this blog.

3: There is, it seems, in Descartes as well as in Thoreau and in most western thinking pre-Nietzsche a strong tendency of subtraction and reduction. A philosophy of deduction. 2500 years of diminution or avoidance (even fear) of complexity, from Thales in ancient Greece to Hegel in pre-modern Germany. The notion that by reduction (to water or Geist) there will emerge a mono-causal foundation of "truth" or final explanation.

Are we still "suffering" from this?

4: Thoreau might very well have been reading Descartes (is your last quote by Thoreau?) in fact they are very much alike. They are both great "whittlers".

5: What are the similarities and dialectics, rather than the dualisms and contrasts between the woods and the library?

Let's continue these lines of thought (also, why was Emerson (Thoreau's landlord and dinner companion) Nietzsche's favorite philosopher?)


4:49 PM  

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