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Expression - The Atlantic

The law of expression is the law of degrees,—of much, more, and most.

Nature exists to the mind not as an absolute realization, but as a condition, as something constantly becoming. It is neither entirely this nor that. It is suggestive and prospective; a body in motion, and not an object at rest. It draws the soul out and excites thought, because it is embosomed in a heaven of possibilities, and interests without satisfying. The landscape has a pleasure to us, because in the mind it is canopied by the ideal, as it is here canopied by the sky.

The material universe seems a suspense, something arrested on the point of transition from nonentity to absolute being,—wholly neither, but on the confines of both, which is the condition of its being perceptible to us. We are able to feel and use heat, because it is not entirely heat; and we see light only when it is mixed and diluted with its opposite. The condition of motion is that there be something at rest; else how could there be any motion? The river flows, because its banks do not. We use force, because it is only in part that which it would be. What could we do with unmixed power? Absolute space is not cognizable to the mind; we apprehend space only when limited and imprisoned in geometrical figures. Absolute life we can have no conception of; the absolute must come down and incarnate itself in the conditioned, and cease to be absolute, before it comes within the plane of our knowledge. The unconscious is not knowable; as soon as it is thought, it becomes conscious.

And this is God's art of expression. We can behold nothing pure; and all that we see is compounded and mixed. Nature stands related to us at a certain angle, and a little remove either way—back toward its grosser side, or up toward its ideal tendency—would place it beyond our ken. It is like the rainbow, which is a partial and an incomplete development,— pure white light split up and its colors detached and dislocated, and which is seen only from a certain stand-point.

We remark, therefore, that all things are made of one stuff, and on the principle that a difference in degree produces a difference in kind. From the clod and the rock up to the imponderable, to light and electricity, the difference is only more or less of selection and filtration. Every grade is a new refinement, the same law lifted to a higher plane. The air is earth with some of the coarser elements purged away. From the zoöphyte up to man, more or less of spirit gives birth to the intervening types of life. All motion is but degrees of gravitating force; and the thousand colors with which the day paints the earth are only more or less of light. All form aspires toward the circle, and realizes it more or less perfectly. By more or less of heat the seasons accomplish their wonderful transformations on the earth and in the air. In the moral world, the eras and revolutions that check history are only degrees in the development of a few simple principles; and the variety of character that diversifies the world of men and manners springs from a greater or less predominance of certain individual traits.

This law of degrees, pushed a little farther, amounts to detachment and separation, and gives birth to contrast and comparison. This is one aspect in which the law manifests itself in the individual. The chairs and the pictures must come out from the wall before we can see them. The tree must detach itself from the landscape, either by form or color, before it becomes cognizable to us. There must be irregularity and contrast. Our bodily senses relate us to things on this principle; they require something brought out and disencumbered from the mass. The eye cannot see where there is no shade, nor the hand feel where there is no inequality of surface, nor the palate taste where there is no predominance of flavor, nor the ear hear where there is no silence. Montaigne has the following pertinent passage, which also comes under this law:—"Whoever shall suppose a pack-thread equally strong throughout, it is utterly impossible it should break; for where will you have the breaking to begin? And that it should break altogether is not in Nature."

The palpableness and availableness of an object are in proportion as it is separated from its environments. We use water as a motive power by detaching a part from the whole and placing ourselves in the way of its tendency to unite again. All force and all motion are originated on this principle. It is by gravity that we walk and move and overcome resistance, and, in short, perform all mechanical action; yet the condition is that we destroy the settled equilibrium of things for the moment, and avail ourselves of the impulse that restores it again. The woodman chops by controlling and breaking the force which he the next moment yields to.

So in higher matters. We are conscious of pain and pleasure only through the predominance of some feeling. There must be degrees and differences again, and some part more relieved than another, to catch an expression on. Entire pain or an equal degree of physical suffering in every part of the body would be a perfect blank, complete numbness; and entire pleasure we could not be conscious of, and for the same reason. How could there be any contrast, any determining hue, any darker or brighter side? If the waters of the earth were all at the same altitude, how could there be any motion among the parts? Hence the fullest experience is never defined, and cannot be spoken. It is like the sphere, which, as it merges all possible form in itself, is properly of no form, as white is no color, and cannot be grasped and used as parts and fragments can; there are no angles and outlines to define and give emphasis.

Hence the pain or pleasure that is definitely shaped in the consciousness and that can be spoken is necessarily partial, and does not go the full circle of our being. We are not conscious of our health and growth, because they are general and not local, and are not rendered prominent by contrast.

The dictionary and the sciences, in fact the whole province of human knowledge, hinge upon this principle. To know a thing is but to separate and distinguish it from something else; and classifying and systematizing are carrying the same law from the particular to the general. We cannot know one thing alone; two ideas enter into every distinct act of the understanding,—one latent and virtual, the other active and at the surface. To use familiar examples, we cannot distinguish white without having known black, nor evil without having known good, nor beauty without having known deformity. Thus every principle has two sides, like a penny, and one presupposes the other, which it covers.

When we come to the intellect and the expression of thought, the same law of detachment and separation prevails. In contemplation and enjoyment there are unity and wholeness; but in thinking, never. Our thoughts lie in us, like the granite rock in the earth, whole and continuous, without break or rupture, and shaped by a law of the spheres; but when they come to the surface in utterance, and can be grasped and defined, they lose their entireness and become partial and fragmentary, and hint a local and not a general law. We cannot speak entire and unmixed truth, because utterance separates a part from the whole, and consequently in a measure distorts and exaggerates and does injustice to other truths. The moment we speak, we are one-sided and liable to be assailed by the reverse side of the fact. Hence the hostility that exists between different sects and religions; their founders were each possessed of some measure of truth, and consequently stood near to a common ground of agreement, but in the statement it became vitiated and partial; and the more their disciples have expounded and sought to lodge their principles in a logical system, the more they have diverged from the primitive sentiment. If the sects would let logic alone and appeal only to the consciousness of men, there would be no very steep difference between them, and each would promote the good of the other. But the moment we rest with the reason and the understanding there must be opposition and divergence, for they apprehend things by parts, and not by the mass; they deal with facts, and not with laws.

The fullest truth, as we have already hinted, never shapes itself into words on our lips. What we can speak is generally only foam from the surface, with more or less sediment in it; while the pure current flows untouched beneath. The deepest depths in a man have no tongue. He is like the sea, which finds expression only on its shoals and rocks; the great heart of it has no voice, no utterance.

The religious creeds will never be reconciled by logic; the more emphatically they are expressed, the more they differ. Ideas, in this respect, resemble the trees, which branch and diverge more and more widely as they proceed from the root and the germinal state. Men are radically the same in their feelings and sentiments, but widely different in their logic. Argument is reaction, and drives us farther and farther apart.

As the intellect expresses by detachment and contrast, it follows, that, the more emphatically an idea is expressed, the more it will be disencumbered of other ideas and stand relieved like a bust chiselled from a rock. It is suggestive and prospective, and, by being detached itself, will relieve others and still others. It makes a breach in the blank wall, and the whole is now pregnable. New possibilities are opened, a new outlook into the universe. Nothing, so to speak, has become something; one base metal has been transmuted into gold, and so given us a purchase on every other. When one thought is spoken, all others become speakable. After one atom was created, the universe would grow of its own accord. The difficulty in writing is to utter the first thought, to break the heavy silence, to overcome the settled equilibrium, and disentangle one idea from the embarrassing many. It is a struggle for life. There is no place to begin at. We are burdened with unuttered and unutterable truth, but cannot, for the life of us, grasp it. It is a battle with Chaos. We plant shaft after shaft, but to no purpose. We get an idea half-defined, when it slips from us, and all is blank again in that direction. We seem to be struggling with the force of gravity, and to come not so near conquering as to being conquered. But at last, when we are driven almost to despair, and in a semi-passive state inwardly settling and composing ourselves, the thought comes. How much is then revealed and becomes possible! New facts and forces are commanded by it; much of our experience, that was before meaningless and unavailable, assumes order and comes to our use; and as long as the breach can be kept open and the detachment perfect, how easily we write! But if we drop the thread of our idea without knotting it, or looping it to some fact,—if we stop our work without leaving something inserted to keep the breach open, how soon all becomes a blank! the wound heals instantly; the equilibrium which we had for a moment arrested again asserts itself, and our work is a fragment and must always remain so. Neither wife nor friends nor fortune nor appetite should call one from his work, when he is possessed by this spirit and can utter his thought. We are caught up into these regions rarely enough; let us not come down till we are obliged.

The fullest development of this law, as it appears in the intellect, is Analogy. Analogy is the highest form of expression, the poetry of speech; and is detachment carried so far that it goes full circle and gives a sense of unity and wholeness again. It is the spheral form appearing in thought. The idea is not only detached, but is wedded to some outward object, so that spirit and matter mutually interpret each other. Nothing can be explained by itself, or, in the economy of Nature, is explained by itself. The night explains the day, and the day interprets the night. Summer gives character to winter, and in winter we best understand the spirit of summer. The shore defines and emphasizes the sea, and the sea gives form and meaning to the shore.

To measure grain, we must have a bushel; and to confine water and air, we must have other than water and air to do it with. The bird flies by balancing itself against something else; the mountain is emphasized by the valley; and one color is brought out and individualized by another. Our mood of yesterday is understood and rendered available by our mood of to-day; and what we now experience will be read aright only when seen from the grounds of an opposite experience. Our life here will not be duly appreciated and its meaning made clear till seen from the life beyond.

The spiritual canopies the material as the sky canopies the earth, and is reached and expressed only by its aid. And this is Analogy,—the marrying of opposite facts, the perception of the same law breaking out in a thousand different forms,—the completing of the circle when only a segment is given. The visible and the invisible make up one sphere of which each is a part. We are related to both; our root is in one, our top in the other. Our ideas date from spirit and appear in fact. The ideal informs the actual. This is the way the intellect detaches and gets expressed. It is not its own interpreter, and, like everything else, is only one side of a law which is explained by the other side. The mind is the cope and the world the draw, to use the language of the moulder. The intellect uses the outward, as the sculptor uses marble, to embody and speak its thought. It seizes upon a fact as upon a lever, to separate and lift up some fraction of its meaning. From Nature, from science, from experience, it traces laws, till they appear in itself, and thus finds a thread to string its thought on.

Without Analogy, without this marrying of the inward and the outward, there can be no speech, no expression. It is a necessity of our condition. Spirit is cognizable by us only when endowed with a material body; so an idea or a feeling can be stated only when it puts on the form and definiteness of the sensuous, the empirical. Hence the highest utterance is a perpetual marrying of thought with things, as in poetry,—a lifting up of the actual and a bringing down of the ideal,—giving a soul to the one and a body to the other. This takes place more or less in all speech, but only with genius is it natural and complete. Ordinary minds inherit their language and form of expression; but with the poet, or natural sayer, a new step is taken, and new analogies, new likenesses must be disclosed. He is distinguished from the second-hand man by the fulness and completeness of his expression; his words are round and embrace the two hemispheres, the actual and the ideal. He points out analogies under our feet, and presents the near and the remote wedded in every act of his mind. Nothing is old with him, but Nature is forever new like the day, and gives him pure and fresh thoughts as she gives him pure and fresh water. Hence the expressiveness of poetry and its power over the human heart. It differs from prose only in degree, not in essence. It goes farther and accomplishes more. It is the blossom of which prose is the bud, and comes with sincerity, simplicity, purity of motive, and a vital relation to Nature.

As men grow earnest and impassioned, and speak from their inmost heart, and without any secondary ends, their language rises to the dignity of poetry and employs tropes and figures. The more emphatic the statement, the more the thought is linked with things. The ideas of men in their ordinary mood are only half-expressed, like a stone propped up, but still sod-bound; but when they are fired and glowing with the heat of some great passion, the operation of the mind is more complete and the detachment more perfect. The thought is not only evolved, but is thrown into the air,—disencumbered from the understanding, and set off against the clear blue of the imagination. Hence the direct and unequivocal statement of a man writing under the impulse of some strong feeling, or speaking to a thrilled and an excited audience. Nature, the world, his experience, is no longer hard and flinty, but plastic and yielding, and takes whatever impress his mind gives it. Facts float through his head like half-pressed grapes in the wine-press, steeped and saturated with meaning, and his expression becomes so round and complete as to astonish himself in his calmer moments.

People differ not so much in material as in this power of expressing it. The secret of the best writer lies in his art. He is not so much above the common stature; his experience is no richer than ours; but he knows how to put handles to his ideas, and we do not. Give a peasant his power of expression, or of welding the world within to the world without, and there would be no very precipitous inequality between them. The great writer says what we feel, but could not utter. We have pearls that lie no deeper than his, but have not his art of bringing them to the surface. We are mostly like an inland lake that has no visible outlet; while he is the same lake gifted with a copious channel.

The secret seems to lie in the temperament and in the transmuting and modifying medium. More or less of filtration does it all. Nature makes the poet, not by adding to, but by taking from; she takes all blur and opacity out of him; condenses, intensifies; lifts his nerves nearer the surface, sharpens his senses, and brings his whole organization to an edge. Sufficient filtration would convert charcoal into diamonds; and we shall everywhere find that the purest, most precious substances are the result of a refining, sorting, condensing process.

Our expression is clogged by the rubbish in our minds, the foolish personal matters we load the memory with. Ideas are not clearly defined, as the drift-wood in the river spoils the reflected image. We feel nothing intensely; our experience is a blur without distinct form and outline; in short we are incumbered with too much clay. Hence, when a slow disease burns the dross and earth out of one, how keen and susceptible his organization becomes! The mud-wall grows transparent. Our senses lose their obtuseness, our capacity both for experience and expression is enlarged, and we not only live deeper, but nearer the surface.

It appears, then, that, as a general rule, our ability to express ourselves is in proportion to the fineness of our organization. Women, for this reason, are more adequate in expressing themselves than men; they stand removed one degree farther from the earth, and are conscious of feelings and sentiments that are never defined in our minds; the detachment is more perfect; shades and boundaries are more clearly brought out, and consequently the statement is more round and full.

One's capacity for expression is also affected by his experience,—not experience in time and space, but soul-experience,—joy, sorrow, pleasure, pain, love, hope, aspiration, and all intense feeling by which the genesis of the inward man unfolded. What one has lived, that alone can he adequately say. The outward is the measure of the inward; it is as the earth and sky: so much earth as we see, so much sky takes form and outline. The spiritual, it is true, is illimitable, but the actual is the measure of that part of which we are made conscious. Experience furnishes the handle, but the intellect must supply the blade.

Intense feeling of any kind afterward gives us more entire command over some thought or power within us. Every inundation of passion enriches and gives us a deeper soil. The most painful experiences are generally the most productive. Cutting teeth is by no means a pleasant operation, yet it increases our tools. Our lives are not thoroughly shaped out and individualized till we have lived and suffered in every part of us. A great feeling reveals new powers in the soul, as a deep breath fills air-cells in the lungs that are not reached by an ordinary inhalation. Love first revealed the poetic gift in Novalis; and in reading the Autobiography of Goethe, one can but notice the quickening of his powers after every new experience: a new love was a new push given the shuttle, and a new thread was added.

When we come nearer the surface of our subject and speak of language, we remark that pure English, so far as such is possible, is the most convenient and expressive. Saxon words cannot be used too plentifully. They abridge and condense and smack of life and experience, and form the nerve and sinew of the best writing of our day; while the Latin is the fat. The Saxon puts small and convenient handles to things, handles that are easy to grasp; while your ponderous Johnsonian phraseology distends and exaggerates, and never peels the chaff from the wheat. Johnson's periods act like a lever of the third kind,—the power applied always exceeds the weight raised; while the terse, laconic style of later writers is eminently a lever on the first principle, and gives the mind the utmost purchase on the subject in hand.

The language of life, and of men who speak to be understood, should be used more in our books. A great principle anchored to a common word or a familiar illustration never looses its hold upon the mind; it is like seeing the laws of Astronomy in the swing of a pendulum, or in the motion of the boy's ball,—or the law of the tides and the seasons appearing in the beating of the pulse, or in inspiring and expiring the breath. The near and the remote are head and tail of the same law, and good writing unites them, giving wholeness and continuity. The language of the actual and the practical applied to the ideal brings it at once within everybody's reach, tames it, and familiarizes it to the mind. If the writers on metaphysics would deal more in our every-day speech, use commoner illustrations, seek to find some interpreter of the feelings and affections of the mind in Nature, out of the mind itself, and thus keep the life-principle and the thought-principle constantly wedded, making them mutually elucidate and explain each other, they would be far more fruitful and satisfying. Cousin is the only writer we know of who has made any attempt at this, and we believe him to be the most consistent and intelligent metaphysician that has yet appeared. Surely, one cannot reasonably object to the height in the heavens from which a man steals his fire, if he can feed it with his own fuel and cook meat with it. Though the genealogy of our ideas be traceable to Jove and Olympus, they must marry their human sisters, the facts of common life and experience, before they can be productive of anything positive and valuable.

Proverbs give us the best lessons in the art of expression. See what vast truths and principles informing such simple and common facts! It reminds one of suns and stars engraved on buttons and knife-handles. Proverbs come from the character, and are alive and vascular. There is blood and marrow in them. They give us pocket-editions of the most voluminous truths. Theirs is a felicity of expression that comes only at rare moments, and that is bought by long years of experience.

There is no waste material in a good proverb; it is clear meat, like an egg,—a happy result of logic, with the logic left out; and the writer who shall thus condense his wisdom, and as far as possible give the two poles of thought in every expression, will most thoroughly reach men's minds and hearts.