Thursday, November 17, 2011

Nineteenth Century Man

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tuesday was a hard day for me. There was no real reason, I just couldn't get myself in gear, couldn't access any motivation. I didn't go to the gym. I just barely managed to take my dog for a hike and even in the mountains I lacked the proper energy and enthusiasm. Worst of all, I spent way too much time surfing the internet. Sure, the benefits of the internet are abundant, but  I tend to believe my world is not a better place because of the electronic other world. That's rather ironic, obviously, for a guy writing a blog... I know. But, you see, I keep trying to embrace the present. I want to be a man of my time, because frankly, what's my choice? But it's not my natural inclination. I don't think any of us are better off for living our lives staring at computer screens. Big desk tops, little iPhones, we all spend our hours absorbed in virtual worlds while the beauty and wonders of the actual, natural world pass us by unnoticed. How may people have you seen walking down the street with their heads lost in their touchscreen phones? How many times has a beautiful sunset lit up my windows while I was too deep in my computer to even notice.

Anyway, on Tuesday I was feeling low and finally I decided the only productive thing I could do was to go to the book store. I wandered the stacks and finally made my selections, two Dickens, a nineteenth century sailing memoir called "Two Years Before The Mast," and a collection of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

I was quite pleased with my choices and I have been enjoying them extremely, but I am also abundantly aware that it is odd, perhaps a mistake even, that I have so much trouble enjoying anything written after about 1950. Raymond Chandler is fun, Nabokov is delightful but after that I just can't finish anything. I have tried... sorta. But I have yet to find a contemporary writer who transports me, who has art and beauty in their writing - at least the way I read them.

And that brings me to Emerson. How did I get to be 46 without ever reading him? I tried Thoreau six months ago and found him a little bit silly and egocentric, but Emerson is glorious! Beautiful, moving and - to me - awesomely profound.  I was reading his essay on Shakespeare and was struck by his idea that Shakespeare, like all geniuses, was not a great original thinker (his stories were all written before and familiar), but he was a great man of his time. He understood the zeitgeist (my word not Emerson's) of his age. He embraced and devoured it with passion. The people wanted plays and Shakespeare delivered what they wanted and his energy and the energy he got back from his audience allowed his genius and inspiration to flow.

Now I don't need to be known as a genius. But I have made my living thus far as an artist of various stripes and yet I have always felt, particularly as a TV writer, that I was not a man of my time. I would rather read authors from the nineteenth century than watch anything on television. And when I do watch TV the only show I passionately enjoy is Andy Griffith, circa 1961.

Ray Davies

The Kinks' Ray Davies wrote a couple songs about this dilemma. He claimed to be an ape man and twentieth century man who didn't want to be here. But Ray was enough of his time, the 1960's and 70's at least,  to have a passionate audience. Maybe in the sixties everybody felt like they were living at the wrong time too.

I'm hoping I can allow Ralph Waldo to inspire me to find a way to be a man of my time. But for the moment,  I more often find myself pulled into the romance and craft passions of the past. The irony and jaded coursesness of 2011 don't do it for me. The kindness and simplicity and humanity of the characters on Andy Griffith, the beauty and craft in the writing of Dickens and Tolstoy, the glow and light and soul in the the paintings of Raphael, those are the worlds that appeal to me... for now. Maybe those are romantic mistakes. Maybe I just haven't grown into the present... yet.

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