Saturday, November 25, 2006

In Which Emerson Discourses on the Abilites of the English

Another week of fun with Emerson as he delves into the psyche of the English, this time to expound upon their abilities. Everything comes down to race, which, as Emerson sees it, means the English are a fortuitous mixture of Scandinavians (Saxon and "Northmen") and Normans (French). This lends the English both democratic and aristocratic principles, making of them a people of "antagonisms and contradictions" as well as a "museum of anomalies." Emerson describes England as a country filled with logical, fair-minded, utilitarian laborers where "every man is trained to some one art of detail and aims at perfection in that." He praises the English for their "public aim" that produces such civic mindedness as can be found in the likes of Sir John Herschel who cataloged the stars of the southern hemisphere, the intrepid Arctic explorers, and Lord Elgin who "saved" Greek marble sculptures from certain ruin by removing them from Athens and taking them, with a brief stay at the bottom of the ocean, to London. There was quite a bit of controversy over the Elgin Marbles then as there is now, but Emerson entirely overlooks it, perhaps considering it part and parcel with the contradictory tendencies of the English. Or maybe he just thought the English were trying to beautify their island since "they are heavy at the fine arts, but adroit at the coarse; not good in jewelry or mosaics, but the best iron-masters, colliers, wool-combers and tanners in Europe." Or maybe it's because Emerson thinks the English

heavy fellows, steeped in beer and fleshpots, they are hard of hearing and dim of sight. Their drowsy minds need to be flagellated by war and trade and politics and persecution. They cannot well read a principle, except by the light of fagots and of burning towns.
Ouch. If that's not enough, Emerson compares the English to Trolls and mastiffs too! But these are positive comparisons meant to be complimentary. Trolls are inherited from the Scandinavians. Emerson describes Trolls as "goblin men with vast power of work and skillful production" (and here I thought they just lived under bridges, trying to catch billy goats for dinner.) When he says that the likes of Alfred, Bede, Caxton, Drake, Newton, et al, are Trolls, he means that these "working brains" turn the "sweat of their face[s] to power and renown." As for the mastiffs, that too is meant to be flattering. Apparently England was well known for its breed of mastiffs that were "so fierce that when their teeth were set you must cut their heads off to part them." Travelers, keep this important tip in mind next time you find yourself with an Englishman's teeth sunk deep in your arm, the only way to get him to release you is to cut off his head. Of course, if you are stupid enough to steep yourself too deep in beer and flagellate the drowsy English minds sitting about you in the pub, well, some people get what they deserve. Perhaps I misrepresent Emerson a bit. He does, after all, say the English write first-rate books. He also says they are a "vanguard of civility and power," "ages ahead of the rest of the world in the art of living," and "heroes." And who wouldn't be proud of that? Next week, Emerson's take on English Manners and Truth