A Text Message
A subtle chain of countless rings,
The next unto the farthest brings;
The eye sees omens where it goes.
And speaks all languages the rose;
And striving to be man the worm
Mounts through all the spires of form.
This verse is the introduction to the Introduction of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature, Emerson’s first major publication, introducing himself to the world beyond Boston. An introduction to an introduction to an introduction; a subtle chain of rings.
A reader makes choices every step she or he takes. Do we scurry through this little verse and hurry on to the text itself? Or do we linger awhile, poke around with the verse until it tells us more of what it might wish to tell? The choice is ours. I’m going to linger. Might you linger with me too?
It seems a shame Henry David Thoreau and John Muir never met. A meeting was certainly unlikely. In 1862 the twenty-four year-old Muir was wrapping up a couple years as a student at the University of Wisconsin when Thoreau died, age forty-four, of tuberculosis. A year earlier Thoreau had gone to Minnesota in hopes the climate there would mollify his illness. Did he travel through Madison on his way to Minnesota, on his way home from Minnesota? If only somehow their paths had crossed! Probability prevailed and the paths failed to cross.
Nine years later, in 1871, Muir had found his way to the Yosemite Valley. “I was then living in Yosemite Valley as a convenient and grand vestibule of the Sierra from which I could make excursions into the adjacent mountains. I had not much money and was then running a mill that I had built to saw fallen timber for cottages.” That May an aging Ralph Waldo Emerson arrived in the valley. Emerson was sixty-eight years old. He had just completed the last lecture series he was ever to present, “The Natural HIstory of Intellect”, initially at Harvard in 1870, repeated again at Harvard in 1872. When he finished the second year’s series, he was exhausted. Worse yet, his own intellect was beginning to fail, especially his memory. Friends and family hoped a trip west would do him some good.
“I heard the hotel people saying with solemn emphasis, ‘Emerson is here.’ I was excited as I had never been excited before, and my heart throbbed as if an angel direct from heaven had alighted on the Sierran rocks,” but, just as Schubert never mustered the resolve to present himself to his idol Beethoven, Muir stayed on the fringes of Emerson’s goings and doings in the valley, admiring from some distance, until Muir heard word that Emerson was soon to depart the valley. “But so great was my awe and reverence, I did not dare to go to him or speak to him. I hovered on the outside of the crowd of people that were pressing forward to be introduced to him and shaking hands with him. Then I heard that in three or four days he was going away, and in the course of sheer desperation I wrote him a note and carried it to his hotel telling him that El Capitain and Tissiack demanded him to stay longer.”
The note intrigued Emerson, who asked where he could find its author. The next day Emerson appeared at the doorstep of Muir’s sawmill. Muir invited Emerson into a woodsman’s study, overhanging a stream, accessible only by “a hen ladder”, showed Emerson his plant collection and his sketches of the mountains. Emerson asked “many questions, pumping unconscionably.” The remainder of his valley visit Emerson visited Muir daily.
When the time arrived for Emerson to leave Yosemite, Muir was invited to ride out with Emerson’s party as far as the Mariposa Grove of Sequoia trees. “I said, ‘I’ll go, Mr. Emerson, if you will promise to camp with me in the Grove. I’ll build a glorious campfire, and the great brown boles of the giant Sequoias will be most impressively lighted up, and the night will be glorious.’ At this he became enthusiastic like a boy, his sweet perennial smile became still deeper and sweeter, and he said, ‘Yes, yes, we will camp out, camp out;’ and so next day we left Yosemite and rode twenty five mile through the Sierra forests, the noblest on the face of the earth, and he kept me talking all the time, but said little himself. The colossal silver firs, Douglas spruce, Libocedrus and sugar pine, the kings and priests of the conifers of the earth, filled him with awe and delight.” Instead of continuing that day to the grove, the party pulled up at a way-station hotel. Emerson’s travel-mates, who included one of his daughters and her husband, refused to let him camp out, afraid that the night air would catch him a cold or worse. Muir implored, argued that colds were caught in hotels, not in the woods. He urged them “to come on and make an immortal Emerson night of it. But the house habit was not to be overcome, nor the strange dread of pure night air, though it is only cooled day air with a little dew in it. So the carpet dust and unknowable reeks were preferred. And to think of this being a Boston choice. Sad commentary on culture and the glorious transcendentalism.”
The next day the party rode up into the Mariposa Grove, “and stayed an hour or two, mostly in ordinary tourist fashion, –looking at the biggest giants, measuring them with a tape line, riding through prostrate fire-bored trunks, etc., though Mr. Emerson was alone occasionally, sauntering about as if under a spell. As we walked through a fine group, he quoted, ‘There were giants in those days.’” “The poor bit of measured time was soon spent, and while the saddles were being adjusted I again urged Emerson to stay. ‘You are yourself a Sequoia,’ I said. ‘Stop and get acquainted with your big brethren.’ But he was past his prime, and was now a child in the hands of his affectionate but sadly civilized friends, who seemed as full of old-fashioned conformity as of bold intellectual independence. It was the afternoon of the day and the afternoon of his life, and his course was now westward down all the mountains into the sunset. The party mounted and rode away in wondrous contentment apparently, tracing the trail through ceanothus and dogwood bushes, around the bases of the big trees, up the slope of the sequoia basin, and over the divide. I followed to the edge of the grove. Emerson lingered in the rear of the train, and when he reached the top of the ridge, after all the rest of the party were over and out of sight, he turned his horse, took off his hat and waved me a last good-bye. I felt lonely, so sure had I been that Emerson of all men would be the quickest to see the mountains and sing them. Gazing awhile on the spot where he vanished, I sauntered back into the heart of the grove, made a bed of sequoia plumes and ferns by the side of the stream, gathered a store of firewood, and then walked about until sundown. The birds, robins, thrushes, warblers, etc., that had kept out of sight, came about me, now that all was quiet, and made cheer. After sundown I built a great fire, and as usual had it all to myself. And though lonesome for the first time in these forests, I quickly took heart again–the trees had not gone to Boston, nor the birds; and as I sat by the fire, Emerson was still with me in spiry, though I never again saw him in the flesh. But there remained many a forest to wander through, many a mountain and glacier to cross, before I was to see his Wachusett and Monadnock, Boston and Concord. It was seventeen years after our parting on the Wawona ridge that I stood beside his grave under a pine tree on the hill above Sleepy Hollow. He had gone to higher Sierras, and, as I fancied, was again waving his hand in friendly recognition.” (http://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/ writings/people/emerson.aspx)
Emerson’s friendship with Thoreau was often difficult but always deep. Thoreau was “the man [Emerson] would always remember as his best friend, even when his memory loss was so far advanced that he could not pull up the name.” (Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson, The Mind on Fire, p. 548) The depth of this friendship lends heft to a statement Emerson is reported to have made about Muir: “He is more wonderful than Thoreau.” (John Swett, The Century Magazine, volume 46 [new series 24], issue 1, pp. 120 – 123, found at http://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/life/john_muir_by_john_ swett/default.aspx)
In 1862, the year of Thoreau’s death, Muir, still a student at the University of Wisconsin, first encountered the writings of both Emerson and Thoreau. The same year but an ocean away the young Friedrich Nietzsche, at the start of a short career as a professor of philology at the University of Basel, also made his first encounter with the work of Emerson. A subtle chain of countless rings.
So, let’s linger yet with this little verse. The choice, still, is yours. You may, if you wish or if you must, at any moment ride off up over the next ridge, waving your hat good-bye as you pass out of sight, leaving me alone in my little grove of verse, where I wish to light a fire in the night. I could never hope to be able to light as glorious a fire as Muir, Emerson, Thoreau or Nietzsche lit time and time again, which is why I’ll borrow so often from their fires, all still burning. And Muir is right, it does make the night glorious.
A subtle chain of countless rings,
We said we would linger with this verse instead of rushing to the text. The verse itself though pegs us pronto in the midst of text; it is a message about text, a text message. The initial word ‘subtle’ as well as this entire first line is about text. Subtle’ entered into 14th Century English from the French “sotil, ‘penetrating; ingenious; refined’ (of the mind); ‘sophisticated, intricate, abstruse’ (of arguments), from Old French sotil, soutil, subtil ‘adept, adroit; cunning, wise; detailed; well-crafted’ (12c., Modern French subtil), from Latin subtilis ‘fine, thin, delicate, finely woven;’ figuratively ‘precise, exact, accurate,’ in taste or judgement, ‘fine, keen,’ of style, ‘plain, simple, direct,’ from sub ‘under’ + tilis, from tela “web, net, warp of a fabric,’ from [Proto-Indo-European] root *teks- ‘to weave,’ also ‘to fabricate.’ According to Watkins, the notion is of the ‘thread passing under the warp’ as the finest thread.” (etymonline.com)
Emerson would specially point out the Latin sense of finely woven, but also keen and direct. His entire adult life he urgently sought direct experience (of self, of others, of things, of nature, of beauty, of love, of his god). A mystic’s experience is (perhaps!?) direct but, short of a mystical experience, the closest we can come to a direct experience is via a subtle chain, this finely woven chain.
Word roots almost always bring us back toward original human experience, historical and otherwise. In human groups dependent upon fishing or hunting the net and the weaving of nets (and baskets) played an essential role . An example of this is found in the American Indian veneration of Spider Woman. The Hopi tell us that Spider Grandmother created humans from clay and then led us to this earth. (http://www.native-languages.org/spider-grandmother.htm) The Cherokee teach that Spider Grandmother spun a web stretching from this dark side of the world all the way to the other, lighted side of the world, stole a piece of the sun lighting that side, hid it in a clay pot, and hurried back over her web to this side of the world, bringing us the sun’s light and its fire. (http://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/GrandmotherSpiderSteals TheSun- Cherokee.html) “The Ojibwe associated spider webs with their dream catchers, a type of traditional hand-woven Ojibwe craft meant to filter out bad dreams which has become popular among many different tribes today. And to many Native Americans, it still is considered bad luck to kill a spider today.” (http://www.native-languages.org/ legends-spider.htm)
The Greeks had their three Moirai sisters, the Romans the three Parcae sisters, the Germans and Norse their three Norn sisters, all of them associated with spinning the thread of life, weaving it, cutting it, thereby apportioning fate to all men and women and even many of the gods. Shakespeare’s three weird sisters are degraded reiterations of the same notion. The English word ‘weird’ is “c. 1400, ‘having power to control fate, from wierd (n.), from Old English wyrd ‘fate, chance, fortune; destiny; the Fates,’ literally ‘that which comes,’ from Proto-Germanic ‘wurthiz (source also of Old Saxon wurd, Old High German wurt ‘fate,’ Old Norse urðr ‘fate, one of the three Norns’), from PIE *wert-’to turn, to wind,’ (source also of German werden, Old English weorðan ‘to become’), from root *wer– (2) ‘to turn, bend.’ For sense development from ‘turning’ to ‘becoming,’ compare phrase turn into ‘become.” (etymonline.com)
To turn and bend, as is done while spinning and weaving. One of the books Nietzsche dashed off in the frenzy of his final year of sanity he titled Ecce Homo, Wie Man Wird Was Man Ist. Add the letter ‘e’ to the word ‘wird’ and you have ‘weird’. The English translation is Ecce Homo, How One Becomes What One Is. Nature was Emerson’s first major publication. His final major publication, The Conduct of Life, is a collection of essays, including one called ‘Fate’. The Conduct of Life was published two years before Thoreau’s death. It was one of Nietzsche’s favorite books. “‘Fate’ is Emerson’s last full exploration of the meaning of nature and of its processes,” wrote Robert D. Richardson, Jr. in his great book Emerson, The Mind on Fire (page 500).
The Hopi Spider Grandmother created humans from clay. The Cherokee Spider Grandmother contained a flaming piece of the sun in a clay pot. When Emerson thought about the mind being on fire, the source of that fire is the burning soul, a little piece of the sun encased in the clay of our flesh and bones. Had Emerson’s Yosemite contingent allowed him to spend a night with Muir at the feet of the greatest trees in the world, Muir’s “glorious campfire” impressively lighting up “the great brown boles” of those trees, Muir knew for certain that it would have been a “glorious” night, with campfire talk turning, we can be certain, to the fire within.
I am about to make a very Emersonian statement. If, when we talk about the Hopi and the Cherokee, the Greeks and Romans and Norse, Emerson and Thoreau and Muir and Nietzsche, if we then are talking about people and things and thoughts and ideas that were, then our talk is merely chatter. If, though, when talking about these people, things, thoughts and ideas, we are talking about what is, then our minds are at least a little bit on fire.
Not that we need worry, because, the further back we go into the so-called past, the more present things turn out to be. When we go back as far as philology takes us, back to the Proto-Indo-European, we find the word root “*teks- to weave, also to fabricate. Numerous words have grown from this root: texture, text, textile, architect, tectonic, and so on. The Ancient Greek word for art (the art of making a clay pot, or weaving a basket, or making a shoe, or baking bread, or building a home, but also the art of painting that clay pot, or painting frescae on the walls of that home, or writing and playing music in that home, or building a temple, or chiseling a sculpture to place into the temple, or writing a poem or drama to be declaimed in dedication to the god of that temple) was techne. This word techne is clearly rooted in the Indo-European *teks-. We today do not (except in modern Greece) still use the word techne to mean art, art of any kind, but we very much continue to use the word in the form of technology. The technology of artificial (artificial!) intelligence dominates the lives of almost everyone on our planet today and it seems this domination will only expand, increase and intensify, leading us to who-knows-where and who-knows-what. This technology promises paradise while it threatens hell, often in tandem. We hope and believe we can harness technology so it will carry us to paradise, but then we also fear that technology will harness us instead and carry us into the dens of hell.
And what is a centerpiece of this technology? The world-wide-web! Have the Norns and the Moirai and the Parcae and Spider Grandmother all conspired to weave this world-wide-web and cast it over us all, as these Fates would have it? Who the hell was that Indo-European fellow who thought up the word *teks-, and what the hell was he thinking?
We have lingered so long with the single word ‘subtle’ and it is time to move on, but not before one more note. Ours is a time of technology. It is also, and in conjunction with technology, a time for business, big business, small business, every sort and fashion of business. Business dominates modern life every bit as much as does technology. Everyone is so busy in this busy-ness world of ours. 24/7, as the saying goes. And what is the goal, intent and purpose of all this busy-ness? Net-profit. We cast our nets and, we hope, pull in the dollars.
Throughout human history, up to and beyond our present day, many there have been, are and will be who weave their nets of lies. Has anyone woven, will anyone weave a net of truths? Emerson, with his subtle chain of countless rings, wished, hoped, desired and believed he was casting his net to catch truths and truth.
Since any progress is progress, we are making progress. Our pace is anything but allegro, not even andante, more an adagio, more like Mahler’s marking of the second movement of his 4th Symphony: “In gemächlicher Bewegung, ohne Hast,” moving at a leisurely pace, without haste, unhurried, unrushed, not busy.
What is subtle? A chain is subtle. This chain is “fine, thin, delicate, finely woven,” so unlike, it would seem, the chains we use to anchor ships, secure buildings, immobilize prisoners or slaves. It would be a mistake, though, to believe that a finely woven chain lacks binding strength. Floss can bind more surely than rope. The word ‘chain’ also came to English from Latin, via French. The Latin word “catena ‘chain’…is of unknown origin, perhaps from PIE root *kat- ‘to twist, twine’ (source also of Latin cassis ‘hunting net, snare’).” (etymonline.com) If so, we remain in the realm of the hunters and fishers, the realm of ensnarers and ensnared. A subtle chain can be a subtle snare, which gives us good reason to move without haste.
But clearly Emerson sees this subtle chain as an opportunity rather than a danger. It is “a subtle chain of countless rings” and “the next unto the farthest brings.” The rings are countless but not infinite, since there is a farthest ring, an endpoint to the chain of rings. Two endpoints, actually, the next and the farthest. Are, then, the rings countless in the sense that there are simply too many of them, though of finite number, to be able to count? That kind of countlessness, though, would be due to a human shortcoming, an attribute of the counter and not the counted, and Emerson here attributes the countlessness to the rings themselves. If the rings are countless, they are countless in some other sense. They are impervious to any attempt to count them, will not be brought to account, will not be accounted for. They refuse to be inscribed into any accountant’s ledger.
Late in Emerson, The Mind on Fire, Robert Richardson brilliantly produces a one-page summation of what was the foundation of Emerson’s thought over the entire span of his intellectual life. “For Emerson now as for Plato earlier, ideas are perceptions. They are the realities of which sense impressions are the shadows. At the center of Emerson’s life and work is a core of these perceptions, bound together. They are not arguments or hypotheses. They are certainly not elements of a system, but neither are they opinions. When the storms of illusion clear, in the moments at the top of the mountain, these are the perceptions that Emerson retains”. (Richardson, Emerson, The Mind on Fire, page 538)
Richardson then proceeds to list these (ten) perceptions. While I will right now focus on only one of these ten, because Richardson presents them as “bound together” and because I expect to refer to this list again before I am done with this leisurely walk, which already threatens to turn into a largo, I will here quote Richardson on all ten.
“The days are gods. That is, everything is divine.”
“Creation is continuous. There is no other world; this one is all there is.”
“Every day is the day of judgement.”
“The purpose of life is individual self-cultivation, self-expression, and fulfillment.”
“Poetry liberates. Thought is also free.”
“The powers of the soul are commensurate with its needs; each new day challenges us with its adequacy and our own.”
“Fundamental perceptions are intuitive and inarguable; all important truths, whether of physics or ethics, must at last be self-evident.”
“Nothing great is ever achieved without enthusiasm.”
“Life is an ecstasy; Thoreau has it right when he says, ‘Surely joy is the condition of life.’”
“Criticism and commentary, if they are not in the service of enthusiasm and ecstasy, are idle at best, destructive at worst. Your work, as Ruskin says, should be the praise of what you love.”
The perception I want to focus on here is: “Fundamental perceptions are intuitive and inarguable; all important truths, whether of physics or ethics, must at last be self-evident.” When we see the subtle chain of countless rings, what we see is self-evident. Each ring of the chain, whether small or large, whether near or far is a truth small or large, near or far. Richardson says that all important truths must be self-evident. I believe both Richardson and Emerson would agree with me when I say that any truth is an important truth, any truth small or large, near or far. I perceive right now that I am thirsty, or that I have a headache or that I just said something to the person I love which was not adequate to that love. These, in the grand scheme of things, are small truths, little truths, everyday near-at-hand truths. They can be found on the “next” end of the subtle chain of rings. But, as the saying goes, no chain is stronger than its weakest link. In other words, every ring in the subtle chain, whether next or farthest, is important. And all important truths are, for they must be, self-evident. If we permit any perception to be fundamental, it shows itself to be an important truth.
And (important) truths are self-evident. Does this sound abstruse? It’s not. Two plus two equals four. This is self-evident. Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man took umbrage with this, saying: “I agree that two and two make four is an excellent thing: but to give everything its dues, two plus two make five is also a very fine thing.” (Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Complete Works, Kindle edition, e-artworks) It is self-evident that two plus two does not make five. It is also self-evident that, were two plus two somehow to equal five, two plus two could not equal four. Only one of these algorithms can be “an excellent thing.” Similarly, my thirst or my headache are self-evident. The cause of my thirst or the solution to my headache might not be immediately self-evident, but once I truly perceive the cause and the solution, they too are at that point self-evident. The inadequacy of what I said to the person I love all too often alludes self-evidence but only if and when, all too often, I refuse to accept (perception is acceptance) the evidence.
Each ring is a self-evident truth. The only form of argument each such ring permits is the argument of self-evidence, the word argument still drinking directly from the Indo-European root “*arg- ‘to shine; white’.” (etymonline.org) This PIE root is why the element silver is designated by the symbol ‘Ag’ on the Periodic Table of Elements, stemming from the Latin (argentum) and the Greek (argos), white and shining. Shining in their self-evidence, these rings cannot be drawn into the less rooted form of argument, demonstrative argument, which is the form of argument used in pursuit of the accountant’s craft. They cannot be counted. They will not be counted. There is no accounting for them, no way to draw them into either an account ledger or to recount them in a story or narrative. They simply are. They simply shine, plain enough for any of us to see, if we set aside the accountant’s ways and teach ourselves to intuit.
With this, we have thought through the span of the first line of Emerson’s verse: “A subtle chain of countless rings”. We did not spend any time or effort looking at the word ‘ring’ but we do not really need to do so. The idea of ‘ring’ and the interlocking of rings to form a chain is pretty much self-evident. Again visiting etymology suffices: “‘circular band,’ Old English hring ‘small circlet, especially one of metal for wearing on the finger or as part of a mail coat; anything circular,’ from Proto-Germanic *hringaz ‘something curved, circle’ (source also of Old Norse hringr, Old Frisian hring, Danish, Swedish, Dutch ring, Old High German hring, German Ring), from nasalized form of PIE root *sker- (2) “to turn, bend.’” (etymonline.com)
The *teks- in ‘subtle’ means to weave, to warp. If ‘chain’ stems from *kat-, it means to twist, to twine. And the *sker- root of ‘ring’ means to turn and bend. Every word in this first line of the verse means the same thing, is the same thing. They, together, are one, a much subtler version of Gertrude Stein’s “a rose is a rose is a rose.”
Robert Richardson writes about Emerson’s engagement in the year 1841 with the ideas of Plotinus, including “Plotinus’s conception of the final stage in the developing self-consciousness of the individual soul. This last stage is a mystical union of the self with the One ‘in an ecstasy [now quoting Emerson] characterized by the absence of all duality. In thought of God or about God the Subject is separated from the Object, but in ecstatic union there is no such separation.’ Such moments of ecstatic union are rare, brief, and overpoweringly intense, leading us to a [again quoting Emerson] ‘life beyond earthly pleasures.’ Such union is also the supreme experience, as Plotinus famously put it and as Emerson copied it out in April , ‘a flight of the alone to the alone.’” (Richardson, Emerson, The Mind on Fire, page 348)
This passage strongly hints at what Emerson thought to find at the “farthest” end of the subtle chain of countless rings. We will go there soon enough. For now, let’s focus on how ‘subtle’, ‘chain’ and ‘ring’ could all be one and the same, rose and rose and rose. Emerson in this passage tells us that when we think and talk about or of God, we are trapped (snared) in subjectivity and God is objectified, so that each is accounted for while never the twain may meet. But in moments of ecstasy (remember above one of Emerson’s ‘perceptions’ that all life is ecstasy), the duality, the separation, falls away and all is One.
A year before this, Emerson wrote (now again from Richardson, pages 339-340) “the great essay ‘Circles,’ perhaps his best expression of the endlessly open and unfixed nature of things. ‘Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn: that there is no end in nature, that every end is a beginning, that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.’ ‘Circles’ denigrates the permanent, the final, the fixed. It praises ‘life, transition, the energizing spirit.’ Nothing is truly permanent. Thus there can be ‘no sleep, no pause, no preservation, but all things renew, germinate, and spring.’ The essay itself spins outward in sweeping centrifugal circles of excitement and acceptance. The central energizing spirit he now praised was a wild spirit. The end of the essay emphasizes this passion as though mirroring Emerson’s inner life at this time: ‘Dream and drunkenness, the use of opium and alcohol are the semblance and counterfeit of the oracular genius.’ These things therefore attract us and we ‘ask the aid of wild passions, as in gaming and war, to ape in some manner these flames and generosities of the heart.’ ‘Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful. It is by abandonment.’”
“Circles” was published in 1841, one essay in a collection of essays entitled Essays, five years after the publication of “Nature” and Emerson’s first major publication after “Nature”. Essays was the first book of Emerson’s to catch the young Nietzsche’s interest and attention and ‘Circles’ was the essay which caught most of the attention. Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music, is about the Dionysian origin and essence of Greek tragedy. When in ‘Circles’ Emerson writes about life as transition and about the impermanence renewal, germination and spring, without pause or preservation, he’s describing the “wild spirit” which Dionysus embodied for the Greeks and for Nietzsche. Emerson’s dream and drunkenness and the wild passions of gaming and war, his enthusiasm and abandonment are all Dionysian. And as Nietzsche the thinker matured, the influence of “Circles” on Nietzsche grew deeper, Nietzsche’s idea of the Eternal Return of the Same, which he saw as the ultimate consequence of the Dionysian, is anticipated in Emerson’s “every end is a beginning”, and Nietzsche’s claim that the fullest response to the recognition of the Eternal Return of the Same is amor fati, love of fate, rejection of any and all regret, is anticipated as well in Emerson’s “excitement and acceptance”.
Rings are circles. Circles are rings.
Ecstasy is misunderstood when it is overdramatized. Emerson and Nietzsche knew this even if their readers almost never do. While the “wild spirit” certainly informed the intensely dramatic plays performed at the Athenian Dionysia, informed the bacchanalia of Greece and Rome, even most Greeks and most Romans failed to understand this wild spirit, failed to understand this spirit thrives in stillness and composure, not noise and commotion. All effectively deliberate efforts to reach a state of ecstasy do so by taking steps to establish stillness and composure in hopes that an ecstatic experience will ensue. The efforts which do otherwise, whether it be Emerson’s inventory of dream and drunkenness, gaming and war and abandonment or it be simply popping an ecstasy pill, might produce ecstasy if ecstasy is understood as mere distraction but do not produce ecstasy in the fullness of its original Greek sense.
Etymonline.com presents the word this way: “late 14c., extasie ‘elation,’ from Old French estaise ‘ecstasy, rapture’ from Late Latin extasis, from Greek ekstasis ‘entrancement, astonishment, insanity; any displacement or removal from the proper place, in New Testament ‘a trance,’ from existanai ‘displace, put out of place,’ also ‘drive out of one’s mind’ (existanai phrenon), from ek ‘out’ (see ex-) + histanai ‘to place, cause to stand,’ from PIE root sta- ‘to stand, make or be firm.’
Most of the meanings of ecstasy described here are degradations, beginning already with the Greeks, of the actual, original word, which in Greek is “to displace, put out of place” causing to stand “out” in a place other than one’s “proper” place. The Proto-Indo-European turns the point one more turn by telling us that this displacement from the “proper” place sets us firmly upon a place upon which we can firmly stand, fully contrary to the infirmity of drunkenness and insanity. The degraded meanings understand ecstasy as distraction (“from Latin distractus, past participle of distrahere ‘draw in different directions,’ from dis- ‘away’ + trahere ‘to draw’”). (etymonline.com) rather than as displacement. Distraction pulls in different directions so in no particular direction. End result is dis-location, disorientation. Displacement, on the other hand, never dislocates. It causes to stand in a place, a location, other than one’s “proper” place (“from Latin propius ‘one’s own, particular to itself,’ from pro privo “for the individual, in particular,’ from ablative of privus ‘one’s own, individual’”–etymonline.com). Displacement presents us the world. Heidegger’s perhaps overly dramatic word for this is Geworfenheit, thrownness.
In 1841 Emerson wrote in his journal: “My faith is some brief affecting experience which surprised me on the highway or in the market place — in some place at some time whether in the body or out of the body, I cannot tell, God knoweth, and made me aware that I had played the fool with fools all the time, but that there was for me and for all, law, and ineffable sweetness of child-like carriage — and I should never be fool more. In the space of an hour probably I was let down from this height, I was at my old tricks, the selfish member of a selfish society.” (Richardson, Emerson, The Mind on Fire, Kindle edition, location 6986)
Another journal entry from June of that same year depicts one such experience. Thoreau and Emerson set out in a rowboat on the Concord River just as the sun was setting. They floated westward, Thoreau up front but facing toward the back, rowing, Emerson sitting in the stern, looking forward, westward at and beyond Thoreau. Emerson wrote in his journal, “Take care, good friend! I said as I looked west into the sunset overhead and underneath, and he with his face toward me rowed toward it — take care; you know not what you do, dipping your wooden oar into this enchanted liquid, painted with all reds and purples and yellows which glow under and behind you.” A starry, starry night sky soon displaced the sunset colors. “A holiday, a villegiatura, a royal revel, the proudest, the most magnificent, most heart-rejoicing festival that valor and beauty, power and poetry ever decked and enjoyed — it is here, it is this. These stars signify it and proffer it: they gave the idea and the invitation, not kings, not palaces, not men, not women, but these tender, poetic, clear, and auspicious stars, so eloquent of secret promises . . . All experience is against them, yet their word is hope.” (Richardson, Emerson, The Mind on Fire, Kindle location 6996)
In the first journal entry Emerson said “whether in the body or out of the body, I cannot tell.” But whether the experience is in the body or out of the body is immaterial (pun intended). What does matter, completely and fully matter, is what he said in the second journal entry: “it is here, it is this.” He is displaced but completely located.
Thoreau is quick to correct me. It does matter whether the experience is in-body or out-of-body. His essay Walking is the source for the quote known round the world, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” In Walking he also says the following. “When we walk, we naturally go to the fields and woods: what would become of us, if we walked only in a garden or a mall? Even some sects of philosophers have felt the necessity of importing the woods to themselves, since they did not go to the woods. ‘They planted groves and walks of Platanes,’ where they took subdiales ambulationes in porticos open to the air. Of course it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods, if they do not carry us thither. I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is, — I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?” (The Complete Works of Henry David Thoreau, Delphi Classics, Kindle Edition, location 23651)
If we walk into the woods bodily but not in spirit, if we cannot “shake off the village,” we are distracted, out of our senses, foolishly at our old tricks, the selfish (properly private) members of a selfish (properly private) society. Ecstatic displacement is a “return to my senses,” and requires that body and spirit be in the same place,
A couple musicians, both violin players, Gidon Kremer and Patricia Kopatchinskaya, help us understand this. Both played during the Berlin Philharmonic’s 2016/17 season. She played Györgi Ligeti’s Violin Concerto, he played Sofia Gubaidulina’s In tempus praesens, concerto for violin and orchestra. The Berlin Philharmonic generously broadcasts and archives each season’s concerts, so these two performances are available, for a fee, to anyone. Most concert broadcasts are accompanied by an interview. Both Kremer and Kopatschinskaya were interviewed in conjunction with their performances and the interviews are also available, at no cost, to anyone.
Kopatchinskaya was asked what the day of a performance is like for a soloist, does she just try to relax with food and maybe a walk, or does she concentrate all day on the piece about to be played. She says it is like living in two parallel worlds, that she does both at the same time. Then she says: “Yet the concerto is something like an illness in me. It gnaws at me. I ask myself, can I manage this passage, or that one? Someone once told me to savour every given moment. I’m terribly nervous before a concert. I think of the past: I didn’t practice enough. And the future: I’ll never manage that. And all the while I’m eating a banana. I have to be able to relax and remember, that every moment in the concert counts.” (https://www. digitalconcerthall.com/en/interview/23476-4)
Kremer says of the piece he is about to play, “I find the title of the work so appealing and convincing because it allows me to do precisely what I always aspire to do onstage: to exist in the present, “in tempus preasens.” To savour every moment and to listen with my inner ear, not just to play the work but to listen to the notes, and not just the notes but also the silence.” (https://www.digitalconcerthall.com/en/interview/23465-3)
Both musicians strive, as musicians, to savor every moment (they use the same words!), to find the place outside of the past, outside of the future, to exist in the present, the moment. Kopatchinskaya frets about the past, about the future, while almost forgetting she’s eating a banana, too distracted to savor the banana, eating the banana bodily but not in spirit. The only thing preventing the eating of a banana from being an ecstatic experience, a ring on the subtle chain of rings, is foolish selfishness clinging to propriety.
Let’s listen to one more witness to ecstatic coming-to-one’s-senses. Thoreau begins Walking with this statement: “I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks, — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering: which word is beautifully derived ‘from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretence of going à la Sainte Terre’ to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, ‘There goes a Sainte-Terrer,’ a Saunterer, — a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds [distracted, not displaced]; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home [displaced from the property, the proper, private ownership], which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all [the most distracted, the most out of one’s senses]; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea. But I prefer the first, which, indeed, is the most probable derivation. For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels.”
Thoreau continues with a new paragraph: “It is true, we are but faint-hearted crusaders, even the walkers, nowadays, who undertake no persevering, never-ending enterprises. Our expeditions are but tours, and come round again at evening to the old hearth-side from which we set out. Half the walk is but retracing our steps. We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, — prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again, — if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.” (The Complete Works of Henry David Thoreau, Delphi Classics, Kindle Edition, location 23583, 23593))
A man named Meredith J. Eberhart, whose walking nom de guerre is Nimblewill Nomad, is a Saunterer. At age sixty-one he left family and friends and settled all his affairs, then set off on a never-ending walk, from Florida up the Appalachian Trail and onward to the tip of Gaspé, then from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail and again on the Continental Divide Trail, then east to west on the North Country Trail, then completing every trail on the National Scenic Trails System. By the age of seventy-five, he had walked over 34,000 miles. And he continues to walk, now from the Continental Divide Trail in New Mexico eastward back to Florida. Writer Robert Moor shared three days with him walking in Texas and then wrote about it in the newspaper The Guardian.
Eberhart told Moor he set out on (in Eberhart’s words) “a desperate search for peace.” During the first nine months walking “he had experienced a slow religious awakening, but [late season in Canada] his faith was shaken as he passed through those grim, freezing mountains. ‘Dear Lord, why have you forsaken me?’ he asked upon seeing the weather darken one day at the base of Mont Jacques Cartier. However, a lucky break in the storm allowed him to reach the snowy mountaintop, where he sat in the sun, feeling ‘the warm presence of a forgiving God’.” He spent that winter wandering the Florida Keys, where “he settled into ‘a mood of total and absolute, perfect contentment, most near nirvana.’” Eberhart learned to carry almost nothing while walking. “Shaving down one’s pack weight, he said, was a process of sloughing off one’s fears. Each object a person carries represents a particular fear: of injury, of discomfort, of boredom, of attack. The ‘last vestige’ of fear that even the most minimalist hikers have trouble shedding, he said, was starvation. As a result, most people ended up carrying ‘way the hell too much food’. He did not even carry so much as an emergency candy bar.” Eberhart let Moor examine everything in Eberhart’s small knapsack, Moor writing “a strong wind could had taken most of his earthly possessions away.” “‘I tell my friends: every year I’ve got less and less, and every year I’m a happier man. I just wonder what it’s going to be like when I don’t have anything.’” “But what he gained was the freedom to walk full time, which felt to him like freedom itself. ‘As if with each step,’ he wrote, ‘these burdens were slowly but surely being drained from my body, down to the treadway beneath my feet and onto the path behind me.’” “The next night, we slept in a copse of gnarled oaks beside a graveyard, a shady grove carpeted with slender, rippling leaves. It was strangely lovely. Eberhart found them everywhere, these forgotten little shards of wilderness. The problem, he said, was that hikers tended to divide their lives into compartments: wilderness over here, civilization over there. ‘The walls that exist between each of these compartments are not there naturally,’ he said. ‘We create them. The guy that has to stand there and look at Mount Olympus to find peace and quiet and solitude and meaning – life has escaped him totally!”’ (https://www.theguardian.com/ world/2017/jul/03/hiking-walking- nimblewill-nomad- mj-eberhart)
We will forgive Mr. Eberhart his notion, atop Mont Jacques Cartier, that he felt the warm presence of a forgiving God. After over 4,000 miles of walking, the man had earned the right to such a notion, although it falls short of letting the truth of that moment be fully self-evident. When we mistakenly believe one of the rings in the chain of rings is the ultimate ring, we fail to let that ring be what it is. When we mistakenly believe that there is an ultimate ring at all, we fail to let any of the rings be what they are. This always happens, we never quite shake off the village and villagers’ ways. The “ineffable sweetness” Emerson cites (“‘beyond expression, too great for words, inexpressible,’ from Old French ineffable [14c.] or directly from Latin ineffabilis ‘unutterable,’ from in- ‘not, opposite of’ + effabilis ‘speakable,’ from effari ‘utter,’ from assimilated form of ex ‘out’ + fari ‘to say, speak,’ from PIE root bha-(2) ‘to speak, tell, say.’” (etymonline.org) withdraws as soon as we talk about it, as soon as we tell about it, as soon as we recount it. No doubt whatsoever, Mr. Eberhart had a moment of ineffable sweetness and in tempus praesens on that snowy mountaintop. But, as we always do, he put words to that moment. His words “warm presence” are good ones, very good ones. It was a warm presence. Attributing this warm presence to a god is very much good enough too, there was something god-like in that warm presence. But then to say this god is a forgiving god is to begin to chatter like a villager, to tell stories about that god, to draw that god into an account, to objectify and subjectify. As stated, Mr. Eberhart fully earned the right to do this, to chatter. He had walked alone thousands of miles and must have been intensely lonely, feeling forsaken, as he himself put it. He needed someone to talk to, something to talk about. The problem is, as soon as he talked, the presence withdrew and he could no longer talk to it, only about it. I hope and expect he didn’t talk too soon, that before beginning to chatter he savored many given moments, looked with his inner eye, listened with his inner ear to all the notes and all the silences. He earned the chance to do that!
And we do very well to listen to him about many things he says, but especially about the guy who “has to stand there and look at Mount Olympus to find peace and quiet and solitude and meaning.” How many Mount Olympi did Nimblewill need to look at before he learned that wonderful truth? Kopatchinskaya gives us the same truth when she confesses that her failure to savor her banana the day of her performance boded poorly for her ability to savor every moment in Ligeti’s concerto. Eating a banana is one of those small truths, little truths, everyday near-at-hand truths, a small ring on a countless chain of rings. But no chain is stronger than its weakest link and each and every truth is important. And as soon as we begin evaluating importance in terms of ‘less so’ and ‘more so’, we turn into accountants, if we aren’t that already.