Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Emerson on Occupy Wall St, 1842: "society, to be sure, does not like this very well"

It's amusing that the press coverage of Occupy Wall St. and its civic offshoots -- not a movement, quite yet, and not really a photo op, not a subject quite fitting Entertainment Weekly nor the paparazzi of TMZ even as the mainstream press tiptoe around it in battle fatigues and camouflage jackets -- seems to be leaking out across the country as if this were the 1840s, and not the 21st century.

Trying to figure out what the hell is going on, much less what the gathering "means," has been rather a guessing game for the cable news pundits who prefer snappy themes, vibrant graphics, and knowing winks. The media continues to hem and haw at an audience who have been accustomed to be told what to think of the daily news before they hear it.

The leaderless anger of the gathering has been presented as a "now what?" stand-off as it reaches the fourth week. Three whole weeks have passed -- yet no one has called it the "American autumn" or even sent their intrepid news teams for round-the-clock coverage overnight, to see the park filled with sleeping bags and caffeinated midnight discussions, presumably.

So let us read a calm and reasoned overview of the current situation from someone who might have been watching from across the street, waiting for the next passerby to give him some news, or perhaps just anxious for the dawn to reveal a glimpse of some official response to the continued vigil. Is there a meaning yet, beyond the unsettling surety that society will retaliate? From The Transcendentalist, a "Lecture Read at the Masonic Temple, Boston, January, 1842," by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

... 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. ...

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