Ralph Waldo Emerson on his 200th birthday this spring is “closer to us than ever,” writes the great Harold Bloom. He is a man for bloggers to embrace most especially, not for Emerson’s glory but for our own understanding of a transformative moment we are living through.
Poet, public intellectual, performance artist and incomparable diarist, Emerson (1803-1882) has glory enough. It’s we who need his encouraging frame around bloggery–this still strange and marvellous exercise in democratic media.
Dave Winer reported in Scripting News yesterday that I’d been ranting about Emerson’s prophetic grasp of the bloggers’ emergence. But then Dave said he didn’t get it. So here goes, Dave. Doc Searls, as a non-tech and spoken-word kinda guy, I think you can help us out here. Come one, come all.
Here’s my point. When we talk about this Internet and this blogging software, this techno-magic that encourages each of us to be expressive voices in an open, universal network of across-the-board conversation, we are speaking of an essentially Emersonian device for an essentially Emersonian exercise. Starting with the electronics. “Invent a better mousetrap,” as Emerson wrote, “and the world will beat a path to your door.” Well, here we are.
Here’s Emerson in a paragraph: blue-eyed, slope-shouldered, with an Indian nose that formed the gentlest of hatchet faces, he was a child of the Boston Latin School and the youngest member of the Harvard class of 1821. He was a Christian minister who left the church in his mid-thirties to be a professional talker and writer, a “diamond dealer,” someone said, in moral and ethical ideas. His friend Henry David Thoreau kept the vegetable garden at Emerson’s Old Manse in Concord, the same house where the young Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote his classic early stories. We all know fragments of Emerson: the Concord Hymn about “the rude bridge that arched the flood” and “the shot heard round the world,” which Robert Frost thought was the finest of American poems. We all know that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” and other bits of the essay Self-Reliance, and that “to be great is to be misunderstood.” Or the warning that: “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one if its members.” Melancholy and enthusiasm are contrasting strands through all Emerson, but there is no summing up this man who disagreed with himself and both perplexed and dazzled his friends. Walt Whitman loved it that nobody could tag Emerson’s thinking: “no province, no clique, no church.” Whitman felt “a flood of light” about Emerson, an impression of pure being. Hawthorne said Emerson “wore a sunbeam in his face.”
In the booming energy of blog world, we are glimpsing the fulfillment of an Emersonian vision: this democracy of outspoken individuals.
“Trust thyself,” was Emerson’s refrain. “Every heart vibrates to that iron string.”
Speak your own convictions, and your own contradictions, he urged. Claim your own ideas before someone else does. “I hate quotations,” begins another of the famous aphorisms. “Tell me what you know.” Which is what the great bloggers keep doing.
“In all my lectures,” Emerson boiled it down, “I have taught one doctrine, the infinitude of the private man.” Bloggers, do we recognize ourselves?
We are glimpsing also, through individual voices on the World Wide Web, the fulfillment of Emerson’s universalism and his confidence in cultural connectivity. The definitively American thinker was a globalist before there was such a thing. He was anti-racist and anti-nationalist, a student of Persian poetry and Buddhism, an inspiration to Thomas Carlyle and Jawarhalal Nehru. Not because he was a multi-culturalist but because he thought the human mind and heart were capable of immense and innumerable expansions. “There is no outside, no inclosing wall, no circumference to us,” he wrote in the essay: Circles. And now with the Web we understand more nearly what he meant.
Ahead of the evolutionary and cognitive scientists, Emerson believed there was one human brain, one universal mind.
We are, almost all of us, in range of Aristotle’s intellect, Emerson fancied. “The mind is one,” he wrote in the essay, History: “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 be-fallen 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.”
When he speaks of “access to this universal mind,” he could be describing the leveling effect of Google search engines. He encompasses the idea of distributed intelligence, and the ideal of networked computers as a democracy of end-users.
“Democracy has its root,” Emerson wrote, “in the sacred truth that every man hath in him the Divine reason.” Even though “few men since the creation of the world live according to the dictate of Reason, yet all men are created capable of so doing. That is the equality and the only equality of all men.”
The electronic liberation of information is giving a new kick to Emerson’s theory and hope.
Emerson celebrated consciousness, the miracle of self-awareness in each and every one of us. He would still today be fighting the scientific reduction of its magic. In his journal, at age 23, he sounded like many a burbling blogger: “There is a pleasure in the thought that the particular tone of my mind at this moment may be new in the Universe; that the emotions of this hour may be peculiar and unexampled in the whole eternity of moral being.”
Emerson was himself a sort of group blogger in The Dial, a magazine he founded with Margaret Fuller in 1840. He designed it as a compendium of the “good fanatics,” like Thoreau, Alcott and Channing in his Concord circle. “I would not have it too purely literary,” he wrote to Fuller, venting a blogger’s ambition. “I wish we might make a Journal so broad and great in its survey that it should lead the opinion of this generation on every interest and read the law on property, government, education, as well as on art, letters, and religion.”
Emerson’s purpose in The Dial, he said, was “to give expression to that spirit which lifts men to a higher platform, restores to them the religious sentiment, brings them to worthy aims and pure pleasures, purges the inward eye and reconciles the practical with the speculative powers.” In short, he said, in a perfect distillation of himself, the magazine must become “one cheerful rational voice amidst the din of mourners and polemics.”
When I first read that line in the mid-1990s, it was like a thunderclap in my ears. The din of mourners and polemics, 150 years after Emerson coined the phrase, was deafening in Bill Clinton’s America. The mourners were mostly in the print press (mourning, for starters, the decline of their own medium). The polemicists like Rush Limbaugh were hammering away on the airwaves. But by then I had found in my own public radio talk show that “cheerful, rational” space for public conversation across an Emersonian range of gab. Emerson’s couplet caught the spirit of it: “The music that can deepest reach, And cure all ill, is cordial speech.”
The next trick will be to use audio capacity on the Web to add the timbre of “vox humana” and integrate the mosaic tiles of blog wisdom in authentic conversation.
Emerson encourages me. “Bad times have a scientific value,” he wrote. “These are occasions a good learner would not miss.”
Harold Bloom and others say that we are all Emersonians by now, willy nilly, for both good and ill.
I start more narrowly. My modern Emersonian is, first, a non-dogmatic believer with an alert interest in the inward and the invisible mysteries of a spirit-driven creation.
I want to embrace bloggers in general as Essential Emersonians: radical democrats and individualists, sick unto death of our imprisonment by mass media, mass emotion, the retribalization in our time by mass labeling, mass marketing, mass following, sheepish mass everything. That modern Emersonian is nonetheless cheerfully banking on the reawakening of individual conscience, individual ambition, individual possibility.
The modern Emersonian celebrates the astonishing advances of biological sciences and evolutionary history confirming what Emerson knew intuitively was the unity of our polyglot and multi-colored species.
The modern Emersonian celebrates also the Internet technology that can sustain a free, democratic, global conversation as intimate and as broad as the chatter of Emerson’s venerable Saturday Club in Boston.
The modern Emersonian is, in short, an ecstatic melancholic, an unquenchable optimist in a darkening world, aware that the big trick for grown-ups is to look unblinking at the torture and tyranny, the pandemic disease and progressive brutalization of people and the planet and know that is not the whole story and that this is no time to give up.