I have re-read Emerson's essay, Nature, and pronounce it wow. There is so much in it that I could go on and on and on. It's one of those essays that would be fun to sit around a fire with a bunch of friends and stay up all night just talking about it. BikeProf had a great post about Emerson the other day which made me wish I was in his class.
Emerson's writing seems at its best when he is ga-ga over the natural world. Perhaps it is his passion that is so infectious, but I think his writing also has a different quality to it. He says things like, "The incommunicable trees begin to persuade us to live with them, and quit our life of solemn trifles. Here no history, or church, or state, is interpolated on the divine sky." He becomes so lyrical, so poetic, that it makes my heart beat faster and my head swoon with the beauty of his words. When he turns to more abstract matters he has a harder edge and instead of feeling his words in my body, they tend to stay in my head and occasionally get stuck in my throat as they try to slip down past my neck. At first I thought "Nature" was going to be one long rhapsody. Then I worried it was going to make me choke. But it turned out to be a heady, full-body experience.
Emerson proves himself to be a tricky guy in this essay. By tricky I mean that he manages to get the reader to agree with what he says and then he turns it around and shows why it is wrong to think that way. He also manages to insert some humor into the essay (very dry and if you aren't paying attention it slips by without notice). What I liked best, however, is how Emerson reminds us that nature is everywhere. You don't have to travel to the Amazon to experience nature, nor do you need to be rich. Nature is available to everyone, "The stars at night stoop down over the brownest, homeliest common with all the spiritual magnificence which they shed on the Campagna, or on the marble deserts of Egypt." Not only that, but humans belong to nature, and being part of nature, the things we make are also of nature, "Nature, who made the mason, made the house."
Now that the reader feels so at one with nature, so self-satisfied, thinking that even the plastic water glass she just took a sip from is part of nature, Emerson lets the wind out of the sails and asks, "what is the end sought?" We strive to provide ourselves with good food, with houses, music, poetry, wealth, but to what end? Well of course, Emerson says, it is all in order to "secure the ends of good sense and beauty from the intrusion of deformity or vulgarity of any kind." So instead of simple comfort we build palaces and stables and employ servants, "all for a little conversation, high clear and spiritual!" What we are trying to do is "remove friction from the wheels of life." But somewhere along the road to removing the friction that keeps us from spiritual conversation, virtue and beauty, we have turned the means into the end and forgotten the original goal. What comes to pass is an "aimless society" that does not satisfy. Nor does nature bring satisfaction either. It begins to seem we can never find it, that nature is somewhere else, not here. Suddenly the expansiveness we felt earlier and the happiness we felt over the plastic water glass is no longer good enough. We must use the credit cards and go on safari in Africa in order to experience nature, only to find, in the end, that this too, is vaguely disappointing.
Something Emerson says at the beginning of the essay pulled me up short. After several paragraphs of reveling in nature's glory, after saying how healing nature is from the customs and foolishness of society, he says, "if there were good men, there would never be this rapture in nature." Say what? I spluttered, I protested, I fought against Emerson on this point. How could he say that? I re-read the passage several times, and it all finally dawned on me. There is no denying that nature is beautiful, but we escape to nature, and it is an escape, because
Man is fallen; nature is erect, and serves as a differential thermometer, detecting the presence or absence of the divine sentiment in man. By fault of our dulness and selfishness we are looking up to nature, but when we are convalescent, nature will look up to us. We see the foaming brook with compunction: if our own life flowed with the right energy, we should shame the brook.
We escape to nature because we see the divinity of it. If we, as individuals and society, come to the fullness of our own divinity, there would be no need to escape to nature, we would see the divine everywhere.
The essay bookends this idea quite nicely and also manages to pull in the ideas put forward in the section on friction, "But if, instead of identifying ourselves with the work, we feel that the soul of the Workman streams through us, we shall find the peace of the morning dwelling first in our hearts, and the fathomless powers of gravity and chemistry, and over them, of life, preexisting within us in their highest form." If we stop identifying ourselves by the work we do to remove the friction so we can enjoy beauty, and instead we focus on our own divinity which already exists, then peace and beauty and life are ours. It's like all those stories we read and write about someone going out on a quest for something only to find, at the end, they had it all along. We are already divine. The purpose of nature is to help us understand that.
"Nature is the incarnation of a thought" (God's thought). "The word is mind precipitated, and the volatile essence is forever escaping again into the state of free thought" (In the beginning was the word and the word was God...)
Every moment instructs, and every object; for wisdom is infused into every form. It has been poured into us as blood; it convulsed us as pain; it slid into us as pleasure; it enveloped us in dull, melancholy days, or in days of cheerful labor; we did not guess its essence until after a long time.
Beautiful. Didn't get stuck in my throat at all.
Next week's Emerson: Politics