"...Conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his position…"
"Whoso would be a man must be a non-conformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness."
Trite, the lot of it. Perhaps that is to go too far; much of his writing seems to have elements of absolute truth in it, such as the most superb poetry always possesses. But there also remains much nonsense in all that Emerson penned. Ridiculous, the notions that individualism is the only path to peace or wellbeing and that conformity is inherently evil; that nature is inherently good. With what limited grace it is possible for me to possess, I will evaluate these honestly with what care I can.
It is possible that I pay too much attention to the drama of Emerson and thus miss his underlying message. Maybe the passages meant to catch the eyes of the reader are only inserted for the rubes and fidgeters who can not sit still for long enough to receive the proper full meaning of the writings. This, however, I do not truly believe. I believe that Emerson inserted these passages because he thought they best represent the overall, underlying theme of his work; that individualism is the root of all that is good in a single man. In theory, this is quite insightful, an excellent bit of human reconnaissance, if you will. Man is born without hatred, without anger, with only the occasional petulance and selfishness, and can be molded into something that is closer to God than beast without tremendous effort. The evidence, however, does not corroborate this view. The examples peculiar to myself seem to be quite clear to me, but I challenge you to find your own. Think back to every kindly old woman you ever met, think back to your loveliest moments with your mother, remember seeing your first example of altruism. If the meanings of these escape you, let me elaborate on these. The kindliest old woman I have ever known is practically a stereotype of all kindly old women; she has baby sat for twenty years after becoming too old to work longer, more brutal hours; she hangs pictures of her grandchildren (both blood and by work) all around her home; she is an excellent cook, as are many women of southern Appalachia background. One of the loveliest moments I have of my mother is stranger, but by no means unique to only me or only to my mother- our trip to the Grand Canyon. It remains the most beautiful sight I have ever seen with my poor mortal eyes (note I say beautiful, not the most moral, nor the most tranquil), and to describe it would dishonor such a perfect beauty: there are no words for the endless splendor of that red rock reflected by the midday sun, and there exists no camera that could ever adequately capture such natural gorgeousness. What made this trip where I experienced a wonder of the natural world possible? My mother's work. Is veterinarian ambition unique by any measure of the world? Absolutely not. In her graduating class alone there were more than one hundred men and women who were marched across the stage, many of whom were fulfilling their life long dreams of being awarded their doctorates. But Emerson poses the question that might seem impassable to this argument; is not a man more than the sum of his part? Of his work? If the cynicism is to be forgiven, I believe that a man is not more than his work, than the sum of his parts. Identity becomes inextricably linked to the working purpose of all humans eventually. Driven determination, ethics, a sense of purpose…for many, these are qualities derived from a job. To say otherwise is to not clearly state the truth. Now, cast your mind back as far as you can to the first time you ever saw a person act wholly selflessly for their fellow man without regard for their own life or wellbeing. For most, it was observing a first responder. At the age of 8, I witnessed a firefighter pull a woman from a burning car that exploded within ten minutes of getting her to safety. Even as I watched, the EMS workers on standby revived this woman to a stable state. This is not to suggest that individual heroism did not play a significant part in these proceedings, only to suggest that this heroism and altruism was instilled by standard MOs of various emergency service training programs. Man absolutely can and should be conformed, compartmentalized, and placed into boxes that do not quite fit. This gives us something to aspire to, and, even if it is outside the scope of our abilities, a thirst for more of excellence that is found in abundance between both genii and artists of the highest calibre. Only on the surface does conformity injure a man's wellbeing; below the most epicutaneous layer, there exists a deep contentment with falling in line with the crowd, with marching in step with your fellow man. Again, this is not to suggest that individualism is not a sometimes important facet of life: quality of living only improves with conformity when the individual chooses the path that he must conform to. I believe that the greatest foil to this notion of individual superiority would be the words of a man far wiser than myself: Leo Tolstoy. In Anna Karenina, Leo pontificates on the idea "that a life of rural simplicity, despite its monotony, is the preferable personal narrative to a daring life of impulsive passion, which only leads to tragedy."
And now we travel back to the Grand Canyon. I mentioned before that it was by far the most beautiful sight I had ever- have ever- seen. This is not to say that it was by any means peaceful, tranquil, or a living paradise. I am not so stupid as to gawk at such a beauty and not recognize it for the femme fatale that it is. Aggressive squirrels, trained by gullible tourists, weaved in and out of the crowd, stealing whatever they found appropriate; an old donkey broke its leg in a pothole traveling down the ravine's side, its pained bellows screeching for miles across the painted vista; the mosquitoes stung voraciously, and many people were covered in ugly red spots by the end of the day. Contrary to Emerson, I say a man who looks out into the forest and imagines tranquility has only seen the superficial aspect of such a thing. Nature is a dirty, violent place, where justice and law have no place, and the order of the jungle prevails always. Show me a man who believed that mountaineering is a peaceful pastime, and I will show you a bloodied, bruised, flea-bitten fool who has Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, with any luck at all. In nature, weaker gazelles are ripped apart effortlessly by dangerous lions; vultures pick out the tendons of slaughtered boars; rotten trees breed grubs which eventually will feast on the dead flesh of any other poor, dumb animal that dies near it. And by no means is the natural system forgiving such as any human designed system worth its salt is. It is, however, perfect at self-regulation, although its methods would be grotesque beyond comprehension, should we replace the animal subjects with humans. Take this example to be an axiom, a modus operandi, if you will, of all of God's earth: an overabundance of plant life leads to an explosion of herbivores, which in turn allows more predators to breed to feed on these herbivores. However, all systems have, in some way, a limiting factor- what this is is not important, but what is of importance is the common effect that these factors have: absolute devastation to the system, at least temporarily. Eventually, the numbers of herbivores will grow thin, either through the over abundance of hunters or due to the scarcity of the plant life. In either case, the result will be the plummeting of the predator population and the the prey population, with only the plant life blossoming back to its natural state to begin the cycle anew. Is this not a new way of seeing nature, and is it not more true than the romantic view of Emerson of nature as only a place of beauty, to be frolicked in carelessly by man? Nature governs itself with an iron fist, and effortlessly punishes the weak and different. One should only look at the horrifying form of the giant tarantula hawk and hear its weed-whacker wings to know the nature holds more than beauty. The same goes for the eyeless grub-worm, the naked molerat, the bird eating spider…the list continues ad nauseam. With this being said, neither is nature a place of evil. What is evil in the natural self-order of nature? To find wrong with it is easy, but to find what is actually evil? That would be to take what is unnatural from the natural, which cannot be done; in the words of Job. "who can make whole from what is uncompleted…who can make that which is clean from that which is unclean?" Rather, all that is natural is a force of homeostasis, entirely separate from good or evil. There is only the balance of one thing off of another, or another thing off of several. There exists some beauty in that, but it is a deadly, fierce beauty that cannot be admired with a gentle heart and disposition.
I do Emerson a disservice, I believe; his writings are, as previously stated, full of useful aphorisms and truths that are the mark of an excellent writer and high artist. He is, however, a victim to his movement of Romanticism: they saw through a glass darkly and perceived only what was light, and never mind that the shadows fell everywhere. In summary, while I admire and understand the ethic that I possess that might have been misleading to anyone witnessing me and my actions- and, mark this, the latter is far more important; "by thy deeds they shall know thee,"- to be representative of a Transcendentalist style of living and conducting oneself, it would be inaccurate and a frankly somewhat insulting portrait of myself; ask yourself: am I, or have I ever been, the type of man to stand on ceremony? To become swept up in something so esoteric as a love for the inarticulate beauty of nature that I miss obvious truth? To proclaim that virtue is something individual and found inseparably within the heart and mind of every man? No! I hope until the day my breath catches in my throat and the vultures lower their circle around me that I hold in my heart an absolute pragmatism, a feeling of, ad extremis, necessity and not beauty. Because while strict individualism is beautiful, and morality derived from individuals is bound to be diverse, such things are impossible to remain sustainable, because one man is not all of nature. He is not the rising sun and the falling tide; he does not starve predator and prey alike; he does not erupt volcanoes and send tsunamis to do his bidding. I recognize this, and reject myself as a high authority, reluctant to ever place any sort of faith in the kings and princes of this world. While I might pursue an individualism that continues, I hope I will not fall prey to the haughty, arrogant extremism that is riddled throughout Emerson's work. I hope I fall ill for the last time in a house just the right size for me. I hope I am buried unembalmed in a hole six feet long and deep, and half that wide, in earth I have disturbed myself. I hope to say to the people gathered around my sickbed: "I feel sorry for you. I have come from nothing and to nothing I will return; I have lost nothing. But you all lost something of relative value." I hope to ask my Lord if it is my time, and, receiving my response, go softly into that good night.