Self-Reliance: A Closed Letter

I was lying in the sustaining decay of this world, when I thought, Henry, of you, and of how little I know you. That is why I can address myself so freely. You’ve taught me, through the virtues of leaving another person’s works barely read. Forming an impression through browsing collections in shops, skimming paragraphs in friends’ homes, and recalling a distantly adolescent summer foray through your best-known pages, I find strength in the idea you have become, as if reading you now would do nothing but confirm and deepen what I have discovered within myself on those brief occasions we rubbed spines. It’s as if you’ve never been anything but the idea I’ve formed of you; perhaps none have realized it, but I suspect they have.

This is not the twaddle of some post-modern revival; this, as I understand it, is the transcendental spirit lived and breathed on the page. We need it now more than ever, or at least I do, because we need someone to talk to who understands, and someone who has lived through none of it, but who might have lived, in skeptical wonderment and begrudging skepticism, through it all right now.

When I take steps across the dunes, looking at the matted monotony of brush and the bounteous purple similitude flowering here and there, always the same, I wonder how many steps would measure out sufficiency, if something were to be gainfully preserved, and not preserved for gain. Stranded, by choice or necessity, on some small plot of land, with a well-stocked kitchen nearby, a convenient shelter, the goods of life, then would the structure of roots, the variations in leaf-shape, the interruptions of novel or unexpected forms of vegetation ever come to seem a calligraphy capable of sustaining translation, even if indecipherable for the foreseeable future; or would there be enough questions to ask, enough to slow the mind’s perception, to apprehend the reach of life, or what it means for life to be able to reach, without movement. The old questions might return, and the old ways of answering, the patient description, the philosopher’s subjugation of metaphor to the truth; but also the poet’s liberation of metaphor, not in the name of the truth, but in the cause of the adverbial “truly.”

You inspire me to believe that with less, or with more of the right sort of thing—limits and limitations—we might strengthen our passivity. That is what keeps me from reading you again. Don’t you prefer that I stay away, at least until I can approach you with an ear less regulated by the world’s commerce of voice and appeal, an ear more independently inclined to reveal in your silent words on the page the intonations of urgency, consolation, and delight?

We need to breathe, you and I, in the nimbleness of syntax unfettered by anything but the world’s hold on mind, and mind’s hold on world, their being coterminous in the words on the page, when I think of your writing, and not asking for whom, knowing only of the certainty of experience that the written word realizes. With that realization, all of memory and the expectation for the future serves as proof, rather than as that which needs to be proved, approved, or apprised. Easier, I think we both know, to judge the word, though none knows better than you (let’s say, for the sake of my having decided to write to you) how difficult it is for the word to find favorable judgment.

Bearing those shaky metaphysics in hand, like hammer and nails forged at home in the bathtub, I understand why you wrote as I suspect you did, about being out there, on that river, or in the woods of Maine, restless and somewhat alone. Without you having written thus, what great use would those rotting, whispering, flowing, falling, growing arrangements of matter have served? Now they at least verify your words—not themselves, but the fact of their having been there, as your words are now, even if I do not read them.  And if they had served some other use, it would no doubt have meant their loss, at a principle of fading, disappearance, and transformation other than their own; if that is not waste, what is?

Yesterday, crossing by a lumber yard, the smell brought me back to you, as if we had agreed to meet at that sensation, without my remembering it. The thought occurred to me that, owing to new chemical inventions, preserving the grain, and perhaps even supplementing the odor with an olfactory composition of freshness designed to outdo natures, it may not be you I was meeting there at all; that your own encounters with the fresh-hewn cedar or pine, or whatever trunk would supply you with materials, might have been entirely other than mine. But the thought was fleeting, and the sense of intimacy engendered by the life wafting from the newly dying slabs was real. As real as the roughness of their light stubble. The mystery of trees, I find, is in their defying and supplying a conception of life greater than we would possess from animal creatures alone; their exemplifying, even in their warped misgrowths, a rightness of reach, common to all of a species; their fulfilling our deepest sense of sociable life, cooperation, antagonism, and even friendship, and also reducing these to a bare and humbling essence; their beginning and continuing and actively living beyond perception, and their living in death still, as it were, their dying, the continuous action of it, sustaining itself towards limits we cannot (would not?) know.

Met with in crowds—forests, I mean—they help us lose bearings, but lost together, we are made (you and I have been forced, together, if apart in so many ways) to fall back on what we can trust. As you no doubt did, I admire, and even require, a sense of landscape, which is not to be confused with “landscaping,” to which it is fairly opposed. Forests possess none of either. But that becomes, as we walk through them, a source of their greatness.

You must know what it was like when, at eleven and twelve years old, I walked with my best friend through the featureless flat woods of North Carolina, the humidity squatting in the foliage, the leaves dry underfoot until kicked up to damp, and the liberty of not being anywhere in relation to anything else except one another and the stretch of what surrounded us and lay uncertainly before distinct from any other liberty of childhood before or adulthood since. I suppose we talked, and took large branches in hand to swat, and the pace was probably uneven, but it felt like an acceleration against gravity as soon as we had lost sight of the yard of his house. There was no hope for landmark, for vista, view, no picturesque or sublime, no delicacy or ornament or balance or variety; the gray trunks did not betray hidden symmetry; the crossed logs, twigs, and scrub scraped and annoyed. But then we must have had some end in mind, and we knew we had found it when we came to a stream expanding into a marshy, mudded breadth, where forest rotted and whose contours we delineated until, magnified by our discovering its boundaries, discerning its solid and impassible crossing points, its blinds of brush, its nebulous thorns, we held them all in our vagaries of talk and movement, and they became a place, actual and distinct, where we were. You have experienced that sudden, irresistible apprehension of sovereignty, as great as when your namesake stepped out of the inn and put on the crown. No landscape could do that, on account only of their being in it together, as the woods did for us on those days.

Henry, I am not sure of what to make of our intimacy, whether we will grow fatigued not knowing one another better than we do, or whether we will continue as two acquaintances whose evening courses run so parallel that the hold of their friendship is made irrelevant by the common hold of circumstances upon them. I would buy you a drink if I could. Sometimes, I admit, I envy my idea of you, you having piled up mountains for the rest of us to climb; why could I not do the same? But then I think that if I lead others to you, it amounts to the same, you expanding the estate, and my having ensured that those remain to inherit it. What does it matter whether I enlarge the terrain, if nobody is there to camp out on it, alone from others for a time? I would like to assist, to pledge fealty or whatever we have like that nowadays.

I only have one worry, and I will tell you now suspecting you will understand: that I will grow restless with your restlessness. I do not mean for it to offend, since it is really my saying I inevitably grow restless with what drives me on. Why build the cabin when it will not endure? It cannot be, for you, that you sought something better, some upward movement in the social ranks; could it be that what endures has power and you disdain it, or that what does not endure aspires to a power it could never attain while remaining what it is, willing its absorption into what is greater, the ruined foundations marking a failure to give itself over entirely? Maybe you were always uneasy in time, seeing it for what it is—change measured against change—and recognizing how many changes could be set against one another, how many dances in which to keep time.

But that worry is not so great as to prevent me from slowly forming a resolution to devote myself more purposefully yet to my idea of what you were and are. Whether or not you have read my words, I appreciate the thought that you need not do so.


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