Der Ding An Sich
It really stuck in my craw. I remember standing there in front of the machine. It was a bizarre twenty-first-century machine still quaintly termed a Creel. My boss, the surrogate father of my room-mate and prep school buddy was telling me something I found hard to fathom.
Not that it was difficult. There is nothing difficult about machines. The chief difficulty is generally that they’re a tad dull. Doubly dull on days when you’ve awoken before the sunrise to drive from a one bedroom apartment, past listless trees and lumbering rigs, to a grey gravely yard next to a utilitarian affair termed a factory.
“You’re a man of letters.”
It really stuck in my craw. I’d asked for a guide. For a chance to study the inner workings. The simple buttony operation of the thing would stick better with such documentation. Yet instead of encouragement for my interest, I was called a man of letters.
It is odd for me, it is profoundly difficult, to keep from resenting soft suburban blindness. To deal with the oversimplified dichotomy of ‘this’ and ‘that’, and ‘thus’ and ‘so’ of the collegiate. I was not cradled there, I did not belong there, and I certainly despised being called soft by its tenderest tenants.
This whole essay is years in the making and the flame animating the long assembled kindling was sparked by ‘the most widely known man of letters.’ Ralph Waldo Emerson, yes finally I had an elegant way to broach the subject.
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy contains that little phrase. I was there because Emerson is the great Ghost behind our present machine. For good or for ill.
I think good and ill a thing that’s at times difficult to fathom. Though not as difficult or impossible as my ‘post-modern’ (relativists)(sic) contemporaries would make it out to be.
Emerson thought the man of letters was incomplete. Like Aurelius, he thought that muttering over books overlong was unhealthy. I’d been conditioned from youth to agree with this assessment.
A far more recent writer by the name of Crichton had shaped the entirety of my ethos in the span of a paragraph. In a dime-store thriller called The Lost World, there was a passage lamenting the academics penchant to be maladapted. This need to be nerdy was sharply contrasted with the athletic achievements of some 20th century Noble luminary. I think it may have been Plank.
I was thin, and pale, and dark. I reveled in the hills, streams, and woods of the nation that adopted me. My father was a security guard who participated in martial arts tournaments. My mother worked in a gym in the basement of a looming thing in the metropolis of my birth. My father’s father was a gym instructor. My grandmother’s father was a geologist or economist for a geological survey studying some of the roughest country on Earth. So despite being thin and pale, and dark I had a physical pedigree and physical passions, as well as not the cheeriest of childhoods.
All these being reasons why I so thoroughly imbibed Crichton observation, and so thoroughly resented condescension from first world humble braggarts.
These sorts steal my time, steal their own time, and stymie this wondrous blooming thing called life with listless labeling.
This is why Emerson is so essential and misreading him so dangerous.
He is called the ‘most famous man of letters’ by that Encyclopedia for solid reason. He is both hapless signpost and robust director of the American way. A decent and dare I say lovely path when properly taken.
‘America is a poem’ and the magic of poetry is in its motion. Rhythmic meter is the same animus that Emerson promotes by suggesting that a man see no work as beneath him, so long as it is useful at the moment. He saw the enlightenment sought for by all the sages in all the ages as being possible to accrue from the most mundane of tasks, provided the proper spirit.
Logos and pathos, Apollo and Dionysus, in perfect concert that’s the ethos. At least that to me is the ethos Emerson was attempting to transmit.
Transcendentalism you see is not about escape but about embrace. Individuation and individualism are not about isolation but realization. The proper reading of individuation is not of setting apart but of standing together. Yes, we are together but we do not lean one against the other, each of us stands upon the same ground and we regard each other as one regards a magic mirror. In this realization, the mirror is a window into another world where we see ourselves in a different reality. This embrace is the kindest Agape and the richest kiss of Eros.
Of course, to use a cringy cliché this rose has many thorns and plucking it requires utmost caution.
“Rich man in a poor man’s clothes.” To borrow from Elliot as I will do forever is the prickle that I find most personally irksome. The humble braggart, the latte-swilling tough guy, the ‘dude with a stilted attitude learned from TV,’ the man who called me ‘man of letters.’
Why all this ire? Was it an insult or compliment? Was it both? I do not know but I do know that it is indicative of an improper digestion.
Emerson, unless I am mistaken would have resented the separation of the ‘gritty blue jeans realist’ from the ‘man of letters.’ In fact, I think that he found this very dichotomy to have a mortifying effect. It is the same dichotomy that Crichton and Aurelius address when they remark on the imbalances of certain characters. So, to be called ‘a man of letters’ by a hard-working dandy, seemed indicative of improper digestion of the massive cultural morsel, that the Transcendental school has set upon the American table.
I’m not exactly sure what they’re playing at. What they’re playing at with all that cocky grinning, armchair psychology, beards, and flannel… And I only point it out because I think it makes everyone miserable and a shot at diagnosis may perhaps be better than no diagnosis at all.
So, I Alexander Weir, formerly known as Alexander Vadimavich Vyborov, proclaim without pride, or shame, that I am as I have always been a man. Not a man of letters, not a tragedy, not a poet, not a laborer, painter, musician, or chief, but simply a man.
It is a worthy state.
Der Ding An Sich