Anyway, as happens with my other such favorite influential authors — Kafka, Vonnegut, Melville, Hemingway, London, Conrad… (I know, I know. This list is very male and very white… I’m working on that. I promise.) — I, like clockwork, begin jonesin’ for a Camus fix at least once a year.
Right now I’m in the midst of satisfying my most recent Camus craving by plowing through several of my perennial favorites of his — The Stranger, The Plague, and The Fall.
However, yesterday I began reading for the first time a short story collection of his called Exile and the Kingdom, and I’m saddened and a bit embarrassed to report to you that, after three stories in, I really don’t have a clue what’s going on in any of them. They, after the first read, just don’t make any sense to me. Hopefully they will after subsequent reads.
In my last post “Hey Reader, What’s Your Angle,” I invited you all to share a link to a book that you’ve reviewed that provides some insight, via your writing, as to how you apply your critical thinking strategy towards the books you read.
I’m so happy that MB BLISSETT was kind/brave enough to take me up on the offer; for, not only did he introduce me to THE FEVER by Meg Abbott with his interesting and insightful review of her work, he introduced me to a new eclectic world of creativity and intellect that can be found all throughout his website.
After reading his review that I introduce here, I strongly urge you to then head straight to his About page as it is most interesting and entertaining – I read it and I feel a strong kinship with his outlook toward writing and his literary taste.
Comments are closed here so that you can share your thoughts directly with MB at his website.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs posits that when base needs are met, then your desires become more refined. Which usually means that your fears probably work on the same level. If you’re not risking death every single time that you give birth, then you’re worried that they will live to be healthy adults and when they’re healthy adolescents, you’re worried about any number of factors. Within the haunted house of parenthood and adolescence, Megan Abbott knows where the ghosts live and shows them to you.
The Fever ably captures the beauty and passion, the terror, the contradictory desire for freedom and privacy, the secrets that women keep from themselves and one another. She uses social media and how it intertwines and defines the worlds of young people subtly and effectively. In the iconography of the modern world, the online video is the sermon, the blowing of the whistle or in this…
Probably the most influential and impactive course I took during my college years (and for me, “college years” do not mean four coming-out-years of raucous partying and occasional studying, it means thirteen long and tedious years of night school, transferring to this college or that college depending on where the military assigned me, and all of which were completely dependent upon the sacrifice and commitment from my lovely and loving wife) was a Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism (or something to that effect) course while attending Tidewater Community College in Chesapeake, Virginia, oh so long ago.
It was this course, taught by an instructor mild in manner but powerful in purpose and ability whose name I sadly cannot remember, in which I was instructed and inspired to become an active reader — a reader who brings to a book not just a desire to be entertained, but desires to seek within the work deeper and hidden meanings, as well as to impose upon the work a personal agenda.
I quickly learned that being an active reader by itself takes more than a little bit of effort; but being an active reader with an angle, so to speak, is an exhaustive work out.
No really… thinking burns significant calories, my friend. Ergo, the harder you think, the more calories you burn, ergo once more… the more exhaustive – and rewarding – workout you have. Don’t believe me ask the Google God.
If you aren’t aware, I happen to be an excessively white, less-than-excessively (nowadays, anyway) WASPy kind of dude who was socialized as a youth in and by an excessively white and WASPy home, church, school, television, books, etc. kind of way. And one thing about us white, WASPy dudes — and if you are not a white, WASPy dude you probably understand this much better than we ever will — is that we have a very strong tendency to see the world through rose-colored glasses.
I mean, come on, the industrialized world we now live in pretty much has grown out of the minds of past and present white, WASPy dudes so why wouldn’t all the rest of us white, WASPy dudes think all life is just grand and peachy keen, right?
Anyway… we can have a much longer discussion about the pros and cons of white, WASPy worldviews later, but the point about it here is, when it came to being an active reader with an agenda, well, I just didn’t have one to inherently apply to the literature I was reading, since most of the literature I was reading came from the minds of those with worldviews similar to mine.
Can you dig?
Which is why the book the course was based upon was so important to the success of the class, and why, even today, it continues to be so important to me.
Long story short – kind of: The book provides a survey of all the major schools of literary criticism and the coursework involved reading short stories and having to critique them by applying the various critical schools. This, of course, meant that yours truly here had to think, read, and react to the work not like a staid white, WASPy dude that I was and, much to much of the world’s dismay, still am, but as a Deconstructionist, or, gasp, a Marxist or even, deeper gasp… a Feminist!
Needless to say, I survived the severe disruption to my cozy worldview. But I didn’t just survive it, I thrived from it. It really opened my eyes to all the many ways – good and not so good – works of literature can and are interpreted and understood by those with worldviews quite dissimilar to mine.
I’ve come to find that life is much more thoughtful and clear and understanding once those rose-colored glasses were removed and seen as others without them see it.
So, I ask you, Dear Reader, what’s your angle?
Are you an active reader?
Do you bring an agenda to a body of literary work when reading it?
My guess is most of us don’t because being an active reader is tough work.
Even though I intend to go into a body of work with purpose, I more often than not find myself being a “casual reader,” a reader easily lured into passivity by the cozy confines of verisimilitude, until I’m wrapped up – held hostage – by the telling of a good story. And once I finally am able to break free from the stories grasp, I’ll have to go back and try once again to read critically what I had just read mindlessly.
As Kurt Vonnegut so wisely, and often, said: So it goes…
However, if you, Dear Reader, are an active reader with an agenda, or even if you are not, I’d like to know about it. Drop me a line in the comment section and let me know about your reading strategy, or lack thereof.
And if you are a book reviewer with an agenda, please provide links to some of your work. I would love to read it and, perhaps, reblog it here to share with others.
When I was a boy my uncle and his big boys hunted with the rifle, the youngest boy Fred and I with a shotgun–a small single-barrelled shotgun which was properly suited to our size and strength; it was not much heavier than a broom. We carried it turn about, half an hour at a time. I was not able to hit anything with it, but I liked to try. Fred and I hunted feathered small game, the others hunted deer, squirrels, wild turkeys, and such things. My uncle and the big boys were good shots. They killed hawks and wild geese and such like on the wing; and they didn’t wound or kill squirrels, they stunned them. When the dogs treed a squirrel, the squirrel would scamper aloft and run out on a limb and flatten himself along it, hoping to make himself invisible in that way– and not quite succeeding. You could see his wee little ears sticking up. You couldn’t see his nose, but you knew where it was. Then the hunter, despising a “rest” for his rifle, stood up and took offhand aim at the limb and sent a bullet into it immediately under the squirrel’s nose, and down tumbled the animal, unwounded, but unconscious; the dogs gave him a shake and he was dead. Sometimes when the distance was great and the wind not accurately allowed for, the bullet would hit the squirrel’s head; the dogs could do as they pleased with that one–the hunter’s pride was hurt, and he wouldn’t allow it to go into the gamebag.
In the first faint gray of the dawn the stately wild turkeys would be stalking around in great flocks, and ready to be sociable and answer invitations to come and converse with other excursionists of their kind. The hunter concealed himself and imitated the turkey-call by sucking the air through the leg-bone of a turkey which had previously answered a call like that and lived only just long enough to regret it. There is nothing that furnishes a perfect turkey-call except that bone. Another of Nature’s treacheries, you see. She is full of them; half the time she doesn’t know which she likes best–to betray her chid or protect it. In the case of the turkey she is badly mixed: she gives it a bone to be used in getting it into trouble, and she also furnishes it with a trick for getting itself out of the trouble again. When a mamma-turkey answers an invitation and finds she has made a mistake in accepting it, she does as the mamma-partridge does–remembers a previous engagement–and goes limping and scrambling away, pretending to be very lame; and at the same time she is saying to her not-visible children, “Lie low, keep still, don’t expose yourselves; I shall be back as soon as I have beguiled this shabby swindler out of the country.”
When a person is ignorant and confiding, this immoral device can have tiresome results. I followed an ostensibly lame turkey over a considerable part of the United States one morning, because I believed in her and could not think she would deceive a mere boy, and one who was trusting her and considering her honest. I had the single-barrelled shotgun, but my idea was to catch her alive. I often got within rushing distance of her, and then made my rush; but always, just as I made my final plunge and put my hand down where her back had been, it wasn’t there; it was only two or three inches from there and I brushed the tail- feathers as I landed on my stomach–a very close call, but still not quite close enough; that is, not close enough for success, but just close enough to convince me that I could do it next time. She always waited for me, a little piece away, and let on to be resting and greatly fatigued; which was a lie, but I believed it, for I still thought her honest long after I ought to have begun to doubt her, suspecting that this was no way for a high-minded bird to be acting. I followed, and followed, and followed, making my periodical rushes, and getting up and brushing the dust off, and resuming the voyage with patient confidence; indeed, with a confidence which grew, for I could see by the change of climate and vegetation that we were getting up into the high latitudes, and as she always looked a little tireder and a little more discouraged after each rush, I judged that I was safe to win, in the end, the competition being purely a matter of staying power and the advantage lying with me from the start because she was lame.
Along in the afternoon I began to feel fatigued myself. Neither of us had had any rest since we first started on the excursion, which was upwards of ten hours before, though latterly we had paused awhile after rushes, I letting on to be thinking about something else; but neither of us sincere, and both of us waiting for the other to call game but in no real hurry about it, for indeed those little evanescent snatches of rest were very grateful to the feelings of us both; it would naturally be so, skirmishing along like that ever since dawn and not a bite in the meantime; at least for me, though sometimes as she lay on her side fanning herself with a wing and praying for strength to get out of this difficulty a grasshopper happened along whose time had come, and that was well for her, and fortunate, but I had nothing–nothing the whole day.
More than once, after I was very tired, I gave up taking her alive, and was going to shoot her, but I never did it, although it was my right, for I did not believe I could hit her; and besides, she always stopped and posed, when I raised the gun, and this made me suspicious that she knew about me and my marksmanship, and so I did not care to expose myself to remarks.
I did not get her, at all. When she got tired of the game at last, she rose from almost under my hand and flew aloft with the rush and whir of a shell and lit on the highest limb of a great tree and sat down and crossed her legs and smiled down at me, and seemed gratified to see me so astonished.
I was ashamed, and also lost; and it was while wandering the woods hunting for myself that I found a deserted log cabin and had one of the best meals there that in my life-days I have eaten. The weed-grown garden was full of ripe tomatoes, and I ate them ravenously, though I had never liked them before. Not more than two or three times since have I tasted anything that was so delicious as those tomatoes. I surfeited myself with them, and did not taste another one until I was in middle life. I can eat them now, but I do not like the look of them. I suppose we have all experienced a surfeit at one time or another. Once, in stress of circumstances, I ate part of a barrel of sardines, there being nothing else at hand, but since then I have always been able to get along without sardines.
Seriously folks, if you love classic literature and love to listen to classic voice actors, you need to check out Bob Neufeld’s grand body of work.
Seriously folks, I’ve been a fan of Neufeld’s ever since I found him at the beginning of my First Commitment to Emerson (yes, that’s still a thing – stay tuned).
Seriously folks, I just finished Neufeld’s reading of a Heart of Darkness and I’ve never experienced the book so deeply and movingly. More to follow on this reading.
Seriously folks, go to his page, load up your Kindle with all books Neufeld has narrated, and spend your summer, like intend to, listening to the greatest literature being read by one great voice actor.
So, instead of using the time to write like I always wish I had upon realizing that the morning has passed, I usually spend my mornings reading stuff off the web. I start with the news but end up flitting around the data pond like a water bug. A highly caffeinated water bug.
So, yeah, coffee in hand I settle into “the chair,” aka “the command center,” and begin a dereliction of my writing duties with sleepy anticipation. First I fire up my NPR One app so that I can have the settling drone of my favorite morning voices lulling me with all the day’s tragedies in the background, then I fire up my MSN News app. It’s pure awesomeness. What I like best about it is that it’s always feeding New York Times articles and they don’t count against the ten free articles I am allowed monthly. Yes, alas, I am too cheap to pay for a NYT subscription, which, of course, further promotes quality journalism’s fast march to death.
From that point on, your guess is as good as mine as to where I will end up…
Admittedly, mindless flitting can lead me to some highly dangerous and corrupting places.
So, because I can think of nothing better to post about right now (surely not because I assume you were wondering), here is a very quick cut of what a typical morning of mine looks like.
I have a tailored section in my MSN News app that pulls in everything “literature” related. Pretty handy. This morning it pulled in this article:
Despite the philosophical questions, Wood’s book is not really a metaphysical inquiry so much as a reflection on inquiry in writing. “The Why? question is a refusal to accept death,” he argues, and storytelling itself is almost a satanic act of rebellion given that the “ability to see the whole of a life is godlike.” By playing God, he argues, “we also work against God, hurl down the script, refuse the terms of the drama, appalled by the meaninglessness and ephemerality of existence.”
Interesting article; though I’m not sure it answered the question why fiction and criticism matter. Probably missed it since I’m constantly flitting around the internet which is causing my brain to unlearn its ability to learn.
But from the article, I did discover this by Thomas De Quincy:
Here I pause for one moment, to exhort the reader never to pay any attention to his understanding, when it stands in opposition to any other faculty of his mind. The mere understanding, however useful and indispensable, is the meanest faculty in the human mind, and the most to be distrusted; and yet the great majority of people trust to nothing else, which may do for ordinary life, but not for philosophical purposes.
A rather awesome essay; as is evident, I’m certain, even from the selected quote above.
So, yeah, after reading the De Quincy essay, can you guess where I’m flitting off to next?
Yup, you got it…
Off I go for a reread of this, which should easily take me to the end of the morning…
And the beginning of my dereliction of writing regrets.
The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them. The waving of the boughs in the storm, is new to me and old. It takes me by surprise, and yet is not unknown. Its effect is like that of a higher thought or a better emotion coming over me, when I deemed I was thinking justly or doing right.
Give me the Forest
give me the forest
where only the keening call of the morrow
dare break the sacred calm of the sylvan now
the ritual of the soaring hum
give me the forest
where there are no rules
but the rooting scrawls of the cloven beast
unearthing pagan creeds
blasphemous guides to the dark
to the place where all the fears are found
all the magic
give me the forest
where the haunted howls of midnight
call to worship
all the pious and profane
all the naked unbelievers who mock the baptismal of the moon
give me the forest
where the tattered persona is stripped away
ripped away and hung from the treetops
desperate semaphore signals for the dire
where the anima dances on fresh laid graves
sodden with tears of the holy
Having moved slow and steady through two readings of Nature, with nightly accompaniments of Librivox audio readings that would lull me away to sleep with visions of all the vast universal wonderments dancing in my head, it is now time to sift through my sporadic notes and swirling thoughts to try to make use of what I have come across, as I look to somehow apply to my life all that which Emerson teaches with his complexly simple essays as found in Nature.
However, as I consider such intellectual derring-do, I find myself drawn back to one of the first opportunities for learning the work provides me; one found in a most bold and faith-requiring passage from the introduction:
Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable.
We must trust the perfection of the creation so far as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds,
the order of things can satisfy.
What a wonder of a statement – Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable.
What a brave, perhaps reckless even, proclamation – We must trust the perfection of creation…
Do you believe that?
Undoubtedly – without any doubt?
Do I believe that?
As wonderful and bold as this passage may be, alas can it possibly be true?
Can it be possible that the order of things can satisfy completely my curiosity? Can this perfection answer all my questions, from those of the most simple and mundane to those of the most metaphysically profound?
And even if it can be possible, will it?
Only time will tell, I suppose.
Until then, for answers to all my seemingly unanswerable questions, I rely upon the only thing the perfection of creation presently allows me…
And that is my less than perfect Faith.
Inspired by Nature? Join our Newsletter Love Emerson, First Commitment.
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Edition 003-15 is germane.
Our good friend in literature and life, Paul Xylinides, author of the powerful and finely crafted novel THE WILD HORSES OF HIROSHIMA, among other works, has taken on the noble challenge of standing up a literary review site that I encourage each of you to visit regularly and enjoy.
The site is called theliteraryreader ~ Reviews of the written word and you can find it at theliteraryreader.com.
So please join me in congratulating Paul on this new adventure of his and thank him for furthering the recognition and advancement of the written word.
Congratulations, Paul, and may you enjoy a success such that we all may be rewarded and enlightened by it.
The Sea Trials of an Unfortunate Sailor by Kurt Brindley
Review by Paul Xylinides
Kurt Brindley joins forces with Herman Melville
Before I begin this review, let me first recommend to anyone whom it persuades to read The Sea Trials of an Unfortunate Sailor, that after doing so they further benefit themselves by looking again at their copy of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor that I shall, however, quote from extensively. Kurt Brindley’s accomplishment should come into even greater focus when looked at through the lens of the nineteenth century classic novel.
Anyone who has ever experienced the injustice of being condemned by those who characterize their sensitivities in ways fundamentally at odds with their true identity will respond deeply to the travails of Kurt Brindley”s protagonist in The Sea Trials of an Unfortunate Sailor. From a tellingly different perspective the same fate befalls Melville’s hero. One cannot help but…
While I had resolved myself to reading Emerson deeply, I had not expected to find myself meditating and reflecting so deeply on individual passages of his writing. I assumed it would be more like me reading an essay and write a summary essay in response. However, what I find is that his writing is so powerful so frequently that I am just as frequently compelled to expression from it; which is why you find my written responses to my reading so focused on and specific to only single passages or even just a sentence or two.
Leadership is about convincing those whom you lead to do those things that they would not otherwise do. It is about setting an example you wish for others to emulate. It is about making tough choices, choices that oftentimes are not popular, and sometimes even painful…or life ending.
If I were Queen* of the World, the first thing I most likely would do is abdicate my crown as I am not sure I could handle such responsibility.
But fortunately for us, this is merely an exercise of what ifs where the consequences of our imagination propagate barely beyond the borders of this page…
All three of today’s responses to the prompt bring great value to this what if exercise of sort we just put ourselves through. For we find if one were QOTW, she would wipe out Evil in its entirety and bring about total global peace, if even for just one day. We find if another were QOTW, she would leave the status quo essentially in its existential place, for it is up to the individual, each of us, to want to choose the Good over Evil for the goodness to have any viable meaning and in order for Evil to, maybe not be conquered, but at least set back on its heels a bit. And, another, our selection for this first Daily Writing Prompt thingie, brings both the wish to wipe out Evil in its entirety and the understanding that, even if she were QOTW, her powers would still have their limits, and that perhaps her greatest power is the example that she can provide for others in how one should live a life of peace, of how one should choose compassion over anger, and of how she, as QOTW, by her example of peace and compassion could provide a less dangerous world for all of us to live and thrive in so that no one, especially our children, would have to become a refugee as a result from the failure of others to achieve peace.
To be a refugee means to be displaced. I wish nobody on this planet be affected by wars of any kind, which forces them to leave their shelter. The thought of “children being refugees of war” gives me goosebumps, more so because I’m a mother myself & anything related to a child makes me think in a motherly manner. It hurts deeply to read about what all trauma they face being refugees, that too being oblivious of what’s going on?
When I think of the people behind these wars & wonder the kind of mental state they have, often leads me to lot of frustration. They are not aliens, they are people like us, we call them inhuman, but that does not change the fact that they are human beings.
We all wish & Pray to God to make this world a better place. We wish for change.
I think a child is like a seed. You need to take care of it well. Nurture it with love & care. Instill in them from the very start, the value of kindness, value of love & let them know what is acceptable & what’s not. If each one of us will do our bit, then every house will produce a kind adult.
Imagine the fragrance of the world with so many kind flowers blooming then.
If the queen propagates kindness maybe the world will follow the suit. All this may sound unimaginable in today’s world. But if we’re talking about me being the queen, I will talk about my ways. Yes! That’s what I believe. Everything can be fixed with love. Hatred only leads to grudges & war. Love & words of kindness have immense healing power.
The queen will let it’s people know…
1. Be kind to those who are kind to you.
2.You don’t always need weapons to convey your point, use your words instead.
3. Anger always takes away people’s balanced thinking power.
4.Only a calm mind has the power to think wise.
A very tough & sensitive situation to deal with. The queen will have to be strong too. Stand tall & face it all. Last, but not the least –
Believe that she can make this world a better place to live.
Thank you very much to all who responded to this first Daily Writing Prompt thingie. Pretty cool.
Priyanki, if you are interested in a digital copy of one of my selections available at Amazon, please let me know your choice via the Contact page.
Icy white mountain
Snowflakes gust to azure sky-
singing flock of doves.
As announced in Newsletter Love 004-15, this visually beautiful and flowing haiku is our selection for what came to be known as the inaugural (which suggests there may be more) Newsletter Love Haiku Challenge, formally entitled Haiku You, Haiku Me ~ A Contest of Sort.
Our contest of sort had seven participants, each submitting their work in an effort to fulfill the spirit of the contest, which was to “write a haiku that focuses on the temporal nature of all things material.” This challenge was met effortlessly by all the participants, their haiku transcendent and unique each in their own special way.
While all participants easily met the spirit of the challenge, Shmatala, Esq. with her visually beautiful and flowing haiku was able to conjure within me “that same sense of connection to the Elements, to the Earth, to the Universe, as I [feel] when I walk my country roads during the cold, when the snow swirls across the fields like tornadoes in miniature and with the sky so blue in its surreality. And I hear those same singing doves come spring. It is in both the morning and the evening that their song of mourning calls.” Consequently, it is her haiku I was compelled to select.
There is so much I would like to say about each haiku entry, but, as I am eager to introduce Shmatala, Esq. and her moving essay, I will simply say to all participants, thank you from the bottom of my heart. What joy and inspiration you all have brought to our little salon-like space of a newsletter full of love, and to me.
Shmatala, Esq. is a self-described quintessential Canadian, who over the past decade has went from Halifax to Vancouver and, now, back to her hometown of Montreal. She is a lawyer by profession but had to give it up for the time being to care for her father – and his business, which is in the “rag” trade or “shmata” in Yiddish. As is evidenced by her website’s powerful and socially aware haiku and other poetic reflections, we take her completely at her word when she tells us that “I am doing my darndest to bring some light into this world any way I can.”
It is my pleasure to present to you more of the flowing power and grace with which Shmatala, Esq. is lighting up our world.
All things are temporary. Eventually we will loose everything: all the immovable and movable property that we collect, everyone we know, and ourselves. The only certainty is change but many, on a fool’s errand, try to resist or avoid change in pursuit of certainty. We try to convince ourselves that we have some form of permanence by collecting as much as possible, imagining that our existence will extend if only we collect enough money, notoriety or Facebook friends. We hold on to everything tightly, convinced that we can control everything and some how guide change (or maybe stop it altogether) through our stuff. Ironically, ceasing to change is, literally, to cease to exist.
We can see this struggle in our political landscape. We so fear the flow of change that we have managed to keep the same people in power, the wealth in the same pockets, and the poor, mentally ill and destitute in their place and generally out of sight. We do not trust that tomorrow will still come, that there will be more (at this point, we have enough resources on the planet so that everyone can eat and become educated), but we are afraid to pull the trigger, afraid of loosing, afraid of what’s next and that we might be left behind.
Existence in a cycle of sequential endings and beginnings: Constant change. One thing must end to give rise to the next. Winter turns to Spring, the solid mountains of snow and ice will melt into the earth, nourishing new seeds. Shorter days will become longer, new life will come. One period must end for the next to begin. At the end, when we cast off our physical forms, we will all fly away, singing our freedom, cascading over a cold morning sky, redeemed: a flock of singing doves.
Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?
Here we find Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the opening passage of his introduction to his seminal essay “Nature,” bemoaning the distance he and his generation are from anything Original and True as compared to preceding generations. As he sees it, only through the firsthand experiences and the tales of our forefathers and foremothers have we been able to learn our life’s lessons and traditions. The gleaming highest highs our civilizations are able to reach are only because of the solid foundations built from and with Nature’s sacred mud by the caring and calloused hands of those to whom have gone before us and who now uplift us still.
If the great Emerson, a transcendental man, perhaps the Transcendental Man as he was in possession of a most extraordinary ability to focus and perceive that which the eye of most mortals miss, is shocked by such a revelation, then it seems to this less-than-transcendental and exceedingly mortal man just how far we find our present selves from those God beholding foregoing generations would bring about the death of fright to such a perceptive and feeling man as he.
And it is not just a distance in generational time I am referring to, but also, mostly, a distance in understanding, as perhaps the same could be said of Emerson’s meaning; though as far as he felt his generation was from an understanding of the Original and True, just how much farther away from understanding we of the present are is too hard for me to imagine.
Just what does our generation know of Nature? of God? of the Universe? Just how many more countless sepulchres have we built and how many more countless biographies have we written? Surely we know greatly of nature and of god and of the universe through the words and misdeeds of our spawning and splintering sects and religious disorders, and through the kaleidoscopic lens and the equations of the material, the physical, carried out to the farthest nth of a degree, accessible to only but a few of our most scientific of brains. Yea, ours is but a weak and plastic generation with hardly one of us finding even a germ under the nail let alone a fleck of sacred earthen mud, so far removed from Nature and Her Elements are we.
Like the everlasting trees Of the most symbolic
Our ancients bare green before us Full in their lustrous branches Roots firmed in their foundation While with the passing breeze Our limbs naked and thin We waive
Lo! but look at me. Look at me, me with my naked, thin limbs waiving away my right of birth to ancient spirits more alive long dead than I whose blood still courses hot will every be. I whose blood still courses hot but whose heart has grown cold and without passion for the Original, the True. I lie content each night having yet let another day slip away without once baring my feet and stepping into the grass; without once feeling the raw moonglow on my rusty skin.
But it wasn’t always so. I wasn’t always so distant from the Original and the True. And neither were you, for we were all born of and from the Original and of the True. It is who, in essence, I am and who you are.
We just forgot, that’s all.
We just allowed each passing day to take us farther and farther from who we were born to be.
So much time has
passed since then,
since I last felt raw
my rusty skin,
that I have forgotten
how the breath of night
can upturn a sallow face.
when I could still remember
how to pause,
and how to listen,
and how to breathe,
for more reasons
than just to breathe,
I knew fields
and calico aster;
I knew how to kneel,
and how to observe,
and how to bring myself to quiet.
And I knew,
that if I lay
on my back
beneath the reeds
and remained hushed,
as night clouds
shadowed and silent,
that my Self
would simply fall
As romping youth we did not have to be told how to meditate, how to pray. We just knew. We had no need for such technical terms as spirituality or epiphany or satori, for it was in our unknowing that we were able to truly know them. And now that we know them, we know nothing.
I suppose the question is, then, can we return to our essence? Can we, in our knowledge and understanding, return to the bliss of ignorance, to the wisdom of youth, so that we can come back again, if even just a little closer, to the Original and True.
Are we able to do that, knowing what we know?
I’ll bare my feet
and step old and aching
into the caliginous balm
of the cool redemptive night.
A subtle chain of countless rings
The next unto the farthest brings;
The eye reads omens where it goes;
And speaks all languages of the rose;
And, striving to be man, the worm
Mounts through all the spires of form
Too often I’ll show little regard to introductions and read through them with hardly reading them at all, my eyes skimming dismissively over the words in an effort to get to “the true essence” of the work. However, as I have resolved to not just read, but to read deeply the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, I have to remember, then, that care needs to be given to each of the words that Emerson had specifically chosen to pen, as he had entrusted each chosen word to convey its part of a broader message that he had, himself, intended to convey. So it is with care and attention that I proceed.
Other than the title, the above poem is our first encounter with the essay “Nature,” the first piece presented in The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson; and, consequently, the first commitment to that which I have resolved myself. But before considering the poem, we mustn’t overlook the essay’s title; for, from it, we can focus more clearly on the meaning of the poem specifically, as well as the body of work writ large.
Hardly can there be a title broader in meaning than “Nature,” for the word encompasses so much: the essence of the Natural Environment – all within the world and all the worlds within the universe; the essence of the Human Environment – all that which the mind thinks and the body feels; as well as the Environment of the Animal, which may or may not include humans, depending on one’s belief. Though broad and ambiguous, it is full of meaning, as any title should be, as it prepares our minds for all the largesse and grandeur that both Nature, Herself, and the mind and poetic ambition of Emerson can account for. The title, therefore, helps us greatly in our discovery, in that it prepares us to read both the poem and the essay with a universal and open mind, where metaphors and allusions are to be found with meaning, and meaning more.
The poem, itself an introduction to the introduction, is both untitled and unattributed. Often we find authors will select poems and quotes from others, mostly those recognized by history as being of the elite authorial class, as a preface or opening to his or her work. These introductions in brief are generally an attempt to provide a broad look into the author’s mind and, hopefully, to the direction that his or her writing will be taking us. However, as it is untitled, and as Emerson’s reputation precedes his work, for he, himself, is regarded by many to be an elite author, it is easy enough to assume that the poem is an original piece by him. Still, the poem remains untitled, which only means that we will have to rely more heavily on its content, looking closely at each sentence and the words within for us to gain of it our fullest appreciation. So with the poem, let us begin.
A subtle chain of countless rings / The next unto the farthest brings;
Right away, the poem’s “subtle chain” announces that in the essay, as in Nature, we should expect revelations of mysteries linked yet boundless; simple in form, perhaps, yet complex and profound in meaning. For the “subtle” or simple chain, a common yet powerful metaphorical device, enlightens us with its “countless rings” – its circles of life – by alluding to the eternal fact that Nature in all her majesty enjoins all together in common constituency within her universal realm, from the most diminutive to the most grand, “unto the farthest brings” – to the infinite’s endless end.
The eye reads omens where it goes;
Sad would be the soul who hasn’t walked even the shortest way into the wood or out into the empty, expansive field, to where everything slows down to quiet and allows one to hear Nature’s call, be it through the creaking sway of the trees or the hum of the wind upon the grass. For once where She Her presence reveals, so, too, will Her omens, signs signalling the nature of our Collective and Universal Soul through the mundane: acorns scattered on the wooded floor signals life’s endless cycle of birth and death, as the mist of the passing clouds signals the transformative and transient nature of life itself.
And speaks all languages of the rose;
While not all of us speak the same language, we all can look at the rose and equally understand its beauty. And, regardless of all the many different ways we may express it in words, we all have that same feeling of awe and humility as we arrive at that deep and soulful understanding of just how small our presence is when looking up towards that grand vastness above filled with its countless twinkling diamonds of light.
And, striving to be man, the worm / Mounts through all the spires of form
The line suggests that the worm in its striving is emulating our behavior; however, I read it as further suggesting that from the worm’s behavior we have learned to strive, from the worm we have evolved, and as the worm forever works through all forms of nature – be it the soil, the wood, the apple – to realize its true nature, we, too, forever work “through all spires of form” – be they the physical or metaphysical – continuous “unto the farthest brings,” as do links of an endless “subtle chain,” in a most noble and enduring of effort to realize our own true nature.
With this meditation on a one-word title and one-sentence poem we discover that, while both may appear simple in form, both hold complex and profound messages that are, we must assume, a herald’s call as to the further complexities and profundities that await us.
I am not one who dwells on the past, or, at least I try not to; for, unless one is fondly recalling, perhaps in a prayerful moment of divine gratitude, all the wonders and blessings the Begetter On High has begotten one, it is mostly a futile and potentially harmful self-flagellating exercise of ego worship in the negative. However, as hard as I try to stay securely in the now and out of the then, I still do find myself unconsciously lost back yonder from time to time reflecting on my life, and I am highly skeptical of anyone who righteously says in a wispy Eckhart Tolle wannabe voice while meditation bells softly chime in the background that they never do. (Just as I am even more highly skeptical of anyone who says they have complete and whole body faith in anything, be it their favorite sports figure or favorite God figure — we all have our doubts. But I digress…) So, if I were to be in the dwelling-in-my-past kind of mood, and if, while there, I were to dwell down even deeper into that dark danger zone of “what ifs”, I just might wonder what my life would have been like if I were to have had the strength and integrity to commit it to such intellectual rigor and deep thinking as Kenzaburō Ōe has had and has done throughout his highly acclaimed and respected life. Just where would my brain and I be right now? Unfortunately, I can only imagine.
When I was in my twenties, my mentor Kazuo Watanabe told me that because I was not going to be a teacher or a professor of literature, I would need to study by myself. I have two cycles: a five-year rotation, which centers on a specific writer or thinker; and a three-year rotation on a particular theme. I have been doing that since I was twenty-five. I have had more than a dozen of the three-year periods. When I am working on a single theme, I often spend from morning to evening reading. I read everything written by that writer and all of the scholarship on that writer’s work.~ Kenzaburo Oe, Paris Review
I have read much of Ōe’s work and I believe it is some of the finest writing written, deserving all the acclaim and respect it has earned him, including the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s highest literary honor, and, of course, the Nobel Prize for Literature; however, it is his integrity and commitment to that which he holds dear that I most admire about him. He is an ardent supporter of human rights and proponent for peace, mostly through his lifelong activism for the global elimination of nuclear weapons. But even more than his activism, I admire him mostly for his love and care and complete devotion to his mentally disabled and musically savant adult son Hikari, of whom most of Ōe’s inspiration has been drawn from and much of his writing has been about.
So, what is one to do when one admires someone as much as I admire the great Kenzaburō Ōe? Emulate the behavior of the one whom is admired, of course.
And that is what I resolve to do. To emulate Ōe’s behavior of surveying broadly and digging deeply into both an author’s work and life.
I have decided to commence this resolute commitment of mine with one of the greatest intellects my country, the United States, has begotten: Ralph Waldo Emerson. While familiar with the man and his work on a surface level — an essay here, a poem there, not to mention all the quotes of his that travel and transcend all the ethernets throughout the internet — I have yet to fully discover and understand the man and his work. To begin this discovery and understanding process, I will read first his Complete Essays and Other Writings, followed by (or perhaps even in conjunction with) Oliver Wendell Holmes’s work, Ralph Waldo Emerson: Biography.
Now, I have no intention of committing to, or even attempting, Ōe’s herculean three-year / five-year schedule; I do, however, intend to read as much of Emerson’s writing, as well as writing about him and his writing, that my way less than Ōe-ian brain can hold. And, I also intend to document this Emersonian commitment of mine here, through the posting of essays and other reflections on my readings. What, or whom, awaits me after I fulfill my Emerson commitment, I am not yet certain. I will let the literature decide.
Wish me well please, for I may need your encouragement from time to time.
But, who knows, maybe I won’t need it so much, as I am quite excited about this initiative; for just think of the opportunity I am providing myself – henceforth, a lifetime committed to the full development of my own intellect. Who can predict what joys and benefits I will reap from this effort? Because in twenty-five years when I am close to the age Ōe is now, I don’t want to be able to just imagine where my brain and I will be after such an enduring and fulfilling effort, I want both my brain and me to actually be there. I want to be able to, perhaps in a prayerful moment of divine gratitude, reflect on the twenty-five years gone past, and give thanks for all the additional wonders and blessings that the Begetter On High has begotten me because I was able to have had, if not fully, then at least partially, lived such an admirable life of integrity and commitment as had the great Ōe himself.