Emerson: The Book of Fate

Starry-Night-by-Alex-Ruiz

The book of Nature is the book of Fate. She turns the gigantic pages,— leaf after leaf,— never re-turning one. One leaf she lays down, a floor of granite; then a thousand ages, and a bed of slate; a thousand ages, and a measure of coal; a thousand ages, and a layer of marl and mud: vegetable forms appear; her first misshapen animals, zoophyte, trilobium, fish; then, saurians,— rude forms, in which she has only blocked her future statue, concealing under these unwieldly monsters the fine type of her coming king. The face of the planet cools and dries, the races meliorate, and man is born. But when a race has lived its term, it comes no more again.

 ……..– Emerson, The Conduct of Life (Fate)

Emerson, Neuroscience, & The Book of Nature – On Fate & Freedom

 

The book of Nature is the book of Fate. She turns the gigantic pages, — leaf after leaf, — never returning one.  … The element running through entire nature, which we popularly call Fate, is known to us as limitation. Whatever limits us, we call Fate. … Why should we fear to be crushed by savage elements, we who are made up of the same elements? – Ralph Waldo Emerson: Fate

As one reads and rereads Emerson’s essays, and especially the ones in The Conduct of Life, one gains a deeper appreciation of this man’s dark temperament, and of his tenacity in the face of those who would tyrannize us with superfluous notions of just what necessity and fate truly are.  For Emerson the notion of fate was but one of the forces, not the ruling force of life in this universe. The opposing force for him was freedom. If there are limits, if there are environmental factors that shape and bind us to certain limits and limitations of physical and mental constitution, there is also the opposing notion of mind and intelligence to counter the harsh necessities of life’s circumstances. Yet, the mind is not some separate entity, above it all; this would be illusion, too. No, the mind is very much enmeshed within the web of elements we call the universe, and it is within this very context and rootedness of mind in the processes of the universe that we must approach fate and freedom.

In his poem Fate  (see below) Emerson tells us that “There is a melody born of melody, which melts the world into a sea.” The notion that there are processes born of processes, which fold the world internally into the processes of the brain is at the heart of this. One could say that the production of production, system of system, or feedback loop within feedback loop all work their magic in this sea within:

That you are fair or wise is vain,
Or strong, or rich, or generous;
You must have also the untaught strain
That sheds beauty on the rose.
There is a melody born of melody,
Which melts the world into a sea.
Toil could never compass it,
Art its height could never hit,
It came never out of wit,
But a music music-born
Well may Jove and Juno scorn.
Thy beauty, if it lack the fire
Which drives me mad with sweet desire,
What boots it? what the soldier’s mail,
Unless he conquer and prevail?
What all the goods thy pride which lift,
If thou pine for another’s gift?
Alas! that one is born in blight,
Victim of perpetual slight;—
When thou lookest in his face,
Thy heart saith, Brother! go thy ways!
None shall ask thee what thou doest,
Or care a rush for what thou knowest,
Or listen when thou repliest,
Or remember where thou liest,
Or how thy supper is sodden,—
And another is born
To make the sun forgotten.
Surely he carries a talisman
Under his tongue;
Broad are his shoulders, and strong,
And his eye is scornful,
Threatening, and young.
I hold it of little matter,
Whether your jewel be of pure water,
A rose diamond or a white,—
But whether it dazzle me with light.
I care not how you are drest,
In the coarsest, or in the best,
Nor whether your name is base or brave,
Nor tor the fashion of your behavior,—
But whether you charm me,
Bid my bread feed, and my fire warm me,
And dress up nature in your favor.
One thing is forever good,
That one thing is success,—
Dear to the Eumenides,
And to all the heavenly brood.
Who bides at home, nor looks abroad,
Carries the eagles, and masters the sword.

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Emerson: The American Sublime

 

As, in the sun, objects paint their images on the retina of the eye, so they, sharing the aspiration of the whole universe, tend to paint a far more delicate copy of their essence in his mind. Like the metamorphosis of things into higher organic forms is their change into melodies. Over everything stands its daemon or soul, and, as the form of the thing is reflected by the eye, so the soul of the thing is reflected by a melody. The sea, the mountain-ridge, Niagara, and every flower-bed, pre-exist, or super-exist, in precantations, which sail like odors in the air, and when any man goes by with an ear sufficiently fine, he overhears them and endeavors to write down the notes without diluting or depraving them. . . . This insight, which expresses itself by what is called Imagination, is a very high sort of seeing, which does not come by study, but by the intellect being where and what it sees; by sharing the path or circuit of things through forms, and so making them translucid to others.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson: On Comedy and the Comic

The secular art of homily like its cousin served Emerson well, he was able to find that fine line between conversational prose and the scholarly rhythms of the street. He gave us behind the façade of a formalist essay the honesty of a man thinking. Much of his life and thought drifted between Society and Solitude, the give and take of a life lived in the midst of others, and the marginal worlds that fly beyond the edges of our solitary lives amid a vast ocean of stars. Some see Emerson as some old fuddy duddy, a serious if not overpowering rhetorician of the transcendentalist movement. Yet there is another Emerson, the comic or humorist of thought who instead of wandering away from society entered its contours and byways, alleys and thoroughfares, its civic centers and its radical trade centers where he study men and women in the midst of their everyday lives. He’d studied his Aristotle, too:

Aristotle’s definition of the ridiculous is, ” what is out of time and place, without danger.” If there be pain and danger, it becomes tragic; if not, comic. I confess, this definition, though by an admirable definer, does not satisfy me, does not say all we know.

The essence of all jokes, of all comedy, seems to be an honest or well-intended halfness; a non-performance of what is pretended to be performed, at the same time that one is giving loud pledges of performance. The balking of the intellect, the frustrated expectation, the break of continuity in the intellect, is comedy ; and it announces itself physically in the pleasant spasms we call laughter. With the trifling exception of the stratagems of a few beasts and birds, there is no seeming, no half-ness in nature, until the appearance of man. Unconscious creatures do the whole will of wisdom. An oak or a chestnut undertakes a function it can not execute; or if there be phenomena in botany which we call abortions, the abortion is also a function of nature, and assumes to the intellect the like completeness with the further function to which in different circumstances it had attained. The same rule holds true of the animals. Their activity is marked by unerring good-sense. But man, through his access to Reason, is capable of the perception of a whole and a part. Reason is the whole, and whatsoever is not that is a part. The whole of nature is agreeable to the whole of thought, or to the Reason; but separate any part of nature and attempt to look at it as a whole by itself, and the feeling of the ridiculous begins. The perpetual game of humor is to look with considerate good nature at every object in existence, aloof as a man might look at a mouse, comparing it with the eternal Whole; enjoying the figure which each self-satisfied particular creature cuts in the unrespecting All, and dismissing it with a derisive smile. Separate any object, as a particular bodily man, a horse, a turnip, a flour-barrel, an umbrella, from the connection of things, and contemplate it alone, standing there in absolute nature, it becomes at once comic; no useful, no respectable qualities can rescue it from the ludicrous.

– from The Comic

Was this the first critique of Speculative Realism, and of OOO in particular? Or is this a comic hilarity of objects overmined and undermined by a transcendentalist poseur? Emerson as speculator of relations, what comes next?

1. Thoreau, Henry David; Ralph Waldo Emerson (2008-01-01). The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson & Henry David Thoreau (The Complete Works of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson) (Kindle Locations 11071-11073). C&C Web Press. Kindle Edition.

Listening to Emerson….

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson comes to us at certain points in our lives like an old nabi of the desert, a cantankerous older brother who has wandered the world and brought back the wisdom of the ages only to discover that the truth was always and forever in our own lived lives rather than in something we would find in some objective object. One wants to agree with John Milton: “The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

Sometimes even poets and philosophers need to remember the truth of which Emerson was a harbinger; as member of that tribe, those dark precursors and rebels, eccentrics, social critics or philosophers for whom truth was not some fixed commodity, but was an ever illusive transitory manifestation of process and becoming rather than of Being. There are moments when we need to step out of the shadows, free ourselves of the burden of the past, come clean, own up to the truth of our own mentation’s dark valve, trust in the life of our own mind’s strange life and speak the truth out of our own light. Do we have a truth to speak? What is this burden of wisdom we have chased after for so long? Can the Mind like some ouroboros know its own curved plenty?

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