Go up into the gaps (5)

bp Nichol, Chesterton, Dillard, Emerson, John Winthrop, William James -

Go up into the gaps (5)

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5. Go up into the gaps

Nichol helps us understand the contradiction of Winthrop’s inspired vision for the New World and the on-the-ground reality the Puritans experienced when they landed there:

the contradiction is

to spend your life on land

trance fixed in

the sea

contra the diction is

the land wage

(when the water comes

~ sea pun ~ you pay a






(how you move from

imperfection to imperfection in

the world)


my body is water

my life is water


eau ech


eau (210-211)


Nichol highlights in “The Inchoate Road” what James speaks of elsewhere, when he defines the pursuit of truth and experience in economic terms.  Human speech and action do not always converge. “Contra diction,” doing the opposite of what one speaks, is the “wage” one pays at land and at sea. But Nichol offers the possibility of moving beyond imperfection, a concept James also takes up: “I have already insisted on the fact,” James writes,” that truth is made largely out of previous truths.  Men’s beliefs at any time are so much experience funded” (98).

Experience always adds up and adds to other experience and if we arrive at any goal it is through mutation (99).  Flooded with flaws, Nichol’s narrator still flows, morphs, changes words and is changed by them.  All of his experience, his “life” his “body” as water (eau), echoes with the movement of imperfection and contra diction, and though bound to the land he is transfixed in the sea. 

The fluid movement of language opens up meaning and his immersion or submersion in constantly flowing connotation arrives at something like grace: he is “trance fixed.”  But to experience such grace, we must be both at once on land and at sea. 

The problem for Winthrop and his new society is that they stepped off the boat and stayed on the land, and that land soon became old. These pilgrims to the New World left the poetry of grace and turned to the prosaic habit of cultivating a new city, laying the crops down in rows and paving streets and buildings on a grid.

Dillard turns to another Hebrew poet to identify where the openings to grace are located and urges us to enter them:


Ezekiel excoriates false prophets as those who have “not gone up into the gaps.”  The gaps are the thing.  The gaps are the spirit’s one home, the altitudes and latitudes so dazzlingly spare and clean that the spirit can discover itself for the first time like a once- blind man unbound.  The gaps are the cliffs in the rock where you cower to see the back parts of God; they are the fissures between mountains and cells the wind lances through, the icy narrowing fiords splitting the cliffs of mystery (274).

We might imagine locating the gaps to be something like sailing to the New World. The venture into nature to understand its analogies and to study its “relations in all objects” (Emerson 21) is a outlier.  In the same way that getting in a boat to populate a new world is unique. However, the move into nature and the move across the ocean are not the terminus. 

Identifying the gap and planting the flag in the New World are not the arrival points.  We must step into the gap. We must inhabit this New World with lived values.  We must return to the spaces where “reason and faith” (Emerson 10) are at home.  Dillard says as much when she excoriates us like Ezekiel excoriated the false prophets: “Go up into the gaps.  Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock – more than a maple – a universe.

This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon.  Spend the afternoon.  You can’t take it with you” (274).  We must act, not merely observe. If we want to be refreshed and experience grace, we must actively enter nature and turn our attention to the arrangement of language.  We must make a move on language, here and anywhere.

G.K. Chesterton, like John Withrop, set sail across the ocean to discover and inhabit the New World.  When he arrived and planted his flag in the ground to claim the land as his own, he realized that by some accident at sea, he had travelled back in the direction he first set out and actually returned to England. 

The self-effacing anecdote he employs to trace his return to faith highlights the fresh sensation of grace he encountered when, despite the humiliation of the error, he ultimately rediscovered home.  The experience of finding a way to define his experience of grace led to a question:

“How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?  How can this queer cosmic town, with its many-legged citizens, with its monstrous and ancient lamps, how can this world give us at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honour of being our own town?” (3)

James leans on Chesterton in his lectures about Pragmatism to emphasize that every individual has a philosophy and that philosophy is not trifle or “technical matter,” instead it is “our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means” (7). In fact, an individual’s philosophy is the way of “seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos” (7).

Chesterton tells us that “[p]oetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite.  The result is mental” (15) and spiritual exhaustion. Dewey says it like this: “The subconscious fund of meanings stored in our attitudes have no chance of release when we are practically or intellectually strained” (287). The way out of the strain, Dillard urges, is to “go up into the gaps…the spirit’s one home” (274).

What emerges from the confluence of voices is what Nichol defines as an ech-eau in the writing, shared meaning that speaks to the importance of the way we employ language and the way we pay attention to that employment.

The ech-eaus are a conversation, the convergence of many waters, profound observations of similar experiences, though not the same.  The fringe, not the majority, floats in poetry’s sea. The few, not the many, go into the gaps.  “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature” (Emerson 10).

To reinvigorate experience with the shock of grace, we must return to nature.  If “[e]very natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact,” (20) then in nature, revelation of meaning will be experienced any where we turn to its signs and open our I and ear to language.  


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 Davide Cantelli on Unsplash

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