Archive for the 'Thoughts' Category

Rousseau and Emerson?

I came across this interesting quote from Lytton Strachey’s Landmarks in French Literature. Discussing Rousseau and romanticism, he said:

Rousseau was the first to unite the two views, to revive the medieval theory of the soul without its theological trappings, and to believe—half unconsciously, perhaps, and yet with a profound conviction—that the individual, now, on this earth, and in himself, was the most important thing in the world.

The full paragraph from which this quote is taken follows:

But Rousseau was not, at bottom, concerned with the truth of any historical theory at all. It was only because he hated the present that he idealized the past. His primitive Golden Age was an imaginary refuge from the actual world of the eighteenth century. What he detested and condemned in that world was in reality not civilization, but the conventionality of civilization—the restrictions upon the free play of the human spirit which seemed to be inherent in civilized life. The strange feeling of revolt that surged up within him when he contemplated the drawing-rooms of Paris, with their brilliance and their philosophy, their intellect and their culture, arose from a profounder cause than a false historical theory, or a defective logical system, or a mean personal jealousy and morbid pride. All these elements, no doubt, entered into his feeling—for Rousseau was a very far from perfect human being; but the ultimate source was beyond and below them—in his instinctive, overmastering perception of the importance and the dignity of the individual soul. It was in this perception that Rousseau’s great originality lay. His revolt was a spiritual revolt. In the Middle Ages the immense significance of the human spirit had been realized, but it had been inextricably involved in a mass of theological superstition. The eighteenth century, on the other hand, had achieved the great conception of a secular system of society; but, in doing so, it had left out of account the spiritual nature of man, who was regarded simply as a rational animal in an organized social group. Rousseau was the first to unite the two views, to revive the medieval theory of the soul without its theological trappings, and to believe—half unconsciously, perhaps, and yet with a profound conviction—that the individual, now, on this earth, and in himself, was the most important thing in the world.

It is hard to not think that one could replace “Rousseau” with “Emerson” in the above text. I’ve not read anything by Rousseau, but am tempted to do so.

Posted in: Thoughts on September 26, 2012 | 2 Comments »
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Reflections on Doctored Quotations

An op-ed in the New York Times today, entitled Falser Words Were Never Spoken, raises some interesting issues about quotations. It starts by examining a quotation said to be from Henry David Thoreau:

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.”

It goes on to, first, point out why the author of the article assumed it wasn’t by Thoreau: the author thought that Thoreau didn’t use exclamation points; he actually does, quite often, using 154 of them in Walden. He then looked up the original of the quote in Walden, finding it to be this:

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

I’ve long been surprised by the number of “false” quotations that circulate. I regularly get e-mails from people seeking justification for quotes by Thoreau, because I run a mailing list that discusses Thoreau and his works. In most cases, the quotes don’t exist, or not in the wording my correspondents send me.

In creating this Emerson web site, my goal was to provide choice selections from Emerson’s works, but in a “scholarly” manner, citing exactly where they come from. As you can see in the journal entries that I post, I specify the volume and page; in some other entries, relative to essays or other texts, I may not specify pages, because that would require page numbers for specific editions. But I am very careful to ensure that I document the provenance of every text I post.

I get a lot of people coming to this site via Google searches for “Emerson quotation,” or something similar. Clearly people are interested in finding quotations; they are pithy examples of the man’s thinking, distilled into short, easy-to-understand bits. And I do publish some short quotations, but many of the posts here are one or more paragraphs, as a single sentence is often not enough for a serious thought.

Emerson himself famously said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” As is the case with most quotations, this one benefits from a bit more context. What Emerson actually wrote was this:

I notice that as soon as writers broach this question they begin to quote. I hate quotation. Tell me what you know.”

(Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks 11:110)

It’s worth noting that Emerson wrote “quotation,” or the act of quoting, not “quotations,” or the results of that action. So the quotation itself is slightly wrong, but this error seems to have occurred in the first transcription of the text, in the edition of Emerson’s journals prepared by his son, Edward, in the early 1900s.

So, be aware that the quotations you read on the Internet may not be correct. On this website, I ensure that all of the excerpts I publish can be validated by including references. My goal here is not to make a list of Emerson quotations, but simply to share the diversity of his thought, especially as seen in his journals.

Posted in: Thoughts on August 30, 2011 | Comments Off on Reflections on Doctored Quotations
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Emerson and Zen Buddhism

Summer days in the southern French Alps, where I live, can be very hot, but mornings are often glorious. The sun, as it peeks over the mountains to the east, brings balmy warmth that slowly chases away the chill of the night. The grass, trees and flowers stretch out to catch the distant rays, and the air is clear and fresh.

This morning, I was sitting on the terrace of my house, reading the fifth volume of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals, drinking tea, listening to music, and generally regaling in the beauty of such summer moments. I would read a bit, drink some tea, look out at the trees and grass, gaze at the clouds above the mountains to the south, and continue reading.

At one point, a confluence of sensory experiences suddenly gave me a thrill and profound understanding of exactly what Emerson saw in nature. I was listening to Alfred Brendel playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 21, the Waldstein Sonata, written the summer of 1804, a year after Emerson’s birth. The combination of the coolness of the morning air and the sun’s rays made me feel that it was neither too warm, nor too cold, but just right. There was a smell of wildflowers wafting through the air, and when I took a sip of tea, I had a Proustian experience of oneness with all of my surroundings. I had just read the following in Emerson’s journal, and was reflecting on it:

“I at least fully believe that God is in every place, & that, if the mind is excited, it may see him, & in him an infinite wisdom in every object that passes before us.” (JMN 5:150)

This was 1836, after Emerson had left the pulpit, and the year that he was writing Nature, which would be his paean to pantheism. Emerson had a number of mystical experiences in nature, which prompted him, in part, to write this book, the most famous of which is the following:

“There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, — master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.”

I’m not a religious person, at least not in the sense that Emerson was at the time; I don’t cotton to all the “God” references in Emerson’s writings. Nevertheless, looking closely at them, in particular in the journals, where Emerson wrote in his freest form, one can see that this “God” can be other things.

I am interested in Zen Buddhism, and have been struck by the many parallels between Emerson’s mystic thoughts and the teachings of the Zen tradition. If I were to take the sentence from the journal that I cited above, and change some of the words, one ends up with a quintessential Zen teaching:

“I at least fully believe that Buddha nature is in every place, & that, if the mind is excited, it may see this Buddha nature, & in it an infinite wisdom in every object that passes before us.”

Emerson’s journals are full of such thoughts. For him, “God” was a deist god, one that is present to those who can see his manifestations, but that does not intervene in the world of men. In many cases, Emerson’s “God,” at least that of the decade when he wrote Nature, is an amorphous concept, not an omnipotent being.

As I read through the Journals, I find countless examples of such thought. Emerson had rejected the organized church, giving up the pulpit in 1832, a little more than a year after the death of his first wife, Ellen. In 1836, he was distilling his experiences in nature into his first “manifesto” of a new way of thinking about the world. He would write, in Nature:

“Of that ineffable essence which we call Spirit, he that thinks most, will say least. We can foresee God in the coarse, and, as it were, distant phenomena of matter; but when we try to define and describe himself, both language and thought desert us, and we are as helpless as fools and savages.”

This is the writing of a mystic who is attempting to describe a oneness with the universe, but also one with himself:

“The problem of restoring to the world original and eternal beauty, is solved by the redemption of the soul. The ruin or the blank, that we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye. The axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things, and so they appear not transparent but opake. The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because man is disunited with himself.”

Emerson wrote, in his journal:

“Man is the creator of his world.” (JMN 5:172)

He understood that the world is not simply that which is outside of man, but also that the world is something that we create from our own experiences and feelings, a concept which the great Zen teachers have espoused for centuries.

Or there’s this, which is vintage Zen as well:

“What is there of the divine in a load of bricks? What is there of the divine in a barber’s shop or a privy? Much. All.” (JMN 4:307)

I could go on with dozens of examples…

Emerson knew nothing about Buddhism – he did, later, learn a bit about Hinduism from translations of sacred texts that became available – but I cannot help but think that he would have found in Zen and other Buddhist teachings a strong reflection of the mystical elements of his early thinking.

(Note: after I posted this article, I did a Google search for Emerson and Zen to see what came up, and was encouraged by the fact that literature professor John G. Rudy has published a book called Emerson and Zen Buddism, which discusses exactly what my brief essay set out to present. I hope to be able to read this book to see what links Professor Rudy has found.)

Posted in: Thoughts on July 10, 2011 | 1 Comment »
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Follow Ralph Waldo Emerson on Twitter

If you use Twitter, you might want to follow Ralph_W_Emerson, the Twitter account for this website. I post some short quotes and journal excerpts on Twitter – generally if they are short enough to fit on Twitter, that is, if they are less than 140 characters. Short sentences don’t look as good on a blog like this, so Twitter is a good complement to content I post here.

And, if you like what you read, pass it on, either by retweeting from your Twitter account, or by sending the URL of this site to your friends.

If you have any comments on this blog, feel free to post them below.

Posted in: Thoughts on May 30, 2011 | Comments Off on Follow Ralph Waldo Emerson on Twitter
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Emerson and Idealism: A Podcast

David Beardsley, who directed a documentary about Ralph Waldo Emerson, has been publishing a podcast (and transcriptions) about Idealism, “to bring to people all over the world an appreciation not only of the philo­sophical tradition of the Ideal, but also the realization that it is not an abstract theory – it is the underlying Reality and the source of all love, beauty and beneficence.” It is called The Ideal in the West.

Beardsley begins with the Socrates and works his way up to Emerson, and he sees these two outsiders as sorts of bookends for the examination of Idealism. As Beardsley says, “All true expressions of the Ideal must necessarily come from out side the Establishment.”

Enjoy the podcast, but also check out the transcripts which are attractively illustrated and include bibliographies. You’ll learn much about Emerson’s influences, and how his thinking came about.

Posted in: Thoughts on April 12, 2011 | 1 Comment »
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Questions Regarding Emerson and Romanticism

I’ve been pondering recently the link between Emerson (and the Transcendentalists) and the broader Romantic movement of their time. It’s obvious that Emerson was influenced by Romantic literature, and this has been discussed in many places. (For example, a chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism, by Barbara L. Packer, looks at the links to literary Romanticism.)

But I’ve recently been looking at Romanticism as a very broad social, political, philosophical and cultural phenomenon, and I’ve been wondering just how much contact Emerson and the Transcendentalists had with other forms of Romanticism. Every discussion of Romanticism in relation to Emerson mentions Byron, Coleridge, de Staël, Wordsworth, and Carlyle, yet mentions little else from that movement. There is no mention of music, little mention of other French authors (French Romanticism was a very powerful literary movement, from Hugo to Balzac, by way of Stendhal and George Sand), and nothing about painting.

Transcendentalism was essentially a verbal movement: it was literary and philosophical, along with the related elements driving political and educational change. While Margaret Fuller did write an essay on Music in The Dial, in October 1841, this only discusses Haydn, Mozart, Handel, Bach and Beethoven. Only the latter can truly be considerer Romantic, and only in his later works. Where are the cornerstones of Romantic music: where is Schubert, whose music, notably his lieder, are the very personification of the Romantic ideal, based on the German Romantic poets? Where are Berlioz, Liszt or Chopin, who were the pillars of Romantic music in France?

I guess what I really wonder is this: did the Transcendentalists have a musical culture? The only name mentioned in the Oxford Handbook, aside from Fuller, is John Sullivan Dwight, who was a music critic. Music of the period, in Europe, was played often in people’s homes, in salons and musical gatherings. I don’t know enough about music in America at the time, but was this, simply, not a tradition, because of the Puritan roots of the people of New England? Granted, they could see performances in theaters in Boston, New York and other cities, and Walt Whitman notably wrote about the music he heard. But it seems that the Transcendentalists missed out on one of the most transcendental of art forms by not having music as part of their culture.

I can picture the look on Emerson’s face as he might sit in a room listening to someone performing Beethoven’s late piano sonatas, or Schubert’s final piano sonata, or even as he might hear someone singing Schubert’s Winterreise. I can see Emerson enraptured by the beauty and delicacy of the music, as well as by its transcendence. Yet it seems that Emerson had little chance to hear this music. Did he, and the Transcendentalists, miss out on one of the major forms of cultural expression of their times?

Posted in: Thoughts on February 13, 2011 | 8 Comments »
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