Saturday, September 09, 2006

Where Do We Find Ourselves?

Emerson's essay Experience is different from all the others that have come before. BikeProf gave me a heads up on it, but I wasn't sure what to expect. Emerson's essays are generally exuberant, filled with optimism and idealism and no matter how much I might disagree with the ideas he proposes in them, I always conclude the essay feeling as though I have just had an exciting and lively conversation with a Big Mind. And I am generally agitated and have to let the essay sit and seep in before I try to write about it. Experience right away begins differently. Emerson asks, "Where do we find ourselves?" and goes on to talk about how we go through our lives in a sort of dream-state as though we have drunk a cup of water from the river Lethe. We are "ghostlike" sleep-walkers whose lives are "not so much threatened as our perception." He goes on to talk about how we cannot judge from day-to-day whether they were profitable or not because we live in fragments, see in fragments and cannot see the whole. These are all typical Emerson ideas, but the tone. The tone is melancholy. I get the feeling that Emerson is tired and sad. He writes about how the dream world we live in is full of illusions and in our attempts to find reality and experience something true and real we create suffering. But because we create it ourselves it is nothing but "scene-painting and counterfeit." Emerson writes of the death of his son two years prior and says that he had imagined that such a loss would leave him scared, but it didn't. He writes, "I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature." The whole essay is laden with this grief. Emerson argues that "life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and as we pass through them they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus." Our moods are ruled by our temperament and by extension, our lives are ruled by it as well. This does not have to be so, however, there is hope. If we allow our intellect, "seeker of absolute truth," or our heart, "lover of absolute good," to intercede to allow the door to creative power, which is part of the oversoul which is part of God, to open, "we awake from ineffectual struggles with this nightmare." Another part of the illusion of the dream we are in is our love of permanence. We dedicate ourselves to one thought or idea. This is a mistake. The "health of body consists in circulation, and sanity of mind in variety or facility of association." Permanence is death, change is life. Experience contains lots of Ideas. Aside from the ones I've already mentioned, there is Surface, Surprise, Reality, and Subjectiveness. Here is a brief bit about each:

  • Surface. "We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them." However, "to finish the moment, to find the journey's end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom."
  • Surprise. "Life is a series of surprises, and would not be worth taking or keeping if it were not." We can plan all we want but "the results of life are uncalculated and uncalculable. The years teach much which the days never know."
  • Reality. "If I have described life as a flux of moods, I must now add that there is that in us which changes not and which ranks all sensations and states of mind. The consciousness in each man is a sliding scale, which identifies him now with the First Cause, and now with the flesh of his body; life above life, in infinite degrees. The sentiment from which it sprung determines the dignity of any deed, and the question ever is, not what you have done or forborne, but at whose command you have done and forborne."
  • Subjectivity. "Thus does the universe wear our color, and every object fall successively into the subject itself. The subject exists, the subject enlarges; all things sooner or later fall into place. As I am, so I see; use what language we will, we can never say anything but what we are."
There are enough ideas in this essay I could practically write an entire essay dedicated to each one of them. Emerson concludes Experience by saying that he doesn't expect any immediate changes to come about from his ideas. He admits that the world that exists is not the one he sees. And here the melancholy tone of the essay changes. Emerson is patient and he encourages his readers to be patient as well. Time is deceptive. Daily tasks like eating, sleeping and earning money take much time, but "it takes very little time to entertain a hope and an insight which becomes the light of our life." Don't give up. Take heart, "there is victory yet for all justice." The world will one day see the transformation of genius, the creative power of the Divine, into a practical, everyday power. Emerson is nothing but sincere. He truly believes what he says. He remains idealistic and optimistic, but by the end of the essay these qualities have definitely become tempered. While the essay is clearly directed towards an outward audience, I get the feeling that Emerson was also directing it at himself as a sort of "here's what I've learned so far" exposition, but also as a bit of self-confirmation and self-encouragement. It makes for a good read. Next week's Emerson: Character