Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Eve Message 2011

My New Year's Eve message comes to us courtesy of the great jazz trio of Cedar Walton, pianist, bassist Ray Brown, and Mickey Roker, the drummer.

The composition is Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's Satin Doll. Later on, vibraphonist Milt Jackson joins them to perform In A Sentimental Mood, also an Ellington classic.

Music speaks louder than words.

However, if you want words, all I'll say is to try and avoid the twin vices of New Year's Eve. By this I do not mean drink, drugs and so on. I mean, rather, the wrap-up and the Resolution.

The wrap-up is the habit of sending corporate styled wrap-ups that summarize how good life was for you this past year, and all of your various achievements, the accomplishments and genius of your children etc. When I first encountered this curiosity I had to ask someone what it was. "Why that's a wrap-up. You know, it's a year end summary." It didn't seem like it was written by one person for another person or the world, but rather by a public relations committee.

The New Year's Resolution is not in itself a vice. Indeed there is much to recommend in both self reflection and in self improvement.

Whether the rest of us want to hear about it is quite another matter.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Young Adulthood in the 80s: My Experience with a Christian Jazz/rock group

My installations of episodes from my life continues into the 1980s. I am not happy about this state of affairs because the 1980s are not as innately interesting to me as the 70s, yet there was something about the 80s that couldn't fundamentally shake so many elements of the 70s.

Our story takes place during the Christmas season: I am going to say 1984. It concerns the exotic curiosity which is American independent Christianity, whose vast and manifold arrays of denominations, ideologies, subcultures, and lifestyles together must surely comprise some of the most colorful and at times extreme of religious belief systems to have ever been practiced by a human culture. Please be aware that this story is but of one particular expression of evangelicalism and by submitting it I intend no aspersion towards the many well meaning and sensible Christians who populate these United States.

Somehow, alongside my regular class work at the New England Conservatory, I found myself playing with a rather odd Christian Jazz/rock group, owing to an acquaintance who happened to be a fairly decent tenor saxophonist. This would prove to be one of the weirdest experiences of my musical life. The musicians were good as was the pay, but the lyrics and sensibility were another matter altogether.

We had a couple of rehearsals and, after playing some hotel gigs, we were slated to play a Christian wedding. In this particular subculture Christian is something that is applied to anyone or anything. All matters, great or small are decided on the presence or absence of the designation of "christian" or non "Christian". I gathered that this band was formed because they wanted to form a purer branch of jazz and pop music with the Christian label. I was never asked about my beliefs or lack thereof when I was asked to join the band. Curiously, they just assumed I was a Christian. I presume that had I been named Mitch Rabinowitz, rather than Mitch Hampton, there may have been some questioning alongside the requisite pamphlets from the Jews For Jesus and inquiries into whether I was a "completed Jew".

This band had a don't ask/don't tell policy about religious belief: it was good enough that I attended New England Conservatory. All I know is that when we weren't playing music all the band members would discuss their life with Jesus Christ, how their relationship with Jesus was going, and if they were "right or wrong" with Jesus. They discussed little else. One would think from the way Jesus was discussed that Jesus could have been the name for their girlfriends - so personal and intimate were their comments on Jesus. I have spent a part of my life among Born Again Christians but they never were as insistent upon Jesus in so intimate a way. Music was never discussed. During my two rehearsals scriptural metaphors were used instead of musical vocabulary. I had to learn how to translate on the spot. I remember we had to play some cover tunes by this woman named Amy Grant. I never listened to her music so I didn't know it.

There was never any sheet music with this band. I was supposed to play along by ear and memorize the arrangmements by ear. Part of the reason they worked with me is that I was good at listening. This wasn't too hard as the music had a crude simplicity that allowed me to have fun with it, so to speak. They seemed to like, even encourage my embellishments, which made the music a little better than it would otherwise have been. After the experience of playing a concert with the great George Russell it felt a letdown but the pay was good. Hundreds of dollars. These Christians seemed to have some money at that time.

The wedding we played was very lavish. It was a wedding of extraordinary wealth, in some wealthy suburb of Massachusetts, I think, in Brookline. I remember that the bride and groom wore pastels: teal matching dress and suit. The groom wore a teal tie that matched the color, but not the fabric, of the suit. It was the most awful clothing I had ever seen at a wedding, which, when one considers the attire worn at weddings during the past forty odd years, is saying a lot. Both the bride and groom had hair so tall, wide and thick you could not have seen around a corner if you were unlucky to have their heads in your field of vision.

All of the guests at the wedding danced to our music and rarely did they appear to be without the widest of smiles, and they combined the smile and the dance to great effect.

Although my job was to perform the piano part well, as the music requires, and I approach every musical situation with all the powers within my possession, I could not go along with all of this group's ideas. One thing I refused to do, during an original song by the saxophonist called "Save Us", was to thrust my fist into the air. There was this rhythmic cue where the entire band decided to thrust their fists high into the air everytime they sang "Save us!" I just wouldn't do this. The saxophonist - I'll call him Bob - noticed I was not raising my fist into the air, but instead continued playing piano chords. "Hey Mitch why aren't you putting your fist in the air? The whole band is supposed to do it!"

I explained that since my instrument was the piano and since the piano usually required two hands rather than merely one that I be allowed to be exempt from this bit of stage theater. Bob thought for a moment and then said I made "some sense" and that probably the wedding party would not notice or be disappointed by my lack of..."thrust".

I remember during the wedding dinner, all of the talk concerned Jesus, and how this or that church was faring.

I remember that when the bride and groom stood and kissed we had to stop abruptly during a song. "They are going to kiss!" Someone shouted.

Well the newlyweds did kiss after which entire room erupted in loud catcalls, whistles, moans and cries of "Hallelujah!" and "Praise Jesus". All of this fervor was in response to the most paltry, passionless peck I had ever seen. You would miss the kiss if you blinked but you would be haunted forever by the shrill cries in that room as this outburst lasted for a few minutes. It was if this couple were afraid to kiss, knowing how much their families and friends had invested in them, in watching them. Perhaps they were embarrassed by the religiosity of the room gawking at them. that they knew that they were objects of all of these emotional projections and fixed gazes. Or perhaps they were not really in love at all and it was all arranged by "the church". I just couldn't tell because all emotion was veiled behind this private language - this arcane and ritualized vocabulary of Jesus. This experience greatly depressed me and soured me on the idea of marriage for some time.

What follows is an account of one of the most awkward, absurd and ultimately mystifying conversations and/or lectures or pitches, hustles - I scarcely know how to classify it - I had ever encountered in my life to that point.

When the gig was over Bob was so happy with how I played that he came over to me as soon as we finished playing, excited and exuberant. With a cry of "Praise the Lord", he handed me an envelope that appeared to contain evening's pay in the form of a check.

I quickly opened it to look inside and saw it was a check. I read the writing. It was the amount promised. I looked at that check for a long time while Bob waited. I was tempted to do the Groucho Marx bit and throw the check down on the floor, which, owing to the laws of gravity, never entirely insults the other party since thin paper usually hits the floor without a bounce. Bob was offended though that I opened the envelope so early.

"Ah Mitch. This man is a Christian. It is a Christian bank account. No fear. The devil is not at work here. This is Christian music. Satan free zone."

I was so used to hearing about Christian music shops and Christian dentists that the prospect of a Christian bank account didn't seem so improbable.

Bob went on further.

"Mitch it was so beautiful and joyous for you to come to this holy affair with us and share the spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ like this with us."

"Why thank you."

"Did you enjoy sharing Jesus with us today?"

(I suppose this was their way of saying the gig went well.)

"Yes. You all played well."

"It sure is great sharing the Lord isn't it?"


"Isn't the Lord Jesus Christ great? He is just so great and perfect. He makes all of this possible. He made this wedding possible. He made you and I possible. He made music possible! He created music." Bob gave me a big hug and I moved back a bit, wishing some space.

"Great invention, music. Couldn't agree more."

"Mitch you play so great me and the boys wanted to ask you a deep and spiritual question."

"Okay. Go ahead." I doubt his question was as deep as my dread.

"Would you like to take a trip and go share the Lord Jesus Christ with us?"

I paused for a moment.

"Take a trip to share Jesus? I am not sure. What exactly do you mean? I'll have to look at my calendar...Wait. What does that mean?"

"It would be a great opportunity to work on your faith and share Jesus with us. It won't cost anything. It'll be like today. It will be rewarding spiritually as well as financially."

"When you say share Jesus with us, what do you mean? I mean I have my own church", I answered, "and I am not much for travel and retreats or that sort of thing. I have my own way of studying the Bible."

"Are you sure your way is true Christianity though? I wonder, Mitch. You know we were noticing that you don't share your faith out loud like we all do. You don't talk about how you are with the Lord Jesus Christ. We can sure hear the Lord in your playing. But how about in your talk? How will you spread the Gospel? It is not enough to keep it to yourself. You have a duty as a Christian. The boys and I have chosen you. That means the Lord Jesus Christ might have something.. a plan for you. Hey Mitch. Not to criticize you or anything but why did you not seem happy when the bride and groom kissed? That kiss was so passionate and loving. We were all praising Jesus and and sharing in the spirit of the Holy Ghost and you seemed to just look at the piano."

"Well I was nervous because I didn't know when I was going to come in with the piano part. I was concentrating. I don't know the music as well as you guys and I was focusing on that."

"Isn't that a great couple? Isn't it a joy for a couple to be married through our Lord Jesus Christ like that? Think of all of those sad marriages without Jesus present! What a waste!"

"They seemed like nice people."

"Well getting back to the band. Me and the boys think Jesus has a plan for each of us. And you know what Mitch? Jesus...he has a plan for YOU!"

"Oh He does? You talked to Him?" I asked with the straightest of faces.

"In our church we speak to Jesus directly. That is the only way. We are a beautiful Christian fellowship. We would be so honored to have you come share Jesus with us. Your piano playing is a gift the Lord wants you to share."

"But Bob... my focus is music you understand. If you want me to play a concert or a gig I can do that if it the pay and quality are comparable to what we did today, but you haven't said when or where we are going to be 'sharing Jesus'. You haven't explained what it is you want me to do."

"Well we call it sharing Jesus. But what that means is I have this beautiful cabin in the woods, near the Berkshires. It is a Christian cabin in a Christian community. You know its mostly Jewish up there, but just wait. The Lord wants to spread the news there too! When I say share Jesus I mean that I have this state of the art recording studio in the woods and we want to record a Christian album. It is a Christian recording studio. And you can stay overnight there. No fee. We will PAY you to share Jesus with us..I mean record this record. Don't worry about that. Hundreds of dollars to record with us. And we have this lovely girl who has just joined our church and gotten saved. Oh her life was the lowest you can imagine. Just bad family. Real Satanic influence. But then Jesus won this time, boy. She came to Jesus. And now she sings like an angel. She sings like... you ever hear Blossom Dearie? Like if Blossom Dearie were Christian. You would get to perform with this girl. Can you imagine her singing our tune Save Me? How powerful she would be?"

"Well..I'll have to look at my calendar."

"The only problem this girl is really beautiful and you know I'm a Christian. And you know the Lord wants me to be Christ-like and I don't look at her as purely as I should as purely as HE wants me to. Did you ever watch the show Dukes Of Hazard? Well this girl looks like Daisy Buchanan on that show. But she dresses Christian, I mean modestly. Don't worry about that."

"Is she part of this same church you guys go to?"

"Yes. You'll get to perform with her. She sounds like Blossom Dearie and looks like.. I remember who that was...Catherine Bach and lives a Christian life. She will have no sex before marriage you know. She has a new life now. She is reborn.

"Well, Bob. I think I get the general picture. I appreciate the offer and the compliments but you know, I have this offer from this great jazz sextet, and they play like all of the Art Blakey arrangements. It is really more the kind of music I've always wanted to play since I was a child. So thank you very much, but I am sorry that I have some other things planned for the season."

I went home the following day, deposited that check, and never called this band nor heard from them again.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

An Immodest Defense of Emerson

It was with the greatest shock, incredulity and finally anger that I opened up a copy of the New York Times Magazine of December 4 in this final month of a surely awful year of 2011 to come upon an article attacking my hero Ralph Waldo Emerson. Reading this piece by one Benjamin Anastas made me realize why I am such an irregular reader of the New York Times and, while I will not go so far as Gore Vidal who infamously called it a "bad paper" I have to conclude that it has, much like The New Yorker under Tina Brown's reign, fallen prey to the worst twin vices of a sophomoric and cheap populism and utilitarianism or instrumentalism.

Would it were so that the article is a bit of a popish prank and not to be taken as a definitive piece on Emerson, yet I can't help but feel that it is very much a piece of its time and raises the issue of how and why context and relevance should be dislodged from center stage in favor of values that are at least a bit more capacious, to say nothing of transcendental.

I don't have space enough and time to do justice to Emerson. Alas, I don't want to do a close reading of Emerson's "Self-Reliance" in order that I may totally refute this - I don't know what to call it - cultural criticism.

Emerson, whatever else he may be, is to American arts and letters something like our Shakespeare. I don't remember the last time a piece with a punk or Rock irreverence indulged in a take-down of the Bard, except perhaps to wrangle over whether in fact he or the Earl Of Oxford was the biographical and historical author of the plays. Indeed, pop culture and media is all too happy to praise Shakespeare, but usually for the worst of reasons, as in a dissection of the cleverness of the narrative strategies.

The first problem then is a basic lack of respect for Emerson. Anastas does not mince words. The subtitle refers to the influence of Emerson's "Self-Reliance" as a "foul reign", Emerson's essay is called pap, and worst of all it is compared with the worst of our popular motivationalists and hucksters, but, incredibly, to the disfavor of Emerson: "Is there anything worth salvaging among the spiritual ramblings, obscure metaphysics and aphorisms so pandering that Joel Osteen might think twice about delivering them?"

Joel Osteen? Joel Osteen is a sort of fundamentalist redneck who crossed over to mainstream non-fiction, is he not?

This is the first misreading: that Emerson is part of a so-called American single line and that he is a forerunner of Rick Warren, Dr. Phil, Wayne Dyer, and Werner Erhard to pick some of the most representative examples. How do I know that Emerson is not of their party?

For one thing Emerson is not engaged in a propositional and representational project.

And the language of Anastas reveals that at heart Anastas is every bit the stereotypical socialist and materialist. He hates metaphysics and is impatient that any mention of selfhood that treats the self with any importance at all (although, Anastas misreads Emerson so deeply that Anastas takes Emerson to be one who believes in something like a real and unified self far more than Emerson, the latter ever the profoundest of mystics, ever does). I get the feeling that spiritual is a code word here for unscientific and for any kind of snake oil. As for politics, Emerson never ascribes to the self or subscribes to a view of the self that has anything remotely in common with American conservatism or, in the pathetic case of Ayn Rand, Russian/American paleo-Conservatism. Nowhere in his writings does Emerson tell us to forget the poor or to justify poverty (His essay 'Compensation' is usually dragged into the proceedings as Exhibit A for the Marxist attack upon Emerson, but "Compensation" is trying to raise all sorts of problems about the problem of free will and evil, not to justify the status quo). Emerson (like, say, Chatal Ackerman in film) is interested in questions of consciousness more than he is in practical politics. (Anymore than Ackerman is a straightforward Feminist.)

In short, though Emerson can be labeled, if you must, as a kind of individualist he is no stoic and he is no right-winger. He is not even, as we shall see, really an individualist, because he feels that selfhood contains and is always already constituted by the surrounding environment, the whole human race, and perhaps even more.

As for the question of science versus spirituality, for all of his scientific and socialistic pretensions, Anastas never makes any genuine or coherent case against Emerson. This leads to the second problem, that of misreading or misinterpretation, above all the question of style.

Emerson, unlike Anastas, really believes in style. Anastas is quite a stylist himself, indeed uses it quite well, but the style chosen is the post-Pauline Kael style of flash, crackle and pop as in when Kael was asked why she defended so many entertaining Hollywood movies replied "what is wrong with entertainment? Do this people think it should be punishment?" But Anastas does NOT think that style is the measure of a thing. For Anastas verification is the only measure.

Anstas' first error is to hew to a very old view of language or style whereby words (or, in cinema, editing, lighting, mise en scene etc.) are a means to transparency, and the function of sentences is to get at the essence of things. But there is a problem here because Emerson is really a Modernist avant la lettre, and Emerson simply does not have an Aristotelian view of language. In practical terms Emerson is closer to a Proust, even a Beckett or Chantal Ackerman. That is, the way Emerson is usually read - as a kind of visionary or sage - is precisely to fall into the very attitude towards the world Emerson most wants us to be rid of. In this sense Emerson is quite American in his distrust of official titles and claims to innate gifts. (And his critics are often Continental)

Yet Emerson comes to us in disguise, as a Yankee populist preacher. This should remind us that the most extraordinary things (Emerson's oeuvre) are always misread as more ordinary than they really are, (as in the reception of Robert Frost's poetry, for example, or Duke Ellington's music, the latter initially and falsely consigned to the genre of mere dance music) and that extraordinary things arrive dressed in modest or civilian raiment. (Though this last comment on my part will strike those with a Continental cast of mind as hopelessly American in more than one sense of that unstable and slippery designation).

Let us look at the opening of Self-Reliance, at the offending words that Anastas feels gave rise to a host of sins of our post-1968 world: relativism, New Age excess, selfishness and worse:

I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instil is of more value than any thought they may contain. To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—— and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

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, nor does he know until he has tried. Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes much impression on him, and another none. This sculpture in the memory is not without preestablished harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray. We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.

Notice throughout his tone: it is magesterial and measured. It is also suffused with greatest passion. He creates a rhythm through a certain syntax. We are. A man is. God will not. It is delivered. The eye was placed. This is Biblical and spiritual language to be sure. If Anastas is of the party of science he will not be pleased by this kind of tone. Yet the tone is, in language, something like that of John Coltrane in A Love Supreme, in music. It is curiously at once completely secular and free of any partisan creed or catechism and yet built from the syntax and tropes of scriptural and sacred writing and oration. This combination of the two is part of Emerson's genius.

Emerson is positing here that there is such a thing as genius or greatness, that there is something special about a John Milton, that there is value to artistic originality. He is also saying, along with Kant, that we should dare to use our own reason, and not rest or lean on the opinions of others. The alternative to this picture of life is not good community, cooperation or socialism. The alternative to Emerson's "ideal", if it can be called that (because for him it always already exists and is not dependent upon futural schemes or dates), is actually something like everyday tyranny at best or totalitarianism at worst. This is Emerson as a champion of Liberty, broadly understood, and as a small d democrat.

The whole essay starts off with a quite explicit theory of not only what art is but how to know great art when one encounters it. Nowhere in all of the oration of a Werner Erhard or a Dr. Phil is anything like a theory of art ever put forth.

Anastas' error goes in both directions. We cannot hold Emerson responsible for the errors or outrages of self help hucksters or for eroding our sense of deference towards meritocratic authority anymore than we can hold Karl Marx responsible for a Joseph Stalin or the Eastern Bloc histories. We also cannot merely read Emerson in a way that is only relevant to our present day concerns.

"I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instil is of more value than any thought they may contain".

He is also saying the sentiment trumps content. This is Emerson being most modernistic. Like Susan Sontag, it's style all the way down for him.

Here is Emerson rejecting anything like selfishness:

"Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed does not. The same particle does not rise from the valley to the ridge. Its unity is only phenomenal. The persons who make up a nation to-day, next year die, and their experience with them".

So much for great and heroic visions of selfhood. The unity is "only phenomenal". Only. Anastas has not read closely enough.

And style is of the essence here because, unlike the motivational preachers, religious or secular, of our time, Emerson rarely communicates in the syntax of reductive, declarative sentences. Yet he tricks us: he always begins with declarations. But it is still a trick nonetheless. This is his most accessible work, yet one comes upon sentences with twists and turns like the following. The most important strategy Emerson uses is to make one or two explicit declarations but then, in an hypnotic fashion, to undo them as much as defend them:

"I suppose no man can violate his nature. All the sallies of his will are rounded in by the law of his being, as the inequalities of Andes and Himmaleh are insignificant in the curve of the sphere. Nor does it matter how you gauge and try him. A character is like an acrostic or Alexandrian stanza; — read it forward, backward, or across, it still spells the same thing. In this pleasing, contrite wood-life which God allows me, let me record day by day my honest thought without prospect or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt, it will be found symmetrical, though I mean it not, and see it not. My book should smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects. The swallow over my window should interweave that thread or straw he carries in his bill into my web also. We pass for what we are. Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment".

At a first reading it appears that he is saying; this is what a character is; this is how a self works. We end up according to who we are. And so on.

But notice he says "I suppose that no man". Why the suppose? And what are we to make of "contrite wood-life which God allows"? Why is it pleasing? Should it be pleasing? Especially after an apparent celebration of will? Notice how excessive this seems when compared to the previous declaration. Notice too how he piles example upon example: poetic metaphors from Nature and Myth for example, cultural allusion, and then insists that it "spells the same thing". Had Emerson really wanted to give an instruction or sermon why does he insist upon this hypnotic accumulation of density, of stuff, especially in the context of telling us to ignore past traditions or rote book learning? Why does he interrupt with references to swallows and Alexandrian stanzas? It seems to me that these accumulations provide a proper "key" to understanding Emerson, surely more than any clear message.

He seems to say that we should not analyze, yet this whole essay is a kind of analysis or diagnosis of conformity and an offer of a solution to the problem of that conformity. Yet there is nothing more self possessed and powerful than his tone throughout. He wants some kind of conformity between he and the reader. Then again he wants us to argue too. He wants us to assent to the greatness of a Milton yet wants us to not assent to what "doesn't work for me" in contemporary parlance. But Emerson never tells us what to do with the culturally or emotionally stunted person who can't see Milton's value or even read Milton (or worse, sees in Milton only a crude sociological value, as in, "how did a Christian like Milton think of his faith in that particular time period?)

Even most contradictory, he says that what is important is what is "new in Nature", yet remarks elsewhere that there is nothing truly new and that society neither exactly progresses or declines.

He even suggest both that we cannot help what we do, and yet that our will is free and determines our lot in life, as in "we get what or who we are." A misinformed reader will likely say in response, "which is it Waldo"? A Joel Osteen would never equivocate so because he literally has the arrogance to assume he can save our souls.

It is most telling that Anastas attacks the work as rambling. Emerson, like jazz, is rambling. He does not get to the point. Like much of American art, it is episodic rather than classical.

When Anastas calls it rambling he is confronting a particular style.

Emerson will have none of this clarity. Because he is interested in the "zigzag of a hundred tacks". He is not interested in a seamless and straight line.

If we are reading Emerson properly we should be a bit confused, in truth. How are we to be true to ourselves and yet live in harmony with others? First I am told to idealize the child and in another place I am told to criticize the rote learning of so many children. I am told that no man can violate his nature but also told that many are conformist and thus in violation of their nature, or else it is in their true nature to conform. Since we are being told not to conform, then what do we do with and about the conformist?

But these zigzags are a means chiefly of creating sentiment, as opposed to thought. If you read Emerson for content alone you might consider him undistinguished, even dated. But if you fall into the hypnosis of his style, the accumulation of all of his many exhortations, something will happen to you, inside of your consciousness, something not unlike the effect of certain experimental movies or certain immersive improvisational music. Emerson is not interested in proofs so he is destined to disappoint or disturb a certain kind of skeptic like Anastas.

A real inheritor of Emerson is the saxophonist John Coltrane. Another is filmmaker Fred Wiseman. Both could be considered spiritual ramblers of the highest order. The comparison will give a sense of what I take to be valuable in Emerson.

It is not accidental that in a dispirited age such as ours, when so many problems seem to admit of communal solutions, especially in a broken economy with so much suffering, that a poet of sentiment like Emerson would come to be regarded with suspicion. But that is not his problem but ours. There is a crucial role for sentiment in our life, not the sentiment of communal emotion and agreement, not the sentiment that does away with intellect altogether, but rather the venerable attempt to think without thoughts that underscores so much that has been exciting about the Modernist project. Emerson wants us to put different uses for our intellect, not to save the world or understand it, but rather, I think to savor it, to experience it, which though it surely involves the brain is an altogether different matter than conceptual cognition.

But the question of just what this difference is - between ordinary cognition and experience - and where such difference lies, is a question with which I will end this discussion.