american defiance is out in paper, with kindle coming soon. it is a collection of anti-authoritarian texts stretching from anne hutchinson's defense against and attack on the puritan theocracy to voltairine de cleyre's "anarchism and american traditions."
there are some celebrated slices, especially emerson and thoreau, but there is so much that is so little known. i've tried to give whole texts or very substantial parts. john woolman's 'plea for the poor' from the 1760s anticipates the arguments of peter singer. sarah grimke's letters on the equality of the sexes is probably the first feminist book published in the us, and she's better than fuller, i think. william lloyd garrison argues for total anti-statism in 1838. sitting bull lures a reporter into the new york herald's last stand. there is a really stunning and ground-breaking essay on race by frederick douglass that is almost never read (better than dubois 50 years later), along with a big chunk of david walker's unbelievable appeal. angela heywood throws down some surrealist political sex poetry. anti-federalists, abolitionists, anarchists, and antinomians are all represented.
this is our most radical and most american heritage: a fierce anti-hierarchical tradition, the texts themselves sometimes unimaginable acts of defiance. we need remindin.
in editing this book, i am appointing myself secretary of defiance. these texts constitute our artillery battery, our canon.
as i've often said, i think that american transcendentalism is ineptly named; i'd prefer an antonym, actually, such as 'immanentalism.' now i think the canon needs expanding, and i think the narrative according to which transcendentalism was superseded by pragmatism is simplistic.
so, if i were assembling a set of transcendentalist essays, i might start with rogers. i would certainly include essays by voltairine de cleyre, perhaps 'the dominant idea' and 'crime and punishment.' and i might fetch up with zora neale hurston: i am straight up asserting that zora is an american transcendentalist in the thoreau mould. a volume focusing exclusively on her essays is long overdue.
in the hands of lit and phil profs, the transcendentalists have sunk into quaint american fossils, groovy proto-hippie nature children, with an embarrassing political individualism that no one can believe anymore, or that must be attenuated or vitiated under interpretation. but a good part of the whole thrust is political from the outset in rogers, emerson, thoreau: a radical anti-authoritarianism. and they have a beautiful individualism that is also not at all about economic self-seeking, but derives from protestant notions like the quaker inner light of god in each person. also, this individualism is a radical egalitarianism, as you see in rogers, in voltairine, in hurston. and it is an individualism that connects with the natural world in much the way many had previously connected to god, and then seeks to place us each as an individuals - not as races, not genders, not parties, not classes, not general wills - into the same shared world.
i'm telling you this is a discovery: someone's going to have to convince me that a more important straight-to-e book has been published.
A great and almost unknown American writer from New Hampshire, Nathaniel Peabody Rogers (1794-1846) was the most radical American political voice of the antebellum period. He is also an undiscovered American Transcendentalist, at his best comparable to Emerson and Thoreau. Both men acknowledged Rogers' influence on them, and Thoreau published one of his first essays - collected here - on Rogers' work, recognizing his excellence as both a political and a nature writer. Anti-slavery drove all his thought, and as an abolitionist writer, only Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips are his rivals. Rogers was an anarchist, a pacifist, a feminist, an environmentalist, a religious heretic, an individualist, an anti-capitalist and an advocate of animal rights.
His writings are collected here for the first time since 1849, along with Thoreau's essay "Herald of Freedom" and other materials about Rogers and American radicalism of the early 19th century.
nathaniel rogers was an amazing radical and an amazing writer, and if you want to see someone in 1840 who speaks up for animal rights, against capital punishment, against slavery, against the state, for environmentalism as that came much later to be understood, for indian rights, and so on, and did so with extreme clarity, creativity and vigor, you've got to check this out. he was a decade emerson's senior, and he is a fundamental american transcendentalist.
zora neale hurston's essays are still radically undervalued. she is one of the great american essayists. in the canon of great expressions of american individualism i would place seeing the world as it is alongside emerson's self-reliance and thoreau's walking.
as much fun as it is to be floundering around with the alligators in the swamping problem, i think that beauty promises more happiness, whatever that is. what i actually want to blog about is art and books, it may shock you to hear. so i am re-opening a blog i had for a class in 2013: writing the arts. first entry: the hilarious book of the incomparable designer raymond loewy.
anyone who likes these and who wants to understand where they're coming from should read six names of beauty. one thing i'll point out: mountains are actually very large stones, and stones are very small mountains. the relationship is not like a picture to its object or motif.
i realize i have been studying and thinking about and teaching about japanese aesthetics for a quarter century. i've sampled calligraphy and ikebana, been seeing in particular all of very rural life in terms of a wabi sabi aesthetics, and i have been teaching about and in my own way trying to practice zen (or, for me, even more fundamentallly) taoism for a very long time very seriously. all these go together with what i think about myself as a cult of the ordinary, and a continuous cultivation of attention. the tao te ching is how i made my peace with the 'spiritual side' of 12-step programs. i call my higher power the tao! i hear the same thing in zen buddhism.
so i love about suiseki that it calls attention to things that are already there, rather than creating new ones. if you simply attend to things that are already there, your art can't be an achievement; you're not doing it in order to score; it's just happening through you. i want people to see these rocks as i do, and i could never in the rest of my lifetime design any of them, and they are just ordinary rocks. for me, they open up a peephole on how infinitely beautiful the universe is and how far beyond human capacities to describe or envision or see clearly. but you see more if you really attend. it requires no hand skills. i was always one of those kids who couldn't draw, had abominable penmanship, and so on. well i'm not drawing or painting here, just drawing things together from the world.
the best introduction i know to japanese aesthetics is mokoto ueda's book literary and art theories of japan, long out of print. get it on inter-library loan! he knows a lot more about this than i do, but i find myself intuiting it or using it confidently and spontaneously by my own lights, and my ability to do this is bringing me great peace and joy even in a time of wild emotional and practical swings.
many of these - of different minerals, different sizes, and so on - are infinitely absorbing. basically one-hour random grab, and i have enough suiseki to last me the rest of my life. one of many miracles, of late.
i am going to show you some images of an unbelievable stone i just glanced at and pried out of the creek bank in my nearest woods while i was looking for tray material. no number of images can do justice to this thing. all color variations are intrinsic to the stone, not dirt or algae, etc. 9" wide x 7" tall in the first view.
principles of latimore suiseki, all intended to maximize a wabi-sabi aesthetic effect and a zen/taoist spiritual practice. i love the ways the classic japanese stones are treated, and the trays of incomparable craft in which they are displayed. but i think they are incompatible with wabi-sabi aesthetics, or in tension, anyway.
(1) local stone
(2) no treatment of any sort except washing
(3) local, found supports/trays
(4) no stone is permanently installed in any display. many of these stones rest as mountains on several different faces; all must be available.
(5) typically displayed in multi-stone arrangements intended to encapsulate ranges or landscapes.
(6) arrangements should be done quickly and improvisationally, but are revisable at will by anyone who may be around.
(7) to fully appreciate the display, the stones must be handled.
(8) should be displayed outdoors and allowed to continue weathering.
when i was working on the wabi-sabi chapter of six names of beauty, i became obsessed with the art of suiseki. i was trying to at least sample all the arts i was writing about, but i wanted this one more than any other. my son sam (12, perhaps) and i had been taking 'nature walks' since he was little; he got excited too and we searched day after day for stones, perhaps came up with a couple of decent ones. i live about 40 miles away from there now, and i suddenly realized: every damn stone in latimore township is a suiseki. jane irish and i were at an abandoned 18th-century quarry yesterday and gathered 40 great stones of all carryable sizes in as many minutes, including wild fossiles and big chunks of petrified wood. but really, a characteristic rock of this region is rounded, glittering quartz in all colors, not geodes exactly but honeycombed with crystal caves. i cannot believe it, really.
i have always wanted to have some visual practice, and i have never been as attracted to any one as much as this. so, i am just beginning. but i am going to explore a latimore-style suiseki thing, with local stone and found trays. here is a very first effort, using some of the most humble stones, only washed, arranged in a minute or two. a foot wide or so.
It's entirely too spring like in the high desert of California, damn it. I know I wanted nothing more ten years ago than to get out of Western Washington and the rain, but it's El Nino time and we're getting robbed here? I know the East Coast is getting slammed, and the midwest is getting slammed but...why are there no flash floods here? Where are the mudslides in LA? God is a real clown, isn't he?
Good, what an amazing morning! The two favorites in the New Hampshire primary both won big...what does it mean? I don't know, maybe Karl Rove is a lousy pollster and if you know what you're doing in a small market, you should probably be able to at least figure out 1st Place?
You know who Crusader AXE of the Lost Causes really misses right now? Hunter Thompson? Well, yeah. Molly Ivins. Well, yeah, of course. But another voice we no longer hear commenting is Warren Zevon. Waddy Wachtel, the great session guitarist and lead player was a close friend of Zevon and related troubled geniuses, and did an interview for a European rock magazine about Zevon's first album, saying that Jackson Browne who produced it, didn't know what the fuck he was doing.
Wachtel got a call from Browne soon after that, and while wishing he hadn't said that, head Browne say that "You're exactly right. I had no clue how to handle him," followed by a offer to have him co-produce the second album, something about werewolves in London and something about lawyers.. The rest is history.
Anyway, things get a bit strange at times. We do have equivalent voices, I suppose, but I still miss the old gang. You have to wonder how Ivins would have reacted to the Bengazi nonsense or how HST would have responded to the Democrats anti-Democratic campaign in 2014. Somehow, I think Zevon's still pretty relevant.
the wild roses are extraordinarily successful around here: they grow up over trees and buildings.
the wild rose is the third most-dominant organism in latimore township, after poison ivy (indeed the bower of roses above is next to a scenic poison oak grove) and the stink bug. after that comes round-up and then humans (and after that, water, and then groundhogs). all of these, it might be noted, have their spiky side, and i could see getting fouled in a patch of wild rose briars and dying of starvation or blood loss. and yet they all contribute to the vicious, ravishing imbalance of nature.
i was surprised to find out that there's a new spanish translation of six names of beauty. it's a super-cute little object, too. i look back with mortification on some moments of my writing history, but i'm happy and proud that i wrote that book.
timothy egan today, like so many, refers to tuffy's amazing obama-getting-run-over-by-a-bull performance as 'tasteless.' this leaves the impression that tuffy was trying to achieve something tasteful - something sophoclean, maybe; something that sounds like mozart or looks like a nice flower arrangement - and failed. that wouldn't be my speculation about the goals of tuffy's approach, which is not to say he doesn't have better taste than paul krugman, e.g. i wonder if egan and such think that tastefulness is the goal of jokes, or poliical commentary in general, or that the bounds of tastefulness are the bounds of legitimate expression or human fun, or that tastelessness is a great form of moral evil.
this is my candidate for the most beautiful performance ever recorded.
what literally kills me i think is the passage from the modulation just after 2 minutes to the end. that russell moore is something fucking else. oh what the hell, you should check this one too, in another mode.
Like monarchs, angels, and comedians, concepts fall, and
rarely has a concept taken a more tragic or comical tumble than beauty. Once,
it inhabited the sphere of ultimate value, glittering in the empyrean along
with truth, goodness, and justice (all of which were considered by Plato or the
romantic poets to be the same thing). Long about 1910, it got kicked downstairs
to the department of hairstyling. From
eternal essence it got demoted to superficial appearance.
was registered both in the arts and in philosophy. Picasso or De Kooning didn’t
paint to make beautiful things; they painted to transform the world. And
probably the last great treatments of the topic in philosophy – at least until
recently – were Santayana’s Sense of
Beauty (1895) and Benedetto Croce’s Aesthetic
The reasons for the
indignities heaped on beauty are complex. One of them is that, beginning in the
eighteenth century (for example in Hume and Kant), beauty was conceived more
and more as a subjective matter, and as conceptually connected to pleasure. By
the time Santayana wrote his dissertation, he could argue that beauty was
actually a kind of mistake: the person who experiences beauty attributes his
own subjective pleasure to the object that causes it. If beauty is entirely
subjective or in the eye of the beholder, then not only is it not an eternal concept,
it is not a concept at all: ‘beauty’ means whatever anyone thinks it means, and
hence it means nothing.
and Modernism, the artist – think Beethoven, Van Gogh, Giacometti – was
conceived as a genius, his works emerging inexplicably from his superhuman-but-ill
skull to re-make human experience. The idea that someone like that was working
to bring people pleasure would have seemed in the era an intolerable
trivialization of art; we could leave that task to the entertainment or cosmetics
industry. So beauty, conceived as a source or even a variety of pleasure, came
to seem an unworthy goal.
And it came to be
associated with what we would now call right-wing politics: with the
architecture and visual expressions of the Catholic Church, with the French
monarchy and its rococo kitsch, with capitalism and its robber-baron art
patrons, with the Third Reich (for example in Leni Riefenstahl’s undeniably beautiful
film Olympia). The left turned
against beauty as a whole, and in the realm of concepts beauty was pitted
against justice, luxurious ornament or conspicuous consumption against
subsistence for the poor and education for the masses.
association of beauty and pleasure with fascism is one of the darkest episodes
in the history of human consciousness. Arthur Danto, in The Abuse of Beauty, one of several important recent philosophical
treatments of the topic, quotes Max Ernst, recalling the dadaists after World
War I: “We had experienced the collapse into ridicule and shame of everything
represented to us as just, true, and beautiful. My works of that period were
not meant to attract, but to make people scream.”
Yet even after the
fall, beauty has never ceased to be a fundamental human experience or even one
of the reasons life is worth living. And if the beauty of a rose or a sunset
seems exhausted or clichéd as a subject of art, poetry, or philosophy, we have never
ceased to experience such things as beautiful, perhaps with as much purity as
ever, with as much of a sense of a renewal of commitment to life and to the
And though such a venerable dimension of human
experience and of the arts could never be entirely neglected, beauty seems to
be in revival both in art and in philosophy. The first steps in making beauty
viable would be to detach it conceptually from pleasure and to treat it as more
than merely subjective.
Indeed, to hold
that when I find a flower or a song beautiful, I am delectating my own internal
states, is a horrendous solipsistic distortion. If I say that the night sky is
beautiful, I want to celebrate it, not myself, and though I may be registering
pleasure (though also perhaps, many other things: awe, love, freedom, fear), I
am talking about the night sky, not me, or else the point of the thing is
completely lost. Indeed, the idea that I am fundamentally pursuing my own
pleasure in seeking out or making beautiful things is, I would say, not only
obviously false, but sad: love of things outside myself is not the same as love
of myself, or else it is essentially meaningless.
We ought to
re-connect beauty to the experience not of pleasure, but of love and longing,
which has been traditional since the Greeks. Plato made that connection in the Symposium, and Sappho famously said that
the most beautiful thing is what one loves. But love and longing are ways of
reaching out into the world: ways of devoting oneself to things and people. In love
or longing, one moves toward what one loves or longs for, not into oneself, or
else the love is a delusion. In the words of the Everly Brothers’ beautiful
song, love hurts, and to account for love merely in terms of pleasure is
seems fairly straightforward, human beings have dark and twisted longings, and
much of the art of the twentieth century might even be beautiful in a dark or
makes some of these points in his book Only
a Promise of Happiness. And Elaine Scarry, in Of Beauty and Being Just, tries to answer the political objections:
the Greeks conceived justice as a harmonious or symmetrical arrangement of elements
or forces, which is also the way Aristotle or the architect of the Parthenon
In short, beauty is
being re-enriched as a concept, and insofar as we still long and still love, we
still seek beautiful things. Perhaps beauty is not eternal. But it appears to
have picked itself up from its pratfall, bruised but ready for more.
teaches at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. He is the author of Six Names
of Beauty (Routledge 2006).