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Night and Day: Heidegger and Thoreau


Author(s): Stanley Cavell
Source: Revue franaise d'tudes amricaines, No. 91, Ralph Waldo Emerson: l'autorit du
scepticisme (FVRIER 2002), pp. 110-125
Published by: Editions Belin
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Night and Day:


and Thoreau
Heidegger
Stanley Cavell
Harvard University

Uauteur

mots-cl6s/key-words

Thoreau,

Holderlin; Heidegger;
Thoreau; Wittgenstein ;
Ordinaire
*
Holderlin; Heidegger;
Thoreau; Wittgenstein;
Ordinary

un parallele
entre Heidegger
et
presente
en evidence
entre les deux
successivement,
une aveuglante
a
le rapport
(dans
proximite

mettant

philosophes,

la proximite/distance
de
I'idee
I'etre,
et de construction,
la succession
de la nuit et du
tout aussi
et des differences
dans
leurs
jour)
importantes
d'une
tdche desormais
respectives
interpretations
impartie a
Vordinaire,
d 'installation

la philosophic

definissait

comme

que Wittgenstein, egalement evoque ici,


? ramener

les mots

a la maison

?.

the preface tomy little book on Walden, published in 1972,1 say that "I
assume the rhyming of certain concepts I emphasize?for
example, those
of the stranger, of the everyday, of dawning and clearing and resolution?
with concepts at play in Nietzsche
and Heidegger."
I had then read of
Heidegger only Being and Time, and I say nothing about what itmight mean
to "assume" this connection, nor why I invoke a metaphor of "rhyming" to
mark it?as
if the connections
will, or should, by the end become
In

unmistakable
but at the beginning are unpredicted.
Since then I have
periodically gone in various connections somewhat furtherwith each of these
writers, but what has brought me now to another stop with Heidegger
are two lecture courses of
in conjunction with Thoreau
specifically

Heidegger's
published posthumously in the 1980's and recently translated
into English, most obviously the volume entitled Holderlin's Hymn "The
Ister," given in 1942, and behind it The Fundamental
Concepts
of
(from 1929-1930, the years immediately after the appearance of
Metaphysics
Being and Time). The Holderlin text is an obvious cause for stopping given
that "Ister" is the name of a particular river (or of a significant part of the
river Danube)
and "Walden" the name of a particular woodland
lake. But
we
will find each writer talking about fire and earth and sky as well as
while

110

N? 91

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Night and Day: Heidegger and Thoreau


about water, we will not reach here certain matters inWalden that are not
or Holderlin's,
concerns in their related texts, for
among Heidegger's,
the earth
example, how Walden places smoke after fire, nor how atWalden

inspires a vision of excrement, nor what is heard there to give voice to the
sky, nor, following the transformation of water into ice, what the significance
is of bubbles within the ice. All in all I leave open the time Thoreau takes for
a hundred details concerning his pond that a single ode or hymn has no room
for, and so leave open any bearing this difference of time, or some difference

between prose and poetry, may have on a difference in the willingness to


recognize Holderlin and Thoreau as inspiring or requiring philosophy.
Indeed inmy book I mostly left out, or open, the question of what is
called, or calls for, philosophy. But the difficulty of determining what

philosophy is, or rather of recognizing who is and who is not philosophizing,


is something that both Thoreau and Heidegger each insist upon.
Walden's crack on the subject was once famous enough, in its early
pages: "There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers."

(9). It is a claim that bears various interpretations, perhaps most pertinently


by Thoreau's
going on later in this first chapter to characterize what he
means by philosophy as "an economy of living," a description that in effect

thewhole of Walden to be a work of philosophy, hence to establish


itswriter as a philosopher, and accordingly to offer his unforeseen attributes
as themarks by which a philosopher may be recognized (his abode, his
dress, his possessions, his companions, his reading, his ways of counting, of
walking, of transposing himself into things, thingsmoving and unmoving).
An obvious implication is that nowadays philosophers may well not be
recognized by that title, hence more than likely not at all. Heidegger rather
declares

of
Concepts
implies as much when he says, in The Fundamental
... does not reflect upon the
that "[Ordinary understanding]
Metaphysics,
fact and cannot even understand, that what philosophy deals with only
discloses itself within and from out of a transformation of human Dasein"
its
(292) (a transformation of our existence and in how we conceive
possibilities). Walden explicitly enough declares itself to be a text about
crisis and metamorphosis: "Our moulting season, like that of the fowls, must
be a crisis in our lives. The loon retires to solitary ponds to spend it." (15).
This is one of a number of Thoreau's declared identifications with the loon.

What Heidegger refers to as the "preparation" for his transformation


(which is themost, according to him, thatphilosophy can provide) he speaks
of as awakening, also a fundamental term for Walden, heralded in the
sentence from itself thatWalden takes as its epigraph: "I do not propose to

write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in themorning,


standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up." Nothing short of
Walden itself could give what it calls a faithful account of what is strung in

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Stanley Cavell
such a sentence, of the relations among the concepts of awakening, hence
or melancholy,
bragging, roosting,
dawning and morning, dejection
then
tell
and
why the audience of
standing, singing, neighboring, writing;
in such a fashion, meaning why thus
this writing must be addressed

allegorically, let's call it, or duplicitiously, and why through precisely these
concepts. But what I ask attention to here is that just about all of these are
inflected, together with associated others?at work in
concepts?variously
as
texts
of my project of mutual
well. The beginnings
Heidegger's

assessment between Heidegger and Thoreau, hence potentially between the


traditions contending for our allegiance (anyway, formine),
philosophical
will happen most surely if I can convey a due astonishment at the sheer
extent of coincidence, hence of significant difference, between them.
Heidegger's Fundamental Concepts ofMetaphysics goes on to speak of
as "the slumbering of the fundamental
to awakening
the alternative

relationship of Dasein toward beings in everydayness" (xv), and formulates


awakening as "letting whatever is sleeping become wakeful" (60), where this
"letting" names the relation to being that forms a world, the distinct privilege

itwere
of the human. The concept of letting things be what they are?as
same
at
them
to
but
time
the
themselves,
letting
happen to
leaving things
of
the
in
main
action
Walden, enacted in
learning to leave
you?is pervasive
the
double concept of
Walden (the place and the book, most notably figured in
is itself under
that English
pun suggesting
mourning/morning?the
investigation by an American). Thoreau's morning means simultaneously
the dawning of a new day, a new time, an
dawning and grieving?anticipating
always earlier or original time, and at the same time undergoing what Freud
calls thework of mourning, letting the past go, giving it up, giving it over,

it was time for him to leave, without nostalgia,


giving away theWalden
without a disabling elegiacism. Nostalgia is an inability to open the past to the
future, as if the strangerswho will replace you will never find what you have
found. Such a negative heritage would be a poor thing to leave toWalden's
readers, whom itswriter identifies, among many ways, precisely as strangers.
and with
a specific
with sleeping
linking of awakening
moment
at
he
Thoreau
finds
the
is
what
actually depicts himself
questioning
sentences
of
at
in
the
Walden,
Chapter XVI, "The Pond
opening
awakening
inWinter":
Now

Aftera stillnightI awoke with the impressionthatsome question had been put to
me, which

I had

been

endeavoring

in vain

to answer

in my sleep,

as what?how?

when?where? But therewas dawningNature, inwhom all thingslive, looking in


at my broad windows with serene and satisfiedface, and no question on her lips. I
awoke

to an

and
question
resolution.

112

N? 91

answered
answers

question,
none which

to Nature

we mortals

[...] Nature
daylight.
ask. She has long ago

and

2002
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puts no
taken her

(Thoreau 187)

Night and Day: Heidegger and Thoreau


of the question
(his mode, as often in
problematic
Heidegger's
comes under repeated suspicion in Jacques
philosophy, of awakening),
text entitled Of Spirit (1987), which also focuses heavily on
Derrida's
Ister lectures. Derrida's textwill come back. I note here that in
Heidegger's
this late chapter of Walden Thoreau is gently enough mocking the questions
which his opening page had cited as "very particular inquiries [...] made by
what I got
my townsmen concerning my mode of life [...]. Some have asked
to eat; if I did not feel lonesome; if I was not afraid; [...] how many poor
as his
children I maintained."
initially taken these inquiries
Having
on
of
so
the
notice
much
my readers,"
justification for "obtrud[ing] my affairs
he now declares that his attempt to answer such questions as they stand has
heretofore been undertaken in a sleeping state; accordingly, as he achieves a
state of awakening, he is to awaken from the sense of such questions (from, let
us say, theirmoralism). This is not to deny that he owes his townsmen an
earnest effort tomake himself intelligible. Walden is what he repeatedly calls
his account, the terms in which he finds himself accountable, called upon to

settle his accounts. (These interact with the scores of economic terms that
woof and warp his text throughout, laid out most graphically in his opening
a
does it look so unlike
chapter, called "Economy".) If this is moral taskwhy
as
moral
understands
what academic philosophy
philosophy?
I found myself asking a version of this question some years ago in
texts of this century just past that
recognizing that two of the philosophical
have meant most to me?namely,
Being and Time and
Heidegger's
each of them present
Investigations?can
Philosophical
Wittgenstein's
themselves, on any and every page, as carrying some urgentmessage for our
lives, while neither raises any issue that is explicitly about any act we ought to
be doing or refrainingfrom doing, or any rights we have denied, or any goods
we have neglected to share fairly. It seems, reading them, rather that some
moral claim upon us is leveled by the act of philosophizing itself, a claim that

no separate subject of ethics would serve to study?as ifwhat is wrong with


us, what needs attention from philosophy, is our life as a whole (a claim that
does not at once require us to articulate what thatmeans, "our life as a whole").
that our Dasein,
Heidegger prefaces Being and Time with the charge
our human existence, fails today (and has for an indeterminate time) to be
stirred by the question of Being, thatphilosophy's first task is accordingly to
reawaken an understanding for themeaning of this question; and it seems
clear enough that for him there is no more urgent task philosophy can assign
itself, or us.
allows himself to be
in the Investigations
When Wittgenstein
our investigation get[s] its importance from,
questioned as to 'Where [...]
since it seems only to destroy everything interesting, that is, all that is great
and important" (? 118)? his answer amounts to the implication thatwe do

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Stanley Cavell
not know what is truly great and important, that we have lost touch with
what really interests us. So thatwhen he comes to say (? 108), "We need to
turnour investigation around?specifically
around the fixed point of our real
need," the implication is thatwhat Wittgenstein perceives to need turning
around are our lives.
It goes with such a perception of, letme say, philosophical or spiritual
disorientation thatwe will be perceived as having a disturbed relation to our
language, thatwe live willing neither to know quite what we wish to say nor

attributes this muffled or


why others say what they say to us. Heidegger
our
state
to
baffled
of existence,
being sunk in the everydayness
Wittgenstein attributes it to a craving for, or in, themetaphysical, call it the
of words not
flight from the everyday. This state of inexpressibility,
matching our needs, Emerson describes many ways, one time by saying,
"Every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set
them right." It is a state that, in a more intellectualized form, or in more

and
proper philosophy,
goes under the name of skepticism. Emerson
or spiritual imprisonment
Thoreau perceive this state of unawakenness,
(most famously depicted in Plato's myth of the back-lit Cave fromwhich the
an American way and place?as
a fear in
philosopher is to liberate us)?in
each of us of liberating ourselves, something as itwere producing and
produced by a refusal to discover America. They cannot appeal to the great
philosophers who have struggled with skepticism?most
significantly, I
Hume, and Kant?(although
suppose, Descartes,
they allude to them
repeatedly) both because such figures are not part of our common American

intellectual heritage and because


they are part of the problem not the
solution of our intellectual suffocation, or paralysis, or disappointment.
But how can we be told that to understand ourselves we must turn
ourselves around, if the language we share has become ineffective, a set of

formulas drenched in what Emerson calls conformity, and what, among


other things, Thoreau calls business (busyness), something thatNietzsche,
Emerson's other great 19th century reader, early calls philistinism. Modern
since at least the 17th century has periodically
dreamt of
philosophy
a
in
which
would be
constructing
misunderstanding
perfect language,

learned from Emerson to make sentences thatmay


impossible. Thoreau
attract us by theirbeauty or their curiosity, and at the same time seem to play
with our desire for some transformative understanding. He sometimes
depicts this process as turning us around (alluding both to what has to
happen to the prisoners in Plato's cave if they are to find the way out, as
well as invoking the idea of turning found in the concept of conversion);
sometimes he says we need to see that we are lost (that is, to recognize
perdition in order tomove us to find ourselves); sometimes he shows us how
to turn theworld upside down in order to reorient ourselves.

114

N? 91

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Night and Day :Heidegger and Thoreau


topsy-turvy world makes an appearance in a late chapter, "The
Pond inWinter,"
in which after Thoreau has depicted his awakening,
specifically to an answered question, he continues:
This

to my morning work. First I take an axe and pail and go in search of water, if
that be not a dream. [...] I cut my way first through afoot of snow, and then afoot
to drink, I look down
under my feet, where, kneeling
of ice, and open a window

Then

into thequiet parlor of thefishes [...] with itsbrightsandedfloor the same as in


*on\
is under our feet as well as over our heads.
L
J J /rru
[...] Heaven
(Thoreau 187)

summer.

At some stage, writing of this kind carries its weight with you or it
does not. Even when it does in general, we cannot count on it in particular,
that is, count on its making sense, say waking us up as to an answered
question (learning what answering it), at any moment one of us would speak
of it to another.
It is perhaps a good moment, after hearing just now of the possibility
that the search for water is perhaps, or is conducted through, a dream, and
hearing about some connection between time and a stream, or river, and
recalling thatWalden fsfirst chapter ends with a sentence that, with other

in this
things, contains a river, the Tigris (which Thoreau
allegorizes
instance not as the transitory but as the perpetual, continuing to flow "after
the race of caliphs is extinct"?a
good moment forme to cross to the other
texts I mentioned as motivating these present remarks, that
of Heidegger's

Hymn "The Ister," one of his most extended and


remarkable philosophical appropriations of Holderlin's poetry.
Holderlin's poem "The Ister" consists of four stophes, three of twenty
or twenty-one lines, the last of twelve lines (perhaps it is incomplete),
seventy-three lines in all, many as short as three or four words, a few lines as
long as eight words, and all thewords, except names, are simple. I have no
quarrel to pick with Heidegger's reading of the poem, that is, no alternative to

with the titleHolderlin's

suggest for his various attributions of the poem's sense. The mystery of his
commentary is thathe endows these few words with the strength and depth to
bear a whole world of philosophical speculation and realization. Yet I can see
text would not exist without Holderlin's,
that Heidegger's
as though
text
own
to
would
be
unable
lend
its
words
the
Heidgger's
necessary weight

and depth in the absence of Holderlin's. And I am interested inHeidegger's


words. It is to them first that I relate Thoreau's words. The mystery of
interest in Holderlin will not be solved (not by me) by reading
Heidegger's
the poem, but we should at least have an idea of it inmind, hence I quote the
first strophe from the translation given in the translation of Heidegger's

book:

The Ister
Now
Eager

come, fire!
are we

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Stanley Cavell
To see

the day,

And when the trial


Has
May
We,

passed
through our knees,
someone
sense theforest's cry.
however, sing from the Indus

Arrivedfrom afar and


From Alpheus,

long have

Someone

at what

We soughtwhat isfitting,
Not withoutpinionsmay
grasp

Directly
And

reach

the other side.

Here, however, we wish


For rivers make arable
The

land. Whenever

And

there in summer

The animals
So humans

is nearest

go
go

to build.

plants

grow

to drink,
there too.

Heidegger early announces that "The poem poetizes a river" and more
specifically, as in the heading of the next section, speaks of "Hymnal poetry
as poetizing
the essence of the rivers." In crossing to this text I am
encouraged by such a passage fromHeidegger as this:
From thefirst stropheof theIsterhymn,... and likewise
from thesixthstropheof the
Rhine

hymn, we also

learn

that the rivers are a distinctive

and

significant

locale

at

which humanbeings, thoughnot onlyhumanbeings,find theirdwellingplace.


The pertinence to the project of building atWalden seems incontestable,
but my encouragement in imagining that Thoreau's words may illuminate
these, ones hence thatmay receive illumination from them, is quite at once
sorely tested by the following, closing paragraph of this first section of
study, which begins: "Yet we wander around in errancy ifwe
Heidegger's
to bring together, in our extrinsic and disjointed manner, suitable
'passages' about rivers and waters from Holderlin's various poems in order
then to construct for ourselves some general idea of what Holderlin might
have 'meant' by 'rivers' and 'waters.'" Here is one of those signatures,
proceed

that I have never learned to


condescending pedagogical asides of Heidegger's
come
to
take in stride,with their insinuation of depths
(a place not "extrinsic
and disjointed," and guess who alone knows themeasure of what is intrinsic

and joined), and a demoralizing description of where, if I fail it, I will be


a
helplessly left, looking hopelessly, tactlessly, for some general idea of what
does
meant
his
focal
themes.
have
writer
True,
say
great
by
Heidegger
might
thatwe wander in errancy, and there is that in his philosophy that requires

him not to exempt himself from his insinuations. Do

116

N? 91

I trust it?Here

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I am.

Night and Day :Heidegger and Thoreau


The following explicitly pedagogical section, called a "Review" of the
which
opening section, speaks of the Greek word for hymn, "humnos,"
"means song in praise of the gods, ode to the glory of heroes and in honor of
the victors in contests. [...] The humnos is not the 'means' to some event, it

does not provide the 'framework' for the celebration. Rather, the celebrating
lie in the telling itself." This familiar Heideggerean
and festiveness
to the
turn
(away, as itwere, from the extrinsic), speaks directly
performative
over
I
not
when
I
did
tone
in
Thoreau's
stop
epigraph, something
duplicitous
an
to
but
to
not
write
ode
a
"I
do
introduced it while ago:
propose
dejection,
to
to brag
Leaving open what relation he is proposing of his work
"On
Romanticism
(for example, whether the allusion to Coleridge's poem
as invoking an example to avoid or to reconstitute), why
meant
is
Dejection"
does he caution thathe does not propose an ode to dejection? Is itbecause it

may turn out, whatever he imagines his purpose to be, that he has written
some such thing notwithstanding, or several hundred times one such ode? Is
it,before that, to ask why, or how, one could do such a thing as write a song,
as of praise, to the victory of spiritual loss? Is it to raise some furtherquestion
of the relation of dejection to bragging, for example thatwhat he is manic

poverty, his civil disobedience, his isolation, his "revising of


our major Testaments)?will
mythology" (most specifically, the revising of
am
I
here of Heidegger's
causes
reminded
as
for
strike others
depression?
as
themood of philosophizing (and his asserting that
citing "melancholy"
one can imagine the
mourning pervades Holderlin's Ister hymn), for which
were
before philosophy
mood of an Ode to promise a certain relief, as it
about?his

actually catches up with it.


Walden notably, if implicitly, once contrasts a river, or rather a stream,
with a pond. When thewriter asks, "Why should we knock under and go with
the stream?" (66), that is, hurry along with the transitory things others
institutionalize as necessities, he cites the institution of the dinner; and he
assumes the associated customs of our civilization that support one another in
his text?big houses and barns that don't fit us, steady jobs we don't like,
changes of clothes for no good reason, foreign travel, war, slavery,
swallowing things as natural that should disgust us. He goes on to contrast
this image of a rushing stream with what he calls, in the preceding paragraph,
"the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us" (65),
for example. While
the image of which is quite evidently a pond, Walden

many

cautions, still early, that "The rivers belong to the waters.


we make remarks on such poetry, we must ponder what is said
elsewhere concerning the waters"
(6), he does not, as I recall, include
enclosed bodies of water, such as the lakes perhaps dearer to English
romanticism. He of course comments upon Holderlin's line "For rivers make

Heidegger
Whenever

arable/ The

land," that is, suits the land for plowing,

hence

for settling

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Stanley Cavell
(instead of wandering, as nomads). I note in passing that thewriter ofWalden
irritably goes as it were out of his way to plow a field for beans. He
announces thathe would rather do without this, but he undertakes it "to serve
a parable-maker one day" (108), namely to share in authorizing his eventual
parables of settling, or as he also says, sojourning, so of preparations for
(like settling, and
departure, adventure, futurity; and since plowing
a
in
and
his
and
nest,
nail, and so on) is one
hammering
accounting,
warbling
of his concepts forwriting, thewriting it prepares for is (also) writing about
departure, which is to say, in view of his death; so it is a testament. (This little
outburst is a sort of summary ofmy book on Walden.)
There is no likelihood of knowing, in our fewmoments here, how far the
contrast of Holderlin's river and Thoreau's pond may take us. Itmay well
seem unpromisingly banal, or irremediably obvious. It is true that both offer
these bodies both as instructions in where and how to live, or dwell, and as

in 1942, takes Holderlin's


bound up with the fate of theirnations?Heidegger,
Ister as marking a hopeful, privileged destiny forGermany, as well as for the
German language; Thoreau, ten decades earlier, fighting despair, takes his
Walden as revealing theways America fails to become itself, say to find its
language (he calls it the father tongue) in which to rebuke its pretensions in
theMexican War, in the forced migration of its natives, in its curse of slavery.
But the contradictory perspectives of these thinkers arise prettywell at once
from the one taking rivers as "marking the path of a people" (Holderlin's
Hymn 31), and from the other taking the pond as a "perpetual instilling and
drenching of the reality that surrounds it" (80). Instilling and drenching are
concepts

that articulate

the individual's

mode

of what

the writer calls

"apprehending," that is, thinking, and thinking specifically of whatever is


culminating in the present. It is when thewriter is kneeling alone on the ice
(the posture of prayer?) thathe shows himself to drink fromWalden, that is, to
be drenched by it, to receive what itgives to drink.
such differences, here as elsewhere, is
The difficulty of measuring
are
so many apparent attractions and
so
not
there
much
that
perhaps
repulsions in play, but that it seems both imperative and unfeasible to weigh
them. Take a coincidence of examples evidently far removed from politics or
epistemology. Heidegger profitably devotes the largest part of the first section

of his text to the three-word opening line of the Ister Hymn: "Now come,
fire."He comments (with that special innocence cultivated by philosophers):
"Were it not for thismost everyday event [taking the event as sunrise], then
therewould be no days. Still, to explicitly call out 'Now come' to one thus
coming, to the rising sun, is a superfluous and futile act."
early in his first chapter, "attempt[s] to tell how [he] ha[s]
[his] life," he lists, among many others, "trying to hear what
[...] and waiting at evening on the hill-tops for the sky to

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desired to spend
was in thewind
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Night and Day: Heidegger and Thoreau


catch something" (11). Along with, or implied by, such activities, he includes
the work of "[anticipating], not the sunrise and the dawn merely, but, if
possible Nature herself!" (11). Later in thatparagraph he concedes: "It is true,
I never assisted the sun materially in his rising, but, doubt not, itwas of the
last importance only to be present at it." ("To assist" at a social event, for
example, a theater performance, is an old-fashioned term formaking oneself
present, or attending. An importance of his observance, as elsewhere, is his

showing that he can make sunrise a communal event even when what is
called religion has forgotten how. I observe that "assistance" etymologically
contains the idea of standing beside, hence helping. This will find further

resonance.) "Assisting the sun" participates in Thoreau's theme of "making a


day of it," of refusing to live what he will not call his life, so that, in
Thoreau's tone, itwould be true to say, inHeidegger's words, that "Were it
not for thismost everyday event [namely, now, of Thoreau's assistance at the
sun], then there would be no days." Heidegger says about Holderlin's
line,

come, fire" that it is a call, and "The call says: we, the ones thus
calling, are ready. And something else is also concealed in such calling out:
we are ready and are so only because we are called by the
coming fire itself."
Thoreau's anticipating is a case of being ready, something he thematizes as
being early, and earlier, and earliest?morning work.
Heidegger reads the tintof earliness in the ideas of anticipation and of
dawning and morning more elaborately out of the poetry of Georg Trakl,
from which (in connection with Heidegger's
in the
essay, "Language
"Now

Poem") Derrida takes itup in Of Spirit, where he refers to the idea as one of
seeking a more matutinal morning, something he emphasizes (92, 94, 107,
110, 113), but does not, I believe, pursue. How far a fuller occasion should
take us ismarked inWalden's great concluding lines: "There ismore day to
dawn. The sun is but a morning star" (221)?his
rewriting of Emerson's
having said, "We shall have a new dawn at noon", which is itself a
reinscribing ofWordsworth inscribingMilton.
The concept of calling as questioning the given names of things and as
Thoreau's
work. More
permeates
naming a vocation
specifically,
seems
Nature
herself
anticipating
interpreted by Thoreau's
announcing,

"The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions," which


I have taken as a mock summary of Kantian
Idealism and its progeny,
a
our
how
to
about
implying quarrel
get
concepts (say of the understanding)
can
That
the
to
world
call
is, you
pure.
get
things houses that are prisons, or
to call things necessary which are the merest luxuries, or to call
things
accidents (such as the deaths of a certain number of workers
building the
railroads) which are not accidents but inevitabilities of the way we live.
When he asks, "Which is the real bed?" he is similarly mocking Plato's
picture according towhich the real bed is not the one we actually sleep on,

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Stanley Cavell
and at the same time mocking our inability to recognize that the one we
actually sleep on may be an arbitrarymeasure of what we need a bed to be.
I quoted a moment ago Heidegger's
saying "the river determines the

earth." Substituting "pond" for


It is in factHeidegger's gloss on
to build." Comparably early in
the pond, "here I will begin to
to
the
mine" (66), namely
prepare
ground for his house. Thoreau's context is
the paragraph in which he has declared his head to be hands and feet and
adds: "My instinct tellsme thatmy head is an organ for burrowing, [...] and

dwelling place of human beings upon the


"river," itmight be an epigraph forWalden.
line: "Here, however, we wish
Holderlin's
writer
its
Walden,
says, somewhere around

with it I would mine," another identification of his writing with the details of
for building. Holderlin
his building and his preparations
precedes his
with
"Not
site
without
his
the
of
lines,
pinions may/Someone grasp
naming
at what

is nearest/Directly." The "however"


in Heidegger's
declaration
we
to
it
however
wish
that,
build,"
"Here, however,
may be with
suggests
and
with
human
their
hands
and
with
feet, nearness is a
wings,
beings
things
matter of not of grasping but of dwelling. Now it is when a few chapters

later, in "Solitude," Thoreau recurs to themoment of discovering "the place


where a wise man will dig his cellar" that he asks, "What sort of space is
that which separates a man from his fellows and makes him solitary?"
theme of the distance and the point at which
(raising the old Emersonian
"Nearest to all things is that power which
souls touch), and declares:

fashions their being. Next to us the grandest laws are continually being
executed. Next to us is not the workman whom we have hired, with whom
we love so well to talk, but theworkman whose work we are" (90). This is
brought on as his response to the sense that "For themost part we allow only
(shall we say,
outlying and transient circumstances tomake our occasions"
to provide the events of our appropriation?), make our day, make our living,
make our excuses, make our escapes, make our friends and our enemies. In

formulation: one's own iswhat ismost remote (vii).


Heidegger's
Nextness is a task then, a poise or stance of existence, as of assistance,
not assignable or measurable from any given place, for it is the sign that you
are at home in theworld, such as home might be for the essentially strange
creatures Thoreau has visions of at the opening of his book ("I have traveled a

good deal in Concord; and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the
inhabitants have appeared tome to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable
own
ways." [21). He is not there speaking alone of others, but confessing his
strangeness, and first of all to the way others confess or express theirs.
Heidegger's book on the IsterHymn takes Holderlin's text to be locating the
work of becoming at home, namely as "the encounter of the foreign and one's
own as the fundamental truthof history" (v). The river poetizes the human
being because, in providing "the unity of locality and journeying," it conceals

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Night and Day: Heidegger and Thoreau


being and becoming "homely," homelike, I might say
homeboimd. Walden's word formaintaining something like this unity is, in its
opening paragraph, sojourning, living each day, everywhere and nowhere, as a
task and an event. I have called this state, in speaking of Emerson's idea of
and reveals Dasein's

abandonment, the essential immigrancy of the human, a pertinent feature for


an American thinkerof democracy towish to ground philosophically.
term for the stance ofmaintaining the unity of locality and
Heidegger's
"to
in the between" (166), between gods and humans. This
is
be
journeying
is to be what Heidegger names demigods, and since both poets and rivers are

in the between, both are demigods. Thoreau's word for being between is
being interested. And Heidegger too, elsewhere, takes up this registering of
what is "inter-". But in Thoreau the word takes its part, not surprisingly a
disruptive part, in the immensity of economic terms I have noted his text to
put in motion, for, in a counter-move within what is commonly called
economics, Thoreau's interest names a withholding or displacement as well
as a placing of investment. I went so far in my book about Walden as to
relate its concept of interest towhat, in translations of the Bhavagad-Gita
(a

work mentioned

inWalden), is called unattachment.


it take a demigod to learn and exemplify the interval of being
between? Let's at least note that the writer of Walden as surely identifies
himself with the pond as Heidegger's poet does with theriver. In chapter nine,
Does

called "The Ponds," Thoreau records that, having seen Walden almost daily
formore than twenty years, he is struck again by its sheer existence, that it is

the same woodland


lake, still drenching, reviving, its surroundings; and he
continues: "I see by its face that it is visited by the same reflection; and I can
almost say,Walden, is it you?" (129) He sees his reflection in the pond. Is it
him? He can almost say, but perhaps he is still unsure of his right to praise, to
raise a hymn; or perhaps he is at themoment simply stripped of words.
I have to look for some place to stop soon. What relation do I propose
between Heidegger and Thoreau in saying of Thoreau, as I do in that early
book of mine, that he is his own Holderlin?
This apparently takes for
granted thatThoreau is also his own philosopher, which accordingly would,
to Heidegger,
and that he
imply both that he poetizes
according
philosophizes
philosophical

what he poetizes. Are there inWalden what Heidegger calls


as examples
of which,
in The Fundamental
concepts,

ofMetaphysics, he takes "death, freedom, and the nothing" (300).


Heidegger's attention to how the concepts in question are to be taken does
not invoke a systematic listing of philosophical or metaphysical concepts. Do
the terms "nearest" or "earliest" or "between" or "dwelling" or "whiling" or

Concepts

"building" name peculiarly philosophical


concepts? Let's grant that what
makes them philosophical is the controlling feature in Heidegger's
account,
thatunderstanding them requires a transformationof our Dasein, our existence

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Stanley Cavell
(going, I assume, with Heidegger's various affirmations that philosophy calls
one out of the realm of the ordinary, everyday understanding). Then in
principle any concept, used in such a way as to require such a transformation,
might count as philosophical. Then ifWalden is, as it seems everywhere to
insist, an account of transformed understanding, any and every word in itmay
perhaps be philosophical. The transformationwould be of our relation to our
language and therewith?or because of?a transformation in our relation to the
world. When Wittgenstein says inPhilosophical Investigations, "What we do is
returnwords from theirmetaphysical to their everyday use," he is speaking of
such a transformation in our relation towords. But in his case, as in the case of
the philosophical practice of J.L. Austin, it follows that there are no peculiarly

concepts, none requiring, or entitled to, super-ordinary


which
in a sense means that there are no ordinary concepts
understanding;
none
from
either,
exempt
philosophical strain.
When Emerson defines thinking as transfiguring and converting our
philosophical

traditional
(as in the opening pages of "The American Scholar"),
words
rub
with
civilian
familiar in
words
elbows
words,
notably
philosophical
as
"experience," "impression," "form," "idea," "necessity,"
philosophy such

words

"accident," "existence," "constraint"; here the idea is not so much to deny that
there are philosophical concepts as to assert, if somewhat in irony, that an
American can handle them. Heidegger says that philosophical concepts are
indicative of a furthermeaning. Wittgenstein says that in philosophy concepts
themselves. Derrida says they haunt themselves. Whom do you
believe?
If there can be religion without religion, can there be philosophy
in a sense
without philosophy? Do not both Wittgenstein and Heidegger
sublime

desire it? Is this a reasonable proposal forwhat Thoreau enacts?


Go back for a moment tomy crossing of Heidegger with Thoreau on
the matter of letting things lie as a condition of knowing them. I have
elsewhere linked with them on this point Wittgenstein's claim, or challenge,

that "Philosophy leaves everything as it is," a claim blatantly, tomost ears,


conservative. But ifWittgenstein is naming a philosophical task there, then
in the light of the other claims for leaving or letting,Wittgenstein may be
seen as detecting and resisting philosophy's chronic tendency to violence,

in its treatment of ordinary


toward the ordinary, measured
language, against letting it speak, having decided time out of mind that it is
vague and misleading, to say the least. Heidegger also detects violence in
and
of concepts with grasping
association
classical
philosophy's
here?
find
Should
Heidegger companionable
Wittgenstein
synthesizing.
In The Fundamental
goes at
Concepts of Metaphysics,
Heidegger

principally

length, in the effort to characterize the human and what he calls world, into
the differences between man as world-building, animals as poor in world,

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Night and Day: Heidegger and Thoreau


and stones as worldless. Early along this path he
important and fundamental question here: Can
into an animal at all? For we are
ourselves
ourselves into another being of our own kind,

observes: "There is [...] an


we transpose [versetzen]
hardly able to transpose

into another human being.


transpose ourselves into a stone?"
one. How
this
calls
fundamental
(201) Heidegger
question a methodological
is it fundamental? How can we locate it?

And what

then of the stone?can

Compare

we

thiswith Wittgenstein's

Investigations:

What give us so much as the idea that livingbeings, things,can feel? Is it thatmy
education has ledme to itby drawingmy attentiontofeelings inmyself,and now I
my
[...] I do not transfer [ubertrage]
transfer the idea to objects outside myself?
etc. [...] And now look at a wriggling fly and at once these
idea to stones, plants,
seems able
to get a foothold
vanish
and pain
here, where
before
difficulties
everything was, so to speak, too smooth for it.

(?283)

the idea of getting over to the other is shown as motivated by a


in
which we take our own case as primary.What makes that step,
prior step
perhaps seemingly obvious, in turn fundamental? An importance tome of
making this issue explicit is that taking one's own case as the given from
which to transfer concepts to others is a moment in a certain portrayal of the
Here

progress of skepticism with respect to other minds. The idea of transferhere,


or of transposition inHeidegger's discussion, should accordingly come under
philosophical suspicion. Heidegger's pleasantry about our being "hardly able

to transpose ourselves into another being of our own kind, another human
being," is part of what is suspicious. It seems tome an indication, as of a
somewhat guilty intellectual conscience, of avoiding the issue of skepticism.

(Heidegger perhaps inherited this avoidance fromHusserl.)


And what shall we say of Thoreau, as when, for example, in "Brute
Neighbors", he depicts himself, inwhat he calls a pretty game with a loon on
the pond, trying for better than an hour to predict this fowl's sailings out and
to anticipate his divings, a pastime the writer describes by saying, among

things, "While he was thinking one thing in his brain, I was


endeavoring to divine his thought inmine" (156). Here one is taking the
problem of the other in rather the reverse direction from theway philosophers
tend to conceive thematter, letting it provoke him to learn something about

many

himself from the encounter: it is not the other that poses the firstbarrier to
my knowledge of him or her, but myself. The direction is confirmed early in
Thoreau's
recounting of his "business" prospects atWalden
(anticipating
Nature, assisting the sun, waiting for the sky to fall), when, finding that his
fellow-citizens were not likely to offer him a living, "I turnedmy face more
exclusively than ever to thewoods, where I was better known" ("Economy,"
12). Do I trust these sallies of speculation inThoreau? I treasure them.

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But what are Thoreau's native notes, or local gems (however many of
them we might go on to unearth), worth??let's
say on the international
or
or
market. What good is this testament,
what bad is it, compared
legacy,
with the legacies, Heidegger's
principally among them, that, in the text I

earlier, Derrida gestures at inheriting and disinheriting at the


of Of Spirit? Well,
for one thing, since Heidegger's
political
sensibilities
(shall we call them?) should not on the whole inspire the
democratically inclined, or let's say, the immigrant,with much confidence, a
thinkerwho, as in the case of Thoreau, matches, I would say uncannily, so

mentioned
close

many of the philosophical configurations of Heidegger, while reversing his


political sensibilities, is a notable curiosity, one which I find curiously
heartens me?as
rivers that carve the
when, coming upon Heidegger's

historical path of a people, I recall Thoreau's cautioning, "Every path but


your own is the path of fate" (Chapter IV, "Sounds" 80), having declared, "I
would fain be a track-repairer somewhere on this earth", meaning, I take it,
to repair the track we are on, but that he would have us
repair, each of us, to a different track, one we have lost, and at once to a
differentway of thinking about paths and destiny.
not that he wishes

At thispoint it isworthquotingHeidegger's appropriations


of theOde

toMan

from Sophocles' Antigone, containing the great lines (roughly in


Heidegger's version) "Many thewonders but nothing more uncanny than the
human," where he takes centrally the lines in which the chorus expels
uncanny man from its hearth; I put this together with Derrida's criticism of
Ister text as an attempt to de-Christianize and thus inherit the
Heidegger's
of
poetry
Georg Trakl, inwhose termsHeidegger has invoked the concept of
the spirit as flame; and put these further together against Thoreau's account
of his laying the bricks for his fireplace (in the chapter of Walden called
"House-Warming") where he casually announces his surprise, in watering
the brick, at what it takes "to christen a new hearth."

I ask in effect, about this announcement, whether we know how to


its strange playfulness with its utter seriousness, whether it is
balance
metaphor, myth, inheritance, rejection. Here I ask a question about it,or what

perhaps amounts to the same question asked another way, that concerns so
many of the citations I have taken up in these remarks, namely whether it
should find a welcome place in an ambitious philosophical
classroom on
what Emerson calls these bleak rocks, namely the place of America.
includes in the opening paragraphs of his Fundamental
Heidegger
Concepts ofMetaphysics a meditation on a fragment of theGerman romantic

that says: "Philosophy is really homesickness, an urge to be at


home everywhere." If for a moment a serious philosopher who respects, or
say wishes to inherit, the English tradition of philosophy afterKant, or after
the interventions of Frege and Russell, may suspend her or his sense of the

writer Novalis

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Night and Day: Heidegger and Thoreau


of this procedure, may
of Wittgenstein's
familiar moment
use
a
word?'knowledge,'
philosophers
indecorousness

such a one reconsider in this light a


"When
(?116)?:
Investigations

'being,' 'object,' 'I,' 'proposition,'


essence
to
the thing, one must always ask
the
of
grasp
try
oneself: is theword ever actually used in thisway in the language inwhich it
has its home" [Wittgenstein's word for home here is "Heimat"]. Imean, may
'name'?and

this one reconsider that if, inWittgenstein's articulation, philosophy's task


words
that of?as his following sentence puts thematter?"leading
back from theirmetaphysical to their everyday use"; and if this proves to be a
process of endless challenges to the expressions of our lives, alienated or
turned from home, needing return; and if the tasks of philosophy are to be
becomes

(not identified) with therapies; then is it strained to speak of


Wittgenstein's philosophizing as the study of homesickness?
it not??that if such a remark is the only
It goes without saying?does
sort of thing you say about Wittgenstein's work then you are refusing to let
compared

it inspire you to philosophize. I wish it equally went without saying that if


you shy always from saying or conceiving such things, you are bound to
miss the stakes of such philosophizing.

WORKS CITED -1
Cavell, Stanley. The Claim ofReason.
New York: Oxford U. Press, 1979;
The Senses of Walden, 2nd ed. San
Francisco: North Point Press, 1981.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays, First
and Second Series. New York:
Vintage Books. The Library of
America, 1990.
Heidegger,
Trans.

Martin.
J.MacQuarrie

and Time.
Being
and T. Robinson,

New York: Harper,


1962; The
Fundamental Concepts ofMetaphysics.

Trans.

UP,

N. Walker,

W. McNeill.

1994; Holderlin's

Ister"

trans. W.

Indiana

Hymn "The
J. David,

McNeill,

IndianaUP, 1996.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, or


Life in theWoods. (1854). Ed. Owen
Thomas. New York: Norton, 1966.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophische
Untersuchung en/Philosophical
Investigations,

Ed. G. E. M.

: Blackwell
MacMillan, 1953.
Oxford

Anscombe.

/New

York :

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