A Civil Breathing

Glenn Arbery, Ph.D.

In a recent memoir about his childhood, the famous neurologist Oliver Sacks describes his discovery, at the age of twelve, of the periodic table-the arrangement of the elements into horizontal rows and vertical columns according to the regular repetition of their chemical properties-in the London Science Museum in 1945:

In that first, long, rapt encounter in the Science Museum, I was convinced that the periodic table was neither arbitrary nor superficial, but a representation of truths which would never be overturned, but would, on the contrary, continually be confirmed, show new depths with new knowledge, because it was as deep and simple as nature itself. And the perception of this produced in my twelve-year-old self a sort of ecstasy, the sense (in Einstein’s words) that “a corner of the great veil had been lifted.”[i]

The periodic table was first formulated in 1869 in Mendeleev’s Principles of Chemistry, a 1200-page tome that Sacks claims (somewhat to his reviewer’s disbelief) that he devoured. Nowhere in it would Sacks have found any evidence that the ancient elements informing this lecture series-earth, air, fire, and water-were elements at all. Water is formed by the combination of two hydrogen atoms with an atom of oxygen; earth is obviously comprised of the heavier elements in complex geological strata of great age; fire is the phenomenon of combustion, involving oxidation and reduction; and air, the ancient element that I will be discussing tonight, might properly be called instead the atmosphere. Given what he already knew of the properties of matter, imagine telling the precocious twelve-year-old Sacks that “air” was an element.

Encyclopedias no longer dignify “air” with its own entry. Britannica online, for example, thought that I might have wanted “Air Jordan,” “air transportation,” “air warfare,” or “air pressure”-among others-instead. The Columbia suggested that I refer to “atmosphere”; “liquid air”; or “ventilation.” This is somewhat distressing, since fire, water, and earth at least have entries. What is this atmosphere, formerly known as air? A mixture of gases, held close to the planet by gravity. “Calculated according to their relative volumes,” the Sixth Edition of the Columbia Encyclopedia says, “the gaseous constituents of the atmosphere are nitrogen, 78.09%; oxygen, 20.95%; argon, 0.93%; carbon dioxide, 0.03%; and minute traces of neon, helium, methane, krypton, hydrogen, xenon, and ozone.” Obviously, though, the word airstill has a general usage, even scientifically speaking. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency uses an Air Quality Index (AQI) “for five major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.” And as I’m sure you know from the summertime alerts, Dallas is particularly subject to harmful ground-level ozone in level orange or level red. But although it is necessary for the health of the city to think about air quality in this way, this approach remains distant from the nature of elemental air as I want to consider it. When Ivan Illich thought about water in a conference here twenty years ago, he reflected that “H2O is a social creation of modern times, a resource that is scarce and that calls for technical management. It is an observed fluid that has lost the ability to mirror the water of dreams.” The air of the “air quality index” is the same kind of social creation, an observed mixture of gases, but not the stuff that imagination works on.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “element” comes from a Latin translation of the Greek work stoicheion-which meant “a component unit of a series; a constituent part of a complex whole (hence the ‘four elements’); a member of the planetary system; a letter of the alphabet; a fundamental principle of a science.” Considered as a chemical element, air has no reality; considered as an element of the imagination of matter, it remains indispensable, along with earth, fire, and water, as a part of the complex whole that the mind apprehends. As we have heard several times in this series, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard-himself a respected scientist-believed it possible to “establish in the realm of the imagination a law of the four elements which classifies various kinds of material imagination by their connections with fire, air, water, or earth.” Bachelard’s own work on the element of air, Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement, was published in 1988 by the Dallas Institute in the series edited by Joanne Stroud, this translation by Edith and Frederick Farrell. “In a truly complete psychology,” writes Bachelard, “imagination is primarily a kind of spiritual mobility of the greatest, liveliest, and most exhilarating kind” (2). The aerial imagination-the imagination of air-is exactly this kind of movement or mobility. Like air itself, the aerial imagination cannot be held or contained without violence to its very nature: think of holding your breath; think of a closed room in which no air stirs; think of the spirit Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, wedged into an oak by the witch Sycorax and freed by Prospero-his constant desire for his release, for absolute freedom. The particular quality of moving air is to lighten; when something is aerated, it is breathed into, freshened, lifted out of its own weight, inspired-that is, filled with spirit, spiritus, breath. Bachelard locates the aerial imagination primarily in the motion of ascent and the imagery of wings, but it is also associated with the sudden plummeting fall, the sense of the abyss.

Bachelard has written more profoundly about the element of air than anyone. Even so, it doesn’t seemaerial enough to be reporting on what Bachelard says, since his book speaks for itself. One of Bachelard’s major concerns in Air and Dreams is distinguishing the imaginary from the image as the root of imagination. “The basic word in the lexicon of the imagination is not image but imaginary,” he writes. “Thanks to the imaginary, imagination is essentially open and elusive. It is the human psyche’s experience of openness and novelty” (1). What I want to do, then, is take my own way. As I imagine this talk, it takes on three variations of a single motion-the first through the terrible aerial images of the past six weeks; then through a kind of metaphorical air space or air time, where ideas and images move; then into a meditation on what might still lighten and inspire us.


I start with a question: why have the first terrorist attacks on America been aerial ones? First, there were the hijacked airliners; now, the menace is inhalation anthrax-the opposite of a civil breathing. The effect on the imagination of the two kinds of threats is radically different. It might seem strange to speak of the effect on the imagination, as if these were somehow artistic phenomena; the difficulty is, of course, that they were designed to bring about a particular emotional effect that relates only in part to the actual damage done or the numbers killed. Each kind of terrorism relies for its real effect on its almost instantaneous transmission by the media, but I will get back to that point in a moment. Let me concentrate for now on what these attacks are as images.

Of the two deadliest attacks on September 11, those on the twin towers of the World Trade Center and on the Pentagon, the one that dominates our memories is the more aerial of the two. When I first heard about the attacks that Tuesday morning, we were dropping one of our daughters off at school; Ginny had to go inside with her for some reason, and while I was waiting, I turned on the radio. The NPR commentators were speaking about a fire high up in one of the towers of the World Trade Center, and they were speculating about it, wondering whether an airplane might have struck the building by accident. I remember very distinctly that they ruled out the weather as a factor, because it was a beautiful, clear morning in Manhattan. As we listened, the second airplane struck, and the whole reality of the situation began to sink in. Not until later that day did I see the actual images: the one of the second plane striking the north tower, the image of a huge airliner penetrating the building high above Manhattan and the globe of jet fuel exploding through the other side. It took place so far above street level that it seemed, as Louise Cowan said in the first of these lectures, that what was happening was like a theomachy, a war among the gods-something on a mythic level. From that horrific vision, the mind ran through other images that naturally occurred: what it would be like to be onboard those planes, what the workers who looked up from their work to see the airplane coming at them thought in that last instant, what those trapped in the floors above the explosion did in the instant they knew (some of them, remarkably, called home to say goodbye), and what the men who did this must have felt to be able to do it-how they could have studied and trained for years, mastering the air, as it were, for this one deed. Imagery of air kept returning-the sheer ascendancy of the attack and the terrible fall that resulted from it. Even before the towers collapsed, people on the floors above the fire were jumping out into the open air a hundred floors above the street rather than stay in the flames.

In a piece written for The New Yorker after the attacks, the novelist John Updike describes how he had been visiting relatives in Brooklyn with his wife when the planes hit. The apartment building where they were staying, on the tenth floor, had a clear view of the World Trade Center and lower Manhattan. A child called them to the window after the first tower was hit; they were looking at it in the same puzzled way as the NPR announcers seemed to be when the second explosion occurred:

And then [Updike writes], within an hour, as my wife and I watched from the Brooklyn building’s roof, the south tower dropped from the screen of our viewing; it fell straight down like an elevator, with a tinkling shiver and a groan of concussion distinct across the mile of air. We knew we had just witnessed thousands of deaths; we clung to each other as if we ourselves were falling. Amid the glittering impassivity of the many buildings across the East River, an empty spot had appeared, as if by electronic command, beneath the sky that, but for the sulfurous cloud streaming south toward the ocean, was pure blue, rendered uncannily pristine by the absence of jet trails. A swiftly expanding burst of smoke and dust hid the rest of lower Manhattan. . . . New Yorker (This section also contains Susan Sontag’s controversial piece.)

Notice in Updike’s description the almost involuntary cognizance of the imagery of air-the sulfurous cloud, the pristine blue sky on that day when, across the rest of the country, the usual overhead noises and jet trails ceased altogether, and the air uncannily reverted to silence. In Manhattan itself, though, smoke and dust choked everyone who tried to breathe it; there seemed to be no air left. What air there was prompted a number of analyses in the days and weeks after the attacks-concerns about the longterm health effects of inhaling asbestos and other particulate matter. No one would even say that the air one breathed also carried the ashes of the dead.

By contrast, the Pentagon crash seemed, after awhile, unfairly omitted from references to what happened on September 11. There was no footage of the actual crash, as there was with the second tower in New York, and fewer people were killed there. But analyzing it now, I am also struck that it lacked the aerial spectacle, the sheer verticality of the twin towers, where heroism and escape and death moved on an upward axis. For the terrorists, it must have been a powerful image of the towering hubris, the aerial overreaching, of America, brought low by its own ubiquitous aircraft. The attack on the Pentagon was on ground level, it damaged only part of the building, and it seemed to rely on the idea that the Pentagon is the center of American military power, rather than on the immediate effect of the visual image. As animage that would galvanize our enemies, it was less effective than the fall of the World Trade Center; for Americans, it has seemed to me-I hesitate almost to say it-that if the dome of the Capitol had been struckinstead of the Pentagon, or struck as well, the symbolic injury to the nation would have been much more terrible.

The attack on the Capitol has been aerial in another sense: a letter sent to Tom Daschle at the Senate Office Building, containing so-called weapons grade anthrax, acts by being inhaled. When this information emerged a week ago, the House of Representatives shut down. Since then, at least two postal employees from the Brentwood post office where the letter was handled have already died, two others are critically ill, and now a dozen or more other cases have been termed suspicious. If these cases are all related to the letter sent to Senator Daschle, then the purpose of the attack seems to be tied, not only to the fear attendant on the loss of lives and the uncertainty about who might be affected, but to the envelope itself. If you recall, the return address was 4th Grade / Greendale School / Franklin Park, NJ. What was this address supposed to signify? Several things immediately come to mind. First and most obvious, the post office employees and the staff of Senator Daschle would have been disarmed by the thought that this letter was a patriotic class project of some sort, perhaps a letter of encouragement and support organized by the teachers at the Greendale School in the wake of the September 11 attacks. It had the air of American innocence about it, even the block lettering. “Greendale” sounds somehow bucolic: the fourth grade class of a school in a green dale in a town with a park in its name. There are a number of Greendale Schools in the United States-in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Virginia, for example-but apparently not in Franklin Park, New Jersey, though no one handling the letter had any reason to know that. The envelope is coded, so to speak, to summon up images of healthy children and fresh air, but, in fact, even to breathe near the envelope proved deadly, and as of yesterday, no one knew why. The best theory was that the sorting machines pressed anthrax spores out through openings in the envelope. Inside the envelope when it arrived, dated 9-11-01, the letter contained this message in the same block lettering: “You can not stop us. We have this anthrax. You die now. Are you afraid? Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great.” The relation between the envelope and the letter and the bacteria also seems coded: a reminder that fourth graders elsewhere are already being trained to use weapons and hate the West. A woman quoted inThe New York Times Magazine last Sunday told the reporter, “‘I named my son [about four years old] Osama because I want to make him a mujahid. Right now there is war, but he is a child. When he is a young man, there might be war again, and I will prepare him for that war. In the name of God, I will sacrifice my son, and I don’t care if he is my most beloved thing. For all of my six sons, I wanted them to be mujahedeen. If they get killed it is nothing. This world is very short. I myself want to be a mujahid.”

Perhaps it will be impossible to prove any connection between the anthrax attacks and the hijackings on September 11. Nevertheless, at least a link seems to be there. Like the use of commercial airliners, this attack also seems calculated to spoil the openness and novelty of our national imagination. It inverts the imagery of inspiration, of that lightening and freshening, that taking in of boldness of spirit, that has characterized America in the New World-a nation enamored with motion, as Faulkner recognized so well. Whatever our vulgarity or arrogance, a spiritual mobility has kept expressing itself in a lightening of matter itself that seeks the whole air for its expression. In the most recent bio-terrorist attacks, it is as though the hidden enemy, playing on our belief in a golden age fable of green dales and parks, had tempted us to inhale the air of the abyss. In an editorial yesterday, The New York Times said that the terrorists had attacked the aviation industry and the postal service-travel and communication. I would add this, thinking of the motion of the images given virulent life: in both kinds of attack, the ascendant imagination of air is subverted; air becomes the domain of the enemy.


This new suspicion would not be possible, on the other hand, without the use of air in other senses. The Oxford English Dictionary [of which I have become inordinately fond after recently listening to Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman] finds the first uses of the phrase “in the air,” meaning “in the moral and intellectual atmosphere of the time, in men’s minds everywhere,” in the 1870’s. The sense of “in the air” or “up in the air,” signifying a state of doubt or uncertainty, dates back at least to 1797, when Thomas Jefferson used it. The first discovered use of air, “considered as a medium for the operation of aircraft; a collective term for aircraft or aerial power,” in the dictionary’s elegant phrasing, was in a letter written in 1917, in which Admiral John Fisher said, “The air is going to win the war.” “On the air,” used to describe a radio transmission, first occurred in print in 1927; its use for television turned up in 1955. If air has become the medium of war, then in large part, it is the war for power over opinion, the war for the mind.

Obviously, there is nothing new about this: Hitler, Roosevelt, and Churchill all seized upon the powers of the air waves in every sense, beginning seventy years ago. 2400 years ago Socrates was already working out a way of philosophically testing opinion inculcated, not only by the Sophists with their manipulative use of rhetoric, but also by the poets who shaped the city’s understanding of divine and human things. The ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry centers on the power of doxa, opinion or belief, and the way that it forms cities. Poetry-and I mean poetry in the broadest sense, for the Greeks including epics, tragedies, comedies, hymns to the gods, and other lyrics-positively provides an insight into the divine powers and the relations between gods and men, an image of the cosmos as a whole, a narrative shape to the paradigmatic human experiences, and a kind of attunement of appropriate emotions. Poetry, in this sense, would include (for Socrates) the Greek equivalent of Bible stories, hymns, and so on. Together, these constitute the air of doxa, but they also eventually tend to be trapped in structural literalisms that imprison, so to speak, the moving air of the imaginary. Socratic philosophy acts in an essentially negativeway, by questioning the images-for example, asking whether it is true that Zeus chained his own father in Tartaros or committed numberless adulteries-and in doing so, clearing the way for a new consideration of what might really be divine.

This ancient quarrel has a new relevance because we now face enemies whose beliefs make them capable of long, intelligent preparation for suicidal attacks and righteous murder. Opinion, belief, doxa is very much the issue. As Westerners, we are committed to Enlightenment ideas of religious toleration; we recognize that everyone, no matter how religious, has to neutralize some of the thrilling, righteous force of belief in the interests of a livable political society. The willingness to guide an airplane into a tower of the World Trade Center-to have the act doubled, then tripled with the Pentagon attack-stuns us. But as Slavoj Zizek writes, “Is the obverse of this surprise not the rather sad fact that we, in the First World countries, find it more and more difficult even to imagine a public or universal cause for which one would be ready to sacrifice one’s life?” Zizek “Public or universal” seems to me the way a Westerner would describe the cause; for the hijackers, the cause was undoubtedly religious, but extremely personal as well, in the sense that honor was at stake. This present war against an elusive enemy seems particularly to be one waged in the sphere of world opinion, not so much against terrorism per se, or even the Taliban or al Qaeda, as against a particular form of Islamic doxa. Because we seem to be attacking something specifically Islamic, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate what we are attacking from Islam per se. In the last few days, I have seen worried stories beginning to appear about the continued air war in Afghanistan; we look like the world’s greatest power annihilating “one of the poorest countries, where peasants barely survive on barren hills,” as Zizek puts it. Official protestations that the war is not against Islam but against terrorists begin to seem meaningless, because the enemy only needs the Western media to show on the air that the civilians victims of the attacks are Islamic to arouse antipathy toward the United States across the Islamic world.

Air proves to be the ripest medium, in this respect also, for an attack on the West. The air war, regardless of how effective it eventually is in military terms, might prove to be another attack on us, even an argument after the fact for the terrorists’ use of airplanes. Perhaps because Islam has prohibitions against representative art, its most militant mujahadeen seem to have a particularly keen sense for the disruptive power of images-or, more to the point, for effective memes. Once again, the O.E.D.: a meme is “an element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation.” The biologist Richard Dawkins coined the word meme because he wanted a noun to signify “the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation” that would be the cultural equivalent of the gene as a replicator. “Examples of memes,” he writes, “are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.”

Dawkins’ examples have been expanded far beyond what he might have imagined. In a recent article, Susan Blackmore (who published a book called The Meme Machine in 1999) distinguishes memes and “complexes of memes” from non-memes according to whether they are culturally transmitted. Anything that tends to get culturally replicated by being insistently imitated qualifies as a meme. The Nazi straight-arm salute is a meme. Pokémon and wearing one’s baseball cap backwards are memes, as are phrases that catch on and get repeated everywhere-“yadda-yadda-yadda” or “outside the box” or “at the end of the day.” Among memes are such things as “Stories, urban legends, myths / Clothing, hairstyles, [and] body piercing”-but Blackmore also includes (and I assume that these would be “complexes of memes”) “Religions / Inventions, theories, science / Judicial systems, democracy.” Dawkins himself wants to say that any religious faith is a meme or a virus; he actually puts Jim Jones (whose devotees all committed suicide) in the same sentence between John Wesley and St. Paul, as if there were no distinctions between them as “particularly potent infective agents.” It seems to me arrogantly reductive to say that deeply held belief is simply a complex of memes; for example, Blackmore wants to say that “subjective experiences” and “complex emotions” are not memes, but some of the most complex emotions we have stem from our participation in stories, myths, religions-even, as we have seen, in science, as Oliver Sacks attests. If we are standing outside a culture philosophically, doxa seems to me a better term. But there is also something appealing about applying the word meme to discrete cultural entities.

In an article last Saturday in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani brought up the term to describe the effects of the anthrax attack when so many things about the terrorists are still up in the air:

Uncertainty provides just the sort of environment in which rumors thrive. . . . What people tend to pull in from the Internet and television are those ideas and images they find most compelling; these “memes” – to use a term coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins back in 1976 – then spread from person to person through conversations, e-mails, bulletin boards, chat rooms and instant messages. What makes a meme spread quickly enough to cause a cultural epidemic? In the bookThought Contagion, Aaron Lynch suggested that anxiety-inducing memes tend to spread more quickly than others, because their carriers are driven by an urgent need to proselytize. . . .

These memes have what Lynch calls a certain “stickiness” that makes them particularly effective. Kakutani goes on,

The fear of anthrax infection is a very real and legitimate worry in an America still recovering from Sept. 11 and reeling from new reports of exposure. At the same time, however, it is also a remarkably hardy and widespread meme that has taken hold of the nation’s collective unconscious – a mind virus spread by word of mouth and amplified by our electronic media, an epidemic that has united the country, but united it in anxiety and dread. Kakutani

The broadcast media and now the Internet might almost be said to exist for the airing and instant transmission of memes. The images of September 11 are memes in this sense; that letter from the 4thGrade at Greendale School is a meme, as is the text of the letter-all replicated-by the media (and by me); the anthrax itself, as Kakutani suggests, is more a meme of fear than a physical threat. The media seem to have a particular avidity for broadcasting anything that will keep the attention of viewers, and memes keep the audience-not long, connected discourses, with complicated arguments based on careful reasoning, and not poetry, with its rich inner complexities and its accumulating form-but quick, airable memes; each one gets rerun, replicated, until its effectiveness is supplanted by the next one.

Dostoevski, so remarkably prescient about the 20th century in so many ways, seems also to have anticipated this kind of infection of opinion in the 21st. In the Epilogue to Crime and Punishment, he describes an apocalyptic dream of Raskolnikov in prison in Siberia:

He dreamt that the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia. All were to be destroyed except a very few chosen. Some new sorts of microbes were attacking the bodies of men, but these microbes were endowed with intelligence and will. Men attacked by them became at once mad and furious. But never had men considered themselves so intellectual and so completely in possession of the truth as these sufferers, never had they considered their decisions, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions so infallible. Crime and Punishment (Warning: this is the whole book)

In the dream, the plague goes on to destroy the whole world, except for the few “destined to found a new race and a new life, to renew and purify the earth.” This kind of apocalyptic vision seemed to recede from us at the end of the Cold War with the advent of globalization; now, the possibility that we could destroy each other seems greater because we are globalized. As Larry Allums said to me the other day, it is as though the effects of the Cold War on the rest of the world are only now beginning to return upon us. But does the plague of microbes more accurately describe the moral convictions of the terrorists themselves, or the thinking of the modern West since the Enlightenment, or the “thought contagion” that is the effect of the terrorists’ creation of anthrax memes? In Raskolnikov’s dream, the microbes, like memes, are ideas as self-replicating beings that use us parasitically, that ratchet into our emotions, or worse, into our logic, and overcome our judgment by their automatic replication. Well-educated minds might be able to resist the plague, but Dostoevski does not say so. The well-balanced heart seems more important to him than the acute Socratic intellect; the mind’s logic has to be governed by the heart’s reason.


At the beginning, I said that I wanted to move by the end into something that might freshen the imagination and lighten us. What has emerged, though, is a different direction. The terrorists’ air war of memes depends on keeping us on the air, up in the air-keeping us, as Oliver Sacks one of his patients who has suffered a profound memory loss-“”fluttering, restless, bored, and lost.” A headline this morning reads, “Fighting a New Health Threat, On the Fly.” Being merely “up in the air” differs profoundly from the openness and novelty of the aerial imagination. The most effective move on September 11 was immediately grounding all the air traffic in the country. One of the difficulties now is the national attempt to maintain a false buoyancy-the pretense that, no matter what, we are still up. Imaginatively, at least, the way up is down. We need an imaginative grounding, a slowing and deeper incarnation of our impulse to mobility that will not remove the threat, but might perhaps restore our spiritual balance.

In Book V of Milton’s Paradise Lost, the angel Raphael has come to warn Adam of the danger of the tempter who approaches to spoil the happiness of the garden state (the motto of New Jersey, it struck me as I wrote this phrase). Adam and Raphael have a meal together, and in their conversation, Adam asks the angel to explain how it is that he can enjoy the lowly meal in Eden as much as “Heaven’s high feasts.” Raphael answers in this way:

O ADAM, one Almightie is, from whom
All things proceed, and up to him return,
. . . . one first matter all,
Indu’d with various forms, various degrees
Of substance, and in things that live, of life;
But more refined, more spiritous, and pure,
As nearer to him placed or nearer tending
Each in their several active Spheres assigned,
Till body up to spirit work, in bounds
Proportioned to each kind. So from the root
Springs lighter the green stalk, from thence the leaves
More aerie, last the bright consummate flower
Spirits odorous breathes: flours and their fruit
Mans nourishment, by gradual scale sublimed
To vital Spirits aspire, to animal,
To intellectual, give both life and sense,
Fancy and understanding, whence the soul
Reason receives, and reason is her being,
Discursive, or Intuitive. . . .

As each thing tends toward God, in other words, it becomes more “spiritous,” more “aerie.” As in nature generally, so in the body. Man’s food literally feeds his basic bodily functioning, his senses, his fancy (Milton’s term for the image-making power), and his understanding-all of which, in turn, feed reason, “by gradual scale sublim’d.” Raphael’s speech is intended to prevent Adam from accepting the offer soon to by made by the serpent-the meme, so to speak, of effortless, instantaneous elevation (“You shall be like gods”), which contains the terrible fall. The angel’s appeal is to Adam’s reason, in the highest sense. He goes on to say that in the course of things,

time may come when men

With Angels may participate, . . .

And from these corporal nutriments perhaps
Your bodies may at last turn all to Spirit
Improv’d by tract of time, and wingd ascend
Ethereal, as wee,. . . . (5:469 ff.)

The tendency of all things is toward the air, but the way up is through gradual sublimation, a kind of discursive progress. The appeal to reason, in some ways the most aerial faculty, is also an appeal to the acceptance of finitude and the exercise of patience.

A rarely quoted passage from Thoreau’s chapter “Spring” in Walden echoes this kind of ascent. Thoreau has been describing a descent: the way that sand flows down a bank, forming veins, thinning and spreading out as it goes. :

You find thus in the very sands an anticipation of the vegetable leaf. No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly. The atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant by it. The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype. Internally, whether in the globe or animal body, it is a moist thick lobe. . . ; externally a dry thin leaf. . . . The feathers and wings of birds are still drier and thinner leaves. Thus, also, you pass from the lumpish grub in the earth to the airy and fluttering butterfly. The very globe continually transcends and translates itself, and becomes winged in its orbit.

I have omitted Thoreau’s meditations on words and word sounds, though he sees the same tendency in them-lobe to leaf, for example, the f as a pressed and dried b. He is led into this meditation, not by yearning upward, but by paying attention to the earth. Doing so, as in the passage from Milton, paradoxically yields an ever airier and more mobile imagination of the great globe itself.


This is a windy season. As Philip Tabb told us two weeks ago, it is the season associated with wind, with St. Michael, with the west, with conquering the serpent, or, in another interpretation that is perhaps not so different, understood in the right way, pushing the ascendant spirit down into the earth. Looking out the window of this building yesterday morning, I was watching the trees-catalpa, elm, and pecan, all beginning to turn, all in a kind of range of color between dark green and pure yellow, the oak still mostly green. The wind had a different motion in each tree. Some of the leaves would let go in the wind and I could watch them trying out their aerodynamics; some of the partly dried and curled catalpa leaves, in particular, showed an extraordinary beauty of motion on the way down, loops and curves and sudden ascents. I was reminded of my first fall in New Hampshire, when the winged seeds of the huge old maple trees were whirling down everywhere like rotors on the wind and the leaves floated in a constant drift. Seeds cannot germinate until the husk itself rots-until the wings dissolve into the earth, under the winter rain and the mulch that the leaves make. Everything works for us, not in the same way, but through the imaginarythat plays off the cycle of periodic death and renewal. That elemental descent seems to me what we need to imagine now-a season, as it were, off the air, under the surface, waiting for the veil to be lifted.

[i] Quoted in M. F. Perutz, “Growing Up Among the Elements,” a review of Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (New York: Knopf, 2001) in The New York Review of Books, November 1, 2001, p. 46.

© The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture – Permission is granted to copy and redistribute this lecture on the condition that the content remains complete and full credit is given to the author.

  • © 2016 Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture - Contact Us - Admin Login -