The Curious Essayist (with Loren Eiseley, Edward Said, Phillip Lopate)

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 36 min.

1. Loren Eiseley. Digging: Wells, Foundations, Tunnels.

Around ten years ago, several semesters into taking classes at a Chicago community college, I was offered some advice: “To dig a well, you must stand in one place for a while.”

In other words, I needed to reign in my fired-up curiosity and stop pursuing so many interests at once. Good advice for many, I’m certain, and I’m grateful for the water from those who can (or have no choice but to) follow it. I couldn’t follow it if I wanted to. I am, in some sense, my wandering curiosity. For better and worse, I’m as stuck with it as I am with myself.

How I responded to the advice, I’m unsure. A polite nod, maybe. But at some point the following became my official response (what I wished I’d said; maybe what I in fact said): “I’m not trying to dig a well. I’m trying to dig a wide foundation on which to erect a large structure.” It’s good, right? But tonight, just now, I ran into something better.

Loren Eiseley, in the second chapter of his darkly transcendent 1971 essay collection, The Night Country, writes:

There was a Washington eccentric in the 1920s whose underground tunnels caused a great stir in the newspapers when someone stumbled upon them. He constructed them himself in his spare time. At first the reporters and police thought they were the work of spies. Afterward it developed that the secret passages were the harmless hobby of an elderly professor. They led nowhere. I should like to have met that man. He was one of us. To have set out alone with a shovel shows the depth of his need. (p 16)

Ah! Underground tunnels. That’s the imagery!

Now, these tunnels lead nowhere, and Eiseley writes next of “easier ways into the earth, and passages that run farther.” But I was stunned by the tunnel imagery and by this critical sentence: “To have set out alone with a shovel shows the depth of his need.”

From the aforementioned community college, I eventually transferred to a Manhattan university to earn a philosophy undergraduate degree—at age 42, mind you. And in the five years since, I have returned to exploring mostly alone.

After years and years of this exploration—of digging—I doubt it really is a foundation I’m working on: a wide and sufficiently deep hole on which to erect a structure I’ve yet to start building. I couldn’t even tell you what its blueprints look like.

When I step back and survey my work, a system of tunnels is more like it. No, not a system. Nor series, network, grid, or matrix. Too systematic. A complex of underground tunnels. That’s the imagery!

Digging tunnels, popping up to make openings here and there to let some natural light in, to see where you are and where the roots lead, to chat maybe with whoever’s there. The tunnels often go in circles, run into rock, double back, criss-cross—but somehow ever-expand downward and outward, with walls thick enough so that the complex doesn’t collapse into a mere lopsided pockmark on the Earth’s surface. (Maybe that’s where the moon came from.)

Dangers noted, digging tunnels is preferable to spending what few years I have left on an ever-unfinished, and so ultimately unused, foundation—though my fear is that this really is the most generous description of what I can do; if so, so be it, but let it be by the tunnels collapsing.

You know. What I’m really doing is probably more like—to adapt John Cage’s response to his teacher Arnold Schoenberg—beating my bare head as hard and long as I can into every brick wall in the neighborhood. (One wall has an elegant zigzag hairline crack; it taunts me now. The rest are oblivious to me.)

It’s all better than standing still.

2. Edward Said. The Exile and the Fugitive.

Also worth lingering on in Eiseley’s passage is the sentence, “He was one of us.”

By “us,” Eiseley seems to mean the person who “cannot bear the silence and the darkness,” yet who, rather than follow the “simple prescription” to “avoid the darkness,” turns immediately to it, “drawn to it by cords of fear and of longing.” So, “you will end by going down.” Down, not only into tunnels or cellars or whatever dark places call you, but also into “the ancient recesses of your mind.”

Those little quotes are from early in The Night Country‘s second chapter, “The Places Below.” Elsewhere in the book, Eiseley puts a name to what I suppose to be the above-described figure: the fugitive. And here again I find a candidate alternative to some imagery I’ve long cherished: the exile.

Actually, they can coexist. I’ll say a few words about each.

My introduction to the sort of exile I mean here was in Edward Said’s 1994 book Representations of the Intellectual, in its third chapter, “Intellectual Exile: Expatriates and Marginals.” I read the book in 2015, and, impressed, purchased his 2002 collection Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, though have yet to read it.

I have, however, continued over the years to ponder Said’s exile, and in fact made note of the concept in an April blog post called “Entitled Opinions and the Private Intellectual,” where I mention that I at some point began breaking the concept into two types: the default exile and the voluntary exile.

The distinction is what it sounds like. The default exile has less choice in the matter. For both, there’s virtue to be found in the exile status. Or not, I suppose: perhaps some of us are—and even consider ourselves to be—justly exiled. In my conception, the exile is virtuous. It’s a status to which we all should aspire, particularly as intellectuals and artists.

This is also true in what I recall of Said’s conception, though I’m sure that, as I’ve contemplated the exile’s makeup over the years, I’ve imbued it with vaguely felt idiosyncrasies that suit and appeal to me—that motivate me in moments of self-doubt, for instance.

I have not revisited the book since first reading it, so how about I crack it open to remind myself of what Said says there.

[Tornadoes through heaps of paper, ‘hmm… ohhh…. m-hmmm’… fishes out a crusted smoked-herring tin, sniffs, chary of whiplash…  turns to bookshelf, glides pinky over centuries of dusty spine, exhales ironically, ‘ahhh poetry’ (a joke plucked from Tonemountain; 1996)… returns to MacBook and launches Kindle app to click open Said’s highlights-streaked book…]

Said begins by introducing what he distinguishes as actual exiles—such as Armenians who, “after genocidal attacks on them them by the Turks flooded nearby Beirut, Aleppo, Jerusalem and Cairo.” The condition he ultimately aims to diagnosis, however, is a metaphysical one (and, I take it, a moral one).

The actual–metaphysical distinction does not correspond to my default–voluntary distinction. Nor, in fact, are there crisp lines between any of these designations.

One can be an actual exile, yet fall short of the metaphysical exile status by conforming to the ideological mainstream of one’s new environment. This may be easier to do for someone more readily able to blend in. For example, Said notes that Henry Kissinger was a Jewish intellectual effectively exiled to the U.S. from Nazi Germany, yet who attained considerable idelogical influence in his new home.

For someone like Kissinger (or change the example if you dislike this one), who’s able to blend in with society’s more dominant strata, to become a metaphysical exile requires being an ideological outlier, and, moreover, making that outlier impulse known. This implies, of course, that one need not be an actual exile to be a metaphysical exile.

This is where my default–voluntary distinction comes in. For those who can blend in, more voluntary effort may be required. For those who simply cannot blend in—for those, that is, who are actual exiles—they may find themselves nudged, pushed, or compelled towards metaphysical exile. They may, for instance, be assumed as such even when they aren’t, thereby find themselves subject to treatment that results in a self-fulfilling prophesy.

By this distinction, I’m not implying that the default exile has an easier time bearing the metaphysical exile status. It may be harder! The difficult truth is that, even if one is pushed towards exile, something more is required—some voluntary effort—in order to attain the exilic virtues on offer here. At the very least, one must manage to carry the exile burden rather than collapse under it.

This may impose on the would-be exile, default or voluntary, an unfair call for courage and resilience, not to mention insight, on pain of a stinging, self-conscious moral failure. There’s nothing fair about being an exile! Which is why I also take the concept to describe a moral aspiration.

That in mind, I wonder if one must in some sense be born with an exile’s constitution to properly be one. If one is so born, the aspiration is, perhaps, to voluntarily coax or awaken one’s inner exile; or, if it is awakened by external forces, to not hush or smother it, but to let it loose in the world. If one is not so born, well, do whatcha’ can.

(We also find something like this in the realms of music and fiction and film and so on, where one encounters phrases like, “It’s easy to not be a sellout when no one’s buying.” This statement represents too big and complicated a set of ideas to get into here.)

I’m not sure I have the required constitution. Or maybe I think I do, but fear of seeing it awakened. But would one with an exile’s constitution fear its awakening? Why not? If it were already awake, I’d be an exile. Given, I presume, that I think there’s something worth being exiled from. Surely there is and will be for the foreseeable human future. Finding those things, then, must be part of what it means to be committed to a life of the mind. An interesting corollary of this is that if you find yourself relishing your metaphysical exile status too much, you might be a pretend exile.

Said, as I understand him, is strong on these last points. It seems, for instance, that we could replace the words “metaphysical exile” with “good intellectual,” a paradigmatic example of whom, for Said, is Theodor Adorno, who was “very predisposed to being a metaphysical exile before he came to the United States,” indeed was a “permanent exile” and “quintessential exile, hating all systems, whether on our side or theirs, with equal distaste.”

Said acknowledges that most of us won’t achieve that. Again: do whatcha’ can. With the understanding that, to aspire to be an intellectual just is to aspire to be a metaphysical exile.

What would it mean for everyone to accomplish some significant degree of exile status? For all of us to be, like Adorno, “paradoxical, ironic, mercilessly critical,” in just the right way? I don’t know. But, again, I bet social forces will, well past our own turbulent lifetimes, continue to converge to produce a mainstream against which there will be always those who are driven to swim.

Said describes such an individual as “the intellectual who because of exile cannot, or, more to the point, will not make the adjustment, preferring instead to remain outside the mainstream, unaccommodated, unco-opted, resistant,” and who, then, is “neither winning prizes nor being welcomed into all those self-congratulating honor societies that routinely exclude embarrassing troublemakers who do not toe the party line,” but who “at the same time derives some positive things from exile and marginality.”

This marginality may be a tough pill to chew, so the positive bears emphasizing:

Exile means that you are always going to be marginal, and that what you do as an intellectual has to be made up because you cannot follow a prescribed path. If you can experience that fate not as a deprivation and as something to be bewailed, but as a sort of freedom, a process of discovery in which you do things according to your own pattern, as various interests seize your attention, and as the particular goal you set yourself dictates: that is a unique pleasure. (p 62)

It’s coming back to me, why this chapter spoke to me so well. “As various interests seize your attention,” and so forth. But there is, by definition, no Exile of the Year award, jointly administered by Harvard’s Department of Exile Studies and The New York Times Magazine.

Holding onto the pleasures—among them the “pleasure of being surprised”—is important, then, and may help bear out Said’s observation that “the intellectual in exile is necessarily ironic, skeptical, even playful—but not cynical.” A nice thought. One I hope I haven’t violated in the previous paragraph.

Of course, Said himself was a celebrated and successful academic who taught at Columbia University and won awards aplenty. He was also a Palestinian-American who was unable to merely nod along as the “obviously correct opinions” about relations between Israel and Palestine came in and out of style over the decades. Metaphysical exile is complicated.

[Fun exercise. Look back ten or thirty years at what then were the “obviously correct opinions that, if you don’t hold them, you’re a bad person.” Compare them with today’s. Notice how quickly moral fashion can change, and by what a surprising amount.

Now for the challenge. Were you transported back in time: Would you have the courage to voice the same opinions you voice in the present, even if, in the earlier era, those opinions will lead your political ancestors to brand you as immoral? Would you find your past self in order to correct your past opinions?

Related question: Would you endeavor to adjust your voiced opinions should a future version of yourself show up tomorrow and exhort you to do so, even if the new opinions would lead you to be branded immoral by your current peers?

Now imagine yourself transported to the future, to a time when moral fashions have again shifted (challenge your imagination on this): Would you voice the same opinions you do now? Would you try to find your future self to remind that person of what the obviously correct opinions are? How are these questions different, if at all, from the above-labeled “related question”?]

Perhaps the clearest benefit of being an exile is its attendant freedom, which is, according to Said, along with knowledge, what “an intellectual is fundamentally about.” Such freedom increases one’s chances for “exuberance and unending self-discovery,” while diminishing one’s chances for anything like a straightforward career path.

This brings to mind talk I’ve heard from people who say they feel liberated on being outed, so to speak, as exiles in hiding—of no longer needing to nod blankly and hold up the conformer’s front. The exile is freed from being “afraid to overturn the applecart.”

It’s hard for me to imagine anyone who claims to be an artist or intellectual wouldn’t aspire to such a model of freedom, which Said summarizes as: “Exile is a model for the intellectual who is tempted, and even beset and overwhelmed, by the rewards of accommodation, yea-saying, settling in.”

(To be clear, this is a metaphorical applecart. If you’re going to the farmers market to dump out vendors’ apple carts, you’re missing the mark. To what, exactly, the metaphor should refer is, of course, an enduring source of human division.)

But exile is not the only model of freedom. Allow me to reintroduce Eiseley’s fugitive.

Let it be clear from the outset that I have no desire to redirect my personal resonance with Said’s metaphysical exile in the direction of Eiseley’s metaphysical fugitive. Both appeal to me. Thankfully, they’re compatible.

I take Eiseley’s fugitive to be given to lone contemplation, as well as to leaping between varied intellectual or creative interests. Someone always in foreign territory. Uncertainty is a vitamin for the thriving fugitive.

I piece together this characterization in part from Eiseley’s mention of the fugitive in the The Night Country, where the word (or its plural) appears six times. First, in the forward:

Though I sit in a warm room beneath a lamp as I arrange these pieces, my thoughts are all of night, of outer cold and inner darkness. These chapters, then, are the annals of a long and uncompleted running. I leave them here lest the end come on me unawares as it does upon all fugitives.

The next five appearances are in the book’s first chapter, “The Gold Wheel,” four of them on page four. Here’s the most relevant:

In the waste fields strung with barbed wire where the thistles grow over hidden mine fields there exists a curious freedom. … Weeds grow and animals slip about in the night where no man dares to hunt them. A thin uncertain line fringes the edge of oppression. The freedom it contains is fit only for birds and floating thistledown or a wandering fox. …

The imagination can grasp this faint underscoring of freedom but there are few who realize that precisely similar lines run in a delicate tracery along every civilized road in the West, or that these hedges of thorn apple and osage orange are the last refuge of wild life between the cultivated fields of civilization. It takes a refugee at heart, a wistful glancer over fences, to sense this one dimensional world, but it is there. I can attest to it for I myself am such a fugitive. …

I was born one. (p 4)

“Born one”—and not, that is, merely defined as one by (say) being hunted. But the fugitive’s presence must be in some sense hidden. “The fact,” writes Eiseley, “that I wear the protective coloration of sedate citizenship is a ruse of the fox—I learned it long ago. The facts of my inner life are quite otherwise.” But he also reassures us that “this confession need alarm no one. I am relatively harmless.”

Here we see a deviation from Said’s exile, whose status may very well arise due to, or be awakened and enlivened by, bearing the exile’s marks. This recalls my image of the default exile. As for the voluntary type, there are those exiles who, in Said’s telling, are the “embarrassing troublemakers who do not toe the party line”; which is to say someone whose inner exile is awakened and enlivened by who knows what. The point is that it is a condition with visible practical consequences.

One can be a hidden exile, as I noted above, but the fully blossomed exile—who enjoys the benefits of freedom and so on—it seems to me must not be hidden, and in fact must be broadcasted. That said, I’m unsure of the extent to which Said understands his exile to be capable of secrecy, particularly of the sort characteristic of the fugitive, who may weave in and out of acceptable society’s borders, or even go deep within those borders, and may be glimpsed there occasion, but more often—or even always—goes in disguise (so, if hunted, the fugitive isn’t easily caught).

Of the exile, however, Said writes:

Nor is it possible to retreat into complete privacy, since as Adorno says much later in his career, the hope of the intellectual is not that he will have an effect on the world, but that someday, somewhere, someone will read what he wrote exactly as he wrote it. (p 57)

So, not “complete privacy,” but some privacy, I presume. Furthermore, Said writes of the exile as “an adept mimic or a secret outcast.” I imagine this especially true under threatening conditions, or in those in which energies must be rationed for the most important battles. I can imagine, too, something here like a fugitive, inward-looking mode that affords a space for self-discovery as a self, rather than as a figure formed in contrast to the thing exiled-from.

Frankly, I don’t know if these metaphorical entities are neatly compatible. Maybe the key distinction is that exiles knows what they’re exiled from. While fugitives may be fleeing something utterly nebulous, nothing in particular, or simply everything. Maybe the fugitive flees towards and inward, and not only away from and outward. These conditions don’t seem at odds.

There are, as Eiseley puts it, “some born to flee,” and I see no reason why some of those cannot be exiles. I don’t see why one can’t be a fugitive among one’s fellow exiles! The fugitive’s lot is, remember, a harmless, inner, lonely condition.

Given this, I don’t think of the fugitive as an aspirational figure. It is just the way one happens to be. For better and worse. The exile is, in my understanding and estimation, more complicated, more cause for care and concern, more prone to misfiring.

In truth, I’m not interested in solidifying the concepts these figures summarize into a reconciled system of thought as, once (artificially and arbitrarily) solidified, they would cease to galvanize contemplative self-discovery. I take these ideas seriously (or wouldn’t be writing this), and need them as open-ended and as theoretically bottomless as are the tunnels I fancy myself to be leaving in my creative and  wake.

(In general I value and aim for consistency, but I distrust it. Particularly when it comes to summaries of the complex.)

Another concern about wells and foundations: they are by design not bottomless. We might think of a tunnel as a well gone rogue. A well dug by a freshly decapitated demon-rooster clawing for home. A well… ummm.

Such mind-stretching imagery is as important to me as the koan is to the Zen practitioner.

Still, the tunnel imagery is well-suited to that of the fugitive and the exile, often for the same reasons. Just as Eiseley’s fugitive, the constant foreigner, flits between disciplines, Said’s exile is one who “can become a beginner” in changing circumstances, one prone to “restlessness, movement,” “unable to be at rest anywhere, constantly on guard against the blandishments of success,” and who responds well to “not standing still.” (Those last three words close the chapter.)

Note also the harmony with the fugitive found in Said’s characterization an intellectual as being

like a shipwrecked person who learns how to live in a certain sense with the land, not on it, not like Robinson Crusoe whose goal is to colonize his little island, but more like Marco Polo, whose sense of the marvelous never fails him, and who is always a traveler, a provisional guest, not a freeloader, conqueror, or raider. (pp 59–60)

But there is something more narrowed down in the fugitive. Something an exile, as exile, may not find in themselves. A special lonesome quality that I, for whatever reason, connect with especially deeply.

Which brings us to Eiseley’s fifth mention of the fugitive, with its reference to an “invisible wall, a line you can’t see.” These words are uttered by someone other than Eiseley, after that invisible line, so to speak, has halted a car’s progress.

I’ll let you read the book for more context. It’s enough here to know Eiseley’s response:

“Yes,” I said.
But I didn’t say I had wished for it. I didn’t say that I remembered how the birds sit on those lines and you never knew which side the birds were on because they sat so quietly and were waiting. You had to be a fugitive to know this and to know the lines were everywhere—a net running through one’s brain as well as the outside world. (p 14)

A small few of you reading this know what significance this invocation of invisible lines has for me. I’ve been after them for years. They were foundational to my philosophical interests before I knew I had philosophical interests. I in fact wrote a song called “Invisible Lines” a couple of years before it occurred to me to take my first philosophy course.

In any event, this last mention of the fugitive highlights the inward as well as the metaphysical dimensions of the fugitive status. Though, as with the exile, there are ways in which the fugitive status instantiates itself in the external, or material, world.

One of these is the above-noted flitting between disciplines (more about which soon). Another, at least as the figure is represented in The Night Country, is a kind of morbid attraction to darkness, by which I mean a physical absence of light. A lone walk at night in a heavily wooded area, for instance.

That’s not something I’ve experienced in many years. One day, maybe I’ll tell you about my high school years living surrounded by Virginia forest preserves in a small, wood-stove–heated house. I spent much of my time there alone, including at night. Many adults were too scared to drive the long, unlit gravel road to visit me at night.

And there were nights I left the lights on until morning. Sometimes because I was in a nocturnal phase. Other times because, well: once I’d just seen the movie Aliens and there was a thunderstorm and I was 13 and it was 1986 (prime-time Satanic Panic). And if you saw this little house! I would not be surprised to learn that it inspired The Blair Witch Project (which was filmed in 1997 about an hour-and-a-half drive from there).

Eventually, I did take those pitch-dark walks in the woods.

But this isn’t just about the deep, awesome darkness of un-manicured nature (where, no doubt, our fantasy-unspooling brains are evolved to be hyper-vigilantly vivid). It’s about all manner of things found in dark places. There are sewer rats in The Night Country book, in chapter three (which I read after starting this blog post).

The chapter takes me back seventeen years, to when I lived alone in a dim, low-ceilinged basement apartment that came down with a bit of a rat infestation. Nasty, the squirmy heft of a Chicago rat plopping from a hole in the trash bag you’ve just picked up (smacking the kitchen’s thinly tiled cement floor); or, even worse, sensing the vibrations of a fat rat (I think it was the mangey, pregnant one, but the lights were out) as it slowly thuds to the floor after you shoo it away from the side of your bed where it was stretched up on its hind legs, scoping you out (the only thing worse than a fast rat is a slow one). More stories for another day.

My examples recall to mind Eiseley’s aforementioned “easier ways into the earth” that he contrasts with the Washingtonian’s digging of tunnels. I won’t give anything away. But will say that the next paragraph begins with mention of a cellar that “has a monster in it. Or something that gives you the same feeling as a monster. I have been there many times. I know men who would not live in a house with a cellar like that.”

Such are the places for Eiseley’s fugitive. I bet you have your own. Places that are constituted in equal part by the physical and the imaginary (in an old and strong sense of that word). But, much like the exile, the fugitive is fully realized in a restless life of the mind.

My attention has been restless for as long as I can remember. Restless but penetrating: I linger, sometimes for years (recall the wall with the hairline crack). Physical movement has been there even longer.

Whenever an adult says to me, “I’m going home for the holidays,” my gut reaction is that, by “home,” they mean wherever they happen to reside—like, their apartment. I grew up in many places, sometimes attending multiple schools in a single year. Home has always been wherever my bed happens to be. This was an accident of my mother’s circumstances, and may, along with being an only child, have instilled in me the fugitive’s inwardness. Which is to say that my real home is in my head (why, again, I need my mental furniture, props, costumes, co-occupants, and demon-chickens vivid, but not so vivid that I forget what they are: unstable icons, or wobbly levers, for easing interaction with an impossibly complex world).

Maybe my childhood explains my intellectual and creative restlessness. Maybe fugitives can be nurtured into being after all.

I don’t know. But I am restless. Which reminds me of the second source for my portrait of Eiseley’s fugitive. His opening words in a rare recorded lecture, found in a YouTube video called “Loren Eiseley Lecture YWHA – March 1968 – Prose and Poetry“:

Good evening. I feel a little stranger here, actually, occupying this platform that has seen so many distinguished poets. And, as a matter of fact, I’m one of these people who more or less wander in a forlorn fashion between one discipline and another always a little uncertain of themselves.

I just noticed that I’ve yet to mention Eiseley’s formal training. He was an anthropologist. You wouldn’t guess that from the video’s title. My own image of him, so far, is as the contemplative personal essayist, fugitive thinker, and prose stylist found in The Night Country.

As it should be, perhaps. In a Pennsylvania Gazette essay called “Gentle Into That Good Night (An apology to Loren Eiseley)” (Jan/Feb 2006), Carl Hoffman writes of an encounter with Eiseley while Hoffman was a graduate student in anthropology:

Eiseley had long ago abandoned the arrow-points and skulls and stones and bones of human evolution to write books of intensely thoughtful, deeply personal, brooding essays that had attracted a small but worshipful audience—almost a cult following—in almost every country in the world. …

Hoffman didn’t read Eiseley until some ten years later, however. And when he did:

The Night Country … grabbed me right away in the author’s foreword …

Today, well into my fifties, in the midst of a lifetime of almost compulsive reading, I still regard The Night Country as my all-time favorite book.

Hoffman first read The Night Country in a well-suited context. While volunteering for the Peace Corps in the mountains of the Philippines, he found a moldy copy in the corner of the “little bamboo-and-grass hut” in which a “remote hill tribe” had lodged him. He read the book into the night “by the dim flickering light of an soot-blackened oil lamp.”

I’m a little envious of that setting, but I prefer my apartment. Luckily, what The Night Country has to offer can be accessed anywhere, so long as one is ready to visit the depths of memory and imagination. We can be fugitives anywhere. (I count myself as “one of us.” You?)

The book seems to be doing its work just fine here in Milwaukee, in August 2020.

Just two chapters in, it had already stirred in me a certain thickness of mood that continues to thicken as I move into the fourth chapter. I notice it especially late at night, which it is right now. (Like Eiseley, I’m an insomniac.)

But in the sunlight hours it hangs there, too, folded inward, waiting patiently for the late-summer dark to fall so it can unfold itself again and fill up my chest and spinal column with nighttime thoughts. You know that feeling, of glimpsing a midday reminder that the nighttime thoughts are still there.

For me, this has some kinship with the feeling of autumn, as the days are slowly amputated and trees turn to skeletons. The best time of year for my five senses.

The Night Country feels and grips like that—dark, beautiful, and very alive.

Now I’ll go read that fourth chapter.

3. Phillip Lopate. Curiosity and Contemplation.

[A day or three later… ]

The morning after reading the Eiseley passage that inspired this post, I read something that further illuminated what so struck me about that passage. From the introduction to personal-essay guru Phillip Lopate’s book, To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction (2013):

…what is needed to generate nonfiction? I would say curiosity. It may sound more tepid than obsession or passion, but it is vastly more dependable in the long run. You follow out a strand of curiosity and pretty soon you’ve got an interesting digression, a whole chapter, a book proposal, a book. The solution to entrapment in the narcissistic hothouse of self is not to relinquish autobiographical writing, but to expand the self by bringing one’s curiosity to interface with more and more history and the present world. …

…the voice I had developed in my personal essays was essential for welding together the disparate subjects to which my curiosity had led me. The path of my consciousness through all this obdurate technical material became the unifying element. …

This formula of curiosity-driven research plus personal voice is one of the most prevalent modes in today’s successful nonfiction, from Rebecca Solnit to Philip Gourevitch to Jonathan Raban, from travel writing to nature writing to family chronicles to political investigations. (pp 10–11)

And in the second chapter:

The proper alternative to self-dislike is not being pleased with oneself—a smug complacency that comes across as equally distasteful—but being curious about oneself. (p 23)

Curiosity. The thing I started off here saying I’d been advised to tame! Let me put it this way.

If I’m digging tunnels, what am I looking for? I couldn’t tell you. If I weren’t ignorant of what I’m looking for, I wouldn’t be looking for it, to paraphrase Merleau-Ponty in his Phenomenology of Perception (1945) (p 30, Routledge paperback).

Better: What am I following? Answer: My curiosity. About the world, about myself. These are—in the most immediate sense—the same place: the world I have assembled is a piece of myself, a piece of my mind; a place—a set of maps and models and icons (of the earlier-mentioned sort) and the like—constructed by my mind.

It is that construction that I’m tunneling into as much as it is the world outside of myself—a physical arrangement that includes not only lions, volcanoes, and libraries, but also my eyeballs, brain, and the other channels by which the external world drips and rushes into my mental assemblage. It’s of course an often confusing exploration frustrated by many collisions with rock or glass or flesh I never knew was there. These revelations, too, are part of the point.

Such metaphors—whose elasticity I admit to trying at its limits—coheres with what I’ve taken myself to be doing over the last decade-plus, starting with those first philosophy courses. What moved me to take enroll in them is too long a story to tell here. I’ll just say this.

Whenever asked why I chose to major in philosophy, my short answer from early on has been: “From as young as I can remember, I’ve been a contemplative person. Once I came to understand what philosophy was, I thought: oh, there’s a name for what I’ve been doing all my life.” It felt to me as an undergraduate that I had no choice but to major in philosophy. It still feels that way. My philosophy courses were the crudest distillations of what I made from every class I took.

But I’ve recently found myself wondering if the word best suited to how I operate is not philosophy, but contemplation. I don’t by this word mean meditation, such as one formally practices to cultivate mindfulness. I mean something more like what Lopate’s up to in To Show and to Tell.  And Eiseley in The Night Country. Along with others who call themselves essayists. Curiosity chasing, tunnel digging, or, more practically speaking: essay writing.

This mode of inquiry doesn’t mean sacrificing rigor or clarity of thought, but it may sometimes put at risk one’s conceptual focus and argumentative tidiness. It also might mean foregrounding more of one’s inner self—it is often called the personal essay—as the particular human relating to (grappling with, etc.) the ideas at hand.

The essay, as I’m coming to understand it, isn’t just a certain way of arranging  paragraphs on paper. It’s an ethos, a way of life even. One I’m surprised not to see more philosophers pursuing.

In recent months, I’ve described my ideal philosophy as self-interrogation, wherein I don’t argue with you, but with myself, while you argue with yourself; we collaborate—through written responses and conversation—in helping one another do a better job at self-interrogating. To self-interrogate is contemplate: both are inward and outward facing, endless, difficult, and success is measured in degrees of confusion as well as of understanding.

This may not be advisable for some areas of philosophy, like modal logic or unpacking what “Spinoza really meant.” Or maybe it is. I’m not sure. But I do believe that anyone’s philosophical grounding would benefit from at least a layer or two of the inward-outward contemplative ethos I’m struggling here to describe.

For me, this ethos is central. It’s also inextricably linked to the act of writing. A blissfully solitary (and sometimes lonely) process to which all the adjectives I’ve used to describe tunneling can be applied. A few more: harrowing, tedious, ecstatic, dusty, muddy.

The contemplative—or, if you like, ruminative—approach has tilted me towards a certain writing style, when I can get away with it. One that’s been described as “thinking out loud.” Even when the writing is more polished due to an imposed word limit and an editor’s help. (What I’d give now for a good editor!)

This approach tends to be unfriendly to the standards of what I’ve heard contemporary (mostly “analytic”) philosophers call professionalization. But it gets along very well with the essay practice Lopate encourages us to embrace.

What strikes me about that practice—in which the essay is a vehicle for inquiry in its own right—is that it provides a roundtable at which people from a range of disciplines, interests, passions, tastes, viewpoints, and backgrounds are invited to compare notes in a shared language. Or as close to a shared language as we can get (thereby setting aside the specialist’s language).

In other words, what essayists seem to have in common is a hunger for inner-outer contemplation, and for sharing the results of that contemplation with as many people as possible (thus raising the stakes), in as personally honest a form possible, while staying as faithful as possible to whatever insights they aim to incorporate from their specialist’s realm (if they inhabit one).

[That realm needn’t be an academic or technical one. When it is, I’m not thinking here of the (sometimes indispensable) books experts tend to write for curious lay readers, which often incorporate autobiographical elements due to the popularity of the memoir. I’m asking for something more exploratory and contemplative. Something that aims not only at reporting field updates to non-specialists, but also at engaging fellow specialists, as well as thinkers in general, at the level of ideas.

At a level, that is, not well addressed by the specialist’s toolkit, but rather that requires dipping into the more basic and universally shared reservoir of human experience. The essays of neurologist Oliver Sacks are an example. From recent philosophy, I’m tempted to mention Jim Holt’s 2012 book Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, for its ruminative excursions.]

None of this is easy. The word “essay,” after all, derives from the French for to attempt. I’m grateful for those who undertake the work. And I revel agog in the invaluable, centuries-spanning results. I often see in that work myself, as well as what my own era takes for granted as new (thus finding I’m not alone, our world not so new); just as importantly, I often don’t see myself there (thus trying on a foreign perspective).

Today alone I’ve imbibed E.B. White, Phillip Lopate, Toni Morrison, Donald Hall, and, from the other side of a planet and a millennium, Sei Shōnagon. Amazing! Five humans, and (at least) five modes of interacting with themselves, the page, the world, and the reader.

This is a dragonfly-eyed miracle that belies any attempts at generalizing what it is to be an essayist, my own included. Moreover, I may owe further explanation of how my characterization of the essayist aligns with that of the self-interrogating philosopher.

Let’s just say that the self-serving characteristics I’ve raised here harmonize lushly with what I’ve so far read in Lopate’s instructive and passionate exposition of the essayist’s condition. For instance, he us to “think on the page,” by which he does not mean “turn philosopher and have Big Ideas,” but rather:

…something more quicksilver and spontaneous: to question all that might have been transpiring inside and outside themselves at the time, and to catch the hunches, doubts, and digressive associations that dart through their brains. (p 43)

He does not, by the way, shun the philosopher, nor, for that matter, the scientist (quite the contrary, in fact); it’s just that such turns are optional.

“Thinking on the page”—which, for me, also involves plenty of staring off into space and aimless pacing—became my central impulse at some point not too long after beginning to keep a journal as a teenager. This could also amount to “finding” or “making yourself on the page.”

(Or “screen,” as I type now into the WordPress editor: my website, after all, is called Untrammeled Mind. And I’ve only just now remembered that I some time ago inserted the phrase “minus contemplative pauses” at the top of every post’s estimated reading time. See what I mean?)

You don’t have to be a Writer to have the impulse. I’m not a Writer. But I somehow secreted thousands of contemplative pages long before I had the thought to study philosophy—a thought I rejected even when, at 21, an older, academia-affiliated acquaintance took it upon herself to inform me that I clearly should go to college for philosophy.

At any event, I don’t know how many contemporary philosophers share the impulse; if many do, they must be nurturing it in their private journals. It seems many openly did so in the past: David Hume to name one of many (to pick a perhaps slightly less obvious choice than Saint Augustine). And I think I sense fairly widespread essayistic undercurrents (if not over-currents) as late as the 1970s, before philosophy articles became about bloated footnotes, long lists of who holds what nuanced variation on which obscure view, and adding yet more elaborations to the complex catalog of thousands of papers attempting to concoct intuition-bending thought experiments. Etcetera.

I guess: the PhD (a relatively recent American invention), publish-or-perish, peer review, tenure review, the marginalizing of philosophy, funding depletion, increasing student numbers addressed by decreasing faculty numbers, the post-doc/adjunct shift, and on and on have something to do with all this. One can understand, for instance, why those who must grade hundreds of papers need a rubric-friendly template (“nothing fancy, please—just show me, as clearly and succinctly as you can, that you understood and have one coherent thing to say about the assigned reading”).

[And I’ll save for another day my musings on the effects I think WWII and, especially, the Cold War have exerted, and continue to exert, on academic philosophy. Effects that account, on the one hand, for the rise of Michel Foucault (born 1926) and talk of “invisible (rather than material) structures of power”; and for why, on a different hand (on the same body), a couple of papers by Edmund Gettier (born 1927) and Harry Frankfurt (born 1929) seem to have been such game-changers.]

For whatever reasons, the essayistic impulse does not jibe with what contemporary philosophy is about. So it’s in general discouraged in students. Maybe that’s as it should be. And as you get further along in academic philosophy, the more you are expected to stand in one place, to dig a well. It was, in fact, a philosophy PhD who gave me the advice I started with here today; and, to be fair, I at the time was openly excited about pursuing a philosophy PhD.

In contrast, the chronic contemplative is a hopeless inward–outward wanderer. A generalist. The essay is the generalist’s dream tool. As an undergrad, however, philosophy is probably the closest thing there is to majoring in Penetrating General-ism.

I’m reminded here of eclectic essayist David Foster Wallace, one of whose undergraduate majors was philosophy (it shows in his footnotes and forensic and surgical stamina), but who left a prestigious graduate program in philosophy to pursue a writing MFA. My hunch is that his contemplative impulses got the better of him.

My hunch also—drawn from my limited first-hand experience—is that many who enter philosophy graduate programs share the impulse, and soon find themselves disenchanted by a diminishing ability to nurture it there, particularly when they see it flourishing on full display in so many of our philosophical ancestors. “Read them, know them, respond to them: but don’t write like them!” I heard this many times from those tasked with grading our papers. “Don’t write like them” means “don’t think like them.”

To deepen this thought, let’s return to Eiseley. This time, as engaged by Richard E. Wentz who, in a lovely article called “The American Spirituality of Loren Eiseley” (4/25/1984), writes:

For Loren Eiseley, writing itself becomes a form of contemplation. Contemplation is a kind of human activity in which the mind, spirit and body are directed in solitude toward some other. Scholars and critics have not yet taken the full measure of contemplation as an art that is related to the purpose of all scholarly activity—to see things as they really are. Therefore, most scholarship is a carefully crafted veneer of rationalistic activity, helpful perhaps on its own level, but not usually leading to genuine insight. Scholars like Loren Eiseley confront us with the impoverishment of our understanding. “You,” a friend told him, “are a freak. you know. A God-damned freak, and life is never going to be easy for you. You like scholarship, but the scholars, some of them, anyhow, are not going to like you because you don’t stay in the hole where God supposedly put you. You keep sticking your head out and looking around. In a university that’s inadvisable.” Eiseley was a contemplative who gazed into and through the otherness of reality. One discovers through contemplation that reality consists of various encounters with an other without which we ourselves are incomplete. Finding that otherness is almost always a matter of vision, a way of knowing that we have forgotten.

I’m not spiritual, not even figuratively. So some of the religious, or spiritual, talk in this article doesn’t connect with me. But maybe not for the reasons you’d expect. I grew up around Christians who spoke in tongues and held exorcisms like some held Tupperware parties (“Look! The demons just ran under the sofa!”).

Religion and spirituality are not conceivable to me as mere behavior. Spirits aren’t metaphorical any more than Hell is. Which is a particular way of stating the general claim that there is no metaphorical infinity, certainly not one I can embody (as an ambulant collage glued together by finitude).

(Maybe death comes the closest to being that metaphor: the me from 47 years ago is in a sense dead, and whatever I still carry of that chubby little human is a kind of embodiment; and my final, most literal death will be forever, a fact I’m constantly reminded of by my body as an object subject to the forces of, say, hunger and gravity; but that death won’t really be an ongoing fact or thing I can possess, such that “40 octillion years from now, I will be dead, engaged in my death, and so on: being dead isn’t an activity one performs.)

Eventually, I rejected religion. I think because I had, and still have, no religion-shaped sockets in which to snap the thing. I’ve been told I’m wrong about this, that I am certainly in some meaningful sense “spiritual.” Maybe I am. But I’ve doubted it even more as I’ve aged, and with no affect to report and without begrudging those who count themselves spiritual or religious.

This in mind, despite not sharing the feeling Hoffman refers to in lines like, “Although Eiseley may not have considered his writing as an expression of American spiritually, one feels that he was quite mindful of its religious character,” I get Hoffman’s point. Most of what Hoffman says here resonates with me fiercely, particularly to do with contemplation.

“[Eiseley’s] thought takes the form of contemplative involvement in the stuff of existence,” writes Hoffman. This feels right. As does the importance given to the act of writing: “writers do not completely see and understand until they are engaged in writing.”

For some of us, this last bit cannot be overemphasized. To fully engage such a practice, or lifestyle, is to understand writing, even in smaller moments, to be an act of creation extending beyond the page and the self.

Some variation on this idea is commonly found among people who spend the better part of a lifetime stringing words together. In Said’s essay, for instance, when he quotes Adorno’s 1951 book Minima Moralia: “For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live.”

(Adorno’s book, along with The Night Country and another book of Eiseley’s, in addition to the work of several others I’ve named here, shows up in the “Reading List” section of Lopate’s book.)

Hoffman’s more expansive variation of the sentiment provides an effective counterpoint to the dry narrowness one might reflexively expect of an anthropologist, but the basic theme is the same: “[Eiseley] is at home among the poets and philosophers and among those scientists whose observations also were a form of contemplation of the universe.”

Contemplation, curiosity chasing, rumination, (literary) tunnel digging, shamelessly reckless daydreaming—to commit to page the findings of these adventures is to assert this is right now the honest best my mind and heart and vertebrae can do for this difficult question.

If that’s not philosophy, what is?

4. Harrison Gray Dyar, Jr., (Literal) Tunnel Digger.

A quick Google search reveals that the Washingtonian tunnel digger Eiseley describes as “one of us” must be Harrison Gray Dyar, Jr., an influential expert on moths, butterflies, and mosquitos. He was also, incidentally, a bigamist.

Learn more about Dyar’s intriguing doings at Wikipedia and at Smithsonian Magazine: “The Bizarre Tale of the Tunnels, Trysts and Taxa of a Smithsonian Entomologist” (by Ryan P. Smith, 5/13/2016).

If you’d like to dig deeper, there’s a recent biography: Moths, Myths, and Mosquitoes: The Eccentric Life of Harrison G. Dyar, Jr. (by Marc Epstein, 2016).

Dyar’s tunnels are more sophisticated and elaborate than I first imagined (well, maybe not where one collapsed in 1924 under a truck, as noted in the above Smithsonian article). See the below diagram in the August 1932 issue of Modern Mechanix and Inventions magazine (which seems to be the first issue with “Mechanix” instead of “Mechanics” on the cover). 

I don’t know if I’m allowed to reproduce this, but here you go (be sure to check out the Modern Mechanix website for more fascinating articles and back issues!):

Harrison Gray Dyar tunnel diagram
Diagram of Dyar’s tunnels at their deepest spot. For a bigger version, visit Modern Mechanix’s website.

The tunnel-digging habit, it turns out, is a fascinating rabbit hole I never knew existed. Wikipedia provides a nice entryway: “Hobby Tunneling.”

Incidentally, I last night finished reading Thomas Harris’s craftily unhinged (“unspooled”? “executed”?) novel, The Silence of the Lambs, where you’ll find moth obsessions, a well, fugitives, assorted darkness. There’s some weird synergy going on here I’d rather not stare into so deeply. Let’s zip this up.

5. Michel de Montaigne. Epigraph: Runaway Minds.

Lopate’s To Show and to Tell has a chapter called “How Do You End an Essay?”—but I haven’t yet finished it. (The last thing I read there, nodding along giddily: “among other things, an essay is a quasi-scientific experiment to discern the limits of one’s knowledge” [Chapter 4, p 60].)

So I’ll give today’s final paragraph to Montaigne, whose “maddeningly self-perpetuating, open-ended style” Lopate discusses early in that same chapter, in a section called “Endlessness and Montaigne.”

Lopate shares with us the closing words of Montaigne’s “Of Idleness” (the eighth essay in book Book 1 of the legendary essayist’s famous collection; the Donald Frame’s translation, I believe). This morning was my first encounter with this passage, and I can hardly stand how perfectly it fits into this post, not to mention onto this website, with my constant praise of meandering into confusion and whatnot. More weird synergy, but the good kind (it’s all the good kind):

[My mind is] like a runaway horse, it gives itself a hundred times more trouble than it took for others, and gives birth to so many chimeras and fantastic monsters, one after another, without order or purpose, that in order to contemplate their ineptitude and strangeness at my pleasure, I have begun to put them in writing, hoping in time to make my mind ashamed of itself.

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