28 November 2010

Experience

I have been considering that we (by which I mean ‘I’) organize much of life in the attempt to deal with inevitable loss. I think that we construct a life not only to fruitlessly protect us from loss but from ever having to acknowledge it. That is, the central event of our (my) existence is loss, and we devote much thought and energy avoiding loss and in subconscious avoidance of the acknowledgement of it. Every moment lived is immediately lost and forever irrecoverable. I am immersed in the joy of the moment but it soon will be gone. I take the moment’s photo and place it conspicuously on a mantelpiece or paste it less obviously in a book. And so too even with the grief that I feel: it too will be lost unless I carry it always in which case I can do nothing else bearing its weight, or I must divide my experience between the grief I maintain and the present activity that does not have commerce with grief. And I am also considering what it is I must do to preserve it, for what I do is all that remains of the grief. Grief is a burden I cannot bear. Perhaps this is what Emerson means when he says in “Experience,” “So is it with calamity; it does not touch me; something which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me nor enlarged without enriching me falls off from me and leaves no scar . . . I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.” For Emerson, if there are no scars, then if there was a rend, it has left no trace. He remains whole, and experience is not what he has and upon which he reflects, but in what he presently engages. His grief that has left no scar is not part of experience.
But I think that Emerson is ingenuous: to protect his grief he writes about his grief. His writing carries him into the next moment where the grief cannot touch him, though I suspect that it is his grief that makes necessary the writing. It is the permanence of change, an apt synonym for loss, that protects Emerson and ensures that he remains whole. That is, though everything must be eventually lost, this surety ensures his ability to go on even though this awareness is “the plaint of tragedy.”
Acquisition in the capitalist system is endless and finally unsatisfying—else why the perpetual urge to acquire. Here, there is no end to the goods I can purchase; here, there is no limit to what I can obtain.  But I think that our lives cannot be about acquisition because whatever we acquire is inevitably lost. And acquiring doesn’t fulfill desire but only gives it an outlet. And what we acquire is in some sense always lost. And so we either continue to obtain and provide us the illusion of permanence, or we do something else to assuage our sense of loss. Can I say that the wholeness of my life is constructed on the understanding of loss.
More than “Self-Reliance,” more than the “American Scholar,” essays that every school child must read and believein “Experience” Emerson struggles to assert the power of the individual to create her life wholly and his belief in the centrality of the moment even in the face of insuperable loss. Emerson suggests that the grief he experienced as a result of the deaths of his wife, his brother and his dear five-year-old son, had not, in fact, touched him. Emerson argues that he is not diminished by these losses but remains whole and completely available still to experience. Ironically, perhaps, he is thinking himself to mental health. Though he writes that “intellectual tasting of life will not supersede muscular activity (an implied criticism of the Brook Farm experiment where the noblest theory of life would not move a plough), in fact, it is his intellect that saves him. He avers that there is nothing to be learned from grief, and that it leads us nowhere. Outside the moment, nothing exists, though outside the moment things can be brought into existence. I think the first elementthe moment he calls “power,’ and the second element, that which is created in the moment, he calls ‘Form.’ Emerson says, “These must be kept in some balance: a man is a golden impossibility. The line he must walk is a hair’s breadth. The wise through excess of wisdom is made a fool.” Isn’t that Hamlet’s problem: let me not think on it, and then I might act! But I cannot act without thought and then the moment is lost.
Even the words I write now are an attempt not to lose the moment and to somehow futilely preserve it.  The attempt is valiant but useless: the word remains but the moment it attempts to preserve is gone.
Isn’t this the problem that sent Thoreau out to Walden: he wanted to learn what was the least he needed to live so that he needn’t spend his time acquiring that for which he had no need. Hence, his decision to discard the paper weight he had been given as a gift because he discovered that it accumulated dust to which he must attend and he had other priorities. All the wealth a person acquires doesn’t raise the stature of a single person until s/he starts to actually ‘lose’ some of it, these days mostly in philanthropic activities. But of course, they have so much to begin with that the philanthropy has no consequence and is not in fact, actually a loss.
Experience is a very complex essay, and when I read it I am engaged in experience. When I think about the essay—even when I write about it—I am engaged in experience. And I think that this is the very thin line that a human must walk. Experience is not what we know in reflection but rather, what is now and is soon passed. And when I consider it or write about it, the ‘experience’ is gone and I am engaged in experience. It is impossible. Grief falls off me and does not touch me.
I wish it were so easy. 

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

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15 December, 2010 12:17  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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14 February, 2011 10:27  
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15 February, 2011 08:59  
Blogger A. Alan Block said...

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15 February, 2011 12:42  
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