26 June 2017

A Nod and a Wink to Ralph Waldo Emerson


It might be true in the words of Kohelet that there is nothing new under the sun. I had been enamored of Dorothea Brooke’s declaration to Mrs. Cadwallader that “I never called everything by the same name that all the people about me did.” I was thinking that the role of the teacher might be to not call things by the same names as did others, and I worked happily thinking I had formed a new idea that were it to be heeded might transform education! How interesting, I thought. So original, I thought.
     And then I read that in 1902 John Dewey had written “Solution comes only by getting away from the meaning of terms that is already fixed upon and coming to see the conditions from another point of view, and hence in a fresh light.” Dewey was advocating not to call things by the same names as others. But perhaps he had gotten the idea from George Eliot. And certainly, the idea preceded Dewey’s declaration in The Child and Society.
     In his belief in and quest for the unified theory, Einstein said that God did not play dice with the universe. I think that Einstein was suggesting that there is order to the universe and that occurrences happened not by chance but by design. If I remember, Einstein was responding to the advent of quantum mechanics. And in his essay, “Compensation,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The dice of God are always loaded . . .” Emerson declared that God knew exactly what God was about: if God played with loaded dice then God always knew what the outcome of the game would be.
     In his song, “Anthem” Leonard Cohen declares, “There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” For Cohen the world’s flaws become virtues. And in the essay, “Compensation,” Emerson writes “There is a crack in everything God has made.” Emerson suggests that perfection does not exist, and that everything has its price that must be paid. If everything in Nature comes at a cost, then every engagement in our lives requires some form of compensation.
     There is Walter Benjamin’s “Thesis on the Philosophy of History.” In the essay Benjamin writes that the face of the Angel of History is turned toward the past. Where we see in that past a series of events, the angel sees only one huge catastrophe. The Angel would like to stay and to make whole what has been smashed, but a storm blows from Paradise propelling the Angel into the future even as the pile of detritus continues to grow skyward. That storm, Benjamin says, is Progress! But progress is an illusion: the angel’s face is turned toward the past which cannot be repaired even as the storm from Paradise blows him into the Future though his gaze remains fixed on the past. And Emerson again: in “Compensation,” writes of the human condition in a prose that is, I think, weighted heavy with irony, “We do not believe there is any force in to-day to rival or recreate that beautiful yesterday . . . We cannot stay amid the ruins. Neither will we rely on the new. And so we walk ever with reverted eyes like those monsters who look backwards . . .” We move forward blindly into a future we would not see even as we romanticize the held beauty of the past.
     Finally, in Camus’ The Plague Father Paneloux acknowledges that regardless of how anyone conceptualizes the existence of the plague, what is essential is that each “must be the one who stays.” The plague must be met with resistance and we define ourselves by our struggle with the pandemic. What is the plague but life and life only! And in his essay “Fate,” Emerson wrote, “Go face the fire at sea, or the cholera in your friend’s house, or the burglar in your own, or what danger lies in the way of duty.” Emerson urges us to be the one who enters life fully and stays engaged. Thoreau, too, argued that “However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names.” Be the one who stays!

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