Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A Winter Walk with Thoreau

“Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.”

“Human beings make metaphors as naturally as bees make honey,” Adam Gopnik wrote in his wondrous love letter to winter, and no one has honeyed the spirit with more splendid metaphors wrung from winter than Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862).
Long before he contemplated winter cabbage as a lesson in optimism, Thoreau explored winter’s rapturous yet overlooked rewards in a stunning, meandering meditation titled “A Winter Walk,” included in his indispensable Excursions (free ebook | public library)...
(Brainpickings, continues)

"Walking as creative fuel"

A Splendid 1913 Celebration of How Solitary Walks Enliven “The Country of the Mind”

“Every walk is a sort of crusade,” Thoreau wrote in his manifesto for the spirit of sauntering. And who hasn’t walked — in the silence of a winter forest, amid the orchestra of birds and insects in a summer field, across the urban jungle of a bustling city — to conquer some territory of their interior world? Artist Maira Kalman sees walking as indispensable inspiration“I walk everywhere in the city. Any city. You see everything you need to see for a lifetime. Every emotion. Every condition. Every fashion. Every glory.” For Rebecca Solnit, walking “wanders so readily into religion, philosophy, landscape, urban policy, anatomy, allegory, and heartbreak.”
Perched midway in time between Thoreau and Solnit is a timeless celebration of the psychological, creative, and spiritual rewards of walking by the Scottish writer Kenneth Grahame (March 8, 1859–July 6, 1932), best known for the 1908 children’s novel The Wind in the Willows — a book beloved by pioneering conservationist and marine biologist Rachel Carson, whose own splendid prose about nature shares a kindred sensibility with Grahame’s.
Five years after publishing The Wind in the Willows, Grahame penned a beautiful short essay for a commemorative issue of his old boarding school magazine. Titled “The Fellow that Goes Alone” and only ever published in Peter Green’s 1959 biography Kenneth Grahame (public library), it serenades “the country of the mind” we visit whenever we take long solitary walks in nature.
With an eye to “all those who of set purpose choose to walk alone, who know the special grace attaching to it,” Grahame writes:
Nature’s particular gift to the walker, through the semi-mechanical act of walking — a gift no other form of exercise seems to transmit in the same high degree — is to set the mind jogging, to make it garrulous, exalted, a little mad maybe — certainly creative and suprasensitive, until at last it really seems to be outside of you and as if it were talking to you whilst you are talking back to it. Then everything gradually seems to join in, sun and the wind, the white road and the dusty hedges, the spirit of the season, whichever that may be, the friendly old earth that is pushing life firth of every sort under your feet or spell-bound in a death-like winter trance, till you walk in the midst of a blessed company, immersed in a dream-talk far transcending any possible human conversation. Time enough, later, for that…; here and now, the mind has shaken off its harness, is snorting and kicking up heels like a colt in a meadow.
In a sentiment which, today, radiates a gentle admonition against the self-defeating impulse to evacuate the moment in order to capture it — in a status update, in an Instagram photo — Grahame observes:
Not a fiftieth part of all your happy imaginings will you ever, later, recapture, note down, reduce to dull inadequate words; but meantime the mind has stretched itself and had its holiday.
(Brainpickings, continues)

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

18 years ago today

Image result for peanuts january 3 2000

That's the day the last Peanuts weekday strip appeared.

A month and a week later, the last Sunday strip appeared.

Image result for peanuts february 13 2000

Charles Schulz had died the day before.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

John Lachs on practical philosophy

"I'm all for technology but it's not a substitute." No, it's not. But the 2d-hand experience of virtual dialogue with the ever-delightful John Lachs, via the technology of Skype and YouTube, far exceeds the more common uses of this medium. Felines may share his philosophy, as John claims here, but their videos are no substitute either. Thanks for posting, Chris.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Still not a gadget

Front CoverLanier is still a sane and humane voice of reason in an increasingly giddy tech world distanced from and disinterested in embodied, subjective reality. "Most technology reinforces the feeling that reality is just a sea of gadgets... VR is the technology that instead highlights the existence of your subjective experience. It proves you are real." And are still not a gadget.


Telescopic perspective

"I don’t think it is possible to contribute to the present moment in any meaningful way while being wholly engulfed by it. It is only by stepping out of it, by taking a telescopic perspective, that we can then dip back in and do the work which our time asks of us. " Maria Popova

Thursday, December 21, 2017

"In Praise of William James"

The philosopher William James understood the notion of friendly dispute. Even as he quarreled with someone, including himself, he exuded generosity. CreditAssociated Press

I’ve devoted a significant chunk of this one life I have to reading, though I really don’t believe that books offer any greater chance of salvation than, say, windsurfing. Yet I can’t help feeling that I was saved, for a while, by William James.

About 10 years ago I was hurting; not from a broken heart so much as an exhausted one, having spent several of the previous years caring about people whose own hearts and minds were in states of distress. When I picked up “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” an edited version of 20 lectures that James delivered in Edinburgh in 1901 and 1902, I wasn’t expecting it to be a profound balm, but that’s what it was.

I immediately read more work by and about James. I began to verbally annotate everyday life to friends by referring to things he had done or said, with the same frequency with which I had once (no less annoyingly, I’m sure) called on scenes from “The Simpsons.” He was a Swiss Army knife of psychological and emotional insight.

It’s a cliché for people unswayed by religion to still believe in William James, to allow him access to their souls because of the way he sneaks in through their brains. A psychologist and philosopher (and oldest brother of the novelist Henry), James was not a follower of any church, and had little academic interest in institutional religion, but he was obsessively curious about the inner experiences of believers... 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Gopnik on "On Being"

Practicing Doubt, Redrawing Faith
The wise and lyrical writer Adam Gopnik muses on the ironies of spiritual life in a secular age through the lens of his many fascinations — from parenting, to the arts, to Darwin. He touches on all these things in a conversation inspired by his foreword to The Good Book, in which novelists, essayists, and activists who are not known as religious thinkers write about their favorite biblical passages. Our ancestors acknowledged doubt while practicing faith, he says; we moderns are drawn to faith while practicing doubt. LISTEN
...Ms. Tippett: Right. One thing I noticed, as I started reading through the sweep of your work, also — you say — you reflect in so many ways on the Bible and spiritual life and what is numinous and, as you said, daily and rational, and the contradictions between those things. And it also seemed to me that Darwin — that thinking about Darwin, reflecting on Darwin, being in dialogue with Darwin — is a real thread for you. And one of the things that you talk about, that you write so winsomely and that I just find so intriguing, is how Darwin has these notions of both “quick” time and “deep” time.

Mr. Gopnik: Yeah, I’m touched that you saw it, because that was an important idea for me that — you know how that it is. Nobody noticed. [laughs] Yes, I think that’s true. One of the things that gives Darwin’s life and his work its enormous, almost tragic pathos is that he was aware — he became acutely aware of that. Evolution, biological evolution, only operates and only makes sense if you’re able to open your mind up to geological time, to the unbelievable expanse —

Ms. Tippett: As you say, “this vast abyss of time” is how you wrote it.

Mr. Gopnik: The vast abyss of time. And Darwin’s whole point is, it only takes place over these vast expanses of times that we can understand abstractly, but we can’t experience. And our own actual existence takes place in this tiny, brief lightning flash of existence. And that includes the life of ourselves and of our loved ones and of our children, particularly. And I talk in the book about his experience of his favorite daughter, Annie, and — who died tragically, young. And there’s no question —

Ms. Tippett: And what an imprint that left on him.

Mr. Gopnik: Yes, and that rhythm, that pathos, that tension between our actual experience of the people we love and the things that give meaning to our lives, so brief, so packed — something that only becomes more brief and more packed and more poignant as we age — against this limitless-seeming span of time that’s responsible for our particular forms and for our particular capacities. That’s a kind of pathos of which Darwin is acutely aware. And it’s essential, it seems to me, to — for lack of a better word — the spiritual experience of modern people that we have to have double vision of exactly that kind. We have to be doubled-eyed.

Ms. Tippett: It kind of echoes back at what you said a minute ago about Auden and this kind of interplay, this synergy between misery and love and the human struggle between beauty and terror, that is also there in religion. And you talked about — there’s this beautiful passage in Darwin, which I’ve quoted many times, which is from the very end of The Origin of Species, where he says, “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one, and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.” And you point out, so importantly, that we can only understand the fullness of that passage when we also look at passages of his where he talks about life in the moment. He says, “We behold the face of nature bright with gladness. We do not see, or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects and seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life.” [laughs]

Mr. Gopnik: Well, it’s funny that — I think you understand those passages particularly, if you understand them as, in effect, letters to Emma, his wife, whom he adored and who was a believer throughout her life. And for me, at least, some of the emotional pressure in those passages only makes sense if you see it as his way of saying to her, “I know what you believe, and I honor and love you for believing it. Here’s what I know about the world. Here’s what I know for certain, or near certain, is the way the universe actually operates. And here’s why it shouldn’t be a threat to your feelings and shouldn’t be a threat to your beliefs.”
It’s funny, because my oldest son, my only son, we called Auden. That’s his middle name, Luke Auden, after Auden.

Ms. Tippett: Yes, I did see that somewhere. Wonderful.

Mr. Gopnik: And had we had a second son, I think we would have given him Darwin as a middle name. So we would have had an Auden and a Darwin in the family.

Ms. Tippett: So if I ask you how your study of Darwin and your reverence for Darwin, how 
does it influence your sense of religion, how would you answer that question?

Mr. Gopnik: Well, it certainly influences my manner of writing, because I always see Darwin as a model of the act of explanation and of argument; the morality, the ethics of explanation, maybe. It affects my own — I don’t want to dignify myself by calling it a religion. But it affects my own feelings about the universe, because I think it’s demonstrative of the possibility that you can be completely committed to a rational, if you like, material explanation of existence, of why — how we got here, without being committed to a reductive account of our own experience. You can believe that there’s a completely rational account of how we got here but that you can never fully rationalize what we feel here.
That’s central to Darwin’s distinction between the two kinds of time. That’s central to Darwin’s vision. And for me, Krista, that’s always been, in many ways, the hardest thing to explain and the hardest reconciliation to attempt, and I sometimes despair of ever making it adequately. And that is exactly that anybody who, like Darwin, who is committed to science is acutely aware of the limits of scientific explanation. The greatest philosopher of science in the 20th century, Karl Popper, always said that the realm of science was small and distinct; that there was a huge realm of human experience that would never be susceptible to scientific explanation. Now, that didn’t mean that it could be instantly subsumed in the supernatural but that there were realms of what, for lack of a better word — you can call it spiritual experience or numinous experience or irrational experience or simply the experience of sensibility; all the things that are summed up in Christmas carols and songs and poems and novels and spirituals and all the other ways we have of organizing our experience — that those things aren’t contradictory. And again, that’s central to Darwin’s sense of human existence, and I think it’s central to any person’s.

Ms. Tippett: Here’s something you wrote about Darwin: “Darwin disenchanted believers in heaven, but he reenchanted lovers of Earth. He thought he had found the secret of life, but he knew that nothing could solve the problems of living. That takes all the time we have.”

Mr. Gopnik: That sums up what I think is exactly right. He really believed, accurately, that he had discovered the secret of life. He had found the reason that species change. But nothing could explain the mysteries of living. And I think that we live in that double experience... (continues)
Bigger Than Phil
When did faith start to fade?

In Tom Stoppard’s 1970 play “Jumpers,” the philosopher hero broods unhappily on the inexorable rise of the atheist: “The tide is running his way, and it is a tide which has turned only once in human history. . . . There is presumably a calendar date—a moment—when the onus of proof passed from the atheist to the believer, when, quite suddenly, the noes had it.” Well, when was that date—when did the noes have it? In 1890? In 1918, after the Great War? In 1966, when Timeshocked its readers with a cover that asked whether God was dead? For that matter, dothe noes have it? In most of the world, the ayes seem to be doing just fine. Even in secularized Manhattan, the Christmas Eve midnight Mass is packed tight with parishioners, and the few who came for the music are given dirty looks as they sheepishly back out after the Vivaldi.

The most generous poll never seems to find more than thirty per cent of Americans saying they are “not religious or not very religious,” though the numbers get up to around fifty per cent in Europe. But something has altered in the course of a century or so. John Stuart Mill said in the early nineteenth century that he was the only youth he knew who was raised as a skeptic; by the end of his life, skeptics were all around him. Yet, though the nineteenth-century novel is roiled by doubt, there isn’t one in which the doubters quite dominate. Whatever change has occurred isn’t always well captured by counting hands. At a minimum, more people can say they don’t think there is a God, and suffer less for saying so, than has been the case since the fall of Rome. The noes have certainly captured some constituency, obtained some place. What, exactly, do they have?

There’s a case to be made that the change is more like pulses than like tides. If the nineteenth century ended with freethinkers in every front parlor, for most of the twentieth century the sound of atheism became more agonized and muted. Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the firebrand head of the American Atheists, had an occasional spot on Johnny Carson, but it was always in the last ten minutes of the show, the same spot that, ahem, Johnny gave to authors. (Billy Graham got on right after the monologue.) The glamour lay in faith. Nearly all the great modernist poets were believers: Auden and Eliot in Anglo-Christianity, Yeats in some self-crafted Hibernian voodoo. Wallace Stevens, whose great poem “Sunday Morning” is all about what to do when you don’t go to church, saw his atheism treated very discreetly, like Hart Crane’s homosexuality.

Only in the past twenty or so years did a tone frankly contemptuous of faith emerge. Centered on the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the New Atheists were polemicists, and, like all polemics, theirs were designed not to persuade but to stiffen the spines of their supporters and irritate the stomach linings of their enemies. Instead of being mushy and marginalized, atheism could proclaim its creed. But why did the nonbelievers suddenly want stiffer spines and clearer signals? Why, if the noes indeed had it, did they suddenly have to be so loud?

A history of modern atheism—what did Voltaire say to Diderot? what did Comte mean to Mill? who was Madalyn Murray O’Hair, anyway?—would be nice to have. The British popular historian Peter Watson’s “The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God” (Simon & Schuster) could have been that book, but it isn’t. Beginning with Nietzsche’s 1882 pronouncement that the big guy had passed and man was now out on the “open sea” of uncertainty, the book is instead an omnium-gatherum of the life and work of every modern artist or philosopher who was unsettled or provoked by the possible nonexistence of God. Watson leads us on a breakneck trip through it all—Bloomsbury and Bernard Shaw, Dostoyevsky and German Expressionism, Sigmund Freud and Pablo Picasso. If it’s Chapter 3, this must be Vienna.

This makes sense of a kind, the nonexistence of God being an issue for modern people, and rising up everywhere. But reporting on every place you see it doesn’t help to see it more clearly. (On one page, we hear about Anna Clark, Tennessee Williams, Stefan George, James Joyce, Philip Roth, Henry James, Wilhelm Reich, Valentine de Saint-Point, Léger, Milan Kundera, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Jean-François Lyotard, H. G. Wells, Gerhart Hauptmann, Aldous Huxley, John Gray, Eugene Goodheart, Jonathan Lear, and, of course, Nietzsche.) Argos, the hundred-eyed watchman, might have had more sight than other giants, but he didn’t have sharper sight. Would Matisse really never have painted “The Red Studio”—which Watson takes as a paradigm of post-religious art, with the artist’s self-made space replacing divine nature—if Nietzsche hadn’t made that memorable P.R. statement about the Deity’s demise?

The problem is that godlessness as a felt condition is very different from atheism as an articulate movement. Watson doesn’t distinguish clearly, or at all, between the two, and so his book manages to feel at once breathless and long-winded—much too rushed in its parts and too diffuse as a whole. Even his chronology of ever-growing disbelief seems off. “Modern art is a celebration of the secular,” he states confidently, meaning Picasso and his like, and although he backtracks quickly, he can’t backtrack far enough, since so much of modern art—Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko—has been religious or mystical in nature.

Only in the last hundred or so pages does the real contention of the book appear. For Watson, we are divided not so much between believers and non- as between what might be called Super-Naturalists, who believe that a material account of existence is inadequate to our numinous-seeming experience, and Self-Makers, who are prepared to let the human mind take credit even for the most shimmering bits of life. His enduring sympathies lie with the unduly forgotten historian and novelist Theodore Roszak and with the philosopher Richard Rorty. Both are conciliatory Self-Makers, who sought to elevate experience over arguments and, dissatisfied with science, made of religious feeling its own religion. Watson regards phenomenology as “the most underrated movement of the twentieth century,” and finds in its emphasis on happy sensations, on the thisness of life, the happiest alternative to old-time religion. Atheism sanctifies less of the world but names more of it, he seems to say, and this is in itself enough. This seems to leave the door open for believers to engage in expanded “naming” of their own, which would turn mighty Jehovah into little Tinker Bell—if you say his name enough, he lives. Still, for Watson this is the right, positive, mystery-affirming, life-enhancing, and pragmatic-minded faith to end up within... (continues)

Friday, November 24, 2017


Farewell old Angel, faithful friend and steadfast walking companion 2006-2017... like Grace, Phoenix, and Lilli before you, and now your protege Scooter... You always lived up to your name.

Monday, August 28, 2017

"The True American"

This year America celebrates the bicentennial birthday of Henry David Thoreau with many excellent publications about his life, legacy, and love of the natural world. Only his fellow citizens are likely to lend an ear to them. Unlike his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau hardly makes it onto the list of notable American authors outside his home country. His peculiar brand of American nativism has little international appeal, for as Emerson wrote in his funeral eulogy of May 9, 1862:

No truer American existed than Thoreau. His preference of his country and condition was genuine, and his aversation from English and European manners and tastes almost reached contempt.

These days the question of what it means to be a “true” American resists rational analysis. Whatever one can say about Americans that is true, the opposite is equally true. We are the most godless and most religious, the most puritanical and most libertine, the most charitable and most heartless of societies. We espouse the maxim “that government is best which governs least,” yet look to government to address our every problem. Our environmental conscientiousness is outmatched only by our environmental recklessness. We are outlaws obsessed by the rule of law, individualists devoted to communitarian values, a nation of fat people with anorexic standards of beauty. The only things we love more than nature’s wilderness are our cars, malls, and digital technology. The paradoxes of the American psyche go back at least as far as our Declaration of Independence, in which slave owners proclaimed that all men are endowed by their creator with an unalienable right to liberty... 

What he found is that “we occupy the heaven of the gods without knowing it.” Paradise exists all around us, in America’s “wildness,” the natural environment of the continent. In the contact between his own body and America’s forests, meadows, lakes, rivers, mountains, and animals, Thoreau discovered what he called “hard matter in its home.” That home was the “hard bottom” or “reality” that we crave. “I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound,” he wrote in his journal. “Daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks!… Contact! Contact!

The tactile transcendence of America’s wildness opens its prospects to those who would wake up to it. One need not travel to sublime mountain ranges or remote wilderness areas to access it. It lies before us, in what Thoreau called the day’s dawning. “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn.” Only such expectation brings forth that heightening of the senses that allows America to appear in its dawning ecstasies; and lest we take the notion of dawn too literally, Thoreau declares: “Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me.”  ...NYRB
Henry Thoreau Accelerating Intelligence News