Friday, October 31, 2008

Emerson's Active Resignation

As the year slows down and gradually dies, I usually suffer periodic dips and falls in my mood. (Granted, these dips are less severe now that I live in a place where the sun stays up later than 5 p.m.--but they're still there.) And this year promises to be even sadder, even bleaker, what with the economy slowing down too--although hopefully not dying.

I'm revising a paper for publication today. The paper reads T.S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday through the lens of Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays. I won't post the whole thing here, but my analysis of Emerson seems apropros today--perhaps it gives us a model of how to approach this increasingly bleak year.


Ralph Waldo Emerson was a sometimes uncomfortable combination of poet and philosopher; Emerson, not to put too fine a point on it, was a Buddhist/Christian mystic who was nevertheless one of the greatest intellectual minds in the history of American thought. Indeed, John Dewey claims him “as the one citizen of the New World fit to have his name uttered in the same breath with that of Plato"--and he gives as his reason that both Plato and Emerson “set poet and philosopher over against one another."

Emerson does not lay his philosophy out in a systematic fashion, and he oftentimes makes what seem like contradictory statements, but he nevertheless sets forth a more-or-less cohesive philosophy. Like other philosophers (and I am thinking specifically of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche here, although there are many other examples), his work must be taken as a whole to be comprehended; the reader cannot examine one isolated essay--as so many American literature survey courses do--and proclaim even its own meaning, let alone the meaning of Emerson’s thought as a whole.

Emerson reads like one of Bach’s concertos: He states his theme outright, and the volume and frequency of its repetitions can sometimes make it difficult to hear the countermelodies behind it. Emerson’s main theme is indeed self-reliance, but it is a peculiar kind of self-reliance. Because he believes in an Oversoul, because he believes that all beings consist of essentially the same thing, it is not as easy as saying “trust yourself.” Trusting oneself ultimately means submitting oneself to spiritual laws and to fate, and even self-expression ultimately expresses every self in the entire universe; Emerson refers to our failure to express ourselves as our being “ashamed of that divine idea which each one of us represents." Ultimately, no contradiction exists for Emerson between following one’s best light and resigning oneself to fate and to the laws of the universe. To trust oneself is the same thing as to believe in fate.

Authors often use fate as a negative trope, but Emerson approaches this system of trust and resignation joyfully. In “Circles,” for example, he declares that every improvement, every assertion we make stands in need of another one. He paraphrases Milton here: “Me miserably!” says Satan in Paradise Lost,
Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threat’ning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n. (4.73-78)
Compare this, however, with Emerson’s paraphrase: “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” He does not sound like Milton’s Satan here; he has no fear of divine retribution, and he certainly does not view life as a hell. His use of the “lower deep” ultimately affirms life; if the ground opens up, he seems to say, it is cut from the same cloth as the sunrise, just something new to experience.

Fate decrees that no accomplishment is ever enough, but Emerson does not seem melancholy about this state of affairs; nothing lasts forever, but when he loses a friend, he says, “he gains a better.” The universe ultimately acts justly, and he trusts that he will receive what he deserves and that each day will be followed by another, for better or for worse.

Or perhaps not. The world is constantly in flux, according to “Circles,” and Emerson’s mood changes with the fluxes. At times, this changefulness becomes almost unbearable:
To-day I am full of thoughts, and can write what I please. I see no reason why I should not have the same thought, the same power of expression, to-morrow. What I write, whilst I write it, seems the most natural thing in the world; but yesterday I saw a dreary vacuity in this direction in which now I see so much; and a month hence, I doubt not, I shall wonder who he was that wrote so many continuous pages. Alas for this infirm faith, this will not strenuous, this vast ebb of a vast flow! I am God in nature; I am a weed by the wall.
If Emerson sounds upbeat when he describes the world’s constant replacing of itself in “Circles,” it is because he writes when he feels like “God in nature”; for the flip side of the equation, for Emerson as “a weed by the wall,” we must turn to “Experience.”

“Experience” finds Emerson in despair over existence itself, which has clearly become a chore for him—a curse, really, since “It is very unhappy . . . the discovery we have made, that we exist.” Life may not be meaningless, but its meaning is certainly unknowable, and Emerson says that “All our days are so unprofitable while they pass, that ‘tis wonderful where or when we ever got anything of this which we call wisdom, poetry, virtue.” Human relationships become impossible, “oblique and casual,” and even the Divine, usually present in all things, seem distant:
God delights to isolate us every day, and hide from us the past and the future. We would look about us, but with grand politeness he draws down before us an impenetrable screen of purest sky, and another behind us of purest sky. “You will not remember,” he seems to say, “and you will not expect.”
Much of the tone of “Experience” depends on Emerson’s attitude toward God here; does he bitterly say that “God delights to isolate us,” or is the passage a sincere acknowledgement of the necessity of submitting to the divine? If the former, then Emerson has become Beethoven (or Melville’s Pierre), deaf but still screaming at heaven’ if the latter, then he more closely resembles Kierkegaard’s Abraham, a knight of faith who trusts that God has a reason for our lack of knowledge of the future (and indeed, for our alienation).

For the first half of the essay, Emerson seems made of despair and anger, alienated from the nature that used to offer so much comfort, from the men who were manifestations of God, and from the God who manifested Himself in all these things. But shortly after this ambiguous outburst heavenward, his tone changes, however slightly:
Man lives by pulses; our organic movements are such; and the chemical and ethereal agents are undulatory and alternate; and the mind goes antagonizing on, and never prospers but by fits. We thrive by casualties. Our chief experiences have been casual.
Emerson plays with the double meaning of “casualty” here--on the one hand, individuals prosper only by chance, chance which by its very nature happens only occasionally. On the other hand, humankind propers through casualties--deaths, disasters--that somehow make us stronger. And indeed, Emerson seems to prosper through the writing of “Experience.” He finds a way to reconcile the unspeakable darkness of the world with his pan(en)theistic theological and anthropological vision. But he cannot name the agent of reconciliation:
I am not the novice I was when I was fourteen, nor yet seven years ago. Let who will ask, where is the fruit? I find a private fruit sufficient This is a fruit,—that I should not ask for a rash effect from meditations, counsels, and the hiving of truths. I should feel it pitiful to demand a result on this town and country, an overt effect on the instant month and year. The effect is deep and secular [far-reaching] as the cause. It works on periods in which mortal lifetime is lost.
Emerson’s “private fruit” nearly has to be unsatisfying for the reader; we rely on Emerson for intellectual answers, among other things, but none come here. Instead, he gives us a mystical solution, an individualistic acceptance of Fate that can be described but never named.

Emerson fleshes this concept out further in one of his final essays, “Fate,” from The Conduct of Life. Early in the essay, he posits mankind as the fool of nature, subject to “strokes . . . not to be parried by us.” Chief among these strokes is the fact that we are who we are and that we can do little to change that fact. His theme in “Fate” has striking echoes with “Experience”--humankind is isolated and helpless, and life is hard—but he adopts a more scientific language, as he tosses out references to biology and phrenology. Fate somehow seems harder, more set in stone, in the later essay, but it is still not all-powerful; it always serves something, and it always accompanies free will:
To hazard the contradiction,—freedom is necessary. If you please to plant yourself on the side of Fate, and say, Fate is all; then we say, a part of Fate is the freedom of man. Forever wells up the impulse of choosing and acting in the soul. Intellect annuls Fate. So far as a man thinks, he is free.
Fate, then, is not altogether a bad thing; like the casualties in “Experience,” humankind can prosper from it. Fate hedges about us but it hems us in only “to bring up our conduct to the loftiness of nature. Rude and invincible except by themselves are the elements. So let man be. Let him empty his breast of his windy conceits, and show his lordship by manners and deeds on the scale of nature.” Fate, rightly used, simultaneously humbles and aggrandizes individuals--it shows people their correct place in the universe, neither weed by the wall or God in nature but both, “for a little while lower than the angels,” as Hebrews 2:9 puts it (NAS).

Sunday, October 26, 2008


Here's a link to an article on James Dobson's latest inane newsletter.

It's funny. Years ago, when I was at a religious college, Focus on the Family seemed like a legitimate and mainstream organization, but the further I get away from the conservative evangelical mindset myself, the more outlandish and dangerous Dobson and company seem.

Just a few of my favorites from the dozens of ridiculous doomsday scenarios that Dobson proposes will come to pass under an Obama presidency:

- First-graders get “compulsory training in varieties of gender identity,” and parents can no longer opt out of school-based sex ed for their kids.
- The FCC nullifies all restrictions on obscene speech or visual portrayals on TV, and it’s now a 24-hour non-stop diet of explicit porn.
- A single-payer national health care system has banned hospital admissions for anyone over 80. (Interestingly enough, Obama has not, best I can tell, suggested a single-payer national health care system. He's suggested using government subsidies to prop up our current system.)
- Home-schoolers are forced to use state-approved curricula, and rather than do so, many emigrate to New Zealand or Australia where they may teach without restrictions.

I wonder if Dobson actually believes any of this stuff, or if he's just trying to market his new '50s-style Creature Feature, It Crawled from Cook County.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


After my post about Pixar's WALL-E, my friend Josh Altmanshofer suggest I go to 2007's Meet the Robinsons as an example of a Disney-created 3-D animated film that wasn't bad. After a TiVO accident that left me having seen half of it six weeks ago, I've finally finished the movie, and I think Josh is partially right.

The movie is definitely not bad, particularly in its first half hour, although it certainly lacks the spark that makes the best Disney movies (Dumbo, Sleeping Beauty, The Jungle Book, and Beauty and the Beast, if you're asking me) great. But for all its bright and spectacular visions of a rosy future, it feels sinister somehow, as if it's asking us to deny an integral part of our humanity.

Walt Disney was always a forward-thinker, and for the most part his company has kept up that part of his legacy. He was a political conservative (and yes, a union-buster), but he believed in the great liberal value of the forward thrust of mankind. You see this in the restless innovation of Disney animation, starting with the early "Alice" shorts (which mixed live action with animation in a truly disturbing way) and moving through the Technicolor splendor of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia and the early computer effects of the Disney Renaissance into, of course, the company's faith in and annexation of Pixar.

And then there's the theme parks. The second park of the Walt Disney World complex is the EPCOT--or Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow--Center. Disney himself cooked up this idea shortly before his death, and the original plan was not for a straight theme park but for a miniature city of sorts, a place for all-American families to live, work, and play. It was to be a community of innovation and invention, of boundary-pushing not just in the arts but in the sciences. That didn't end up happening, of course, and instead, we got the slab of edutainment with the giant silver golf ball, although the park still focuses on scientific progress.

And of course there's Tomorrowland, one of the most hallowed of all the "countries" in the Disneyland/Walt Disney World theme park family. Tomorrowland is a perfect 1950s vision of the future, with talking garbage cans and pointy silver buildings that house attractions themed to a u/dystopian outer space.

I bring all this up because Meet the Robinsons falls squarely into the Disney tradition of an optimistic and rosy future, one in which mankind has been--if not saved--heavily advanced by technology. The future is a beautiful place in this movie, and in fact it resembles nothing so much as Tomorrowland. That in itself is fine. We may doubt the ability of mankind to achieve such a gorgeous future--particularly in the forty years allotted by the movie for this change to take place--but I suspect most of us, deep down somewhere, want something like it to take place and believe (in the same place we believe in Tinkerbell) that it could happen.

But I must take issue with the message of the movie, one that is outright stated: "Keep moving forward." Maybe even that would be okay except that the movie all but explicitly tells us that the past is something not worth examining. The main character, Lewis, is an orphan who for much of the movie wants nothing more than to find out who his birth-mother is. But when he's given the chance to do so, twenty minutes from the tearful finale, he turns around and walks away. After all, why bother examining where you come from when all that matters is where you're going?

It's a distinctly American idea, an idea that could only come from a Protestant country that was formed by violently breaking ties with a traditional society. And each successive generation of Americans, my own included, shows less and less interest in connecting or even knowing their past. I'm indicting myself here, too, but I think part of the problem is that all culture has become pop culture--and pop culture has a short shelf life. (My students hadn't even seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, an act of heresy to a Disney nerd like me.)

Perhaps I would not be so disturbed by this movie if I hadn't been immersed lately in the Southern Agrarians, a traditionalist move if there ever was one--but I think Donald Davidson has a major point when he says that abandoning of tradition is abandoning of form. (With Davidson's equation in mind, it is difficult not to connect the message of Meet the Robinsons with its medium--could a traditional 2D animated feature make a statement like "Keep moving forward"?) And I'm not against formal or technological innovation, but if abandoning of tradition is abandoning of form, we have to remember that eventually we will innovate ourselves right out of existence--the form and foundation will eventually disappear.

That being said, I think Disney usually has a better grasp on the balance between the past and the future--think of the way the idealized pasts in Adventureland and Frontierland balance the utopian future of Tomorrowland. And remember that the company has reinstituted its 2D animation department and plans to release a movie set in 1920s New Orleans. I just think Meet the Robinsons could have stood to have tweaked its message a bit. Do we really want to live in a world when the future is all that matters and the past is not worth examining?

I do not.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Different Meaning Since You've Been Gone

Rest in peace, Levi Stubbs, the hoarse-voiced lead singer of The Four Tops, one of the three great groups of the Motown era.

A fun fact about Stubbs: He actually had a baritone voice, but Holland/Dozier/Holland wrote nearly all the Four Tops' songs in the tenor range so that he'd have to shout. It worked--Stubbs' company-enforced passion is the major feature of the group's music.

And, as the comments section over at the AV Club point out, Stubbs was the voice of Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors and Mother Brain from that favored show of my childhood, Captain N: The Game Master.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Libertarianism Is Dead

Those of you who share my hatred of libertarianism will want to read this piece over at Slate. The most pertinent quote:
The argument as a whole is reminiscent of wearying dorm-room debates that took place circa 1989 about whether the fall of the Soviet bloc demonstrated the failure of communism. Academic Marxists were never going to be convinced that anything that happened in the real world could invalidate their belief system. Utopians of the right, libertarians are just as convinced that their ideas have yet to be tried, and that they would work beautifully if we could only just have a do-over of human history.
Bingo. And I will add, from a Christian perspective, that both Marxism on the left and libertarianism on the right (yes, the right, despite their best efforts to claim otherwise) ignore the sticky problem of human depravity. If, as Calvin claims, people are both wicked and profoundly stupid, we've got to have some oversight. And while it's foolish to expect the government to be pure, it's equally foolish to expect the masses to be pure. (It may be even stupider, given the way the masses are uncurious and attracted to shiny objects.) The solution is oversights on both sides, exactly what a liberal democratic government is supposed to provide.

One Comps List Ready

Sorry for dropping off the face of the planet for nearly a month. I'll have another legitimate post soon (about the inefficacy of apologetics), but in the meantime, here's the first of my three lists for my comprehensive exams. This one's for my novelty list, Existentialism. Just FYI:

St. Augustine, Confessions
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: A Selection (ed. Helmet Gottweitzer)
Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex
Martin Buber, I and Thou
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time
Karl Jaspers, The Philosophy of Existence
Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or and Fear and Trembling
Gabriel Marcel, The Philosophy of Existentialism
Frederick Nietzsche, Ecco Homo, The Gay Science, and On the Genealogy of Morals
Blaise Pascal, Pensees
Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness
Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology

Edward Albee, Zoo Story
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
Saul Bellow, Dangling Man and Henderson the Rain King
Albert Camus, The Stranger
Don DeLillo, White Noise
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov and Notes from Underground
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
John Gardner, Grendel
Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
Franz Kafka, Collected Stories
Norman Mailer, An American Dream
Bernard Malamud, The Assistant
Flannery O'Connor, Collected Stories
Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
Walker Percy, Lancelot and The Last Gentleman
Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus and Indignation
J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey
Jose Saramago, Blindness
Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea and No Exit
John Updike, Rabbit, Run and Roger's Version
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five