What triggers a Zeteo rumination?
Sometimes — usually — it’s an item from the media or from a book I’m browsing. Sometimes it’s the flash in memory of a line of poetry or philosophy. Things beg for connection. I try to assist. Sometimes it’s something close to anger, and I work to connect the dots.
Of course I thought the author was dead wrong in her accusations — not that everything in Thoreau is OK (see the measured and sober reservations of Steve Webb and William Eaton in comments on my last week’s Zeteo piece). Nevertheless, some of the animus against Thoreau is based on poor reading or poor thinking or poor motives in reading.
Several years ago I had occasion to review a large and well-received biography of one of my favorite philosophers, the Dane Søren Kierkegaard. I was uneasy about a frank admission of the author. He confessed at the start that his aim was to uncover cracks in the granite of genius.
Is that a noble — or decent — aim? Why not maneuver along the cracks in granite, or across ice, to find one’s way, with new handholds or footholds, to rewarding, sometimes spectacular new vistas? Is hammering at genius just something to expect, like thunder or bad weather — something we just learn to endure?
“Discovering cracks in the granite of genius” now seems an apt description of the aim of that bit of Thoreau bashing. The author sought cracks gratuitously, just for the fun of smashing. A decade ago I didn’t like the Kierkegaard biographer looking for cracks to bring the genius down, nor do I today like the writer bringing Thoreau down.
The idea that cultural giants are of granite and need to be broken by hammering is an apt description of much cultural criticism. I touched on this in my post “What’s Wrong with Affirmative Reading — or Looking?” (Zeteo, 06.28.2015). I also remember a colleague who was about to give a talk on Martin Luther King. A student who was organizing the talk asked if she would be sure to mention the scandals, the “weak spots,” as it were, in his genius. We can be like little boys who like to smash cars into each other.
My distaste for breaking statues resonates with a vow I made, twenty years ago jogging in the beautiful Berkeley hills — not to devote my writing life to refutations. My running partner and I had imagined the crack-pot idea of founding a Journal of Refutations – no matter the provenance or popularity of any argument, we would solicit and write refutations. Once soberly stated, I knew I had to run in the opposite direction.
Preserving the good or the beautiful, the just or the good can sometimes mean polemicizing against mud throwers. It’s good to remember, however, that refusing to exploit “cracks in the granite of genius” doesn’t mean one is limited to lavishing praise on writers or thinkers of stature. Not at all. One can unveil what hasn’t been seen, or praise an under-appreciated aspect of the writing or art work before one.
Celebrating the unseen is not celebrating the seen and it can be much more instructive and a boon to the spirit. I think of writing and teaching as curating, saving what’s best and bringing it into better view.
I title my post “connecting the dots” because I realize that a number of my posts, and a good deal of my other writing, has as its mainspring the attempt to bring those figures and things worthy of commemoration back from the dead, back from that downward escalator that destines so much of cultural production to the dumpster. I wanted to bring worthies back into the radiance of daily living — daily reading, seeing, hearing, touching, marveling.
That’s what Rilke was doing in bringing the archaic Apollo alive (Zeteo, 10.04.2015) — I’m still connecting dots — and that’s what I would do in writing of Thoreau. I’d not want to join a sing-along chorus of admirers but I’d want to rescue aspects of his genius now relatively neglected, to bring them back from the dead, as Rilke rescued aspects of Apollo from the dust heap. We all think we “know” Thoreau, but most of him remains largely invisible.
Ortega called s0me of his essays “salvations” — acts aiming to save forgotten things from the dark — a wrinkled Rembrandt hand, an arching fall-colored limb, a line or scene from Cervantes.
I’d want to write salvations.
—Ed Mooney, Zeteo contributor