Exody and Some Mechanics of Splendor in Emerson and Blaser

Michael Boughn

“All research on the labyrinth ought properly to begin with the dance.”

—Karl Kerenyi

 The last part of the title of these all too brief comments is lifted shamelessly from Robin Blaser’s “Image-Nation 21 (territory”, where it refers to the person of the poet chanting, as that poem has it, in the windy cables of bridges. I want to let that personalization of “mechanic”, with its Hart Cranian overtones, stand in relation to both of those marvelous thinkers whose work I want to address here, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robin Blaser, and also let it extend beyond that into the notion of some field of knowledge having to do with the study of motion, as well as the ways in which that motion becomes a kind of routine operation, something ordinary, mechanical. Over all that I want to invoke and let hover an image out of America’s cultural past: an old car, say a ‘46 Hudson or a ‘52 Ford, with the hood up and some guys bent over the motor, endlessly tinkering with the contraption, to make go, it’s true, but equally for the sheer pleasure of the endeavor. In this case, that contraption is of a certain brilliance and the tinkering speaks to a certain habit of relation, where habit, like Thoreau’s habitation, is a place we build in the world to live in, to inhabit. Again, this is a habit of motion which, in the most recent of the “Image-Nations” we have in print, is called exody.

            I’d like to begin with Emerson’s “Divinity School Address”, which he presented to the tiny class of six students graduating from Harvard Divinty School in 1838, and in which he sketched out in the form of advice to the students the reasons for his own conversion from the pulpit. He here proposes what he sometimes calls the sacred as evident in a specific relation to language, to the word or Logos, a relationship that he argued had been lost by the church. This relation is twofold: it arises from experience and is full of the specifics of a life, and because of this, it is prophetic and cosmogonic. It names the world truly, where we understand, I think, the word truly as an accuracy bearing what Giorgio Agamben calls “the mark of the Sphinx”, an honoring of the enigma that is the barrier between those two terms that stand so centrally in the currently troubled imagination of language, signified and signifier.

            Agamben is addressing this troubled thinking crucified on the cross of presence and difference, where in the one case we are left with an absolute intelligibility whose immeasurable brutality we have witnessed all too frequently in this closing century, and where in the other case we are left isolated and alone, unable to know anything of the world.

The ainos (story, fable) of the ainigma is not only obscurity, but a more original mode of speaking. Like the labyrinth, like the Gorogon, and like the Sphinx that utters it, the enigma belongs to the sphere of the apotropaic, that is, to a protective power that repels the uncanny by attracting it and assuming it within itself. The dancing path of the labyrinth, which leads into the heart of that which is held at a distance, is the model of this relation to the uncanny that is expressed in the enigma. . . . [U]nder the sign of the Sphinx must be placed every theory of the symbol that, refusing the model of Oedipus, focusses its attention above all on the barrier  between signifier and signified that constitutes the original problem of signification. (Stanzas 138-39)

He goes on to call this, following Aristotle on the symbol here, “a connection of impossibles, not a relation of manifestations.”

            For Emerson, this sense of the word as a site of connected impossibles, impossible connections, has partly to do with his recognition of the endless conflict between knowledge and knowing. The “Divinity School Address” registers a moment when the forms of knowledge (call them Christianity, or Unitarianism, or Hegelian Idealism) are no longer adeqaute to the act of knowing, or worse, negate it, when knowing, your knowing and my knowing, is discredited by the perfection of knowledge that proposes to have completed it, as if it weren’t something we did every day. Within that perfection, what Robert Creeley in his introduction to The Holy Forest calls “skillfully accomplished enclosure,” Emerson found a skepticism that separates us from the act of knowing which is always, as he has it elsewhere, drawing a new circle, a new circle that is the constitution of our further self. “Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done,” Emerson writes, “as if God were dead,” where what he here calls God dwells and means precisely in a connection of impossibles: “The child amidst his baubles is learning the action of light, motion, gravity, muscular force; and in the game of human life, love, fear, justice, appetite, man, and God, interact.”

            If we seem to hear in the rumbling of this cleavage between knowing and doubting the distant echo of some ancient quarrel about poetry and philosophy, this rumor seems borne out all the more given the response to Emerson’s talk. The Harvard Unitarian elite, led by Andrews Norton, launched a vicious public attack on him in the press, accusing him of “vagueness, inconsistency, impiety, nonsense, infidelity, blasphemy, and ‘foulest atheism’” (Richardson 299). It was thirty years before he was again invited to speak at Harvard. It is, as they say, Plato’s academy.

            Emerson, with, dare I say, typical Yankee ingenuity, then set about inventing something we could call a new thinking, a new wording of the world, one that dwelled in the imagination of a healing of that wound, that cleavage. It is a thinking that constantly tinkers with utter incommensurability, a mechanics of splendor where we understand that brilliance to lurk in each of these words, waiting to found a world, where finding, as Stanley Cavell has it, is founding and what we have to find is right under our noses. There are two ways I’d like to go from here, both of which lead to Robin Blaser’s work and what it has given us. To quickly map them out, one way heads off through Emerson’s constant reclaiming of the common, a reclaiming of it in the face of both traditional philosophy’s highfalutin disdain of it and Jacksonian democracy’s opportunistic degredation of it (a degredation we still hear every day in the clamor for the purity of some “outside” of Washington that will finally fix the problems of American democracy). This is the common that is the topic of the essays, which open: “There is one mind common to all individual men.” Common as shared, common as ordinary, as commonplace, it dwells in communicable, in communion, in community, rendered available to all. The other way heads off through a discussion of abandonment and transition as the essential features of our condition. “This one fact the world hates,” Emerson famously says, “that the soul becomes.” One of these paths has to do with what kind of words we choose, the other with how we get from one word to the next and what we think to do with them. Together they propose a constitution, a habitation adequate to the possiblities of this place and, Emerson believed, the people we are, which is the people we might be.

            Thinking back, as I write this, to last night, where, arguing in a pub with a new friend, a poet of Robin’s generation but not of his inclination as writer, I once again encountered that old argument over the intersection of form and act. My friend proposed it as a question of what he calls “raw” and “cooked” poetry, as if it were an issue of finish. And in a way it is, though not, I think, in quite the way he intended. When Emerson, in “Experience”, reminds us of the evanescence and lubricity of that in the world which we would clutch, he speaks, among other things, to the idea of such a finish. It is something that a writing either addresses or doesn’t. Emerson addressed it in every word, hence the extraordinary surface of that work, a lubricitous surface that repels even as it provides flashes of profoundest insight, a surface that denies our ability to clutch or hold, which Emerson calls “the most unhandsome part of our condition”. You could call such a surface a finish which refuses finish, or refuses to finish.

            “Image-Nation 24 (‘oh, pshaw’”,  a long meditation on the forming of the poet’s life and on the god-lore, as he puts it, in all of its manifestations that everywhere accompanied it, brings us into the American world of just such a proposition. As it works and reworks the facts of that life, the poem delivers us to a world of astonishing details, details in which the common and the marvelous are indistinuishable, in which they, it, constitutes the matter of life, of any life. The “drat!” which opens the poem and resonates throughout the body of its words, draws us into a labyrinth of thinking and sounds, of sounded thinking, the splendor of which, like the lingering god in drat, is all too often lost to monotony. In The Bow and the Lyre, Octavio Paz writes: “Breton has said: la véritable existence est ailleurs. That elsewhere is here, always here and in this moment.” In the “Divinity School Address”, Emerson envisioned just such a dispersal, an unloosening of the authority which would condemn the world to monotony by locating this elsewhere in a person, a book, a past. In his America, which is the America we encounter in the words of this poem, “a new yet unapproachable America” as Emerson has it in “Experience”, democracy is exactly the  “drat” of Robin’s memory and imagination, the intricate implication of that thinking the other into our daily exclamations, these very noises. Octavio Paz, again, another American whose thinking is so much a part of this marvelous tinkering, goes on to write: “Real life opposes neither the quotidein nor the heroic life: it is the perception of the spark of otherness in each one of our acts, not excluding the most trivial. These states are often massed together under a name I consider inexact: the spiritual experience.

            I find myself wanting to linger here in the democracy of these words, of Robin’s words, which is, now that I think of it, a kind of bridge, or let’s say, bridging, as in the bridging that has woven itself in and out my attention, here in relation to sundry cleavages and gaps. Whatever the shores such a bridging brings together (not the least of which are the shores of the phonemes which are the constitution of the sense of this), Hart Crane reminds us of the marvel of the flight, the bridging, itself:

Through the bound cable strands, the arching path

Upward, veering with light, the flight of strings,—

Taut miles of shuttling moonlight syncopate

The whispered rush, telepathy of wires.

Up the index of night, granite and steel—

Transparent meshes—fleckless the gleaming staves—

Sibylline voices flicker, waveringly stream

As though a god were issue of these strings . . . .

This coming together of flight and song and their issue in that last suggestive “as though . . .” brings us then squarely into Robin’s exody, that moment in “Image-Nation 24” that both closes and opens, and delivers us to “Image-Nation 25”, which is also called exody, and throughout which the eyes of the image of the wandering jew follow us, “into corners—to the end of the boxcar parlour—even into the brilliance of reading under the library table”.  We are caught in the gaze that Jew—and those others, out of Egypt and heading home—till we find ourselves already there, in the movement itself. “The coming only is sacred,” Emerson says, locating something called the new as that on which we found (find) our selves, where that is understood as common and the self is always further.

            If that exody resonates with the sound of feet shuffling in ancient dust, in it we can also hear a stitching together of songs, an echo of the art of the rhapsode, which returns me to that intersection of form and act where I’m caught in the words: movement, abandonment, new and the filiating kinetic of the entanglement of mind, language, world. I think especially here of that turn in Robin’s work which makes itself felt in the rushing of the breath through these endless lines, in the opening up of the syntax of this common speech into the distances of the high plains of the common heart.  I could invoke Ovid here, as Robin often does, and the transformations of his carmen perpetuum, or the “quick darting breath” in Robin’s own early poem “Herons”, where “the snake / changes its skin out of honesty.” In any case, it’s not simply singing as celebration, though that’s here, too, but singing as knowing, where all the issues touched on all too briefly in these last minutes, are glimpsed, or overheard, in the rising of the human voice out of the depths of a life and into the brilliant air where we follow it.