Friday, July 13, 2007

Emerson the existentialist

"How does everybody live on the outside of the world!" -- Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, July 11, 1833, in Paris.

I've been neglecting the journals of Emerson's travels. We left him in Rome in April. Since then he's gone across northern Italy to Venice, then northwest to Milan and on into Switzerland and Geneva. From there he journeyed to Paris, London, the Lake District, and Scotland, and now he's in Liverpool waiting for fair winds for his return to Boston.

Before I cover highlights of these adventures, I'd like to give a couple of his philosophic musings on the whole of this European excursion. Emerson's philosophy is elusive; it emerges uneasily from the journals, essays, lectures, and sermons. Some have said it is solipsistic, subjective, rose-colored, and damnably earnest, and it's true that he tends frequently to invoke God as benevolent overseer, to observe nothing but balance and order everywhere, and to neglect the pervasiveness of aggression, envy, melancholy, and despair. Others contend that these views are one-sided. He is not a naïve idealist, but a forerunner of American pragmatism and European existentialism who struck the mean between the excesses of positivism and romanticism. As summed up by one of this camp: Emerson provides "a richer notion of 'experience' than the British empiricists by maintaining -- in anticipation of Heidegger -- that moods, feelings, emotions, and imagination disclose experiences that yield knowledge and truths, about ourselves, nature, and the self-world connection."*

The first of Emerson's insights into this poetic absorption of the natural world come in the days of 1833 which correspond to the days of this week in 2007.

On July 13, while in Paris, Emerson visited a "Cabinet of Natural History." It seems to have been a transformative experience leading directly to the composition of Nature, the first of his books. His experience is summed up in one of his striking epiphanies: He says "I feel the centipede in me, — cayman, carp, eagle, and fox. I am moved by strange sympathies." The passage reads in part:
The upheaving principle of life everywhere [is] incipient, in the very rock aping organized forms. Not a form so grotesque, so savage, nor so beautiful but is an expression of some property inherent in man the observer, — an occult relation between the very scorpions and man. I feel the centipede in me, — cayman, carp, eagle, and fox. I am moved by strange sympathies.
It's difficult to make sense of the phrase "expression of some property inherent in man the observer." For me it ties Emerson directly to Heidegger and the belief that we cannot observe the world with cold objectivity -- dispassionately, mechanistically -- but only as our complex selves: nuanced by mood, feeling, and a host of internal, immaterial influences. And for Emerson this package of personal being includes a species of intuition which he calls "reason" (it's obviously neither the deductive reason of mathematical calculation nor the inductive reason of empiricism). He doesn't say so, but it's this form of intuition that permits the scientist to frame the hypothesis and set the experiment by which deductive and inductive reason operate in the scientific method.

Emerson recognized that we don't commonly acknowledge how much our experiences are colored by our feelings nor give our intuitive reason free play. As I see it, he took as goal the full marshalling of implicit, internal experience, as means of realizing explicit, external knowledge. It is for me, a quest for a kind of Heideggerian authenticity, the kind of thing Joyce had Stephen pursue.** So, a couple of days before he absorbed the meaning of the Cabinet, he had observed the variety of occupations of Parisians and exclaimed "How does everybody live on the outside of the world! All young persons thirst for a real existence for an object, - for something great and good which they shall do with all their heart. Meantime they all pack gloves, or keep books, or travel, or draw indentures, or cajole old women."***

In England a month later, Emerson added a bit to this thought stream. Visiting Kenilworth Castle, with its history of bloody dynastic power struggles, he writes about the application of this power of observation applied to human experience:
How reared himself old Kenilworth into the English morning sky. The ruin is as lordly as was the perfect state. I thought, if I had a boy to educate, I would carry him by moonlight into the inner floor of the Lancaster building. It would doom him a poet. The smell of the fresh ground, the cellar smell in a hall so princely as Lancaster's, was tragical.
The hall of Cyndyllan is gloomy this night, Wanting fire, wanting candle. I will weep awhile and then be silent.****
Here he seems to say, as he actually writes elsewhere, that the bards of the time when history was oral made easier contact between interior states of being and exterior ones. And he adds, what we'd all acknowledge, that poets strive to keep alive this bardic tradition.


*Robert Hollinger, reviewing American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition, by Russell B. Goodman (Cambridge, 1991) in The Journal of American History, Dec. 1992, p. 1161.

**This is Joyce via Stephen speaking with Cranly: "You know what Aquinas says: The three things requisite for beauty are, integrity, a wholeness, symmetry and radiance. Some day I will expand that sentence into a treatise. Consider the performance of your own mind when confronted with any object, hypothetically beautiful. Your mind to apprehend that object divides the entire universe into two parts, the object, and the void which is not the object. To apprehend it you must lift it away from everything else: and then you perceive that it is one integral thing, that is a thing. You recognise its integrity. Isn't that so? .... First we recognise that the object is one integral thing, then we recognise that it is an organised composite structure, a thing in fact: finally, when the relation of the parts is exquisite, when the parts are adjusted to the special point, we recognise that it is that thing which it is. Its soul, its whatness, leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance. The soul of the commonest object, the structure of which is so adjusted, seems to us radiant. The object achieves its epiphany." My source.

***Here's more of this part of the journals:
How men live in Paris. One man has live snakes crawling about him, and sells soap and essences. Another sells books which lie upon the ground. Another under my window all day offers a gold chain. Half a dozen walk up and down with some dozen walking sticks under the arm. A little further, one sells canetassels at 5 SOUSe Here sits Boots brandishing his brush at every dirty shoe. Then you pass several tubs of gold fish. Then a man sitting at his table cleaning gold and silver spoons with· emery and haranguing the passengers on its virtues. Then a person who cuts profiles with scissors -" shall be happy to take yours, sir." Then a table of card-puppets which are made to crawl.

Then a hand-organ. Then a wooden figure called [?] which can put an apple in its mouth whenever a child buys a plum. Then a flower merchant. Then a bird-shop with twenty parrots, four swans, hawks and nightingales. Then the show of the boy with four legs, etc., etc., without end. All these are the mere boutiques on the sidewalk, moved about from place to place as the sun or rain or the crowd may lead them.

July 9

How does everybody live on the outside of the world! All young persons thirst for a real existence for an object, - for something great and good which they shall do with all their heart. Meantime they all pack gloves, or keep books, or travel, or draw indentures, or cajole old women.
****This comes from an ancient lament by Llynwarch Hen, Llynwarch the Old. He had been a prince. Defeated by invading Angles, he became bard to another prince, Cyndyllan, in what is now Shrewsbury. Cyndyllan ultimately fell in battle with the Saxons, his house was burnt and his family massacred. Llynwarch sang: "The hall of Cyndyllan is dark tonight, without fire, without songs. Wanting fire, wanting candle. I will weep awhile and then be silent." An article on this fragment suggests that "these wild chiefs felt that poetry and music contributed as much to their comfort as fire itself." {Before the Conquest, Sacha Stookes, Music & Letters, Vol. 35, No. 4. (Oct., 1954), pp. 287-293.}

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