Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Transparent Eyeball

Emerson's essay, "Nature," is best read out of doors. I would have loved to have walked to my neighborhood lake (when you live in a state with the motto "Land of 10,000 Lakes" nearly every neighborhood has one) to sit in the shade of a newly leafed elm, surrounded by chirping birds, scampering squirrels, people taking their dogs for a walk, people taking themselves for a walk, or a jog, or a bike ride, or a skate. And maybe, a little down from where I sit would be a couple on a bench holding hands, or the man who come to practice throwing his lasso around a block of wood with horns, or the several people who sometimes practice their music there, none of them playing the guitar, clarinet, or sax all that well, but none of them horrible either. But today is cold and raining so I have to satisfy myself with a photo I took last summer: Lake Nokomis If you look hard you can see the skyscrapers of downtown Minneapolis above the tops of the trees. It is one of the things I love about my lake and about my city and the majority of people who live in it. We tend to love both the city and the outdoors. As a result we have parks everywhere, an extensive system of bike paths, a couple of bird sanctuaries not far from downtown, public lakes for swimming and fishing and boating, outdoor concerts every weekend in summer, public gardens, and festivals of various kinds. Even in winter we have our festivals and events and the public golf course becomes a cross country ski area, the lakes are dotted with ice fishing houses, and nearly every park and lake has an ice skating rink. It is a city Emerson would love. Near the beginning of his essay he writes, "To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun." I have lived in cities where this is the sad truth. What a delight it is to find myself in a city where it is not. I think, in part, it has to do with the distinct seasons here; nature is hard to ignore when the temperature is below zero or the clouds are a dangerous green during a thunderstorm. And too, the fact that the state is an agricultural one--we get crop reports on the radio even in the city. But as much as Emerson might like my city, he would find fault with it's view of nature, and a major fault it would be. For the majority of folks in this city, nature is a means of rejuvenation, a place to go to refresh one's body and mind from the stale office air and agonizing sameness and enforced sedentariness of the cubicle. Emerson approves of using nature in such a way, but where for us it pretty much ends there, for Emerson it doesn't. He believes, "in the woods, we return to reason and faith." Standing on the bare ground, "all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God." Most of us have probably experienced this kind of transcendent feeling at one time or other while watching a sunrise or sunset, looking at the stars, gazing up into the canopy of a redwood forest, or out across the ocean's waves. It is an awe-full moment that stays with you forever after. But where you or I might translate it as an expansive feeling of connection with the universe or a sense of peaceful rightness or belonging or wonder, Emerson turns it into a philosophy of God. The entire essay is about reaching God. For Emerson, God created everything in nature, and therefore everything in nature is a reflection of God. If we can know nature, we can know God. Since God created nature for us, it is our God-given right and duty to use nature as a means to understanding and reaching God. That is our whole purpose. It harkens back to Montaigne's Apology for Raymond Sebond, and Sebond's book which Montaigne translated in which Sebond argues that Nature is the book of God and our job as humans is to learn how to read it right. The book, however, can only be read correctly through Faith. Emerson would agree wholeheartedly, but to it he would also add Reason which filters the rawness of nature through Man's intellect. "Nature" is a passionate and reasoned treatise for a way of life. And while there is much here to like, there is much I can't agree with. Emerson believes everything created by Man, including language, has a Natural correlation and by extension spiritual since everything in Nature has a spiritual correlation. His belief that nature was created by God for the use of Man and that Man rules nature and is outside of it also bothers me. I am too much a child of evolutionary thinking to believe I am not a product of nature; as much as "Man" thinks we have dominion over it, we are still subject to it and still part of it. We are not the apex of evolution, but are ourselves still evolving, however much we like to imagine ourselves outside of and immune from the process. Emerson would be aghast at my godless philosophy, and I am aware that for a lot of people it is still heretical thinking. This does not mean, however, that I (or anyone like me) cannot appreciate Emerson and the joy and passion he expresses in his description of the sublimity of a sunrise. There is no reason I cannot nod my head in agreement when he writes, "if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars." And there is certainly no reason why I cannot find pleasure in his sentences, especially when he writes things like "I expand and live in the warm day like corn and melons." Beautiful. Next week's Emerson: "The American Scholar"