Monday, April 8, 2013

Sucked oranges, metaphysical varioloids, hugs in Texas - the wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson

The fact is that I will never remember what is in these Ralph Waldo Emerson essays.  They slip through the brain, which in my case is admittedly rather spongy.  Sponges drain.  The book at issue is The Conduct of Life (1860), a late one.  Emerson was in his fifties.  The essays are titled “Wealth,” “Power,” like that.  Blunt yet somehow unmemorable.

When I write about a book, when I simply type out lines, they are more likely to stick.  I will try that.  I will work on the fourth essay, “Culture.”

In the distemper known to physicians as chorea, the patient sometimes turns round, and continues to spin slowly in one spot.  Is egotism a metaphysical varioloid of this malady?  The man runs round a ring formed by his own talent, falls into an admiration of it, and loses relation to the world.  It is a tendency in all minds.  (1015-6, page numbers referring to the Library of America Essays and Lectures)

One might distinguish between those who read Emerson with pleasure and those who cannot by their involuntary response to “metaphysical varioloid” – do you smack your lips or roll your eyes?

How about this one, which I will have to snip a bit:

In Boston, the question of life is the names of some eight or ten men.  Have you seen Mr. Allston, Doctor Channing, Mr. Adams, Mr. Webster, [etc.]?  Then you may as well die.  In New York, the question is of some other eight, or ten, or twenty.  Have you seen a few lawyers, merchants, and brokers, - two or three scholars, two or three capitalists, two or three editors of newspapers?  New York is a sucked orange.  (1017)

That seems strangely relevant, even if we have expanded the cultural list of what we must experience, and then die.

Some people read Emerson for his wisdom, which is surely overrated, and is in no way applicable to me or to Wuthering Expectations:

Though they talk of the object before them, they are thinking of themselves, and their vanity is laying little traps for you admiration.  (1017)

In no way applicable.  This is not bad, though, where Emerson gives some advice on education, advocating a long leash, so to speak:

He is infatuated for weeks with Halo 4 and Minecraft; but presently will find out, as you did, that when he rises from the game too long played, he is vacant and forlorn, and despises himself.  Thenceforward it takes place with other things, and has its due weight in his experience.  (1021)

Substitute “whist and chess” in the appropriate place for the actual quotation.  Whist and chess!  Perhaps some of our plagues of the moment are not so new.

I should find something about books. 

So, if in traveling in the dreary wildernesses of Arkansas or Texas, we should observe on the next seat a man reading Horace, or Martial, or Calderon, we should wish to hug him.  (1030)

Exactly, exactly.  Emerson does not say that I actually hug him.  Yes, he was a wise man.


  1. Horace and Martial, I get, but a Calderón fan? What a nice surprise!

  2. Even Martial is amusing - some of his work is not for polite company - but the Calderón name-drop was a treat.

  3. 1000 Bostonians You Must See Before You Die - in your WalMart book section soon.

  4. Oh you know Emerson makes me smack my lips! The Halo 4 and Minecraft substitutions made me laugh especially since we would consider whist and chess the more edifying activities today. Poor Emerson would be horrified.

  5. As a writer in and of those wildernesses, I would only add that to find a person like that, in such circumstances, is golden.

  6. The all-time champion orange-sucker, pace Emerson, is James Boswell. His early journals - no, all of them - chronicle his attempts to meet famous people. And look what resulted - one of the best books ever written. Our tourism has degenerated.

    Stefanie, I know, I know. Chess! But it is a human impulse, at least for some people. Maybe the computer entertainment is even more insidious - probably so. But it seems to be a matter of degree.

    Shelley, we now have the advantage, with our colorful, flashy paperbacks, that it should be easier to see if that fellow is reading Horace. He's probably got an easily recognizable Penguin Classics edition.

  7. What a coincidence, I started my morning reading a small collection of his essays published by Dover, with solid names like "History" and "Self-Reliance." I think the man had some unsavoury ideas about history and a warped sense of individualism that has hatched into our modern brand of selfishness. His prose is extraordinary, nevertheless.

    1. I don't know, Miguel- is it logical judge authors based on how shallow people have read them? I agree with you about much of Emerson's thinking, but he was extraordinarily critical of himself-see his journals. I doubt that "our modern brand of selfishness" would appeal to him any more than it does to us.

  8. Whoops-that should be "logical to judge".

  9. Emerson is unusually American, and many American ideas have some origin in his work. John Dewey's Pragmatism, for example. He unleashed multitudes.

    I think of Emerson himself as much more of an ironist than an ideologue.