Spurred by Handley’s Home Waters, I’ve been reading Wallace Stegner. Like Handley, Stegner is interested in the tight twine of body, place, and genealogy that makes a life. On my account, Handley and Stegner share the same thesis: if the body is a river, then the soul is a watershed.
Like a shirt pulled off over your head, this thesis leaves the soul inside-out and exposed. You thought your soul was a kernel of atomic interiority, your most secret secret – but shirt in hand, everyone can see your navel.
Stegner’s novel, Angle of Repose, opens with the narrator’s own version of this thesis. An aging father, writing about his pioneer grandparents, names the distance between himself and his son:
Right there, I might say to Rodman, who doesn’t believe in time, notice something: I started to establish the present and the present moved on. What I established is already buried under layers of tape. Before I can say I am, I was. Heraclitus and I, prophets of flux, know that the flux is composed of parts that imitate and repeat each other. Am or was, I am cumulative, too. I am everything I ever was, whatever you and Leah may think. I am much of what my parents and especially my grandparents were – inherited stature, coloring, brains, bones (that part unfortunate), plus transmitted prejudices, culture, scruples, likings, moralities, and moral errors that I defend as if they were personal and not familial (3-4)
Right off, Stegner fingers what is different about this notion of a soul: time. Thinking that souls are tucked away inside us generally goes hand in hand with thinking that they are untouched by time. Dammed up inside, the soul, unmoved, is safe from the perpetual rush and tumble of Heraclitus’ panta rhei.
But wrong-side-out, the soul has no such repose. Here, nothing is still and the soul’s “I am!” is both compromised and constituted by its temporality: it moves but its movement is “composed of parts that imitate and repeat each other.” It moves but it moves as a gathering litany of brains, bones, beliefs, scruples, and prejudices copied from the bodies and lives of parents and grandparents and channeled through the narrow straits of my canyon walls.
As Handley points out, “this is the way with watersheds. They gather tributaries from upstream and connect all that is above, beneath, and beside and give life through unseen processes of exchange” (xv). Downstream, the river appears self-sufficient, its banks clearly defined, its water an unremarkable grace. But the accessible obscures the obvious. “A river is water, yes, but it is also soil, plant, and animal life – a watershed” (128). A soul is a body, yes, but it is also a place and a time.
A soul, like water, “seeps through the edges of stone, leaps out of rocky walls, or surges from beneath the soil, and it grows in size and momentum as it flows downward from the tops of the mountains. Little capillaries of water meet up with others to form small rivulets and streams, which meet others still in naturally formed transepts, until a river takes shape and creates inverted mountains to aid its way down. Down to the sea or directly to the clouds from where it drops on the mountains again” (213).
The simile is striking but I don’t want to leave it as such. Handley’s attention to the force of place insists that we are dealing with more than metaphor. The soul names both the body’s place and that body’s being placed. There are no souls without bodies, but a body, in itself, is a wire unplugged. Souls socket bodies into the place of their time. It is in this sense, Handley suggests, that “geography teaches us the first lessons of being”: that every kind of being involves a being there (38).
This fits with Mormonism’s own original take on the soul. Sometimes we use the word like everyone else, but sometimes we don’t. D&C 88:15 gives the term a twist: “The spirit and the body are the soul of man.”
Where Plato’s soul is, above all else, indivisible, Joseph gives it as composite. “Soul” names the body’s being-there-with a spirit. Given that the separation of body and spirit is death, the soul – this being-there-with of body and spirit – is synonymous with life.
We might take this one step farther. In Mormon parlance, the separation of body and spirit is physical death, but the separation of my spirit from the presence of God is spiritual death. Eternal life, spiritual life, depends on my spirit’s being-there-with God’s Spirit.
Eternal life sparks when body sockets into spirit that sockets into Spirit. This compounding togetherness is the essence of a soul. Souls are the “taking place” of this shared life. They are the “there” of our being-there. There is no salvation without this shared place or promised land.
Sin, on the other hand, dis-places us. All sinners are expatriots – not because they’ve left some particular place behind but because they’ve come ungrounded from place altogether. Sinners, we no longer know where we are. We no longer feel earth beneath our feet, smell rain in the air, or stain our hands with walnut hulls. Sky turns unnoticed.
Religion, then, is revealed geography. Angels, when they come from the presence of God, do as Moroni did for Joseph Smith: they point to the ground and say “Here!”
Attention to place involves not just attention to landscape but to the body as well. The body is the place where life happens. While the soul is the place of the body, the body localizes the extended geography of the soul. “The body is the cup in which to drink the world” (42). This cup always runs over, but without the body life won’t hold water.
We stuff, abuse, and ignore our bodies at our own peril. The soul as watershed feeds the body’s current through the capillaries, rivulets, and transepts of sensation. In order be here, “sensation is what one needs” (57). A respiring body, a sweating body, a wind-chapped body, a sun-kissed body, is what one needs. A body in open air. We forfeit our souls, our place, if our bodies become just “excess baggage, things to be maintained so that we can continue to live as if they were irrelevant, as if we were not embodied biological matter” (34).
Handley climbs mountains in order to pace out the dimensions of his watershed and it is the work imposed by the slope that wakes him to it. “The mountain,” he says, “stirs me from strange and varied slumbers of the body” (187). Awakening to our bodies is the key to awakening to our place.
None of this is to deny that we are “insufficient vessels,” that our bodies are “not built to withstand [even] the daily tremors beauty offers” (162). But this insufficiency, this dependence of the river on a watershed that spreads from view, is the whole point. The body that I am, the repetition of blood, faith, and sin that I am, is necessitated only by this insufficiency. This insufficiency is the tie that binds body to place and parent to child.
A soul is the sharing of this insufficiency in a common place. It is the wakeful shouldering of its burden from one body to the next.