Transcendental Works and Days: The Theory of This Particular Wednesday
November 29, 2011 § 2 Comments
I did some further reading in Emerson. The essay is titled “Works and Days,”collected in the 1870 volume Society and Solitude. I had forgotten that I had read it about two years ago; in fact, I discovered that I had already read it (remembered that I had forgotten it…) by finding some notes I saved on the web. Our thoughts come back to us, so Emerson says, with an alienated majesty.
My current, primary interest in this essay now is that it contains a vision and a vocabulary of technology that the 20th century media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, puts to use. Emerson writes of technological tools here as “extensions” of the human body. McLuhan borrows the very word in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. So, one of my current projects is to pursue further this interesting and somewhat unlikely association, Emerson and McLuhan. I have been planning and composting for some time an essay that explores Emerson in relation to digital technology, something I have carried by the handle, Googling Emerson: is the web, I wonder, or Google Books, more specifically, the logical extension of Emerson’s notion of creative reading, of luminous allusion? McLuhan’s connection may give me one way to frame the critical narrative.
Of such stuff critical readings are made. So, for the final project, think about going forward (into unlikely connections and comparisons, links) as well as going back. Critical readings, good arguments, are built upon experiment and surprise.
I would suggest, in the end, that the vision (and version) of transcendentalism we have explored, by way of Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson, also makes an argument for, and toward, experiencing and experimenting with the surprising and the spiritual–the enigmatical, as Emerson names it–in the everyday world of Wednesday. Here is Emerson toward the end of “Works and Days.”
And him I reckon the most learned scholar, not who can unearth for me the buried dynasties of Sesostris and Ptolemy, the Sothiac era, the Olympiads and consulships, but who can unfold the theory of this particular Wednesday. Can he uncover the ligaments concealed from all but piety, which attach the dull men and things we know to the First Cause ? These passing fifteen minutes, men think, are time, not eternity; are low and subaltern, are but hope or memory ; that is, the way to or the way from welfare, but not welfare. Can he show their tie ? That interpreter shall guide us from a menial and eleemosynary existence into riches and stability. He dignifies the place where he is.’ This mendicant America, this curious, peering, itinerant, imitative America, studious of Greece and Rome, of England and Germany, will take off its dusty shoes, will take off its glazed traveller’s-cap and sit at home with repose and deep joy on its face. The world has no such landscape, the aeons of history no such hour, the future no equal second opportunity. Now let poets sing ! now let arts unfold !
One more view remains. But life is good only when it is magical and musical, a perfect timing and consent, and when we do not anatomize it. You must treat the days respectfully, you must be a day yourself, and not interrogate it like a college professor. The world is enigmatical, – everything said, and everything known or done, – and must not be taken literally, but genially. We must be at the top of our condition to understand anything rightly. You must hear the bird’s song without attempting to render it into nouns and verbs. Cannot we be a little abstemious and obedient ? Cannot we let the morning be ?
And lest we think that Emerson urges us here into a simplistic view of simplicity, he complicates the picture in the very next paragraph:
Everything in the universe goes by indirection. There are no straight lines…. Well, human life is made up of such transits. There can be no greatness with-out abandonment.
I suggest, in the end, that we find in Whitman and Dickinson, as in Emerson, a practice of indirection (a very Whitmanian word here) and the slanting of no straight lines (Dickinson) informed by a poetic theory of abandonment: understanding and writing and transcending the enigmatical world not literally, but genially.
- Early Media Prophet Is Now Getting His Due (nytimes.com)