Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

 

Four years ago, our book club read the first book of the Southern Reach Trilogy, of which Acceptance is the final installment. That first book, Annihilation, was really short, and felt frustratingly puzzling, with on actual resolution, or explanation of much of anything. My wife commented that it felt as if it were written with the screenplay in mind. It turns out that they did make a movie out of the first book - or at least stole the name and a few ideas, because the movie seems to have little to do with the book or the trilogy. That’s Hollywood for you. 

 

Two years ago, I read the second book, Authority, which answered some questions, but raised a whole lot more. Thus, the questions still felt mostly unresolved. Also, that book was set primarily in the bureaucracy that is investigating “Area X” - the unexplained anomaly that has taken over the northern Florida coast. Thus, the mystery involved bureaucratic absurdity, secret keeping, backstabbing, and only nibbled at the edges of the actual mystery of Area X. It was, in any case, quite a bit longer, so I was able to understand why it wasn’t combined with the first book. Okay, mostly. I still think all three books should have been in one book. 

 

Finally, I got around to reading Acceptance, the final book in the trilogy. Having done so, my opinion of the trilogy has significantly improved. I think I can see what the author was trying to do, and I think that taken together it is a satisfying read, and a work of art. 


Just to recap a bit: 

 

In the first book, we find out that a mysterious “Area X” has enveloped a coastal area - Vandermeer based it on the “lost coast” of Florida - the northern panhandle area, which he explored as a youth. Exactly what Area X is is the big mystery. It seems as if nature has completely reclaimed an area plagued by environmental destruction (in real life, toxic waste was illegally buried there, leading to cancer spikes and worse.) But there is also a barrier that keeps people from entering except through this one portal, and the boundary is invisible until you bump up against it. Also, electronics and other advanced technologies do not work inside, so you have to use paper and pencil. So, we have no idea what Area X is, how it got there, or what to do about it. 

 

The story in the first book is that of a woman we know only as “The Biologist.” She is not only an unreliable narrator, but the author deliberately removes as much “personhood” from her as reasonably possible. In fact, we never learn her name, even though she is the central character of the first and third books. She is a member of the Twelfth Expedition to Area X. (Except there were a lot more than twelve, as we come to find out later.) The members are not given each others’ names, just professions, and they are sent into Area X with no clear instructions, and are told mostly to write stuff down in their journals. Except that for unknown reasons, when teams return, they have left their journals behind, they appear to have had their personalities wiped, and they all die of cancer in a few months. 

 

We do learn a bit about the features of Area X, though. There is a lighthouse, which turns out to have a basement area filled with the journals from past expeditions. And there is a weird pit with a spiral staircase leading down, which the expedition members refer to as “The Tower,” because of some psychological feeling that it is just an inverted tower. As you descend the stairs, there is a fungus-like substance growing on the walls, that is constantly writing out words - what sounds like a disjointed fundamentalist hellfire sermon. 

 

The first book ends without a resolution. It just…stops. 

 

The second book centers on “Control,” a man sent in to take over and clean up the Southern Reach - the mysterious government agency that is supposed to be investigating Area X. The previous director mysteriously disappeared. As in, just vanished. As we find out, she secretly joined the Twelfth Expedition, and never returned. We also find out that she held a lot of secrets. Her supposed name wasn’t her real name, she was dying of cancer, and she had some sort of connection to Area X that a few higher-ups concealed. 

 

We do eventually find out that Control is the nickname of John Rodriquez, and that his mother and maternal grandfather were part of a CIA-like agency, and his mother still works there in some secret role. Which is how Control got the job, although he doesn’t find that out until late in the book. 

 

Some of the secrets about the area and its history are revealed, but precious few. And many of the secrets are far more confusing than not. 

 

It is in the third book that enough of the mystery is unveiled to give some sense of satisfaction, although Vandermeer chooses to leave much of it still shrouded. The reason this works is that we never get a chance to see things from outside the human perspective. Area X - whatever it is (I won’t reveal the limited secrets that are told) is not something human minds can fully comprehend. It is in some way outside of time and space as we experience them. 

 

The second book ends with Control following Ghost Bird (a replicant of the Biologist from the first book) into a secret portal to Area X - they jump into the ocean in Maine, and resurface in Area X at the beginning of the third book. 

 

Unlike the first two books, the third one is told from multiple perspectives, has multiple threads that take place at completely different times, and these are all mixed up so that the resolution of all of them comes near the end. 

 

So, we get the story of Saul, the lighthouse keeper. The son of a fundamentalist preacher, he follows that path (it is his sermon that is on the walls), until he can no longer reconcile his beliefs with the fact that he is gay. He withdraws to the lighthouse, and lives quietly, until these two hippie sorts, calling themselves the “Seance and Science Brigade” invade his lighthouse searching for something. He also makes friends with a young girl, Gloria, who lives in the area. Things start to go weird, though - I will spare the spoilers, but we learn something of how Area X came to be. 

 

We also get the story of the former director of the Southern Reach - her prior trips to Area X, her secrets, and her final days as part of the Twelfth Expedition. 

 

The final thread is split between the points of view of Control and Ghost Bird, and this reveals much of what we learn about how Area X functions. 

 

In retrospect, having read the whole thing, I think there are some fascinating themes. The first is hinted at in the titles of the book. There are two approaches to Area X: Control, and Acceptance. Those who seek to understand so they can control end up annihilated in some way or another. Those who accept the loss of control, and explore to learn and experience, rather than control, are able to live in harmony with Area X. And the thing is, no matter which approach you choose, you still find some degree of assimilation, some loss of self. 

 

Another theme is one that has become common in modern science fiction - the idea of nature taking back control from humanity. The thing is, in Vandermeer’s vision, this isn’t a case of malevolence at all. It is mere indifference. Nature - and Area X - do not really, in the end, take much notice of humans. This is what I think climate change deniers do not fully grasp. The earth can and will survive anything. Life is more fragile, but the most fragile forms of life are always those at the top. An “Area X” of our own is entirely plausible, where humanity creates its own extinction - but the roaches and archea will probably be fine. 

 

The human relationships are less important in this book than in some - we get tantalized with the occasional snippet of back story, but so much remains opaque. What we do see reinforces the idea that demands of control - of authority - invariably leads to destruction, whether it is the controlling fathers of the female characters, or the controlling mother of Control, or the utter FUBAR the power games at the Southern Reach make of everything. 

 

Vandermeer has said that two things inspired this trilogy. First was the Lost Coast itself. The second was a weird dream he had, which he turned into the “Tower” - those stairs leading endlessly downward, the writing on the walls, the idea of “The Crawler,” some sentient fungal life form. That’s a hell of a dream, but totally plausible. That scene makes a lot more sense now. 

 

One final word about the books: it took a little while for me to warm to Vandermeer’s writing, mostly because of the frustration of not knowing so much. But if you are willing to accept the mysteries, rather than seek to understand, the writing itself is actually really beautiful and precise. I would put it on the high end of science fiction writing in terms of the use of language and description. Vandermeer clearly loved the nature of the Lost Coast, and the passages where the characters observe Area X really come to life. 

 

The bottom line is that if I were to do it again, I would read all three back to back - they really should have been one book. Would it have been a long book? Yes. But not as long as, say, The Wings of the Dove. And of course it would probably have meant lower profits for the publisher. (Boo hoo.) But it would have made more sense as a coherent work - and I suspect more people, including other members of our book club, would have finished the whole thing. 

 

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Essays: First Series by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Source of book: I own this

 

A few years back, my eldest child was working through American literature for English class, and we ended up pulling a somewhat late night on his homework while on a camping trip. While having to do a crap-ton of homework on vacation wasn’t ideal, it was definitely fun to talk through the reading assignments, which included some selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson. My kid actually liked the Transcendentalists, but let’s be honest, Emerson isn’t the easiest read at age 16, particularly if you have a pile of assignments from an overzealous teacher. (The quantity of homework these days is a whole other topic, honestly…) But I think that our discussion of Emerson's ideas was fruitful, a good chance to bond with a kid, and, for me, a reminder that I really hadn’t gone back to revisit the Transcendentalists since high school. I decided to start with Walden, because a friend gave me Walden Two by Skinner, and I figured I should read the first one first. I also read my selection of Emerson’s poems. But it took a bit longer to actually get around to reading some of the essays. 

 

I own what I believe to be the complete essays and lectures of Emerson, in a Library of America volume. I decided to start with Essays: First Series, because it had the iconic “Self Reliance” which every high schooler in this country has to read at least a bit of, apparently. 

 

Emerson was quite the character. His father was a Unitarian minister, and his family on both sides was pure English, dating back to the colonial period. After attending Harvard, he followed in his father’s footsteps as a minister. However, when his first wife died of tuberculosis a few years after they married, he had a significant crisis of faith - more of faith in the church and its methods, which he saw as “the dead forms of our forefathers.” He eventually concluded that he could not effectively serve as a minister while being tied to the church, and left the ministry altogether. While he retained his faith, it was in a significantly altered form, and was considered heretical by many - or even atheistic. 

 

Lacking employment, Emerson decided to make a go of it as a lecturer. This was in the 1830s, when lecturing was growing in popularity, with societies putting together events with a variety of speakers - essentially the TED talks of the 19th Century. Emerson was able to combine his thoughtfulness, his training as a preacher, and his ability to connect with both the educated and working-class audience, and was soon a success. Between writing and lecturing, he did well for himself until old age, when dementia took its toll, and he realized he lacked the memory for the job. 

 

With the usual caveat that any writer from the past will have a few wince-worthy beliefs and assertions, and the understanding that future readers will view our own time the same way, I must say that most of what Emerson says has aged really well. 

 

First, the bad stuff. Emerson was, from the earliest, an abolitionist, although he didn’t make that the centerpiece of either his politics or his lectures. As time went on, he became more ardent in his belief that enslavement was morally wrong, and harmful to both the enslaved and the souls of enslavers. So, using my analysis for evaluating past figures in light of their culture, I find that Emerson was both pushing back against the evil in his culture, and, importantly, moving in the right direction. 

 

That said, Emerson retained a belief that the races were not equal. In what I suspect most New Englanders would recognize, he had a bit of chauvinism about his English heritage, which he saw as superior to that of southern Europe, and even more to non-white people groups. This comes out in a few places in the essays, essentially as background noise, the prejudice in the water he swims in, not as the focus of his points. Likewise, there is a bit of casual sexism, the near-universal way that Victorian men assume particular roles and character traits for women. 

 

I want to be clear here: by the standards of his time, he was pretty damn progressive. Abraham Lincoln held more prejudiced views about black people, for example, as did most abolitionists - nearly all white Americans of the time, honestly. And ditto for men seeing women in a certain light.

 

Another “of-its-time” issue is found throughout his essay “Heroism.” It should surprise nobody that someone so connected both to the present British Empire and the eventual American one would glorify war and military service a bit. I also think it is telling that these essays predated “modern” warfare - the Civil War was still decades away, and one has to think that Emerson could not have written as he did after seeing the carnage of the Crimean War, let alone the brutal bloodbaths of the 20th Century. 

 

One final off note is in “Art.” While a lot of the essay is perceptive and fascinating, he does at one point opine that the art of sculpture was of the past, and had no future. Auguste Rodin, for one, would like to have a word with Emerson. (This one is more amusing than wince-inducing, though.) 

 

Okay, with that out of the way, I must say that I found Emerson to be very much a kindred spirit. Both of us came from families of ministers, served the church, and eventually became disillusioned and had a crisis of faith. And not so much a crisis of faith in God, per se, but in the seemingly inflexible past-worshiping and truth-resistant doctrines and rituals (and yes, politics) of organized religion. Both of us decided that we could not check either our brains or our consciences at the door any more, and left. Like Emerson, I suspect my break with organized religion (now more than 5 years and counting) will be permanent. Where my spiritual journey will end is unknown, and, as Emerson lays out over the course of these essays, that is the only way a person who pursues truth can live. 

 

In that sense, I found Emerson’s relationship to religion and philosophy to be refreshing. Emerson feels no fear about losing his sense of certainty, his belief that he knows. He is along for the ride, pursuing truth, doing the best he can, and accepting that he will never know, or understand, fully, at least in this life. And, for that matter, he admits that he has no idea if an afterlife exists, and he is fine with that. It doesn’t really change how he lives either way, because following Christ and following truth and acting in an ethical and spiritual way is an end in itself. It doesn’t need either fear of hellfire or promise of future ecstasy for motivation. 

 

Essays: First Series contains a total of twelve essays, ranging from about ten to twenty-five pages in my edition. They follow an arc, of sorts, each building on the last in some way (at least that was my experience), but they can also stand alone. Emerson wrote them first as lectures, then, with minor changes, published them as essays. Because of this, they feel less like the sort of essay one might write for school - with clearly delineated points, introduction and summary paragraphs, and full of specific evidence. Rather, each is a journey, with ideas that are connected but like the landscape next to a road is connected, not like a structured building. It is hard to explain, but I found that way of envisioning the essays made sense. To read one is to take a trip along with Emerson into the realm of the mind, and the soul, and to see the world through a lens that combines intellect, poetry, empathy, and connectedness. 

 

One final thought, before I dive into the myriad of lovely quotes: One can certainly see that Emerson has greatly influenced (and reflected) the American character and identity. While his vision of self-reliance isn’t the right wing “bootstrap” belief by any means, his argument for relying on one’s self, particularly as opposed to going along with tradition or social pressure, is one of the foundational character traits of the American throughout our history. And often, this has been a positive trait. 

 

You can also see Emerson’s influence on the Environmental movement. (It is difficult to imagine either John Muir or Theodore Roosevelt without Emerson.) And on later religious and philosophical movements that sought to combine a sense of the transcendent with existing ideas. In a way, the New Age Movement reflects a certain Emersonian feel, as do the movements toward mystery and mysticism within Progressive Christianity in my own time. 

 

Emerson’s ideas seem both timeless and universal, yet also iconically American. It is difficult to put in words exactly why, but I think if you read them, you will understand what I mean. 

 

Let’s take a look at the passages that I particularly liked. 

 

The first essay is “History,” and I think I spent as much time arguing with Emerson as agreeing, but I think the essay is excellent nonetheless. Emerson in his way pushes back against racism and nationalism by asserting that mankind is at its core alike. And what we have in common is our mind. 

 

There is one mind common to all individual men. Every man is an inlet to the same and to all of the same. He that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate. What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has befallen any man, he can understand. Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done, for this is the only and sovereign agent. 

 

Emerson thus thinks of history as the history of human minds - and the collective human mind. He talks more about this universalism as the essay goes on. A theme that will recur throughout the set of essays is that of the microcosm. Every big idea, every work of art, every transcendence, is available to each person. Our life experiences, be they ever so mundane, contain universes. 

 

The world exists for the education of each man. There is no age or state of society or mode of action in history, to which there is not somewhat corresponding in his life. Every thing tends in a wonderful manner to abbreviate itself and yield its own virtue to him. He should see that he can live all history in his own person. He must sit solidly at home, and not suffer himself to be bullied by kings or empires, but know that he is greater than all the geography and all the government of the world; he must transfer the point of view from which history is commonly read, from Rome and Athens and London to himself, and not deny his conviction that he is the court, and if England or Egypt have any thing to say to him, he will try the case; if not, let them for ever be silent. 

 

This is a quintessentially American thing to say. Those stuffy old nations with their histories and old buildings are fine enough, but they do not have authority merely because of age. They should be considered on their own merits. 

 

The problem with Emerson, to Fundies at least (he was rather dissed in the curriculum I had), is that he sees history, not as a story featuring white Europeans and their religion, but as a recurring, repeating, universal story. So, he can say something like this, which is both “heretical” in its way, yet also not really controversial among those who study mythology or history:

 

Prometheus is the Jesus of the old mythology. He is the friend of man; stands between the unjust “justice” of the Eternal Father and the race of mortals, and readily suffers all things on their account. 

 

Emerson notes the difference, though, between the versions - in Calvinism, defiance of the Eternal Father is unthinkable, no matter how grave the injustice. Whereas in the old myth, Prometheus does just that, calling the Divine to account. (I might note that the book of Job gives the title character a lot of lines that greatly resemble those of Prometheus in works like Prometheus Bound. It truly is the Calvinist (and thus Fundamentalist) tradition that cannot tolerate the idea of challenging the Almighty and expressing disapproval of injustice. The Bible itself is certainly filled with those who do so - most of whom are rewarded. 

 

Moving on to “Self Reliance,” I was struck but the fact that I could remember a number of passages - the excerpts I read in school - but had no idea how much more was in this essay. Five or six pages are usually enough to give the school kid the ideas intended, so that is all they get. Move along to the next thing - we still have to read Thoreau and Whitman this week, so move it along. It was nice to get to savor it a bit. 

 

The core of the essay is the idea of self-reliance in the sense of relying on one’s own mind, intellect, instinct, and judgment. This isn’t the “I don’t need no help from nobody” silliness that is often called “self-reliance.” This is the “think for yourself, bro” American tradition. Or, as my parents and millions like them said, “If everyone else jumped off a cliff, would you do it?” (Never mind that so many of them did exactly that for Trump, but whatever. Anyway, let’s examine a few passages. 

 

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nore does he know until he has tried. 

 

I feel like I came to this place really early in life - or maybe I was born that way. I am a “divergent thinker,” which has its benefits, but also led me to consider various ways of looking at things - not really valued within Fundamentalism, to put it mildly. Bill Gothard used “independent spirit” as an epithet for the worst kind of sinner - parents were to identify the signs of independent spirits arising in their kids, and quash them forcefully. We were taught that “rebellion” (aka disagreeing with parents or with Gothard’s teaching) was a form of “witchcraft” - opening our souls to Satan himself. 

 

Yeah, this did not work well with me, and my teen and young adult years were a lot more difficult than they needed to be. And let’s just say that my ongoing tendency to think for myself, evaluate evidence, and thus reject the theopolitical ideology of my parents, has led to the breakdown of the relationship. 

 

Emerson continues, in one of the most iconic passages of the book:

 

Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. 

 

Again, this is heresy to fundies. We were taught to “not lean on our own understanding,” to never trust our “deceitful and desperately wicked” hearts. We were to “trust in the Lord” - which meant believing all the tripe that the self-appointed leaders said was the words of God. Surely we couldn’t actually use the gifts God gave us, and follow God using them! We might disagree with the leaders if we did that!

 

Emerson dismisses the idea that if we don’t submit to authority - that is, to other fallible humans - we will go astray. (Amusingly, he says that if he is really that much of the Devil’s child, he will live that way anyway - it would be his nature.) For Emerson, this idea of human authority over the thoughts and beliefs of others is ludicrous. (Again, total kindred spirit for me.) 

 

I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions.

 

 And how about this?

 

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. 

 

Yeah, I know more than a little about those who think they know my duty better than I do. And those people have been a scourge on the life of my wife much of her life, from her childhood to her experience as a married mother in my own family.

 

There’s more good stuff in here. It is as if Emerson predicted Trump and the political polarization of religion in our country.  

 

If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument. I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church. Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word? Do I not know that, with all this ostentation of examining the grounds of the institution, he will do no such thing? 

 

How can I predict what your opinion on everything from global warming to universal healthcare to even whether you will resist vaccines? I can look at what church you attend. 

 

Next up is a great line, which is often misquoted. 

 

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. 

 

People either forget the second word and think the quote is an argument against consistency in general - and thus reject Emerson’s idea. Or, they forget the second word and abandon consistency themselves. Emerson’s argument here is that you have to be willing to change your mind, to re-evaluate as you get better information. One should not be consistent for consistency’s sake - and certainly not ossified in one’s beliefs. And he is absolutely spot-on that third-rate politicians, media pundits (think: FOX News), and preachers love simple sound bites and the sort of “never change your mind about anything” knuckle-dragging that seems to sell so well these days. 

 

Emerson carries this further, and argues that acceptance of old ideas stands in the way of progress. He asserts (and I fully agree with this) that knowledge and wisdom can and do build on the past. In many, many ways, humans have come up with better ideas as time has gone on. New isn’t always better, but the old rarely is, particularly when it is used as a weapon against positive change. 

 

If, therefore, a man claims to know and speak of God, and carries you backward to the phraseology of some mouldered nation in another country, in another world, believe him not. Is the acorn better than the oak which is its fulness and completion? Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripened being? Whence, then, this worship of the past? The centuries are conspirators against the sanity and authority of the soul. 

 

I could go on at length about the way this is used by institutions from the Evangelical Church to the Supreme Court, where the past is cherry-picked to use as weapons against equality, as justification for ongoing oppression of the vulnerable, and support for special privilege for the powerful. And this:

 

Yet see what strong intellects dare not yet hear God himself, unless he speak the phraseology of I know not what David, or Jeremiah, or Paul. We shall not always set so great a price on a few texts, on a few lives. 

 

Even as a child, the idea that God stopped speaking sometime in the past never set well with me. Why would God only speak briefly 2700 year ago (when the Old Testament was compiled in its current form) then 2000 years ago - and then completely stop? Or, if you look beyond the rhetoric and look at practice, why did God stop speaking sometime in, say 1840? Why do we have to accept the words of men long dead as coming directly from God, but cannot use our own minds and consciences to hear God’s voice now? 

 

Emerson goes on to insist that no person is exempt from error. And thus, we should not give special privileges to others because of position, whatever that may be. Including, he notes, our own family. If they are wrong, then we should be unafraid to say that. 

 

Live no longer to the expectation of these deceived and deceiving people with whom we converse. Say to them, O father, O mother, O wife, O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after appearances hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth’s. Be it known to you that henceforward I obey no law less than the eternal law…I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I will not hide my tastes or aversions…If you are noble, I will love you; if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions. 

 

This one really hit home. My break with my parents ultimately comes down to this. I refused to be who they wanted me to be, and to expect my wife and children to be who they wanted them to be. I could not and would not pretend their treatment of my wife was okay. I could not and would not listen and nod along to their bigotry - racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia - without protest. I could not pretend that any of that was okay. Once I stopped pretending, the love and acceptance was withdrawn, and I was out of their life. 

 

And yes, the term “deceived and deceiving people” is utterly perfect as a description. 

 

Man, he goes on with more good stuff! 

 

The populace think that your rejection of popular standards is a rejection of all standard, and mere antinomianism; and the bold sensualist will use the name of philosophy to gild his crimes. 

 

Anyone who has grown up in a Fundamentalist subculture knows this by heart. “You reject our doctrines because you just want to go sin.” Usually sexual sin, am I right? But anyone who actually knows atheists know that religion is not necessary for ethical behavior or ethical thinking. Just because I reject fundamentalist rules doesn’t mean I have no standards. (And nice use of “antinomianism” there, Emerson!) 

 

The second part is equally true. Religious sorts use their doctrine to gild their own disgusting behavior. (Case in point: the coverups of clergy sexual abuse of children by, for example, the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.) 

 

Want more? How about this bit on prayer, which reflects my frustration with the way “prayer” is used in Evangelicalism as some combination of attempts to manipulate God, express disdain for others, and the spiritual masturbation of making themselves feel good. “Thoughts and Prayers,” indeed. Here is what Emerson says about it. 

 

In what prayers do men allow themselves! That which they call a holy office is not so much as brave and manly. Prayer looks abroad and asks for some foreign addition to come through some foreign virtue, and loses itself in endless mazes of natural and supernatural, and mediatorial and miraculous. Prayer that craves a particular commodity, - any thing less than all good, - is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the solitude of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good. But prayer as a means to a private end is meanness and theft. It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness. As soon as a man is one with God, he will not beg. He will then see prayer as all action. 

 

I have a fraught relationship with prayer - or better yet, “prayer,” for a constellation of reasons. I struggled with the concept as a kid, and never really got over it. The examples of “spiritual giants” I was taught seemed to have some sort of a prayer “discipline” - praying for an hour or hours a day, whatever that consisted of. Which was rarely clear. A few, I supposed, used it like meditation, a mystic ecstasy. Which I kind of understand - I use music the same way. But the idea of running through a list of requests, “God bless him and her and them and…” seemed both tedious and pointless. And, as Emerson notes, asking for special blessings from God is selfishness - meanness and theft in the sense of taking more than others. Which sure seems unchristian, actually. But the other part of it is the way that “I’m praying for you” is used as a weapon in Evangelical circles. It sure has been used on me enough, including by family, since I started moving away from Fundamentalist orthodoxy. (In my teens, there were some pretty rough instances of this.) And then, there is the fact that the people I know who “pray the most” seem to be most confirmed in their self-righteousness and bigotry. Somehow, the god they are communing with seems rather unlike Christ. Which is why I view it as spiritual masturbation. Nothing more than self-gratification without the trouble of having to maintain relationships with people different from you. 

 

It was moving to a view more like Emerson’s that saved prayer for me. Once I saw my own life as a prayer of sorts, a constant walking in the presence of the Divine, without having to say anything, I was able to be okay with prayer as an experience. 

 

And yes, there is more! How about this rather socialist musing on institutions. 

 

And so the reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance. Men have looked away from themselves and at things so long, that they have come to esteem the religious, learned, and civil institutions as guards of property, and they deprecate assaults on these, because they feel them to be assaults on property. They measure their esteem of each other by what each has, and not by what each is. But a cultivate man becomes ashamed of his property, out of new respect for his nature. Especially he hates what he has, if he see that it is accidental, - came to him by inheritance, or gift, or crime; then he feels that it is not having; it does not belong to him, has no root in him, and merely lies there, because no revolution or no robber takes it away. 

 

We should be proud, Emerson asserts, in who we are and what we do, not in the property we have. I think he is right about how the American Right Wing (especially the religious right) has come to value property more than people - if they value people at all. The politics is all about preserving property from the “undeserving.” And Emerson’s point is that true self-reliance isn’t saying “I earned everything I have,” but in not relying on property for one’s self worth, and thus not clinging to it at the expense of others. 

 

That wraps up “Self Reliance” - I took more notes on that one than any other. It deserves its reputation as a work in the pantheon. 

 

The next essay was a truly fascinating one, entitled “Compensation.” One might, in our time, use “karma,” although neither term quite seems to fit with Emerson’s idea. In essence, he sees everything as having its own negation (except for love and altruism, for which there is no negation possible), and actions as having their own consequences baked in. Whether one entirely agrees with this as a general principle, Emerson in the way he discusses the concept, hits on some important truths. Actions do have consequences, even if they are not always the ones we tend to anticipate. And, ultimately, there are consequences in the here-and-now, not merely in some cosmic future. Again, there are so many delightful passages. 

 

One that stood out is the common Christian teaching that the wicked prosper now, but the good suffer. Which isn’t wrong, but it is incomplete. First, Emerson takes issue with the idea that pleasure is at the heart of the goal either way. Just to use an example familiar to our time, the Fundie-Islam idea that abstinence from sexual activity and booze in this life leads to wine and virgins in the next. 

 

Was it that houses and lands, offices, wine, horses, dress, luxury, are had by unprincipled men, whilst the saints are poor and despised; and that a compensation is to be made to these last hereafter, by giving them the like gratifications another day, - bank-stock and doubloons, venison and champagne? This must be the compensation intended; for what else? Is it that they are to have leave to pray and praise? To love and serve men? Why, that they can do now. The legitimate inference the disciple would draw was, - ‘We are to have such a good time as the sinners have now’; - or, to push it to its extreme import, - ‘You sin now; we shall sin by and by; we would sin now, if we could; not being successful, we expect our revenge to-morrow.’

 

Dang, that’s laying it out there. Emerson says straight out that the error is in having a base value system - placing value on mere money and pleasure as the pinnacle of success, rather than in higher things. Emerson both embraces the idea that pleasure is not sinning, but that the greater pleasure is to be had in the freedom of one’s own soul. “What good has a man if he gains the world yet loses his own soul.” - I think someone famous once said that. 

 

Next up is a concept that I have been discussing with friends lately, specifically has it relates to the American Right Wing, and its gross slander of everyone outside the tribe. As a friend put it, “every accusation is a confession.” Or as I put it, “everything the Right says about others is projection.” Most obvious is the ongoing accusation that LGBTQ people are “grooming children” by expecting that their existence be acknowledged in society. That accusation, of course, comes from religious organizations who are continually being exposed for covering up child sexual abuse, and excusing it in leadership. Here is Emerson’s take: 

 

A man cannot speak but he judges himself. With his will, or against his will, he draws his portrait to the eye of his companions by every word. Every opinion reacts on him who utters it. It is a thread-ball thrown at a mark, but the other end remains in the thrower’s bag. Or, rather, it is a harpoon hurled at the whale, unwinding, as it flies, a coil of cord in the boat, and if the harpoon is not good, or not well thrown, it will go night to cut the steersman in twain, or to sink the boat. 

 

My experience of the last decade or so is that this is not only very true, but it has come as a huge shock to many people, used to living in a bubble where their poisonous beliefs and words are embraced as true religion. Now, their children and grandchildren are calling bullshit on them, and they are panicked and furious. Emerson goes on in this passage too - it really is excellent. 

 

You cannot do wrong without suffering wrong. “No man had ever a point of pride that was not injurious to him,” said Burke. The exclusive in fashionable life does not see that he excludes himself from enjoyment, in the attempt to appropriate it. The exclusionist in religion does not see that he shuts the door of heaven on himself, in striving to shut out others. Treat men as pawns and ninepins, and you shall suffer as they. If you leave out their heart, you shall lose your own. The senses would make things of all persons; of women, of children, of the poor. 

 

All infractions of love and equity in our social relations are speedily punished. They are punished by fear. Whilst I stand in simple relations to my fellow-man, I have no displeasure in meeting him. We meet as water meets water, or as two currents of air mix, with perfect diffusion and interpenetration of nature. But as soon as there is any departure from simplicity, and attempt at halfness, or good for me that is not good for him, my neighbor feels the wrong; he shrinks from me as far as I have shrunk from him; his eyes no longer seek mine; there is war between us; there is hate in him and fear in me. 

 

All the old abuses in society, universal and particular, all unjust accumulations of property and power, are avenged in the same manner. Fear is an instructor of great sagacity, and the herald of ally revolutions. 

 

I mean, Emerson is spot on. Snobs do indeed cut themselves off from enjoyment. Religious bigots slam the door on themselves - and their relationships. If you treat people poorly, you hollow out your own heart. (If you want to understand the desolate soul sickness of white conservatives in America, this is where to start.) And it is true that you cannot sustain a healthy relationship that isn’t built on love and equity. 

 

“Spiritual Laws” is the next essay, and it, along with “The Over-Soul” later, focuses specifically on religion. To put it mildly, Emerson is simply not okay with a lot of the teachings of Fundamentalist Christianity. And he notes the specific toxic doctrines that I myself have thoroughly rejected over the last decade. I do not believe they are remotely compatible with the teachings of Christ, but were created later by men with some serious issues, and now are used as weapons to harm people. 

 

Our young people are diseased with the theological problems of original sin, origin of evil, predestination and the like. These never presented a practical difficulty to any man, - never darkened across any man’s road, who did not go out of his way to seek them. These are the soul’s mumps, and measles, and whooping-coughs.

 

And yes, blame Augustine for the first two, and Calvin for the last. Related note: if either my wife or I ever converted to Calvinism, it would be the end of our marriage. Also related: the staunchest Calvinists I know are the people who are the most unethical in their professional, personal, and relational lives. And the most racist, misogynistic, and cruel. The theology is a toxin, and one craved by people lacking in basic decency. 

 

One other line is worth quoting:

 

The lesson which these observations convey is, Be, and not seem.

 

One of the songs that meant the most to me on my spiritual journey is “Limelight” by Rush. 

 

Living in the limelight, the universal dream

For those who wish to seem;

Those who wish to be must put aside the alienation

Get on with the fascination

The real relation, the underlying theme. 

 

You can read my thoughts on that song, and the spiritual disease of trying to Seem rather than Be in this post on “performative piety.” 

 

Emerson turns to the subject of love in the next essay, “Love.” And by love, he means the varying shades from romantic to friendship to admiration. There are some gender assumptions in here that are a bit dated, naturally, but in many ways, his view of marriage itself is far more egalitarian and romantic than his contemporaries. He is looking toward the future, not the past. His vision of marital love is both transcendent and sensual, based on mutual passion and equality. 

 

It awaits a truer unfolding in opposition and rebuke to that subterranean prudence which presides at marriages with words that take hold of the upper world, whilst one eye is prowling in the cellar, so that its gravest discourse has a savor of hams and powdering tubs. Worst, when this sensualism intrudes into the education of young women, and withers the hope and affection of human nature, by teaching that marriage signifies nothing but a housewife’s thrift, and that woman’s life has no other aim.

 

Oh yes, this teaching directed at young women, that their destiny in life is to be a housewife, be thrifty, and serve her husband - that teaching is all over Fundamentalism, and it is the reason my wife figured she would never marry. (Until she met me, of course, and saw a chance at a true partnership, where her dreams and callings were as important as mine.) 

 

“Friendship” has some good lines as well. 

 

There are two elements that go to the composition of friendship, each so sovereign that I can detect no superiority in either, no reason why either should first be named. One is Truth. A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere…Sincerity is the luxury allowed, like diadems and authority, only to the highest rank, that being permitted to speak truth, as having none above it to court or conform unto. 

 

The other element of friendship is tenderness. We are holden to men by every sort of tie, by blood, by pride, by fear, by hope, by lucre, by lust, by hate, by admiration, by every circumstance and badge and trifle, but we can scarce believe that so much character can subsist in another as to draw us by love. Can another be so blessed, and we so pure, that we can offer him tenderness? 

 

Emerson also notes a truth about most of our acquaintance:

 

Almost every man we meet requires some civility, - requires to be humored; he has some fame, some talent, some whim of religion or philanthropy in his head that is not to be questioned, and which spoils all conversation with him. 

 

One reason I have had a significant shift in my relationships over the last decade is that I no longer desire to humor the “whim of religion” that cannot be questioned. Particularly since that “whim of religion” is just another word for “hateful politics.”

 

Emerson takes an interesting direction in “Prudence.” As he notes in the first sentence, he himself has little prudence, “and that of the negative sort.” As he says, “We write from aspiration and antagonism, as well as from experience.” 

 

I should just steal that line, as it fits a lot of my own writing. 

 

So, his riff ends up taking the idea in the same transcendentalist direction as other virtues - act within one’s nature, avoid avarice, and so on. And to keep the virtues in balance. Prudence and generosity, for example. 

 

Near the end, Emerson drops one of his bon mots, one that seems so applicable to our own times. 

 

Every violation of truth is not only a sort of suicide in the liar, but a stab at the health of human society. 

 

This connects with “Compensation” too: inherent in lying is its consequence. Which is why I cannot trust or have a relationship with those who embrace lies and liars. Emerson goes on:

 

On the most profitable lie, the course of events presently lays a destructive tax; whilst frankness invites frankness, puts the parties on a convenient footing, and makes their business a friendship. Trust men, and they will be true to you; treat them greatly, and they will show themselves great, though they make an exception in your favor to all their rules of trade.  

 

So very true in my experience. I do indeed treat people that I trust better than those I cannot trust, who have violated my trust. Ask any attorney who works in an area of law with a small group of lawyers - you learn really fast who the dicks are, and act accordingly. 

 

Overall, I would rank “Heroism” the weakest of the essays, mostly because of its glorification of war, noted above. However, it does contain this glorious passage:

 

The characteristic of heroism is its persistency. All men have wandering impulses, fits, and starts of generosity. But when you have chosen your part, abide by it, and do not weakly try to reconcile yourself with the world. The heroic cannot be the common, nor the common the heroic. Yet we have the weakness to expect the sympathy of people in those actions whose excellence is that they outrun sympathy, and appeal to a tardy justice. If you would serve your brother, because it is fit for you to serve him, do not take back your words when you find that prudent people do not commend you. Adhere to your one act, and congratulate yourself if you have done something strange and extravagant, and broken the monotony of a decorous age.

 

I took a number of notes on “The Over-Soul,” which I thought was a particularly strong essay, thoroughly relevant to our own time, with a religion that realizes it is losing the next generations, and so clings to power and privilege and seeks to use authority and violence to feel relevant. Let’s look at a few of the great passages. 

 

Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual. Yet there is a depth in those brief moments which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences. For this reason, the argument which is always forthcoming to silence those who conceive extraordinary hopes of man, namely, the appeal to experience, is for ever invalid and vain. We give up the past to the objector, and yet we hope. 

 

And this one, which really resonated with me. I have no idea if an afterlife exists, and the more I read of the Bible, the less clear I believe it to be on that point, honestly. Certainly, the specifics are mostly the fever dreams and revenge fantasies of later men. Christ himself certainly spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven as something happening now, in our own lives, and in any case, we are called to live in it now, not as some future. 

 

Men ask concerning the immortality of the soul, the employments of heaven, the state of the sinner, and so forth. They even dream that Jesus has left replies to precisely these interrogatories. Never a moment did that sublime spirit speak in their patois. To truth, justice, love, the attributes of the soul, the idea of immutableness is essentially associated. Jesus, living in this moral sentiment, headless of sensual fortunes, heeding only the manifestations of these, never made the separation of the idea of duration from the essence of these attributes, nor uttered a syllable concerning the duration of the soul. It was left to his disciples to sever the duration from the moral elements, and to teach the immortality of the soul as a doctrine, and maintain it by evidences. The moment the doctrine of the immortality is separately taught, man is already fallen. In the flowing of love, in the adoration of humility, there is no question of continuance. No inspired man ever asks this question, or condescends to these evidences. For the soul is true to itself, and the man in whom it is shed abroad cannot wander from the present, which is infinite, to a future which would be finite.

 

My experience has been that both heaven and hell, in the way they are used in our own world, are essentially tools of control. Obey us and you get an eternal reward. Disobey us, and you fry forever. It’s kind of like Santa Claus and Krampus, right? But the problem is, if we are simply doing good and avoiding evil because of horrific consequences, we just show we are bribable. Not that we are actually good. 

 

And, of course, the corollary to all this is that we get to hate those who don’t believe exactly as we do, because God will be frying them forever anyway, right? Any cruelty we show now is just chicken feed compared to what God is going to do to them, so our cruelty is irrelevant. That way lies the burning of witches. 

 

Here is another great line: 

 

When we have broken our god of tradition, and ceased from our god of rhetoric, then may God fire the heart with his presence. 

 

If you want to understand why I find Emerson to be such a kindred spirit, this line is probably the best one. I also think this one is great:

 

It makes no difference whether the appeal is to numbers or to one. The faith that stands on authority is not faith. The reliance on authority measures the decline of religion, the withdrawal of the soul. The position men have given to Jesus, now for many centuries of history, is a position of authority. It characterizes themselves. It cannot alter the eternal facts. 

 

If you need to assert authority, then what you are selling isn’t faith at all. It’s just coercion, and hierarchy, and power. The things Christ called on us to reject. It is not a coincidence that as religion declines in the US (having done its best to commit intellectual and moral suicide) it increasingly relies on authority. Which is backfiring in a huge way already. Take a look at the acceleration of the decline of religious affiliation. 

 

Emerson continues the conversation in the next couple of essays, starting with “Circles.” Although it is somewhat about his view of history and human experience as circular, it also makes a powerful argument for freedom of thought, and pursuit of truth, similar to that in “Self-Reliance.” Here are the best lines:

 

Valor consists in the power of self-recovery, so that a man cannot have his flank turned, cannot be out-generalled, but put him where you will, he stands. This can only be by his preferring truth to his past apprehension of truth; and his alert acceptance of it, from whatever quarter; the intrepid conviction that his laws, his relations to society, his Christianity, his world, may at any time be superseded and decease. 

 

This is the story of my journey. I cannot predict where it will take me, because my commitment is to truth, not to dogma. And there is not merely a difference - but the two are utter polar opposites. Emerson fleshes this out even more in the next essay, “Intellect.” (I am jumping around here, to keep the themes together.) 

 

God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please - you can never have both. Between these, as a pendulum, man oscillates. He in whom the love of repose predominates will accept the first creed, the first philosophy, the first political party he meets, - most likely his father’s. He gets rest, commodity, and reputation; but he shuts the door of truth. He in whom the love of truth predominates will keep himself aloof from all moorings, and afloat. He will abstain from dogmatism, and recognize all the opposite negations, between which, as walls, his being is swung. He submits to the inconvenience of suspense and imperfect opinion, but he is a candidate for truth, as the other is not, and respects the highest law of his being.

 

This has ultimately been the reason for my break with organized religion, and to a degree, with my parents. The epistemic capture has destroyed all common ground. (For an excellent long take on this, I recommend my friend Dan Heck’s article.) Ultimately, if your loyalty is to truth, you have to accept that you may be - and indeed are often - some combination of wrong and incomplete in your understanding. This means that dogma is problematic in itself, because it admits of no possibility of mistake. You then have the circular problem: I only trust those who are part of my tribe. My tribe is the people who believe the same dogma. If you challenge my dogma, you aren’t part of my tribe, so what you say is wrong. And around and around it goes. 

 

As my commitment has been to truth, it means I have had to leave behind a lot of my former dogma - those myths that are sustained by prejudice and love of money, power, and privilege

 

Going back to “Circles,” Emerson makes the point that youth and old age are, in one sense, about openness to learning. At some point, many of us ossify, and cease to live because we refuse to grow. From there on out, it is a matter of becoming ever more rigid and ever more bigoted in our views - the two are inseparable. Here is how Emerson puts it:

 

Thus there is no sleep, no pause, no preservation, but all things renew, germinate, and spring. Why should we import rags and relics into the new hour? Nature abhors the old, and old age seems the only disease; all others run into this one. We call it by many names, - fever, intemperance, insanity, stupidity, and crime; they are all forms of old age; they are rest, conservatism, appropriation, inertia, not newness, not the way onward. We grizzle every day. I see no need of it. Whilst we converse with what is above us, we do not grow old, but grow young. Infancy, youth, receptive, aspiring, with religious eye looking upward, counts itself nothing, and abandons itself to the instruction flowing from all sides. But the man and woman of seventy assume to know all, they have outlived their hope, they renounce aspiration, accept the actual for the necessary, and talk down to the young. 

 

That last line, ouch. It describes many in my parents’ generation for sure. I have very much experienced that talking down - at church, and within my extended family. And I am in my freaking 40s, not a child. But they know better. Of course they know so much better. And then they fume that “we can’t talk about anything anymore.” Gee, I wonder why?

 

I will also note Emerson’s observation that it is extremely helpful to study and experience broadly. It is really hard to see clearly from inside something. Using science that was cutting edge in his day, he notes that to find the parallax of a star, we use the entire width of the earth’s orbit. If you ever wonder why I try to read so broadly, this is it. I do not think one can understand the world by focusing on a narrow range of experiences. Certainly not by reading only right-wing conservative white American writers. And so I read from around the world, across history, and from different perspectives. (To be fair, this blog shows few truly right wing books, because of my requirement of truth over propaganda, the fact that the American Right is so far out there right now that reality appears to skew “left,” and because I was so steeped in that point of view that I can already recite the talking points from memory.) 

 

The final essay, “Art,” is the shortest, but also contains some interesting perspective. I mentioned his laughable misstep when it comes to sculpture, but the rest of the essay is good. For example, this rather postmodern observation. 

 

No man can quite emancipate himself from his age and country, or produce a model in which the education, the religion, the politics, usages, and arts, of his times shall have no share. Though he were never so original, never so willful and fantastic, he cannot wipe out of his work every trace of the thoughts amidst which it grew. The very avoidance betrays the usage he avoids. Above his will, and out of his sight, he is necessitated, by the air he breathes, and the idea on which he and his contemporaries live and toil, to share the manner of his times, without knowing what that manner is. 

 

This is an argument I have had with so many conservative sorts. True objectivity is impossible, and it was in the past as well. Neither the Bible nor the Constitution can be understood outside their context, and even then, imperfectly. And our attempts to find some “objective” interpretation are not merely futile - although they are - they are in actuality a smoke screen to obscure our subjective intent. 

 

So sure, I am fully aware that I am a product of my time, and influenced by the air I breathe, so to speak. But so are you, and so were the people you claim as authorities. And Emerson freely owns that he is too.  

 

And this leads to the final quote I will make from the book. 

 

He has conceived meanly of the resources of man, who believes that the best age of production is past.

 

Make no mistake, Emerson praises Shakespeare, and Homer, and many of the old writers - I guarantee you that he read more of them than any of us - and in the original languages no less. But he also genuinely believed that the best in art, the best in thought, the best in practice, was yet to come. Neither God nor the Muses have ceased to talk. Thus, the essay ends with the admonition to take all the ideas the author has discussed, and, combined with a trust in ourselves, our instincts, our intellect, and our humanity, and go out and make that next generation of art, that next generation of philosophy, and that next generation of ethical thinking. 

 

I have mentioned before that I have concluded that I am a Christian Humanist, and I think that Emerson falls in that category too. For all that he was of his age - and admitted it - his philosophy led him in the direction of human thriving, for a religion that healed, not harmed, and for true freedom for all. And that is why he is worth reading today.