Making Sense of Trump with Emerson

emersonI 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.


Finishing a Book: Part 5


There is a large construction site next to my office. The symbolism is not lost on me. If I am to finish this book, I will have to put aside more time in my schedule. It is full as it is and thanks to the crisis in funding the present government has caused in Finnish universities I have taken on more translation work. The hammer could fall at any time. Until the government figures out cutting education means cutting the competitive edge of the country and the future of its economy (which is the same as making cuts to the present economy), things will stay the same. Finland, a Protestant country where suffering is a virtue in itself, has swallowed austerity with little to no criticism.

I did receive advice that basically boils down to: sleep less! I think this is necessary sometimes and lately I have worked very late nights followed by an early morning, but it is very difficult to get used to four hours of sleep a night. At least I would suffer from lack of sleep. That’s good, right? Seriously though, in this line of work your head needs to work properly and without proper sleep it would be impossible to function. Imagine lecturing in front of a hundred people when you are just about to fall asleep — it happens sometimes and it sucks. Or trying to organize the terminology and overall structure of a technical manual or a legal text. Or writing a book. Work becomes slow and the worker unproductive. Besides, even the construction workers get to go home at night.


Finishing a Book: Part 4

WP_20161028_16_18_05_Pro.jpgI am so busy with work that finding time for the book was as difficult today as it was yesterday. I did manage to take my whiteboard to the office. It really is a surprisingly effective tool that can help you jot down ideas quickly and develop them further in a fairly spontaneous manner. There are three ideas for three articles on mine at the moment which I will plan on the board soon. Unfortunately, only one of them is directly related to the book, but it never hurts to have a few ideas going, especially if they do not have deadlines attached to them.

WP_20161028_18_34_00_Pro.jpgAt the office, I found that I was slightly too comfortable in my new surroundings and spent a lot of my time relaxing with YouTube videos and silly articles.The Internet is wonderful, but it does eat away at your time. Like the Langoliers from that horrible Stephen King miniseries. When I left the office today I felt very drowsy, tripped on the stairs and almost fell on my face. Pulse racing, I literally stumbled upon a bizarre light show projected from what I presume used to be a guard’s shack. A light shone on one of the buildings they used to guard when there was industry in Suvilahti. Bizarrely, I tend to think that if I focus a hundred percent on a project like the one I’m in the process of starting, I will not notice these little everyday miracles. Perhaps it’s better to think that the miracles are always out there whether you notice them or not. I guess they call it faith.

Finishing a Book: Part 3

wp_20161027_23_04_19_proTeaching and other things stole most of my time today, so I did not have much to think about the book. I decided to finish a book review in order to write something and it is turning out to be something very different from what I normally write. This time, the journal’s editor asked me if there was something I wanted to review instead of simply suggesting a title. I said I would like to review Dustin Griffin’s Authorship in the Long Eighteenth Century. Not sure why I said that. I guess I really liked the book, but I honestly did not think that far ahead. Thinking about the book, I decided that there should be something that links my previous research to my own book project, but found only a weak tangent to do the job. This will have to do.

The main point of Griffin’s book, as I read it, is that we too often tell ourselves cartoonish stories about topics like the Birth and Death of the Author. There are no representatives of the pure categories of the gentleman author who just writes for pleasure and the career hack who writes for money, for example. Not in the real world. There has to be more attention to detail than that in order to make claims about authorship in the eighteenth century. Scholarship does not boil down to a few talking points and grand stories about how concept X has been transformed over time from point A to point B. You cannot rely on knowing just a few tricks of form in order to complete a study like this. Nor is doing this type of research like passing your midterms, writing a term paper or even a thesis. There is a broad claim in Griffin’s book, but it is not that important. With forty years of experience behind him, his command of his materials is convincing and his perspective on his discipline is incredibly deep. It is a book of what the author himself calls a “careful historian” who is more interested in the personalities behind a dedicatory poem than the grand essence of someone’s imagined idea of what an author is or should be like.

I may never be able to write a book that is this mature. I realized this today while sitting at a table surrounded by the loveliest bunch of philosophers and philosophy enthusiasts you will ever find anywhere. Two or three minutes of staring into the void and everything was fine again. The company of the niin & näin crowd and the location of the party — a tea shop I had never noticed but was obviously the nicest and coziest little tea shop in Helsinki — helped me get over it. Walking back home in miserable weather felt fine. Feeling tired and blank was fine. Everything was fine: I would meet my deadlines, get the word count up to a decent number, maybe add that extra chapter, finish everything in time. And if I didn’t, who cares? I have been taught to resent feelings of contentment that run this deep, but it’s impossible to resent them when your friends are just so damn cute.

Finishing a Book: Part 2

wp_20161026_11_04_02_proThe new office seems nice. The guys who rented a space for me include people who publish a well-known Finnish journal. It has a warehouse vibe and is located where the übercool Flow Festival takes place every summer – we get free access, I’m told. There is a café nearby that is supposed to be great and a pub I know is one of the best in Helsinki. My new friends at the office told me there is a nice lunch place next to ours. There are Keith Haring stickers on the wall next to my desk, but I’m sure they are an ironic comment on 90s fashion and not an attempt to be actually fashionable.

The area is very industrial and no doubt very hip, but it also means it is quite basic. I am not looking for luxury. Nor am I fazed by the inevitable accusations of hipsterdom. Although it must be said I was shocked to discover recently that a Helsinki brochure labeled our neighborhood a “Hipsterområdet”, a hipster area.wp_20160918_17_29_50_pro

For anyone visiting the city, that usually translates into better coffee and better beer, but we don’t really have much of that. You need to know your way around and for that I recommend you acquire the services of a local guide. I could help you with the coffees.

My first job at the office was to settle in and translate a job I got through an agency. While translating, I ended up thinking that people in publishing seem to work really hard and on salaries that are rarely worth their input. Their reward is the finished product, something beautiful at the end of the process. While thinking about this and translating a news bulletin about an award given to someone at a networking event (or whatever) I noticed that my cynicism against the business world is slowly being eroded. These are mostly people who are trying their best to make a living and have a quiet air of despair that drives them to make contact with others. Unlike literary scholars and people in publishing I know, they never seem to break character or admit that we are all trying to do the same thing. Or that most of us fail in the end.


Maybe a nice cup of coffee or a beer really is the best we can do to enjoy ourselves while waiting for the inevitable. I think that is more  or less the conclusion R. Jay Magill, Jr. reaches in his hipster book Sincerity. In any case, everything should now be in place. I have stuff to work with and a place where I can do it. I am appropriately world-weary, have a desperate feeling in my gut accompanied by a feeling of self-loathing shimmering in the back of my skull. Suvilahti feels like a home away from home.

Finishing a Book: Part 1

wp_20161025_20_26_28_proFor two years, I did research for a scholarly book that has been set aside for a while. Due to a recent revelation about how it should be structured, I have now decided to push through and finish it whatever it takes. Most of the research is done and there will be little if anything added to the materials. As much as I and my colleagues love to talk about research, there is also the practical work of bringing it all together in a finished product. What does it take to finish a book? I do editing work on the side and have enough experience to know what has to be done. I know the materials inside out. Everything should be in place for this thing to just emerge page after nicely edited page.

Unfortunately, it is not that easy. Some of the things needed to get there are easy to fix. To get things organized, my files have now been ordered in separate folders according to their corresponding chapters. There is no real need for this, but it helps me to see the structure of the book and what needs to be done next. (Picking through files can be productive sometimes: I found a sketch of an article I had put aside for later.) I bought a whiteboard which has turned out to be a really useful tool for sketching out ideas quickly. It will be of great help, I’m sure. I bought a new laptop that can handle more or less anything I throw at it. My old one was disintegrating anyway, so the investment was worth it.

I have been getting bits and pieces done while commuting or in between jobs. I have worked on it at home. It would get done eventually, but it looks like I cannot finish the book in any reasonable schedule in this haphazard fashion. Some people can do it, bless them, but I get distracted very easily. I was fortunate enough to find a workspace at an office building nearby. I shall visit the place tomorrow and report back. It is wonderful to work from home, but getting up and going to your desk at work is something I find I need. I waste far too much time at home. The rent sounds reasonable enough.

Finally, there is this blog which I will use as a journal to document whatever is going on with the project. I do not expect anyone to find it riveting reading, but if someone wants to act as my superego, feel free to do so. Mostly the journal is here to make me more aware of the things I am doing in order to advance the book.

How to Practice Singing and Playing the Guitar at the Same Time

I recently wrote a few songs at home and recorded them on my laptop. I sent them to a friend who wanted to get together and play them. It was all very exciting until I realized I had never sung them while playing the guitar parts. The tracks were recorded separately and now I had to figure out a way to juggle the vocals and the guitar at the same time. A Google search shows that there are many tips on how to do this online, but here is one trick I found helps.

One particular song was a nightmare. The guitar part was an arpeggio with passing notes that followed the melody. However, it was played in a very loose manner, had a few more notes than the melody and used a few triplets for effect. Basically, I had to do a solo while singing the verse. The melody on top was a more straightforward 4/4 affair, but combining it with the guitar part seemed impossible at first. It seemed like I would have to play way too many notes, I kept messing up the guitar part and singing was extremely difficult because I had to think too much about what I was doing to concentrate on the lyrics. You have to put some thought into practicing this kind of thing.

First, you obviously have to know the guitar parts, song melody and lyrics very well. The objective is to find a pattern between them that makes them click. In the beginning, it is important to focus on the first beat of each bar so it will be easier to chop up the verse and its phrases into smaller parts you can analyze and work on while you practice. In the case of the song here, I noticed that there was a pull-off that appeared at the middle of a phrase that was giving me trouble. And here comes the trick. I took a pen and circled each syllable on my lyrics sheet where this pull-off occurred. In my mind I was stressing the pull-off and the syllable, but of course listeners would not hear it. It simply anchored my attention so I could orientate myself between the triplets and sung phrases. Because I knew the lyrics and the guitar part so well to begin with, everything else clicked into place around this one pull-off and its corresponding syllable.

I have never had to map every single syllable like this and I do not think it would be a practical way of approaching a song unless the song is a complicated Zappa tune or something. But taking a pen and making a few notes can help a lot. The brain looks for patterns and giving it something to grasp onto can nudge everything into place.