Thursday, February 28, 2013

“A dipped toast for all eternity!”

In light of the upheaval [eyeroll] at the Vatican this week, Thoreau’s musings from this date in 1857 are highly relevant:

“It is a singular infatuation that leads men to become clergymen in regular, or even irregular standing.

I pray to be introduced to new men, at whom I may stop short and taste their peculiar sweetness. But in the clergyman of the most liberal sort I see no perfectly independent human nucleus, but I seem to see some indistinct scheme hovering about, to which he has lent himself, to which he belongs. It is a very fine cobweb in the lower stratum of the air, which stronger wings do not even discover. Whatever he may say, he does not know that one day is as good as another. Whatever he may say, he does not know that a man’s creed can never be written, that there are no particular expressions of belief that deserve to be prominent. He dreams of a certain sphere to be filled by him, something less in diameter than a great circle, maybe not greater than a hogshead. All the staves are got out, and his sphere is already hooped. [There’s a metaphor that will elude most modern readers.—Q.] What’s the use of talking to him? When you spoke of a sphere-music* he thought only of a thumping on his cask. If he doesn’t know something that nobody else does, that nobody told him, then he’s a telltale. What great interval is there between him who is caught in Africa and made a plantation slave of in the South, and him who is caught in New England and made a Unitarian minister of? In course of time they will abolish the one form of servitude, and, not long after, the other. I do not see the necessity for a man’s getting into a hogshead and so narrowing his sphere, nor for his putting his head into a halter. Here’s a man who can’t butter his own bread, and he has just combined with a thousand like him to make a dipped toast for all eternity!”

—From the Journal of Henry David Thoreau, February 28, 1857.
What is “dipped toast,” and why does Thoreau offer it as a metaphor? Here’s a “receipt” for dipped toast, from How to Cook Well (J. Rosalie Benton, 1886):
Dipped Toast. Have the tea-kettle boiling. Make toast as above. Quickly dip each slice into a pan of boiling water. Do not let it soak, but remove as soon as every part is wet. Sprinkle on a little salt, and butter judiciously ; not laying lumps of butter in the middle of the slices and leaving the crusts dry. Pile on a hot plate, cover and eat hot. Some persons merely pour hot water over the bread, but this is apt to leave the crusts hard while the centrd is soggy.
Thoreau implies that, like “dipped toast,” the clergy of whom he speaks have lost their integrity and become saturated with dogma. Once dipped and soaked, the bread becomes sodden and falls to pieces.

* To understand Thoreau’s reference to “sphere-music,” read here:

Oh gosh, I just love that phrase: “… he has just combined with a thousand like him to make a dipped toast for all eternity!”

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