Reading Cavell

Stanley Cavell has created more ground breaking work on the importance of Thoreau’s and Emerson’s writing than anyone of his generation. Along with Walt Whitman, they are the core of original American thought and literature. Rereading Cavell’s The Senses of Walden, it’s uncanny how these three writers circle each other, while always pushing into new ideas that carry their own marks. Here’s an excerpt that connects Emerson and Thoreau with Heidegger, who was influenced by Emerson’s writing.

“As to the question of what may look like the direction of influence, I am not claiming that Heidegger authenticates the thinking of Emerson and Thoreau; the contrary is, for me, fully as true, that Emerson and Thoreau may authorize our interest in Heidegger… . Emerson’s and Thoreau’s relation to poetry [read writing] is inherently their interest in their own writing…I do not mean their interest in what we may call their poems, but their interest in the fact that what they are building is writing, that their writing is, as it realizes itself daily under their hands, sentence by shunning sentence, the accomplishments of inhabitation, the making of it happen, the poetry of it. Their prose is a battle, using a remark of Nietzsche’s, not to become poetry; a battle specifically to remain in conversation with itself, answerable to itself. Such writing takes the same mode of relating to itself as reading and thinking do, the mode of the self’s relation to itself, call it self-reliance. Then whatever is required in possessing a self will be required in thinking and reading and writing. This possessing is not––it is the reverse of­­––possessive; I have implied that in being an act of creation, it is the exercise not of power but of reception. Then the question is on what terms is the self received?

“The answer I give for Emerson here is a theme of his thinking that further stands it with the latter Heidegger’s, the thing Emerson calls ‘onward thinking,’ the thing Heidegger means in taking thinking as a matter of getting ourselves ‘on the way.’… . In “Circles,” Emerson invites us to think about the fact, or what the fact symbolizes, that every action admits of being outdone, that around every circle another circle can take its place… . What is the motive, the means of motion of this [constant] movement?  How do we go on? (In Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, knowing how to go on as well as knowing when to stop, is exactly the measure of our knowing, or learning, in certain of its main regions or modes­­––for example, in the knowledge we have of our words. Onward thinking, on the way, knowing how to go on, are of course inflections or images of the religious idea of The Way, inflections which specifically deny that there is a place at which our ways end…)

“You may imagine the answer to the question how we move as having to do with power. But power seems to be the result…not the cause. I take Emerson’s answer to be what he means by ‘abandonment.’ The idea of abandonment contains what the preacher in Emerson calls ‘enthusiasm’ or the New Englander in him calls ‘forgetting ourselves,’ together with what he calls leaving or relief or quitting or release or shunning or allowing for deliverance, which is freedom (as in ‘Leave your theory as Joseph his coat in the hand of the harlot, and flee’ [Self-Reliance essay], together further with something he means by trusting or suffering (as in the image of the traveler––the conscious intellect, the intellect alone––who has lost his way [throwing] his reins on the horse’s neck, and [trusting] to the instinct of the animal to find his road [The Poet essay]… . Emerson’s perception of the moment is taken in hope, as something to be proven only on the way, by the way. This departure, such setting out, is, in our poverty, what hope consists in, all there is to hope for ; it is the abandoning of despair, which is otherwise our condition. (Quiet desperation Thoreau will call it; Emerson has said, silent melancholy.)

“What the ground of the fixated conflict between solipsism and realism should give way to––or between subjectivity and objectivity, or the private and the public, or the inner and the outer––is the task of onwardness… .

“In Heidegger: ‘The thanc means man’s inmost mind, the heart, the heart’s core, that innermost essence of man which reaches outward most fully and to the outermost limits.'(From What is Called Thinking). In Emerson: ‘To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart, is true for all men––that is genius. Speak your latent conviction and it shall be the universal sense; for always the inmost becomes the outmost.’ (Self-Reliance)… .

“Then everything depends on your realization of abandonment. For the significance of leaving lies in its discovery that you have settled something, that you have felt enthusiastically what there is to abandon yourself to, that you can treat the others there are as those to whom the inhabitation of the world can now be left.”


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