Thursday, February 23, 2006

Into the Writer's Laboratory

Since I started blogging back in September, 2004, I have used blogs in all kinds of different venues (LiveJournal, Blogger, iBlog, .Mac, and plain old web pages) as a kind of writer's laboratory—a place where I can experiment and occasionally receive the benefit of feedback from readers.

So now I'm working on a new book, tentatively titled, "Neo-transcendentalism: Messages for a Divided World"; and it's time to bring it into the writer's lab here at Daily Rev. If you'd be kind enough to post a comment with criticisms, ideas, suggestions, or complaints, I'd love to hear anything you have to offer. It has been my experience that every reader's input helps make my work better.

"Neo-transcendentalism" will be organized after my "Life Lessons in a Time of War" series. A piece from the series will appear before a brief essay that expounds a little on the theme in the prose-poem before it. To view the piece that the section below follows, just look here.

The core message of this book is, in a word, independence. That is, the recovery of the uniqueness of your self, and thereby, of your natural connection with all that is. For if we are to learn a single thing from the experience of philosophers, seers, and poets of ages gone by, it is that the clearest path to the universal is through the individual. This was the message imparted to us by people as culturally and biographically diverse as Lao Tzu, Sappho, Pythagoras, Galileo, the Buddha, Socrates, Da Vinci, Basho, Kierkegaard, Shakespeare, Martin Luther King, Rumi, Wordsworth, Rilke, and Gandhi.

Here in America, this message was crystallized in the writings of three men whose teachings came to be known as "transcendentalism"—Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman. Their clear, uncluttered insight into nature and the human place within the fabric of the universe was so revolutionary in both its depth and its expression that it is still being discovered today. There has perhaps never been a time in human history when the essential teaching of transcendentalism is more critical to understanding, more crucial to the survival of our species and our planet, than the very moment we are in, right now. This is why, for want of a better term (and perhaps as a foil to the "neo-conservatism" that dominates our political landscape today), I have been calling for a holistic revival of sorts, that I refer to as "neo-transcendentalism."

Emerson set the tone of transcendentalism in the first lines of his classic essay, "Self-Reliance":

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…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.

Then he contrasts this sensitivity to the natural inner light with the societal commandments and limitations that are imposed upon us from the cradle onwards:

Who can thus avoid all pledges, and having observed, observe again from the same unaffected, unbiased, unbribable, unaffrighted innocence, must always be formidable. He would utter opinions on all passing affairs, which being seen to be not private, but necessary, would sink like darts into the ear of men, and put them in fear.
These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world. Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.

Transcendentalism was a teaching centered on the erasure of divisions; therefore it is no coincidence that it arose at a time when America was split, geographically and ideologically, with such a violence as would destroy the lives of half a millions of its youth in a period of five bloody years. Thus, the spiritually-guided lessons of the Unitarian minister, Emerson, were given fresh life amid a new context in the work of Henry David Thoreau, who extended them into the realm of political action.

Emerson's essays appeared in the decade of 1840-1849, and Thoreau's most significant works arrived in 1849 (the three essays collectively titled Civil Disobedience) and 1854 (his classic guide to the transcendental life, Walden). That is to say, during the 20 years period in which the malignant divisions culminating in the Civil War fomented, these transcendentalists were teaching Americans—not just from a pulpit or a magazine masthead, but from lived experience in the field of social action—that there is no natural division between a life in tune with the cosmic song of god and the voice of a free citizen calling for justice amid the halls of power. When Thoreau wrote about the conscience of a free citizen of a nation, he was making the same point as Emerson made on the spiritual will of an individual who frees himself from the trap of group-belief:

Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.

It is no accident, then, that Walden opens with a chapter called "Economy." Thoreau taught that "conscience" and "the right" exist and act in those very fields of human life where we are conditioned to believe they are not. Thus I say that every life is a crucible of nature—not of belief. We divide the body and its generational organs from the life of spirit at our great peril, as has been demonstrated for us through the sunken sexual decadence of priests and the insane fundamentalist violence of mobs poisoned by the madness of theocracy. To separate money from meaning, and economy from inner truth, is to awaken similar demons: for then we are trapped in economic warfare, in which the haves further oppress the have-nots, and thereby invite their often murderous resentment. This, I suspect, is the violent core of every insurgency, every so-called revolution.

These demons of belief, prejudice, and adherence must be killed within ourselves before we can the more pointedly discover them amid the institutions around us. This is why Thoreau needed to retreat into the woods beside Walden pond for a time; it is why an old Chinese poet named Lao Tzu had to exile himself at the end of a long career in government; it is why a prince named Gautama, afterward known as the Buddha, had to live in hermetic isolation before he could emerge and hold aloft the flower of transmission that was recognized in a wordless instant by a single individual.

These people killed their demons and thus discovered themselves. Then they pointed out the way of self-discovery and showed us that it is open and unforbidding, to everyone. It is now time for each of us to claim his and her path back to uniqueness, to the independence with which we were born, and which is the link in the universal web that connects us all in the community of Nature.

No comments: