by Tom Jacobs
The ants are my friends, the ants are my friends, the ants are just blowing in the wind.
Life is hard and nothing makes any sense. That is a problem. I don’t know everything there is to know, and that is also a problem. These are the bare facts. Impossible to ignore but things that must be ignored if I’m to go about my daily business. I don’t really know what I’m doing. But I’m also happy most of the time. Or at least content.
What I’m trying to say or at least think about is the role of love in understanding. Love is something that is not to be understood but rather just felt and expressed. Understanding, on the other hand, well, that’s a whole other deal. It requires the assemblage of evidence and critical analysis and narrative-building and seeing the pattern in what might seem to be a relatively random collection of things that are of some small interest. Why are these things and not others interesting to me, to you? That’s a tough one, and probably there is no answer. There’s a pattern in the rug, but where is it?
I read somewhere that there was a woman minding her own business somewhere in the Midwest somewhere in the mid-eighties who was watching television in her living room when a small meteor plummeted through her roof and hit her in the arm. A celestial body just intervened into her life and hit her in the arm, producing some fair amount of trauma. Sometimes I feel like this is a good metaphor for what it’s like to be alive. Meteors strike you unexpectedly and you are left to figure out what that means. Was it meant for you? Or did it just happen? Does it matter to even draw the distinction? Probably it doesn’t.
When I think about what I really want in life, about what really matters, I often think of Emerson and Whitman. They are in some subtle ways, very different thinkers. Emerson is the thinker who gives us lines like, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” or “Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.” That sort of thing.
It’s remarkably good and compelling, and in truth, these are not even that representative of how capacious Emerson is and can be. But then there is Whitman. Stay with me for a moment, on this short day of frost and snow, and I will try to explain my understanding of the significance of the difference.
Here’s Whitman, on a similar key but in a rather different register:
It avails not—neither time nor place, time nor place—distance avails not.
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so if felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd…
Whitman is speaking to us from beyond the grave, to all of those commuters who would come long after he is gone, but which of us isn’t speaking to those people? Even Emerson is, I think.
But here’s the thing: Emerson is trying to figure things out, trying to piece things together according to the way his peculiar and beautiful mind works. We all are. But then there’s Whitman, just expressing love for people he will never know. It breaks my heart and I love it. I will always love it.
It’s a false binary; the two guys had a lot in common, and Emerson had his Whitmanesque moments as much as Whitman had his Emersonian moments. They both spoke in what Perry Miller calls the “optative mood,” the mood of possibility, of what’s to come, of what might be made to be. Emerson and Whitman inhabit each of us.
I love all of that, and it’s a rare thing to hear or read someone who speaks in that way. It seems so nineteenth century, to discuss such matters so baldly and sincerely, and maybe it is. But I don’t think so. We still have it in us.
Love and understanding, faith and trust, unknowingness and commitment. These are the things that make the world move, that make the universe push its way through the emptiness, and they are things that matter.
One final thought, and this one is about Emerson, but it yokes the intensities of love to the strangenesses of Understanding. Here’s something Emerson once wrote in his journal, speaking of maybe the only woman he ever truly loved just after she died:
I visited Ellen’s tomb & opened her coffin.
Creepy? Yes. Difficult to grasp? But when love and understanding collide, who is to say what is to come of it?