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American prophets

February 8, 2012

As I continue my sojourn through the works of Stanley Cavell (see this post), guided of course by Profs. Wellbery and Conant at UChicago, I think I’m starting to get a better handle on what I do and don’t like about his work. And ultimately a lot of what I dislike comes down to tone. I think he sounds excruciatingly arrogant. This is, perhaps not surprising; he loves Emerson and Thoreau, and both of those writers, Thoreau especially, have the exact same problem.

Anyway Cavell has a book about Thoreau’s Walden, which he sees as the unacknowledged foundation of American philosophy and the great American literary epic. I’m currently reading it, and have realized early on that what Cavell sees in Thoreau is just not what I see in Thoreau. But it is almost, though not quite, what I see in Melville.

The best way to bring this out is with a lengthy quotation with my comments interspersed. So, I’m in red.

The writer of Walden establishes his claim upon the prophetic writings of our Scripture by taking upon his work four of their most general features: (1) their wild mood swings between lamentation and hope (because the position from which they were are written is an absolute knowledge of faithlessness and failure, together with the absolute knowledge that this is not necessary, not from God, but self-imposed; and because God’s prophets are auditors of the wild mood-swings of God himself) [or: his despair and presumption]; (2) the periodic confusions of their authors’ identities with the God’s–stuck with the words in their mouths and not always able to remember how they got there [or: his attempt to become God; I also think Cavell is confused here about the prophets (do they confuse themselves with God or just their words with Gods’?) but that’s a side issue]; (3) their mandate to create wretchedness and nervousness (because they are “to judge the bloody city” and “show her all her abominations” [Ezekiel 22:2]) [or: their gleeful perversity]; (4) their immense repetitiveness [or: their tedious self-absorption]. [The point here is that each of these is a marker of prophecy, but not a marker of true prophecy. False prophets are all of these as well. I agree Thoreau claims a prophet’s mantle, and that these are his way of making the claim; but they don’t establish it.] It cannot, I think, be denied that Walden [like Moby-Dick] sometimes seems an enormously long and boring book. (Again, its writer knows this; again it is part of his subject. “An old-fashioned man would have lost his senses or died of ennui before this” [IV, 22]. He is speaking of the lack of domestic sounds to comfort one in the woods, and he is also speaking of his book. In particular, he is acknowledging that it is not a novel, with its domestic sounds.) I understand this response to Walden to be one not of emptiness but of prolonged urgency. Whether you take this as high praise of a high literary discovery, or as an excuse of literary lapse, will obviously depend on how high you place the book’s value. [I can recall said almost the exact same thing about Moby-Dick.]

So… what then? Obviously I don’t think Melville is a true prophet; I think Melville is misguided about many things. But Moby-Dick still had a deeper effect on the way I think than any other novel (rivaled only by Dostoevsky and Faulkner). I read Walden recently, and I don’t think I felt bored because I couldn’t bring myself to confront the deep issues Thoreau confronts; I felt bored because Thoreau doesn’t sound like a prophet, he sounds like an obnoxiously sincere and self-involved adolescent. Is it, then, just a question of literary taste? I don’t think so. My problem isn’t with Thoreau’s style, it’s with, as Cavell would say, Thoreau’s voice; and more than anything it’s with Thoreau’s (and Cavell’s) insistence on having a voice. (It seems crucial, at this point, to note that in Moby-Dick Melville does not have a voice–Melville is not Ishmael.) Thoreau insists on speaking for himself because ultimately he doesn’t want us to hear what he have to say, he wants us to hear him. But if all he has to say is himself, he says, and is, nothing.

So: I think there is something fundamentally wrong with Thoreau at a much, much deeper level than with Melville. But I also expect Cavell’s analysis to completely leave out what that something is; which means I expect this book to resonate with me on many levels if I just pretend it’s actually about Moby-Dick. The real American epic.

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