Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Transparent Eyeball

The Transcendentalists lived in a bourgeois culture that was intoxicated by the possibilities of technology and the “improvements,” to use a popular word of the era, that would come with progress. The steam engine, the railway, the factory, scientific management – all these things would eliminate distance, facilitate trade, and generate wealth. Man was on the verge of conquering nature, of redeeming the howling wilderness by making it productive. [ . . .]
[. . .] [O]ver time the transcendentalists concluded that while technology might bring material gain, it would also threaten nature and man’s spiritual connection to nature. [. . .] Machines, wealth and money, they believed, interceded between people and the experiences that really matter. The transcendentalists concluded that most of their fellow Americans worked too hard and too slavishly. They were able to calculate and measure but often did not take the time to sense and feel. Their middle-class neighbors were too concerned with their standard of living and not concerned enough with their reason for living.
The transcendentalists experienced their most vivid and profound experiences in the woods. [ . . .]
-David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise (71-72)

I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, and to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I've been thinking about the Transcendentalists.

For those of you that do not remember your American literature class, (ha ha) the Transcendentalists were a group of people in the mid-19th century that were a sub-set of the entire Romantic movement. Men like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau and Margaret Fuller (OK, she's not a man) led this movement by writing essays and holding meetings where they discussed spiritual things like the Oversoul, which is kind of like the Holy Spirit without its two buddies, and how to change the world. Thoreau's essay on that, "Civil Disobedience" guided both Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

I've been thinking about the Transcendentalists because I'm reading a book caled Bobos in Paradise and, not to sound repetitive, but it's a phenomenal book that I think everyone should read. Also, in having to describe what I'm doing with my life, I realized that I could compare myself to Thoreau. He spent time in retreat in a little hut on a pond called Walden. I'm spending time in retreat in a little trailer on an island called Orcas.

I wanted this blog entry to say something profound (what else is new?) but I haven't made any new conclusions. To have brought the subject out into the open to make it available to continue to think about will have to be enough.


::G said...

Hey, I found your blog in an idle moment while searching for other Blogger-ites who liked the movie "Real Genius". You also listed Neil Stephenson, and although I've only read Snow Crash, I hear from a co-worker that Cryptonomicon is a great book. That's why I'm here, anyway.

So, the "trancendentalists". Every movement has a counter-movement, and with the Industrial Revolution we have the people who have enough dissonance with the reigning paradigm to really think about their context rather than let that environment completely drive their thinking. If everyone else is stuck in a decadent keeping-up-with-the-Joneses metaphor, why not buck the trend and go do what no one else is doing? Punks and counter-culture have probably always been around; it's just the new generation wants to believe they're unique. Anyway, it's important to have those people to give culture and society a reality check.

When we Americans decided we were no longer immigrants and that we had a culture, we rigidified our thinking. This is the way it is. We say, you French people, you suck, even though you helped us stomp the British back in the Revolutionary War. (Never mind giving us the Statue of Liberty.) When we get used to something, we quit thinking about why we do it. This is a necessary fact of life in that we'd never get anything done if we thought about every last little detail. However, in some cases, like allowing oneself to become a victim of one's surroundings, succumbing to peer pressure, and thoughtlessly subscribing to the prevailing dogma, rigidifying one's thinking is not a good idea. The dissenting factions serve to remind us of the other side.

That's way off on another tangent. What I wanted to say is, there seems to be a balance between a "standard of living" and a "reason for living". The reason for living is up for metaphysical and other debate, but in a more nihilistic sense, we just exist. So maybe we search for a better "standard of living" in the process of trying to justify our individual existences. What do we live for? Some people plod though their lives, never finding anything to latch on to. Whether that's because they refused to open their eyes and see what creation has placed before them, or whether they eschewed their reality for an idealistic world of their own device, it's impossible to say. I maintain everyone's looking for an importance to ascribe to themselves, call it ego, call it self-esteem, call it pocket megalomania, this is our search for a raison d'etre. Materialism momentarily satisfies our base desires for the new and interesting, giving a short-term fix to look forward to and carrying us through another day. Meaningless infatuation with technology seems to be the "transcendentalists" reviled, and isn't it because it distracts one from what's important? The basics of living transcend in importance beyond one's toys.

I never read Thoreau in depth, yet his theme seems to be getting back to the basics of what makes us human. Some people let their desires push them around, whereas others get so disconnected from the fundamental feelings and needs of humankind that they're hardly human. Being human, in my humble opinion, is having both the hard-wired motivating factors of our biology and the forward-looking intellectual factors of our oversized brains. They're in constant conflict, and this is why paradox so beautifully applies to our species. Thoreau satisfied his quest for balance out at Walden. Not everyone will find themselves in that fashion. I think his point was that avoiding getting caught in a psychological trap, like materialism or the rat race, is key. There's some paradoxical dynamic tension between being able to both enjoy life and analyze it, and doing each at the appropriate time.

I'm sure your literary sensibilities are offended by that unfiltered, unedited output, but that's the first thing that came to keyboard when I read your post. It's hard to give such a collection of commingled, heavy subjects appropriate address in a succinct space. It's all related, though!

PrincessMax said...

I need some help from the peanut gallery in responding to this comment. Although I'm beginnging to suspect that there are some readers out there that don't know me in person, I know that a majority of you do. That means that a majority of you ou there have made fun of me for being a smarty-pants.

So, I'm trying to figure out how much like ::g I am in the smarty-pants category? Those of you that have never chimed in before would be especially welcome. I guess my questions are "What is the purpose of this guy's lecture on the Transcendentalists?" "Do I sound as self-important as he does when I talk about the backgrounds of things I know that other people don't?" "Does he actually sound self-important to you?" "Do you think he's the uber-nerd that I'm always attracting with my love of science-geek movies and witty science-fiction?"

My literary sensibilities aren't really offended but I don't know what to think about this restatement of my own thoughts. Help!

::G said...

I was wondering how that was going to be received. ^_- Sheesh, "self-important" "uber-nerd"? Come on, I was just stringing lengthy words together and supplementing any deficiencies with liberal reference to's thesaurus! Just kidding; I really do write like that. Paradoxically, in real life I talk like gutter trash.

So I was just blog-surfing in a sleep-deprived state, and your entry kinda resonated with what I'd been thinking about lately, leading me to write that half-crazed comment when I should've crashed instead! Maybe what I was hoping for was a critique, or maybe what I needed was someone to smack me off my soapbox. What one gets depends on the crowd! Sorry if that was a restatement of something you already were thinking; or if my point, assuming there was one, got lost in my pondering prose.

By the way, where did "Transparent Eyeball" come from...?

PrincessMax said...

Your younger nerd takes offense quickly when someone near him begins to utter declarative sentences, because he reads into it an assertion that he, the nerd, does not already know the information being imparted. But your older nerd has more self-confidence, and besides, understands that frequently people need to think out loud. And highly advanced nerds will furthermore understand that uttering declarative sentences whose contents are already known to all present is part of the social process of making conversation and therefore should not be construed as aggression under any circumstances.
-Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicron

I apologize for being a younger nerd in this interaction.

The phrase, "transparent eyeball" comes from one of Ralp Waldo Emerson's essays - "Nature," I think - in which he says that when we go out into nature, we must be like a transparent eyeball: observing but not being observable.

Susan said...

I wondered how long it would take you to get to the Transparent Eyeball. When Peters (my English Lit teacher who reminds me of you) went on his lecture on Emmerson and Thoreau, I was struck by how many connections could be made to what they were doing and what you are doing. It gave me more respect for you and the way you have chosen to find your path in life. Because I am rarely smarter than you, I knew that sooner or later you would get around to the trancendentalists and the eyeball. We were given a great cartoon picture of an eyeball with legs standing in the middle of the woods. Maybe I should send it to you.

And yes, you do sometimes sound a little like ::g, but it's part of what makes you - you. It's all part of your charm.

::G said...

That was an elegant answer. More of an answer than I deserved, anyway.

Although I can't say anything about my nerd status, and don't presume to in the context of this Stephenson quote, I did write that monstrosity above in more along the lines of starting a conversation. Unfortunately, it came off as patronistic. As I saw it, there would be one of three possible different results: ignoration, dialogue, or counter-lecture. I was hoping for one of the latter two, though you suprised me with a fourth: bewilderment, as in: "Who is this presumptuous weirdo posting on my blog?!" In retrospect, a shorter, less declarative comment ;-) would've been more prudent on my part. I am sorry for the disruption(s).

::G said...

Oops, I meant "patronizing", not the non-existent word "patronistic". You know you've been living abroad too long when....