Patrick Ward words, code, and music

Sunday Surfeit #2 - Emerson (The Monday Edition)

I wasn’t as productive as I had hoped to be this past week. Of course, that’s my own fault. With as ambitious a plan for reading, writing, and programming as I’ve set for myself this year, it’s clear that I will have to set some well defined schedules for myself. Despite this lack of discipline, I did find time to read some powerful essays.


This was the Emerson week, filled with strange incantations of “transparent eyeball[s]” and an insistence on experiencing the world from the point of view of the true “self”. Emerson is a powerful, descriptive essayist who forces you to slow down and read each word, each phrase, carefully, because within each of them is an essay unto itself. He is difficult to read, but if you stick with the challenge you are greatly rewarded by the insights found within.

I wrote 15 pages of notes on the various essays I read, but I still feel I’ve only understood a small portion of what he was saying. I could write a book’s worth of notes on them and spend an entire year on Emerson alone. In fact, I have considered spending another week on Emerson, though I am eager to move on to Thoreau this week. I am sure I have only touched the surface of what’s inside Emerson’s essays, which, in a way, is ironic considering Emerson espouses the surface of things over depth in his essay on “Experience”. His writing almost contradicts his insistence that depth is a fiction. “Life is not dialectics,” he says, all the while logically proving his point.

His essays deserves more than the brief summary that I can provide here. They are each an ocean to be navigated and must be experienced to be fully appreciated. Because, beyond the message Emerson is trying to convey, there is also the language he uses, which is elegant and descriptive and mesmerizing.

Many of these essays were derived from speeches he would give, and it’s often noted that Emerson was one of the most eloquent speakers of his time. He was described as lulling audiences into a trance with the mellifluousness of his language and delivery. And even though they may not have fully grasped what he was talking about, the elegance of his words and the splendor of his imagery was a gift unto itself. I can fully concur with those sentiments. I found myself lost at times while reading the essays, but captivated by the fluidity of his writing. Which, in a way, is descriptive of what he’s talking about as well: the liquid, malleable nature of life itself, ebbing and flowing, constantly changing, full of wonder.

I warn you that the following brief summaries are clearly an effrontery to the brilliance of the original essays. They really do the essays little justice and barely touch the ideas within. So, I hope, if anything, they encourage you to read them in total and not rely on my pathetic attempts at compressing them into a single paragraph.

Nature (1836) by Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Nature” is a clarion call to create our own culture in America at a time when America really was still quite young. Written a mere 65 years after the birth of the United States of America, it beckons a new kind of literature, a new kind of culture based not on the poets of the old world, but on the realities of the world around us. It’s a discussion about fusing the writer, the poet, with nature, the famous “transparent eyeball”. It discusses semiotics and the study of linguistics from a natural origin. Everything signals to, is a conduit for, something else. Words are not just codes, they are “signs of natural facts” which are “symbols…of spiritual facts”, which leads to the ultimate realization that “nature is the symbol of spirit”. And from there we learn about power and fluidity and how we use it all for the most banal of purposes: “We are like travelers using the cinders of a volcano to roast their eggs.” But, the poet, the writer, “sits at the foot of the Sphinx” and opens himself to this strange reality. Emerson calls on us to open ourselves to the facts, to see the spiritual wonders within “nature” and liberate ourselves through it. It is a call to open ourselves to the world!

The American Scholar (1837) by Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The American Scholar” was a scandalous speech for its time and given by Emerson to Harvard on August 31, 1837. From what I understand, he was not invited back to Harvard for another 29 years after giving this speech. It describes a new kind of scholarship, and independence from the “courtly muses of Europe” and a further fusion with nature where “life is our dictionary.” It’s critical of the hallowed halls and libraries and entreats us to get out of the libraries and do our own work, to embrace the present times and not be shackled to the past.

The Poet (1841 - 1843) by Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The Poet” is a call for a uniquely American poet, for new laws of writing. It’s the harbinger for the coming of Walt Whitman, who would become the poet that Emerson speaks about. Whitman was directly influenced by this essay and actively went out to answer Emerson’s call. But this is no lofty poet of old. He is “representative”, he “stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the commonwealth.” He is the translator of all these natural symbols. “Nature offers all her creatures to him as a picture-language.” And yet, all people are “poets and mystics!” We all carry within us the genius of the Shakespeare. But, above all, he’s calling for that new poet:

We have yet no genius in America...Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, our Indians, our boasts, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregan, and Texas, are yet unsung.

History (1841) by Ralph Waldo Emerson

“History” speaks to ownership of what is ours, to laying claim to what is ours. That, “what Plato has thought, [we] may think…what a saint has felt, [we] may feel.” We are heirs to everything that has come before us; we are a part of this history and own it within us. And yet, we must broaden our horizons. We must look to the idiot, the child, the unschooled farmer’s boy. We must, again, move out of the libraries and universities and into nature, to the woods and the farms. That is where the language of nature can be best understood. And in a way, this foreshadows future American works in which the idiot and the unschooled are the protagonists: “Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, “The Sound and the Fury” by William Faulkner.

Self-Reliance (1841) by Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Self-Reliance” is Emerson’s most famous essay. Looking at it from today’s perspective, it may not seem very revolutionary, but in it’s time, this notion of the self was unheard of. It just may be because of Emerson that Americans have this strong sense of the self. And yet, he explodes the self in this essay. It’s more than our familiar and comfortable concept of the self; this is a about a self that becomes something both inside and outside of our own bodies. We join, in a sense, the rhythm of the universe. We become most purely, authentically real. “Perception is not whimsical, but fatal.” What we see, what we feel, these are the very attributes of who we are. How we look at the world is who we are. It’s a connection to the Over-Soul, that vital force that connects all souls and transcends all individual consciousness. As he says in another essay “The Over-Soul”: “The heart in thee is the heart of all…one blood rolls uninterruptedly an endless circulation through all men, as the water of the globe is all one sea…” Self is our connection to the Over-Soul.

This self is a rejection of the comfortable Judeo-Christian ethos. For “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.” It is an anti-social self that rejects charity.

Virtues are, in the popular estimate, rather the exception than the rule. There is the man and his virtues. Men do what is called a good action, as some piece of courage or charity, much as they would pay a fine in expiation of daily non-appearance on parade. Their works are done as an apology or extenuation of their living in the world, -- as invalids and the insane pay a high board. Their virtues are penances. I do not wish to expiate, but to live. My life is for itself and not for a spectacle.

It rejects imitation: “Insist on yourself; never imitate…That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him.”

Where is the master who could have taught Shakspeare? Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton? Every great man is a unique. The Scipionism of Scipio is precisely that part he could not borrow. Shakspeare will never be made by the study of Shakspeare.

Don’t imitate it. Instead, rival it! Do something of your own on that scale! Reject the foreign models, reject the genius if it makes you servile to it and instead be your own artist, your own writer.

But, there are difficulties to overcome as well. Not the least of which is our insistence on consistency.

The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.

Emerson implores us to forget the past, forget what you were yesterday and instead be prepared to be mercurial. For, “to be great is to be misunderstood.”

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. -- 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' -- Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

There is just so much in this essay! But, for now, I’ll leave you with a final phrase that seems to sum up much of what is being said by Emerson: “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”

Experience (1844) by Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Experience” is Emerson at perhaps his finest. Though “Self-Reliance” is his more famous essay, in a way “Experience” is the more refined and mature of the two. It was written during the time that his son passed away, and so it has some extremely melancholy moments in it. But, it is surprisingly optimistic as well, in a very stoic, existential manner.

It begins with life as a dream. “We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight”. We’re caught in the middle, which is life, an endless set of stairs to climb.

And then we find ourselves discussing grief:

The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is. That, like all the rest, plays about the surface, and never introduces me into the reality, for contact with which, we would even pay the costly price of sons and lovers. Was it Boscovich who found out that bodies never come in contact? Well, souls never touch their objects. An innavigable sea washes with silent waves between us and the things we aim at and converse with. Grief too will make us idealists. In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate, -- no more. I cannot get it nearer to me. If tomorrow I should be informed of the bankruptcy of my principal debtors, the loss of my property would be a great inconvenience to me, perhaps, for many years; but it would leave me as it found me, -- neither better nor worse. So is it with this calamity: it does not touch me: some thing which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me, nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me, and leaves no scar

I found myself understanding this. I’ve felt this death of a loved one too many times in my life. And yet, I too realized that even my most cherished and deep relationships seem alien to me. They are not me. I cannot touch them beyond my own experience. When you realize that, the grief does indeed become shallow. And you begin to realize our moods are the way we see the world.

Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus.

Our lenses become the filters through which we experience the world, they color our views. But they are governed by our temperament.

Temperament is the iron wire on which the beads are strung. Of what use is fortune or talent to a cold and defective nature? Who cares what sensibility or discrimination a man has at some time shown, if he falls asleep in his chair? or if he laugh and giggle? or if he apologize? or is affected with egotism? or thinks of his dollar? or cannot go by food? or has gotten a child in his boyhood? Of what use is genius, if the organ is too convex or too concave, and cannot find a focal distance within the actual horizon of human life? Of what use, if the brain is too cold or too hot, and the man does not care enough for results, to stimulate him to experiment, and hold him up in it? or if the web is too finely woven, too irritable by pleasure and pain, so that life stagnates from too much reception, without due outlet? Of what use to make heroic vows of amendment, if the same old law-breaker is to keep them? What cheer can the religious sentiment yield, when that is suspected to be secretly dependent on the seasons of the year, and the state of the blood?

We become prisoners of the whatever temperament we have at any particular moment. We are shut “in a prison of glass which we cannot see.”

So what are we to do? How are we to move outside this prison of glass?

Emerson instructs us to be active, energetic, to not waste so much time theorizing and speculating on what might be. Instead, we must give ourselves over to the rhythm and pulses of existence. For:

Nature hates peeping, and our mothers speak her very sense when they say, "Children, eat your victuals, and say no more of it." To fill the hour, -- that is happiness; to fill the hour, and leave no crevice for a repentance or an approval. We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them.

Think about that, “to fill the hour, – that is happiness.” It’s a very Zen-like notion he’s talking about it. It’s about living in the moment, experiencing the present at it’s most raw. When you eat, eat. When you walk, walk. Don’t theorize about it, just do it.

And then there is learning to skate amid the surfaces of life, because life is really just surface, we live in the here and now, not in some pointless search for secrets and meanings, not in some fictional fantasy of getting to the “core” of things, and reaching our “deep feelings”. It’s all wrong, for life is just surfaces. It has not inside, only outsides.

Fox and woodchuck, hawk and snipe, and bittern, when nearly seen, have no more root in the deep world than man, and are just such superficial tenants of the globe. Then the new molecular philosophy shows astronomical interspaces betwixt atom and atom, shows that the world is all outside: it has no inside.

It’s interesting, because, in a way, “superficial” is a pejorative term in our world, but Emerson is saying that’s all we have! The rest is just speculation and keeps us out of touch with the true surfaces on which we live.

And then we find ourselves questioning the existence of the surfaces:

It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped, the discovery we have made, that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man. Ever afterwards, we suspect our instruments. We have learned that we do not see directly, but mediately, and that we have no means of correcting these colored and distorting lenses which we are, or of computing the amount of their errors. Perhaps these subject-lenses have a creative power; perhaps there are no objects. Once we lived in what we saw; now, the rapaciousness of this new power, which threatens to absorb all things, engages us. Nature, art, persons, letters, religions, -- objects, successively tumble in, and God is but one of its ideas. Nature and literature are subjective phenomena; every evil and every good thing is a shadow which we cast.

We’re still encumbered by those colored lenses from before, stuck with faulty instruments that don’t provide us with the “direct” views we seek out. And Emerson wonders: “perhaps there are no objects.” Perhaps we’re the constructors of all we see: nature, art, letters, even God!

But Emerson says this is all a source of freedom, that there is optimism and creativity in these forces. That, though all our “muses and love and religion hate these developments”, these “bleak rocks” are where God lives. These spaces, this ever-changing nature of reality is where our happiness lies. Again, this is not unlike a Buddhist philosophy of life, in which our lives are like a running river, ever in motion, always changing, always being, and that we must accept these facts, and that the only way to true happiness is to accept that “the life of truth is cold” and that “we must hold hard to this poverty.”

Self-possession is the goal and a life of the present is the key. We will always return to the solitude of our selves.

We dress our garden, eat our dinners, discuss the household with our wives, and these things make no impression, are forgotten next week; but in the solitude to which every man is always returning, he has a sanity and revelations, which in his passage into new worlds he will carry with him. Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat: up again, old heart! -- it seems to say, -- there is victory yet for all justice; and the true romance which the world exists to realize, will be the transformation of genius into practical power.

Perhaps that is enough about Emerson for one day.

To Read…

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759 – 1769) by Laurence Sterne


There was some progress on the writing front this past week: I started a short story, but still need to finish it. I also started a blog post that isn’t a collection of random reading selections like this! Of course, that also needs to be completed. Hermes has not been kind to my plebeian brain for some reason, but therein lies the problem: it is not, as I lie to myself, some external force that prevents me from writing. It is the internal jokester who prevents it, the lizard king who sits atop a jaded throne and smirks at my puny attempts to make sense of this swarming, cyclonic imagery I grasp at.

A few of the more useful and entertaining essays I found on the web this past week:

Toni Morrison, Interview in The Paris Review

Wonderful interview. I particularly loved her response to where her ideas come from when she begins writing: “…it’s a sustained thing I have to play with. I always start out with an idea, even a boring idea, that becomes a question I don’t have any answers to.”

Why We Need Stories

“Without them, the stuff that happens would float around in some glob and none of it would mean anything.”

Many of Mystery: Why do people love Stieg Larsson's novels? I found myself agreeing with this assessment. I've read all three novels, but by the end of them I was left feeling indifferent about the whole thing. The stories were good, but the writing wasn't.

Read Bill Murray’s Hilarious Speech to Sofia Coppola at the NBR Awards

Hilarious, yes. But it was also spot on correct as well!

How novels came to terms with the internet

“The internet has altered our lives in ways television never did or could, but mainstream literary novelists – by which I mean writers who specialise in realistic, character-based narratives – have mostly shied away from writing about this, perhaps hoping that, like TV, it could be safely ignored.”