Emerson, inspiration, and perspiration

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

5 AM. Yesterday my friend Jim Meissner lent me The Lost Book Of Enki by Zechariah Sitchin, and I spent much of the rest of the day reading it. A few dozen pages yet to go, but I was surprised to get into it as easily as I did, having read a couple of the other books of his and having found him not entirely believable. That is, I believe him to be a sincere thoughtful man, but I had thought him to be taking at too literal a level a description that might not have been meant to be read that way. This book, though, assuming it is an accurate translation, is clearly not an allegory or a description of psychological process, but a straightforward narrative.

I have been reluctant to commit myself on this, as on so many ground-shaking re-castings of our human history, because it is so easy to get carried away and so hard to get carried back! There is a long list of such influences in my life, starting perhaps with Immanuel Velikovsky’s Worlds In Collision.

My friend Chris Nelson e-mailed me yesterday that our discussion of how we can know what’s true struck a chord with him. Well, I felt it was said as much for someone else – more than one, probably – as for me.

What a lot of influences in a life! At the same time I read Sitchin, I am still reading Cabot’s life of Emerson, and Thomas Hart Benton’s Thirty Years’ View, and Max Freedom Long’s The Secret Science Behind Miracles, with excursions for the fun of it to Raymond Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art Of Murder,” and then there were all those Star Trek TV episodes. Like Emerson, I’m still “sinfully strolling from book to book,” and, like Emerson, quite happily.

The virtue of all this – and the corollary defect of the virtue of it – is that I open myself to so many influences, of so many kinds, committing myself fully but temporarily, or I should say provisionally, ready to strike my tent whenever I change my mind. Great flexibility, great instability. Hard to build a house on continually shifting sands.

And yet, I don’t feel it only as a weakness. There’s a place for what I’m doing. In this perhaps I am representative of so many people who live a nomadic life, following the light wherever they catch a glimpse of it. You can wind up following a lot of will-o’-the-wisps that way! And you can look back and feel pretty foolish that you lent belief for however long to this or that alluring bubble. On the other hand, you’re less likely to find yourself dismayed that your irretrievable oath of allegiance was given to a bad cause.

I woke up thinking of Emerson, thinking what a quietly sane life he led, how he incorporated all the best of what our time has called New Age thought, with none of the accompanying enthusiastic lack of balance. This scion of generations of ministers and pillars of respectability – Boston respectability, too, of which there can be no more rigid and self-critical specimen – gave up the ministry, give up respectability, cut his moorings with established thought and went his own way, and did it so quietly that he made few ripples personally, and changed the whole tenor of a generation and of course therefore, all who followed, whether or not they recognized the fact.

Let a man plant himself upon his instincts and there abide, he said in more or less these words, and the whole world will come around to him. [Emerson’s exact words (God bless the Internet!) were: “… if the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him.”] We see his life backwards, coming to him because he has been famous and influential. We forget or never learn that he stayed true to inner thought that had no particular sanction in accepted thought of the day, and even seemed (but, he was convinced, only seemed) contradictory to the Scriptures by which his day thought it shaped its life. He cut his own trail through the backwoods and found to surprise that he had surveyed (or rather, had advertised) the right-of-way for a highway that hundreds, then thousands, followed. When the Transcendental 1840s came along, a time much like the 1960s, he was lumped in the public mind with all manner of enthusiasts and crackpots. The crackpots and enthusiasts and what Thoreau called “one-idea men” assumed that Emerson was one with them, or would be if only he understood them, or if he had the courage of his (meaning, of course, their) convictions. They didn’t always forgive him for having a house and a family and careful investments and – mostly – for being true to his convictions or even his lack of convictions. They wanted him to see their light, to follow their star, when his whole life said precisely the opposite.

Now, I have been half an hour writing this, for reasons that escape me. I trust that you gentlemen don’t feel imposed upon by being made to wait? And I trust that you aren’t going to claim paternity over this little effusion, either.

No need. It is, in fact, a nice demonstration of how work gets done. You remember that Peter Wimsey said people were always saying they should sit down and write a book, and he gathered that the hard part was sitting down. In a sense that jest was true. The habit of a thing is powerful. You set yourself at your table with journal and coffee and silently ticking clock, and all your person-group expects to engage in conversation. Since it is in the form of handwriting in a journal, that very external assists you to keep them in line; more or less removes the necessity, in fact. And the difference between talking to us and talking to yourself is more conceptual than actual, for when you look closely enough at “yourself” you find less a unit than a society – as we may have mentioned.

The demonstration isn’t for the sake of keeping you out of trouble. And it isn’t strictly for whoever reads this. It is valuable in itself.

In what way?

Surely you can see that your thread this morning continued yesterday’s, and proceeded not upon the question-and-answer format but in a natural following of the thoughts that had come to you as you slept or tried to sleep or as you awoke. This powerful habit will carry you forward to express what you know and what you don’t yet know. Emerson didn’t engage in question and answer, and would in fact have found the procedure as droll as his satirical friend Henry would have. But he would have recognized the process of uniting inspiration and perspiration. Ask him.

Well, that’s a thought. I always forget how deep our pool of resources is. Mr. Emerson? Waldo?

The chief difference between my age and yours is the superficies of language.

I have thought it often. Your language casts back and the antiquated words are somewhat off-putting to our eyes.

Even expressions like “Tis” may go out of fashion. You prefer “it’s,” and would hear “tis” as an affectation, which in my day it was not. But perhaps you habitually underestimate how little ready my age was to understand me, relative to yours. The social implications of self-reliance, the young men of my day and after saw well enough. But the more profound spiritual implications they saw only as an extravagance of language or fancy. My initial impact was considerable, but strictly limited. It required time to broaden it by removing its immediate applicability and demonstrating its ease of application.

Somebody said the 19th century was yours, the 20th, Thoreau’s, and the 21st would be [Bronson] Alcott’s.

There are peculiar modes of thought for each age. Just as Emerson seems stuffy and respectable to your age – which I cannot but find amusing, though I understand its reasons well enough – so Alcott still seems ungrounded. Actually, that deserves a more careful expression.

You know that I have said that Alcott was in his speech and thought absolutely clear and penetrating. His written speech was halting and clotted, disfigured by the poor examples he had read in his self-educated youth. He was not appreciated in our day partly because he had not the power of clear expository prose and partly because he had not the words for what he saw. Henry saw every knot in the pine tree, and could describe them all in proper relation. I saw forests and landscapes and could suggest relations between ourselves and the world. Alcott saw clouds, and mists, and saw them in half-light, and had to express pastels in the vocabulary of primary colors.

But you in your day can go to his Orphic Sayings, for instance, and find the half expressed sense in them. It is a matter of connecting dots wherein the spaces are greater than the extent of the dots, but it could be done. Your age is not as ours was. Different laws govern it, as ours were governed by different laws than had governed the youth of Adams or Jefferson, say.

Each age is receptive to different kinds of influences.

No prophet has ever fitted smoothly into his own times. What kind of prophet would he be? But no prophet has ever been without a message that some in his unsympathetic age could hear and be stirred by.

Looking back I see that it was suggested that you say a word about inspiration and perspiration.

I need say nothing more than I said 150 years ago and more. If you do not work several hours a day, reading, writing, thinking, receiving, pondering – you are not working as you should. You understand, this was addressed to the student of the world. The businessmen on High Street lives another kind of life, but you may be sure that he devotes his time to his business. Nothing in this world gets done without work, even if the work consists mostly of non-doing. What we refrain from doing shapes our lives quite as much as what we do, but the refraining is only effective work when it proceeds from intention. Your life’s work may turn out to be quite different from what you think you set out to do – likely it will be – but it will express your intention effectually; it will not merely fall from your life as an automatic consequence, like shaking the dust from your coat.

My thanks, and to the guys in general. Till next time.

Till next time – but work.

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