Quotes & Commentary #38: Emerson

Quotes & Commentary #38: Emerson

The good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the universe which runs through himself, and all things.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

While there have been many great writers who never wrote of themselves—Shakespeare comes to mind, of whom we know very little—it is certainly true that Emerson wrote reams about his cosmic self. His greatest book is his diary, an exploration of self that rivals Montaigne’s essays in depth and eloquence.

Writing about oneself, even modestly—and Emerson was not modest—inevitably involves self-mythologization. Emerson was the Homer of himself. He looked ever inward, and in his soul he found deities more alluring than Athena and battles more violent than the Trojan War. From this tumultuous inner life he created for himself a persona, a literary character, who both incorporated and transcended Emerson the man.

Everyone does this, to a certain extent. Identity is slippery, and the self is a vanishing figment of thought. As Hume pointed out, we are really just a floating observer embroiled in bundles of sensations. Each moment we become a new person.

Our past only exists in our memory, which is just an internal rumor that we choose to believe. And our feeble sense of history, itself always in flux, is the only thing that ties together the confused mass of colors, sounds, and textures, the swirling indistinct thoughts, the shadowy images and daydreams, that make up our mental life.

Your identity, then, is more like the water flowing down a stream than anything solid. The self is a process.

This groundlessness, this ceaseless change, makes people uncomfortable. So much of our lives consists of building solid foundations for our insubstantial selves. Culture can be thought of as a response to this existential uncertainty; we constantly try to banish the ambiguity of identity by giving ourselves social roles, roles that tell us who were are in relation to everyone else, and who everyone else is in relation to us.

Each moment of the day carries its own ritual performance with its concomitant roles. In trains we become passengers, in cars we become commuters on our way to work, at work we become a job title, and at home we become a husband or wife.

The ritual of marriage, for example, is performed to impose an identity on you. But in order for this imposed identity to persist, the community must, in a million big ways and small, act out this new social role. Being married is a habit: a habit of acting, of thinking about yourself, and a habitual way of treating you that friends, family, acquaintances, and even the federal government pick up.

A common way of reinforcing one’s identity is to attach it to something apparently solid, objective, and permanent. Thus people learn to equate their self-esteem with success, love, money, with their marriage or their job title. But these strategies can backfire. Marriages fail and jobs end, leaving people feeling lost. And if you identify your worth with your fame, skill, or with the size of your wallet, you doom yourself to perpetual envy, since there will always be those above you.

People also position themselves demographically; they identify themselves with their age, nationality, ethnicity, race, or gender. These strategies have the merit of at least pointing to something substantial. I know, for example, that my behavior is influenced by the fact that I am an American; and by being cognizant this identity, I understand certain behaviors of mine.

Nevertheless this too can be taken too far, specifically when people reduce themselves to members of a group, and attribute all their behaviors to the groups to which they belong. Your demographic identity influences your behavior, by shaping the pattern of your actions and thoughts, but it does not comprise your identity, since identity can never be pinned down.

Those with strong wills and forceful personalities, like Emerson, wrestle with this problem somewhat differently: they create a personal mythology. This is a process by which they select moments from their past, and omit others, and by this selection create for themselves a story with a definite arc.

At the end of this arc is their persona, which is a kind of personal role, a character they invented themselves rather than adopted from society, formed by exaggerating certain qualities and downplaying others. This persona, unlike their actual, shifting identity, is stable and fixed; and by mentally identifying with this persona of theirs, they manage to push aside, for a time, the groundlessness of self.

I can’t help admiring these self-mythologizers, these artists of the literary self, the Emersons, Montaignes, and Nietzsches, who put themselves together through force of will. This procedure does carry with it some dangers, however, the most notable being the risk that you may outgrow or tire of your persona.

I can only speak from my own experience. Many times in my life I have acted out a sort of character in social situations, either from shyness of showing my real self, or an attempt to impress others; and although this strategy worked for a time, it ended by being highly unsatisfying.

In effect I trained those around me to respond to me in certain ways, to consider me in a certain light, and when I got tired of this character I was left with friends who didn’t know me. They knew a part of me, to be sure, since any character I can invent for myself will always have some of my qualities, but they didn’t know the full range of my traits.

Emerson was well aware of this danger, which is why he made it a point to be changeful and inconsistent. As he repeatedly said, he had no system. He considered himself an experimenter who played continually with new ideas. This itself was a sort of persona—the mercurial prophet, the spontaneous me—but it gave him the flexibility to expand and shift.

To me, there is nothing wrong with mythologizing yourself. The important thing is to recognize that your persona is not your self, and not to let a fixed conception of your own character constrain your actions. A personality is nothing but a pattern of behavior, and this pattern only exists in retrospect. You as you exist now are a bubble of awareness floating down a stream of sensation, a bubble that forms and reforms every passing moment.

Quotes & Commentary #25: Homer

Quotes & Commentary #25: Homer

Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men. Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth, now the living timber bursts with the new buds and spring comes round again. And so with men; as one generation comes to life, another dies away.

—Homer, The Iliad

Last week I took a walk in the sierra. A dirt path twisted its way through the pines, leading me out of the town and into the forest. It was a cool day. My fingers felt frozen in my pockets. The air had the fresh, crisp smell of autumn. I could scarcely hear a sound. The only noise I recall is the tinkling of the bells worn by the cows and sheep, grazing in the nearby farms.

I passed a small brook running downhill, and sat down on a nearby rock to rest. The sound of running water is one of the most calming in the world; your anxieties seem to get carried off by it. On the stream’s surface I saw the reflections of branches hanging overhead. Their brittle leaves were green, red, and golden yellow, and their surging reflections in the stream reminded me of a painting by Monet.

Further on, I entered a clearing, where the trees had been cut down to make room for a power line. Behind me I saw the mountains of the sierra, their grey jagged peaks scratching the clouds above. In the other direction was the city of Cercedilla nestled into the hillside. The last rays of the setting sun shone mournfully through the clouds, making the buildings glow.

I saw all this, and I felt in my bones how small a part of the world I am. How many people were living in that town? How many people had to walk through this forest to clear the path? How many years of rain and water erosion were responsible for that running brook? How many eons did the tectonic plates need to throw up such massive mountains?

All the organisms around me, including myself, had evolved over millions of lifetimes to fill a specific niche. Those cows and sheep, animals we intimately rely on, were domesticated by men and women not very different from myself, so many generations ago.

The people who put up those monstrous power cables were each as unique and self-absorbed as I am. Each of them had a favorite after-work drink, each had their own problems with their spouses and their own exasperations with work, each had their own private moments, as I was having, when they were struck by some fleeting, incidental beauty, filled with poetic emotions they could not put into words.

When I reflect on how many generations have come before me, and how intimately they have shaped my world, I get a sense of my vanishing insignificance in view of the whole. And when I consider that all these humans were only a small, passing manifestation of the pageantry of life, and that even life itself is just an isolated itch of matter, I feel even tinier.

I took a deep breath and turned to go. The ground was strewn with the discarded leaves of autumn. One day, I would be among them.

Review: The Odyssey

The OdysseyThe Odyssey by Homer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To this day, the most interesting research project that I’ve ever done was the very first. It was on the Homeric Question.

I was a sophomore in college—a student with (unfortunate) literary ambitions who had just decided to major in anthropology. By this point, I had at least tacitly decided that I wanted to be a professor. In my future lay the vast and unexplored ocean of academia. What was the safest vessel to travel into that forbidden wine-dark sea? Research.

I signed up for a reading project with an anthropology professor. Although I was too naïve to sense it at the time, he was a man thoroughly sick of his job. Lucky for him, he was on the cusp of retirement. So his world-weariness manifested itself as a total, guilt-free indifference to his teaching duties. Maybe that’s why I liked him so much. I envied a man that could apparently care so little about professional advancement. That’s what I wanted.

In any case, now I had to come up with a research topic. I had just switched into the major, and so had little idea what typical anthropology research projects were like. And because my advisor was so indifferent, I received no guidance from him. The onus lay entirely on me. One night, as I groped half-heartedly through Wikipedia pages, I stumbled on something fascinating, something that I hadn’t even considered before.

Who is Homer? Nobody knew. Nobody could know. The man—if man he was—was lost to the abyss of time. No trace of him existed. We can’t even pin down what century he lived. And yet, we have these glorious poems—poems at the center of our history, the roots of the Western literary canon. Stories of the Greek Gods had fascinated me since my childhood; Zues and Athena were as familiar as Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf. That the person (or persons) responsible could be so totally lost to history baffled me—intrigued me.

But I was not majoring in literature or the humanities. I was in anthropology, and so had to do a proper anthropological project. At the very least, I needed an angle.

Milman Parry and Albert Lord duly provided this angle. The two men were classicists—scholars of ancient Greece. But instead of staying in their musty offices reading dusty manuscripts, they did something no classicist had done before: they attempted to answer the Homeric question with field work.

At the time (and perhaps now?) a vibrant oral tradition existed in Serbo-Croatia. Oral poets (guslars, they’re called there) would tell massive stories at public gatherings, some stories even approaching the length of the Homeric poems. But what was most fascinating was that these stories were apparently improvised.

In our decadent culture, we have a warped idea of improvisation. Many of us believe improvisation to be the spontaneous outflowing of creative energies, manifesting themselves in something totally new. Like God shaping the Earth out of the infinite void, these imaginary improvisers shape their art from nothing whatsoever. Unfortunately, this never happens.

Whether you’re a jazz saxophonist playing on a Coltrane tune, a salesperson dealing with a new client, or an oral bard telling a tale, improvisation is done via a playful recombining of preexisting, formulaic elements. This was Milman and Parry’s great discovery. By carefully transcribing hundreds of these Serbo-Croation poems, they discovered that—although a single poem may vary from person to person, place to place, or performance to performance—the variation took place within predictable boundaries.

The poet’s brains were full of stock-phrases (“when dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more”), common epithets (“much-enduring Odysseus”), and otherwise formulaic verses that allowed them to quickly put together their poems. Individual scenes, in turn, also followed stereotypical outlines—feasts, banquets, catalogues of forces, battles, athletic contests, etc. Of course, this is not to say that the poet was not original. Rather, it is to say that they are just as original as John Coltrane or Charlie Parker—individuals working within a tradition. These formulas and stereotypical scenes were the raw material with which the poet worked. They allowed him to compose material quickly enough to keep up the performance, and not break his rhythm.

But could poems as long as The Odyssey and The Iliad come wholly from an oral tradition? It seems improbable: it would take multiple days to recite, and the bard would have to pick up where he left off. But Milman and Parry, during their fieldwork, managed to put our fears at rest. They found a singer that could (and did) compose poems equal in length to Homer’s. (I actually read one. It’s called The Wedding of Smailagic Meho, and was recited by a poet named Avdo. It’s no Odyssey, but still entertaining.)

All this is impressive, but one question remained: how could the oral poems get on paper? Did an oral poet—Homer, presumably—learn to write, and copy it down? Not possible, says Alfred Lord, in his book The Singer of Tales. According to him, once a person becomes literate, the frame of mind required to learn the art of oral poetry cannot be achieved. A literate person thinks of language in an entirely different way as a non-literate one, and so the poems couldn’t have been written by a literate poet who had learned from his oral predecessors.

According to Lord, this left only one option: Homer must have been a master oral poet, and his poems must have been transcribed by someone else. (This is how the aforementioned poem by Avdo was taken down by the researchers.) At the time, this struck me as perfectly likely—indeed, almost certain. But the more I think about it, the less I can imagine an oral poet submitting himself to sit with a scribe, writing in the cumbersome Linear B script, for the dozens and dozens of hours it would have taken to transcribe these poems. It’s possible, but seems unlikely.

But according to Ruth Finnegan, Alfred Lord’s insistence that literacy destroys the capacity to improvise poems is mistaken. An anthropologist, Finnegan found many cases in Africa of semi-literate or fully literate people who remained capable of improvising poetry. So it’s at least equally possible that Homer was an oral poet who learned to read, and then decided to commit the poems to paper (or whatever they were writing on back then).

I submit this longwinded overview of the Homeric Question because, despite my usual arrogance, I cannot even imagine writing a ‘review’ for this poem. I feel like that would be equivalent to ‘reviewing’ one’s own father and mother. For me, and everyone alive in the Western world today, The Odyssey is flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. Marvelously sophisticated, fantastically exciting, it is the alpha and omega of our tradition. From Homer we sprang, and unto Homer shall we return.

[Note: I’d also like to add that this time, my third or forth time through the poem, I decided to go through it via audiobook. Lucky for me, the Fagles translation (a nice one if you’re looking for readability) is available as an audiobook, narrated by the great Sir Ian McKellen. It was a wonderful experience, not only because Sir Ian has such a beautiful voice (he’s Gandalf, after all), but because hearing it read rather than reading it recreated, however dimly, the original experience of the poem: as a performance. I highly recommend it.]

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