New Found Land
Why drag about this corpse of your memory . . . live ever in a new day.– Ralph Waldo Emerson(1)
I woke with a sense of time as a breathing fleshy pleasantly pale yellow matrix. Cells shifted in the mass like globular moments exchanging places without discrimination or hierarchy. I remembered the phrases: “corpse of memory” and “live ever in a new day.” They had strayed from their context and stood singly like products awaiting approval.
An Irish folktale describes a man carrying a corpse on his back, issuing orders pointing where he should go. How to throw it off? My dentist told me that if the bone has been damaged in an infected tooth it won’t begin to regrow itself until all necrotic tissue has been removed. Simulated tissue is then inserted by root canal to trick the bone into pulling itself together.
I’m not happy with memory as corpse. Biologically speaking, we can’t live with corpses because we’d be living with corruption and would die before our [projected] time. By definition memory is what lives in us of the past, dead to movement but rooted and expanding in place like-unlike a tree. It obscures our view of the changing socio-scape, but one’s particular point of view might do that anyway.
Memories that occur dawn after dawn are a kind of tonal field. They sound through your body like the hum of traffic. They’re torturers. They bore into your skull and leave you bored and boring. But they’re also motivators. They can shock you into movement.
Night and day are hardly the metaphors that they were. Insomnia is a way of being. We work all hours. The planet is constantly lit. We know more or less how the sun will behave and we do a lot to recreate it under internal skies. Almost as critical now are black or blue screens and their bright opposites.
I feel that something new is discovered in me most mornings, but I’ve just looked at an old journal and found that the discovery I’m amazed at now was also made three years ago. Because it was morning I thought it was new. The same morning I had that (probably not new either) vision of eternity, I read in Julia Kristeva’s Tales of Love(2) that obsessive compulsion creates a kind of security in an unstable, drifting life. I had Ann Carson’s Float(3) strewn on the table and stalling at “Cassandra Float Can.” Prophesy claims to oversee time; potential, perceived past and future are all readable, but not by light, by darkness—which we tend to disparage.
Days and nights round on themselves like a wheel and are not to us as they are to themselves. A night vision is as bright as noon. The touch of someone in the night can be felt as a bright thing. Obsessive compulsion in the day sends you into a blind rotation.
Returning to Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” I realised how much I’d forgotten of it. His meaning had been that obsolete and oppressive ideas and institutions must be jettisoned in favour of self-motivated action; that we shouldn’t cripple ourselves by trying to be completely consistent—flow like a river, don’t stand like a sculpture. Imagistically, though, to value individual intuition as he does is to recognise the importance of darkness or the “severer listening” that Adrienne Rich speaks of in “Transcendental Etude.”
But there come times—perhaps this is one of them
when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die;
when we have to pull back from the incantations,
rhythms we’ve moved to thoughtlessly,
and disenthrall ourselves, bestow
ourselves to silence, or a severer listening, cleansed
of oratory, formulas, choruses, laments, static
crowning the wires.(4)
In “The Origins and History of Consciousness,” it’s through darkness, sleep and dream that a new language is conceived.
Emerson’s [hu]man advances against chaos, perceived as darkness, with the statuesque eye of individuated inheritance. "What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?" The "soul is light" and is opposed to physical time and space; history is only its parable. In so saying, he over-rides his assertion that day and night are “not to be disputed.” In fact, he’s concerned with the timeless moment, the nunc stans, and the individual as its light-in-dark embodiment.
We did this. Conceived
of each other, conceived each other in a darkness
which I remember as drenched in light. (5)
His elevation of inner reality is similar to Rich’s, though imaged and sounded differently. His “unaffrighted innocence” is the same “innocence” Rich finds in her lover’s vulva in "The Floating Poem."(6) That the “way, the thought, the good, shall be wholly new” resonates with Rich’s “No-one has imagined us.” (Twenty-One Love Poems, I).
Coincidentally yet again, John Ashbery’s “Pyrography” happened to be in front of me when I started writing this.(7) Subtle references to “Self-Reliance” are many, understandably, as the poem was written for the catalogue of America 1976, an exhibition of landscapes sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Interior to commemorate the bicentennial. Ashbery’s poem could almost be read as an ironic critique of the essay.
Emerson writes: “I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong.”
Ashbery highlights the self-conscious creation of the notion of America and its limitations:
Are drawn forward under a sky of fumed oak.
This is America calling
. . .
In service stairs the sweet corruption thrives;
The page of dusk turns like a creaking revolving stage in Warren, Ohio.
There is movement from the “darkness of the cities” to the “nothing of the coast”; backwards and forwards, like Emerson’s indictment of so-called social advancement. Metaphorical day and night are compressed:
Like houselights, “the dreams alternately glow and grow dull.” Time is “running out . . . evening presenting / The tactfully folded-over bill.”
the slow boxcar journey begins,
Gradually accelerating until the gyrating fans of suburbs
Enfolding the darkness of cities are remembered
Only as a recurring tic.
There is the same idea of apprehending a timeless present, a “purity,” here not illuminated by intuition or the individual soul, but by pragmatism imbued with respect.
The Epilogue of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian has a “man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there.” The men behind him are “like mechanisms” who appear “restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality.” Their progress seems like the “verification of a principle, a validation of sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it . . .”(8)
. . . maybe the feeble lakes and swamps
Of the back country will get plugged into the circuit
And not just the major events but the whole incredible
Mass of everything happening simultaneously and pairing off,
Channeling itself into history, will unroll
As carefully and as casually as a conversation in the next room,
And the purity of today will invest us like a breeze,
Only be hard, spare, ironical: something one can
Tip one’s hat to and still get some use out of.
It seems to me that this is also a reference to time and timelessness, the existence in one space of all cause and effect, but that Promethean [Hu]Man experiences it, through his effort, in small portions that are neither night nor day but pockets of consciousness. Perhaps the man with the implement is the personification of an ideal or of the innate human drive, slavishly being followed by sleepwalkers who are the antithesis of Emerson’s or Rich’s aware being.
There’s no glorification of an ideal in Blood Meridian. The fire-maker is compulsive, not inspired. The landscape is the same dumbstruck one that Ashbery implies as the real “purity of today” into which commerce and domestic comfort has been etched, also with a species of fire. The immense land mass of [North] America is effectively contained by consciousness in Ashbery, and effectively implied to expand it in Emerson and Rich.
I suppose my sense of time as a fleshy thing is an inflated body sense. In a small room in a small city in a small country with a close horizon it’s liberating to wake to a spontaneous reminder of space. But while the day dawns with or without you, space only means anything if you move into it.
But in all unbalanced minds the classification is idolized, passes for the end and not for a speedily exhaustible means, so that the walls of the system blend to their eye in the remote horizon with the walls of the universe; the luminaries of heaven seem to them hung on the arch their master built.
An arch that terminates in mid-keystone, a crumbling stone pier
For laundresses, an open-air theater, never completed
And only partially designed.
(1) “Self-Reliance” (1841). Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays. 1st series [Vol. 2]
(2) Tales of Love. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez, New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.
(3) Float. London: Jonathan Cape/Random House, 2016
(4) The Dream of a Common Language. New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1978/1993.
(5) op. ibid.
(6) ‘Floating Poem, Unnumbered,’ Twenty-One Love Poems, ibid.
(8) Blood Meridian, New York: Random House, 1985.