Emerson in the tower of song

I get the New York Times on paper, and today I put off reading it until the end of the day—my practice during the George W. Bush years in order to retain my sanity, which I may well return to for the Trump administration. I peeked at Twitter at around 3pm, and so I read the paper, when at last I did read it, with a little less urgency than I otherwise might have, already knowing that Trump had done new horrible things that would not be mentioned in its pages, and that I was reading only to fill in the context, as it were.

Anyway, in this vague mood, I read Leon Wieseltier’s eulogy for the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, whose songs I’ve loved for years. Wieseltier quotes my favorite two lines of Cohen’s:

There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

and I was interested to learn that Cohen “once told an interviewer that those words were the closest he came to a credo.” And the point of the very modest blog post that you’re currently reading is that it occurred to me, when I read this, that maybe not everyone knows that in those lines Cohen was quoting—and putting a twist on—Emerson.

I probably wouldn’t have noticed the quotation if I hadn’t come to Emerson after coming to Cohen. But that was my sequence, so I did notice it. In a journal entry for April 1837, Emerson wrote:

There is a crack in every thing God has made. Fine weather! — yes, but cold. Warm day!— ‘yes but dry.’ — ‘You look well’ — ‘I am very well except a little cold.’ The case of damaged hats — one a broken brim; the other perfect in the rim, but rubbed on the side; the third whole in the cylinder, but bruised on the crown.

As was his wont, Emerson recycled the line later in an essay, “Compensation,” though he upgraded his illustrative examples, switching out the hats for mythic heroes:

Aurora forgot to ask youth for her lover, and though Tithonus is immortal, he is old. Achilles is not quite invulnerable; the sacred waters did not wash the heel by which Thetis held him. Siegfried, in the Nibelungen, is not quite immortal, for a leaf fell on his back whilst he was bathing in the dragon’s blood, and that spot which it covered is mortal. And so it must be. There is a crack in every thing God has made.

The light, however, seems to be entirely Cohen’s.

Emerson on Occupy Wall Street

It is a sign of our times, conspicuous to the coarsest observer, that many intelligent and religious persons withdraw themselves from the common labors and competitions of the market and the caucus, and betake themselves to a certain solitary and critical way of living, from which no solid fruit has yet appeared to justify their separation. They hold themselves aloof: they feel the disproportion between their faculties and the work offered them, and they prefer to ramble in the country and perish of ennui, to the degradation of such charities and such ambitions as the city can propose to them. They are striking work, and crying out for somewhat worthy to do! . . .

Society, to be sure, does not like this very well; it saith, Whoso goes to walk alone, accuses the whole world; he declareth all to be unfit to be his companions; it is very uncivil, nay, insulting; Society will retaliate. Meantime, this retirement does not proceed from any whim on the part of these separators; but if any one will take pains to talk with them, he will find that this part is chosen both from temperament and from principle; with some unwillingness, too, and as a choice of the less of two evils; for these persons are not by nature melancholy, sour, and unsocial,—they are not stockish or brute,—but joyous; susceptible, affectionate; they have even more than others a great wish to be loved. . . .

These exacting children advertise us of our wants. There is no compliment, no smooth speech with them; they pay you only this one compliment, of insatiable expectation; they aspire, they severely exact, and if they only stand fast in this watchtower, and persist in demanding unto the end, and without end, then are they terrible friends, whereof poet and priest cannot choose but stand in awe; and what if they eat clouds, and drink wind, they have not been without service to the race of man.

From “The Transcendentalist, a Lecture Read at the Masonic Temple, Boston, January, 1842.”

Innocence vs. experience

Pedro the Lion’s song “Penetration” begins

Have you ever seen an idealist with gray hairs on his head?

which reminds me of the passage in Emerson’s lecture “The Transcendentalist” where he says

Talk with a seaman of the hazards to life in his profession, and he will ask you, “Where are the old sailors? do you not see that all are young men?” And we, on this sea of human thought, in like manner inquire, Where are the old idealists?

which reminds me, in turn, of late Melville. Yesterday, on the electronic discussion group ISHMAIL, the scholar Peter Norberg traced the origin of the motto that Melville is said to have kept pasted to his desk at the end of his life,

Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.

It comes from a discussion of Schiller’s play Don Carlos in Madame de Stael’s Germany. Stael reports a favor that one character asks of another, and then adds an observation of her own:

“Remind him,” he says, “when he shall be of riper years,—remind him that he ought to have respect for the dreams of his youth.” In fact, as we advance in life, prudence gains too much upon all our other virtues; it seems as if all warmth of soul were merely folly . . .

After work today, I walked down to the library at 42nd Street, digital camera in pocket, to watch the anarchists rally. On Fifth Avenue, I happened to fall in with them, and I eavesdropped. A young woman asked the young man with a crewcut carrying their furled banner to slow down, because someone in back couldn’t keep up. “You’re six foot one,” she said, “and for every step you take, she has to take, like, four.” He wanted to arrive on time; she accused him of insensitivity. “We’re all adults here,” he defended himself.

I went partly out of curiosity, partly out of remorse at having been out of town during the proper protest on Sunday. Even in my youth—especially in my youth—I wasn’t much of an anarchist. (For the record, that’s understatement.) And I am more or less constitutionally incapable of joining in chants.

Still, it was a spectacle, which I feel conflicted about having fed. Over at n+1, Marco Roth has written, perceptively, that “When you find democracy entertaining, you know you’re a little off the right track—because it suggests you’ve become a spectator of yourself as a participant—similar to watching yourself have sex.” And the photograph that I wanted to take, but which the stutteriness of digital technology more or less defeated, was of the cameras nearly outnumbering the anarchists, surrounding their little bubble of human messiness like the black, lunar probe-shaped viruses that circled a cell and then punctured its membrane in the diagram in my high school biology textbook.

A line of police kept the protesters from returning to the front steps of the library, and the protesters seemed unable to decide whether to turn their backs to the police or to address them. Where was the fourth wall? It didn’t matter; the cameras were everywhere. The protesters shouted, “The whole world is watching,” but the warning wasn’t necessary. The police themselves were videotaping.

Will it hurt the Kerry campaign? The anarchists looked very much like middle America expects them to: tattoos, head scarves, sleeveless T-shirts. After the leader announced a march to Seventh Avenue, there was confusion, and I overheard a credential-wearing photojournalist mutter, “So fucking stupid.” The professionals, in other words, were not impressed.

And there wasn’t a lot of forethought on display. The protesters chose an extremely narrow gate for their exit. The police allowed them and the audience to file out. Then the police unrolled a ribbon of orange mesh and began to charge down the 42nd street sidewalk to clear it. If you haven’t experienced this, it’s sort of civil disobedience meets musical chairs. If the police finish “wrapping” a section of the sidewalk and you’re on the inside of the wrapper when they’re done, you’re arrested. In the one round of the game that I stayed to watch, it was not that hard to escape; maybe it isn’t meant to be. The police seemed mostly to catch photojournalists—players who were disadvantaged, no doubt, by not having looked up from their viewfinders.

I slipped forward along the walkway hidden by hedges that skirts the library’s north side and debouches at the Bryant Street Cafe. There a middle-aged woman rose, drink in hand, to accost a parks employee. “I hear the anarchists have organized a protest on the internet, but how can they do that?” she asked. “If they’re anarchists, how can they organize anything?” She seemed to feel she’d hit on a real stumper.

“They didn’t,” the parks employee answered.

That’s about as much as I witnessed. I think I’m supposed to be more chagrined by the silliness than I am. I see the Times is already calling the incident at the library a “brawl.” The word implies an evenhanded situation, as if the protesters resisted or fought back. They didn’t, from what I observed. They were trying their best to look angry and nonconformist, and their enemies will be happy to see them that way. But it was difficult, in person, not to notice that they were also well-intentioned and hapless—young and imprudent. They seemed full of life.