I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company. –Emerson, “Self Reliance”
What is it that makes it so hard sometimes to determine whither we will walk? I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.
When I go out of the house for a walk, uncertain as yet whither I will bend my steps, and submit myself to my instinct to decide for me, I find, strange and whimsical as it may seem, that I finally and inevitably settle southwest, toward some particular wood or meadow or deserted pasture or hill in that direction.
The science of Humboldt is one thing, poetry is another thing.
I am not opposed to being reasonable, to tracking and following the facts, and to making sense of things to the best of my ability. But I distrust both the human animal’s ability to be reasonable and human reason’s ability to figure things out. We would like more answers than we are able and likely to find, and that tempts us to provide reasons that are fabricated. Consider deliberative democracy. It is reasonable to deliberate. But many of our deliberations turn out to be defenses of well worn prejudices after all. There are no mechanical answers to our issues; at some level we simply have to take a chance. Whim.
I have always been fascinated by Emerson’s occasional use of “whim.” He never seemed the type. But then I look at his life and see whim everywhere. It is the unusual thread that stitched the twisted road on which he lived. For Thoreau, whim is more up front–he challenges us to, on occasion, be whimsical. And when I step back from my own road, I find there is whim everywhere. I thought I was “making” decisions—it turns out that in many cases they were making me. When I look back and try to make sense of my decisions, I feel as if I am what they call in the plumbing trade “backfilling.” I am just making something up to provide myself an answer where there is none. Making sense of whim is, after all, a silly exercise. Let whim swing wide and free—and when our grip gets feeble we will fly off to eternity.
I don’t think we try to fall in love; if we did, we wouldn’t call it “falling.” When we try to manufacture the reasons why we fall in love we invariably fall short. There is always something more, something left out; there is a reason we talk of stars and moons and winds and alignments . . . no impure reason will tell that story in any reasonably satisfying way. Santayana chalked it up to animality. Maybe so—but it’s there in the eyes, in the smile, in the touch—the lightest, breezy touch on the arm—I can always see it but can never speak it. That was something else Emerson had right—the languages we make, as beautiful as they are, always try to catch whim by surprise but they never do. Never—or in James’s words, “ever not quite.” The answer is always just over the horizon, just around the corner, through a glass darkly…….maybe somewhere over the rainbow. So much of my life is around some corner—I try again and again for a peek or a chance to grab it by the arm and turn it to face me. And every time I fail—and now, having been worn smooth by the years, I accept whim—it’s a ride—let me see where I end up—here? really? unbelievable!
What I initially missed in Emerson is that whim doesn’t mean craziness—whim can leave you safe at home for fifty years at a time—comfortable, happy, with one enduring love. It’s in the cards or it isn’t. Staying or going is so many times just whim—the “ahh-what the hell” moment when you say I’m staying or I’m going. I may give an explanation later but it will be more window dressing for the fabric of social life. The sign above Emerson’s door read “Whim.” I think he was right. He says he hopes it may be more than whim at last–there, I disagree. Whim has become enough for me.
Whim is not chaos. That’s why Thoreau talks of magnetism and instinct in relation to whim. Whim may not be reasoned, but it is never without direction. It is not just bad and arbitrary decision-making. Whim is its own power and is built on a feeling of rightness. We have various phrases for this–“I couldn’t help it,” “some power was pushing/pulling me,” ” I can’t tell you why but it just felt right,” and so on. An element of trust resides at the bottom of whim and this is what Thoreau alludes to. We must learn to trust the magnetism. It’s not something we make or create in any overt way–it happens to us–“something comes over us”–submerged memories, latent hopes, unarticulated imaginings. . . . We find it so hard to be whimsical—to allow whim its genuine place in our lives. We must have a reason—we must have someone to blame—we must have heroes; we cannot accept whim as an answer. So much in my life I can make no sense of—should I give reasons for breaking social conventions? Let me say what I mean—or something like what I am trying to mean. I am better now at accepting whim—at being whimsical. My reasoning cannot see around the corner—I will just take this ride and I will not complain or regret. Perhaps I sound like a Stoic—but they had Reason governing everything and they just had to accept the facts. Following whim is different—there is no final explanation, there is no mechanism or system that makes sense of all of this. I am relaxed in my whimsy not because I know a God or Nature will control all, but because I know I will never know it all—no one will know it all. My life is a life, not a chess game. I will live with the glimpses behind the curtain but I will no longer chase my tail—except perhaps in whimsical fashion! That little phrase from the 90’s, “whatever!” Or the more recent linguistic abomination, “It is what it is.” I hate these phrases but I have come to believe that they are right. Explanation and understanding are over-rated. Like the dreams of social contract or deliberative democracy—nonsense. We are human animals. Our reason has its role to play but when it tries to contain this emanating world, it has lost its way.
I have played music for many years, but I have never been able to play a cover song to make it sound just like the original. I seldom even know what key the original was played in. Once in a while a different way of playing a song will come to me and it will work. There is no deliberation–I simply feel my way around the song until something feels right–or “works.” Perhaps I am placing too much weight on whim, but this is what it feels like to me. I turn a corner on a whim. I choose a phrasing on a whim. I’m sure eventually the psychologists and neuroscientists will arrive at some explanation of whim, but I doubt it will ever seem complete to me. I think our physical and mental energies can do their own work sometimes without the interference of our calculations and explanations. I believe that sometimes we are better off to follow our whims, to let them take us where they will. We may just awaken there and find we have landed in the right place for now.
Perhaps it is fair to point out that nature has its own whims with which we often find ourselves engaged. A rainbow that blooms before us. A road that winds beyond where we can see and lures us. A storm that changes our life events and leaves us in unexpected places. Of course there are physical reasons such situations occur–but those will never explain the meanings we find in the whimsy of the situations. Our own whims are likewise guided by energies of nature–we too are nature. A helicoptering maple seed lives on whim–we may too, not all the time or in every way, but sometimes at crucial times and in interesting ways. And that is enough for me to think that whim deserves it own consideration alongside our ability to reason and to calculate. These are features of our being that should live in concert and not in some bi-valent opposition.
Whim is not a license to be stupid. It is not a matter of closing our eyes and hoping for the best. Whim is a magnetism–an energy–in the cosmos that may help us to be rightly oriented. It is something we must remain attuned to in our lives. And when it is effective, it may seem to take us in a direction wholly contrary to what our best reasoning tells us. That is why whim is important–it is a sort of ongoing resistance to the rationalizing and the systematizing that often wants to dominate our lives. It is a feeling we should be alert to. I think Emerson is right in saying that we cannot spend the day in explanation. It’s not that some explanation is not good for us–it is. But trying to explain the ongoing thickness of our experiences will always come up short and may eventually run us aground on false reasons and fantasized causes. We must at least keep our eyes open for the sign above us on the lintel–WHIM.
As always, thanks to Monster for the photos.