Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ralph Waldo Emerson Strikes Some Sparks

Having recently read Sarah Bakewell's biography of Montaigne, I was interested to read an essay in Harper's Magazine about Emerson that includes a discussion of Montaigne's influence on him.  I think I feel about these great essayists the way I feel about opera: I absolutely love certain arias and passages, but I find listening to an entire opera tedious.  What I liked about the Bakewell biography was the quotations she extracted from the density of Montaigne's prose.  The Harper's article includes some thought-provoking quotes from Emerson as well, just enough to get me thinking....

"...after thirty a man [or woman] wakes up sad every morning."  I'll come back to this.

This resonated with me: "The style of middle age is a style of reappraisal, a style characterized by hesitation, by uncertainty, by the objects of the world rather than the passions that transport us from this world."  Remember that passage in Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" where Hemingway dismisses abstractions like "glory" and "honor" and says the only things that matter are the names of the roads.  I believe Emerson was saying something similar. 

I've been doing some reappraising of my own, especially now that I am over 60 (how is that even possible?), and I find my mind keeps turning to the past, specifically those things and moments that, for me, encapsulate the feeling I had--or remember having--when gleams of intense well-being shone through the tapestry of my life.  I don't think of these chinks of time as nostalgia; that's a more diffuse longing for a past of supposedly better times.  I'm not sure I find that particularly healthy.  I guess I'm a bit like Proust; these illuminated moments are usually triggered by a smell or the feel of the air on my skin or the cry of a mourning dove.  One sense feeds into a whole world of associations that don't so much transport me from the world as impress me more deeply into it. 

I spoke in praise of objects over abstractions, and here I am going on in a most abstract way.  So enough of that.  I would like to try to describe one of these memories and what it means to me, though I'm already sure I won't be able to do it adequately.  The thing is, I want to make you FEEL the same thing I do, and I am nearly certain that is impossible.  Still, I will try.

I am addicted to tea--regular English Breakfast but ordinary Lipton's will do in a pinch.  When I raise my mug to take that first sip and breathe in that fragrant steam, I am--for a brief moment--thrust back through time to the small town in Indiana where I grew up.  I can see our small backyard with my father's flower beds.  Gladiolas were his favorite--bright, gaudy flowers that stood upright and proudly announced themselves.  It is summer, though still cool in the mornings.  I have been ill for a long time, and I am ten years old.

This morning I am allowed outside because it is finally warm enough that I won't get a chill.  The sun warms me; it seems to soak right into my bones, yet that freshness of early morning mingles with the warmth so that I feel cool one minute and almost too warm the next.  My mother brings me a cup of tea, or perhaps it's my blue-willow tea set with the tiny cups.  At ten I did not know that I was destined to become an ardent Anglophile, but I already had the English taste for tea beautifully served.  I am not strong yet, but I no longer feel dizzy when I stand up and I can finally believe that one day soon I will be well.

That harmony of my senses lifts me into a state of mind that seems to hover above the grass, the flowers, the scent of hot tea.  In that hovering I feel what I can only call bliss--a suspension of joy that hangs in my mind as the breeze hangs in the branches of the pussy-willow I planted last year.  This is the part that is hard to describe.  I can tell you about the smell of cut grass or the flagrant blossoms of my dad's flowers or the feel of a teacup cradled in my hands, but the sense I am trying to capture is ineffable.  Today when I am sad or unwell, I try to imagine myself back into that scene where I was a child made serious by my illness but still untouched by the storms and tribulations that lay just ahead of me.  I was at the apogee of happiness, caught in that moment just as the incline begins to fall.  It is a moment tethered to the world around me as it was then, but it exists only in my mind.

Wordsworth spoke of "spots of time" when memory becomes meaning.  Perhaps that is what I am trying to evoke.  This sounds comforting, yet I agree with Emerson that after thirty everyone wakes up sad in the morning.  At least, I agree with him insofar as it applies to me.  I don't usually feel sad in the morning, but in unguarded or empty moments--like those upon first waking--I feel a sadness that clings to me like a spider web.  I did not feel this melancholy when I was a child, and I believe that summer memory I have just described is important to me because that was the last time life was uncomplicated and the only world I knew was lovely and safe.