Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Epigrams

Ralph Waldo Emerson


   There are writers who one knows one ought to read, and tries, eventually, but somehow they remain unreadable. Ralph Waldo Emerson is one of these: transcendental poet (the term itself is sufficient to put one off), essayist (who reads essays anyway, unless teachers who are forced to mark them?), poet of Nature ("In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes, I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods" - O spare me, please, the constant harvesting of nature images, the drowning-flood of reiterations of the pathetic fallacy), and virtual inventor of the self-help manual...but wait, was it not Emerson who described, in precisely that self-help manual, "Self-Reliance", "the need for each individual to avoid conformity and false consistency, and follow his or her own instincts and ideas" (so Wikipedia tells me, and Wikipedia is never wrong). Then maybe, maybe there is another kind of writer, heirs and disciples of Pascal ("Pensées"), writers like Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde and G.B. Shaw, whose works one does not need to read, because their genius does not lie in the totality of their writings, but only in their epigrams. Have I just invented, or discovered, a new genre?

   "A man is a god in ruins."

   "There is creative reading as well as creative writing."

   "Do what you know and perception is converted into character."

   "A great part of courage is the courage of having done the thing before."

   "As men's prayers are a disease of the will so are their creeds a disease of the intellect."

   "Fame is proof that the people are gullible."

   "Every man alone is sincere; hypocrisy begins with the entry of the second person."

   "The stupidity of men always invites the insolence of power."

   "It does not need that a poem should be long. Every word was once a poem. Every new relationship is a new word."

   "Fate, then, is a name for facts not yet passed under the fire of thought, for causes which are unpenetrated."

   "No change of circumstances can repair a defect of character."

   "A man's style is his mind's voice. Wooden minds, wooden voices."

   "Enthusiasm is the leaping lightning, not to be measured by the horsepower of the understanding."

   "Necessity does everything well."

   "Every hero becomes a bore at last."

   "No great man ever complains of want of opportunity."

   But now I cease, because Ralph Waldo Emerson would not have approved of this. "I hate quotations," he once said, "tell me what you know."

   I guess, then, I shall have to go back and read him after all. I shall start with the poems (here) and first his translations from the Persian Hafiz.






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