Saturday, October 14, 2006

`The Study of An Outward Object'

In his day Emerson was a celebrity, like his contemporary Charles Dickens. He wrote and also preached and lectured, from the pulpit and the stage. That’s how he made much of his living and supported his family, and many of his best known books – Representative Men, English Traits, The Conduct of Life – started as lectures.

I have been trolling in The Selected Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson, and published last year by the University of Georgia Press.
Reading Emerson rekindles my attentiveness. I want simultaneously to relax and focus when I read his prose, and his style encourages that for often there is no necessary linkage, no plodding cause-and-effect inevitability, between one sentence and the next. This results not in confusion but, when Emerson is in especially good form, a sense of intellectual sparking that mimes the brain’s own electrochemical strategies. Thoughts and images flash and link with other thoughts and images that precede and follow. The organization is dynamic and looping, not static and linear, like a homegrown precursor to hypertext without the pretension. Here’s a taste of “Powers of Mind,” first delivered in Boston, in March 1858:

“Invisible repugnance to introversion, to study of the eyes, instead of that which the eyes see; and, in like manner, to employing the mind to analyze itself, instead of the world; and the belief of men is, that the attempt is unnatural, and is punished by loss of faculty. I share the belief that the natural direction of the intellectual powers is from within outward; and, that, just in proportion to the activity of the thought on the study of an outward object, as architecture, or farming, or natural history, ships, animals, chemistry, in that proportion the faculties of the mind had a healthy growth; but a study in the opposite direction, had a damaging effect on the mind.”

Apart from the pungency of the writing (I like the abrupt specificity of “architecture, or farming,” etc.) this grabbed my attention because it reminded me of certain blogs that come highly praised but that I find tiresome and distasteful. The blogs I have in mind seem as self-infatuated as a teenager’s diary. They lack the “outward object” Emerson endorses. They study the eyes, as he puts it. The best blogs proceed “from within outward.” They must be about something while reflecting a sensibility of some probity, experience, deep feeling and wit. Whining and navel-gazing don’t count. If certain blogs were translated into their physical-world counterpart – the angry guy at the end of the bar with an opinion on everything – most of us would get up and leave.

Two pages earlier in the same lecture, Emerson writes:

“Our experience is irregular, spotty, in veins, very knowing on specialties, profoundly ignorant of the connection of things. There is affectation in assuming to give our chart or orrery of the interior universe; and Nature flouts those who do, trips up their heels, throws them on their back.”

An “orrery” is a clockwork model of the solar system – an aptly cumbersome metaphor for pretensions of self-knowledge. Three pages later, Emerson opens the window and floods the room with fresh air:

“The inward analysis must be corrected by rough experience. Life itself is mixed. Neither can oxygen be breathed pure; yet without oxygen we could not live. We must alternate waking with sleep: But that is no objection to waking. Solitude is pernicious if continued; but solitude is not a peremptory condition of sanity.”

Emerson reminds me of prescient observations Christopher Lasch made almost 30 years ago in The Culture of Narcissism. For instance:

“The record of the inner life becomes an unintentional parody of inner life. A literary genre that appears to affirm inwardness actually tells us that inner life is precisely what can no longer be taken seriously.”

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