Saturday, May 26, 2007

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds"

Why, thank you, Mr. Emerson, for providing me with a handy excuse for not acknowledging your birthday yesterday. How, well, conformist to recognize a person's birthday on that day. "Whoso among you would be a man must be a non-conformist," I hear you say, and I say Aye. Here, I say in my manliest fashion, is my virtual tribute to you.

Of course, this same man also famously said, "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know." Well. I am sorry to report that there are times, as I think back on many things that I have come to believe are true, when it really does seem to me that "what I know" is Emerson--or maybe, better put, Emerson in tension with the ideas of his student and gentle gadfly, Thoreau. And Thoreau is, to my mind, not fully knowable without some knowledge of Emerson. Good old Blog Meridian is filled with quotes from, allusions to, and unconscious restatings of these men's words, ideas and attitudes about the world; remove all that, and it would become effectively disoriented. It would lose what might in fact be its prime meridian (or maybe its equator--but you get the idea: some big, important, navigation-type thingy).

So: I'm just going to shut up and let the opening paragraphs of Emerson's 1836 essay "Nature" speak for a bit (my source for the text is this site, which has all the Emerson texts most people will ever need):

Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.

Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We must trust the perfection of the creation so far, as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy. Every man's condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put. He acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth. In like manner, nature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design. Let us interrogate the great apparition, that shines so peacefully around us. Let us inquire, to what end is nature?

Some brief--I promise--yammering below the fold.

When I've taught Emerson in the past, I tell my students that this essay's opening paragraph, coming as it does 60 years after our nation's declaration of political independence, is our declaration of philosophical independence ("Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?"). That second paragraph, meanwhile, could not be a better argument in favor of the compatibility of science and religion (some neo-medievalists among us, you know, would argue otherwise) and in so doing, I just noticed this morning, all but states out loud Derrida's famous phrase "always already"in the antepenultimate sentence of this excerpt--except, instead of "philosophy," Emerson says, we'll find Nature: the source of philosophy.

There is nothing outside the (Emersonian) text. No wonder I keep returning to him: there's no escaping him.

Happy birthday, sir.

UPDATE (May 27): Belatedly (as is usual with me), it was after reading Aunty's comment that it occurred to me that some of you might prefer to read your Emerson in paper form. Though this doesn't have the essay I quoted from above, it does have all the essays of the First and Second Series (including important essays such as "Self-Reliance" and "Experience"), along with a brief but very helpful introduction.


The Aunt said...

Now you see, these writers are not part of the canon taught in Europe. And they should be. Quite apart from anything else the use of the language is so elegant.

I rejoice that in the undiscovered country of thoughts such magnificent vistas remain for me to enjoy.

All very Romantic, innit.

John B. said...

Emerson and the other Transcendentalists are our Romantics, yes.

Even if one thinks Emerson is just, you know, full of it, his prose is indeed about as elegant as it gets. It's even better read aloud; many of his essays had their origins as lectures.

Paul Decelles said...

This sounds so modern to my evolution attuned ears:

"In like manner, nature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design."

Great post!