The peaks coughing bouldered / laugher shook to pieces (Ammons)

[In this post, I shall talk about the following poems: “So I said I am Ezra” (“Ezra”); “Coming to Sumer” (“Sumer”); “In the wind my rescue is” (“Rescue”); “I came upon a plateau” (“Plateau”). Some may be found online, but sadly not all. All are contained in this collection.]

Ammons, I am noticing, is pulled by the wind and the sea, and sinks into sand. He cannot long avoid them. Even when his attention turns to stones, as in “Coming to Sumer” and “In the wind my rescue is”, the stones are “water modeled sand molded stones” (“Rescue”)—products of the sand and the sea. These forces are not necessarily distinct. Wind, sea, and sand intertwine in the final four lines of “So I said I am Ezra”, and Ammons everywhere finds what is fluid in dust, sand, and wind: “in whorls of it” (it = wind, “Rescue”), “dark whirls of dust” (“Plateau”), “lake of sand” (“Plateau”). His poetic narrators exist in an uneasy tension with these elements and forces.

What is this tension? I hesitate to consign Ammons’ poems (of which I have read but few) to depicting a single relationship. There is nonetheless a pattern emerging, which I may point out. The wind and sea, dust and sand, have a humbling effect. They show up human pretensions for what they are. Foremost among these pretensions is that of identity: declarations of oneself are swept away, ripped away, and individuality vanishes.

Thus, in “So I said I am Ezra”, the narrator’s repeated self-declarations are “whipped” by the wind and “swallowed up” by the ocean, until it reaches the point where Ezra himself “falls out of being”—and does so by becoming “like a drift of sand / and splashed among the windy oats / that clutch the dunes / of unremembered seas”—i.e., by becoming like just those parts of nature that took from him his voice. (The phrase “dust to dust” comes to mind—it seems to be an undercurrent of these poems.) Dissolution follows his unheeded, vain insistences upon himself.

So, too, in “I came upon a plateau”. The narrator, here unnamed—though it is tempting to see him as Ezra, returned, or in a different aspect—makes his declaration on a plateau surrounded by “a circle of peaks”. These are his observers. To them, or at least before them, he cries, “spare me man’s redundancy”—then, “putting on bright clothes / sat down in the bright orthodoxy.” Already he is somewhat ridiculous—as if bright colors were any solution to the inexorable problem that there is nothing new under the sun, that all of humanity is redundant. The narrator is brought to this realization by a white snake, upon seeing which he, “succumbing in the still ecstasy”, says, “this use is colorless”. In what follows in the poem, color is never invoked, only “dark whirls of dust”. This colorlessness of nature is simpler but more powerful and more lasting than the narrator’s “bright colors”, which come to seem more and more a tastelessly gaudy display. (How strange that nature, in which values and “taste” are unknown, should be the profoundest revealer of poor taste!)

Whereas, in “So I said I am Ezra”, Ezra went unheeded, the narrator of this poem receives a response. “The peaks coughing bouldered / laughter shook to pieces”. His observers mock him. Meanwhile, the snake sloughs off, as if it were nothing, the skin that so overpowered the narrator. I am not so sure this response really differs from the lack of response in the earlier poem—mockery and indifference are cousins, if not twins.

What emerges is a picture of nature next to which our insistences on our own identity come to seem absurd, comic in their futility. Is this picture bleak? I cannot decide. At one moment it devastates me, by bringing home what I already suspect: that life, held out next to nature, is a comedic error, a foolish enterprise. But, at the next, I may agree with the narrator of yet another poem, that “in the wind my rescue is / in whorls of it”.

So I said I am Ezra (A.R. Ammons)

2014/04/19 2 comments

Thus I wrote about A.R. Ammons, whose voice whipped past me yesterday, a cry, car­ried by the wind: “I am Ezra.” By some chance the wind had not destroyed this message, but lofted it past with its integrity preserved. What I heard, I heard clearly, only I fear some of the signal was lost, strangled, for it began at a strange place. “So I said I am Ezra”, it began—with “so”.

But “so” is not a word for the start of a sentence. It indicates that what follows, follows—that something foregoing offers an explanation. I heard no such explanans. There is only the insistence: “I am Ezra.” Nor is the poem circular. What comes later does not qualify the “so,” but leaves the blanks, blank. Ezra, the man who announces himself as Ezra, remains caught between the dunes and the sea, each in turn carrying his protestations into nothingness. That is all there is.

I cannot, then, resolve the “so,” cannot say what it is that makes Ezra declare himself. He is simply there, declaring, until he is no longer. I cannot even say that he has a history, unknown to me—I cannot rule out the possibility that none of his message was lost in its voyage to me. Perhaps I heard it from the beginning. And why should Ezra have a history, after all? The ocean and the dunes might as well have none, for all the difference it makes to their current behavior—why then should I insist that Ezra have a history?

While I am confessing my impotencies, allow me to add this: I cannot say that Ezra’s “so” indicates—as I have been taking it to indicate—a “for this reason.” “So” may also suggest “in this way.” Ezra may only mean to say that he states himself just so. What follows, then, shows me the state of this stating. This is not implausible, for “so” recurs, later in the poem, in this guise: “As a word too much repeated / falls out of being / so I Ezra went out into the night …”

What is to decide between these two readings of that initial “so”? Say I resolved upon this second reading—I would not by this resolution squelch the question of why Ezra announces himself, just so, to the wind and the waves.

But I am beginning to feel odd. I should not have heard this message, should not be hearing it still, nor should I be writing about it. Do I not, in so doing, arrest Ezra’s fall out of being? Do I not deny him the dissolution that followed from his going unheard? It is a perverse happenstance that his voice should have reached me here, so far from either dune or sea. By what wind was it carried? By what river did it sail?

As the puppet acts it knows not why, overpowered by external compulsion, thus I find myself replacing my pen, and withdrawing.

Three reflections on Emerson

In the blur that has been these past three days—since I am writing this after midnight, perhaps I had better call it four—I have come to the close of Emerson’s second series of essays. Fittingly, perhaps, while reading “New England Reformers”, I had no unified idea for a post, so here are three scattered reactions upon its ideas.

[I] Another attempt to justify misreading Emerson

There is power over and behind us, and we are the channels of its communications. We seek to say thus and so, and over our head some spirit sits, which contradicts what we say. (607)

There is something more to what we say, than what we intend. It is not Emerson’s purpose here, I think, to condemn what has come to be called the intentional fallacy, the use of authorial intent in interpretation. The claim is milder, yet more invigorating nonetheless: intent is excellent, so far as it goes, but always something escapes it. We do not quite know what we say, and thus are imperfect guides to our own thought.

My readings or misreadings of Emerson take this thought as their license. A too slavish devotion to Emerson would not even leave me with Emerson. Why not, then, seek what is behind his thought? But keep in mind, here, what is likely to be found behind his thought. It can only be biography. What I am seeking behind Emerson is, inevitably, myself. I am the worst sort of reader: I put myself into the text, then pull myself back out, as if I had made some grand discovery.

Or so it stands when my readings succeed. Of course I will not deny that often, perhaps usually, they fail, and the sad result is a passable interpretation of Emerson. I shall try always to keep these to a minimum.

[II] The apparent impossibility of friendship

There can be no concert in two, when there is no concert in one. When the individual is not individual, but is dual; when his thoughts look one way, and his actions another; when his faith is traversed by his habits; when his will, enlightened by reason, is warped by his sense; when with one hand he rows, and with the other backs water, what concert can be? (599)

Here, then, is a recipe for friendship, or any other alliance between two individuals. Each is to be unified with herself—only then may she work with another. But is such unity within oneself possible? Let us look at what happens when Emerson, two pages later, tries to defend the possibility, even the inevitability of a union between two:

I do not believe that the differences of opinion and character in men are organic. I do not recognize, beside the class of the good and the wise, a permanent class of skeptics, or a class of conservatives, or of malignants, or of materialists. I do not believe in two classes. (601)

A bold statement of the unity between two, a unity on which Emerson unconditionally insists. But the price of this unity between two is disunity within the individual.

I do not believe in two classes of men, but in man in two moods, in Philip drunk and Philip sober. (601)

We know, already, that Emersonian moods do not believe in one another. Moreover, in “Nominalist and Realist”, we learn that this disunity of moods makes sincerity a sort of impossibility: “I am always insincere, as always knowing there are other moods.” (587) What, then comes of Emerson’s “concert”? Insofar as concert is possible, insofar as the two classes melt into one, there is disunity lurking below—disunity that seems to preclude the very possibility of concert. Friendship, for Emerson, may very well be impossible.

[III] Experimental lessons of science

The lessons of science should be experimental also. The sight of the planet through a telescope, is worth all the course on astronomy: the shock of the electric spark in the elbow, out-values all the theories; the taste of the nitrous oxide, the firing of an artificial volcano, are better than the volumes of chemistry. (594)

I have a hunch that the point of this passage may be expressed in terms of property, of ownership. There is a sense in which human knowledge—that which is produced by contemporary laboratories at ever-increasing rates—belongs to no one, or only to very few. Those at work in the lab may finish a successful experiment with knowledge, but perhaps no one else will. This I tried to capture, with some of its ramifications, in my recent essay on skepticism. It is not enough to read a book to come to possess knowledge, so most of today’s knowledge remains predominantly unpossessed.

For this reason, I prefer the act of discovery that brings some piece of knowledge into someone’s possession, even if that act contributes nothing to human knowledge. In Emersonian terms: every mind must go over the whole ground for itself. What a mind does not go over itself, it cannot obtain by any other means. It is the activity of science that is experimental, whereas the uptake of science is ever so much conformity and disappointment.

Conversation and mood

2014/04/17 2 comments

When I converse with Emerson, as I have been doing for two or so years now, are we talking past one another? I do not deny the charge. And if I wish to suggest, with Emer­son, or with my Emerson, at least, that there is something fundamental about mood that shapes all we do and are, then I must turn a wary eye on my own interactions with Emer­son.

My companion assumes to know my mood and habit of thought, and we go on from explanation to explanation, until all is said which words can, and we leave matters just as they were at first, because of that vicious assumption. (587)

I agree with my friend here, only I am in a mood, just now, in which I do not find the assumption quite so vicious as he. I know that, in a post such as my Fools of Nature, I have, for all my attempted faithfulness to my Emerson’s thought, impressed my own mood upon the subject matter, and so been left instead with my own thought. But this seems to me as it should be. I do not read Emerson out of love of Emerson, and I do not write about Emerson to flatter him.

I take it our friendship can survive this narcissism of mine. But, if not, if I must choose between the two, I shall take the narcissism.

Philosophical moods

2014/04/17 1 comment

It takes a fool to attempt to summarize the great, shifting circle of Emerson’s philosophy with a single quote, a single arc. Yet today I believe in folly, in injustice in reading; thus I feel up to the task, and select the following, from his essay “Circles”:

Our moods do not believe in each other. (406)

If Emerson does not deserve the title “philosopher”—and many would say he does not—it is because his concern is less with solving (ha!) traditional problems of philosophy than with affixing them to moods, and then detailing the actions of these moods on one another, both their mutual hostility and their mutual embrace.

So too with “Nominalism and Realism”, with the conflicts between particulars and generalities, between parts and wholes. Every man, Emerson tells us is, is representative of truth, but is not truth, which is to say, every man is partial. This connection between representation and partiality is direct: every representation must be partial, else it would be the thing itself. Each person inhabits a fragment of the surface, and together we may perhaps trace out the full circumference, and so reveal the center, “the pure stream of thought [the man] pretends to be.” (575)

Such is the problem with which Emerson begins. Already we are outside of standard philosophical waters. Emerson is not so much concerned with the reality of kind divisions, or of patterns among particulars. Rather, he has in his sights a problem confined to the human: what is our relationship to this truth, this I suppose ideal form of a human, of which each individual is merely (more or less) representative? Obviously our relationship is, in one of its facets, to be representative. Such we must be, as we are particulars, are partial. But what does this tell us about how to live?

The first half of the essay finds Emerson befriending the realist. He draws his usual contrast between talent and genius, here under the guise of particular gifts (accompanied by deformities elsewhere) and overall symmetry. He insists that human life falls on the appearance side of the appearance/reality dichotomy: it is a “poor empirical pretension” (577). We are not, then, to be too beholden to what we see in others: we are to take from them what is an accurate representation, and discard what is inaccurate. And—echoes of Plato—he casts art, which he defines as a simultaneous eye for beauty in details and for proportion in the whole, as a sort of insanity, since proportion is something impossible for human beings. In the face of this, the philosophical response is to turn away from the surface toward the center, to contemplate the forms as well as one is able, and so aspire to the universal.

But this is only a mood:

Thus we settle it in our cool libraries, that all the agents with which we deal are subalterns, which we can well afford to let pass, and life will be simpler when we live at the center and flout the surfaces. (580)

It is a passive mood, an inactive mood: the mood of the library. The philosopher, after all, withdraws from the world and seeks for tranquility. Tranquility lies in the eternal—Parmenides perhaps captured it best with his argument that all is one, eternal, unchanging, or Zeno with his paradoxes showing there is no motion, the ultimate in tranquility and stillness. The surface is all bustle, and all ephemeral. The center leaves that behind, but at the expense of activity. Emerson cheerfully elaborates this point with what I take to be a modified form of

Emerson’s nature detests inactivity.

But this is flat rebellion. Nature will not be Buddhist: she resents generalizing, and insults the philosopher in every moment with a million of fresh particulars. (581)

This is no novel argument: it is the old argument of the impracticability of philosophers.

If we were not thus infatuated, if we saw the real from hour to hour, we should not be here to write and to read, but should have been burned or frozen long ago. (581)

This insistence of nature on particulars furnishes Emerson with the one properly philosophical (of sorts) argument he makes in this essay: that even the philosopher, and, moreover, the philosopher qua philosopher, is partial. The philosopher ignores the Janus face of nature, at once universal and partial.

You are one thing, but nature is one thing and the other thing, in the same moment. She will not remain orbed in a thought, but rushes into persons; and when each person, inflamed to a fury of personality, would conquer all things to his poor crotchet, she raises up against him another person, and by many persons incarnates again a sort of whole. (581)

Any whole there is, in Emerson’s world, is “a balance of a thousand insanities.” (581) The problem is that of reconciling these competing, contradictory insanities, or stupidities, into some sort of whole. But this is still offensive to the philosopher, for it “introduce[s] wild absurdities into our thinking and speech” (585)—absurdities being, of course, the bane of philosophy.

Emerson does attempt a reconciliation. He asserts both “that every man is a partialist” (585) and “that every man is a universalist also” (586), but I am not so sure he believes this. For, two paragraphs later, he laments: “If we could have any security against moods!” (586) (The desire for this security is itself the outburst of a particular mood.) But we cannot have such security, and so are pressed into inconsistency, to “wild absurdity,” by our vicissitudinous moods.

Returning to our opening thought, that of the disbelief of our moods in one another, we can see two interpretations of this thought. On the first interpretation, one of our moods banishes from itself all memory of its opponent. This is folly, is error, but it is useful error, for it banishes any tyranny (by way of insistence on a foolish consistency) which the old mood might inflict on the new. This folly makes possible sincerity, at the price of being an exaggeration, a mistake, a fool of nature. A mood forgets its partiality, and so may act. On the second interpretation, our moods do believe that other moods exist, but disagree with them, think them mistaken. Here our moods are aware of their own partiality—and this makes sincerity impossible. “I am always insincere, as always knowing there are other moods.” (587) It takes a sort of folly, or at least forgetfulness, to be sincere.

It is tempting, and perhaps even accurate, to see these two interpretations are reflecting yet another dimension of mood. Emerson’s essays are dizzying and enthralling precisely because they refuse to be contained by a single mood. “Nominalist and Realist”, for instance, exists both in the library and in the fields. And, in “Nature” (see my Fools of Nature post), it is clear that Emerson cannot recognize and criticize the “sad, sharp-eyed man” as sharp-eyed, without himself being somewhat that man. Emerson never describes anything foreign to himself.

But he does give a biased picture of himself. Much of the time, one mood dominates, and since writing is Emerson’s primary activity, usually it is an active mood. Thus his discussions of his passive moods are generally seen from his active perspective, and we might suspect they receive short shift. Yet it should be no surprise if Emerson’s essays should prove to be only a partial representation of his thought.


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