Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that the kingdom of thought has no enclosures. The city of this Muse, he wrote, has no moat and stands inviting to all who would set to it inquiry, even who ask in words friable, or wobbling, queer, who only wonder something, who wonder this or that in the final thought before sleep or the first thought of dawn, who do not even _know_ they are asking, yet are, and are answered graciously by kings and queens. Thought is as abundant and familiar as air and water are. Always, it slides tectonically across the face of the knowable world, and regenerates, and replaces itself.
Our experience verifies these claims, for we think and respire in equal measure. In writing these becoming words, in the courtyard of the Boston Public Library, I have thought not only of them, but also of the writing of them and the graphemes and phonemes of them; of the hands which type them and—in these outdoors—become numb and slow; of my friend who, from her sunken chair, stretches one leg and now two across our iron table, both feet deep in floral socks grey; of the Doric columns in my vision at various depths; of the fountain falling off to my left, in its center the rusted sculpture of a nymph, with one hand holding a slender babe; of the visible sky, reeling in the wake of a day’s hurricane, hesitantly returning. I think also of the thinking of the thinking of these things, and of all the thoughts, and thoughts of thoughts, which, surely, I have missed. These hundreds are the content of but a common quarter-hour: how many might traverse our skulls in a day, or in the length of a week? How many, then, in the rotational seasons and years of life, with the bone of the skull ever expanding? I suppose hundreds of millions, but what person knows even half of them and could give that half in exact numbers? Instead of thinking, and thinking of thinking, we elevate and fixate on particular thoughts, and hold them for days; we turn them for days, like baubles, in our hands.
From this veritable hand-dance derives the possibility of “holding a view”, and which thoughts we palm, indeed, soon become _our_ positions: desires, inferences, affinities and aversions, notions and beliefs and disbeliefs, ticklings and inklings, minute fantasies and those more grand. It is out of these that all action and creation transpires. Given content, these may range from as near as fears of future storms, romantic wants, dinner plans, and inchoate interpretations of complete poems, to metaphysical systems and religions, to strong visions of what may lie just beyond the sightless measure. We would hold the view that we know we hold these views. In private moments, in verdant, girded gardens, we would easily acknowledge them as the significant thoughts of our lives, ingredient to who we are, and readily would identify with them. We would take responsibility for them and not feel so estranged if presented with them from without. They are our only subjects when we ever refer to our noetic life. Being mind mammals, whose lives are entirely mediate, they may even be _all_ of what we take to be us.
Yet these thoughts comprise no more than five percent of all we actually think. So much of what we miss we do not even think, or know, we miss, and we miss, or evade, whole possible realms, the great richness that could be. This is one loss of our mode of thought. The second is the severe mutilation we impose on the thoughts we do seize, squeezing too hard: desires reflexively inflate and lose surety of their object; beliefs become dogmatic or stale; fantasies consume us and sunder us from our good, necessary world, and, as it were, we lose our grip. Emerson, for one, takes these losses “to be the most unhandsome part of our condition,” and purposes himself to their restitution, by returning himself and his Student to the undivided state he calls “Man Thinking”, to a being in the ebb and flow of all thought. An aspect of this restitution is raising to consciousness the low and common thoughts we cannot and do not seize. Thus, “Man Thinking” is envisioned “in his private observatory, cataloguing obscure and nebulous stars of the human mind,” recognizing the distant and potential, not present, luminescence of each, while, at the same time, expanding his perceptive faculty. (As, in ancient times, they promised Avraham a great progeny, so, here, the stars in the sky are, like the air and water were, Emerson’s metaphor for the extent of thought.) This we may contrast with, say, the heliocentricity of significant thought; for “Man Thinking” is concerned instead with thinking, itself, and so with all of its elements—with the extensive orbital elements of our universe, the crucial ancillaries of primary thought, the accoutrements of experience, which are, in the end, not accoutrements at all. We ignore the stars that are most distant because they appear to us as ordinary, and turn from them, hypnotized, to some extravagant flares. But it is only in the light of these flares and the deficiency of our eyes that the distant star does not impress. It is yet a star of Divine benefaction, or soon will be; it is yet the content of our unresolved eyes. Such is the typical thought: Attaining a recognition of its potential, and working to realize it, and playing with it—turning it most gently in the hand—is the task Emerson sets himself and his Student.
Thus arises the question of the significance of this thought, this distant star, for it certainly must not be elevated to level of the _view held tightly_: To what extent shall we identify it with the thinker, and hold her responsible for it? How will we consider it, if not as a taken position? Most of these elevated thoughts will remain pure thoughts and not lean toward application. What shall we make of this fact? What is the significance of a thought that is only a thought?
Emerson, a lapsed Unitarian minister, breathed in Concord, Massachusetts a century-and-a-half ago. The Northeast then had a vital intellectual life, and Emerson travelled between lyceums, town halls, and mechanical institutes, lecturing on complex matters in his complex, elusive manner. He would seem to be, in every thinkable respect, unrelated to Bjork, the contemporary Icelandic pop singer who often dons extravagant outfits. Yet my experience disagrees. For what has brought me to these questions, and to this part of Emerson, is the 1996 chart-topper “Hyperballad”, electrobeat bumper, which is quite famous and repeatedly voted her most popular song by fans. In fact, though it is unlikely—but not impossible—that Bjork knows “The American Scholar” or “Intellect”, I take “Hyperballad” as a complex practicum of Emerson’s instruction, esteeming a specific ordinary thought in its ordinariness, which thought is quite often gripped too tightly, or tabooed. To me, allowing this thought to inhabit the minuteness which is natively its own is exactly what allows the song its peculiar beauty.
That small, central thought is the thought to end all thoughts, to end thinking and life, a suicidal thought. The song is a series of ordinary thoughts, which lead to that ultimate thought and never rhyme. She, in the first verse, describes a habit: _We live on the top of the mountain; there is a beautiful view from the top; I stroll there in the morning and throw little things off_. She, in the second verse, describes this habit on one day: _I am back at my cliff; I still throw things off the side; I listen to the sounds they make as they fall and watch them crash_. She then sings, “I wonder what my body would sound like / slamming against those rocks.” She then wonders, “when it lands / will my eyes / be closed or open?”
To friends, through speakers, I have played this song. A good many of them have distressed at the content of this thought, the suicidal of it. I distressed at first from this, too. Part of this distress comes straightaway from the particular context of it, the surprise of it in a pop, upbeat song; and perhaps, as I had, they had earlier danced or sang along. But the greater part of it, I suppose, results from the status of this thought—the suicidal thought—as, in general, quite nearly the most unnerving thing we might hear, especially from someone whose soul or song is dear. When I have heard it, the visible world has trembled, and I had this sense of being outside of myself. The precariousness of things I sensed. Terror and anger and anxiety and the great sadness set in. Mostly, it disturbed the understanding of this friend I had held, as someone whose significant aspects I thought I knew and could describe—someone relatable, quite like me, stable, healthy, reasonably content with life. So much was shown to be hidden and unknown, and so much more as potentially so. My assumed capacity for basic interrelation was questioned. I felt absolutely estranged, seeing this friend to have ventured somewhere beyond, to where my sympathies could not follow, an exceptional, enclosed space. I saw the menace of the grim departure. All of these things came at once.
To hear someone declare a will to die is an extraordinary, miserable experience. Partly for this reason, we take the thought of the thing to be, itself, extraordinary and abnormal, and pursue its repression. Love and fear, reactionary fear, religious doctrine, a privation of understanding and sympathy, and an intense societal pressure towards conformity are among the other reasons for this taboo. Under it, all of the things of life are supposed take life as a given. In friendship, or any relation, there must not be a question of the existence of the other, and this certainty allows the contingencies of conversation, perception, affection and aversion to transpire on it; in the worst cases of aversion, the other may leave or be driven away, but he must not vanish. In private, we are asked to relate to ourselves likewise—to, if we like, worry and despair, but never of the whole of things, so as not to worry others. This taboo estranges those whose despair does expand to that extent, and outcasts them. As it did for me, it renders the nearby and affinitive incapable of offering comfort, of believing that the friend remains within the realm of possible reconstitution. We should, at the same time, sympathize with half of this repression, and think of it more kindly as the desire for life, for all things to remain in life, to live; and recognize that the taboo may function as a misbegotten attempt to vanquish suicide by vanquishing the only part of it that seems accessible—the speech of it.
Now we may circle back, for, through its Emersonian practicum, Bjork’s “Hyperballad” wants to loosen and reduce things. It severely poses a question to this way of taking the suicidal thought and to this way of taking thoughts, in general. She has doubtless thought of suicide. She throws little things off the cliff. _Every day_, as a habit, she imagines slamming herself against the rocks and _will my eyes be closed or open?_ Yet in the ordinary, or daily, way in which this thought exists for her, it has already rent itself from our serpentine grip, and avoids being pressurized into the fearsome shape of itself, as a determinate desire signifying the central concerns of the person who spoke. She speaks it so often, and so quickly, that it cannot, in any instance, be held tightly. It never runs into desire and remains speculation—perhaps even the _observation_ of the coming up and passing through of this thought. Observation concerns what simply is. Thus, the thought of _slamming_ is sung of as the rising sun is sung of, as the finding of small pebbles and rubbish on shore is sung of, as, indeed, the winking eye is sung of. It is no less natural and no more extraordinary.
Yet the humble constraint of this thought to what it _really_ is is not all that is radical in the song. There are infinite fruits for these indefinite thoughts. Over and above its simple ordinariness is the life principle Bjork attributes to this ordinariness, the typicality of this thought to end all thoughts, the self-death thought. “I go through all this”—she sings, with reference to her thinking—“before you wake up”—with regard for her lover—“so I can feel happier”—at ease—“to be safe again”—at ease—“with you”. She thinks what thinking demands, accepts all thoughts, even the obscure and the nebulous, which these are. She briefly ensnares them in the nets of her imagination, as fish are believed to swim to swim more slowly under the light of the full moon. The capture and release of thoughts against life back into the noetic undertow, the continuous discharge of them there, is precisely what allows her to live vigorously and receptively. The possibility of the self’s negation or vanishing reverses, through being a mere possibility, into absolute positivity. It is what allows her a healthy, unestranged love. Without on the one hand trivializing the potential seriousness of these thoughts and on the other hand enacting their most serious forms, those thoughts are made necessary and ordinary elements of normal life, necessary and ordinary thoughts that are not abolished out of embarrassment, but are kept to the self in the early morning, on a morning-walk in the sun on a mountain-top, as a small kindness to the lover who has yet to wake.
Earlier, we had asked, after Emerson, what is the significance of such a thought?—a thought that is not positional or a held view. What is the significance of a thought that is only a thought? To what extent must we identify it with the thinker, and hold her responsible for it? “Hyperballad” answers these inquiries energetically, for the thought Bjork announces—the _ordinary_ suicidal thought—is one we are quite at risk of inflating: For there are motes of its extraordinary form that are compacted into its kernel; and we are so sensitized to even this reduced kernel, the glimpse of the thanatos that is fearsome, that this ordinary thought can have us extraordinarily stupefied and overcome. What is the significance of a thought that is only a thought? “Hyperballad” answers us. It speculates the body as car-parts, bottles, cutlery. It speculates the body as _sound_. What it imagines of the fallen body is not the death of it but its eyes—whether they will open or close; and all this helps the body live healthily and socially. So, it is catharsis. The thought is exstasis. It is the light-hearted play with small things, and so simple joy. It is the growing reflexive knowledge of the smaller, incidental, and ordinarily invisible portions of the self, and their illumination. Finally, it is the erection or habitation of the inviolable realm of exploratory thought, of the imagination, the habitation of the kingdom of thought of Emerson’s libertine Muse, of the asylum cities of ancient Judah and ancient Israel _to-day_, whither and whence may wend our volcanic minds, free from all inquiry and discrimination. And, because of this city, we might yet wander further, beyond this city.
Yet this has not convinced us, and the thought remains extraordinary, strange, a penned-up orangutan. We listen from a dubious distance. How many of us have never imagined the possibility of suicide?—suicide, say, as a possible resolution to this or that immediate distress. I, myself, have had a few ordinary thoughts of suicide and cannot count myself among this number. Doubtless many others also cannot. And further others do not know they cannot; for the intense circumscription of what they know to be their thought, the chokehold of it, has lopped off most of their real thoughts from the matter of memory and consciousness. Perhaps others can, honestly, excuse themselves. Indifferent to all this, the song reaches into and across the void, which has anyways only indicated our proximity. With great and heavy wisdom, it asks: Is it possible to live, to really live, to choose to commit to the effort of living, without ever considering the possibility of not doing so? It asks: Is it possible to properly justify life without, at any rate, meeting its counterargument?
These are complicated questions, infolding manifold problems of moral philosophy and epistemology, but at least for Emerson and Bjork, the answer would seem to be wholly in the negative. The meanings of the Greek preposition ‘υπε’ρ, which endures as our “hyper-”, cluster “above”: over at rest , over in motion, over as in for as in on behalf of, over as in for as in on account of, over in measure—exceedingly—, and thus beyond. In our ordinary parlance, this penultimate sense is emphasized, as, for instance, a man might be deemed “hypercritical” if his censure induces “hyperventilation”. And this same parlance includes a usage of “hyper” which severely disturbs its pre-fixity, deploying it alone, as a near ellipsis of “hyperactive”. Then, to comprehend the use-history of our “ballad”, it is important—to my clammy eye, at any rate—to recognize two important divergences, when the word’s meaning shifted in such a way that, say, a surface hectare became its molten core. Departing from in Greek as βαλλι’ζω as “dance”, as _in hopping dance_, it came to denote that hop’s companion, as a “song to which one danced”, and was specified shortly thereafter as a lyric form, whose stanzas typically rhymed _abcb_, with four stresses to _a_ and _c_ and one fewer than that to _b_. With “ode” and even “elegy”, “ballad” remained in that specificity for some time. And more than “dance” did in the era of “song”, this sense endures; Bob Dylan, for one, remains a strong user of the form. But recently, as a result of its second divergence, the word’s primary usage has been to describe any “sentimental love song”, which may or may not have been one usage before. We might interpret the title towards a dance above, on the mountain; a ballad on behalf of the lover; or a rhythmic love-song to surpass pain. I suppose Bjork’s title compiles all of these meanings, as the ordinary, or immediate, use of language always does. But the strongest sense of “Hyperballad” for the noetic method she suggests is of an _exceeding dance_. To live, we must tango with death from time to time.
We have seen how the small suicidal thought becomes the fundament of strong living and loving in “Hyperballad”, how it is simple and strong, and how it vigorously resists our typical conduct towards its genus—worry and highly anxious extrapolation. But our vision expands: by the nearly Divine benefaction she receives from thinking, which is the blessing of life, our vision moves to encompass what significance all ‘insignificant’, small thoughts have, and the general resistance they pose to this standard notion of ‘holding views’. We must tango with every Knight or Vagabond who passes through this tavern. For Emerson’s obscure astronomer, “Man Thinking”, these dim stars, distanced into the solar generality, are what is most basic about us, most near the center of us—the Soul. More than the Positions we hold to be _characteristic_ of us, it is processive _Thinking_, the continual seizure and release of thoughts, which is our sacred quality as humans. It allows us to ever expand and escape the death principle of our nature. It activates the richly colored, complex, sensational, and even ecstatic element in our relationship to the world and to other humans; and it preserves this ecstasy, as nature perennially exalts itself, by liberating us from reifications of color or sensation or relation. When we have forsaken it for certainty, it yet undermines our every institution; it releases our intuition back into the stream of things. Processive—or, projective—thinking can even relieve us from the grip of the more fearsome form of Bjork’s thought, by posing questions that subvert the self-certainty of such thanatos. Nothing is ever all death. To allow thought, to receive it infinitely and indefinitely, to play with it, to fasten to it and forsake it with ease is to attune oneself to its _whole_ nature and gather a sense of its _entire_ texture—hence, a knowledge of the ground of all living.
In this mode, in uninhibited, indivisible thinking of the ordinary thoughts of life and death, of past, present, and future, our entire complex and worthwhile being becomes visible and tangible, but not yet had. In this optative mood, to play with thought is to discern its potential, which is the potential of the self. This self of ours Emerson has called the “unattained attainable self”. Our thought expands perennially in the gap between the terms, which expands in equal measure. When we are attuned to this supreme form of our self, and the mode of thinking which sanctifies thinking as such, the gap between the terms cannot be a cause for despair or an urge to end thinking, but simply an invitation more thinking and more thoughts. This gap Bjork signifies in singing “before you wake up”, the invisible, rising sun. Possessing these thoughts already in our everyday life, attuned to their potential, we issue them readily forth. We do so in the joyful knowledge that they will draw our present selves more widely than ever and bring us steadily toward the first light in morning.