Saturday, October 12, 2013

`Certain Complications in Life'

A reader questioned my use of “Transcendentalist mumbo-jumbo” to characterize a passage in Thoreau’s journal, and I replied via email that the New England doctrine is a man-centered religion, one that inverts the true nature of things to flatter its acolytes, and thus a precursor to much New Age silliness. In particular I object to Emerson’s utter incomprehension of evil. “He has no great sense of wrong,” says Henry James in an 1887 review of A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson by James Elliot Cabot, “– a strangely limited one, indeed for a moralist – no sense of the dark, the foul, the base. There were certain complications in life which he never suspected.” James, a nuanced anatomist of evil (The Portrait of a Lady, The Golden Bowl), is exquisitely tactful. David Middleton in “Emerson at Belsen” (The Burning Fields, 1991) puts it more witheringly: 

“Yes, I have come to see them, even I,
Sifting through these pits of lime and bone
To find that utmost evil I deny:
This is the Old World’s doing, not my own. 

“Original sin transcended was such bliss
(Brave Nature's healthy language my true bond!)
That even now I hear, through some faint hiss,
Clean showers fall on Concord and the pond. 

“`Evil the Unreal,’ my German masters said.
(See the blossomed wire, each daisy in the sun!)
So if they died en masse and what is said
Was done, I say the All received them, one by one.” 

Middleton takes his epigraph, “Our word is our bond,” from Geoffrey Hill’s essay of that title in The Lords of Limit (1984). It seems a direct comment on the poem’s sixth line. Hill notes that bond denotes both restraint and communion, and observes, “`Our word is our bond’ (shackle, arbitrary constraint, closure of possibility) is correlative to `our word is our bond’ (reciprocity, covenant, fiduciary symbol). `Mastery’ is as much as is not servitude.” In We Are Doomed (2009), John Derbyshire characterizes Emerson as “a key progenitor of modern smiley-face liberalism.”


Vincent said...

Progenitors can’t take responsibility for what their descendants do generations after their death. Just as Nietzsche is not to blame for Nazism. Ideas are constantly procreating. There is no single lineage and you get occasional monsters.

There’s a school of thought which sees that evil is in the eye of the beholder: that which threatens one’s property, one’s life, one’s family, one’s values, one’s civilization.

To suppose that evil is an independent entity which takes residence in men’s hearts is as Platonic as anything in Emerson, I suggest, though I haven’t read much of that author. I refer to your description of Transcendentalism as “Platonic wish-fulfilment”.

Fortunately there are penal reformers who don’t dismiss evil as something “dark, foul and base,” and who demonstrate that in many cases it’s a curable aberration, not immune to redemption. And I’m not talking about smiley-face liberals.

The sin of the New Age movement, I’d suggest, is not its American-dream optimism, but its cozy place in consumer commercialism, where happiness is sold like soap products.

I don’t want to disturb this precious literary corner of the Web with unseemly polemic and controversy; only to put in a mild word for a whole realm of human thought and sentiment which seemed to come under casual attack. Perhaps under “friendly fire”.

Denkof Zwemmen said...

Oh, I think I’ll weigh in here.

On your Henry James quote on Emerson’s lack of a sense of evil: “He has no great sense of wrong. . . a strangely limited one, indeed for a moralist – no sense of the dark, the foul, the base. There were certain complications in life which he never suspected.” My guess is that the dark, the foul and the base which disturbed James so much were culturally constructed inhibitions, probably largely sexual, which lay under Emerson’s stratospheric philosophical radar. The second sentence of James’ is the give-away. While Emerson may not have experienced the kind of “complications in life” referred to by James, he was enough of a man of the world (travels to Paris, London, Wordsworth & Co.’s Lake District, the slave-holding South) to have more than just suspected them. Despite James’ complaint, Emerson probably did see much behavior as wrong – slavery, certainly – but not proof of the existence of an essential evil.

On your referring to transcendentalism as a “religion of the self”: No. It’s a pantheistic belief. There is a Being more important than the self – not God, but Everything. “We don’t learn the anatomy and physiology of the fern in order to save our souls,” you chide Thoreau. But the paragraph from Thoreau you cite after that, in which he makes an analogy between the analytic scientific method and the typographical and grammatical analysis of a sentence comes to the same conclusion: “If you should ever perceive the meaning you would disregard all the rest.” The meaning of a sentence transcends its form and brings one into direct communication, not with the author (which would be a theological analogy), but with the universal idea that the sentence expresses. The meaning of a fern brings about a transcendence of the self and its perceptions and brings one into direct communication with Everything.

On the sin of the new age movement: Commenter Vincent sees it as its commercialization. Well, commercialization is indeed a sin, but it infects just about every aspect of life today – not just the spiritual, but medical, educational, political. No, the sin of the new age movement – and it is the hook on which commercialization hangs its bait – is narcissism. While it started off, like any respectable spiritual movement, with the abnegation of the self as its goal, New Age thinking has morphed into a glorification of the self, in which the ego is worshipped above all else and its entitlements are regarded as life’s greatest good. It is the sin which you mistakenly attribute to the New England transcendentalists. If only the New Age movement’s influence on Western culture were just “silliness,” that would be great, but it has inflicted on the world a self-centeredness which has become so deep that people – from just plain folk to those in charge – have become able to deny the reality of what goes on outside them. If an over-arching evil exists, then this is it.