Just showing up

Still fumbling for the key to unlock what I want to say, in a critically constructive spirit, about John Lachs, perceptual immediacy, the urgency of “now” in contrast with the relative remoteness of past and future, the importance of balancing present enjoyment with past experience and future possibility, the pan-reality of the whole temporal gamut…

Time, said Henry Thoreau, is but the stream I go fishing in. I prefer the metaphor, also well-suited to Henry’s lifestyle, of time as a trail to walk: you can focus on the point of departure or arrival whenever you like, or any other arbitrary slice of the journey; but if you want to keep your balance and remain upright on two legs you must attend to each step in turn. The attention paid, one you’ve establish a steady rhythm of motion, may be subliminal and shared with multiple other tasks of thought and affect – much like breathing. But attention must be paid.

Will that help me locate my elusive key?

E.B. White said he woke up each day torn between an impulse to enjoy the world and a counter-impulse to save it, making it hard to plan his day. That seems relevant to the question of time and how we experience it. The whole day is real, as is a whole walk or a whole fishing expedition. But you have to take each step in turn, and each quickly dissolves into the next. The speciousness of the present, as James wrote of it in his Principles of Psychology, doesn’t invalidate it, or its predecessors, or its successors.

 The new Adam Gopnik essay on Henry James helps.

Thinking about their childhood makes Henry happy, and also reminds him of why he became a writer. Where William was compelled—by his father and by being firstborn, but far more by the force of his character and his mind—to learn and ascend and accumulate, young Henry is content to observe and register and experience. The idea of the writer as someone content just to see and hear, to wrap himself right around a moment of being, feels serene rather than defensive. “My stronger rule, however, I confess, and the one by which I must here consistently be guided, is that, from the moment it is a question of projecting a picture, no particle that counts for memory or is appreciable to the spirit can be too tiny, and that experience, in the name of which one speaks, is all compact of them and shining with them.”

…Henry’s theory of experience as the thing in itself was closer to his brother’s psychology than either quite knew. William’s take on religious ecstasy, related in his great “Varieties of Religious Experience”—basically, that if you think you’re in the presence of the divine, you are—is very much like Henry’s take on all experience. If looking at a little gathering of blue uniforms in camp gives you a strong sense of the Union Army and its morale and its “vibrations,” then you have gained all these things. If you think that what you’re seeing is everything there is to see, then you have seen it all. William’s version feels energetic, and Henry’s feels elegiac, but they share the same basic American belief: in the absence of God, you can get all the ecstasy and transcendence and numinosity you need just by showing up.

Just showing up for each step and each moment will take you as far down the trail as you can go, and though Lachs is right to say we cannot know how life might be different in a hundred years, he’s also right to say we must embrace myriad possibilities. Surely that means we have to think about alternative possible futures and how our present may prepare or ruin them. And that makes it wrong to say that what exists now is the only reality. Doesn’t it?

5:45/6:59, 39/59

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