I spent my first Chicago snowstorm reading Erazim Kohák’s The Embers and the Stars. Written from “beyond the powerline and the paved road” of Sharon, New Hampshire, Embers and Stars is perfect for the darkening days of winter, weaving together philosophical insights with meditations on the natural world. It holds a kaleidoscope of characters: birch trees and maples, turtles, porcupines, skunks, and humans too – both the neighbors down the road, fellow academics, and thinkers from ages past.1
Embers and Stars centers on the division between day and night, which Kohák equates to the difference between poiēsis and technē. In the daylight, Kohák places technology, artifacts, concepts, definitions, and the theories that guide one’s life. In the darkness of night, he places poetry, wonder, mystery, and the unity of all things. The job of the philosopher, and indeed all persons, is to balance the two, to be guided by the wisdom of the rising and setting sun instead of blinking screens and neon lights. “Dusk,” Kohák writes, “is the time of philosophy.”2 But dusk comes slow and imperfectly in a city; wonder and poetry often feel crowded out by noise.
This is how I found myself on the edge of Lake Michigan in the middle of a snowstorm. I’m six months into a PhD program, six months in a new city, and my thoughts feel crowded with definitions and concepts. Right thinking, whatever that might be, seems as fleeting and flighty as the setting sun. So, I walked past the storefronts and parking lots, under the bridge and across the bike lanes. I walked searching for a silence that only snowstorms seem to bring, searching for something that looked like poetry, something that would teach me to see in the dark.
But I cannot let you think this was more idyllic than it was. With snow gathering in my boots and the crevices of my coat, it wasn’t Kohák’s words that came to mind, nor some well-timed poetic verse. Instead, it was people – a date I went on a while back, an awkward interaction with a barista, the person I sat next to in a morning class. I felt like I did something wrong, like these social threads were contaminants to true thinking. And perhaps they would be okay if I could guarantee that these threads would endure – if the date turned into a love, the awkward encounter a gateway for friendship, the classmate a fellow intellectual colleague. But I don’t know that. These were just people, just acquaintances really, the kind that can leave you feeling lonely rather than loved.
This is the messy truth of thinking, even well-meaning attempts at that lofty academic thinking: it wanders. Sometimes it wanders from experience to philosophers to concepts to words, and you achieve something like insight. Sometimes, though, it wanders from experience to your grocery list to a man you wish you’d kissed but didn’t.
The history of philosophy is inundated with (often male) philosophical anchorites, who renounced social obligations and retreated into their minds to do thinking. Martin Heidegger, a frequent figure in Embers and Stars, is paradigmatic of this, retreating to his hut in the Black Forest to write about Being – while his wife manages daily life, and his mistress receives letters about how he “had to forget and will forget” her in order to think philosophically.3 And Kohák may well be just another philosophical anchorite in the tradition. He writes, with a nod to Husserl, that solitude is a kind of radical phenomenological bracketing, rescuing the thinker from the collective monad of definitions and concepts. His own retreat to the woods of New Hampshire is then a practical outworking of this kind of this bracketing, his own attempt to see “the things themselves.”
And surely, we can acknowledge that solitary thinking is not a wrong in and of itself. Julian of Norwich, Thomas Merton, and Annie Dillard teach us that solitary thinking leads to a greater connection with the world, creating an awareness that life runs deeper and farther than we could ever know. I still love Heidegger’s words about thinking, that it is a form of reception, of thanking and gratitude. He speaks of a kind of wandering path that the thinker must undergo, filled with error and wrong turns. But his thinking never seems to be populated with people - actual, real people, who interrupt and cry and smell good (or bad) and tug you down pathways you never noticed before. This, in my view, is where Kohák takes his leave of Heidegger. There are people in Kohák’s solitary world, church goers, friends, and neighbors who “helped and taught [him] to survive and to see.”4
I love being a thinker. I love participating in the long, tangled web of ideas, ideas that somehow keep propagating after all this time. I have found a home among the stacks of a library and in those narrow, uncomfortable desks in lecture halls. But somewhere along the way, I decided if I was going to be a serious philosophical thinker, I had to be solitary, devoid myself of relational responsibilities, build up words like walls. Here, only relationships that reveal essences, concepts with capital letters like Love, Truth, the Other, were valuable. But there, on the edge of Lake Michigan, with Kohák’s words mingling with grocery lists and old dates, I wonder if there is another way.
Two months later, I am still thinking about Kohák. In the depths of coursework, his books are piling up around me as I try to dash off the end of a paper about his philosophical ecology while running from class to lecture to the library. I can’t decide if his words feel like talismans in this intellectual endeavor, or if they feel like an albatross, pulling me down. Words, Kohák’s or any others, seem these days only to make things hazier, to make the world more complicated.
I think of the Psalmist, who wrote, “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me,”5 and wonder if I have been reckless in dismissing his words. Perhaps, I have reached for ideas too lofty for me, indulging in a philosophical thought life I am not prepared for. Actually, I know I’m reaching for thoughts too lofty for me. I can feel them, slipping just out of my reach.
“I live my life in words,” Kohák admits. “The two modes, living and speaking, are indistinguishable… What I was writing was, indistinguishably, the experience, not a set of statements about it.”6 It is here that I feel such fondness for Kohák, for, no matter how much time he spends in his solitary cabin, he cannot escape his commitment to language, to discourse. By the light of a woodfire and oil lamp, he stacks up these words, believing that it is possible to make a faithful articulation of what he sees in the poiēsis-laden night. For Kohák, the key to this faithful articulation is metaphor.
Philosophy already has so many metaphors for the task of thinking – caves, pathways, light, among many, many others. But I sometimes find myself aching for new ones, for metaphors that cannot be carried out in solitude. Following the Psalmist, maybe the parent-child relationship is a better metaphor, the soul becoming the child on the mother’s breast. Thinking, like mothering, is birthing something into the world that makes demands on you, that has sticky fingers and requires that you give of your own body. Or could we turn to friendship or falling in (or out of) love or family to imagine a thinking that is ever-interrupting? A thinking that climbs under your skin, that demands commitment, that breaks you open when it goes awry.
Kohák’s favorite metaphors, carried throughout not just Embers and Stars but also his latter essays on environmental ethics, are that of dweller and exile. They demonstrate the tension one should feel living in the world: as dwellers, we are bound to our environment and consequently responsible for it; as exiles, we have no ownership of that environment and are destined to simply wander amidst it. (Kohák himself was exiled from his home in Prague in 1948, so he knows something of the cost of such an assertion.) However, in this tension between dweller and exile, Kohák writes that we are also guests, recipients of nature’s wild hospitality. And as guests, we are invited to belong to this environment, to bind ourselves to it, to keep our promises. And if, and only if, we spend enough time as faithful, contributing members of that community, we may be able to say that this environment belongs to us too.
Perhaps, in this hospitality taught to him by trees and animals, Kohák provides us with another metaphor for thinking. He tells us of a turtle, a mother, laying eggs on the edge of a lake. Surely, she knows something of God, Kohák insists. In another essay, he asks, “When a philosopher talks to a tree, what do they talk about?” He wonders if, together, they “are forging a new more promising manner of speaking, one that will help them both survive?”7 The tree or the turtle know what it is to belong, and thus, know about the “bond of love and respect” and the “awesome responsibility” such belonging evokes.8 For Kohák, the tree, the turtle, and indeed all creatures, not just the humans, are endowed with a moral sense. These creatures become theologians, thinkers in their own right. With them, there is the possibility for a thinking that holds all our entanglements, a thinking that is free to wander. It is a metaphor that is recklessly social, one that includes the kinship of the whole natural world.
Spring, at long last, is breaking out of winter’s grasp here in the Midwest. The days are longer, the wind less biting, and sometimes, after long days under the library’s neon lights, I take a walk along Lake Michigan. I’ve found a spot with a view of the Chicago skyline dwarfed under a vast sky. A family of ducks got there before I did, but they are wonderfully hospitable. I sit, and sometimes I think about grocery lists and awkward dates, sometimes about Kohák and poetry. But every once in a while, I watch the waves and the sky and the ducks at home in the middle of it, in hopes of learning what they know of God.
- ((Kohák, The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press), xii.))
- ((Kohák, 32.))
- ((This letter is quoted in Daniel Maier-Katkin, Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010), 43.))
- ((Kohák, Embers and Stars, xiii.))
- ((Psalm 131:1, New Revised Standard Version.))
- ((Kohák, Embers and Stars, 52.))
- ((Erazim Kohák, “Speaking to Trees,” Critical Review 6, no.2 (1992): 381.))
- ((Kohák, Embers and Stars, 107, 108.))