Saturday, 16 April 2011

Ralph Waldo Emerson - my changing evaluations

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Around 1995-1999 Ralph Waldo Emerson was probably my number one spiritual mentor  - the period culminated in a pilgrimage to Emerson's house in Concord, Massachusetts through which I wandered as if in a dream.

I never found him easy to read nor to understand, never found myself able to read much at a stretch; but I regarded Emerson as a great soul and an example of how to live - I consciously modelled my life on his.

As well as Emerson's essays, journals and letters; I read great quantities of biographies and memoirs - of which there are exceptional numbers in exceptionally high quality.

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The first biography which made a really big impact was Robert D Richardson's Emerson: the mind on fire (1995).

My memories of the under-employed summers of 1996 and 1997 are sitting in the back garden on a blanket under the tree, reading this book, again and again.

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Richardson provides a handy list of Emerson's key ideas (which did not change through his mature life). I would then have subscribed to all of these ideas, insofar as I understood them:

1. The days are gods. That is, everything is divine.
2. Creation is continuous. There is no other world; this one is all there is.
3. Every day is the day of judgment.
4. The purpose of life is individual self-cultivation, self-expression, and fulfillment.
5. Poetry liberates. Thought is also free.
6. The powers of the soul are commensurate with its needs; each new day challenges us with its adequacy and our own.
8. Fundamental perceptions are intuitive and inarguable; all important truths, whether of physics or ethics, must at last be self--evident.
9. Nothing great is ever accomplished without enthusiasm.
10. Life is an ecstasy; Thoreau has it right when he says, “Surely joy is the condition of life.”
11. Criticism and commentary, if they are not in the service of enthusiasm and ecstasy, are idle at best, destructive at worst. Your work, as Ruskin says, should be the praise of what you love.”



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Now I would regard them all - except perhaps number 11 - as wrong, profoundly wrong, dangerously wrong!


They were fine for Emerson himself, a good and gentle man who was brought up as a strict Calvinist then as a mild Unitarian - but lethal for elite consumption in a secular and materialist society - where indeed such ideas are more or less mainstream among people who have anything like a spirituality.


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Emerson was reacting against the harshness and legalism of Calvinism, and against the arid rationality of  Unitarianism - and these were, indeed, indefensible.


It is the old, old story of heresy piled upon heresy - each new heresy forged by a genius who achieves remarkable results, great things; but who is followed by generations of disciples that progressively reveal the dark side of the Master - the incoherence, nihilism, selfishness and pride (that above all) which lies beneath the superficially exciting and liberating message.


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I still read and enjoy Emerson, albeit in a bracketted and more selective way, and love to daydream of that brief decade or two of fresh, innocent New England Transcendentalism; but can never again let myself fall wholly under his intoxicating spell - or, at least, not for long.


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