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Emerson: The Mind On Fire |VERIFIED|


"The perennial philosophy," said Richardson, "emerges anywhere religion is a matter of personal insight rather than received texts, a matter of personal experience rather than group ritual." The universal mind, or collective consciousness'exists, and so does the individual, but the former is revealed only to the latter." In fact, Richardson explained, perennial philosophy traditions point out the cause-and-effect relationship within pairs of concepts: "'the invisible world is revealed only in the visible, the divine is manifest only in the human, the supernatural exists only in the natural world, the spirit is revealed only in the flesh."




Emerson: The Mind on Fire



EMERSON: THE MIND ON FIRE By Robert D. Richardson University of California Press 656 pp., $30 JOHN DEWEY AND THE HIGH TIDE OF AMERICAN LIBERALISM By Alan Ryan W.W. Norton & Co. 414 pp., $30 VIRGINIA WOOLF By James King W.W. Norton & Co. 699 pp., $35 A GENIUS FOR LIVING: THE LIFE OF FRIEDA LAWRENCE By Janet Byrne HarperCollins 504 pp., $27.50 MAYNARD KEYNES: AN ECONOMIST'S BIOGRAPHY By D.E. Moggridge Routledge 941 pp., $25 GEORGE ELIOT: VOICE OF A CENTURY By Frederick R. Karl W.W. Norton, 768 pp., $30 Conor: A Biography of Conor Cruise O'Brien By Donald Harman Akenson Cornell University Press 573 pp., $35 The traditional purpose of biography is to furnish interested readers with the story of a famous person's life. Whether the biographer aims to expose the flaws behind the public facade, or to portray an exemplary role model, or something in between, the assumption is that readers are interested in the biographical subject in the first place. Yet in an increasingly forgetful world, it often falls to the biographer to rekindle interest in important figures in danger of being relegated to obscurity. By placing a person's achievements in the context of his or her life, a good biography helps us see its subject afresh. In this respect, one of the most outstanding biographies of this past season may be Robert D. Richardson's Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Although Emerson is scarcely a forgotten figure, his very familiarity tends to disguise his amazing originality, and his protean, deliberately unsystematic mind resists attempts at classification. Even readers who love his poetically pithy essays, such as ''Self-Reliance,'' ''Compensation,'' and ''Nature,'' may find it hard to imagine the man who wrote them. But, thanks to Professor Richardson's superbly written book, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) takes on the lineaments of a thinking, feeling, entirely believable human being: an awkward middle child initially overshadowed by his seemingly more-gifted brothers; the grief-stricken widower of an aspiring poetess who died at 19; a man who taught himself how to recover from overwhelming bouts of depression by relying on his spiritual inner resources. Whether he is describing the strange character of Emerson's remarkable aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, or Emerson's first meeting with Thomas and Jane Carlyle, or Emerson's responses to his wide-ranging readings, Richardson writes with a clarity, vigor, and liveliness that transform his meticulous research into a compellingly readable, highly intelligible story. John Dewey (1859-1952), another quintessentially American figure, was alas a much duller writer than Emerson, though certainly a more systematic thinker. The avowed aim of Alan Ryan's John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism is to refocus attention on a man who in his lifetime was one of America's most revered and influential philosophers. Dewey's faith in democracy and in humankind's ability to solve - or at least alleviate - problems by means of intelligently planned action may lack the dramatic allure of flashier credos, but in the long run, Ryan notes, we could do a lot worse than reconsider Dewey's open-minded yet seriously thought-out approach to political, social, and ethical questions. Ryan's admittedly partisan, but by no means uncritical, account of Dewey's life begins with a helpful ''overview'' of his place in American history. The remainder of the book cogently portrays both the man and the age in which he lived. A pragmatist whose chief concern was finding ways to translate ideas into reality, Dewey thought long and hard about problems that still concern us, such as balancing a belief in individualism with a commitment to public responsibilities. Ryan's reconsideration is well-timed. It's probably fair to say that Virginia Woolf has been one of the least neglected literary figures of the 20th century. Studies of her work are abundant, her diaries and letters have deservedly received much attention, and her life - along with others of the Bloomsbury group - has been the subject of intense interest. Indeed, in this age it's possible that her latest biographer is the one who needs to be rescued from being lost in the deluge of Woolf-related materials. James King's Virginia Woolf holds its own very nicely, providing a moving, acutely perceptive account of Woolf's life and work. Comprehensive, convincing, and well integrated, this biography should fascinate those who are already fascinated by Woolf, while offering an excellent introduction to her character and writing for those less familiar with her. If not the focus of so much attention as Woolf, economist John Maynard Keynes, also of the Bloomsbury set, has been the subject of two major biographies - Roy Harrod's rather buttoned-down version and Robert Skidelsky's ongoing multi-volume project that deals with everything from Keynesian economics to Keynes's busy love life. Now, in a single (albeit hefty) volume, Maynard Keynes: An Economist's Biography, Canadian scholar D.E. Moggridge offers a sound, analytical, carefully researched account of the man who invented deficit spending. As a narrator, Moggridge is less of a presence than the more-convivial Skidelsky. But he sets forth the facts and issues with precision and sharp intelligence. The publisher's decision to place notes at the end of each chapter (rather than at the back of the book) is an added help to readers looking for a reliable, accessible (and at $25 for 941 pages, surprisingly inexpensive) guide to Keynes and his world. Frieda Lawrence was hardly an important figure - except, of course, to her husband D.H. Lawrence, who used her as the model for many of the women in his novels. Lawrence told the dramatic story of their elopement and passionate love match in his sequence of poems ''Look! We Have Come Through!'' and Frieda herself told the story in ''Not I, but the Wind,'' a title borrowed from her husband's poem. Born into the aristocratic German von Richtofen family, Frieda first married a British professor, Ernest Weekley, then left him and their three children for the slim, fierce coal miner's son whose genius she recognized. The story of their tempestuous marriage is dramatic enough to tempt any biographer, and Frieda's young womanhood - the years in which her decisive character took shape - coincided with many interesting developments on the German cultural scene. Janet Byrne's judicious biography, A Genius for Living: The Life of Frieda Lawrence, helpfully places Frieda in the context of the Austro-Germanic avant-garde, who were pioneering just after the turn of the century the kinds of wild behavior that became more widely popular in the 1920s. Byrne also gives a vivid picture of the Lawrences' marriage, but, oddly, short changes the last 26 years of Frieda's life, after her husband's death in 1930. There is little doubt, on the other hand, that George Eliot (1819-1880) was a great woman in every sense of the word. Frederick R. Karl's George Eliot: Voice of a Century is a major biography of a major writer. Professor Karl plunges into Eliot's life and work with the strong engagement that readers of his previous biographies of Faulkner, Conrad, and Kafka have come to expect of him. He takes on previous biographers and commentators, energetically presenting his own, essentially right-minded interpretation of Eliot as woman and as writer, and he also provides particularly fine portraits of the many other people - family, friends, colleagues, and admirers - in her life. The Eliot he presents is a truly extraordinary person, flawed yet noble, bravely unconventional but only when necessary, solidly moderate and recoiling from extremism, someone who, in the words of Matthew Arnold, ''saw life steadily, and saw it whole.'' Writing the life of someone who is still very much alive can be a challenging task, almost always prematurely undertaken. Donald Harman Akenson's lively, detailed, up-close and personal Conor: A Biography of Conor Cruise O'Brien does not avoid all of the pitfalls. This biographer's fervent esteem for the colorful and eloquent diplomat, journalist, and author, whom he considers ''the greatest living Irishman'' sometimes makes his account of O'Brien's life a trifle embarrassing. But although Akenson's tone can be disconcertingly personal, he demonstrates a solid grasp of his material. O'Brien is indeed an excellent subject. From his early career as an Irish nationalist to his involvement in African and Middle Eastern politics and his recent defense of the rights of Ulster Unionists, he has been a courageous, often controversial champion of human rights, equally ready to challenge the complacency of conservatives and the conformity of self-styled radicals. With his well-thought-out views on everything from the Irish Republican Army to Zionism, O'Brien's multifaceted career offers a unique perspective on the history of our century.


Two years ago Paul Coolidge kindly gave me a copy of a book, EMERSON THE MIND ON FIRE,by author Robert D. Richardson, Jr. I was delighted to have it and said to Paul at thetime that I would do a sermon on it in fulfillment of the SERMON OF YOUR CHOICE which hehad bid on and won at the First Parish Goods and Services Auction that year. Last fallRichardson's book was the recipient of the UUA's Melcher Book Award. I went into FanueilHall in Boston to see the author receive his award and to hear him speak about his book. His work had clearly been a labor of love. He had set outto write an intellectual biography of the evolution of Emerson's thought, but when he gotinto the research for his book he found he could not separate Emerson's intellectualbiography from his personal biography. He discovered that the two were so closelyintertwined that he could not do justice to the one without the other. And so his book on Emerson is both intellectual and existential. You learn about thedevelopment of Emerson's thought in conjunction with the sometimes profound events in hispersonal life. For me the book was a treasure and I enjoyed it immensely. But I did not get around toreading it until this past summer in preparation for a UU Ministers Study Retreat the endof November. I had to read it, and now that I've read it it's time to give Paul his longoverdue sermon. Rather than a book review I would focus instead on a few of the importantpersonal events in Emerson's life, how they influenced his thought, and what relevancethey have for the pulpit and pew in our day.Let me begin with Emerson's grave encounter. I confess I was astonished to learn thatEmerson was so driven by grief over the death of his first wife, Ellen, that he was movedto open the coffin and view her corpse a year and two months after her death. He had beenin the habit of walking to her grave every day and carrying on conversations with herspirit in his mind and in his journal writings. Her loss had carved a deep wound in hisstill young soul and he found it ever so difficult to let her go. She became for him inhis later years a kind of Dantean Beatrice of his imagination, an earthly angel who oncewalked with him for a short time during the days of his youth. Emerson's second wife,Lidian, never quite felt that she could compete with this ghost from Emerson's past. Sheonce had a dream "in which she and Emerson were together in heaven when Ellen cameup. Lidian...bowed out leaving Emerson with his first wife." Since Lidian couldn'tliterally give Emerson his first wife back she did the next best thing. When their firstof two daughters was born she magnanimously suggested they name her Ellen.I was also surprised to learn that 25 years after the death of his first wife Emersonwould open the coffin of another loved one, his firstborn son Waldo, who had died fromScarlet Feaver at age five. This time it was 15 years after the death, not one year, sothe corpse would be even more disintegrated than that of his wife Ellen had been. It'sinteresting to note that a few months prior to Waldo's death, Lidian, who was in the lastmonth of her third pregnancy, had a strange dream about a statue that looked "sobeautiful that the blooming child who was in the room looked pale and sallow besideit." The statue spoke to the child--a girl--about life and being, "and then, bya few slight movements of the head and body, it gave the most forcible picture of decayand death and corruption, and then became all radiant again with the signs of theresurrection."Perhaps this was a premonition of Waldo's impending demise and the resurrection andrenewal of life that would come with the birth of a new child. But it was a resurrectionthat would come not without great suffering and pain for both mother and father of littleWaldo. A year after Waldo's death Lidian would observe that "flowers grow over thegrave, yet it is a grave no less", and she sent a note to Emerson in which she said,"Dear husband, I wish I had never been born. I do not see how God can compensate mefor the sorrow of existence." It was that very thing that Emerson was struggling withsome 15 years after the death of his son.In coming face to face with death, not once but twice, Emerson was not only doingdifficult grief work, but also working out the terms of his life philosophy. He wouldwrite in his essay on tragedy, "He has seen but half the universe who never has beenshown the House of Pain. No theory of life can have any solidity which leaves (this) outof account." In his Journal he would reflect: "Work and learn in evil days, indays of depression and calamity. Fight best in the shade of the cloud of arrows." Andthen he would record this ringing affirmation: "I am defeated all the time; yet tovictory I am born." He would come to affirm that the powers of the soul are equal tothe challenges of life and death all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.In terms of his philosophy of being Emerson would move from a detached Platonic idealismto a kind of dynamic pantheism which sees God in everything, and all things in perpetualtransformation. "Permanence", said Emerson, "is but a word of degrees,everything is medial." Metamorphosis or transformation was nature's method ofadvance. Or as he wrote in one of his poems:The rushing metamorphosis, Dissolving all that fixture is, Melts things that be to thingsthat seem, And solid nature to a dream. "Nothing," he wrote "is secure butlife, transition, the energizing spirit....People wish to be settled; only as far as theyare unsettled is there any hope for them." Though Emerson loved the pursuit of wisdom, and is readily acknowledged as America's firsttrue philosopher, he summed up the quest of his life in one question--not, "what canI know, but how shall I live?" He was in many respects America's firstexistentialist. He believed that the universe could best be understood as an "advanceout of fate into freedom." He perceived that human beings are both blessed andburdened with what he called, "that terrible freedom" to choose how they are tolive their lives. It was a freedom that only made sense in association with others. He putit this way in one of his poems: 041b061a72


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