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New Age "Asiatic" thought ... is establishing itself as the
hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. (Zizek)

Sunday, January 15

poor melons, unripe crabs

The music that can deepest reach,
And cure all ill, is cordial speech...

That bit of doggerel appears at the head of "Considerations by the Way," the seventh chapter of the sixth volume -- The Conduct of Life (1860) -- of The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 12-volume Centenary Edition published by Houghton Mifflin and Company in 1903-04. Fortunately, The Conduct of Life has been republished. More fortunately still, thanks to wonders of the world wide web you can click here to read the whole magilla.

Part of what you'll read, if you manage to persevere through Emerson's purple haze, is this:

That by which a man conquers in any passage, is a profound secret to every other being in the world, and it is only as he turns his back on us and on all men, and draws on this most private wisdom, that any good can come to him.
In the same piece, Emerson drew on his most "cordial speech" and "private wisdom" to give us this...
In the streets, we grow cynical. The men we meet are coarse and torpid. The finest wits have their sediment. What quantities of fribbles, paupers, invalids, epicures, antiquaries, politicians, thieves, and triflers of both sexes, might be advantageously spared! Mankind divides itself into two classes,-- benefactors and malefactors. The second class is vast, the first a handful. A person seldom falls sick, but the bystanders are animated with a faint hope that he will die: -- quantities of poor lives; of distressing invalids; of cases for a gun.
The emphasis is emphatically mine. By the way, "fribble," as used above, is a nominalized back-formation from an intransitive verb that once meant, I am informed by Merriam-Webster (Unabridged): TOTTER, STAMMER, FALTER. The un-Unabridged version suggests DODDER, which (say I) remains in use in the not uncommon, but now hugely deprecated phrase: "that doddering old fool." So probably, tribbles are, less floridly expressed, old people -- most likely those suffering from what we now know as paralysis agitans or Parkinson's: "a chronic progressive nervous disease occurring in advanced life and marked by tremor and weakness of resting muscles, rigidity, mask-like facial expression, and a peculiar gait -- called also shaking palsy." Emerson: the man's compassion was boundless.

Was he also "spiritually attuned" to the principles that would later come to be collected under the rubric of eugenics? Here's a final quote from The Conduct of Life. You be the judge...

Nature makes fifty poor melons for one that is good, and shakes down a tree full of gnarled, wormy, unripe crabs, before you can find a dozen dessert apples; and she scatters nations of naked Indians, and nations of clothed Christians, with two or three good heads among them. Nature works very hard, and only hits the white once in a million throws.
Although "hitting the white" is unfamiliar to the contemporary ear (except when it means getting sauced on Chardonnay), it must have something to do with archery, "the white" being (or once having been) the bulls-eye. However unintended the gaffe, it is nonetheless ironic, given that Emerson was Cheerleader-in-Chief for the populist doctrine of manifest destiny, to hear him combining "white," "Christians" and "Indians" in the same sentence. For the shamelessly naked Indians, it was a sentence of death -- "cases for a gun" -- which seems to be what old R. Waldo had explicitly enough in mind when he penned this inspiring essay, so full of cordial speech.



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