Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Ralph Waldo Emerson Anticipates the Information Age

Excerpts from the following, taken from Emerson's essay Friendship, used to form the signature line of my e-mails:

Why should we desecrate noble and beautiful souls by intruding on them? Why insist on rash personal relations with your friend? Why go to his house, or know his mother and brother and sisters? Why be visited by him at your own? Are these things material to our covenant? Leave this touching and clawing. Let him be to me a spirit. A message, a thought, a sincerity, a glance from him, I want, but not news, nor pottage. I can get politics, and chat, and neighbourly conveniences from cheaper companions. Should not the society of my friend be to me poetic, pure, universal, and great as nature itself? Ought I to feel that our tie is profane in comparison with yonder bar of cloud that sleeps on the horizon, or that clump of waving grass that divides the brook? Let us not vilify, but raise it to that standard. That great, defying eye, that scornful beauty of his mien and action, do not pique yourself on reducing, but rather fortify and enhance. Worship his superiorities; wish him not less by a thought, but hoard and tell them all. Guard him as thy counterpart. Let him be to thee for ever a sort of beautiful enemy, untamable, devoutly revered, and not a trivial conveniency to be soon outgrown and cast aside. The hues of the opal, the light of the diamond, are not to be seen, if the eye is too near. To my friend I write a letter, and from him I receive a letter. That seems to you a little. It suffices me. It is a spiritual gift worthy of him to give, and of me to receive. It profanes nobody. In these warm lines the heart will trust itself, as it will not to the tongue, and pour out the prophecy of a godlier existence than all the annals of heroism have yet made good.
'Real people' have been reducible to representation -- correspondence, thoughts, influences, whisps of memory, associated phrases -- since at least Emerson's time. And then along came Saussure, Wittgenstein, and the rest of The Linguistic Turn, and it's been nothing but representation ever since. Sigh.

I was almost managing to call forth a this bit of Emerson a few days ago when discussing Ophelia Benson's musings on the 'realness' of fictional characters. I don't think I put it strongly enough: the idea that a fictional character would fail to strike us as 'real' seems odd indeed (assuming we're talking about a richly-drawn or otherwise interesting one). Why shouldn't they? How many people in our lives are something more than representation? And of those, what is the more in question, and what does it amount to?

It is only through a good deal of conscious effort that I can temper the experience of walking out of a movie theatre or closing a book and expecting, subliminally or not so subliminally, the continuation of the fictional world. I can easily enough convince myself that I am not surrounded by, say, mafioso, knights, cowboys, cops, or robots, but I am far from sure their world won't enlarge my inventory of the human experience and surface later; which is to say, when that later comes in whatever form it comes, and I am called upon to apply my experience to guide my interpretation of a novel human event, I will be powerless to distinguish real from fictional experience. Maybe whatever I've internalized from my mother will aid me; maybe whatever I've internalized from Macbeth will aid me; I don't know how I could know which.


Gordon Carter said...

I'm caught with the effort it takes to, in my case, to remain seated rather than stand at the playing of the British national anthem. It's the words rather than the music...God save the queen, send her victorious, long to reign over us etc...

If there were to be a God he could be better utilised to release us Brits from the aweful reminder that we were, and in the minds of those who matter still are an imperial nation, still clinging to the haunting 'Rule Britannia'

Dale said...

Gordon, you're surely not the only one to be swept up in a song whose provenance and lyrics that you would be embarrassed to embrace under more sober circumstances. There's something about music, and something about pomp, and the combination can be overwhelming. You're forgiven. ;-)