Lines of Thought - Paul Scott Derrick Grisanti - ebook

Lines of Thought ebook

Paul Scott Derrick Grisanti



This book brings together twelve essays published between 1983 and 2015. They reveal the author's continuing interest in what is argued here to be the central, although subversive and recessive line of thinking in American and western society. This romantic thread is followed mainly from Ralph Waldo Emerson through Emily Dickinson to Martin Heidegger and Stanley Cavell.

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Biblioteca Javier Coy d’estudis nord-americans

DirectoraCarme Manuel


Paul Scott Derrick

Biblioteca Javier Coy d’estudis nord-americansUniversitat de València

Lines of Thought: 1983-2015

© Paul Scott Derrick

1ª edición de 2015

Reservados todos los derechos

Prohibida su reproducción total o parcial

ISBN: 978-84-9134-178-9

Imagen de la portada: Ian Sharp, detalle de Plaça Xuquer Series

Diseño de la cubierta: Celso Hernández de la Figuera

Publicacions de la Universitat de València

[email protected]

In memory of my sisterRosemarywho always gave much more than she received

How this critic thinks, what I look for when I read, and ultimately what I project on a text is a critical method only because I believe there is no critical method except yourself. As women and men of letters, we ought to share in a vision in which the highest literature becomes our way of life.

Harold Bloom,Only the Daemon Knows

[H]ow can science, when it is based on a fragmentary attitude to life, ever understand the essence of real problems that depend on an indefinitely wide context? The answer does not lie in the accumulation of more and more knowledge. What is needed is wisdom. It is a lack of wisdom that is causing most of our serious problems rather than a lack of knowledge.

David Bohm and F. David Peat,Science, Order, and Creativity





Emily Dickinson, Martin Heidegger and the Poetry of Dread

Heart Is Where the Home Is. Some Reflections on the Line between Wisdom and Knowledge

Emerson? In the Classroom? A Few Considerations on an Emersonian Model of Learning

What the Mirror Sees: Reflection and Wholeness in Emerson and Heidegger

Emily Dickinson’s Epistemological Abstinence

Dickinson, Doubt and the Skeptical Argument: Notes for a Defense of the Unspoken


Sarah Orne Jewett and The Country of the Pointed Firs

Language, Control and the Paradigm Shift in the Fiction of William S. Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon

A New Organicism. Language, Form and Flux in Timothy Steele’s “Profils Perdus”


An Unexpected European Voice

A Poet for a Time of Need

Manual: All Hands Clapping


I would like to acknowledge the editors of all the journals and other collections in which the essays republished here originally appeared. Those volumes are identified in a note appended to each of the titles that follow.

I also want to thank the co-authors of two of these essays, Juan López Gavilán and Guillermo Peris Bautista, as well as the translators of several others: Jesús Tronch Pérez (“Emily Dickinson’s Epistemological Abstinence”), Juan López Gavilán (“Sarah Orne Jewett and The Country of the Pointed Firs”), Miguel Teruel Pozas (“An Unexpected European Voice”) and Marie Chabbert (“Manual: All Hands Clapping”). In these and other projects, my time with them has always been both pleasurable and personally enriching. This kind of amiable collaboration between colleagues is one of the privileges of working in a university environment.

And finally, my gratitude to Carme Manuel, head of the Biblioteca Javier Coy, for making this book possible and for her support, encouragement and friendship during many years at the Universitat de València.


This book brings together twelve essays published during the span of years contained in its title: 1983-2015. To a certain extent, therefore, they reflect the evolution over more than three decades in my thinking about several of the authors that have maintained my interest and admiration for much of my life as a student, teacher and lover of literature.

I use the word “evolution” carefully, rather than the first word—“growth”—that came to mind as I wrote the previous sentence. For if you compare the earliest and most recent of the essays that follow you may conclude that my thinking has not grown at all. I do hope, though, that it might be perceived to have broadened and deepened.

The principal “line of thought” that unites this otherwise disparate collection of essays is the one that I had only vaguely begun to glimpse in my early and unending fascination with the poetry of Emily Dickinson. I didn’t see it when I wrote “Emily Dickinson, Martin Heidegger and the Poetry of Dread” because at that time I had not yet begun to study and ruminate on Emerson’s profound assimilation of romantic ideas for the benefit of the newly-emerging American character. I thought, then, that I had done enough in feeling out the unintended resonances between the amazing mind of a 19th-century American hermit-poet and a 20th-century German existential philosopher.

But as time went by, I gradually came to realize that I was describing what I now understand to be the central—albeit recessive—thread of American (and western) thought. It takes shape, from its European antecedents, in Emerson, passes through Thoreau, Whitman and Dickinson, doubles back to Europe in the thinking of Nietzsche and Heidegger and opens out in myriad forms through the 20th and 21st centuries, finding one of its most lucid contemporary expositors in Stanley Cavell.

Perhaps I should stress that I am not talking only about a linear series of causal influences, but a deeper general current of concepts and attitudes that underpin our culture and contribute to the way we formulate our images of what we are. It can be found, of course, in many more figures than those I name and discuss here.

It is true that the spiritual (i.e., non-materialistic) component of what we might think of as the original American aspiration was radically secularized over the course of the second half of the 19th century. As American life became more and more absorbed with both physical and economic expansion, the essentially romantic nature of our evolving character was pushed farther and farther into the background. But it did not disappear. It has always been there, most notably in the works of a large number of our finest artists. I am not alone in sustaining that the best American art is always subversive. That subversive thrust can take on many forms, but the main one is probably a resistance to the ever-growing power of materialistic values, in all of their various guises, in the life of the United States.

The aim of the first group of six essays that follows is to reflect on the central line of thought that I’ve referred to above, a line that passes from Emerson to Dickinson and leads on to Heidegger. I begin with an essay on Dickinson and Heidegger instead of Emerson simply because that early essay was my first, tentative step along this journey. Then come three essays on Emerson and two more recent ones on Dickinson. I hope that, taken together, they will make the ideational lineage I am trying to uncover more visible to the reader.

The next three essays follow some of the branches of that line in Sarah Orne Jewett, William S. Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon, and Timothy Steele. Whether they are conscious or not, echoes and reflections of Emerson’s and/or Heidegger’s thinking can be found in them all.

And the third section deals with a contemporary English poet—and friend—Richard Berengarten, whose work I deeply admire and believe to be a direct continuation of the inner core of thought in western culture that this book hopes to illuminate.

Do I need a further justification—beyond the Emerson-Dickinson-Heidegger-Cavell lineage that this collection traces—for grouping these particular writers and thinkers together? In the end, a faithful Emersonian, I can only appeal to my own self. These are the works that have sought out my sensibility, that have found a response in a mind, such as it is, that their calling out has helped to form.

What do we look for when we look for value in a work of art? Like Robert Frost, I think of questions that have no reply. Or so many very different replies that the questions are rendered moot. But Harold Bloom’s test seems good enough to me to work with: the poet and the poem should touch upon permanence. And how judge permanence? In Frostian terms, as inner and outer weather.

The majority of these writers and works are permanently installed in my own experience. I never tire of returning to them, and always find there something new and exciting. And if my responses to them are accurate, they will continue to be installed in the collective memory of the culture that we all construct together.


Emily Dickinson, Martin Heidegger and the Poetry of Dread*

We do not need to question the power and immediacy of Emily Dickinson’s voice. Time, and the overwhelming weight of critical adulation, have proved that the personal language which her poetry composed, with all of its solecisms and violations of grammar, holds a deeply moving strength, a mysterious quality akin, perhaps, to the very enigma of truth itself, which all serious language labors to reveal.

And while untold pages have been written to describe the effectiveness of Emily Dickinson’s words, to elucidate the “how” of her palpable phrase, few have been expended to tell us why. Still, once having accepted the familiar supremacy of her work, we are faced with this second, more fundamental question: why is the poetry of Emily Dickinson so consummately and so irreproachably right? This question is not intended to repeat, in an opaque form, the well-worn query into the mechanics of her verse. It means, instead, to strike to the very roots of her language, as the words emerge from her perception and desire, and to grasp them in that process of emergence. Why does this poetry, this highly personal expression, beam so effortlessly into the darkness of our own perception and desire?

Our deeper subject, then, is the character of language itself. To perceive why, within the totality of linguistic experience—the confusion of verbal interchange and misunderstanding—one person’s words ring out sharply above the babble of history, we should judge those words against some coherent theory of how language functions in the world. In his essays on language and poetry,1 Martin Heidegger constructs a complex and fascinating “explanation” of the role of language within the circumference of human activities.

To criticize Dickinson’s poetry against Heidegger’s ideas is not as far-fetched as it may at first appear. Heidegger himself calls for such a testing of his thought against diverse examples of world literature in “Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry” (Heidegger: 270-71). lndeed, such a consideration should broaden our understanding and appreciation of them both, and serve, at the same time, to substantiate each in the reflected validity of the other.

In those four essays brought together in English under the title Existence and Being, Heidegger unveils a concept of language which construes it as a kind of non-spatial region, a region in which the constituents of the world enter into the arena of existence through the interaction of human thought and the material environment. The result of this mingling of intellectual reflection and physical fact is the word. Human thought plays upon a thing, as it were, catching it up from the indiscriminate stream of natural process, to recognize it as that which it is. The act of language distinguishes parts from the whole. The word allows a thing to come out of the mist of unknowing and to take its place as what it is. Language tames the mystery and delivers it to knowledge in the form of the particular concept, whose realization is the word.

Here we can begin to grasp the Heideggerian concept of “letting-be.” This fundamental creative act of language allows that which is outside of us to be what is for us. It brings the things of the world into “the openness” of language; it “discovers” them from the unknown for human appropriation and appreciation. “To let what-is be what it is means participating in something overt and its overtness, in which everything that ‘is’ takes up its position and which entails such overtness. Western thought at its outset conceived this overtness as τα άληθέα, the Unconcealed” (Heidegger: 306). This open region, this overtness, where what is takes its place in the “Unconcealed” is what I have called the non-spatial region of language.

Within this framework, the “world” is only that which human awareness has encountered and, through the creation of language, brought out of the dark. This way of thinking seems to agree with the famous opening proposition of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: “Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist.” That which has not come into the light of language is unimaginable. It cannot be an issue. It remains, very simply, in the dark. So, were it not for words, which separate particular concepts out of the seamless web of process, everything that is would rest beneath a pall of undifferentiated silence, as if buried in some vast Jungian Unconsciousness. And indeed, without the “unconcealedness” of language, not even time would exist.

For Heidegger, history begins at that moment when the spark of selfreflection flickers in intelligence, and man can separate his own thinking from the flow of natural change: “[...] the existence of historical man begins at that moment when the first thinker to ask himself about the revealed nature of what-is, poses the question: What is what-is? With this question unconcealment and revealment are experienced for the first time” (Heidegger: 308). Thinking extends into the unknown of material circumstance, and in the act of shedding light upon it, creates phenomena which remain in the world as language. By picking concepts out of physical evanescence, language fixes them into its more or less perpetual overtness. Thus language establishes a contrast between the idea of permanence, implicit in the word, and the transience of natural process; and time emerges, or “opens out,” as the discrepancy between “that which goes” in the flux of being, and “that which stays” in the unconcealedness of the word. “After man has placed himself in the perpetual, then only can he expose himself to the changeable, to that which comes and goes; for only the persistent is changeable” (Heidegger: 279).

Considered in this manner, language actually brings the world—everything that human sentience can grasp, “alles was der Fall ist”—into existence. For it is language which allows the things of the world to emerge from the undifferentiated ground of being, to come forth and stand out, to “ex-ist” as themselves. And poetry is the purest form of language. It is the poet who stands between the Unknown and the Known, who, in the practice of her visionary art, expands the unconcealedness of language where the things of the world discover themselves to man. Poetry is the creation of language, not its appropriation. Poetry establishes the world: it “[...] never takes language as a raw material ready to hand, rather it is poetry which first makes language possible. Poetry is the primitive language of a historical people. Therefore [...] the essence of language must be understood through the essence of poetry” (Heidegger: 283-4).

We have now found a place from which to question the language of Dickinson. Is it a poetry that dwells on the “borderline” between the unknown and the known? Is it a language that pushes back the darkness and allows the world to take its place around us as it is? Does it make us, at the same time, aware of ourselves and our mysterious involvement in the world in which we move?

Perhaps we can begin with some perceptive advice from Allen Tate, from a series of essays on four American poets. There he says of Dickinson’s work that “The two elements of her style, considered as point of view, are immortality, or the idea of permanence, and the physical process of death or decay” (Tate: 22). He also tells us that the recurrent symbol of death in her work represented, for Emily Dickinson, an attitude toward nature which was implicit in her puritan heritage. “Now the enemy,” he says, “to all those New Englanders was Nature, and Miss Dickinson saw into the character of this enemy more deeply than any of the others. The general symbol of Nature, for her, is Death, and her weapon against Death is the entire powerful dumbshow of the puritan theology led by Redemption and Immortality” (11-12). This is certainly a very subtle observation, which implies more than it declares. Although her “general symbol” for nature may be death, it is obvious that she considered neither one to be a personal enemy. We all know that Emily Dickinson was not a believer in, nor a practitioner of Puritan theological doctrines. It seems more probable that, like all persons of innate genius, she used those intellectual tools which were available to her—in this case the terms and concepts of the Puritan tradition—to express the more fundamental truths that lie beyond all doctrine and cant.

One of those truths is the paradox which Heidegger has revealed for us: that time and eternity are complementary opposites which depend, for their existence, on the exercise of words. These are the polar elements of permanence and decay to which Tate alludes. The realization that language is the arbiter of immortality is the painful essence of much of Dickinson’s best poetry. J1593/Fr1618 of is a noteworthy example:

There came a Wind like a Bugle –

It quivered through the Grass

And a Green Chill upon the Heat

So ominous did pass

We barred the Windows and the Doors

As from an Emerald Ghost –

The Doom’s electric Moccasin

That very instant passed –

On a strange Mob of panting Trees

And Fences fled away

And Rivers where the Houses ran

Those looked that lived – that Day –

The Bell within the steeple wild

The flying tidings told –

How much can come

And much can go,

And yet abide the World!

What is the uncanny mystery that lies at the heart of this poem? What characteristic of the world is it trying to expose? The entity, or quality, that passes like a wind through this world is never really identified. The poet pointedly avoids an outright naming of her subject through the use of simile and metaphor.

We know that it shows the qualities of a piercing, military wind; yet at the same time it quivers through the grass. It inspires a “Green Chill” over the heat of life, as ominous as some “Emerald Ghost.” And the thing itself is only referred to as “The Doom’s electric Moccasin.”

With this strategy of evocative evasion, the poet, in effect, places a mold of concrete words around the abstract soul of her poem. As Tate so aptly remarks: “[...] she does not separate [abstractions] from the sensuous illuminations that she is so marvellously adept at; like Donne, she perceives abstraction and thinks sensation” (13). The subject of this poem is not some palpable quantity, some object of experience. Instead, it is an indefinable quality of experience itself. It is the transitory character of the world, as subtle as the quivering of the wind and as irrevocable in its ultimate implications as the final voice of doom.

So we are brought, once again, to consider those two essential qualities of her language, “immediacy, or the idea of permanence, and the physical nature of death or decay.” As Heidegger proposes, it is just this paradoxical aspect of language—that it brings permanence out of the process of change—which allows us to experience time, which lets time “open out” for man. Only against the permanence of the word can we measure the transience of the world.

But such is the delicacy of Heidegger’s thought that the relationship is necessarily reversible. Only against the transience of the world can we measure the permanence of the word. To enjoy the luxury of changelessness, we must be painfully aware of the depredations of time. Emily Dickinson seems to have guarded this elemental wisdom in the deepest part of her soul. It must have been an awareness of this mutual dependence between the sharp pain of loss and the victory of language that led to her reclusion. As John Crowe Ransom put it: “Her sensibility was so acute that it made her extremely vulnerable to personal contacts. Intense feeling would rush out as soon as sensibility apprehended the object, and flood her consciousness to the point of helplessness. [...] The happy encounter was as painful as the grievous one” (Ransom: 100). This agonizing sensibility bound her into an intimate complicity of love for the experiences of life; and yet, at the same time, it made her almost pitifully vulnerable to the transitory quality of that experience. For such a sensibility even the slightest event can yield a universe of recognition. To hold on to this glorious recognition, to make it permanent in language, she had to withdraw from the world of experience which occasioned it.

But this is the true nature of renunciation. It does not simply mean to sacrifice the pleasures and satisfactions of the world. It means to go beyond them, for a greater satisfaction of which only the highest sensibilities are capable. Emily Dickinson’s excruciating sensitivity to life forced her to renounce all outward participation in experience. But this very act of renunciation freed her to exercise her love of experience in the fullest manner possible, by bringing it into permanence through words. That she was fully aware of the price she paid, and the complicated blessing that she won, is made clear in any number of her poems on the problem of renunciation. One good example, for our purposes, is J306/Fr630:

The Soul’s Superior instants

Occur to Her – alone –

When friend – and Earth’s occasion

Have infinite withdrawn –

Or She – Herself – ascended

To too remote a Hight

For lower Recognition

Than Her Omnipotent –

This Mortal Abolition

Is Seldom – but as fair

As Apparition – subject

To Autocratic Air –

Eternity’s disclosure

To favorites – a few –

Of the Colossal substance

Of Immortality –

If her reclusion allowed her to write poetry, then the composition itself of that poetry became, for her, eternity’s disclosure of immortality. Shrinking away from a transient world, she fixed that world into amber scenes of immortality with her verse.

But here again another difficult question arises. What is the character of this impermanence that inspires her resort to words? It is a quality that lies at the heart of her “Wind like a Bugle”—at the heart, it seems, of all of her strongest poetry. And yet, it remains a mystery. Although, as critics often do, it is easiest to dismiss in the guise of that grandiose abstraction, Death, such an answer does not really satisfy the problem. What exactly is this peculiarly haunting thing called transience?

Once again, the profound thought of Martin Heidegger can shed some light into this darkness. In his inaugural address to the Freiburg Chair of Philophy, entitled “What is Metaphysics?,” he considers what may be the essential philosophical question: What is Nothing?

The answer, of course. cannot really be expressed, for nothing lies beyond, or behind everything that is, and to express any concept brings it into existence as language. But though it cannot be expressed, we do come face-to-face with Nothing when we experience the “key-mood of dread (Angst).” What differentiates dread from the related mood of fear is the fact that we always have a fear of something. In the case of dread, though, no such object can be named: “[...] although dread is always ‘dread of’, it is not dread of this or that. ‘Dread of’ is always a dreadful feeling ‘about’—but not about this or that. The indefiniteness of what we dread is not just lack of definition: it represents the essential impossibility of defining the ‘what’” (Heidegger: 335).

What happens in dread, according to Heidegger, is that in a moment of profound sensibility, and shorn of our everyday concerns—which tend to fractionalize the world and make it familiar, we are confronted and oppressed by the totality of what is in its blunt evanescence. We realize that everything is slipping away, ourselves included. Filled with the uncanny sense of dread as everything in the world slips out of our grasp, we come face-to-face with that Nothing which is an inextricable element of the process of being.

It is, in fact, the Nothing which allows the process of being to take place; for the Nothing is vanishment, the slipping-away of what is. It is the functioning of nihilation,2 which provides all change.

Corning face-to-face with Nothing, with nihilation, we “see” the totality of what is in its essentially evanescent character, as it vanishes from being. “Nihilation is not a fortuitous event; but, understood as the relegation to the vanishing what-is-in-totality, it reveals the latter in all its till now undisclosed strangeness as the pure ‘Other’—contrasted with Nothing. Only in the clear night of dread’s Nothingness is what-is as such revealed in all its original overtness [...] that it ‘is’ and is not Nothing” (Heidegger: 339).

Such would appear to be the character of that impermanence which Emily Dickinson addresses in “There carne a Wind like a Bugle.” Much of her finest poetry is devoted to the disclosure of this essential mystery of existence. Yet notice that she does not try to identify, to name, the mystery precisely, but works by that evocative indirection, content to let it dwell in its original character as mystery. As she says in J1129/Fr1263, reflecting on her own method of poetic composition: “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant – / Success in Circuit lies.” And she certainly follows that advice, impeccably, in her “Wind like a Bugle.” When, in line 7, she does come to name the Nothingness that inspires her dread, she uses a collage of words, “The Doom’s electric Moccasin,” which metaphorically associates it with the stealth of the Indian, the ineluctability of natural force and the inevitability of death.

But the interesting part of the poem comes next, following this metaphorical letting-be of the mystery of temporality. While the first eight lines constitute a revelation of dread, the last nine are an accurate description of its jarring effects. The mood of dread strips the world of its familiarity. In the presence of the evanescent, nihilating Nothing, we suddenly perceive that the things that make up the world are not in complete accordance with those permanent concepts which language assigns them. We perceive that everything is slipping undeniably away, beyond the power of intellect or emotion to hold it. It thus becomes uncanny, unfamiliar. We feel that the world is not that comfortable and familiar place in which we are accustomed to reside. This is the revelation of what-is in totality in its “undisclosed strangeness as the pure ‘Other’” already noted above. In lines nine through twelve we are given the uncanniness of a vanishing world.

The syntax is excessively convoluted here, but that is, after all, one way to convey a sense of unfamiliarity and discomfort. The world of nature, represented by the trees, is momentarily transformed into a “strange Mob” panting as though running in unison toward some disaster. The fences, normally stationary demarcations of space, “fled away” into the distance. And rather than the rivers running by the houses on the banks, in a reversal of normality the “Houses ran” by the rivers. This is the weird panorama that was seen by those “that lived – that Day,” those who were living in that particular moment of dread, and those who looked. But really looking at nature means seeing the passage of Nothing through the world. And only those who can really confront the protean aspect of dread are capable of fully living within the mystery of life. It is they who, alive with that awesome knowledge, can see the world in its essential “otherness,” cognizant of the fugitive disappearance of what is.

After this profound revelation, the sound of a bell strikes upon the heightened sensibility of the poet—a bell most likely activated by that same wind whose movement through the grass began this poetic chain of association. Therefore, the bell, sounding from a “steeple wild,” would be the sound of nihilation itself, the voice of disappearance arising out of the natural world. And as such, of course, it represents the poem, or the language of the poem, which speaks at the behest of the same invisible power. And the bell tells, very simply, as has the poem, “How much can come / And much can go / And yet abide the World!”

The poem is a celebration of the transience of life. And yet, in the very act of celebrating that transience, it monumentalizes it. Operating, as Heidegger postulates that all authentic language must, within the very nexus of change, it rescues permanence out of loss and thus allows us to understand them both in their most fundamental character. But the stable world of the poem is not simply founded on the shifting passage of nihilation which it reveals. That “World” which abides is the language of the poem, which accommodates the evanescent wind of nihilation much as it accommodates the transitory understanding of the reader as he reads.

Emily Dickinson’s poetry is, very often, a forthright confrontation with dread. Detaching herself from the world, she encountered it in its most essential quality, that of evanescence. Out of this encounter arose the honest creation of a language which salvaged her world from annihilation and brought it into the stable “openness” of words. This explains the power, and the importance, of her nature poetry. It is a kind of beacon of human observation which brings the world of nature into our awareness. Lavishing her own particular slant of light upon the manifold things around her, she lets them “be” for us in ways that we would never notice for ourselves. Her poetry of nature’s whims provides us with images of the world, and attitudes toward it, whose origin and validity we seldom, if ever, really bother to question.

However, when we do bother to question her language, we discover the sensitivity and precision which allow us to grasp the magical aspect that cloaks the world without destroying its magic. Dwelling upon the abstract foundations of human existence, she makes them concrete without making them brittle. Her penchant for capricious metaphor partially names the abstract, but cannot ever exhaust it. This poetic naming allows us to “see” the mystery, but always to see it as mystery. In this way her language brings metaphysical inquiry into the homely realm of everyday experience.

Her position was that of her words; she occupied that pallid zone between the two distinct worlds of mystery and experience. She could often write from the viewpoint of the dead because, speaking behind the closed door of renunciation, she conceived herself outside of life. “‘Tis not that Dying hurts us so –” she says with an authoritative voice, “‘Tis living – hurts us more.” And that symbolic death of renunciation occasioned by the painfulness of life becomes, in the case of Emily Dickinson, a conscious apotheosis into the immortality of language:

A Death blow – is a Life blow – to Some –

Who, till they died,

Did not alive – become –

Who had they lived

Had died, but when

They died, Vitality begun – (J816/Fr966).

With her poet’s sensibility, she deeply felt the transforming power of words. She realized that language, properly created, was a certain transcendence of life, a kind of immortality, the permanence beyond the flux, and that, in exercising this transcendence, she became her words.

Therefore it should not be objected that we compare a poet of one century with a philosopher of the next, who very likely did not even know her work. Their common field is language, which preserves them both in time. Existing, for us, as language, they are a part of that historical conversation which composes the human spirit. As Heidegger says:

Obedient to the voice of Being, thought seeks the Word through which the truth of Being may be expressed. Only when the language of historical man is born of the Word does it ring true. [...] The thinker utters Being. The poet names what is holy. We may know something about the relations between philosophy and poetry, but we know nothing of the dialogue between poet and thinker, who “dwell near to one another on mountains farthest apart.” (360)


Heidegger, Martin. 1970 [1949]. Existence and Being (ed. Werner Brock). Chicago: Henry Regnery Company.

Ransom, John Crowe. 1963. “Emily Dickinson: A Poet Restored” in Sewall, Richard (ed.) Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc.: 10-24.

Tate, Allen. 1936. Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas. New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons.

* Originally published in Atlantis 5, 1-2 (June-November), 1983: 55-64 and reprinted in Western Humanities Review 40, 1 (Spring), 1986: 27-38.

1 The essays most pertinent to this paper are “Hölderlin and the Essence of Poetry,” “On the Essence of Truth” and “What Is Metaphysics?.” They are published in English, along with a fourth selection, “Remembrance of the Poet,” in Heidegger (1970).

2 The word “nihilation” was coined by translators R. F. C. Hull and Alan Crick to approximate Heidegger’s use of the German term Nichtung. They say, in a note on this word: “Nichtung is a causative process, and nichten a causative and intransitive verb. Ordinarily we would express the process in positive terms and would speak, for instance, “of the ‘becoming’ of Nothing of the ‘de-becoming’ of something, as would be clear in a term like Nichtswerdung or the Entwerdung of Meister Eckhart” (Heidegger: 368-369).

Heart Is Where the Home Is. Some Reflections on the Line between Wisdom and Knowledge*


On the 16th of November, 1853, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s mother died. She was 85 years old, and had been living with him and his family for 18 years, since 1835, when he bought his first house. His daughter Ellen, then 15, was away from home at the time, at a boarding school in the village of Lenox. So Emerson had to inform her of the loss in the family by mail. In a brief but moving passage, he described his mother’s funeral like this:

Your grandmother’s end was so peaceful, and all remembrances of her life in everybody’s mind so pleasing, that there was no gloom about the event such as usually belongs to it. Only the house has one less home in it, one less to be interested in, & to enjoy what befals you. (Rusk 1939: 399-400)

Now I can’t speak for you, but there is something about the sentiments expressed in these two sentences that touches me very deeply. It obviously touched Ellen very deeply, too, because she never forgot these words. And when Emerson himself died, almost 30 years later, she used the same phrases in remembrance of him, and the gentle effects of his life (Baker 1996: 356-7).

There are many things I could say about this heartfelt, informal epitaph, and each one would take my talk in a different direction. I could point out how it confirms Emerson’s will to see the good in every aspect of human experience, including the death of a loved one. I could consider the importance in Victorian America of the written message of consolation to the bereaved. (Emily Dickinson became a private expert in composing this kind of delicately comforting letter to her family and friends.) I could also talk about how death is the ultimate teacher, in that it finally makes us understand what is really important in life. Or, taking that idea one step further, I might discuss the various ways we can think of death as a form of revelation.

But I prefer to leave those subjects, each one interesting in its own way, for another occasion and to focus our attention instead on something else, on the feeling and sense of the expression itself: “Only the house has one less home in it, one less to be interested in, and to enjoy what befals you.” Maybe, if we listen to these words carefully and deeply enough, we can take this sentence as a model for poetry, a model for what it is and what it does.


Those of us who are implicated in this questionable business of teaching literature are constantly tempted by the urge to broadcast explanations, to explicate—or even worse, to dictate meanings. I suppose that urge is comprehensible; explanation is, after all, one of the subtlest forms of power, of assuming authority. But are we really serving the literary work, or the minds of our students, when we yield too readily to that temptation?

What Emerson’s sentence means—a manifold truth of emotional experience—is already available to everyone, even though the exact source of its strength may not be so easy to define or to pin down. But then, literature is not about definitions. The important thing is to be able to touch the source of emotional strength, not to be able to define it.