Because I’ve been teaching Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays, “The Poet” and “The American Scholar,” I’ve been spending a good bit of time over at rwe.org, which describes itself as “The Internet’s Complete Guide to the Life and Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson.” The description is awfully modest for a site devoted to a thinker whom literary theorist Harold Bloom described as “God,” but it is also awfully accurate. Indeed, every time I visit rwe.org, I find myself thinking wistfully, “What if everything on the web devoted to literature were actually this good, this complete, this organized, this useful?”
Would that it were so, but the net’s strength tends to be volume while quality, completeness, and organization are hit and miss. Of course, a lot of these things depend on not only copyright laws, but also on attracting a devoted following willing to do the work necessary. By every evidence, and not just that of Harold Bloom, the cult of Emerson remains strong. The Emersonians over at rwe.org have clearly done a great work for all of us by creating a digital monument to this most seminal of American thinkers.
Which is itself an irony and an occasion for thought. In the first place, Emerson wasn’t much given to monuments or to being monumental. In the second place, what exactly would this thinker who believed immersion in nature was the first responsibility of “Man Thinking” think about our dependence on technology, our bleary-eyed devotion to the glowing screen, our aching backs as we bend over our keyboards, our pasty complexions that testify that we have all but forgotten the existence of the sun.
My first guess is that he would be appalled by both his own monumentuality, and by our unnatural lives. Though, at the same time, it isn’t impossible to imagine Emerson as the God of not only Harold Bloom, but the first progenitor of netizens everywhere.
My sense of Emerson’s displeasure centers on Emerson’s general disease with reading. This from “The American Scholar”:
The theory of books is noble. The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again. It came into him, life; it went out from him, truth. It came to him, short-lived actions; it went out from him, immortal thoughts. It came to him, business; it went from him, poetry. It was dead fact; now, it is quick thought. It can stand, and it can go. It now endures, it now flies, it now inspires. Precisely in proportion to the depth of mind from which it issued, so high does it soar, so long does it sing.
Yet hence arises a grave mischief. The sacredness which attaches to the act of creation, — the act of thought, — is transferred to the record. The poet chanting, was felt to be a divine man: henceforth the chant is divine also. The writer was a just and wise spirit: henceforward it is settled, the book is perfect; as love of the hero corrupts into worship of his statue. Instantly, the book becomes noxious: the guide is a tyrant. The sluggish and perverted mind of the multitude, slow to open to the incursions of Reason, having once so opened, having once received this book, stands upon it, and makes an outcry, if it is disparaged. Colleges are built on it. Books are written on it by thinkers, not by Man Thinking; by men of talent, that is, who start wrong, who set out from accepted dogmas, not from their own sight of principles. Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books.
Hence, instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm. Hence, the book-learned class, who value books, as such; not as related to nature and the human constitution, but as making a sort of Third Estate with the world and the soul. Hence, the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomaniacs of all degrees.
(From RWE.org – The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson)
I wish I had thought of the name “Bibliomaniac” when I was getting my personal blog started. The description is apt. Though for Emerson, of course, a sign of damnation. He would have detested the accompanying image from Northwestern University’s Library, however much I love it. But really, isn’t this more or less the image of not just Man Reading Books, but also Man Reading Computer Screen? (Or even Man Blogging?) Through my devotion to the thoughts and words of others, I drift gradually from my own authenticity, my own innate and good self-expression, my personal experience of the Over-Soul. To be derivative is to be damned, and the only sure way to avoid derivation is to not read at all.
Well, to be sure, Emerson doesn’t go quite this far. But he was suspicious of the obeisance we give to thinkers of old. Written when he was a relatively young man, he probably didn’t give a lot of thought to the fact that he, like all flesh living, was on the way to becoming a thinker of old. And he could not have imagined me poring over and ingesting his words like a bookworm as I prepare to teach a class on him as one of the monumental literary theorist of the nineteenth century.
(Sidebar: What metaphor must we now use in place of bookworm in the world of pixels? A computer virus? Another term like “typewriter” that my someday-grandchildren will not recollect and will marvel at as an index of my age and lack of cool. Who am I kidding—my son already marvels at these things. Of course, if we give up reading altogether, spending all our time blogging, we won’t have to worry about having a different word. )
But there is a place for good reading in Emerson, and as I’ve suggested elsewhere, it has something to do with reading as a creative act. Says Emerson.
I would not be hurried by any love of system, by any exaggeration of instincts, to underrate the Book. We all know, that, as the human body can be nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so the human mind can be fed by any knowledge. And great and heroic men have existed, who had almost no other information than by the printed page. I only would say, that it needs a strong head to bear that diet. One must be an inventor to read well. As the proverb says, “He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry out the wealth of the Indies.” There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world. We then see, what is always true, that, as the seer’s hour of vision is short and rare among heavy days and months, so is its record, perchance, the least part of his volume. The discerning will read, in his Plato or Shakspeare, only that least part, — only the authentic utterances of the oracle; — all the rest he rejects, were it never so many times Plato’s and Shakspeare’s.
I think this kind of thing, along with Emerson’s deeply felt sense of the interconnections of the immediate world with a world beyond—and with everything else in the world–is where people get the idea that Emerson was some kind of ancient God of the blogosphere. Indeed, Christopher Lydon a few years back said just this thing in an extended blog post called “A God for Bloggers.” The post at its original site is long gone, but is copied in full here . In part, Lydon argues:
Here’s my point. When we talk about this Internet and this
blogging software, this techno-magic that encourages each of us to be
expressive voices in an open, universal network of across-the-board
conversation, we are speaking of an essentially Emersonian device for
an essentially Emersonian exercise. Starting with the
electronics. “Invent a better mousetrap,” as Emerson wrote, “and the
world will beat a path to your door.”
There’s a part of me that thinks Emerson would have loved the fact that Lydon’s post had disappeared, or almost disappeared. This is the perfect condition of reading as far as Emerson is concerned: let the book/blog have its say and go away.
To Lydon’s actual content, I want to say….yeah, kind of….but not really. In the first place, there’s a way in which the technology of blogging and reading blogs tethers us to society—Emerson’s worst dirty word—in a way that books did not, this despite the aura of freedom that surrounds computerworld.
Even with the magnificence of access, I am struck by how physically limited I am in terms of my mode of access. My computer needs a proximate cord and electricity and connections—electricity even if I have a wireless connection, and reliable wireless connections are still hard to come by. Because I know next to nothing about the workings of this machine I’m writing on, because I can do nothing to control my internet connection, because I have to have access to various levels of anonymous administrators and their vast electronic resources, I am in some sense even more dependent, more inescapably tethered to society and its mores and its conventions than Emerson could have ever imagined.
We have the lovely illusion of independent creativity in our isolation, in our loggorhea of the keyboard, in our incessant speech. It’s a little like cocaine makes the addict think he’s an all powerful sex machine. The real power is the man who provides the fix. Or doesn’t. In this case, my internet administrator, or more dumbly, the squirrel that gets itself electrocuted in the router box or powerline.
By comparison, a book is a model of self-reliance, even compared to e-books with megabatteries. I can drop my copy of Ulysses in a lake, and if I’m quick enough I can probably set it by a fire, let it dry for a while, and be just fine. Then again, if not I have a new and ready supply of toilet paper, Kleenex, and firestarter.
By comparison my daughter’s ipod died irreparably after sitting next to a sweating water bottle for thirty minutes. Sitting in the sauna today, I was wondering—can an e-book stand the heat, stand those rivers of sweat that dripped off my nose into the creases of the cheap newsprint I was perusing. Could be, but I would be afraid to try. If I ruin my newspaper I’m out three bucks. If I ruin my dedicated e-reader—the one I will supposedly buy someday—I would be out 400 plus however many hundreds of dollars of books I stored up. Emerson might well look at bloggers and e-books and the like and see not evidence of infinite expressibility, but of cows in a pen.
Not saying he would be right, but he would have reason. This cow says.
Similarly, I have my doubts about the idea that blogging, simply because it is a form of expression, is the kind of expressiveness that Emerson had in mind. Indeed, for Emerson the deadliest thing for individual authenticity was repetition, was convention. And yet, does it take very much time on the web to realize just how repetitive blogging really is, just how much of it is reaction rather than response. How much of it is profane ejaculation rather than creative reading Indeed, I’m often bemused by how many blogs are largely cut and paste jobs of other blogs. Bloggers not only don’t come up with words of their own, they explicitly and joyfully use the words of others as a substitute for words of their own.
By comparison my own blog is a paen to self-indulgence. I actually write these things myself. Mostly.
At least all this lack of originality orginates with me.
In other words, there’s a part of the net’s emphasis on collaboration and connectivity that speaks to Emerson’s optimistic view of the interconnectivity of all things. There’s another part of it that speaks to Emerson’s sense of “the sluggish and perverted mind of the multitude” , where people let groups think for them rather than thinking, and speaking, for themselves.
You don’t, of course, have to rely on me for this. Rely on yourself…and on the administrators at RWE.org, and on your computer engineer, and on your electrical grid, and on your software engineer… and on…and on. Well you get my drift.
Go over to the folks at RWE.org and read Emerson for yourself.