The Dance of Extrinsic Individualism and Interconnection
A fly dances in my tea leaves. It burrows its head the size of a pin beneath the black plant and eats away at its remains. This choreography of decay in something mother nature is so used to—she knows it well. I throw the leaves out into the garden and they decompose into the soil where the daisies and black-eyed susans will flourish come summer. I did not boil the water with the intent to feed the plants, I wanted to make tea, and yet the fly swimming around in the dregs of my cup insisted I make something more from it. Weeks from now when I see those flowers, I won’t think about the tea leaves that molted into the dirt to nourish them, but at the moment, the thought that we exist in relation to one another brings a sort of comfort.
Ralph Waldo Emerson brings forth the idea of the individual being understood through relation to another in his essays. He expresses the concept of the self as a fluid thing, something meant to always ebb and flow, that is not stagnant like a tide pool dotted along the shore. That’s not to say a tide pool is not teeming with life—rather it is flush with an ecosystem of its own— but when we look at the ocean as a whole, we see the influence it has over the shape of the land and the life residing within it quite like the influence the self has over its surroundings and vice versa.
Emerson states, “there is victory yet for all justice; and the true romance which the world exists to realize will be the transformation of genius into practical power,” in his essay, “Experience.” The beauty of the world exists in realizing this relation to another, and through this realization we come to the concept of the individual—or the self. In “Experience” he also centers the perception of the individual through extension, rather than internalization, stating that, “People forget that it is the eye which makes the horizon, and the rounding minds eye which makes this or that man a type or representative of humanity,” and that “every evil and good thing is a shadow we cast.”
Emerson argues again and again that to achieve true individualism we must get rid of the notion that we are static or a fixed creature, that our habits hinder our ability to grow. If each day I boil water and steep my tea inside, and I never venture outside to toss my tea leaves in the garden, the result of what grows there may not be as lush had I broken my fixed routine of drinking my tea inside and tossing the tea bag in the trash.
In order to achieve this idea of individualism, Emerson emphasizes the importance of “nonconformity” within his essay, “Self-Reliance.” He firstly states, “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.” You must first find peace with where you are in life, find comfort with whatever your situation may be in order to achieve growth within yourself. Emerson then says to object conforming to society as, “Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed does not. The same particle does not rise from the valley to the ridge. Its unity is only phenomenal. The persons who make up a nation to-day, next year die, and their experience with them.” Society is built on stagnation which inhibits growth. Emerson also says that if these impulses come from the Devil, “I will live then from the devil.” This is a radical thought especially for the time period with which religion and Christianity had a stronghold over society, creating a massive emphasis on conformity. Emerson told his readers to reject this notion, that conformity does not bring higher thought or processes and only serves to hinder growth within oneself.
Individualism in Emerson’s work is a choreographed dance between the self and its surroundings, much like the one of the tea leaves and decomposition. Emerson describes the striking balance between the two in, “Self-Reliance” stating that, “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” Here the “great man” he references is one who has achieved the individualistic life, one who does not abide by the society that is, “in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” The great man, in Emersons eyes, is one whose actions are a reflection of their character as he believes conformity “blurs the impression of your character” and nonconformity reveals. The great man is one who has accepted their place in life and uses their position to forge a balancing beam along the self and their surroundings. The great man rejects immobility and the stagnation that society binds them to, he pushes this perspective outward, forming a picture of the horizon with the mind’s eye, keeping a striking balance in the dance of the individualism and his surroundings.
The self is moveable, it is an ocean current that shapes the land around it, but who is the target of Emerson’s interpretation? Who is the “great man” that Emerson spoke of? In his essay, “The Poet” he answers this question through the lens of the poet, stating who is capable of this greatness and who holds the capacity for individual growth. Emerson says, “The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics!” Everyone, even those who aren’t especially keen on poetry, are poets in their own way. Each person has the capacity to, “turn the world to glass in their right series and procession,” or to turn their surroundings into a new and higher form. When the great man—or the poet of their own lifestyle—operates through Emerson’s idea of individualism, he can achieve this “high sort of seeing,” which Emerson describes as the imagination.
A concept similar to that in his essay, “Experience” in which the concept of individualism is achieved by abandoning the idea of a fixed self, here Emerson says “every intellectual man quickly learns, that, beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect, he is capable of a new energy…by abandonment to the nature of things.” He emphasizes the importance of abandoning the notion of a fixed intellect or state of mind and achieving this imaginative thought. The imagination is something beyond intellect—keeping with the symbolism of the poet as any person who has realized their capacity to achieve this higher thinking or the idea of the“great man”—when the poet dares to step off the path into nonconformity and begins to think with the “flower of the mind,” not just with intellect, the poet can then see that change is possible.
As Emerson says in “The Poet”, “the traveler who has lost his way, throws his reins on his horse’s neck, and trusts the instincts of the animal to find his road, so we must do with the divine anima who carries it through the world.” The reader must trust the poet inside themselves to know the path to higher thought and change, whatever the focus of this thought is—whether it is the painting to the painter, metal to the craftsman, or the child to the mother—the self is the way in which we all move to this higher thinking and we must trust it in order to change.
Imagination and creativity are highly regarded concepts in Emerson’s work, and closely tied to his concept of individualism. Establishing what these processes are capable of is necessary to give clarity to their purposes, but it is also just as valuable to look at a lack of these concepts. What does Emerson make of a person who lacks poetry in their life, who has not realized their potential for imaginative or higher thinking. Emerson touches on this in the “Experience” essay with the emotion of grief. He talks of the death of his son and the grief that he was overcome with. He states that “grief can teach me nothing,” and that the emotion serves to hold a person in place, leaving the self as it found it without making any change. The only change that occurs is once the grief has lifted and when the mind is no longer static, then there is the potential to realize the growth and change that can occur from it. It is the self that drives this change, not the emotion.
Emerson states that moods are, “like a string of beads, and as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus,” that our temperament is the wire with which the beads are strung onto, and, “it depends on the mood of the man, whether he shall see the sunset or the fine poem.” Emotions and moods have an influence on the state of being, it is important to move through them and be with them as they are. The self is influenced by the emotion that occurs in the moment, as it is not a static being, but there is always the environment for which the self exists within, providing it space to grow and change. There are always sunsets, but it is dependent on the person themselves to see them.
In “The Poet” Emerson writes, “if the brain is too cold or too hot…life stagnates from too much reception.” To dwell too long in any mood causes friction, there is nothing to learn from lingering in grief or sadness or even happiness, and that is where the danger lies in stagnation. A great man understands his placement and position in life, he understands his grief or his immense happiness, but doesn’t allow it to linger for long as he understands everything is constantly in motion and nothing is permanent. He dances a choreographed routine, and then he fumbles and becomes discouraged. The great man does not linger in this disappointment—he rises from his place on the floor and changes his form, he moves fluidly through the air and greats the challenge with a new demeanor, and perhaps he even succeeds. As Emerson states, “Of what use is fortune to a cold and defective nature?” What use is the talent of a dancer if they were to give up when they fall, or if they practice the same dance over and over again, what use is that talent if they aren’t giving it to something new?
To live is to rise to the potential of the self. When I put the kettle on the stove, I boiled it with the intent to make tea. Would the outcome have been the same had I boiled it with the intention to make coffee? Would those grounds have nourished the soil in the same way the tea leaves had? If I had clung to my routine and drank my tea inside, the potential for any of this would never have mattered, my eye would not see the garden or the fly swimming along the surface of my drink.
I rise to my potential little by little every day. By Emerson’s standards, does this make me a great man, a poet, capable of imaginative thought?
In “The Poet” Emerson says that, “In truth, they are all creatures of given temperament, which will appear in a given character, whose boundaries they will never pass; but we look at them, they seem alive, and we presume there is impulse in them.” If the poet, the great man, the holder of imagination, and the creature of a given temperament sits outside in the clutch of mayflies, if one should wander into their tea, then there is impulse within them to make life out of waste. There are so many boundaries we may never even comprehend within the self, but once one is realized, growth results from its passing.
The individual takes from the self and gives to the world around them—everything existing in relation to one another. The flowers that bloom from the nutrients I gave them will not understand this and neither will I—it’s unclear if this understanding is even necessary for the action to be meaningful—though come summer when they are in full bloom I will make the flower with my eye and the flash of yellow and white will resonate with me for a moment. I will come to a small realization of the power of my own self and the world around me and then continue about my day, only slightly noticing the way the I walk across the earth with more purpose than I had before.