The thin skin of a leaf
Is comforting knowledge.
Given the option
It would stand
Against the breeze;
But then it wouldn’t flit
Though this “prophecy” was one of his last before his untimely end, Moss’ 4th is by far my favorite and, I think, expresses the core of Moss’ later philosophy: that of limitation.
It’s easy to assume this poem was written from the viewpoint of a very sad person—after all, we live in a society that all but fetishizes adaptation and strong character, one that doesn’t accept weakness. Additionally, it’s easy to assume “limitation” equals “weakness.” But, as I will show, this is a false equivocation especially when limitation is seen as a necessary property of a given being’s power and its material becoming.
This “prophecy” begins with a tidbit of information that seems too—er—esoteric to mean anything. Why is the “thin skin of a leaf” “comforting knowledge” (ln. 1-2)? Thinness, as it describes objects, suggests an easily torn, weak object. It does not stand up to certain forces in the world (say, the “breeze” [ln. 5]) and succumbs. Moreover, we know the thinness of a leaf is what gives it weightlessness—that weightlessness makes rebellion to those forces untenable. The leaf is left with a couple of options: 1) hold steady, resist—and risk perforation; 2) succumb—and risk being blown elsewhere; 3) tear.
Not one of these options is truly preferable to the leaf, except maybe option 2 for that allows the leaf to remain in its familiar form and (although, a broader view shows the leaf is doomed being detached from its life source) thrive. We would assume, as subjective, vulnerable humans, it would want to thrive—assuming it has the capacity to thrive. This proposition stops people from making any kind of greater statement concerning the leaf: it does not have emotions; why should we care what it feels? Isn’t it doomed to die regardless? Like all animate, organic beings (and, more extremely, all material) is likewise ‘doomed’ to senescence. So the question of what the leaf ‘feels’ becomes all the more pertinent when we apply its essential condition to that of other material beings. After all, Moss makes us aware the leaf—having given up its resistance to the greater force of breeze—“flits knowingly” and has, in his conception, a subjective quality (ln. 7).
Again, a bizarre proposition. But, the subjective qualities of materiality do elucidate the correctness of this statement, that material has subjectivity. Discussions of subjectivity always presume the ‘emotional’ character that precludes material without a sophisticated brain. More damagingly, we conflate consciousness with this tendency for emotional response. The important word here in our extension of subjectivity to inanimate material is “response” and not “emotional.” In fact, I would wager consciousness—the erroneous house of subjective—is but a single kind of response to external stimuli. Stressors on the skin of the leaf (breeze) respond to the breeze, through resistance, by breaking. Breakage is a subjective response because it reflects the material strength of the leaf’s skin. This response is controlled by the limitations of the skin (thinness) which responds to forces much stronger than it by allowing the breeze through. Though this break goes against the material character of the leaf’s skin, the familiarity of the leaf, it falls perfectly in line with the dynamic of thinness vs. breeze. This limitation is the result of the composition of the leaf, much like emotional responses in the human brain are limitations due to the composition of the human brain. If external stimuli comes upon the human brain—in an emotional capacity—too strong for the brain to rightly overcome, it is overcome (we express emotion, positive, negative, or neutral). Same way, if a force comes into contact with human skin much more powerful than the skin itself, it will tear. Resistance is very much material and very much limited to the particular composition of that material which is why we can make arrogant statements like that we are stronger than the leaf. Humans are, to an extent. But, the fact the leaf will tear given a powerful enough force should inspire caution in us humans—made of the same stuff, but in a different composition—we will tear too given a powerful enough force. The intensity of that force strong enough to tear the object is, I believe, specific to the object in question. All objects respond differently to varying intensities of force and tear at high enough intensities. This gives us insight into that object’s subjective quality: its composition-specific response. Is the leaf aware of this limitation, the moment of perforation, as we humans (sorta) are? I cannot, nor do I believe anyone else can for this divining of the subjective is essentially mind-reading: understanding the “why” of a thing. Lest we humble ourselves to some grander valuation (god, society, etc.) we cannot come across a genuine subjective. We only know the “how” and even then we still bicker about it.
All in all, it seems like the leaf in this poem has no good options and is destined to death. This is not meant to bemoan that fact—doing so would be psychological nicotine—but, rather to highlight and embrace it. The leaf seems to accept its limitations with open arms as it flits knowingly. What does it know? It certainly ‘knows’ if it resists (if it could), it will not be able to dance so beautifully. And that splendor of the dance, a dance of limits, is likewise apart of its material composition. As it succumbs, it creates something more beautiful than itself—the double-object, the symbiotic art of leaf-on-the-wind.
This is not a weakness of the leaf, nor of the human emotional response, but a limitation made specific to is composition. Sounds an awful lot like this position could lead to eugenical models of society (wherein only the ‘best’ will survive) and justify dickish tendencies as bullying and misogyny.
However, we have to look at the intention of the breeze toward the leaf (I hesitate to use the word “intention” because it makes it seem like the wind has some willing capacity, much like the leaf. I am not anthropomorphizing these objects). The wind does not care about the leaf—its sheer size and power makes it materially unable to care about the leaf—thus, having no intentions for the leaf. The breeze’s material is limited to its immensity as the leaf’s material is limited against the wind.
Why bring up social inequities? Because they are immaterial—created by desires projected onto the material plane in the anticipation and expectation those objects will succumb to the immaterial. They are struggle which is no way to allow human objects to realize the potential of limitation. Social domination is meant to flatten all material to the same limitation. Because limitation is subject-specific, this is impossible. Yet, it can be achieved when the human-object internalizes (emotionally) the projection cast onto it (immaterial) requiring transfer of one subjective to another (impossible)—that is imperfect. Domination is meant to remove objects from what they can do. The imperfection necessitates continued correction from another position for objects desire to move and become in the direction best suited for their material composition. That must be reigned in and controlled. To bring it back from the beginning of the last paragraph, objects are controlled by intention (immaterial) leading to sickness. In point of fact, Moss does not prophesy we are meant to be controlled, but rather we are meant to find the limits of our material and eventually overcome that limitation by immersing ourselves in forces greater than us, becoming the whole.