The section out of Emerson is representative of both his power and his risible ambivalence. This is the Emerson that counsels the soul yet succors the she-wolf of mammon and the passing, scornful Days. He is Henry Ford’s Master as much as he is Thoreau’s. Though one of our deepest minds, ultimately he privileges the maker and actor, the very skaters on the pond’s hard, cold, winter surface.
There is hardly language more convincing and powerful than the opening lines of this selection. “Life only avails, not the having lived.” Indeed. But this might be as well said, “What have you done lately?”
Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim. This one fact the world hates, that the soul becomes;
This has always been the message I ascribe to Jesus. That the ALL is in the becoming NOW. We are the cumulative NOW and in the settled (“I unsettle all things“) calcification of our finished self we enter the unliving state. The kingdom is always come.
Yet fast upon this we are pronounced most virtuous as we remain unprincipled. We rise best without a spine as anchor.
We do not yet see that virtue is Height, and that a man or a company of men, plastic and permeable to principles, by the law of nature must overpower and ride all cities, nations, kings, rich men, poets, who are not.
We have indeed taken Emerson to heart as our tycoons of business occupy these particular Heights being both “plastic and permeable principles.” Or, translated, they have no principles BUT the “heights” or rather “aim.”
But Emerson says the following over and over in his work: “This is the ultimate fact which we so quickly reach on this, as on every topic, the resolution of all into the ever-blessed ONE.” Unfortunately, that is a gauzy, useless truth. Our great pragmatic ears instead hear this, “Power is in nature the essential measure of right. Nature suffers nothing to remain in her kingdoms which cannot help itself.”
Ralph Waldo Bootstrapper. The problem with this is that it’s about NATURE and does not move to an understanding of how elements within nature work. Power is a general term and Power in nature is not power in human terms. The analogy has confounded us.
Humans are a species in nature. One of the numberless such. We rise and fall as that species and as that species responds to the natural facts. Saying that Power is about a lording self serving a singular and selfish drive is a kind of truth. But it is the truth best exampled by cancer. Cancer is extraordinarily powerful. But it is not health and it is not prosperous within the species identity. It is the seed that grows its very demise in the midst of its stunning “plasticity” and innovative opportunism. This is consonant with an obsession to innovate; to confuse an original relation to the universe with a novel one. All that comes from me is original though it be historical repetition in “species-mind.”
Nature’s true power rests (without rest) in the gulf. Not in the shooting of this, not in the dart, not in the aim; insofar as there is an “aim” at all it is often conceived, by the self-perceiving mind, in error. Power often succeeds (development to strength) by subverting the aim.
In the gulf is the becoming power of developing (changing, growing, adapting) life. Power is invisible until it has already done all its work, and often it is in “repose.” The visible result of power may appear a meekness. The visible result of error may appear a strength. This is the ineffable, the mystery, the blank face of natural fact.
You cannot ACT upon an Emersonian truth. You must simply ruminate and then take another bite. Note that in the very statement I would praise, “Life only avails. Not the having lived,” Emerson has hidden something from us, or perhaps offered a kind of sleight of hand. There is only “force” in life. There is only profit in life. Not having lived. Yet, death is all profit to life. It is the cashing out of the single organism to be banked as a useful resource to what is becoming. (I have noted a preference for a Rilo Kiley song, “Spectacular Views,” in the past because it makes this very point.
In steep cliffs
with rocks all piled up
mysteries of your passing luck
shells and bits of foam
forming new limestone
to give things their turn…)
I paired this bit of Emerson with Melville’s short chapter,”The Dart” from Moby Dick, as offering a commentary on this very passage in “Self-Reliance.” Melville gives us actual human life; actual errors of conception and action; actual examples of confusion and misdirected action. I cannot better his words by paraphrase and so repeat the conclusion to the chapter.
Now, I care not who maintains the contrary, but all this is both foolish and unnecessary. The headsman should stay in the bows from first to last; he should both dart the harpoon and the lance, and no rowing whatever should be expected of him, except under circumstances obvious to any fisherman. I know that this would sometimes involve a slight loss of speed in the chase; but long experience in various whalemen of more than one nation has convinced me that in the vast majority of failures in the fishery, it has not by any means been so much the speed of the whale as the before described exhaustion of the harpooneer that has caused them.
To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooneers of this world must start to their feet from out of idleness, and not from out of toil.
True power is agent and coiled in considered, patient repose.