How deep and how far will you go? (4)

bp Nichol, Dillard, Emerson, John Winthrop, Psalms -

How deep and how far will you go? (4)

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4. How deep and how far will you go?

Delight in nature and in language is not permanent.  The reason and faith Emerson experiences in the wood, the transcendent oneness he describes as a scene which yesterday “breathed perfume and glittered as for the frolic of nymphs, is overspread with melancholy today” (11).

This observation echoes with Nichol’s description of the language’s forcefulness and power to drive us out of the familiar meanings we know.  Emerson suggests that if nature is a symbol of spirit, meaning does not ultimately reside in nature, “but in man, or in harmony of both” (11) nature and the human mind. 

The Hebrew poet writes that “deep calls unto deep / at the thunder of your cataracts; / all your waves and your billows have gone over me” (Psalm 42.7).  When the water falls, it breaks the surface of the other waters it falls upon; as the waves turn in circles upon each other, the downcast soul is renewed in hope (42.5, 11).

Here, the Spirit of God is a thunderous wave breaking upon the waters of the human spirit to wash over the writer of the poem. A forcefulness lifts up the downcast soul after a shock of sensation, through interruption.

A crossing of waters occurs that reinvigorates the poet’s mind as he embraces the imagery of the natural world and claims it in language. This imagery of water as a collision of spirit with spirit—the double you— a place where the transcendent is made present, stretches back centuries. 

Long before Emerson picks up the mantle and tasks literature with opening us to spontaneous grace we read the Psalms.  Emerson’s assertion that the “relation between the mind and matter is not fancied by some poet, but stands in the will of God, and so it is free to be known by all men” (24) resonates even as it locates the spirit in water.  Notably, the movement of water is not merely latitudinal, it falls downward by force of gravity. 

The implication is that the grace is above us even as it surrounds us. It has movement and depth, perhaps even depth beyond our reach, even when we experience melancholy today or feel driven out of the world. The psalmist employs the circular movement of water to bring a wave of spirit or presence, a moment of spontaneous grace for the downcast soul. Whereas Emerson and Dillard are surrounded in being, the spirit falls upon the psalmist and encircles him like a rip-curl.

“The universe is fluid and volatile” (Emerson 403), expanding like a circle drawn around a circle, and for Emerson literature enables us to look at the world anew, with new eyes for new experience, a new type of “Pentecost” that re-invigorates and re-informs the world in a “game of circles” (408). 

In describing conversation thus, Richardson asserts, that by comparing it to the “cloven flame” of Pentecost, each new speaker “adds another voicing of experience from a particular extended moment in space-time (15) so that over time there is a “conversion of the shape of an idea from one form into another” (17).  The ability to see, then, depends not only on stepping into nature, but also catching the wave created by others in the past, that is, taking up or being caught up in their conversation.

We can trace the lineage of Emerson’s essays and lectures, for instance, back to the writing of John Winthrop, who crossed an ocean to enact a theory of grace. His experience puts pressure on the idea that venturing into new, open space (which for Winthrop was the sprawling vistas of New England) results in a grace that both fills and inspires the body, individual or corporate.  Winthrop’s sermon of 1630, A Model of Christian Charity, exhorts the cohorts on a ship traveling to America to enact a human experiment.  He urges all to:

delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, our community as members of the same body (91).

In so doing, Winthrop assured his fellow sojourners that God would dwell with them and that they would see more “wisdom, power, goodness, and thrush, than formerly we have been acquainted with” (91).

Winthrop’s biblical vision of community functioning as a body, his idealistic call for a harmonious society that can operate under spontaneous grace at any moment “dimmed and even darkened as he accommodated himself to the realities of the New World” (Heimert and Delbanco 81).

The Antinomian Controversy, in which Anne Hutchinson famously claimed direct personal revelation from God, thereby threatening the authority of the appointed Puritan hierarchy, tested Winthrop’s ideal. Her claim of direct access to Grace raised “questions of individual agency and subjectivity” (Kaufmann 32), and ultimately landed her outside the community as an exile.

The Old World with its corruption and incivility was transplanted to the New.  Grace, if present at any moment, was not incorporated into the body in a continuous way. One way to explain the apparent disconnect between Winthrop’s sermon on the boat with the reality on land is that his community encountered the problem of belatedness.

By the time their perception and introspection caught up with their reality, it was already too late.  Is such an ideal society, a “spiritually thriving community” (82), ever possible or does Winthrop’s experience in the New World signal that it always already will fail?  William James encourages us with something like an answer: “The present sheds a backward light on the world’s previous processes” (Pragmatism 98). 

Winthrop’s experience instructs us that theory and practice must meet, they cannot be two separate streams.  In Jamesian terminology, Winthrop’s experience “boiled over,” and if we are careful to examine it and alter our behaviour we can “correct our present formulas” (98). Just as James argued that it is “high time to urge the use of a little imagination in philosophy” (103) it is also imperative for us to use a little imagination with language.

Full Works Cited 


The series “Finding Grace with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Friends” is adapted from my work in Dr. Kate Stanley’s wonderful course on Pragmatism and the American Aesthetic at Western University and is an exercise in finding grace in life and language.


About Andrew Kooman: Andrew is a Canadian writer and producer. His work has been published and viewed around the world and translated into more than 10 languages. Andrew strives to tell powerful stories that make real-world impact.  { Learn More }


Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

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