17 March 2016

From Emerson's "Compensation"

I’m not exactly certain how I came to purchase the two volume complete works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1929), containing “all of his inspiring Essays, Lectures, Poems, Addresses, Studies, Biographical Sketches and Miscellaneous Works.” I am certain it was in the Used Books section of amazon.com and I think I must have needed it for some reason. Somewhere I quote something from the two volumes, but I can’t recall for what reason. I think it was the essay on Intellect . . .
     But I felt this week that I might return to him—if I could choose another moment to live in that my present one I would reside in Concord, Massachusetts when the likes of Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott, Hawthorne, and Channing roamed the town and woods. I experience such pleasure in the time I spend there now in my imagination and intellect. And so yesterday I devoted a bit of the cloudy afternoon in “Compensation,” an essay in Emerson’s First Series. No particular reason for choosing that essay . . . but it satisfied.
     I want to think of two moments in the essay that struck me: I read best when I am struck by moments in the text. Usually these are moments when the text offers what I oft thought myself but ne’er so well expressed; or when the text contradicts my thought. Sometimes a thought burrows through some thickness to shed light on something about which I might have been considering or even dreaming. These fragments seemed to do it all. Emerson writes: “Every excess causes a defect; every defect an excess. Every sweet has its sour; every evil its good. Every faculty which is a receiver of pleasure has an equal penalty put on its abuse.”  Nothing is without its other, its opposite: nothing exists by itself. Emerson calls this state of things a dualism, suggesting that the world is split into Manichean opposites, but then it must also be true that nothing is what it seems to be but already contains its other. Everything is somehow connected to everything else even if only in language. Spinoza might have referred to these seeming opposites as various modes of substance: that substance is a unity. For Spinoza substance that which cannot be other: God.
     And the second moment in the essay continues this theme that I want to almost border on the ironic: if nothing is itself then what is it? Georgia Albert suggests that irony is the “simultaneous presence of two meanings between which it is not possible to decide.” Irony is not saying one thing and meaning its opposite: here irony is simultaneously the thing and its opposite. Its identity derives from its other. So if within sweet is the sour, then I have to ask of what does sweet consist? And vice versa. And then Emerson says, “There is a crack in everything God has made.” There is no perfection in the world, and everything comes with a price. This law is fatal, Emerson declares: “that in nature nothing can be given, all things are sold.” We must purchase those things we would have: we are not in Eden. Compensation.
     The OED says that compensation refers to “counterbalance, the rendering of an equivalent.” Here Emerson’s title refers to the balancing of what are considered opposites and rendering them the same. If compensation means the rendering of an equivalent, then good and bad are the same! Hamlet: “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” And the OED says that in the field of Mechanics compensation refers to the balancing of forces, and the idea of compensation in Emerson’s essay might mean that though there is in the universe no perfection, the imperfections all result in some cosmic equilibrium. “The world looks like a multiplication table, or a mathematical equation, which, turn it how you will, balances itself,” Emerson writes. Interestingly, perhaps, whereas Einstein said that God does not play dice with the universe, Emerson says “The dice of God are always loaded.” The number always comes up the same.
     Finally, as Shakespeare developed the word (1606), compensation meant “That which is given in recompense, an equivalent rendered . . .” And this accords with Emerson’s belief that “every new transaction alters according to its nature their relation to each other.” No deed is pure: every transaction must be paid for: hence, the crack in everything. Every deed demands compensation: nothing happens without consequences for which responsibility must be taken.   


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