Friday, December 2, 2011

some notes on Emerson's essay "compensation"

I have decided to move my commentaries of Nietzsche, Rand, Emerson, and Zizek to another section, to be part of the five translations I made, a volume of translations and commentaries. Here is a recent one. You all know I am greatly moved by the ideas of Emerson. His essay “compensation” is a practical and powerful exercise in common sense. Near the end of the essay comes the problem of saying that the world balances itself out with the idea of the soul being just another balance in the world.


Notes on the Essay "Compensation" by Emerson


            After describing how it is the nature of the world and the universe to compensate, or balance itself out, so that there is no need for providence or divine judgment or end of the world justice, Emerson faces a few criticisms. First of all, if every good has its bad points, and every bad has its good points, why try? Why care? It all works out on its own. In other words, if I am not supposed to worry about the world, how can I care?

            There is an exception to the law of compensation:

"The soul is not a compensation, but a life. The soul is. Under all this running sea of circumstance, whose waters ebb and flow with perfect balance, lies the aboriginal abyss of real Being. Essence, or God, is not a relation, or a part, but a whole. Being is the vast affirmative, excluding negation, self-balanced, and swallowing up all relations, parts, and times within itself. Nature, truth, virtue, are the influx from thence."

            In a typical Emersonian circumlocution, the innermost is the most divine things, and the centermost is equivalent to the farthermost. The soul is, the world compensates, and evil? Whence evil? He takes the tract of Augustine, who solved the problem of evil by denying that evil exists:

Vice is the absence or departure of the same. Nothing, Falsehood, may indeed stand as the great Night or shade on which as a background the living universe paints itself forth, but no fact is begotten by it; it cannot work, for it is not. It cannot work any good; it cannot work any harm. It is harm inasmuch as it is worse not to be than to be.

            So the metaphysics is now threefold: the world, the night, and the soul. And the soul creates everything, but once created, things develop the natural laws, summed up in compensation, which is also described in every branch of science, as well as in the moral world of human relations. It is a physical, a biologically, a psychological, a moral, a literary fact of all created things: they balance. It seems that the initial imbalance is the addition into the world, in a universe ever expanding, where a fresh singularity is born out of the soul at every act of originality, for as Heraclitus had said, who also envisioned a world of flux and order: "The soul is a self-increasing logos." And as Emerson said:

"There is no penalty to virtue; no penalty to wisdom; they are proper additions of being. In a virtuous action, I properly am; in a virtuous act, I add to the world.... The soul refuses limits, and always affirms an Optimism, never a Pessimism."

"There is no tax on the good of virtue; for that is the incoming of God himself, or absolute existence, without any comparative."

            And then Emerson takes the recursive tract: if everything in the world compensates, and if the soul adds, what about the knowledge of compensation? Where do the two meet? What is the bridge?:

"But there is no tax on the knowledge that compensation exists, and that it is not desirable to dig up treasure [unearned]."

            And so is answered the conundrum: if the soul adds, and the world compensates, and if the soul knows that the world compensates, we must therefore say that compensation becomes pure addition when it is known.

            And yet, this supernatural soul, which does not abide by the rules of the world, somehow balances it:

"On the nature of the soul is the compensation for the inequalities of [personal] condition [or circumstance]."

            There follows a strange privilege of love as ownership, so that if you are poor, your love will "maketh his own the grandeur he loves," again, presenting the aesthetic sense of owning without taking. As usual, Jesus and Shakespeare are summed to represent religion and literature:

"Jesus and Shakespeare are fragments of the soul, and by love I conquer and incorporate them in my own conscious domain. His virtue, -- is not that mine? his wit,--if it cannot be made mine, it is not wit."

            Or to balance the equation, any virtue Jesus has that I don't doesn't count as virtue.

            Emerson goes on to a system of personal growth that greatly foreshadows the central insights of Carl Rogers on the nature of the healthy soul. Mental illness is a sort of writer's block, or as Reich would characterize it, a block of flow in the muscles of our body; but in Roger's the problem is the same as with Emerson, the crux where soul and body intersect.

"Every soul is by this intrinsic necessity quitting its whole system of things, its friends and home and laws and faith, as the shell-fish crawls out of its beautiful but stony case, because it no longer admits of its growth, and slowly forms a new house. In proportion to the vigor of the individual these revolutions are frequent, until in some happier mind they are incessant and all worldly relations hang very loosely about him, becoming as it were a transparent fluid membrane through which the living form is seen, and not, as in most men, an indurated heterogeneous fabric of many dates and of no settled character, in which the man is imprisoned."

            And so the same paradox of his concluding section comes up again. How can the compensating world relate to the additive soul? Here it is seen that a soul that increases outgrows its environment. As the soul grows, the world must be replaced by a bigger world. Friends must be left behind, jobs and stations, discarded.

            Even shocks and traumas are without consequence.

A fever, a mutilation, a cruel disappointment, a loss of wealth, a loss of friends, seems at the moment unpaid loss, and unpayable. But the sure years reveal the deep remedial force that underlies all facts. The death of a dear friend, wife, brother, lover, which seemed nothing but privation, somewhat later assumes the aspect of a guide or genius; for it commonly operates revolutions in our way of life, terminates an epoch of infancy or of youth which was waiting to be closed, breaks up a wonted occupation, or a household, or style of living, and allows the formation of new ones more friendly to the growth of character.

            The soul, it seems, can never be wounded by the world, but even the greatest traumas, when the push something into the soul, get it back out with increased interest and surcharge.

            The two laws, the laws of the soul and the laws of the world, yet interpenatrate each other, and also remain pure.



No comments: