A Meditation on Emerson’s Nature
Gentlemen, you must excuse me for being over-philosophical; it’s the result of forty years in the underground! Allow me to indulge my fancy.¹
¹(Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground, Part I, Chapter VIII, The Complete Works, e-artnow, 2015, translation unidentified but likely Constance Garnett, Kindle location 82043)
A (Phor)word of Explanation
I am about to set off on a little adventure which could well seem to others both boring and boorish, so I want to explain myself a little bit. Base station for this adventure is a blog which my sister Jill created, recruiting me and my brother Skip to take part as ‘co-authors’, a sibling blog, conceived as sort of a present-day version of scrapbook, stuffed with memories, thoughts, experiences, interests. Jill set a single rule for the blog: that we write anything that moves us. I believe what I am about to write qualifies under that rule. Nothing in the rule requires that anyone reads what we write. No one, for certain, is required to read what I write, especially since I write it primarily and maybe solely for myself. It will be a kind of a journal, left out on a park bench for others to peek into if they wish, or not if they don’t.
What will this journal be about? It seems, from its beginnings, that it will be sort of a meditation on what I am reading these days, which is primarily works of and about Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, with some Nietzsche thrown into the mix. I have read Nietzsche since high school, but somehow until recently had never much read Emerson or Thoreau. Recently I’ve been reading them intently, while re-reading some Nietzsche, at long last beginning to take a look at his journals and notebooks.
Any undertaking requires some focus, especially for someone as unfocused as I am. Accordingly I will try to focus on Emerson’s first major publication, his essay Nature. I propose a meditation on Emerson’s Nature. My model for this is José Ortega y Gasset, whose own first major publication was Meditations on Quixote, in which Ortega thought through Cervantes’ novel while at the same time thinking through so many other things, including core aspects of Ortega’s own budding philosophy. Just as Don Quixote guided Ortega through a world of thoughts, I hope Emerson’s Nature will guide me.
But be forewarned: most everything is fair game. I had a college classmate whose name is César Muňoz. We were both attracted to our college because it is near the woods and trails of the Green and White Mountains of New England. We both were somewhat active in the college’s outing club, which maintained a stretch of the Appalachian Trail and organized regular hiking excursions up into the mountains. One fine day (I can’t remember whether it was late spring or early autumn, but the day was sunny and warm, and the woods were vibrant) César and I took part in a group day-hike up one of the White Mountain summits, maybe ten hikers all told. While almost all of the group hustled up the trail as if the summit might not be up there if they didn’t get to it quickly, I lagged behind. César lagged a little further behind even me. It was usual for me to lag, it was my custom, always has been. Back then I could walk thirty or more miles and still not feel tired at the end the day, but I would need every minute of daylight to do it. At one point someone from the group above, frustrated that César and I were slowing them down, hollered down the trail, “Hey, you guys, what’s taking you so long!?” While I wasn’t sure quite how to respond, I looked back at César, who was crouched over a tiny flowering plant next to the trail, unnoticed by any of us until César stopped and noticed it. Remaining in his crouch, he looked around and up in the direction of the hollered question and said, without a hint of shame but also not boasting, “I need to get better acquainted with my little friends here,” slightly nodding toward the ground. What César Muňoz said on that trail on that day was one of the highlights of my college career.
I’ve already told you that I can be unfocused and I’ve already told you I’m constitutionally a laggard. This Meditation is going to be slow going. I know this already from my first foray into this adventure, looking at a little, six-line verse Emerson sets at the head of Nature. I wanted to give this verse a little bit of attention before moving on to Emerson’s actual text. Several days and fifteen single-spaced font 11 pages later I found myself feeling satisfied that I’d said everything I wanted to say, for then at least, about the first line of this little verse! Only five lines of verse, maybe seventy-five more pages to go and I’d be ready to move on the the text itself! Progress is being made!
Please come along, if you will. Don’t, if you won’t. They say that life is short. I say life is built of choices and I can (and must) choose for myself but for myself alone and have no right to expect anyone to take the time needed to come along, to share in my choices.
Well, progress is in fact being made, hopefully a kind of progress which can claim César Muňoz for inspiration. Ralph Waldo Emerson will be my guide up a path he has chosen. I will follow him at my slow but steady pace, even should Ralph Waldo himself cry out “What’s taking you so long?” If either of us sees a little flower inviting our acquaintance, we will pause and get acquainted. And if any critter large or small beckons us away from the main path, through brush and along faint animal tracks, we will leave the trail and follow. Emerson’s path will always be our focus. We will hope never to lose the trail, go astray. But we will understand the path to be much, much more than the narrow treadway underfoot. If all we do is stay strictly on the trail, we are not truly on the trail and may as well stay home. The trail, you see, is where others want us to walk, not necessarily always where we want to walk.¹
¹(I learned this reading Robert Moor’s On Trails. Robert Moor, On Trails, An Exploration, Simon and Schuster, 2016)
To slow things down even further, I will try my best to cite sources every time I use them, which will be often. I do this for two reasons: to show gratitude to everyone teaching me a thing or two or more, and to show anyone else how s/he can go to a source directly (Emerson, along with Thoreau, with Goethe before them both, strove for direct contact with things, so let’s follow that example). I will make no great effort to be academically correct in my sourcing as long as a citation suffices to give proper thanks and adequate direction. Much of my reading is on Kindle and it is often no easy matter to cite page numbers from e-books.
Sometimes when I quote, I quote in large portions. This seems especially the case when I’m quoting from Robert Moor’s On Trails. Moor tells such wonderful tales so wonderfully that fulsome quotation sometimes seems necessary. Were he ever somehow to notice my extensive borrowings from his book, I’d hope he would understand and accept. Please consider buying and reading his book! Even though it almost seems I’ll end up quoting the whole thing, believe me, there’s lots in that book I won’t be quoting, many, many fun, interesting, thoughtful, provocative and beautifully written pages.
I have opened this adventure with a quote from Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground. I hadn’t read Notes since college, forty years ago. I was accepted into the college of my choice because already in high school I showed a talent for writing. My high school grades were very good but everyone who attended the college of my choice had had very good grades in high school. My college entrance exam test scores were very good but not great. I am certain the reason I was accepted by that college was because the application for that school required a lot of writing and my writing on that application stood out at least a little when compared to others’. I then leaned heavily on my writing to get myself through those four years with a diploma in hand. And then I pretty much went underground, for forty years reading fairly much but doing no real writing, despite urgings from family, friends and others. Well, now I’m coming back out from my underground burrow, intending to write. I beg pardon if during those underground years I have forgotten some of my good manners.
I first read Notes as an assignment for a comparative literature class during Summer Quarter 1974. My college friend and roommate Mike Denning, now an English professor at Yale, read it a term or two ahead of me. One evening we were in our room together, reading. He was reading Notes. At one point he suddenly broke our silence with laughter, then read aloud a passage I will soon quote in full, about two plus two making four being a coxcomb with arms akilter, blocking the way. Mike read this with joy, laughed some more, then continued along his road toward becoming a Yale prof. The next summer was my turn to read Notes. The day we were supposed to have read Notes was also the day we were to turn in our first written assignment, a paper on Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Ever true to my habits, I stayed up all night in order to complete my F & T paper in time for morning class and had it done in time for me to eat a little breakfast before class, but there certainly had been no time to read Notes. Not that I was worried. All I needed to do was keep my head low during class, then use an extended weekend to get the thing read. I confidently went to class, turned in my paper, sat down, ready to learn whatever I could about Notes prior to reading it. The class began with the professor asking an open question about Notes. No one volunteered an answer, so the teacher answered his own question, then asked another. Once again, no one volunteered an answer and the teacher answered again. One more time the man asked a question and one more time no one volunteered an answer so the professor’s next question (turned out to be his last) was whether any one of us had read the assignment. Nobody had; everybody had scrounged up an overnight paper on Kierkegaard and not had time to read Notes. The professor was enraged, told us never, ever to come to class unprepared, then dismissed us, like a king dismissing his court. When I look back on this now, I realize Dostoyevsky would have loved that man’s rage, would probably have incorporated it into a story.
Here’s the deal: we were all nineteen, twenty, twenty-one year-olds having a wonderful time in northern New England, which is so beautiful anytime of the year, including summertime. We took our assignments somewhat seriously, but only somewhat, because we had other important things to do, woods to walk in, games to play, people to meet, beer to drink. Above all, we were busy trying to grow up, right on the cusp of trying to figure out what life is and will be. We weren’t in a hurry to complete any one of these assignments, including the assignment to read Notes. When you are having a great time, you don’t rush it! Once upon a time that professor had been one of us but, it seems, had long since forgotten. Instead, he thought that the most important way for us to use our time was to read quickly through Notes in order to be able to say a couple clever things about it, detached from and devoid of life. Then we could get our degrees and set out on careers and build families and live in little boxes on a hillside, all made of ticky-tacky which all look just the same.¹
¹(Little Boxes, lyrics and music by Malvina Reynolds, popularized by Pete Seeger)
Maybe, just maybe, I am now really ready, after forty years underground, to say a couple things about Notes and Nature and Nietzsche and other things, things which are not merely clever and not devoid of life. Neither to myself nor to you will I promise this. Emerson considered every day a judgement day.¹ Well, then, I’m about to be judged.
¹(Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson, The Mind on Fire, University of California Press, 1995, page 538)
And how will I be judged? Here’s how: either I need to emerge from my underground and write about Emerson’s Nature, in which case a god will smile gladly upon me, or I’m doing this willfully, not really needing to do it, but just wanting to do it, maybe to seek flattery (from myself, from others) or to pretend I’m doing something meaningful, or just to have something to do with my time other than play solitaire. When the pompously pedantic Polonius asks Hamlet what he is reading, Hamlet responds: “Words, words, words.”¹ Unless I am writing because I must, because I need to write, all I am doing is writing words, words, words.
¹(William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act 2, Scene 2)
Jill posted something very special to our blog. It was about and very much from the love of her life, her deceased spouse Bill. He died of a cancer in his mouth. Treatments eventually resulted in his not being able to speak, which is something he did happily and well; truly a huge loss for him. Jill begins the post with: “Bill became a writer at 64. It wasn’t poetry or long-form prose. Not short stories, which he loved to read, nor song lyrics, which he loved to sing. Not essays and certainly not blog posts. Bill wrote notes. Most were practical. Several were reflective. Some were funny. A few were heart-breaking. It wasn’t by choice. It was the only way he could make himself understood to people other than me. As it turned out, I think it also helped him understand. Or at least reckon with what was happening to him.”¹
It wasn’t by choice! He chose, of course, what to write, to whom, when, how. But he didn’t choose to write. And this not by choice made him a great writer. Go look at the blog, see (directly) for yourself.
In Richard Wagner’s version of the mythological Germanic/Norse Nibelung saga, the hero Siegfried wants to kill the giant serpent (Wurm, worm; more on this to follow) named Fafner so that Siegfried can grab the golden ring being hoarded by Fafner. But only he who can wield the sword named Nothung is able to slay Fafner. Siegfried, it turns out, is the one. Nothung comes from the German word Not, need. Only he who truly needs to slay Fafner, can do so. It wasn’t by choice that Siegfried slew Fafner, but by necessity.¹
¹(Richard Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen, Part 3-Siegfried, Act 1, Scenes 1 and 3, Act 2, Scene 2)
So, like Bill, I’m becoming a writer, though I’m not quite (three months yet to go) sixty-four. If it turns out what I write finds real connection to life, I will then gratefully dedicate this to Bill, my exemplar.
Everything hinges on whether I truly need to write this. Men and women, young and old, not so long ago, used to be so frightfully needy. Now many of us get our needs met so easily, so regularly that we hardly really need anything any longer. Entire systems (they tend to be ism’s such as capitalism or socialism, individualism or collectivism, conservatism or liberalism or radicalism, or, or, or … ) have been put into place to keep our needs satisfied, one way or another. Only when a real crisis disrupts our secured lives (cura means care, se-cura free from care, carefree, as in the name of Frederick the Great’s summer palace in Potsdam, called Sanssouci, French for ‘without a care’) do we find ourselves back in a state of need. If and only if I am writing my way out of a crisis, will I live up to Bill’s example. I’m not yet sure I am.
A couple more observations before setting off. You will find me making heavy use of etymology. Heidegger’s way of using etymology to think through philosophical problems infected me a long time ago. When I was learning German, I would turn to the Duden Das Herkunftswörterbuch (Dictionary of Origin/Derivation) as often as to a regular or bi-lingual dictionary. When I lean on etymology to understand or clarify a word, I don’t mean to be saying, as in mathematics, this is that. To the contrary, I hope to use etymology as a way to free a word from hardened meaning or meanings. I’m amazed at the rigor of a good etymologist and I’m astounded that this rigor has enabled etymologists to recreate what they call Proto-Indo-European. A good etymologist, like any scientist, doesn’t like to guess. And when s/he must guess, s/he says so. It’s an amazing science and Heidegger was right to believe an etymologist’s work can help us break through old, encrusted word meanings in order to bring a word to life. My belief in the value of etymology is based on my belief that all words, with only very few exceptions (more on this to come) are in essence metaphors (and more on this to come as well). Interestingly, both Emerson and Thoreau shared Heidegger’s embrace of etymology. Thoreau’s excursions into word origins was sometimes more playful and creative than scientific, but this always served his purpose, which was to break through the old and encrusted and find the sap of life in a word. Please don’t take my etymologizing as a prescription. It’s often my way to think a thought or a line of poetry. Doesn’t mean it’s the only way and if you have your own ways which work better for you, good for you! There are many, many ways to tap the sap of life!
Lastly, I still intend to use (misuse? abuse?) our blog as a platform for my ‘draft manuscript’. I will do this in ten separate, yet very long, postings, this first one for my (Fore)word, combined with my thoughts about the six-line verse Emerson places at the head of his Introduction to Nature, a second posting of my thoughts about the Introduction, then a posting for each one of the eight chapters of Nature. If you wish to come along with me, please bring patience; this is going to take a long while to complete.
Which is all the more reason to get started. Ralph Waldo is getting restless, wants to get underway. Time to strap on the boots!
Part 1 — 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.¹
¹(Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Collected Works The Complete Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature, Introduction, Bybliotech, 2014, Kindle location 728)
This verse is the introduction to the Introduction of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature, Emerson’s first major publication, introducing himself to a world beyond Boston. An introduction to an introduction to an introduction; a subtle chain of rings.
A reader makes choices every step s/he takes. Does s/he scurry through this little verse and hurry on to the text itself? Or does s/he linger awhile, poke around with the verse until it tells 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.¹
¹(Richardson, Emerson, The Mind on Fire, Chapter 98)
“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 his 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.”¹
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.”¹ The depth of this friendship lends heft to a statement Emerson is reported to have made about Muir: “He is more wonderful than Thoreau.”²
¹(Richardson, Emerson, The Mind on Fire, page 548)
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.
Let’s linger yet with this little verse. The choice remains yours and you may at any moment, if you wish or if you must, ride off up over the next ridge, waving your hat good-bye as you pass out of sight, leaving me alone in my grove of verse, where I hope to light a fire in the night. My own fire would never be as glorious as Muir, Emerson, Thoreau or Nietzsche lit time and time again, so I’ll borrow often from their fires, all still burning brightly. 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 places 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,’” which came to French from the “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.”¹
¹(Douglas Harper, Online Etymology Dictionary, 2001-2017, http://www.etymonline.com, entry ‘subtle’)
How can something be finely woven and plain, simple and direct at the same time?
Emerson would highlight the Latin sense of finely woven, but also keen and direct. We will soon see how urgently Emerson wished for himself and others direct experience of self, world and god. Direct experience though always involves a subtle chain, this finely woven chain. There is plenty of paradox here: direct (immediate) experience is mediated.
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, spiders being quintessential weavers. The Hopi tell us that Spider Grandmother created humans from clay and then led us to this earth.¹ 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.² “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.”³
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.”¹
¹(www.etymonline.com, entry ‘weird’)
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 called 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.¹
¹(Richardson, 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 ready 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 can take 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 τέχνε, 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 and threatens hell, often in tandem. Can we harness technology so it will carry us to paradise, or will it harness us instead and drive 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? Who the hell was that Indo-European fellow who thought up the word *teks-, and what the heck was he thinking?
We have lingered so long with the single word subtle; 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 technology does. 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.
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, lock doors, 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’).”¹ If the connection to *kat- is real, we remain in the realm of the hunters and fishers, the realm of ensnarers and ensnared. A subtle chain can be a subtle snare, good reason to move without haste.
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, the next and the farthest. Are, then, the rings countless in the sense that, though of finite number, there are simply too many of them to count, like beans in a jar or stars in the sky? Such countlessness though would be due to 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 offers a brilliant one-page summation of the foundation of Emerson’s thought over the 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”.¹
¹(Richardson, Emerson, The Mind on Fire, page 538)
Richardson then proceeds to list these (ten) perceptions. I will focus now on only one of these ten, but because Richardson presents them as “bound together” and because I expect to refer to this list again before all is said and done, 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.”¹
¹(Richardson, Emerson, The Mind on Fire, page 538)
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, neither less nor more fundamental and important than any other in the chain.
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 admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too.”¹ 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 also equal four. Only one of these equations 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.
¹(Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground, Part I, Chapter IX, Kindle location 82127)
Each ring is a self-evident truth. The only form of argument each ring permits is the argument of self-evidence, the word argument drinking directly from the Indo-European root “*arg- ‘to shine; white’.”¹ 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 see.
With this, we have thought through the first line of Emerson’s verse: “A subtle chain of countless rings”, without spending time or effort looking at the word ‘ring’, taking 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.’”¹
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.’”¹
¹(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) “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.’”¹
¹(Ibid., pages 339-340)
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 overdramatized, as both Emerson and Nietzsche knew even if their readers almost never do. Although the “wild spirit” 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 that 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.’”¹
Most of the meanings of ecstasy described here are degradations, beginning already with the Greeks, of the actual, original word, έκσταση, 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 rather than as displacement (“from Latin distractus, past participle of distrahere ‘draw in different directions,’ from dis- ‘away’ + trahere ‘to draw’”).¹ Distraction pulls in different directions and 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’”).² Displacement presents us the world. Heidegger’s perhaps overly dramatic word for this is Geworfenheit, thrownness.
¹(Ibid., entry ‘distract’)
²(Ibid., entry ‘proper’)
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.”¹
¹(Richardson, Emerson, The Mind on Fire, Chapter 58, Osman’s Ring: A Work of Ecstasy, 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.”¹
¹(Ibid., Chapter 58, Osman’s Ring: A Work of Ecstasy, Kindle edition 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.”¹ 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?”²
¹(Henry David Thoreau, Walking, from The Complete Works of Henry David Thoreau, Delphi Classics, Kindle edition location 23839)
²(Ibid., Kindle 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.”¹
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.”¹
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.”¹
¹(Thoreau, The Complete Works, Kindle location 23583, 23593; Thoreau’s etymological exploration of the word ‘saunter’ is a good example of his at times inventive, creative use of etymology.)
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 a year later doing much the same hike in reverse. Since then he’s walked from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail and again on the Continental Divide Trail, and east from Cape Hatteras west to San Diego. He has walked 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. As I write this (August and September 2017) he is walking from Chicago to Santa Monica on U.S. Highway 66. In 2013 he walked from the Continental Divide Trail in New Mexico eastward back to Florida. He let Robert Moor share three days of this walk and Moor has in turn shared these three days with us.
Eberhart told Moor he set out on (in Eberhart’s words) “a desperate search for peace”¹ when he undertook the initial hike from Florida to Canada. 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 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!”’²
¹(Moor, On Trails, page 302)
²(Ibid., pages 302, 308-309,313-314, 324-325)
We will forgive Mr. Eberhart his notion, atop Mont Jacques-Cartier, that he felt the warm presence of a forgiving God. After over four thousand miles of walking, the man had earned the right to such a notion, even if 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 (Thoreau) or old-fashioned conformity (Muir) . 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.’”¹ 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 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 indeed 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.
A subtle chain of countless rings,
The next unto the farthest brings;
We’ve already put a toe or two into the waters of this second line. Time now to jump in!
What is the next? We tend to think of the next in temporal terms: next time, next year, next person in line waiting to be served. We conflate next with after. People who believe in life-after-death talk about the next life or the afterlife interchangeably. The word next though is spatial, not temporal. (In fact, even the word after, in its origins, is spatial, as in the aft of a boat.) The next is what is nearest. Next and near are one and the same word or, if you prefer, two and the same, next the superlative of near: “Old English niehsta, nyhsta (West Saxon), nesta (Anglian) ‘nearest, closest,’ superlative of neah (West Saxon), neh (Anglian) ‘nigh;’ from Proto-Germanic *nekh- ‘near’ + superlative suffix *istaz. Cognate with Old Norse næstr, Dutch naast ‘next,’ Old High German nahisto ‘neighbor,’ German nächst ‘next.’”¹
Time for a radical thought, one which completely befuddles me and yet is present to me in fulsomely truthful self-evidence: space and time are two words for the very same thing, two perceptions of the very same thing, two experiences of the very same thing. If I understand the theory of relativity at all, Einstein showed time to be one of the dimensions of space. Time is spatial. And since reversing the order of any equation leaves its truth intact, space is temporal. This thought has been present to me for a couple years now and I still am unable to make the least sense out of it, but this is due to my intuitive limitations and not due to the thought being amiss.
The shift of words like next and after from largely spatial meaning to largely temporal meaning reflects a significant shift in human experience of the world. Time itself used to be experienced spatially. When the sun ‘rose’ it was daybreak. When the sun ‘reached’ its ‘zenith’ it was noon. When the sun ‘set’ the day ended and night began, with the ‘rising’ of the moon and stars. Seasons came and went, then came again, establishing a new year. With death at life’s end, the ‘departed’ moved on to a new place. Sundials and clocks told time spatially, by movement of shadow or clock hands. With some suddenness and very recently, telling time is no longer spatial, clocks now being digital. More and more, people find orientation less and less in terms of place and more and more in terms of time. The times they are a’changin, not the places, or, more precisely, the places are changing because the ‘times’ are changing. The world itself is shrinking. The less time it takes to get from one place to another, the smaller the world becomes. In some key ways we can now be in different places at the same time. My spouse here in America can do FaceTime with her brother in England. Via the internet I can ‘attend in real time’ the concerts of the Berlin Philharmonic, almost as if I were actually sitting with those lucky people in the Philharmonie in Berlin. And all this is only the beginning of this shift. Currently fictional accounts of instantaneous travel from place to place (using wormholes in Star Trek and port keys in Harry Potter) may well cease to be fictional not long from now, time travel following on the heels.
Does this development proffer the opportunity of fruitful dis-location or the peril of fruitless dis-traction? Time will tell.
To understand Emerson’s verse, we must understand the word next spatially and not temporally. The next unto the farthest brings. Near/nearest/next is linked to far/farthest, not early to late, not first to last/latest. After all, the line is about bringing, bearing from place to place, carrying from place to place. What or who is brought, born, carried? I am, and the I who you are, and the I who everyone else is. I am brought from the next to the farthest, from the nearest ring or rings to the farthest ring or rings. The next is next only in relation to the I and the farthest is farthest only in relation to the I and the I’s next and nexts.
What is this I? Emerson, a few pages into Nature, gives us his (very good) answer by way of giving definition to what he means by the word nature: “Philosophically considered, the universe is composed ol Nature and the Soul. Strictly speaking, therefore, all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under the name NATURE.”¹ This statement maps out the universe, giving it two realms, nature and soul. If nature is the not me, soul is the me (the objectification of the I). Emerson here uses negation to define the I, saying by implication what it is by saying explicitly what it is not. And with the the body and other people being assigned to the realm of nature, there doesn’t seem to be much left for the I to be; its realm seems at first blush to be small, poor, insignificant, an almost nothing. Indeed, it is nothing because all things belong in the realm of nature. The I is no thing.
¹(Emerson, Collected Works, Nature, Introduction, Kindle location 744)
I am brought from the next (a twinge of pain in my toe because I forgot to trim the toenail; a grumble of hunger in my stomach; exhaustion at the end of a hard, long day; the warmth Nimblewill Nomad reports feeling atop Mont Jacques-Cartier) to the near (my toenail and a tool to trim the toenail; food to quiet my hunger and a job to earn money to buy the food and the people I interact with while doing that job; my bed and pillow to rest my body and, again, a job to pay for a home in which to house the bed; the “presence” Mr. Nomad ascribes to the warmth; this is also where we encounter the nearest of “all other men,” family, friends, neighbors — neigh=nigh=near). From the near I am brought to the far and farthest, what’s on the furthest fringe of my horizon and what’s imagined beyond that horizon (the forgiving god Mr. Nomad imagines to be responsible for the warm presence).
A subtle chain of countless rings brings the I from the next to the farthest things. How? Metaphorically. Μεταφορά. Μετα means through, across. Φορα means to bear, to carry, to bring. Metaphor brings the I across, from ring to ring to ring, from next to farthest.
Emerson’s Nature is a metaphysics of metaphor.
A subtle chain of countless rings,
The next unto the farthest brings;
The eye sees omens where it goes,
The I now is the eye. The I is brought from ring to ring. Being brought, carried, born is passive. In this regard, the I is passive. But the I is no mere tabula rasa because the I’s eye sees, actively sees. Not only does it see, it goes. The chain of rings is now a path and the eye treads that path, seeing as it goes. On the path, the eye sees omens. The path is ominous. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
Nimblewill Nomad sees omens where he goes. Atop Mont Jacques-Cartier he felt a warm presence and saw it as an omen of a forgiving god. He did not see that god. What he actually saw was bright sunshine from the blue sky above and reflecting back up from the white snow at his feet, bringing warmth. But he saw this, as we all do always, as an omen.
For eons philosophers and now psychologists have argued back and forth about whether perception is active or passive or something in between or something of both. Whatever position one takes within this argument, it can be agreed that the argument focuses on what is or is not happening while Nimblewill sees and feels the sunshine. Once he moves from that ring in the chain on the the next ring in the chain, once he is brought from the warm sunshine to the omen it signifies, his perception of that omen is, at least possibly, fully active. Nimblewill, true to his chosen first name, chooses what the omen means, what it signifies, he interprets the omen.
Interpretation is, of course, a matter of interpretation. For this reason, many devotees to the notion of truth and truthfulness recoil at least a bit at the claim that all perception is, in the end, a matter of interpretation. If, though, the truth be said when it is said that all perception is a matter of interpretation, devotees of truth must acknowledge its truth.
The word interpretation originates as a Latin word. As is so often the case, it helps to move away from the Latin and over the to the Greek, έρμηνεια, hermeneia, the modern-day hermeneutics. One of Aristotle’s works bears the title Περι ‘Ερμενείς (Peri Hermeneis), given in Latin as De Interpretatione and in English as On Interpretation. The god Hermes has pride of place in the Greek word. How come? “Hermes, the divine trickster, is a figure of ever-changing colours, but his name, which is explained with fair certainty, points to one single phenomenon: herma is a heap of stones, a monument set up as an elementary form of demarcation. Everyone who passes by adds a stone to the pile and so announces his presence. In this way territories are proclaimed and demarcated.”¹ As these herms demarcate boundaries, Hermes is the god of boundaries, both the protection of and transgression of boundaries. Since taboos are a cultural form of boundary, he is also the god of taboos, the protection of, transgression of and atonement for the transgression of taboos. He is the patron god of herdsmen, for whom boundaries are so important. He is also the patron god of thieves and himself performed the theft of Apollo’s sacred cattle (cattle thieves are herdsmen in need of a herd). As the god of boundaries, he is free to cross any and all boundaries, which makes him the ideal messenger between the rest of the gods and mankind. “The most uncanny of the boundaries which Hermes crosses is the boundary between the living and the dead … The idea of the river of the underworld with Charon’s ferry was later combined with this, so the Attic lekythoi show Hermes leading souls to Charon.”² Only Hermes knows the pathway back from Hades to the realm of the living and no one can escape Hades without him as a guide. Since a gravestone marks the boundary between the living and the dead, Hermes is also the patron god of graves, a gravestone being a special type of herm. “Successful communication with enemies and strangers is the work of Hermes [the patron of heralds], and the interpreter, hermaneus, owes his name to the god. The allegorical equation of Hermes with speech tout court, logos, is reflected in our word hermeneutics.”³
¹(Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, Archaic and Classical, translated by John Raffan, Harvard University Press, 1985, page 156)
²(Ibid., pages 157-158)
³(Ibid., page 158)
Burkert wraps up his presentation of the Greek god Hermes by noting a shift in meaning when Hermes is transplanted from the Greek pantheon to the Roman pantheon. In Rome his name becomes Mercury. He retains his role as messenger between gods and men but, in Rome, is given a new assignment as well, that of “god of trade and commodities, with a bulging money bag in his hand, … a purely Roman metamorphosis of Hermes.”¹ The Latin word interpret reflects this shift. Interpret is “late 14c., ‘expound the meaning of, render clear or explicit,’ from Old French interpreter ‘explain; translate’ (13c.) and directly from Latin interpretari “explain, expound, understand,’ from interpres ‘agent, translator,’ from inter ‘between’ (see inter-) + second element probably from PIE per- (5) ‘to traffic in, sell.” Other words which share the PIE root per- (5) are appraise, appreciate, depreciate, praise, precious, and price.”² Mercury is an interpreter as broker, haggler, negotiator, appraiser, money bag in hand. Interpretation is about value and evaluation. This Latin interpreter counts, takes account of what he interprets. He’s an accountant. Mercury is “originally a god of tradesmen and thieves, from merx (see market).”³
¹(Ibid., page 159)
³(Ibid., entry ‘Mercury’)
If those of us who argue that perception is interpretation understand interpretation in Latin terms, the devotees of truth have good reason to recoil. If we understand interpretation in Greek terms, by practical linguistic necessity using the Latin form of the word but meaning the Greek hermeneutics, the devotees of truth would do well not to recoil. Interpretation à le grec has nothing of the accountant or of the market about it. Interpretation à le grec can be a tricky affair (Hermes is a trickster and beloved by thieves and other deceivers) but, after all, only Hermes knows the pathway from Hades back to life. If perception is for us pecuniary, we are Romans when we interpret.¹ If perception is for us a way of and to life, we are Greeks when we interpret.
¹(Time to cite John Muir: “Nothing dollarable is safe, however guarded.” Message to the 1908 Governors Conference on Conservation, at http://vault.sierraclub.org/ca/hetchhetchy/timeline.asp)
In Psychological Investigations José Ortega y Gasset wrote, “Our consciousness has a ready supply of mythological accounts with which spontaneously to come to terms with the problems it encounters. A myth is a metaphor oblivious of itself.”¹ Is this what the Latin god Mercury has in his money bag? A supply of ready made mythological accounts, which he shares with us, to be used by us as currency (old-fashioned conformity) with which to come to terms with the problems we encounter? A term is a boundary, as in the words terminal or determine. Like his Greek Doppelgänger Hermes, Mercury too is a god of boundaries, of terms, but he would have us only “come to terms” and not a step further. Hermes loves transgression of boundaries. Mercury does not.
¹(José Ortega y Gassett, Psychological Investigations, translator Jorge García’-Goméz, W.W. Norton & Co., 1987, page 51)
According to Ortega we live our lives reliant upon, and constrained by, our ready supply of myths for as long as those myths suffice in coming happily to terms with the problems our lives constantly bump up against. This works for most of us most of the time. But when a myth I’ve relied upon fruitfully in the past suddenly for some reason no longer suffices, I find myself more or less in crisis, no longer able to come to terms with a problem or problems. What to do? I could pray Mercury to supply me some new myths from his bag of myths. Surely he knows some which would work equally well as the old myth did for so long. Or I could resolve to take a stab at living life without myth, at least as far as it pertains to the problem with which I suddenly can no longer come to terms with. But, surely, I cannot live on bread alone. I need something else to help me deal with my problem. Ortega’s suggested solution is really very simple. Stick with your myths, he says, but in recognition that myths are really metaphors oblivious to themselves. In other words, instead of living mythologically, live metaphorically.
What happens when myth is reduced¹ to metaphor? If myth helps us come to terms with a problem, metaphor helps us move through and past a problem. As Hermes was believed to bring the souls of the newly dead to the ferry of Charon, who would then ferry them across the river Styx over and into Hades, a metaphor, clearly seen and well interpreted, brings the I further along the subtle chain of countless rings.
¹(‘Reduction’ can be read as a diminishment and demotion or it can be read the way the word is used by a good cook.)
Ortega pointed to the example of the state of the science of psychology in 1915 and 1916, the years he presented the lectures which now make up the book Psychological Investigations, to explain what he meant, noting that the sciences in general and psychology in particular were at that time experiencing crisis. In the case of psychology, those wanting in 1915 to be active in psychology in genuine, honest and productive ways had come upon a serious problem. They felt like they had run slap into a brick wall and couldn’t get through it by any means available to that science at that time. The problem, according to Ortega, was that psychology, which emerged from philosophy during the 19th Century, had established itself as a distinct science without laying the necessary philosophical groundwork. Psychology set off on the adventure of being its own science without first clarifying what a mental phenomenon is vis à vis physical phenomena. Tired of the old yoke of philosophy and disdainful of metaphysics, these new psychologists were happy to launch their ship without the least worry about this problem. If you don’t worry about a problem, it isn’t a problem, until it becomes one. For decades a ready made myth (which is very much still in currency today) sufficed for coming to terms with the problem: the myth that mental phenomena are really only a version of physical phenomena and are not only amenable to treatment as such but require treatment as such.
So what was the brick wall of a problem in 1915 (and, unfortunately, still today)? Psychology issued in the 19th Century its declaration of independence and set up shop as a distinct science. The objects of psychology’s attention, of course, are mental phenomena. But when psychology unfurled its banner and set sail or set out its placard and opened shop, it dismissively proclaimed that mental phenomena are really physical phenomena. Materialism was all the rage in the 19th Century and these newly minted psychologists didn’t want to miss out on the fun of this rage. So, in one fell swoop, psychology proclaimed itself to be a distinct science but designated its rightful object of study, the mental, to the realm of the physical. In other words, psychology only pretended to be a distinct science while actually being a piece of physics. For a psychologist who wants to be a psychologist and not a physicist, that’s a brick wall.
In Psychological Investigations Ortega proposed a way out of, through, and beyond this problem, by way of metaphor, by way of taking the myths holding back the science of psychology and reducing them to the living and clarifying metaphors which those myths truly are. If, he asked, we are to treat mental phenomena on the same terms as we treat physical phenomena, still, if we can talk at all about mental phenomena, we must have some way to distinguish them from physical phenomena. “Ok,” is the response, “although phenomena are phenomena, we can say that mental phenomena are found in inner, interior experience while physical phenomena are found in outer, exterior experience.” Once again, said Ortega, we are reaching into the bag of myth. The juxtaposition of interior and exterior pertains, strictly speaking, to the world out there around us. If, for example, I try to place my soul as somewhere inside of my body, I am still placing my soul out there in the world around me, because my body, as intimately or closely connected as it is to me, is still out there in the world around me every bit as much as my cat or my dog or the sun or the moon. Only things out there in the world around me have an inside and an outside and, if I believe otherwise and, as has been done since time immemorial, locate my soul as if inside of me, I’m using a myth, a very, very old myth. However, if I locate my soul as inside myself metaphorically, I find myself getting somewhere! This metaphor invites me to ask what I mean when I say inside myself, to which I respond by talking about things like hopes and desires and fears I have and pains and pleasures I feel. I’m not yet ready or able to understand what these things mean but I am ready and able to notice something common to them all: the I has them. I have discovered that psychology is the science of the I. I can be sure that psychology is much, much more than just this, but it is this!¹
¹(Ortega, Psychological Investigations, pages 50-57)
When Nimblewill Nomad was trudging on and on up and down the cold, snowy mountains of Gaspé, he felt alone, tired, cold, hungry. These were all properly mental phenomena. He had already walked almost 4,000 miles, from the swamps of Florida and up the spine of the Appalachians. His sixty-one year-old body had carried him well and he had carried his old body well, but then, near the end of his journey, the weather turned cold and snowy and he felt cold, tired, hungry and alone. A bag full of ready made myths had helped him this far along his way. Some of these myths were no doubt personal and peculiar, some maybe so much so that he himself was only slightly aware of them. Others of his myths, while felt intensely personally, were such as are shared by many others. One of these in particular was his certainty that a loving, forgiving god was showing him his way, clearing him his way. This myth sustained him through almost 4,000 miles worth of problems, big problems and small problems. But then, in Gaspé, he suddenly felt cold, tired, alone, forsaken. Still, he persisted. He kept walking, kept trudging, all the way up through the snowy, dark forests up onto the icy summit of the highest mountain in Gaspé, Mont Jacques-Cartier. When he reached the top, it was cold, grey, foreboding. But then the sun pierced the clouds, dispelling the clouds and, with them, the cold. Suddenly he felt warm and interpreted this, mythically and not metaphorically, to be a warm presence. He felt that warm presence and interpreted it, mythically and not metaphorically, to be the presence of a forgiving god, in fact his very own forgiving God.
But what if the sun hadn’t pierced the clouds? What if he had continued feeling cold, hungry, tired, alone, forsaken? Would he have sought out a new myth to replace the old, a new myth which would help him come to terms with this new problem of being forsaken by his old god? Maybe the myth of the defiantly rugged individual, damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead? Maybe a similar myth, as reflected in the title of Werner Herzog’s film, Kaspar Hauser, or Everyone for Himself and God Against All? Or maybe a suicidal myth, that all said and done nothing matters or means anything so I may as well just sit here and let myself freeze to death and be done with it all? Whatever the outcome, it is likely he would have stuck to myth-making as a way out of his dilemma rather than taking up Ortega’s challenge to solve problems by reducing myth to metaphor. In the cold of Gaspé Nimblewill didn’t have the luxury to take up Ortega’s challenge. In the tussle and tumble of life most of us most of the time don’t have this luxury either. That’s one reason why myths are so prevalent and so important.
Lucky (ach! the word and notion lucky is mythological!) for Nimblewill, his stock bag of myths ended up sufficing. Years later and to this day, he continues to come to terms with the problems he faces while walking and walking, thousands and thousands of miles.
The eye sees omens where it goes. The omens could be ominous, foreboding and forbidding. But they could also be auspicious, inviting us further along the way. The herms set out along the roadways and pathways of Greece faced down the traveller, challenging the traveller to dare or dare not continue. The traveller has a choice: respect the proper bounds and turn back or transgress propriety and continue on into new territories. Hermes smiled upon either choice. Many of us come to terms with the next and near and don’t venture any farther afield, Thoreau’s villagers embracing Muir’s conformity. A few others choose to keep moving on along the subtle chain of countless rings.
Do we know why? Can we know why? At one point during the three days Robert Moor shared roadwalking with Nimblewill Nomad they walk into the town of Port Arthur, Texas.
“We walked along the sidewalk — a luxury, after fifteen miles of highway shoulder, — through a neighborhood of small, tidy houses. In the parking lot of the convenience store, a man sat on the tailgate of his truck drinking a tallboy of beer. Inside the store, it was again clean and cold. To Eberhart’s delight, this store had six varieties of frozen burrito. He had been living off of frozen burritos for weeks and had acquired a taste for them. (‘if you didn’t eat them out west there, you didn’t eat, because that’s all they’ve got. Breakfast burritos, lunch burritos, I think they even had a dessert burritos.’) We sat near the back of the store, on crates of soda, eating our dinners in the cool air.
As Eberhart was moving on to his dessert course — a half pint of Blue Bell vanilla ice cream — one of the store’s clerks asked him to move to the side so he could restock the refrigerator. Eberhart apologized.
‘Everyone else who comes through here has a car to sit in but we’re walking,’ Eberhart explained.
The store clerk looked suspicious.
‘Where you going?’ the clerk asked, in the rapid, trilled patter of a native Hindi speaker. Eberhart had a thick, slow Missouri accent that bent ‘wash’ into ‘warsh.’ A certain amount of miscommunication ensued; I found myself playing translator between the two.
‘Well, Eberhart said, ‘’we’re going to go across the bridge tomorrow and into Louisiana. I’m heading for Florida at the end of this month.’
‘Are you going for a record?’
‘No, just walking.’
‘Just for fun?’
‘Well, yeah …’
‘Where are you living, nighttime?’
‘I have a tent for camping.’
‘You take a bath anywhere?’
‘Not as often as you do …’
‘How many days?’
‘I started in New Mexico forty-six days ago.’
The man paused and cocked his head. ‘What is your reason?’
‘Well, I’m a long-distance hiker, and I enjoy walking. Meet people. Have some ice cream,’ Eberhart chuckled.
‘It’s not a bad life. Sometimes when it storms real hard you get wet …’
Eberhart fished around in his wallet and pulled out a business card, on which a red line marked the entire route around the continent. The store owner still looked perplexed. ‘You should tell the media,’ he said. ‘You could be in the local paper.’
Eberhart’s smile tightened.
Later, Eberhart told me that these questions were exceedingly common. He understood why people asked them; they saw him as ‘a total alien.’ Naturally, they were curious. However, the one question he dreaded was the simplest: Why? ‘You can answer questions all day, but you just don’t want to answer that question,’ he said. ‘You know why? Because you can’t answer the damn question.’”¹
¹(Moor, On Trails, pages 311-312)
Much credit is due to Mr. Nomad. Far more often than not, whenever anyone of us is asked “Why?” a mythological answer ensues. Nimblewill had full opportunity to do the same. It would have been easy for him to answer this “Why?” with something like “God is calling me to do this” or “To be closer to God” or, if he’d wanted to leave God out of it, “To show the world what an old fella can do,” or “To show myself what I can do.” Instead, he refrained here from myth making and kept his silence, admitting he knew no true answer to the question “Why?”.
Robert Moor himself is more nuanced on the subject. He begins On Trails by telling the story about how he got interested in thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. He tells of the first time he set foot on the AT, as a ten year-old boy in summer camp, during a three-day outing in the White Mountains.
“On the second morning, a gray rain blew in. Instead of summiting the peak [of Mt. Washington], which our counselors deemed unsafe, we took a long hike around the southern flank of the mountain. We left our packs back at the shelter, each of us carrying only a single water bottle and a pocketful of snacks. Free from the dreaded weight of my pack, warm inside my rubberized rain poncho, I began to enjoy myself. I inhaled the fir-sweet air, exhaled fog. The forest gave off a faint chlorophyllic glow.
We walked in single file, floating through the trees like little ghosts. After an hour or two, we rose above the tree line and entered a realm of lichen-crusted rock and white mist. The trails around the mountain branched and twined. At the juncture with the Crawford Path, one of our counselors announced that we were turning onto a leg of the Appalachian Trail. His tone suggested we were meant to be impressed. I had heard that name before, but I wasn’t sure what it meant. The path beneath our feet, he explained, followed the spine of the Appalachians north to Maine and south all the way to the state of Georgia, almost two thousand miles away.
I still recall the tingle of wonder I felt upon hearing these words. The plain-looking trail beneath my feet had suddenly grown to colossal scale. It was as if I had dived down into the camp lake and discovered the slow, undulant vastness of a blue whale. Small as I felt back then, it was a thrill to grasp something so immense, if only by the very tip of its tail.”
After camp that summer he went back home to Illinois but, year after year, pursued the woods, mountains and trails through and over them. During college he spent two summers working as one of those counselors at the very same camp he’d attended years before, guiding young boys up and down trails just as he himself had been guided.
“On trips along the AT I would occasionally bump into hikers who were attempting to walk the trail’s full length in a single, mammoth, months-long effort. These ‘thru-hikers’ were easy to spot: They introduced themselves with odd ‘trail names,’ ate ravenously, and walked with a light, lupine gait. I was intimidated by them, but also envious. They resembled the rock musicians of an idealized past — the same long hair, the same wild beards, the same wasted physiques, the same esoteric argot, the same peripatetic lifestyle, the same faint, vain awareness of being, in a way, heroic.
I sometimes talked with these thru-hikers, plying them with chunks of cheese or handfuls of candy. I remember one old man who had hiked the whole trail in a Scottish kilt and sandals, and a young man who carried no tent, but a full feather pillow. A few of them proselytized zealously for one church or another, while others spoke or preparing for a looming ecological apocalypse. Many of the people I talked to were between jobs, between schools, between marriages. I met soldiers returning from war and people recovering from a death in the family. Certain stock phrases were repeated. ‘I needed some time to clear my head,’ they said, or ‘I knew this might be my last chance.’ One summer during college, I told a young thru-hiker that I hoped to make an attempt someday. ‘Drop out,’ he told me flatly. ‘Do it now.’ I did not drop out. I was too careful for that. In 2008 I moved to New York, where I worked a series of low-paying jobs. In my free time I planned my thru-hike. I read guidebooks and online message boards, drew up tentative itineraries. Less than a year later I was ready to embark.
Unlike many people, I had no clear impetus for going on a long hike, no inciting incident. I wasn’t grieving a death or recovering from drug addiction. I wasn’t fleeing anything. I had never been to war. I wasn’t depressed. I was maybe only a little insane. My thru-hike was not an attempt to find myself, find peace, or find God.
Perhaps, as they say, I simply needed some time to clear my head; perhaps I knew this might be my last chance. Both were mostly true, as clichés often are. I also wanted to find out what it would be like to spend months on end in the wilderness, to live in a prolonged state of freedom. But more than that, I think I wanted to answer a challenge that had loomed over me since childhood. When I was small and frail, hiking the whole trail had seemed a herculean task. As I grew, its impossibility became precisely its appeal.”¹
¹(Ibid., pages 4-8)
Moor here gives a nice inventory of some of the myths which provide people an answer to the question “Why are you hiking the AT?” Some Celtic quest, or a godly pilgrimage, or survivalist training. Of note are the in-betweens, in between jobs, schools, marriages, between war and peace or life and death. Hermes is the patron god of in-betweens, people standing at their version of a herm and considering whether to go one way or the other, whether to turn back and remain domestic or to continue on, transgressing the boundary of whatever is to be found in the beyond.
Moor himself says that he kind of didn’t really have a reason (a myth) why he wanted to hike the trail, but then he cautiously (he’d just described himself as being a careful person) proposed what might be the true myth of our time, or at least of my post-World-War-2 American ‘baby-boomer’ generation. Moor gives cautious voice to this myth by stating his ultimate reason for hiking the trail was to answer a challenge looming over him since his childhood.
Thoreau, never one to err on the side of caution and often ahead of his own time, declared this myth more boldly: “A man receives only what he is ready to receive, whether physically or intellectually or morally …. We hear and apprehend only what we already half-know …. Every man thus tracks himself through life, in all his hearing and reading and observation and travelling. His observations make a chain.¹ The phenomenon or fact that cannot in any wise be linked with the rest which he has observed, he does not observe.”²
¹(The influence of Emerson’s verse is evident here.)
²(Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Henry Thoreau, A Life of the Mind, University of California Press, 1986, pages 379-380)
Thoreau was never happier than when in the woods with an Indian, observing Indian ways, including how an Indian hunts. Just as a hunter tracks his prey by looking for signs of the prey (footprints, tree rubbings, scratchings, broken twigs, scat), we follow signs leading us toward ourselves, tracking ourselves. If we hunt well, we find ourselves. More often the prey eludes us and we must find a way to live while still hoping to hunt again another day.
Joseph Campbell popularized this myth (I would like to say he Californianized the myth) with his mantra “Follow your bliss.” Campbell’s world was the world of myth, few people having known, understood and loved myth more than he. Thoreau’s iteration of the myth quivers and quavers on the edge between myth and metaphor. Do we take it seriously, that is do we see it and live it as myth? I do, and I suggest I’m by no means alone. For starters, I have some philosophers to bolster me up, with Nietzsche’s “Become what you are” to Ortega’s more subtly couched “I am myself and my circumstances.” I can call my siblings as witness as well. My brother Bob knew at an early age that he wanted to be a cop. Being a cop was a core part of Bob being Bob. He saw this at a very early age and with sure determination tracked his way into a policing career. My brother Skip similarly knew at a very early age he wanted to be an actor. Just take a look at the picture of us which our sister Jill has used on the homepage of our blog!¹ I’m guessing that picture was taken the summer of 1960, only days or weeks before our move from Ohio to Connecticut. If my guess is right, I was six years old and Skip eight or maybe just turned nine. In that picture he is already performing for the camera, well on his way to becoming what he was and is. Jill herself recently wrote on the blog about having wanted, as a child, to become a mailman (mailwoman). “When other kids played cowboys and indians or doctor and patient, I played mailman,” she writes.² What work is she doing today, decades later? She is director of communications for a major international corporation. In other words, she’s that company’s postmaster, making sure messaging between people in the company flows efficiently and effectively. It’s her childhood dream job come true. As for myself, I never really felt any positive vocation. My sense of vocation was more like a Socratic daemon, telling me what not to do rather than what to do. Accordingly, one of the Disney movies which intrigued me was Peter Pan, about the boy who sang “I won’t grow up, I won’t grow up, Just to go to school, And to learn to be a parent, And recite a silly rule, Cuz growin up is awfuller, Than all the awful things that ever were …”³ In adolescence (alas, I was slowly growing up), The Dobie Gillis Show’s character Maynard G. Krebs won my favor. The show was about Dobie and his high school peers, including his best friend Maynard, who was a beatnik-type (goatee, bongos, not a care in the world). Dobie’s dad, the quintessence of the humble, honest, hard-working type, owned a small grocery store, where Dobie often had to help out after school. Maynard regularly visited Dobie at the store after school, distracting Dobie from work, with the inevitable result that Mr. Gillis, losing patience, would scold Maynard, telling him, “Maynard, what you need to do is get a job and do some work!”, which always sent Maynard scurrying out of the store yelping “Work?!?!” That was my kind of guy. After Mom’s death I found a draft of a letter she had written to Dad, after Dad had left her. It was an accusatory letter and one of the accusations was “And I told you we shouldn’t have let Jim study philosophy!” Poor Mom just didn’t understand that I was lost to her cause way before she and Dad forked out the money for an Ivy League education, which never had a chance of making a doctor or lawyer or engineer or banker out of me. In college I moved on from Maynard G. Krebs to Hans Castorp, the protagonist in Thomas Mann’s great novel The Magic Mountain. The novel opens with Hans, fresh out of university with an engineering degree and a secured job, taking a trip from the north of Germany to the Alps of Switzerland to visit his ill cousin Joachim Ziemssen, a patient at a sanatorium for tuberculosis sufferers, for three weeks. Castorp, though it is never clear whether he was really tubercular, ends up becoming a patient at the sanatorium and staying there for seven years, seven months, seven weeks and seven days, messing around not a little with philosophy all that while.
²(Ibid, Jill Hollingsworth, Going Postal, April 18, 2017)
³(Walt Disney (producer), Peter Pan, Walt Disney Productions, 1953)
These were some of the things I was finding as I tracked myself through my life early on. I expect most everyone can do the same while looking at one’s own life.
Thoreau says “man receives” instead of “man perceives.” Thoreau’s reception though is anything but passive since he says we receive only what we are ready to receive. Reception presumes readiness, a very active matter. The readiness is an “already half-know”ing. Plato said that learning is remembering. For Plato learning was remembering what we already completely knew but had (at birth or before birth) forgotten. For Thoreau we only already half know, but that’s still quite a bit of knowing. And half knowing provides space for growth, while Plato’s completely knowing allows only for a return to, retrieval of what we already knew and were. Growth through learning is the German Bildung, a cornerstone concept for the New England transcendentalists. “On the same day in early April 1837 that he first took Emerson’s Nature out of the library, Thoreau also took Carlyle’s translation of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, the long Bildungsroman that records the gradual growth of the hero away from his bourgeois world the world of real ideas, true culture, and honest emotions.”¹ Bildung simply cannot be adequately translated into English. The standard translation is education, but the word education lacks the almost organic sense of growth and development contained in Bildung. Wilhelm Meister is universally accepted as the first great German Bildungsroman. Many have followed, including Mann’s Magic Mountain. Thoreau’s tracking oneself through life is maybe the best possible translation of Bildung into American vernacular, just as Ortega’s “Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia” (I am myself and my circumstances) translates Bildung into Spanish.
¹(Richardson, Thoreau, page 28)
Thoreau develops the thought by adding “His [every man’s] observations make a chain,” — Emerson’s subtle chain of countless rings directly referenced. “The phenomenon or fact that cannot in any wise be linked with the rest which he has observed, he does not observe.” Observation, reception, knowledge can neither be fully objective nor fully subjective, but is an intermingling of the two, a dancing together (to gather); the Greek word λογοσ, logos — source for the English logic, the word used in the Gospel According to John, which begins with “In the beginning was the word (λογοσ) and the word (λογοσ) was with God, and the word (λογοσ) was God — is based on the root “*leg- (1) ‘to collect, to gather’”.¹ The Greeks and medieval scholastics thought knowledge was purely objective. The modern European rebellion against that tradition, beginning with the Renaissance and exemplified by Descartes (“I think therefore I am”) saw knowledge as purely subjective. Many in the 19th Century then rebelled against this pure subjectivity, most by reverting back to an insistence that knowledge must be objective but some few, such as the New England transcendentalists, seeing an admixture of subjectivity and objectivity as the heart and soul of knowledge. Ortega’s entire philosophical enterprise can be seen as a working out of this argument.
This subjective nature of knowledge in no way diminishes the objectivity of knowledge. To the contrary, it enables objectivity. Goethe wrote in his Italian Journey, a book which quickly became crucial for the young Thoreau, “I shall never rest until I know that all my ideas are derived, not from hearsay or tradition, but from my real living contact with things themselves.”¹ Hearsay and tradition are myth and all myth is, even when grand, ultimately parochial and whatever objectivity it contains is parochial. Goethe (as do Thoreau, and Emerson, and Nietzsche, and Ortega) wants living ideas, garnered from real living contact with things themselves. What can be more objective than things themselves? But contact with them is possible only by an actively receptive, ready subject. We are passive recipients of hearsay and tradition but active recipients of of ideas derived from real living contact with things themselves, if we are ready to receive.
¹(Richardson, Thoreau, page 29)
The eye sees omens where it goes. The I sees omens where it goes. Omens to be seen where the I does not go, the eye does not see, but it indeed sees where it indeed goes.
Believe it or not, we are getting somewhere. Three lines down, three to go.
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;
Now we’re back to Gertrude Stein’s rose is a rose is a rose. Or maybe it’s Juliet Capulet’s “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Or perhaps the the 17th Century mystic poet Angelus Silesius (angel means heavenly messenger, the biblical version of Hermes):
Die Ros’ ist ohn warumb
sie blühet weil sie blühet
Sie achtt nicht jhrer selbst
Fragt nicht ob man sie sihet.¹
The rose is without a why
it blooms because it blooms
It doesn’t fuss about itself
Asks not if someone sees it.
¹(Angelus Silesius, Cherubinsher Wandersmann Buch (Book of a Cherubic Wanderer), 1, 289, obtained from http://www.welt-der-rosen.de/rosged/silesius.htm, my translation)
Yes, sweet Juliet, the rose has many, many names, a name for every language it speaks, and it speaks them all. How in the world does a rose speak a language, let alone all languages? Through metaphor.
We will soon see that Emerson, with Thoreau in full agreement, thinks nature is the wellsource of all language. Chapter IV of Nature is about language and begins with: “Words are signs of natural facts.”¹ We will explore that claim in due course but need to do some preliminary exploration now.
¹(Emerson, Collected Works, Nature, Chapter IV, Kindle location 910)
The exploration begins with a claim of my own: all words, with the important exception of personal pronouns and names of numbers, are in essence metaphors, “signs of natural facts.” The metaphorical essence of words is the lifeblood of etymology. Every word (we’ll look at the exceptions shortly) paints a picture and tells a story.
Time for a thought experiment. Let’s imagine ourselves as human-types early in the development of humans. Some of us human-types have the task of inventing language. We probably begin, as baby humans still do to this day, with naming, assigning names to people and to things (names and nouns). Then we must assign names to the things we see people and things doing (verbs). And since doings are always related to other doings, we assign names to how people and things relate to people and things (conjunctions, prepositions, relative pronouns … ). Since people can be similar to one another and things similar to other things, names are able to name these groupings of people and things. But because, within these similarities, there are individual differences, we must find names for these differences-within-similarity (adjectives and adverbs).
In doing this naming, we could arbitrarily produce some sounds and assign each sound to one of the to-be-named matters at hand, but it is possible that the Stoics and Ortega are right when they state that nothing is ever arbitrary or accidental. Ortega says that “the most philosophical of all principles” is “that nothing, nothing at all, occurs by chance.”¹ Etymology certainly agrees, and does its amazing part supporting the claim by so carefully tracking many of today’s languages back to a proto-language, what they call Proto-Indo-European or PIE. This proto-language isn’t the ultimately proto-language, isn’t the very first of all languages. We can well expect that such a very original language never existed, that development of language and languages was so gradual that there was never such a thing as a threshold at which before it is a world without language and after it a world suddenly with language. Still, the uncovering of the Indo-European sort-of-proto-language is a mighty achievement, one of the glories of science.
¹(Ortega, Psychological Investigations, page 42)
So, back to our thought experiment … We are tasked with naming people and things. Physiology sets some very real conditions: the names we produce must be sounds we can produce and sounds we and others can hear and distinguish. It is generally argued that a baby’s first words are usually ‘mamma’ and ‘papa’ or ‘dada’ and that the seeming universality of these nametags, which extends even beyond the Indo-European, is firmly rooted in (1) the existential preeminence of a newborn’s discovery of the persons ‘Mamma’ and ‘Papa’, (2) the baby’s ready ability to distinguish these sounds when heard in the mischmasch of his or her soundworld, and (3) the baby’s ready ability to enunciate these sounds him- or herself. Already at this basic level we have dispelled the arbitrary and accidental; the conditional dispels the accidental.
The baby isn’t given much to choose from for starters, could supposedly call her mother ‘Papa’ and her father ‘Mamma’, but never exercises as much choice as that (speculation about which I’ll leave to others). We thought-experiment inventors of language, though, are quickly confronted with choice after choice, how to name this and how to name that. Emerson’s argument, and Ortega’s argument, and our friendly local etymologist’s argument is that these choices are never arbitrary, neither in what’s offered to choose from nor in how we then choose.
Let’s take the lead given by Gertrude and Juliet and Angelus, let’s look at why we call a rose a rose. “Old English rose, from Latin rosa (source of Italian and Spanish rosa, French rose; also source of Dutch roos, German Rose, Swedish ros, Serbo-Croatian ruža, Polish róża, Russian roza, Lithuanian rože, Hungarian rózsa, Irish ros, Welsh rhosyn, etc.), probably via Italian and Greek dialects from Greek rhodon ‘rose’ (Aeolic wrodon) … This is probably ultimately from or related to the Iranian root *vrda-. Beekes writes that ‘The word is certainly borrowed from the East, probably like Arm[enian] vard ‘rose’ from OIran. *urda.’ Tucker writes: ‘The rose was a special growth of Macedonia & the Thracian region as well as of Persia, & the Lat. & Gk. names prob. came from a Thraco-Phrygian source.’ Aramaic warda is from Old Persian; the modern Persian cognate, via the usual sound changes, is gul, source of Turkish gül ‘rose.’”¹
Turns out that the rose pretty much has only one name, or variations on that one name, which came to us from Persia via the Thraco-Phrygian part of the Greek world. What have we learned here? We’ve learned that the name for the rose was already well-established before the rose plant itself spread out from Persia to the rest of the world. Why the Persians, or people before them, named the rose a rose we cannot see. It happened behind a curtain we cannot go behind. Because I am lucky enough to have rhododendron growing all around me where I live, the Greek name for rose — ρόδο, rhodo — catches my interest. Dendro, δενδρο, is Greek for ‘tree’ so rhododendron are rose trees. The German name for rhododendron is Alprose, Alp rose.
Pretty much the same thing happens when we look at the name lily, also a flowering plant with origins in the eastern Mediterranean. It seems that etymologists have some difficulty penetrating languages from that part of the world.¹
¹(Ibid., entry ‘lily’)
So let’s look at a flower with a clearly English name: daisy. “Old English dægesege, from dæges eage ‘day’s eye,’ because the petals open at dawn and close at dusk … In Medieval Latin it was solis oculus ‘sun’s eye.’ As a female proper name said to have been originally a pet form of Margaret.”¹ Margarite is a German name for daisy.
¹(Ibid., entry ‘daisy’)
The name for the flowering plant daisy tells a story about the plant, conveys something about the plant. If all we want to do with a name is identity a person or thing, any name would do, including an arbitrary or even illogical name. We could call the daisy nihtsy (night’s eye) and, for the purposes of identification, be just as well off as long as we all agreed on that name. But language is about much, much more than identification and names in language must do much more than simply identify. A name must convey (late 14c., ‘to carry, transport;’ from Anglo-French conveier, from Old French convoier ‘to escort’ (Modern French convoyer), from Vulgar Latin *conviare ‘to accompany on the way’ …”¹ To convey is to transport. Trans is the Latin for the Greek meta. Port is the Latin for the Greek -phor.
¹(Ibid., entry ‘convey’)
A couple more flower names so that we see this is a rule. The tulip, like the rose, stems (pun accepted) from Persia. The Persian name is dulband, which means turban. The tulip flower looks like a turban. When the flower arrived in Turkey, the Turks called it tülbent, which then in Holland became tulpe.¹ I dare you now not to see a turban the next time you see a tulip! The geranium has its name from the Greeks, who called it geranion, from geranos, which means crane. The geranium has its name because its seed pods resemble the bills of cranes.² The English still sometimes call it cranesbill. Finally, the lowly dandelion. Even today Germans call this plant Löwenzahn, lion’s tooth. Dande- has the same roots (pun again accepted) as dental. Dandelion too means lion’s tooth, because the leaves of the plant bring the teeth of a lion to mind. Metaphor pure and simple.
¹(Ibid., entry ‘tulip’)
²(Ibid., entry ‘geranium’)
None of this is esoteric or mysterious. Remember the last time you named a new pet? Did you just pull a name out of a hat or throw a dart at a target full of names? The dog of my childhood was named Nippy, because she showed as a puppy that she loved to nip us tenderly. Years later, after Nippy died, we got a second dog and named her C.C., because she often emitted gaseous odors which smelled much like the sulphurous emissions from the Continental Can papermill sometimes upwind from our home. Names tell stories; they convey.
And all parts of speech are names. Verbs are names for actions. Adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, pronouns, conjunctions are all names. They all tell stories. They all convey.
With the exception of personal pronouns and the names of numbers. The personal pronouns I, you, he, she, it, we, you, they and the names of numbers such as one, two, three tell no stories, convey nothing; they identify. I know with precision what I mean when I use the word I, a word every bit as precise as the words one and two. Immanuel Kant opened his Critique of Pure Reason bemoaning what he saw as the sorry state of metaphysics in his time, contrasting the confusions of metaphysics to the glorious clarity and precision of mathematics. He declared his intent to, in his words, set metaphysics upon “the royal road”¹ of mathematics. The Critique of Pure Reason was meant to accomplish this. Instead, it developed a spectacular inventory of the components of subjectivity. It was Ortega, who as a student steeped himself in Kant and neo-Kantianism, who discovered that the way to conduct metaphysics with the precision of a mathematician was to begin with and rely upon the conceptual units which in their essence are every bit as precise as numbers: the I and you and he and she and it and we and they. His “I am myself and my circumstances” has the same rigor as “Two plus two equals four.” This point is so important that it needs much more time and space than I can give it here and now. For anyone wishing to try to see what I mean here, take a look at Ortega’s Some Lessons in Metaphysics and Man and People.
¹(Immanuel Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft, Foreword to the 2nd Edition, Urheberrechtsfreieausgabe, Kindle location 98, my translation)
The point I want to make here and now, because it pertains directly to Emerson’s verse, is that all other parts of speech are metaphorical. Don’t believe me? You say that, ya, maybe flower names can be flowery, but surely not verbs or prepositions or the determinatives a, an, and the. What, for instance, is metaphorical about the verb to be?
To be sure seems like a simple and straightforward verb, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t just crazy Hamlet who wrestled with to be or not to be. The entire history of philosophy, from the pre-Socratics right on up to our time, has wrestled with to be. Heidegger’s Being and Time, very much a response to and replication of The Critique of Pure Reason, fills a few hundred pages trying to tell the story of the verb to be. I wouldn’t dare to try to do the same myself, so I’ll take a shortcut by leaning again upon etymology.
First, does it not seem odd that in English the declension of the verb to be completely lacks anything from the infinitive itself? I am, you are, he, she, it is, we are, you are, they are. This is the most irregular of irregular verbs. The German is in its own way just as strange. The infinitive in German is sein, which is related to the English is, but the declension includes cousins to the English to be, with ich bin (I am) and Du bist (you are, you be-ist). The English to be shows itself only in the past (I have been) or future (I will be).
Etymology shows us that both the English and the German words for to be, along with their declensions, synthesize three different notions about being. (1) “Old English beon, beom, bion ‘be, exist, come to be, become, happen,’ from Proto-Germanic *biju- ‘I am, I will be.’ This ‘b-root’ is from PIE root *bheue- ‘to be, exist, grow;” (2) “Old English is, from Germanic stem *es- … from PIE es-ti- (source also of Sanskrit asti, Greek esti, Latin est;” (3) “Old English eom ‘to be, to remain’ (Mercian eam, Northumbrian am), from Proto-Germamic *izm(i)-, from PIE *esmi- (source also of Old Norse emi, Gothic im … In Old English it formed only present tenses, all other forms being expressed in the W-BASE (see were, was). This cooperative verb is sometimes referred to by linguists as *es-*wes-. Until the distinction broke down 13c., *es-*wes- tended to express ‘existence,’ with beon meaning something closer to ‘come to be.’ Old English wesan, wæs, wæron 1st and 3rd person singular of wesan ‘to remain,’ from Proto-Germanic *was- (source also of Old Saxon wesan, Old Norse vesa, Old Frisian wesa, Middle Dutch wesan, Dutch wezan ‘being, existence,’ Gothic wisan ‘to be’), from PIE root *wes-(3) ‘remain, abide, live, dwell’ (cognates Sanskrit vasati ‘he dwells, stays;’ compare vestal). Wesan was a distinct verb in Old English, but it came to supply the past tense of am. This probably began to develop in Proto-Germanic, because it is also the case in Gothic and Old Norse.”¹
Whew! What a tangle to unwind! The point is this: the English verb to be, along with its German cousin sein, is anything but clear and simple. Just accounting for the etymologically discovered notions contained in the idea of to be carries us from simply being to remaining, to abiding and living and dwelling, to growing. No wonder philosophers have wrestled so much with this critter! At the very start of Being and Time Heidegger quotes from Plato’s Sophist, with Socrates stating, “For manifestly you have long been aware of what you mean when you use the expression ‘being.’ We, however, who used to think we understood it, have now become perplexed.”¹ The Sophist is one part of a trilogy of closely connected dialogs, another of which is the Theaetetus, in which Theaetetus is introduced to Socrates as a lad “whose nature is as wonderfully good. For to be as good a learner as he is, in a way that’s hard for anyone else to match, and yet to be exceptionally gentle, and on top of this to be manly beyond anyone whatsoever.”² As is Socrates’ want, he sets about examining this young man, to find out what he knows, and is quite impressed. Inevitably, though, the Socratic examination results in Theaetetus feeling left in a lurch, unable to respond to Socrates’ questions. “But know well, Socrates, it’s often that I have tried to make an examination of it, in hearing the questions that are reported as coming from you. But for all of that, I am myself incapable of either persuading myself that I say anything adequately or hearing someone else speaking in just the way you urge, and I’m incapable as well of getting rid of my concern with it.” Socrates responds: “The reason is, my dear Theaetetus, that you’re suffering labor pains, on account of your not being empty but pregnant … And then, you most ridiculous fellow, you’ve not heard that I am the son of a midwife, very noble and farouche, Phaenarete? … And you’ve not heard that I practice the same art?³ One sense of the phor in metaphor is to carry, to bear, as in to carry something or bear something on one’s shoulders. Another co-equal sense of the phor in metaphor is to carry, to bear, as in to give birth to.º Once again, our little excursion through the verb to be ends metaphorically.
¹(Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, translated by Joan Staumbaugh, State University of New York Press, 1996, page 1)
²(Plato, Plato’s Theaetetus, Part I of The Being of the Beautiful, translated by Seth Bernadette, University of Chicago Press, 1984, page 1.5)
³(Ibid., page 1.11)
º(Prior to setting out on a career as a writer, thinker and lecturer (having resigned a post as pastor of a Boston church), Emerson travelled to Europe. The trip lasted nine months. Within weeks of Emerson’s return home, began work on what would become Nature. The Latin word natura comes “from natus, ‘born,’ past participle of nasci ‘to be born,’ from PIE root *gene- ‘give birth, beget.’” —-www.etymonline.com, entry ‘nature’)
Goethe would not rest until he knew that all his ideas were derived, not from hearsay or tradition, but from real living contact with things themselves. For many of us all of the time and for all of us most of the time, we tamely and passively and stupidly accept language as nothing more than hearsay and tradition. When Polonius asks Hamlet “What do you read, my lord?” Hamlet scornfully replies “Words, words, words,” not scorning the words themselves but scorning Polonius and his incapacity for real living contact with things themselves. The poet and the philosopher are both tasked with Goethe’s task. Others seem to get by fine with just hearsay and tradition.
The poet Angelus Silesius says that the rose is without a why, which means it has no need for myth (hearsay, tradition). He says the rose doesn’t fuss about itself and doesn’t ask if someone sees it. It doesn’t fuss about itself because it understands that it itself is of no importance, that it is important only as a vehicle for metaphoric transport and what it transports is what is of import. It doesn’t ask if someone sees it because it does not want to be seen, it wants that other thing, the thing which it bears, to be seen.
To do this, it speaks all languages. But we can hear it speak only if we can hear at least one of those languages. Otherwise the rose is just a rose is just a rose, nothing more than words, words, words.
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
It would seem here that Emerson is talking evolution, years before Darwin. He’s not, although he was very much taken by Darwin’s argument for evolution when The Origin of the Species took the world by storm. Nor is Emerson playing with a Hindu-type notion of reincarnation, in which a creature such as a worm can, through striving, be reincarnated in successively higher life forms, up to the point of becoming a man, though Emerson, as also Thoreau, embraced the flow westward of eastern wisdoms.
Emerson here in fact is not talking at all about worms. He’s talking about man. Man striving to be man, man tracking himself through life.
More precisely, Emerson is actually talking about worms, but metaphorically. So let’s talk worm.
When we hear the word worm most of us most of the time will quickly think of the earthworm. Here’s a song which was a favorite of ours when we were children:
Nobody likes me,
Everybody hates me,
That’s why I eat worms.
Big fat juicy, ones,
Little bitty teeny ones,
See how they all squirm!
That’s why I eat my worms
Three times every day!
You are what you eat. The Hegelian philosopher turned revolutionary activist (during the 1848 revolutions) turned equivocal theologian Ludwig Feuerbach coined this phrase in an 1849 review of a book by a chemist on the subject of nutrition: “Der Mensch ist was er ißt,”¹ man is what he eats. Nietzsche, not just a thinker but also a very good poet, gave the phrase some poetic polish with his “Man ist was man ißt,” one is what one eats. The phrase plays so well in German because the words ist (third person singular of sein, to be, the English is) and ißt (third person singular of essen, to eat, the English eats) have nearly identical pronunciations.
¹(Melvin Cherno, Feuerbach’s “Man Is What He Eats”: A Rectification, Journal of the History of Ideas, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963, page 397, obtained from https://www.jstor.org/stable/2708215?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents)
If one is what one eats, the doleful child in the song wants to be a worm. This is his or her reaction to feeling universally hated and disliked. The popularity of that song should tell us that we children all identified with that child, understood that child, could see ourselves as that child. Well, that child grew up and became a somewhat less sympathetic figure, Dostoyevsky’s underground man. He too was unloved, disliked and hated during “my hateful childhood.”¹ His reaction to that hateful childhood was to go “underground” for forty years, turning himself into Descartes’ monster, subjectivity gone monstrously wrong, a nearly pure indulgence of fancy. At times he echoes Goethe and talks about wanting “contact with real life,” but recoils at any opportunity for real life. “… I was incapable of love …”;² “I am a blackguard, … the nastiest, stupidest, absurdest and most envious of all the worms on earth …”³ “I want now to tell you, gentlemen, whether you care to hear it or not, why I could not even become an insect. I tell you solemnly, that I have many times tried to become an insect. But I was not equal even to that. I swear, gentlemen, that to be too conscious is an illness — a real, thoroughgoing illness.”º
¹(Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground, Part II, Chapter II, Kindle location 82471)
²(Ibid., Part II, Chapter X, Kindle location 83381)
³(Ibid., Part II, Chapter IX, Kindle location 83344)
º(Ibid., Part I, Chapter II, Kindle location 81748)
The underground man, at the end of his tale, describes himself as an anti-hero, then adds “we are all divorced from life, we are all cripples, every one of us, more or less.”¹ This underground man is Prince Hamlet, translated from medieval Helsingør to Shakespeare’s London to 19th Century St. Petersburg (Liza is Ophelia). Notes from the Underground is the single greatest novella of the 19th Century. Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis is perhaps the greatest novella of the 20th Century, vying with Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice for this distinction. Metamorphosis could well be Kafka’s immediate response to the Dostoyevsky story. I imagine Kafka reading “I could not even become an insect” and, within minutes, pulling out pen and paper and writing: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from disturbing dreams, he found himself in his bed transformed into an enormous bug.”²
¹(Ibid., Part II, Chapter X, Kindle location 83440)
²(Franz Kafka, Die Verwandlung (Metamorphosis), Kurt Wolff Verlag, 1917, page 5, my translation)
The underground man tells us he many times tried to turn himself into an insect. He also describes himself as a worm, “the nastiest, stupidest, absurdest and most envious of all the worms on earth.” So he confesses to striving to become insect and to becoming a sort of worm, but this isn’t the worm we find under rocks. Worms under rocks are not nasty, stupid, absurd, envious.
In early English (Beowulf for instance) and still today in German (Wagner’s Ring der Nibelungen), the poison and fire-spitting reptile-like monster which was apt to sit in a cave entrance, stupidly guarding some treasure hoarded inside the cave, was not called a dragon (Drachen in German), but rather a Wurm, a worm. This monster was everything the underground man says he is: nasty, stupid, absurd and envious. The monster knows that it is guarding treasure but has no clue whatsoever why the treasure is to be treasured. He knows only that others treasure it so he is stupidly, absurdly, enviously hell-bent on preventing others from having it. He cannot stand that the treasure has real value for others (perhaps!) but has no real value for him. For him the value of the treasure is based solely on hearsay and tradition.
This is the worm Dostoyevsky’s anti-hero has become. It’s the worm he accuses “every one of us” to have become “more or less.” What treasure are we hoarding? Why can’t we treasure that treasure? Why can’t we have real living contact with the treasure? Emerson believes it’s been done and can be done again. The fourth and fifth sentences in Nature, immediately following our verse, say: “The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should we also not enjoy an original relation to the universe?”¹
¹(Emerson, Collected Works/Nature/Introduction, Kindle location 728)
Emerson proposes a hero, not an anti-hero; he proposes worm striving to be man, not man striving to be worm.
Remember the discussion of the Moirai sisters, the Parcae sisters, the Norn sisters and the weird sisters, spinning the thread of life, weaving it, cutting it, apportioning fate to all men and women and many of the gods? Remember the etymology of the word weird, from wierd, from wyrd (fate, chance, fortune, destiny), from PIE *wert- (to turn, to wind; the source of German werden, to become), which in turn is from PIE *wer- (2) (to turn, to bend)? Well, the English word worm and the German Wurm also stem from *wer- (2).¹ Makes sense: worms certainly turn and bend. Makes even further sense: worms, in the guise of serpents shedding skin, have long been quintessential symbols for becoming.
Life is one choice after another choice after another choice, the choices coming so quickly and constantly that we hardly have time to deliberate how to choose. Truth is, we almost always choose without any real thought. This, prima facie, is not a problem. We are thoughtless by necessity, and pretty good at it to boot. If we had to think through all our choices before choosing, we’d be stopped in our tracks. So we rely upon things like custom, habit, conformity, hearsay and tradition. The result: we usually don’t know the reasons why we do what we do. If we give our doings some thought, we find some reasons for them, but then don’t know the reasons supporting those reasons. The whole affair devolves into reductio ad absurdum. An example: stories have been told in China, in India, in aboriginal North America about the cosmic turtle, which supports on its back the entire world and cosmos. Ok, what then supports the turtle? Stories are told today over and over again about a god who created us and the world we live in. Ok, but who or what created this god? And if the response is that this god always was and always will be, so is a creator not needing to be created, haven’t we arbitrarily assigned this status to this god and arbitrarily excluded the same status to anything else?
Gregor Samsa has a decent but boring job in some bustling business in early 20th Century Prague. The job means income, which he and his family (he still lives with his parents and sister) need, and it means a tiny bit of status. It gives him something to get up out of the bed in the morning and go do. It keeps him busy. Until one morning, after disturbing dreams, he wakes up unable to provide himself one single reason why he should pull himself out of bed, comb his hair, brush his teeth, eat his breakfast roll and go to work. He has a choice: get up out of bed and … , or stay in bed and do nothing. He wants, really, to get up out of bed like he’s always done before, and get himself ready and then head off for another day of work. That’s what he really wants to do, but, unlike yesterday and the day before that and the day before that, he doesn’t want to do that today before first knowing a reason why he should do it. Sure, he can think of some reasons, but he can’t think of any reasons for those reasons, so he’s left with the turtle holding up everything but nothing holding it up. Monstrous! The enormity of it, he simply can’t get himself up out of bed, so, in the eyes of all those around him (his family and his boss) and even (especially!) in his own eyes, he’s become an enormous, monstrous bug.
Robert Moor gives us a real-life Gregor Samsa moment in his book On Trails. Chapter 4 of that book is largely an exploration of what paths meant and mean to the Cherokee, past and present. For this exploration Moor spent much time in western North Carolina and met and learned from many people who knew a thing or two about Cherokee ways. One of these people is a man named Gilliam Jackson, a native speaker of Cherokee who, until he retired, ran a Cherokee language immersion school called Kituwah Academy. (First, let’s pause a moment to note the irony of Mr. Jackson’s name, a present-day Jackson doing all he can to repair the damage a Jackson from the past did to Gilliam Jackson’s people.) Even while still working at Kituwah, Mr. Jackson was an avid trail walker. “When I first met him,” Moor writes, “he was planning to embark on a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail to celebrate his retirement. If he was successful, he believed he would be the first full-blooded Cherokee to thru-hike the whole trail.”¹ Mr. Jackson retired and then set off from Springer Mountain, intending to walk the two thousand miles to Thoreau’s Katahdin. Mr. Moor agreed to join up with him in Hanover, New Hampshire, hiking with him for a stretch as a way to provide support, encouragement and comfort. Moor knew from his own thru-hike experience that this would be needed at this point in Mr. Jackson’s hike. “In June, on the day we had arranged to meet up, I stepped down off the bus in Hanover, New Hampshire, amid a cold rain. Jackson was waiting for me beneath the eaves of a nearby university building, looking like what he was: a man in his mid-sixties who had just walked seventeen-hundred miles. Almost thirty pounds lighter than when I last saw him, he had grown cowl-eyed, concave in the cheeks.” He had also acquired the trail name of Doyi, “the Cherokee word for ‘outside.’ The name conjured up fond memories of his two-year-old grandson, Jakob, who also loved the outdoors. When Jakob was being fussy about getting dressed, all Jackson has to say was ‘Doyi,’ and the boy would come running.” “We set out through the inundated streets. Before we even reached the trail, our shoes were squelching. Doyi told me this had been a wet year — one of those, like the year I thru-hiked, where the trail inexplicably grows sullen, and for each day spent atop sunny mountaintops, two are spent in a damp catacomb of trees. ‘I’m tired,’ Doyi confessed. ‘Tired of putting on wet socks, wet shoes..’”² “Starting out, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up with his pace. I was feeling out of shape, my feet city-soft, while Doyi had been averaging twenty miles a day, an impressive pace, especially for a man his age … However, even before the first mile had passed, it became clear that the combination of prolonged malnutrition and overexertion had sapped Doyi of his former strength; he panted on the uphills and cringed on the downhills, favoring his right knee. Walking behind him, I stared at his calves, which were hairless and lean. His body was visibly consuming itself. At one point, while climbing a moderately steep rise, he turned back to look at me and asked, between huffs, ‘How come you’re not breathing hard?’”³ They trudged all day, reaching a lean-to shelter after sundown. The shelter was peopled with Doyi’s trail friends, Ginko, Socks, Catch-Me-If-You-Can, and Tree Frog. “Doyi and I changed clothes, got in our sleeping bags, and prepared dinner. Tree Frog said that as he hiked he had been practicing the Cherokee words that Doyi had taught him: ‘shit’ (di ga si), ‘shit!’ (e ha), ‘water’ (ama), and Osda Nigada, which means, roughly, ‘It’s all good.’ Osda Nigada! Had become a kind of rallying cry for the rain-drenched hikers, and soon became their unofficial name for themselves: Team Osda Nigada … As I sat over my Coke-can stove cooking a pot of soba noodles, I found myself slipping back into the headspace of a thru-hiker. Tree Frog generously offered me and Doyi two muffins he’d carried up from town. They were sticky and dense; we both scraped the muffin paper clean with our teeth. (Nothing tastes better, the old thru-hiker adage says, than food you haven’t had to carry.) The gift prompted Doyi to teach the group a new Cherokee phrase: ‘Gv Ge Yu A,’ which means ‘I love you,’ except, Doyi said, that it cannot be used casually; it can only be spoken when one truly means it.” … “After consulting his guidebook that night, Tree Frog suggested that they should try to finish by July 7. Doyi smiled at the thought of that golden, mirrored numeral —7/7 — a sacred number for the Cherokees. It had the glow of fate.”º
¹(Moor, On Trails, page 204)
²(Ibid., pages 207-208)
³(Ibid, page 208)
º(Ibid., pages 226-227)
The next day Doyi and Spaceman (reborn) reached the top of Smarts Mountain and clambered up onto the fire tower platform on Smarts. “Doyi took off his shoes, releasing a swampy, dead smell. ‘Man, these things are rotten,’ he said. We both hung our socks out the window to dry, while we sat on the wooden floor and ate dried fruit. Doyi sat with his legs outstretched and crossed at the ankles. His feet were a horror. White, wrinkled, and blistered, they would have looked at home on the body of a dead grunt. The toenails on both big toes were plum colored, and his pinkie toenails had already fallen off. He began pointing out others that would soon go: ‘I’m gonna lose this toenail, this toenail, this toenail, and probably this one,’ he said. ‘My feet have never hurt this bad before,’ he said. ‘Ever.’ … “Five years earlier, on my thru-hike, I had sat in that exact spot, atop the same fire tower, for an entire afternoon, unable to summon the strength to leave … My body was failing under me. After almost four months on the Appalachian Trail, with only a month left to go, I was a sorry sight. There was scant insulation left on my frame — fat, muscle, or otherwise — with the exception of my legs, where equine muscles flickered and pulsed. I was always wet and cold, and I seemed to have caught some kind of flu back in Vermont. At night: shivers, followed by fever sweats that stunk of ammonia, and then worse shivers. In the morning: more miles to walk. Always, more miles … Then, without warning, I bumped into my friend Snuggles, whom I hadn’t seen in months. I found her fetused in her sleeping bag on the floor of a damp lean-to; she had been there for three days, lost in a sunless funk. Shortly after we joined up, we ran across another friend of ours named Hi-C. And at last, just as the three of us were entering the White Mountains, the months-long spell of rain broke. The following weeks were sunny, idyllic. Reenergized by good weather and good company, all three of us reached the top of Katahdin one warm morning that August … I told Doyi this story as we sat atop the fire tower, but it was of no comfort to him. No matter what I said, he still had to put his wet boots back on.”¹
¹(Ibid., pages 241-242)
They put their wet boots back on and resumed the trudge. Along the trail “Doyi talked more about his feet, and home, and missing his grandson. We arrived at the Hexacube Shelter around six. Inside were Doyi’s friends, who chattered boisterously as they cooked dinner … Doyi remained quiet. He cooked two dinners and ate them, back to back, with the air of a man beyond the condolences of food. When the conversation died down, he waited a beat, then said: ‘Guys, there’s something I have to tell you. I’m thinking about getting off the trail.’”¹
¹(Ibid., pages 243-244)
Doyi had reached a Gregor Samsa moment. He had reached a point at which he could no longer find a reason to continue putting one foot in front of the other. Four months beyond Springer and only a month away from Katahdin, he ached to just go home and rest. Moor says that Nimblewell Nomad once told him “that eighty percent of aspiring Appalachian Trail thru-hikers who give up do so for mental reasons, not physical ones.”¹ Nomad meant this as a simple statement of fact, but it almost sounds like Dostoyevsky. Giving up for mental reasons is giving up for lack of mental reasons. Reasons for putting the wet boots back on and trudging on ahead suddenly are nowhere to be seen, to be found. They had been there before, but are no longer anywhere to be found. Nomad’s damned question Why? becomes “a pert coxcomb who stands with arms akimbo barring your path and spitting.”²
¹(Ibid., page 15)
²(Dostoyevsky, Notes, Part I, Chapter IX, Kindle location 82129)
Happily, Doyi’s friends make an immediate intervention, reviewing his nutrition regime, searching his backpack and discarding anything he did not really need to carry, then, decisively, pledging to be there for him every step of the remaining way.
“‘If you want to finish, we’ll do whatever we have to in order to get you there,’’ Tree Frog said.
Doyi thought a moment. He made a small, pained smile.
‘I do,’ he said, firmly.
‘We’ll get you there,’ Tree Frog said.
Doyi thanked him.
Tree Frog shrugged. ‘Nigada Osda,’ he said.
At the time, I mistook that phrase for the group’s rallying cry: Osda Nigada, ‘It’s all good.’ In fact, Doyi later told me, some weeks after returning home from the windy summit of Katahdin, what Tree Frog had said was another Cherokee phrase: Nigada Osda. ‘Everybody is good.’”¹
¹(Moor, On Trails, page 245)
Doyi had found his lost Why? Moor doesn’t mention it, but I like to imagine that Doyi reached the top of Katahdin on July 7. Regardless, Doyi in his own heroic way, found a way to track himself, or, put the other way, to strive to be man.
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.
Mounts through all the spires of form. We’ve talked a lot already about mountains. I live at the base of a not-so-high (barely over 4,000 feet) because very old (said to be amongst the oldest in the world) cluster of mountains called the Cohuttas. I really mean it when I say I live at the base of the Cohuttas. My house is in a nearly flat cove bottom, and yet a hundred feet from my front door, at 1,600 feet above sea level, the upward incline begins and doesn’t end until it reaches the top ridge of the Cohuttas, 3,000 feet higher, about five miles away. A little west from my house and a bit southwest from the Cohuttas is a fairly isolated peak called Fort Mountain, connected to the Cohuttas by a relatively low ridge called Turkey Mountain. Benton Mackaye, considered the “father of the Appalachian Trail,” had originally planned to begin the Appalachian Trail atop Fort Mountain, have it go from there to the Cohuttas and from there up the Unicoi and on to the Smokies (the Benton Mackaye Trail now begins at Springer Mountain, comes over to the Cohuttas, then goes up the Unicoi and into the Smokies). Others decided for other reasons to have the trail begin on Mt. Oglethorpe. Yet later, for yet other reasons, the trail’s starting point was moved to Springer. Fort Mountain is called Fort Mountain because there’s a rock wall on its summit, 928 feet long and between three and ten feet high and four to five feet wide. The wall is stretched lengthwise but in serpentine fashion. There are twenty-nine stone pits along the wall. The wall is centuries old.
Fort Mountain is now a state park so the mountain and its wall are well protected. A trail leads to and along the wall. Park officials have erected a sign along the trail, providing information about the wall. It presents the story behind the wall as a mystery. Some had believed that Hernando De Soto and his soldiers had built the wall as a defensive fortification, to protect themselves from the natives as they moved through the area. This though makes little sense. The Spanish built enclosed forts and an elongated fortification would provide little real protection. Besides, De Soto was indeed moving through the area, looking for gold. There would have been no reason to stay in one place long enough to build such a wall. The Cherokee told about a “moon-eyed” people who, before the Cherokee moved into the area, lived on the mountain and built the wall. The Cherokee said that these people saw poorly in daylight but well during moonlight. The Cherokee also described these people as white-skinned, which has fostered speculation that a Welsh prince brought a party of countrymen to this place around 1,000 A.D. The Cherokee claim to have driven these people away, but to where? One last bit of speculation provided on the sign is that white settlers believed the stone pits to have been “Cherokee love nests.” Stone pits don’t seem very lovely to me.
If everyone else engages in speculation, I don’t see why I can’t as well. Actually not as well, but better. In fact, I’ve convinced myself that I’ve discovered the “mystery” behind the wall.
It’s really not very difficult. Much of the eastern United States, from northern Florida, up through Georgia and Alabama, on to Ohio and over to the Mississippi River, and back down to Oklahoma, is peppered with sites attributed to what is called the Mississippian Culture, a people or groupings of peoples who flourished between 800 A.D. and the mid-16th Century. When De Soto marched through the Southeast, he saw the last vestiges of this Mississippian Culture. What the Mississippians are mostly known for is mound building. They built impressively high and large mounds, reminiscent of the pyramidic temples of the Aztecs and Mayans except that they were earthworks, not stoneworks.
In southern Ohio is a mound known as the Serpent Mound, over 1,300 feet long, three feet high, the largest serpent effigy in the world. It was built prior to the flourishing of the Mississippians but was significant to any people living in the area once it was built. It’s mouth is open, holding an egg-shaped object, appearing to be swallowing to it. It is believed that this represents the snake eating the sun. Its mouth is aligned to the setting sun at the summer solstice. The curves of its body are in alignment with lunar events. The form of the body is suggestively similar to the constellation Draco. Draco is Latin for huge serpent, dragon,¹ that other European name for Wurm.
The stone wall on Fort Mountain is serpentine. The wall has twenty-nine pits, which look much like fire pits (not love nests). The lunar month can be calculated various ways with varying results. The shortest lunar month is called the Draconic (Draconic!) month, and is associated with solar and lunar eclipses. The operative notion is of a serpent eating either the sun or the moon, thereby causing the eclipse. The Draconic lunar month (which is redundant, because month means moon) lasts a few hours longer than twenty-seven days. A lunar month based on the time taken for the moon to move from new phase to full phase and back to new is between twenty-nine and thirty days.
We who grew up watching “cowboy and indian” shows on television, all know that Indians thought in terms of “many moons” when they calculated calendar time. Truth is, even we “cowboys” have done the same, as reflected (pun accepted) in the name for a month’s time period in northern European languages: month in English and Monat in German, both derived from moon and Mond. And just as Sunday is the sun’s day, Monday is the moon’s day, even in the Latin languages (in Spanish Monday is lunes).
Sure, I’m speculating, but I know I’m right. The serpentine wall on Fort Mountain is, just as the Serpent Mound in Ohio, a calendric representation of a serpent. I imagine that, as the moon proceeded through its phases, a fire burned at night in one of the pits, progressing from mouth to tail as the days (actually, nights) of the month progressed. Whether this serpent “controlled” other heavenly events, such as eclipses or the seasons, I cannot guess, but I’m confident in guessing that, at the very least, the wall is a lunar calendar. The “moon-eyed people” were moon-eyed not because they could see better at nighttime than in the daytime but because they were the watchers-of-the-moon.
Seems that building a stone wall is a troublesome way to go about getting a calendar. What’s up with that?
In the chapter in which Robert Moor spends time in western North Carolina learning about and from the Cherokee, he shares a Cherokee story about Uktena, the great serpent monster. “One day a local medicine man named Aganunitsi went hunting for the great serpent, hoping to collect the diamond that was embedded in its forehead. He walked south through the Cherokee lands, encountering mythic snakes, frogs, and lizards, before he finally reached the top of Gahuti Mountain, where he found the Uktena sleeping. The medicine man retreated to the bottom of the mountain and made a great circle of pinecones. Inside the circle he dug a deep circular trench, and within that, he left an island on which he could stand. Then the medicine man lit the pinecones on fire, crept back up to the serpent, and shot an arrow through its heart. The snake awoke in a fury and lunged after the medicine man. The man was prepared; he ran down the hill and leaped inside the circle of flames. The snake raced down behind him, spraying venom, but the poison evaporated in the blaze. While the man waited safely inside his ring of fire, the injured serpent roiled in agony, flattening trees. Its black blood poured down the slope, filling up the circular trench. The medicine man waited on his little island until finally the beast fell limp. After waiting seven days, he visited the site where the serpent lay, and though its flesh and bones had been pecked to dust by birds, one thing remained: a luminous diamond. With that jewel, the medicine man soon became the most powerful man in the tribe.”¹
¹(Moor, On Trails, page 198)
This is the Cherokee version of the same story Germans tell in the Edda and now in Wagner’s Ring der Nibelungen, in which Siegfried slays the Wurm named Fafner in order to take possession of the golden ring in Fafner’s hoard, the ring which makes its possessor all-powerful.
Aganunitsi found Uktena atop Gahuti Mountain. The Cherokee name for Fort Mountain is Gahuti (an eight-mile long loop trail around the top of the mountain is called the Gahuti Trail). Cohutta is a Europeanized variant of the name Gahuti.
The stone wall at the top of Fort Mountain is Uktena, a worm who mounted the spire of Fort Mountain but who could not mount all the spires of form, so needed to be slain by Aganunitsi. The Cherokee, upon moving into this part of the world, inherited this story, which like the wall pre-dated them. The Cherokee story, itself based on hearsay, can only hint at what the wall is all about.
Mounts through all the spires of form. This last line of this little verse has two main parts: Mounts spires and through form. Let’s look at these parts as parts, before putting them back together.
Mounts spires. Spire originally meant sprout, shoot, blade of grass, stalk, slender tree, from the PIE *spei-, sharp point (as in spike).¹ The tapered top of a steeple is a spire. Steeple in turn comes from steep, which originally meant “high, lofty.”² Mountains tend to be high, and tend to be steep. The pointed top of a mountain is a peak. Spires are peaks. It seems our worm, like the Cherokee monster worm Uktena but also like the real, live Cherokee man Doyi, is a mountain climber.
²(Ibid., entry ‘steeple’)
Time to remember one of our other mountain climbing friends, John Muir. Time to recall his description of his last day with Emerson or, more pointedly, the night of his last day with Emerson, the night Muir had hoped to share with Emerson, at a grand fire burning at the foot of those grand Sequoia trees. The hope was disappointed, Emerson riding off over a ridge returning to his Boston, leaving Muir alone with his fire and trees. I’ll quote him once more: “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.” Emerson was still with Muir in spiry. Clearly this was Muir’s playful way to say in spirit, but why did he choose to say spiry instead of spirit? Long before Muir had met the man Emerson out in Yosemite, he had met and loved the writer Emerson. He knew Nature more than casually, knew our little verse more than casually. Muir’s spiry comes from Emerson’s spire.
The words spirit and spire are in no way connected etymologically. Spirit comes from the Latin word for breath, spiritus. The Romans shared with the Greeks the notion that the soul or spirit of a person (the Greek name being ψυκή, psyche, which in Greek also meant breath) departed a dying person’s body with that body’s last breath. This has been called giving up the ghost. Geist is German for ghost, but also spirit and also mind. Hegel’s Phänomenolgie des Geistes is translated sometimes as Phenomenology of Spirit and sometimes Phenomenology of Mind. The sheer impossibility of really translating the German term Geisteswissenschaften (sciences of spirit? cultural sciences? human sciences? humanities? social sciences?) has supported a mini-industry of philosophy teachers making a decent living arguing for one translation or another.
While there is no etymological connection between these words, there is meaningful connection. The breath of spirit gives a body life and it’s departure brings death. We’ve already noted that spire originally meant sprout, shoot, slender tree. These growing things have within them the breath of life. Spiry means living, breathing, growing spirit. Which also brings us back to the quote from Goethe: “I shall never rest until I know that all my ideas are derived, not from hearsay or tradition, but from my real living contact with things themselves.” Hearsay and tradition have a share of spirit, but it’s a spirit akin to that of the ghost of Hamlet’s father. It’s a spirit of the dead. The ghost of Hamlet’s father will never rest until Hamlet wins vengeance. The play Hamlet is a bunch of words, words, words about death, death, death. By the end everyone but Horatio must die. Goethe wanted nothing of such ideas. He would not rest until he found a way to base his spirit (ideas) on life, on real living contact with things themselves, not just words and traditions about things. This is the worm mounting spires.
Through form. We’ve already become acquainted with this through. It’s the meta- in metaphor. Sure, the Greek for through isn’t meta-, but rather διά-, dia– (diameter, dialogue, diagram, diagonal, diaphragm, diaphanous) but if in real estate location is everything, in language context is everything. Meta-phor means bearing, carrying, ferrying over, across. The Latin version of it is trans-port or trans-fer, the Greek phor and the Latin fer showing obvious kinship, near identity. There can be no over, across without a through. To get across a river, I need to swim or paddle through it. To get across a mountain range, I must walk through a pass over the mountains. Meta-phor bears us over and across but also through.
If we can substitute meta- for through and trans- for meta-, instead of through form we have trans-form. The worm striving to be man is transformational. The Greek word for form is μορφή, morphe. Transformation is metamorphosis, as in the English title to Kafka’s story, as in the title of the work by Ovid which was so important to both Emerson and Thoreau.
An attempt here to clarify the word form would be doomed without first, at the very least, taking a few years to study Plato. We’ll cheat this a bit by hoping maybe Emerson too will helps us, before we’re done, understand a thing or two about form and transformation.
One poet tells us that a rose is a rose is a rose. This doesn’t seem very transformational. Unless! Unless something happens in the course of the repetition of a rose. Is the second a rose the same as the first a rose? The third the same as the first and second? A mathematician or an accountant would say they of course are all the same, is, is, is. But sometimes, more often than we might think, two plus two really does make five, not four.
Why, for example, is the classical sonata form so insistent upon repetition? Notes are repeated, phrasings are repeated, whole melodies are repeated and groupings of melodies are repeated. Just so we can once again hear a pretty passage? No! Even when a passage is repeated exactly the way it was presented the first time through, it’s not the same the second or third or fourth time through. Every repetition is growth, movement, development (unfolding, just as a rose unfolds itself when blooming), transformation.
The other poet tells us that the rose is without a why, it blooms because it blooms. We are always told and we are always telling ourselves that life must have meaning, that a life without meaning would be unbearable (that phor- word again!). We convince each other and ourselves that life must always have a why, and all sorts of why’s are peddled to us readymade to fill the need we feel for a why. Why? If a rose can bloom because it blooms, why can’t we? Why won’t we?
What would happen if we very deliberately left that need unfilled? According to Richardson, one of Emerson’s core perceptions is that the power of the soul is commensurate with its needs. In other words, the needier we are, the more powerful (in terms of soul) we become. The less needy (those whose needs are being fulfilled with their why’s) are less powerful. In Wagner’s Ring, the Fafner Wurm can be killed only by someone who uses a sword named Nothung. Not in German means need. Nothung is neediness to an extreme, immense need. In accordance with Emerson’s perception, only the soul in possession of immense need will have the power to slay Fafner.
Power. A frightening word. Can power be used and not misused? Often it seems not. Power is another word we should clarify, but that too would require, at the very least, much time in the study of Nietzsche. Maybe, once more, Emerson will help us out, help us understand a thing or two about the word power.
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.
At last, we’ve read through the entire verse. In doing so, we’ve taken our good time. We’ve permitted ourselves to digress as often as progress. In the process, hopefully, we’ve let the verse unfold. Is ours the only way to let the verse unfold? Of course not. In fact all of this makes sense probably only to me. You others, then, need to find your own way to let the verse unfold, or else just move on, seeing no need otherwise. As for the verse itself, it blooms because it blooms. It doesn’t fuss about itself, asks not if someone reads it.
Myths and traditions are always fussing about themselves and demand we all fuss about them. The resulting rites and rituals and customs and habits require constant cultivation. It’s a lot of work to maintain a myth and to develop and maintain habits. The wages though are pretty good, good enough to keep our pantries stocked with reasons to do this and reasons to do that. If all you need is reasons, so be it. Please don’t complain, though, if after you invest time and effort in reading my digressions and progressions and after you invest time and effort in reading, along with me, Emerson’s Nature, you come to the conclusion that neither I nor Emerson have offered anything of value, anything useful. We won’t.
My guess is that power cannot be used without being misused. And being powerless means being used and misused by the powerful. Must we choose between the two? Between being tyrant or being slave?
What if power can be had but not used, so not misused? Must power serve as an instrument of profit, a means to an end, a use? Mercury carries the money pouch but Hermes does not. Siegfried, after he slays Fafner, takes possession of the ring but is as unable to value that ring as Fafner was. Others (Alberich, Wotan) value the ring for the power it brings, which means it’s not the ring they value but only power. As with Hamlet, the Ring ends in death and destruction. Aganunitsi slays Uktena so he can obtain the diamond imbedded in Uktena’s forehead. Like Fafner’s ring, Uktena’s diamond brings power and, with the diamond, Aganunitsi becomes the most powerful man in his tribe. We are not told how he handled that power.
Somewhere, maybe in Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche says: man has obtained complete power over the earth without understanding how to use that power. But if any use is misuse, there can be no wise use of power.
Another of Emerson’s core perceptions, as identified by Richardson, is that poetry and thought liberate. Is this our first clue about the non-use of power? Striving to be man the worm mounts through all the spires of form. If the worm mounts to the spires of form, the worm remains bound by myth, tradition, hearsay. When the worm mounts through all spires of form, there is liberation.