Exhuming a Poetic Epistemology in Thoreau, Dickinson, and Emerson
I think a lot about thinking—it never gets me too far. I don’t know why I expect it to be different. I have this feeling that I should be getting somewhere, but mostly I find myself still sitting in the same chair, holding the same book, wondering at which word it was where I stopped reading, even while looking at the page, even while wondering what a poem is, what thinking in a poem looks like, how it feels to think, even while wondering why it is once again I have these images in my head of the spiraled-bent-down grass where the deer bedded for the night, and then the deer with the roots of the grass in her mouth, the dirt falling back to the ground while she chews. I consider digestion, breath, heartbeat, these processes of the body governed not by mind but by genius in the oldest sense, that daemonized life that ensures our own life continue, lest in not remembering to breathe we cease to do so, and so of the heart, and so of the gut, these vitalities that require we forget them for them to go on; and in forgetting them, our minds are afforded some other kind of work. Maybe it’s thinking. I think about appetite. I consider that between mouth and anus there is a single corridor that is a form of absence, and we live by filling this absence with things we eat, we organize ourselves around what is missing, and keep trying to fill it with world, though the world passes right through. What is the story of Eden but an ongoing reminder that to know we must take a bite and swallow? And what is this paradise of and in mind, those digestive circuits, that take in through the eyes a poem or a book and the essence feeds some occult muscle and what is cast back out is but another poem, written perhaps by my own hand, or a sentence, perhaps, written by your own? I wonder about the mind as the thing that is missing. And I wonder what it feels like to think, and if I have ever felt that thing called thinking. I wonder if I’ve ever done it: thinking. I worry it feels like sitting in a chair, realizing I’ve become blind to the page I’d been reading, and so once again, I must begin to read the poem I’d started earlier—maybe a minute ago, maybe yesterday, I can’t quite remember, that poem I began and when I did so, maybe when I opened my eyes and took a first breath and cried. I worry a paragraph is a cloud waiting to disperse. I worry about the blank page, if it’s a field, and if so, what type? Field of oblivion, apophatic ground, terrifying “there is” of pure being. Or is it just the pale grasses all pressed down after the living thought has wandered gently off to graze?
Forgive this confused reverie, or should I say, this reverie of confusion. I mean to ask a simple question. Which direction does thinking go in? I know that question has in it some naïve assumption the post-modern world easily dismisses: linearity as false vector, hubris of teleology, and so on. I’m all for the multi-valent complexity of thought, but can’t it be—that as “a point is that which has no part,” and a line “a breadth of endless length” made up of points that have no parts—that thinking can move within itself with all its adhesive valencies and still be in motion in one direction or another? Up or down or to the horizon? At the same time, I feel so distrustful of ideal form, of Plato’s “divided line”, of his cave, of Eidos, of the Forms, of the soul as horse-drawn chariot—well, I distrust them even as I love them all the more for my doubt. I want to know why it might be that when I try to think I don’t find myself in airless realms where truth’s cold pastoral holds desire at bay so the ideal form can over the soul hold sway; I want to know why my hands are dirty. I want to know how I got this dried mud in my eye. I want to know who dug this hole I’m standing in, right now, while I sit reading in this chair.
It is this sense of direction, of thoughtful momentum, that I want to consider by turning to three touchstones of my own mental life—and if of mine, so perhaps of your own. Each is very brief, but as Thomas Traherne suggests that a single leaf is worth a century of meditation, and Blake suggests heaven is there in the wildflower, each may require more thought than the life doing the thinking can provide. A sentence in Thoreau, a sentence or two in Emerson, and one poem from Dickinson—just these, no more.
In the second chapter of Walden, “Where I lived, and What I lived For”, Thoreau writes: “My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing, as some creatures use their snout and fore-paws, and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills.” I trust this creaturely turn, this synecdoche in which head stands in for that organ mind, and whatever thinking is, it digs more than it soars. “To mine” and “to burrow” replace more typical images of the mental process. One seeks the “richest vein” coursing within the hills; the other knows that dwelling is the effort of deepest thinking. No longer is thought a means by which one is removed from the stuff of the world up into those ethereal realms where Forms replace matter with a pattern more primary if less tangible. No. Thinking is to dig down into the matter itself, to give over to the old occult sense that only within things can their truest worth be found—vein evocative not only of gold and silver and diamond, but also of blood, also of the earth-thing that is the body. In seeking that which is of known worth, is valued by society, by world, one creates that space that none can value as highly as the one who has formed it, this burrow that none can exactly borrow, this work of thinking so as to make a place to dwell not on the world, but in it, to become an indweller. So quietly, but so audaciously, Thoreau offers us a means by which to revalue work we assume we know the purpose and worth of. Thinking leads to knowledge, that rich vein, commonsense claims. But for those of us, who like Thoreau, find our sense anathema to commonsense, thinking’s relation to the knowledge it is supposed to find turns paradoxical. One doesn’t gain knowledge; one created in it a hole, and in that hole, one learns how to live. To have that instinct that your head as an organ for burrowing is likewise to trust that it is a tool dependent on ignorant uses as much as it is for thoughtful ones. To shovel out this hole with my head is as good a use of it as discovering the Pythagorean theorem. It takes the other-worldy work of mind and makes it into under-worldly work. Within the solid hill, within the dark ground, within the solid fact, we think so as to open a space to breathe, make inside of something some nothing in which we take a breath, go to sleep, and wake. To wake up we must dig down. Thoreau writes:
To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by the infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.
That “soundest sleep” that “infinite expectation of dawn” doesn’t forsake isn’t merely untroubled. That sound also invokes itself as a verb, as a whale sounds when it dives to ocean’s bed, suggesting sleep as a quality of depth, a going into, a going under the mountain to be within the vein. The sleep that occurs is not the sleep of knowledge, sufficient unto itself, but the sleep within knowledge, that forgetfulness at the center of fact, that lethe in the heart of alethia, which orients us back to the expectation of the dawn not as the beginning of but another day, but that ongoing first morning, heroic in its gold light, a morning not of time, but of condition, in which we wake to wonder that the world is a form of ongoingness that breaks the husk of our intellect back to the germ of first consciousness. How do we find the dawn? We crawl back out the hole we dug. Shake the dirt from our ears. Open our eyes.
“Morning is when I am awake and there is dawn in me”, Thoreau says. To wake in it is to be awakened “by our Genius.” I love the plural possessive pronoun he uses—not my, but our. As no one owns the morning, so no one possesses genius. Some other quality lurks. It is almost as if, heard properly, there is a passive quality to such possession, to such genius. One doesn’t master so much as be mastered; doesn’t possess so much as finds oneself possessed. To crawl out the burrow head first means one opens ones eyes to a dawn that fills the head with its light, and for the briefest of instants, the mind blinded by the sudden clarity as an eye might be blinded by lightning, dawn occurs within even as it occurs without, internal and external lose their opposition, and thinking begins not by collecting once again the already-thought thoughts, but by finding the categories of consideration obliterated by the light they meant to record. That fecund zero might be one way to describe Genius, mimetic as it is of the eye opened widest, of the mouth saying its invocatory reflex, O.
But do we crawl out Thoreau’s burrow beneath the hills carrying only that capacity for nothingness which lets us possess the dawn by being possessed by it, or is there something else, something we bring, something mined from that “richest vein” beneath the hill?
In “The Poet” Emerson writes, “Every word was once a poem. Every new relation is a new word.” And in the same essay, “Language is fossil poetry.” Whatever the instinct to dig with our heads might mean, suffice it to say that the mining at which it works isn’t after gold or silver merely material in nature, though seeking it outside of the world in which it is embedded is but a sophisticated craft—one that would point at the hill and say there is the gold, which no doubt is true, but falls short of the dirt of experience. But gold and silver are a kind of fossil, as are diamonds, as are gems. Not the fossils of the textbooks that show the bones of the beasts now extinct, a kind of proof that a life has been without the possibility of a return to the same, but these richest veins of ore are fossils of those volcanic processes whose heat and pressure like some furious genius heaved the world into being and in doing so created a vascular system coursing through mountains and hills and earth. They are evidence of a processes still going occurring, where elemental forces work on the elements themselves, cosmic law grown material, as vital in the hill as is the vein of blood in the wrist, and evidence of the same principle, that volcanic heart yoking to its pressure the volcanic head that thinks only by virtue of the veins pulsing their particulate gold within it.
We emerge, if we do, if we ever begin digging in the first place, not only with that nothing of the radically open eye, but with a fossil. We carry it in us until it becomes molten once again; we carry it with us until it becomes alive. It is maybe no more than a word, but a word of different nature than those that tend to fill the days so that they merely go away. It is a word with a burrow inside it, a word that invites the thing it names into it to exist, to live, just as the thing it names reciprocates the kindness, and finds within its substance some absence for the word to take up its lodging. I suspect this is in part what Emerson means when he claims that “every new relation is a new word.” It’s not a word made up; it’s no neologism. It’s a word tuned back to its initial life, its morning life, its life made purely of dawn, wherein what it names it names for the first time, not recognition but initiatory experience, the very atom of intelligence before the mind falls into the trap of its own consciousness, and confuses thinking with being.
But it begins underground, this work. And it’s hard to know what and where the ground is. It looks like there’s sky all around. It’s hard to know how to use the head as your shovel. It’s difficult to guess that some of the soil is blue.
Even the briefest encounter with Emily Dickinson’s poetry reveals a mind uniquely indebted to the grave. Easy enough to call the tendency macabre or gothic in sensibility, but to do so would undermine an epistemological experiment that extends far past death as subject matter or obsession, and instead insists that death, and thinking, and expression, and sense, must be seen to weave one into the other. This grave-yard work (and as I write these sentences, sitting outside, the mourning dove complains her song) abounds in the lyric imagination of America: “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—”, “I cannot live with You— / It would be life— / And Life is over there—”, “I am nobody! Who are you?”, “Because I could not stop for death— / he kindly stopped for me—”, and “A Death blow is a Life blow to Some” are but a fraction of well-known and lesser-so examples. It is this sense of some vitality that begins at death—that experience Wittgenstein reminds us “is not an event of life”—that most concerns me. Death would seem to be both the border and the border-guard simultaneously, the line that marks sense from silence, and the one who in allowing you to cross, warns there is no crossing back. That limit we find ourselves at, some limit we might call our life, filled with the experiences by which we lived it, seem suddenly not to be the resource we thought it was, some means by which to feel we’ve gained an identity that is unique to our own peculiar bliss—but then bliss meets abyss, and what had felt complete stands suddenly apart, partial, and we find within ourselves something ajar, “just the Door ajar / That Oceans are—and Prayer—”.
How to be upon that ocean, to be within it; or, to stick closer to our over-riding metaphor, how to be within the earth, in the burrow, where the localities and precisions of topos are denied us, where we live within being lost, becomes our dearest poetic question. Dickinson’s poem 280 might go some way toward illuminating that void death is supposed to be:
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading—treading—till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through—
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum—
Kept beating–beating –till I thought
My Mind was going numb—
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space—began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here—
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down—
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing—then—
The first two quatrains contain a curious paradox: they speak of feeling emerging as a consequence of the end of the faculty by which we think we recognize feeling—that is, the end of thought. In some lovely echo of Keats’s “drowsy numbness” that “pains my heart”, Dickinson feels the same numbness in her mind, a strange cessation of that inner noise we call thinking and the language in which it occurs, perverse work of consciousness that grows aware by growing apart from the object of its attention, and the ear that for a lifetime secretly became trained almost wholly inward—solipsism of I think, therefore I am ad nauseum, ad infinitum—reverses its listening, and tunes once again to the world outside the head.
The inversion of the ear back to an orientation geared wholly outside of the self not only allows the Soul to become a force in the poem—that silence apart from all speaking even as it is within all word, burrowed there, vein of purest nothing—it allows the ear to become supra-sensory, hearing not a single song, but that resonance that, as from a struck bell, reverberates through all being as a grace note. Here, that bell is heaven—not God’s dwelling place, not religious dogma, but that next sphere of cosmic order whose own ringing is but a listening to the celestial sphere also encircling it.
One might say the brain is but a bell without a tongue; we must learn to be quiet to let it ring. And so it is Dickinson finds herself next to Silence, both “wrecked”, both “solitary”, both “here”. That Silence may well be the Chaos of old, waiting for a motion it cannot produce itself to spring from it that deepest possibility of this form of order we call life. It cannot act upon itself; it must be acted upon. And it is just there, on that ground more justly called abyss, the self-wreck of being and silence, that mere plank of a nothing-that-is, barest board of reason, where the burying work of real thinking begins. It does not feel like thinking. It feels like a plunge, like a plummet. In that downward motion alone is the world found, are worlds found, and to “finish knowing—then—”, is not to end in fact or wisdom, it is to be reborn into an utmost ignorance, an absolute infancy, where knowing as an end of thinking is over just as the fairy tales that put children to sleep all come to an end. That little death called sleep is also an introduction to our mental life. But sometimes one has to die in more deliberate ways. Sometime you use your own head to dig your own grave, and deep in the earth, looking for fossils, you learn how to listen. “Every word was once a poem.” And right there, where knowing ends, something else begins. You might call it thinking.