Quotes & Commentary #41: Emerson

Quotes & Commentary #41: Emerson

It is impossible to extricate oneself from the questions in which our age is involved. You can no more keep out of politics than out of the frost.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I suppose Emerson wrote this at a time when insulation was far less robust, since nowadays it is perfectly possible to keep out of the frost. Or perhaps he meant that the only way to keep out of politics was to shut oneself up like a hermit. In any case, though the comparison has aged, the sentiment certainly has not.

Lately I have been reading some of Orwell’s essays, which called this quote to mind. It was Orwell’s essay on Dickens—in which he utters his famous dictum, “All art is propaganda”—that specifically made me think of Emerson.

Is it really true that all art contains political preaching? Is it true that it is impossible to extricate oneself from controversial questions?

To these answers I would give a qualified “yes.” I do not think it possible to create art that is politically neutral, since our thoughts about personality, philosophy, nationality, morality, sexuality, human nature, society, and so forth, all have political ramifications, even if the author has not thought through these ramifications. Every artistic choice—the characters, the setting, the plot—carries ideological baggage, even if this baggage is unintended.

Even if we attempted to create “art for art’s sake”—purely formal art, devoid of any identifiable content—this, too, would have political consequences, since it takes a stance, a very particular stance, on the role of art and the artist in society.

Before I go on, I will try to define what I mean by “politics.” To me, politics is the struggle between demographic groups for resources and power. Politics isn’t politics without controversy, since it necessarily involves a zero-sum game. This controversy is typically carried on in highly charged, stringently moral language; but the fundamental motive that animates political struggle is self-interest.

Where I disagree is that I think the political content of art is usually uninteresting, and plays little role in the art’s quality. There is no contradiction in saying that a great novel may embody backwards political principles, or noting that a movie that champions progressive values may be boring and amateurish.

Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, it stuffed to the brim with the politics of his age; and these political passages are, in my opinion, inevitably the weakest and most tiresome of the poem. The Divine Comedy is great in spite of, not because of, its politics. Likewise, the political implications of Milton’s Paradise Lost are chiefly of historical interest, and for me neither add to nor subtract from the poem’s artistic force. Nothing ages faster than politics, since politics is always embroiled in transitory struggles between factions.

Orwell’s essay itself, ironically enough, also illustrates the limitations of seeing art as propaganda. Orwell attempts to treat Dickens as a sort of social philosopher—trying to furrow out Dickens views on the state, on the economy, on education, on the good life—only to repeatedly hit a wall. Dickens was not a reformer, and not a revolutionary; he was, if anything, a moralist, as Orwell himself admits. But above all Dickens was a novelist, something that should not need pointing out. His books are far more interesting as novels than as sermons.

Do not mistake my meaning. I am not arguing for “art for art’s sake.” Some art cannot be properly appreciated without noting its political message. I am, however, arguing that the political implications of a work of art do not exhaust its meaning, nor do they even constitute its most valuable meaning.

The aesthetic is as valid a category as the political and the moral. And by categorizing something as “art,” we implicitly acknowledge that its aesthetic qualities are its most important traits, and determine its ultimate value. Even if we insist otherwise, the very fact that we differentiate between polemical cartoons and portraits, between political pamphlets and plays, between national anthems and symphonies, belies the fact that we consider art a special category.

How anyone chooses to interpret a piece of art is, of course, up to them. Great art is distinguished by its ability to inspire nearly infinite reactions. But I do believe that every interpretation, if it wishes to respect the work in question, ought to increase our appreciation of it, or at least to try.

When somebody reads a novel solely for its political content, and then evaluates it solely on the extent to which it agrees or disagrees with the interpreter’s beliefs, the work of art is turned into a mere weapon of political struggle. In other words, to treat art merely as propaganda is not to respect it as art.

I have heard many movies and television shows denounced for their political implications; nowadays there are endless controversies about representation in media. Now, I believe the question of interpretation is undoubtedly important. But to condemn or champion works of art purely on this criterion is, I think, just as narrow-minded as ignoring the question of representation altogether.

Art speaks in different languages to different people. This is its magic and its lasting value. And anybody who thinks that they unequivocally “know” the meaning of a work of art, and is so politically self-righteous that they think they can pronounce eternal judgement on its worth, is acting tyrannical, even if they are mouthing sentiments of egalitarianism.

* * *

Parenthetically, it is worth noting that this anxiety about representation and political values in art, so common nowadays, is grounded in a certain, tacit theory of human behavior. This is the belief that our media exerts a decisive influence over our values and actions. Indeed, I’m sure this proposition would hardly be regarded as controversial in some circles.

But isn’t it equally possible that our media is just a reflection of our values and actions? And doesn’t the very fact that people are often politically dissatisfied with their media prove that we are not under their control? For, if the influence of media were decisive over our political perspective, how could we ever be dissatisfied with it?

Artists and art critics tend to be intellectuals. Intellectuals are naturally prone to believing that humans are motivated by ideas, since that’s what motivates intellectuals. Thus they can be expected to pay too much attention to art as a social force, and not enough to the other things that drive human behavior, like economic trends or political institutions, since art operates on the level of symbols. 

And since much of our discourse is framed by intellectuals—people tend to become politically conscious in college, under the influence of professors—it seems likely that paying too much attention to the political power of art would be a pervasive error, which I believe it is.

Quotes & Commentary #40: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Quotes & Commentary #40: Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

The test of civilization is the power of drawing the most benefit out of cities.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Cities are improbable. For most of our history we lived in little roving bands: Groups held together by personal relationships, of blood, marriage, or friendship, scattered lightly over the landscape, not tied to any particular spot but moving in accordance with their needs.

Agriculture changed that. You cannot raise crops without tending them throughout the year; thus you need a permanent settlement. Crops can also be grown and gathered more efficiently the more people there are to help; and a stable food supply can support a larger population. Cities grew up along with the crops, and a new type of communal living was born.

(I remember from my archaeology classes that early farmers were not necessarily healthier than their hunter-gatherer peers. Eating mostly corn is not very nutritious and is bad for your teeth. Depending on a single type of crop also makes you more sensitive to drought and at risk for starvation should the crops fail. This is not to mention the other danger of cities: Disease. Living in close proximity with others allows sickness to spread more easily. Nevertheless, our ancestors clearly saw some advantage to city life—maybe they had more kids to compensate for their reduced lifespan?—so cities sprung up and expanded.)

The transition must have been difficult, not least for the social strain. As cities grew, people could find themselves in the novel situation of living with somebody they didn’t know very well, or at all. For the vast majority of humankind’s history, this simply didn’t happen.

New problems must be faced when strangers start living together. In small groups, where everyone is either related or married to everyone else, crime is not a major problem. But in a city, full of strangers and neighbors, this changes: crime must be guarded against.

There is another novel problem. Hunter-gatherers can retreat from danger, but city dwellers cannot. And since urbanites accumulate more goods and food then their roving peers, they are more tempting targets for bandits. Roving nomads can swoop down upon the immobile city and carry off their grain, wine, and women. To prevent this, cities need defenses.

As you can see, the earliest denizens of cities faced many novel threats: crime from within, raids from without, and the constant danger of drought and starvation.

Government emerges from need to organize against these threats. To discourage crime the community must come together to punish wrongdoers; to protect against attacks the community must build walls and weapons, and fight alongside one another; to protect against starvation, surplus crops must be saved for the lean times.

Hierarchy of power, codes of law, and the special status of leaders arise to fill the vacuum of organization. Religion was also enlisted in this effort, sanctifying leaders with titles and myths, reinforcing the hierarchy with rituals and customs and taboos, and uniting the people under the guardianship of the same divine shepherds.

Despite these unpropitious beginnings, the city has grown from an experiment in communal living, held together by fear and necessity, into the generic model of modern life. And I have the good fortune to live near one of the greatest cities in history.

* * *

Whenever I am alone in New York City, I wander, for as many miles as time allows. The only way to see how massive, chaotic, and remarkable is New York, is by foot. There’s no telling what you might find.

I like to walk along the river, watching the freighters with their bright metal boxes of cargo, the leviathan cruise ships carrying their passengers out to sea, the helicopters buzzing overhead, giving a few lucky tourists a glimpse of the skyline. Bridges span the water—masses of metal and stone suspended by wire—and steam pours forth from the smokestacks of power plants.  

I pass through parks and neighborhoods. Elderly couples totter by on roller blades. A lonely teenager with a determined look practices shooting a basketball. The playground is full of screaming, running, jumping, hanging, falling, fighting kids. Their mothers and fathers chat on the sidelines, casting occasional nervous glances at their offspring.

Soon I get the United Nations building. The edifice itself is not beautiful—just a grey slab covered in glass—but what it represents is beautiful. The ideal of the United Nations is, after all, the same ideal of New York City. It is the ideal of all cities and of civilization itself: that we can put aside our differences and live together in peace.

The city is not just the product of political organization and economic means; it is an expression of confidence. You cannot justify building walls and houses without the belief that tomorrow will be as safe and prosperous as today. And you cannot live calmly among strangers—people who dress different, who speak a different language, people you have never seen before and may never see again—without trust.

It is that confidence in tomorrow and that trust in our neighbors on which civilization is built. And New York City, that buzzing, chaotic, thriving hive, is a manifestation of those values.

Quotes & Commentary #39: Emerson

Quotes & Commentary #39: Emerson

 

Each soul is a soul or an individual by virtue of its having or I may say being a power to translate the universe into some particular language of its own.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

What does it mean for something to be subjective? This means that it depends upon a perspective to exist.

Pleasure and pain are subjective, for example, since they cannot exist independently of an observer; they must be felt to be real. Mt. Everest, on the other hand, exists objectively—or at least we think it does—since that hunk of rock and snow would persist even if there were no humans left to climb it and plant flags on its summit.

Humans, of course, can never get out of their own perspectives and know, for good and certain, that anything exists objectively. Thus “objective” facts are really inter-subjective; that is, they can be verified by other observers.

Contrary to common belief, facts cannot be verified purely through experience, since experience is always personal and therefore private. This is why we are justified in disbelieving mystic visions and reports of miracles.

Two things must happen for raw experience to be turned into objective knowledge.

First the experience must be communicated to another observer through language. Language is a bridge between observers, allowing them to compare, in symbolic form, the reality they perceive. Language is a highly imperfect bridge, to be sure, and much information is lost by turning our raw experience into symbols; nevertheless it is the best we have.

Second, another observer must try to have an experience that matches the experience of the first one. This verification is, again, constrained by the vagueness of language.

Somebody points and says “Look, a helicopter!” Their friend looks up into the sky and says “I see it too!” This correspondence of experience, communicated through words, is the basis for our notion of the objective world.

(There is, of course, the thorny Cartesian question: How can we know for certain that both the helicopter and our friend aren’t hallucinations? We can’t.)

Subjective and objective knowledge share this quality. Our knowledge of the external world—whether a fleeting sensation of a chilly breeze, or a scientific doctrine repeatedly checked—is always symbolic.

A symbol is an arbitrary representation. All words are symbols. The relationship between the word “tree” and actual trees is arbitrary; we could also say arbol or Baum and accomplish the same end. By saying that knowledge is symbolic, I mean that the relationship between the objective facts and our representation of those facts is arbitrary. 

First, the relationship between the external stimulus and our private sensation is an arbitrary one.

Light in itself is electromagnetic radiation. In other words, light in itself doesn’t look like anything; it only has an appearance when photosensitive eyes evolve. Our visual cortex represents the photons that strike our eyes as colors. There is only a symbolic connection between the objective radiation and the internal sensation. The red I experience is only a symbol of a certain wavelength of light that my eyes pick up.

As Santayana said, the senses are poets and only portray the external world as a singer communicates his love: in metaphors. This is the basis for the common observation that there is no way of knowing whether the red I experience is the same as the red you experience. Since the connection between the objective stimulus and the subjective representation is arbitrary, and since it is only me who can observe the result, we can never know for certain how colors look to other individuals.

When we communicate our experiences to others, we translate our direct experience, which is already a symbolic representation of the world, into still more general symbols. As I said above, much information is lost during this second translation. We can, for example, say that we’re seeing the color red, but we cannot say exactly what it looks like.

Modern science, not content with the vagueness of daily speech, uses a stricter language: mathematics. And it also uses a stricter method of confirmation: controlled experiments through which rival hypotheses are tested. Nevertheless, while stricter, scientific knowledge isn’t any less symbolic. To the contrary, modern physics is distinguished for being abstract in the extreme.

To call knowledge symbolic is not to discredit it; it is merely to acknowledge the arbitrariness of our representations of the natural world. Nature can be understood, but first we must translate her into our language. The truth can be spoken, but always with an accent.

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 #37: Emerson

Quotes & Commentary #37: Emerson

 

The years teach much which the days never know.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Time is curious. It is the most insubstantial of fabrics—impalpable, immaterial, invisible and ever elusive—and yet inescapably real.

Like a barren plain, time is flat and featureless.

The natural world gives time some structure. The turning of the earth about its axis gives us night and day, and the tilting of the earth’s axis gives us the seasons. The longest cycle of all is the earth’s journey around the sun, something that we are about to celebrate.

Humans, never content with nature, have added new landmarks to time’s endless uniformity. We name the seasons and divide them up into months; we name these months and divide them up into days; we name the days and give each day twenty-four hours; and each one of these hours carries with it a customary activity—eating, sleeping, working, playing.

Humans simply cannot abide the emptiness of time. We cannot tolerate time’s continuity, time’s running ever onward, forward, never pausing, never returning, time’s endless movement into the infinite future. All this makes us uncomfortable.

Thus we try to make time cyclical. As we are pushed along, we stick posts in the ground to mark our passing, and try to separate each one of these posts by the same stretch of ground. We go through the year marking the same periodic holidays and private anniversaries. The new year is our universal benchmark, the measuring post by which we all orient ourselves.

Since time is featureless, it is purely arbitrary where we place this marker. We could, if we wanted, chose to regard March 1st or September 27th as the New Year. And isn’t it absurd that we try to divide something continuous, like time, into discrete elements, like years? Isn’t it silly that we think 2016 transforms itself into 2017 in one instant, instead of gradually fading one to the other as time rolls along?

But we need structure. We need landmarks in the barren expanse to remind us how far we have gone, and how far we have to go. This is why New Year’s Eve is valuable: it gives us the chance to pause and reckon up what has come to pass, what was good, what was bad, and what we could do to preserve the good and shed the bad. It gives us the opportunity to delineate, however vaguely, the arc of our lives.

Things invisible day by day reveal themselves in this wider perspective. A mass of senseless trivialities, taken together, can reveal a design and purpose that lay buried under daily cares.

Life must be lived moment to moment; but these moments, so ordinary and unremarkable, can manifest stories of the deepest significance. These stories are our lives, viewed from afar, and we need to reread these stories every once in a while to keep ourselves on the right track. 

Have a happy near year, everyone.

Quotes & Commentary #36: Emerson

Quotes & Commentary #36: Emerson

I hate goodies. I hate goodness that preaches. Goodness that preaches undoes itself.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Certain stories snatched from daily life stick in the mind long after they have any practical relevance, because they seem to be the embodiment of a moral injunction. A friend of mine recently told me one such story.

This friend is a stand-up comedian, if not by trade, at least by dint of persistence, and he is constantly shuttling from venue to venue to hone his craft. One of these venues was run by a goodie. Now, the difference between a goodie and a good person is that the latter treats people with respect and kindness while the former makes a big show of his virtue.

This particular goodie was a straight white male who constantly advertised his progressive values. He decorated his venue with portraits of the black men killed by the police, and forbade all jokes with even a whiff of sexism.

All of this would possibly be admirable if this goodie were not constantly getting into conflicts with those around him. Like many goodies, he has a victim mentality, and blames all of these disagreements on the malevolence of his antagonists. When his venue was shut down by the fire marshal, for example, he attributed it to a conspiracy of right-wing comics.

Let me pause and remind the reader that all this is hearsay, so I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this information. I am told that during the uproar that followed the closure of his venue the goodie was publically accused of rape. The irony of a man who shrouds himself in feminism being a rapist is too palpable to pass unremarked. The goodie responded to the accusation, I am told, with a counter-accusation, saying that it was he who was raped.

Whether all or any of this information is actually true, it rings true. Throughout my life I have met many who have acted the part of a moralist and a crusader, preaching at every turn, tolerating no dissent, treating all disagreement as vile persecution. And these goodies, almost inevitably, are unpleasant to be around, even when I agree with their ideals.

There is a basic set of values—kindness, generosity, tact, respect, tolerance, and humility—that are fundamental to real goodness, that comprise the humdrum, everyday, unremarkable virtue that keeps society working. Goodies are not humble, not respectful, and not tolerant.

Goodies are nefarious because they sacrifice these basic values for supposedly higher ones—usually a political or a religious ideal. I say “nefarious” because, by failing to reach the level of everyday virtue while appearing to rise above it, they often manage to attract around themselves a little band of followers, who confirm one another in their zealotry. Thus goodieness spreads.

Now, there is, of course, nothing wrong with sticking up for your political or religious values, and preaching has its place. But remember that these ideals, whatever their appeal, whatever their justice, do not allow their adherents to forfeit the more basic virtues of everyday life.

Real virtue does not advertise itself; it is silently manifest in each phrase and action, an accompaniment of every word and deed. If a person repeatedly and insistently calls attention to their own goodness, suspect that this goodness is goodieness, and run for the hills.