Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Taking Another Look at Emerson

I've been rereading Ralph Waldo Emerson this week for a literature class, visiting him again after a twenty-five-year hiatus, and the result is not what I'd expected.  Twenty-five years ago in an American lit survey class I was startled to read a man from the 1800's putting my own thoughts and beliefs (many of which I'd never shared with anyone else) into words.  I fell.   I fell hard.  I knew why Louisa May Alcott left wildflowers on his doorstep.  When I discovered at the beginning of this summer that I would be reading Emerson, I determined to save him for the end of the term, to savor him again and in hopes of finding inspiration with which to return to my classroom in August.  Instead, I found myself having to get out of the chair where I sat and pace around the room in frustration, and procrastinating writing this blog entry. 

Emerson, of course, hasn't changed in the past twenty-five years; I have.  While he still speaks to me deeply, while I still love his fierce insistence on the necessity of discovering one's own truths and then standing in them unshaken by institutions or individuals in one's surrounding society, I find that I cannot agree with him wholeheartedly any longer.  I have seen too much.  I know too much. 

It was this passage which broke my heart:
"I remember an answer which when quite young I was prompted to make to a valued adviser who was wont to importune me with the dear old doctrines of the church.  On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within?  my friend suggested--'But these impulses may be from below, not from above.' I replied, 'They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil.'  No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.  Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it."
The last sentence sent chills down my arms when I read it.  I have no issue whatsoever with the potential fallibility of the church and its interpretations of the scriptures upon which it claims to base its doctrines.  Nor do I think that living from within is wrong--to the contrary, we must live from within, or we can hardly be said to be living.  No.  What I cannot believe in the least is that good and bad are defined only by what lies within our own natures.   In the six years that I've been teaching high school, I've seen one student threaten--loudly and violently--to kill another based on his sexual orientation.  Two students lost their grandfather to a neighbor who decided to kill him and hide his body in a shallow grave in the woods...over a property line dispute.  Several students have been hospitalized for self-harm or suicide attempts and been mocked or harassed for it.  I could go on.

Maybe Emerson would say that actions like these are born of not listening to our true natures, actions caused by either the stress that builds in us from denying the truths we recognize deep in our hearts but are afraid to grasp tightly enough to stand up against the pressures of a world that wishes us to conform, or caused by our utterly believing some untruth we've been fed all our lives, by not searching and finding those truths that are naturally and individually ours.  I believe that many such actions are exactly that.  But surely ending a life over a few acres that one can only possess for a limited time is wrong, even if the person wielding the weapon believed completely that it was the right thing to do.

My disagreeing with Emerson on the question of right and wrong has clouded that original starry-eyed love I felt for him when I was twenty, but in a way, it also gives me reason to love him more, to love him for his idealism, his ability to believe that people were so truly good that if they would only listen to their natural selves, they would never do great wrongs in the world.  The second love feels more authentic anyway, based as it is on what he was, on his being faithful and thorough in pursuing and sharing his own deeply held beliefs--such as believing that the nature of man was good--rather than the viability of his beliefs in the real world.  Surely Emerson would approve.

Note:  For "something entirely different, pop over to Alon for a blog entry on what happens when I get wound up about Emerson and start talking with The Younger Daughter.  She's quirky, and she has some insight.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Self-Reliance". The Heath Anthology of American Literature. 7th ed.  Ed. Paul Lauter. Vol. B. Boston: Wadsworth, 2014. 1871. Print.

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