Delight Springs

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Natural epiphany

The subject of "epiphany" came up during class last night, and again afterwards at the Boulevard. Creative epiphany is not necessarily a divine or supernatural manifestation, a vision of Christ, or a religious conversion. But it is a bolt or a jolt of awareness that casts familiar experience in a new and brighter light. You can't really go looking for it, but you can make yourself ready to receive it.

One of us had done just that before class, readying himself by ditching the car and "walking to work" (see D.B. Johnson's "Henry"), ditching the cold sterility of our over-cooled  classroom building, and then ditching the laptop in favor of pen and paper. Going old-school with a "functioning pen" (see J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter epiphany) in the open air can slow you down to a pace of thought smarter than fingers on a keyboard, giving each cursive stroke more substance than is allowed by the sometimes-unbearable lightness of the "Delete" key.

The guy who designed Central Park must have been similarly struck, when he wrote:
“It is a scientific fact that the occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character, particularly if this contemplation occurs in connection with relief from ordinary cares, change of air and change of habits, is favorable to the health and vigor of men and especially to the health and vigor of their intellect beyond any other conditions which can be offered them, that it not only gives pleasure for the time being but increases the subsequent capacity for happiness and the means of securing happiness.”
Yes! Science supports natural epiphany, if you're ready for it.

5:45/5:35, 61/88, 8:06

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Born free

The main subject of our stroll thru civilization today is Jean Jacques Rousseau, the Swiss romantic who made his reputation by denigrating civilization itself. “Civilization is a hopeless race to discover remedies for the evils it produces.”

We're born free, he said. "To assert that the son of a slave is born a slave is to assert that he is not born a man.” But he didn't really think we could lose our chains, just loosen them a bit, by educating ourselves to understand that some chains actually unify and improve our condition.

“I have never thought, for my part, that man's freedom consists in his being able to do whatever he wills, but that he should not, by any human power, be forced to do what is against his will.” Nice reverie, but he also said some shall be "forced to be free."

He wasn't wrong about that. Nobody wants to pay taxes, but without them we'd be slaves to primitive circumstance and deprivation. We're all better off when we do. Total independence and self-reliance are myths that do not enoble, any more than savagery enobles.

He was wrong to encourage a cult of community and nationalism. "Every patriot hates foreigners," and that's supposed to be a point in patriotism's favor? What would JJ say about Brexit? What does Brexit say about him?

“Trust your heart rather than your head,” he said. Wrong again. Mistrust both, use both, learn, repeat.

6 am/5:35, 69/85/62, 8:07

Tuesday, June 28, 2016


Darn dog did it again, retrieved me from pleasant dreams at an ungodly hour, and so I've just finished Stoner in this morning's dense fog. What a wonderful story of a humble, decent midwesterner not unlike some I've known, of a life "dedicated to teaching" in a place I knew so well as a neophyte learner decades ago, Columbia, MO. Concluding in the years just before my arrival, its themes of personal perseverance and generational persistence are resonant, serious, and hugely entertaining. The fictional dedication "to WS" gratifies the reader, one imagines, as much as it would its subject, and makes a much larger statement about real dedication.

I understand the devoted readership it's inspired, and the author's surprise that some found it a sad tale rather than an affirmation of life and love as drops in the on-flowing stream of civilization. He called it an "escape into reality," and that's precisely the paradox of mental transport that great literature can afford. Worth losing a little sleep over.

5:45/5:34, 73/92/65, 8:07

Monday, June 27, 2016

Feeding the right wolf

What if the future's a dead end? What if there's nothing out there among the stars, in the deepest reaches of space and time?

But what if there's everything

Good answer, young Casey Newton. That's how you feed the right wolf, the bringer of light and hope. Darkness and despair are just too easy. Live in possibility, don't give up. Don't stop thinking about tomorrow.

Yesterday was the publication anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997). Young Jo Rowling must have been feeding the right wolf, to have been lightning-struck as she was by the idea for her wizard world while waiting for a late train. "I did not have a functioning pen with me,” she said. “I simply sat and thought for four hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me ... I began to write that very evening.”

Creative lightning most often strikes dreamers and optimists, doesn't it? Hope so.

5:50/5:34, 75/86/68, 8:06

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Smart fish

“They had been brought up in a tradition that told them in one way or another that the life of the mind and the life of the senses were separate and, indeed, inimical; they had believed, without ever having really thought about it, that one had to be chosen at some expense of the other.” Stoner

This is one of the central contentious issues in the Plato versus Aristotle "struggle" for our civilization's soul, isn't it? The genuinely-empiricist impulse is to integrate intelligence and sense, not wall them off. Embodied mind and sense-based knowledge are the only kind we can know.

And I'm still astounded not to have known Stoner until now. John Edward Williams said of his protagonist, "The important thing in the novel to me is Stoner's sense of a job. Teaching to him is a job-a job in the good and honorable sense of the word. His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was... It's the love of the thing that's essential... The important thing is to keep the tradition going, because the tradition is civilization."

Love, "a passion neither of the mind nor of the heart, it was a force that comprehended them both..."

Family took me to see Finding Dory last night. A smart fish suffering short-term memory loss had better remember to pay attention to what she sees and hears, and to accept a little help from her friends. Embodied mind and memory, as Aristotle knew, are social. Love it.

6:30/5:33, 74/95, 8:06

Friday, June 24, 2016


Well that was a stormy night. Spent the last three hours of it sleeplessly in the library recliner, alongside  our thunderstruck old Angel dog.  She somehow made her way past several closed doors to fetch me at 3 am. Younger Daughter, I discovered, had at some earlier point in the night improvised a blanket tent above the dog bed in an attempt to pacify the terrified pooch. Cute. Nice try.

So, what to do in the recliner at 3 am when sleep eludes? I went to Hoopla and found an audio recording of a book I can't believe I'd never heard of, Stoner by John Edward Williams. It's set in a slightly fictionalized early-20th century version of my old college town Columbia MO, about a farm kid who goes off to the university to study agriculture and ends up getting a lit degree and becoming a prof. It didn't put me to sleep, but I didn't mind.
“But don't you know, Mr Stoner?' Sloane asked. 'Don't you understand about yourself yet? You're going to be a teacher.” 
“He felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which is simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man.”
“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”
Only sometimes? But it's not usually a shattering awareness of futility, for me, more just a sense of humility. And, of solidarity with all the other academic under-laborers who'll never know it all, read it all, or teach it with the requisite "dignity" and depth. Stoner's people on the farm scratched at the earth, his people in the academy scratch at culture and learning. It all comes from an itch for living that good parents and teachers pay forward.

6 am/5:33, 70/95, 8:06

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Wide open spaces

I'm pleased with how eagerly our class has taken to the themes raised by Gros in Philosophy of Walking, the escape from a stultified identity, the freedom of briefly floating on two feet as "just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life,” the thrill of heading out and de- or re-constructing the self, and the pleasing symbiosis of walking, writing, and thinking. “Think while walking, walk while thinking, and let writing be but the light pause, as the body on a walk rests in contemplation of wide open spaces.” Walking in Memphis, walking on old battlefields, I'm Walking...

Now we just need to dial back the summer heat a bit so we can take it comfortably outdoors. Hall-walking, like mall-walking and treadmilling, is just not the same. Just talking the walk isn't either.

6 am/5:33, 79/96/72, 8:06

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Stand and move

Today our stroll gets more literal and more Gallic, as we pick up Frederic Gros's A Philosophy of Walking. Still working our way through The Cave and the Light too, now up to Galileo, another Bacon, Descartes, Newton, Hobbes, and Locke. Herman's emerging thesis seems to be that real light must shine from above and beyond, must transcend and transform the material earth of things, must impose civilization upon recalcitrant humans who can't or won't exit the cave on their own without divine guidance and instruction.

It'll be interesting to see whether and how our new text engages this thesis. Walkers are an independent breed, we like to stand and move on our own pegs and don't like the insinuation that we're incapable of doing so. When I first picked up Gros's book last summer I was initially put off by what I perceived as the author's deconstructive and textualist sensibility, specifically the idea that walking deconstructs personal identity and self-possession.
My philosophy of walking [I wrote] denies the dichotomy between working and recreating, the dualism of discoursing and experiencing that I think I read in Frederic Gros. I need now to go back and re-read his Thoreau section, with the question before me: does he also take from Henry what I do, viz., a sense of walking as a form of life that straddles the worlds of text and experience? Again, I must pluralize. Texts, experiences, realities are my quarry, not just words and verbal constructs. Something there is, Horatio (and Jacques), that is not merely dreamed up and written in your philosophy texts. That's one of the implications of "more day to dawn."
Later I wasn't so sure.
I may have been hasty in detecting deconstructionist tendencies in Frederic Gros's Philosophy of Walking. Overtly at least, he's on the side of immediate experience and reality, against that of the Derridean overtextualizers. Or so it appears, given his sympathetic rendition of Thoreau's famous "rocks in place" declaration of independence from tradition, convention, and cultural inertia. Honest writing must first acknowledge the truth of the writer's own experience. If he cannot tap that well, he has no business writing. "How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live."
So we'll see. The question for all who crave reality is where to seek the light, and how. The answer, to begin with, is: Stand, and move.

5:45/5:32, 77/96, 8:06

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Anything could happen

I'm not a Sartre fan but his pranksterish youth, his "thus pissed Zarathustra" and a Lindbergh hoax are perversely endearing and humanizing.  And his typical overstatement nonetheless conveys one of the central truths of philosophy, that we ignore life's vast (though not quite infinite) range of possibility to our detriment. "I suppose it is out of laziness that the world is the same day after day. Today it seemed to want to change. And then, anything, anything could happen." A juvenile delinquent could even win and refuse a Nobel prize, and be lauded at his death as a secular saint.

Did you see that rare solstice moon last night? A once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event, apparently, for those whose lifetimes are still constrained by time.

The constraint of time, and the administrative compulsion of my insurer, sent me for my annual physical screening yesterday. The doc had a probative question about American philosophy, at the exam's most dreaded and probing moment. It wasn't easy to concentrate on my reply but I was grateful for the distraction.

And, I'm grateful for the online publication of my little testimonial essay on John Lachs yesterday at the Berlin Practical Philosophy International Forum. Its concluding questions imply an echo, perhaps disturbing but also potentially invigorating, of Sartre's "anything could happen." More important, they imply the possibility that we can make something happen.

6 am/5:32, 77/91/73, 8:06

Monday, June 20, 2016

Paternal prototype

Fathers Day was all about surprise and delight this year, with donuts and catfish, the Times and the pool, the Cubbies at Wrigley on Sunday Night Baseball (with just a short late peek at the Cavs' moment of triumph) , and finally the phone call from distant Older Daughter.

And of course thoughts of gratitude for my own late father's wonderful lifelong modeling of how to live honestly and humbly, to be of service, to be worthy of appreciation. I fear I took him too much for granted. So many other fathers, like the one in today's poem, were so much less worthy. He was quiet, kind, generous, selfless, supportive, strong. "On the days I am not my father," I could do much better.

6:30/5:32, 72/92, 8:06

Friday, June 17, 2016

Above average

"He is certainly the strangest person I know," says Roger Angell of Garrison Keillor, about to shuffle off the Prairie Home Companion stage. Fortunately he'll still be writing, and sharing poetry and history from the Almanac.

We who know him only through his radio performances and his writing don't know him at all, of course, but he's been a strangely solid and compelling presence for me ever since my old grad school friend George, the Georgian Kierkegaardian who now teaches in Keillor's backyard, told me I had to hear PHC back in the very early '80s. He was right. I've had to hear it ever since. I don't know what I'm going to do with my Saturdays between 5 and 7 pm after July 1, but I'll probably not listen to the Wobegon-less successor show. Not at first, anyway.

The man and his show, strange as they may be, have always been way above average.

5:30/5:31, 78/87/66, 8:05

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Read, write, and dream

Happy Bloomsday, "out of doors gentle summer morning everywhere.” Here, anyway. “Why don’t you write sensible books that people can understand?” But you've got to write what's in you that wants out.

We talked a bit in class about what drives creativity, and agreed that the neo-Platonists were wrong to pin it all on a mystical impulse to draw closer to God. I'm with Erasmus the humanist, who "never felt any need to cleanse away an overwhelming sense of sin," who just wanted "to walk in a sunlit garden and discuss Cicero and the ancient poets; in short, to read, write, and dream." 

Dreams drive creativity, and summer's the great season for dreaming. 

6 am/5:31, 68/97, 8:04

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Modern science at last

Bertrand Russell's History has relatively little to say about the Protestant Reformation, but says it well. Luther and Calvin were "medieval in philosophy," their abolition of purgatory and repudiation of indulgences diminished the power of the church, their doctrine of predestination affirmed the soul's fate as "wholly independent of the action of priests." But lest we conclude that Protestantism represented real spiritual progress over Catholicism, he observes that the former was "just as bigoted" but less powerful, hence "less able to do harm."

So glad our stroll has brought us at last to the doorstep of modern science, with Galileo and Copernicus on deck. Maybe we should try to squeeze in some extracurricular reading before next week from Dava Sobel (it's her birthday), author of Galileo's Daughter and More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos. Or Cosmosapiens. Or The Big Picture...

There's a time and place for making stuff up, but not in place of finding stuff out.

6 am/5:31, 73/91, 8:04

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Banned books

A date to celebrate, a practice to deplore, a mindset still with us:
On this date in 1966, the Vatican abolished the Index of Prohibited Books... books that Roman Catholics were forbidden to read for fear of endangering their faith or their morals...
Some of the authors who found their names on the Index at one time or another include astronomers and physicists Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Giordano Bruno, and Johannes Kepler; philosophers John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant, and Jean Paul Sartre; and authors Jonathan Swift, Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, and Graham Greene. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was considered for inclusion, because some thought it was a veiled call for revolution, but it was ultimately left off. None of Karl Marx’s work made the list, nor did anything written by Adolph Hitler, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, or Charles Darwin.
The list assaulted the freedom of authors and readers, the latter then an expanding category but now possibly a shrinking one. There's less need to ban books, now that so many of us voluntarily ignore them. As Mr. Twain said, "The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read."

The Almanac today also makes me want to read Mona Simpson, who said "I use life when it’s better than what I could make up” and “The tincture of life most rarely found in art is happiness.”

5:30/5:31, 74/90, 8:04

Monday, June 13, 2016


What a fine sonnet from Lin-Manuel Miranda last night, accepting his award, affirming and re-affirming life and love.
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day.
This show is proof that history remembers
We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;
We rise and fall and light from dying embers, remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.

But the murderous hate that masquerades as divine love, and its "libertarian" enablers, must be swept aside. "I left you but one precept, of loving one another," says Erasmus's Christ to his monastic "brainsick fools" who know only rite and ritual, who "blacken the darkness and promote the delusion." Some protestant pastors, too, took to social media yesterday to proclaim that Orlando somehow vindicates vicious intolerance. Of all the forms of folly that foster hatred, formal religion too frequently tops the list.

6:15/5:31, 74/95, 8:03

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Getting started

"When asked if he found writing enjoyable, William Styron answered, 'I certainly don’t. I get a fine, warm feeling when I’m doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started each day.'"

Sad. Getting started at something you're good at, something that can give you a fine, warm feeling, ought not to be painful. Styron suffered a profound depression that probably would have impaired his enjoyment of anything else than writing, too. 

Lots of writers seem to suffer in just that way, complaining of imperiously demanding blank pages and screens when their real antagonist is the prospect of a day to fill against a deficit of will. Styron drank heavily at night and slept late into the day, postponing the terror of daylight (as he saw it) as long as he could. That worked, for his writing if not for his general state of mind, until it didn't.

Those of us who rise with the sun escape that particular problem, though other forms of procrastination may darken our days or threaten to block our light. In my experience, getting started is easy. That's when the prospects are brightest, the fresh light clearest, the day ahead longest, the warm feeling finest. 

And, because we usually don't consider doomsday, we can almost always console ourselves on even our worst days with the promise of tomorrow. Until we can't.

6 am/5:31, 68/98, 6:02

Friday, June 10, 2016

Doomsday's the best

Deadlines are arbitrary, in the larger scheme. But for us practiced procrastinators who love "later" too much, they're indispensable. They're the point of temporal convergence when there must be a reckoning, when we must toe the line.

Henry knew. “In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.”

Did he meet all his deadlines? No. Who does? "I love deadlines," said Douglas Adams. "I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by."

But we'll all meet the last one. That ought to put a little more resolution in a procrastinator's step and keep him moving, not to toe the line but to extend it and finally transcend it.

If every day is Doomsday, as Emerson said one day, then every moment is a deadline. “One of the illusions of life is that the present hour is not the critical, decisive hour."

 We can't really be thinking that every moment, we'd die too soon of stress and worry. But there are days, deadline days, when it's a good thought to hold in mind. "Write it on your heart that every day is the best day of the year,” and get on with it.

Image result for new yorker cartoon deadlines

6:30/5:31, 60/95, 8:02

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The sharp and narrow path

We discussed Ockham and his razor yesterday, mixing several metaphors. Is parsimony demanded by logic and metaphysical necessity? Is simplicity an aesthetic preference or an ontological imperative? Is it an affront to parsimony to pour a pint into more than one glass? Do we sacrifice babies when disposing of waste water?

Our chapter "The Razor's Edge" prompted an un-parsimonious question about Somerset Maugham, whose novel of that name features a protagonist who is obsessed with William James's Principles of Psychology. Why that title? The epigraph, a diligent student discovered after class, holds a clue. "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over, thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.” That's from the Upanishads.

The razor's edge is sharp, and that's the metaphor we notice mostly with Ockham. But perhaps the point is not its sharpness but its fineness, its narrowness. Salvation's path must be carefully trod, lest we slip and fall. Sage counsel for a walking philosopher. Mind your steps.

So, what is salvation for a secular philosopher and peripatetic inspired by Ockham? If it's not resistance to the multiplication of entities and ideas per se, but only to the gratuitous ones, how do we spot those? And what will we save, by spotting them? Error and falsehood, presumably.

But what would William James say? He'd remind us that our errors are "not such solemn things," most of the time. They give us something to talk about, they bound our path, they populate our landscape, they propel our progress. "In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf. At any rate, it seems the fittest thing for the empiricist philosopher."

Some forms of salvation may not be worth the trouble.

5:55/5:31, 58/88

Wednesday, June 8, 2016


Left Older Daughter at the steps of the American Film Institute's Warner Brothers Building, hailed Uber for LAX, and a few hours later here we are. Done.