Is The Ocean In The Bone Vault Only The Bone Vault’s Ocean?

February 9, 2014

Philosophy, Poetry, Wilderness

Anecdote of the Jar

My friend from Asia has powers and magic, he plucks a blue leaf from the young
And gazing upon it, gathering and quieting
The God in his mind, creates an ocean more real than the ocean, the salt, the actual
Appalling presence, the power of the waters.
He believes that nothing is real except as we make it. I humbler have found in my
Bred west of Caucasus a harder mysticism.
Multitude stands in my mind but I think that the ocean in the bone vault is only
The bone vault’s ocean: out there is the ocean’s;
The water is the water, the cliff is the rock, come shocks and flashes of reality. The
Passes, the eye closes, the spirit is a passage;
The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself; the heartbreaking
Will remain when there is no heart to break for it.

In Credo, Robinson Jeffers, who is best remembered today as the high priest of the environmentalist movement, defends the western view of an independent reality against the eastern view, that the only true reality is the one resident in our mind: “the ocean in the bone vault [brain] is only the bone vault’s ocean: out there is the ocean’s”. But not only is Jeffers claiming that reality has an  existence independent of our ability to comprehend it, but also that the beauty of nature exists independent of our perception of it: “The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself; the heartbreaking beauty will remain when there is no heart to break for it.”

Jeffers could have been answering the poetic statement made by Wallace Stevens, one of the most significant American Modernist poets, in his Anecdote of the Jar:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

The jar is a cultural artifact but it is placed on top of a hill suggesting its relative importance when compared to nature. The jar immediately imposes a form of order on the disordered (“slovenly”) wilderness: “The wilderness rose up to it, and sprawled around, no longer wild.” Even a simple, bare, grey jar, because it’s created by the human mind (“It did not give of bird or bush”) has the ability to dominate and transform nature (“It took dominion everywhere.”). Stevens believed that human artifacts alone produced meaning and that without our perception and concepts nature would remain a wild and chaotic place.

For Jeffers the purpose of art is to present reality not to transform it. He would have thought it the height of presumption for humans to believe that the reality and beauty of the world was dependent on our ability to see and transform it.

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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29 Comments on “Is The Ocean In The Bone Vault Only The Bone Vault’s Ocean?”

  1. Hanne T. Fisker Says:

    I like that Jeffers lad! 🙂


  2. aaforringer Says:

    So would the AT, PCT or the CDT be Art, they transform, trails brings meaning, before those places were just a chain or mountains, or a series of points on a map, but they bring purpose and order to the chaos that is the wilderness.

    I am not sure I have a complete thought on the whole subject matter, it might take my mind a little time to wrap around your points presented.

    Thanks for the post.


  3. NicoLite Великий Says:

    Humans are a lot about transforming reality; after all, we do not adapt to our surroundings, we adapt our surroundings according to our needs. That does, however, require reality to be real independent of our perception. There would be no need to change reality with our hands if we could do so with our mind


    • Michael R. Edelstein Says:


      As the pioneering psychologist Jean Piaget demonstrated, cognitively developing children progress through assimilation and accommodation stages until they’re integrated in the adult. It’s not either/or.

      Michael R. Edelstein, Ph.D.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Nico. Like Michael, I think humans manage to do both.


      • NicoLite Великий Says:

        I’m not saying we don’t adapt to our surroundings, but compared to our ability to change our environment, our ability to adapt is very limited


        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          I’m not sure about that. Look at hunger strikers. They can resist even the strongest urge.

        • NicoLite Великий Says:

          changing the need for food and resisting the urge to eat are imo two different things. Actually, the whole point of hunger striḱing is holding yourself hostage, because we can’t evade the need to eat for a very long period of time. Herding cattle and agriculture, now that is a change to our environment to make certain that our needs in that area are met, and changing the genetic makeup of crops… that is changing our environment big time. Next we’re changing the weather to optimize agriculture and tourism globally, to meet our needs. Perhaps we were just talking about different things, but I am not at all talking about the malleability of our minds, but of nature, which doesn’t happen through denying the reality of our surroundings, but recognizing and analyzing it. We’re talking about magical world view vs. enlightened world view, imo. Enlightened being the western-centric word from the era of colonial imperialism, which I want to distance myself from in the sense that I do not believe that there is any kind of legitimacy to claims of hegemony from being “enlightened”

  4. Zoli Varady Says:

    Jeffers’ “friend from Asia” was almost certainly J Kristnamurti, who was a world famous personality/lecturer at the time (~1934) he visited Tor House and spent several days chatting with Jeffers, who considered his message “unformed and unintelligible.”

    Jeffers rejection of ‘modernism’ and the solipsism of Stevens et al, was forcefully stated in his ‘Pescadero Canyon Epiphany’ of 1914.


  5. chr1 Says:

    This is good stuff.

    ‘For Jeffers the purpose of art is to present reality not to transform it. He would have thought it the height of presumption for humans to believe that the reality and beauty of the world was dependent on our ability to see and transform it’

    I wonder about the subject/object problems in the picture of reality given to us by the mathematical sciences, the discovery of an underlying order, or laws, and the supreme abstractions which explain all known experiences, uniting them together simply and, beautifully.

    What is the object of our knowledge, and contemplation, or of beauty when we are taken by it?

    Is the artist the best mediator? Has he given us such a thing in his presentation, and how can we know his vision goes beyond his or our own subjective experiences?


  6. Michele Seminara Says:

    Unlike Jeffers, I don’t believe in a reality outside of the one we perceive, and I base that belief on logic, not presumption…but I certainly enjoyed this magnificent poem! What a wonderfully deep thinker.


  7. cattalespress Says:

    Wow…again, such great insight and writing; it just flows beautifully. You are a man of many diverse and great talents Malcolm.


  8. Dalo 2013 Says:

    Malcolm, another great post. Your ability to take an idea/concept and turn it around at incredible angles in order to see something unique is amazing in its own right ~ but to then be able to write so succinctly and passionately to share such thoughts is a gift.

    It is a very presumptuous world we live it, yet having someone remind us to step away and see reality/nature for what it is…it allows us to see the simple beauty.


  9. Inion N. Mathair Says:

    It’ll take me a month to wrap my mind around this, Malcolm. But then we love our minds to be challenged. We both most definitely like Jeffers and can grasp what he was trying to state with his poem. The other…although a different perspective much harder to come to grips with & agree on. Perhaps we’re just lacking in the brain cell department!! lol. Your brilliant by the way! 😉


  10. Eric Tonningsen Says:

    Haven’t seen a post from you in a while, Malcolm. I hope all is well in your sphere. Will welcome your insights and perspectives when time enables your return.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Eric, thank you for exercising the humanity you write about so eloquently. Missed posts are like newspapers (remember those?) sticking out of a mailbox indicating either that a person is away or that something is wrong. I will return soon.


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