I had to give a lecture today about American Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Emerson, Thoreau and the like. This lecture is usually pretty easy and I normally enjoy it very much. Today, however, much of what I love in Emerson and even Thoreau seemed different. The can-do attitude that, following the British Romantics, embraced the everyman and shunned the establishment, elitism and tradition had gone a bit stale. The anti-intellectualism, however intellectually stimulating in all sorts of interesting ways, seemed slightly offensive. The Yankee version of German Idealism was still fine, and it was wonderful, as always, to explore the possible implications of the universal mind we see animated into communities in Emerson’s amazing prose. His language never grows old even if some of the things he wrote seemed off today.
Transcendentalism served a need at the time. In the lecture, I illustrated this with Fitz Hugh Ludlow’s lament in The Hasheesh Eater (1857) about the narrow-mindedness of empirical science:
The Transcendentalists are, indeed, climbers over, as their name signifies, yet not over sound reasoning nor the definite principles of truth, but over that ring-fence of knowledge brought in through mere physical passages, with which a tyrannous oligarchy of reasoners would circumscribe all our wanderings in search of facts and laws.
In this passage, Ludlow was voicing the view that the world was more than a materialist perspective can assume. We do not have to revert to mysticism to see this in Transcendentalist thought. Emerson’s passionate calls for a new American culture pointed out that we are all connected by language and language, in turn, is connected to the world and spirit. In “Nature” (1836), he wrote that words are not merely linguistic codes. They send us back to nature. Nature, in turn, is not merely a pile of material. It is also spiritual. To put all this in more modern language, there is a relationship between the world, language and the human mind that is forever in motion. It is not a simple subject-object relationship. If it were, nothing would ever change. We would forever be subjects staring at objects.
What we see changes us, that changes how we see the world, which in turn changes the world as it is seen by us, and so on. The best part is that this mechanism can be reverse-engineered. We can imagine a new world, a new culture, one that is ours and ours alone, and make it happen. There is virtually nothing holding us back. No tradition or status quo can resist an idea once it becomes powerful enough. The human world, in a very real sense, is made of language. This does not mean there are magic words we can say to make the world into whatever we please. However, together we can shape it and change it – if we only have the language with which we can imagine it together. The possibilities are endless.
The language Emerson talked about was the language of the common man. It is frighteningly powerful, because it unites us all into a collection of minds that are virtually one single organism. In “History” (1841), Emerson wrote:
There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same. He that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate. What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has be-fallen any man, he can understand. Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is the only and sovereign agent.
Go read Plato and you will understand him the same way Plato’s first students understood him. Think of a friend in distress and you will know his distress. We share our existence with others in a way that is almost embarrassingly intimate. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise, an Emersonian orator might want to add. You know what it is like to be the Other. It is a trippy idea and quite convincing dressed in Emerson’s beautiful rhetoric.
However, “History” ends with a passage that has caused me sleepless nights. Emerson said:
Broader and deeper we must write our annals, — from an ethical reformation, from an influx of the ever new, ever sanative conscience, — if we would trulier express our central and wide-related nature, instead of this old chronology of selfishness and pride to which we have too long lent our eyes. Already that day exists for us, shines in on us at unawares, but the path of science and of letters is not the way into nature. The idiot, the Indian, the child, and unschooled farmer’s boy, stand nearer to the light by which nature is to be read, than the dissector or the antiquary.
What he said is subversive, revolutionary and frightening. The old order has to fall and be replaced with something less and more than science and letters. With a preacher’s fervor, Emerson handed over the role of our conduit to nature to the idiot and the unschooled. I cannot reason away his anti-intellectualism here, nor do I think one should.
Is it a wonder we have seen Trump’s clumsy rhetoric win over the voters? Changes had to be made, we were told. The old status quo had to fall. The language of the common man was the vehicle which made it possible to reignite the spark in the hearts of those who still believed in the Great Experiment Emerson sketched out in his speeches and essays. As far as I can see, those who stood behind Trump did the right thing by their own traditions when the flag was flown. I do not like the way things turned out at all myself, but I can see why they turned out the way they did. The clown politician, the idiot, was the one who, in the minds of many, spoke the truth, and they followed.
In the end, it all comes down to faith, as always. But the elections have also shown the world the power of a tradition that started out as a way of destroying old traditions in favor of the new. It will turn on itself again soon enough. In the meantime, I think everyone should brush up on their rhetoric and study the tradition to end all traditions very carefully. The next turn of the wheel should not come as a surprise even if it is impossible to predict what exactly will happen when it happens.