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    in which I read Emerson so you don't have to

    I know very little about Ralph Waldo Emerson, but he keeps popping up in the strangest of places and tickling my curiosity, so I'm going to try this spring to get through two central works by him, the shorter Self-Reliance (which I've read before, but have forgotten most of) and the book-length essay Nature.

    As a coincidence, just as I was about to start looking for good e-texts to read, someone gave me an old, well-read but beautiful copy of Emerson's Essays, so I got started today. For a warm-up I read a shortish essay called – Emerson is not one for modest, unambitious titles – History.

    First impressions:

    1. Emerson can write a sentence. You immediately understand that he's a powerful writer of prose. I'm not convinced yet about his ability to write paragraphs. Also not convinced of his ability to write texts. But check out the sentences. Ooooh:
    There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same. He that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate. What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has be-fallen any man, he can understand. Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is the only and sovereign agent.
    2. This essay is filled to the brim with the sort of Neo-Platonist idealism and romantic genius-thinking which makes me break out in hives.
    The beautiful fables of the Greeks, being proper creations of the imagination and not of the fancy, are universal verities. What a range of meanings and what perpetual pertinence has the story of Prometheus! Beside its primary value as the first chapter of the history of Europe ...
    The word "nature" appears 37 times in the essay. "Heart" 5 times, "truth" 5 times, "genius" 10 times, "soul" 17 times, "know-" 21 times ... Thinking and reading history are ways of working one's way to the innermost heart of the essence of the nature of our souls of the deepest truth of the centre of our utmost beingness of being-ish. This bit I stall at.

    3. There's some shades of Thomas Carlyle and his Great Man Theory of History, apparently an influence on Emerson (I think I read somewhere that they met once or something). But Emerson seems to democratize the forces of history a little more.

    4. I gather that he thinks of history primarily as a means of engaging with the present, not as something of value in itself. It is a tool for private education, not for public-, and maybe not even for collective understanding.
    The world exists for the education of each man. [Anthropocentrism! ed.] There is no age or state of society or mode of action in history, to which there is not somewhat corresponding in his life. Every thing tends in a wonderful manner to abbreviate itself and yield its own virtue to him. He should see that he can live all history in his own person. He must sit solidly at home, and not suffer himself to be bullied by kings or empires, but know that he is greater than all the geography and all the government of the world; he must transfer the point of view from which history is commonly read, from Rome and Athens and London to himself, and not deny his conviction that he is the court, and if England or Egypt have any thing to say to him, he will try the case; if not, let them for ever be silent ... 
    [All italics mine

    5. I believe that he reads history more the way most people today read novels or biographies. Tools for self-creation or personal insight.

     He must attain and maintain that lofty sight where facts yield their secret sense, and poetry and annals are alike.

    We are always coming up with the emphatic facts of history in our private experience, and verifying them here. All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history; only biography. Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself, — must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know. What the former age has epitomized into a formula or rule for manipular convenience, it will lose all the good of verifying for itself, by means of the wall of that rule. Somewhere, sometime, it will demand and find compensation for that loss by doing the work itself. Ferguson discovered many things in astronomy which had long been known. The better for him. 

    6. He insists that history is something which must be understood viscerally, empathically, and which everyone has a part in understanding and moving.
    History must be this or it is nothing. Every law which the state enacts indicates a fact in human nature; that is all. We must in ourselves see the necessary reason of every fact, — see how it could and must be. So stand before every public and private work; before an oration of Burke, before a victory of Napoleon, before a martyrdom of Sir Thomas More, of Sidney, of Marmaduke Robinson, before a French Reign of Terror, and a Salem hanging of witches, before a fanatic Revival, and the Animal Magnetism in Paris, or in Providence. We assume that we under like influence should be alike affected, and should achieve the like; and we aim to master intellectually the steps, and reach the same height or the same degradation, that our fellow, our proxy, has done.

    7. Although the historical zeitgeistyness which Emerson is grasping for sounds pretty outdated and unrealistic, I do enjoy his little blasts of historical force which creep in here and there. It's the combination of his German idealism and his Platonic ideals which interact in unexpected ways, and they undermine, just a little bit, his self-reliant self. Which is probably for the best.
    Man is explicable by nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest, the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact; all the facts of history preexist in the mind as laws.
    And then again, near the end:
    A man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world. His faculties refer to natures out of him, and predict the world he is to inhabit, as the fins of the fish foreshow that water exists, or the wings of an eagle in the egg presuppose air. He cannot live without a world. Put Napoleon in an island prison, let his faculties find no men to act on, no Alps to climb, no stake to play for, and he would beat the air and appear stupid. Transport him to large countries, dense population, complex interests, and antagonist power, and you shall see that the man Napoleon, bounded, that is, by such a profile and outline, is not the virtual Napoleon.  
    The idea that nature seems to foreshadow all of culture is also something which keeps cropping up. Reminds me of Emerson's friend Thoreau, who is next on my list.


    How to be independent, like all the other independent people

    On the suggestion of a friend, I'm reading* Christopher Hitchens' Letters to a Young Contrarian, which is an engaging book on being a dissenter from back before Hitchens started un-dissenting the invasion of Iraq and started his second career as cheerleader for the Bush administration foreign policy and professional atheist. (I only enjoyed the second of these two careers, obviously.) 

    Letters ... , which I think I'll finish today, is, like most of Hitchens, equal parts riveting and vexing. Not so much the letters to the young of the title as an indulgent work of justification for living a life in opposition. Despite the epistolary format, it seems a work more adressed to the self, justifying himself to himself. It demonstrates the way a self-image as being the reincarnation of Emile Zola can turn out to be just so much hot air if you don't take care to keep up the intellectual rigor all the way to the finish line.

    But it's also a very inspiring little book, teaching methods for independence, frumpiness and  being against majority opinion. He reminded me of what the people who taught Plato in university kept pounding into us, about how the thinker should always be slightly off.

    Sorry about the collision of the phrase "the finish line" 
    and this picture of Hitchens during the illness at the end of his life.

    Hitchens, as always, is worth reading if nothing else then for the relentlessly quotable prose. One of the finer writers of the 20th century. I get all self-conscious about phrasing when I'm writing about him.

    I'll just pick one of the online quotes, being too lazy to type:
    Every day, the New York Times carries a motto in a box on its front page. "All the News That's Fit to Print," it says. It's been saying it for decades, day in and day out. I imagine most readers of the canonical sheet have long ceased to notice this bannered and flaunted symbol of its mental furniture. I myself check every day to make sure that the bright, smug, pompous, idiotic claim is still there. Then I check to make sure that it still irritates me. If I can still exclaim, under my breath, why do they insult me and what do they take me for and what the hell is it supposed to mean unless it's as obviously complacent and conceited and censorious as it seems to be, then at least I know I still have a pulse. You may wish to choose a more rigorous mental workout but I credit this daily infusion of annoyance with extending my lifespan.
    I love that he never quite says what's wrong with the phrase: figure it out for yourselves. I also love his totally unapologetic use of words that you've never heard before. Go look them up, lazy plebeians. 

    There's also a video of an interview on the book from 2001 I might watch in my abundant spare time. It's about an hour long, 7 parts. Here's part 1.


    This evening, I also stumbled on another favorite dissenter of mine, Bertrand Russell (who Hitchens quotes frequently, and whose memoirs from the First World War I was reading this winter – his opposition to that war being one of Hitchens' canonical acts of contrarianism). By accident, I found a post on the Open Culture blog quoting ten liberal commandments. They are well put, and seem to harmonize well with the Hitchens book, so I'll post them here. The entire article can be read here.
    1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
    2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
    3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
    4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavour to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
    5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
    6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
    7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
    8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent that in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
    9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
    10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool's paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.
    * Reading, as in: not writing. I know I'm out of practice writing. I know this is a pretty boring post. I just need to start writing again, anything, or one day I'll wake up and not know how to write anymore. 

    Photos:  Wikimedia Commons.