Emerson on Self Improvement

Something I was writing at work today made me think of this quote from Emerson, which I highlighted when I was 17. I dug out the book, which happened to be in my classroom, and looked it up. Classic.


Emerson and Melville on Melancholy

Two great quotes I picked up on earlier this summer when I read Eric Wilson’s Against Happiness:


I compared notes with one of my friends who expects everything of the universe, and is disappointed when anything is less than best, and I found that I begin at the other extreme, expecting nothing, and am always full of thanks for moderate goods.

–Emerson, “Friendship”

So, therefore, that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him, that mortal man cannot be true—not true, or undeveloped. With books the same. The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. ‘All is vanity.’ ALL. This wilful world hath not got hold of unchristian Solomon’s wisdom yet. But he who dodges hospitals and jails, and walks fast crossing graveyards, and would rather talk of operas than hell; calls Cowper, Young, Pascal, Rousseau, poor devils all of sick men; and throughout a care-free lifetime swears by Rabelais as passing wise, and therefore jolly;—not that man is fitted to sit down on tombstones, and break the green damp mould with unfathomably wondrous Solomon.              

But even Solomon, he says, ‘the man that wandereth out of the way of understanding shall remain’ (i.e. even while living) ‘in the congregation of the dead.’ Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he forever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.

–Melville, Moby Dick, ch. XCVI


Transcendentalists = Jedi Hippie Boy Scouts

Hey there, would-be American Lit mongers!  Is “transcendentalists” too much of a mouthful?  Here’s what I tell people to help them picture who these mid 19th century whackadoos were.

Think of a Jedi: empowered by spiritual communion with a nebulous universal essence.  Then, think of a hippie: an iconoclastic rebel who wants only to be at peace with all.  Finally, add a Boy Scout: an innocent survivalist with unbounded reverence for nature.

That pretty much adds up to Emerson and Thoreau!




Quotes, Pics, And Clips II

ARTS:  One of my favorite songs is Peter Gabriel’s “Book of Love.”  The singer here grumbles about the confusing various faces of love, alternating between praise for the bracingly ennobling nature of romantic love (“some of it’s just transcendental”) and the heartbreak of disappointment and disillusionment (“some of it’s just really dumb”).  The chorus, however, proclaims the singer’s ultimate devotion to the mature relationship that produces this weird magic.

I’ve read some purist critics say they prefer the original by indie band The Magnetic Fields, but two things make Gabriel’s cover superior.  First is the addition of some understated strings, which can add to a song that’s already reflective a profoundly nostalgic dimension (case in point: R.E.M.’s “Nightswimming”).  Second, Gabriel’s voice.  It sounds weary throughout, perhaps from being burdened by intense emotional experience, but in the choruses it climbs into a realm of subdued power that sounds like sandpaper soaked in whiskey. 

Surprisingly, there aren’t very many good videos for this song on YouTube.  One decent version is set to scenes from 2005’s Pride and Prejudice.  Most every melancholy love song has a YouTube video made of scenes from this movie.  Also available are a few amateur covers, most of which are actually quite good.  Below is one set to some well chosen companion images. 

EDUCATION:  “Everyone ought to have the opportunity to transcend the limitations of his linguistic environment, if it is a restricted one–which means he ought to meet a few schoolmarms in his childhood…It is fatuous to expect that the most complex of human faculties, language, requires no special training to develop it to its highest possible power.”  -Theodore Dalrymple, “The Gift of Language,” City Journal, Autumn 2006

HUMOR:  excerpted from “Anticlimactic Twilight Zone Episodes,” by Jim Stallard, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, 8/5/05:

Eye of the Beholder

In a hospital, her head completely wrapped in bandages, a young woman waits for the result of a last-ditch operation to alter her disfigured face so she will not have to be sent to live at a reservation of outcasts. Throughout the episode, the viewer hears the voices of the doctors and bedside family members but never sees their faces. When the bandages are finally removed, they reveal a plain-faced woman with several visible scars. The woman’s father says the surgeon probably did the best he could under the circumstances and sends his daughter to Sarah Lawrence.

LANGUAGE AND LITERATURE:  “No man can write well who thinks there is any choice of words for him.  The laws of composition are as strict as those of sculpture & architecture.  There is always one line that ought to be drawn or one proportion that should be kept & every other line or proportion is wrong, & so far as it deviates from this.  So in writing, there is always a right word, & every other than that is wrong.  There is no beauty in words except in their collocation.  The effect of a fanciful word misplaced, is like that of a horn of exquisite polish growing on a human head.”  -Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journal, July 8, 1831


LIFE has loveliness to sell,
     All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
     Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And children’s faces looking up
Holding wonder like a cup. 
Life has loveliness to sell,
     Music like a curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
     Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit’s still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night. 
Spend all you have for loveliness,
     Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
     Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.

               -Sara Teasdale, “Barter,” 1917

POLITICS AND SOCIETY:  “Human beings love freedom much less than equality.  And they love it much less because, flowing into collectivism, equality relieves the individual from the burden of responsibility.  Because equality does not demand the sacrifice that freedom demands, does not require the courage that freedom requires.”  -Oriana Fallaci, The Force of Reason

RELIGION:  “To be redeemed is to be atoned. From this it should be clear what kind of onenessis meant by the Atonement—it is being received by the Lord in a close embrace of the returning prodigal son, expressing not only forgiveness but oneness of heart and mind that amounts to identity, like a literal family identity as John sets it forth so vividly in chapters 14 through 17 of his Gospel.”  -Hugh Nibley, “The Meaning of the Atonement,” Approaching Zion (see also here)