Between Hope and Defeat, History and Heaven

“God himself culminates in the present moment.” (Thoreau)

What is “now” for?

What if you “know” the future?

Fairy tales and wishes of complete knowledge are always disastrous. If you know the hour of your death you live “against it” or are perhaps completely tugged into the orbit of it.

In Climate disruption; in the constant use of fossil fuels and toxins; we “know” a bleak future.

But the NOW is already bleak

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. Yesterday was also already bleak. Which is to say there are other humans who have always lived this bleakness.

It is the “we” who is changing in the recognition of this. It is the privileged and pampered we of “history” who must now confront the meaninglessness of “potential” and “prospect.”


“Any American writer, any American, is apt to respond to that event [the Puritan Migration to New England] in one way or another; to the knowledge that America exists only in its discovery and its discover was always an accident; and to the obsession with freedom, and with building new structures and forming new human beings with new minds to inhabit them; and to the presentiment that this unparalleled opportunity has been lost forever. The distinction of Walden‘s writer on this point (shared, I suppose, with the singer of Leaves of Grass and by the survivor in Moby Dick) lies in the constancy of this mood upon him, his incarnation, one may call it, of this mood at once of absolute hope and yet of absolute defeat, his own and his nation’s. His prose must admit this pressure and at every moment resolutely withstand it. It must live, if it can, pressed between history and heaven.” – Stanley Cavell, The Senses of Walden (8,9)

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  1. Eric M Sargent May 29, 2019 at 5:06 pm

    Walden, Thoreau’s “transcendental declaration of Independence” (Cavell 8) is one-part the foundational cornerstone for the American Religion, as Bloom calls it. Within this American Religion framework, Bloom calls us all “inadvertent believers” to the American Gnosticism which we have created, beginning with Emerson. Within Gnosticism, everything is disaster until the American mind created a God beyond such disaster, and moved us toward the personal (American) Jesus, with “enthusias[tic] and Orphic” effect.

    Emerson & Thoreau are the precursors to Billy Graham and George Bush. (Albeit, the former are true sages, whereas the latter are mere parodies). Emerson gives us a personal God, stripped of dogma and doctrine, and allows us to find that god within ourselves. Emerson sought the spirit, whereas evangelists like Graham seek authority.

    As Cavell notes… it is our obsession with freedom(s), building new structures that misleads and misconstrues most of American history.

    “Separation of church & state never meant seclusion of religion to purely private life. More decisively, separation of church & state, with its ban on any establishment of religion, had carried the positive meaning that Americans were free to invent new theologies, new churches, new religions. This fertility of invention was not some principle laid down in the Constitution but a fact of American life.” (Donald Meyer, “The Positive Thinkers”)

    1. Douglas Storm May 29, 2019 at 5:49 pm

      Is that “hopeful” or “defeatist”?

      Emerson and Thoreau both lived and were writers. Waldo more than Henry (interesting that both were known to friends by their middle names) was an entrepreneur of THINKING making his living by the pen and lyceum. Henry breathed his writing. Waldo moved in and out of so many ideas.

      I think we can “take” Henry at his WORD. I think we can take Waldo’s words and think.

  2. Eric M Sargent May 29, 2019 at 9:04 pm

    George Santayana on Emerson via Constance Rourke: “Reality eluded him. He was far from being, like a Plato or an Aristotle, past master in the art and the science of life. But his mind was endowed with unusual plasticity, with unusual spontaneity and liberty of movement – it was a fairyland of thoughts and fancies. He was like a young god making experiments in creation: he blotched the work, and always began on a new and better plan. Every day he said, ‘Let there be light,’ and every day the light was new. His sun, like that of Heraclitus, was different every morning.”

    1. Douglas Storm May 29, 2019 at 9:54 pm

      Well, it’s hard to critique the author of so many things that inspired the entirety of American literature (and also Nietzsche) that came after. I think John Jay Chapman may have written the best single essay on his work. And who reads Santayana now?

      1. Douglas Storm May 30, 2019 at 7:51 am

        It’s interesting how these critiques go – even Chapman says something like this–that an alien from space would not understand humanity if it only had Emerson to examine. A man whose first (and probably only real “love”) died shortly after they married; a man whose brothers died in the prime of their lives (remember, other than Bulkley, Waldo was the “dunce”); a man whose most precious child died at age 5 of scarlet fever; this man had a sure grasp on reality.


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