An Interview with Richard Geldard


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Emerson scholar Richard Geldard has authored three books on Emerson. He was interviewed by Arthur Paul Patterson, editor of Watershed Online.

Watershed Online: Emerson started out as a minister in the Unitarian Church and gradually distanced himself from all forms of institutional Christianity. What were the causes of his disaffection? How did his reaction to, and assumption of, his Christian past influence his Transcendentalism?

Richard Geldard: The biographers of Emerson generally speak of three reasons why Emerson left the ministry. First, he was temperamentally unsuited to the pastoral duties of the position. Second, he could not in good conscience take part in communion, feeling as he did that Christ had not meant to ritualize the events of the Last Supper, and third, that he felt that Christianity had created a cult around Jesus and diminished human contact with divinity as a result.

These so-called "reasons" do not, however, speak to Emerson's vision or his eventual understanding of the human/divine relation. The key to Emerson is found in the first section of "Nature", his first published work (dated 1836). In the very first paragraph he poses the crucial question. [I recommend a careful reading of the first section of "Nature."]

He asks, "Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion of revelation to us, and not a history of theirs?"

My approach to Emerson has always been to take him seriously, to ask myself, "What if he is actually serious? What if he actually means what he says?" Too often, Emerson is read as metaphor and not as reality. In this case, he is asking why it is that we who are alive today must depend upon the past for our revelations [read spiritual truth]? The "past" in this case is embodied in institutionalized religion. Why do we have to assume that God spoke to human beings once (the burning bush, etc.) but then became silent? Why don't we have a relation to God based on personal insight and not one based on sacred texts?

The difficulty, then, with "tradition" is that by definition it blinds us to the present. Emerson believed that each morning presented a new opportunity to know God, to reach into the intuitive center of our nature to connect to the divine nature within and without, to the "Oversoul" whose emanations surrounded us. All we have to do is trust our own intuitive genius (self-reliance) to show us the wide expanse of divine presence in all things.

For Emerson the pulpit was constricting because it was loaded with preconceptions and stale tradition. Spontaneity was not just difficult to come by but impossible because ministers were expected to stick to the Biblical message and the fixed religious calendar. As a result, the congregation was glazed over with expectation, making it impossible to respond to the moment.

One day, when Emerson was sitting in church in Concord, he looked outside at the snow falling and realized that the day was real but that what the minister was saying was not. He vowed to himself to remain true to that insight and to devote his life to helping people "see" the day and to know that God resided within its light. All of his work (essays, lectures, poems) had that purpose. See, see, and see again.

So, in "Experience" he begins with the question, "Where do we find ourselves?" That is where my "Esoteric Emerson" begins and where the search for divinity begins. And at least one answer to that question does not include, "I find myself in church." Emerson liked the image of the migrating bird, which finds itself perched on a rock in the middle of the ocean, resting its wings for the remainder of the journey. It does not remember where it started out and it does not know where it will land eventually, but it trusts the journey and it depends on its own resources to get there and on the sun and stars for guidance.

WO: Undoubtedly the individual in community has an important role to play in Emerson's thinking. Emerson's relationship to community seems somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand he stressed the need for the individual to bring his original ideas and inspirations to the group for correction and yet he himself never formally associated with an intentional community? What accounts for this?

RG: At the beginning of his essay "The Fugitive Slave Law", Emerson said, "I do not often speak to public questions -- they are odious and hurtful, and it seems like meddling or leaving your work. I have my own spirits in prison: -- spirits in deeper prisons, whom no man visits if I do not."

He was speaking in the first instance of the law which made it illegal in Massachusetts to help a slave to flee his or her owner, a law which he disobeyed often. In the second instance (spirits in prison), he was referring to those who were lost or confined spiritually, those who were searching for the truth. Those were the people he "visited" with his essays and lectures. Those were his "community." To them he had a unique relationship and responsibility. In general, these people were unknown to him, except when they wrote him letters from all over America and England. John Muir was such a person. So was Whitman.

Obviously, Emerson also lived in an ordinary social community -- Concord, Mass. -- and lived among so-called "normal" people in a normal way. He served on the school board, went to church on Sunday, took care of his home and land (he owned large tracts of land, one piece of which at Walden pond he allowed Thoreau to build his hut on). To these people he was Mr. Emerson and when he walked into the General Store conversation around the cracker barrel stopped, mostly because people didn't want to seem like gossips around him. These people knew he was somebody important without necessarily knowing why.

Emerson was asked many times to join "intentional communities," such as Brook Farm and to lend his name to others. He declined, understanding that his solitude would be severely curtailed in the public nature of such community. He also knew about himself that he brought few skills to the world other than his eloquence. The most important hours of the day for him were the morning hours, when he reflected, awaited inspiration, and then wrote down what came to him. Afternoons were for solitary walking. Also, he was "on the road" six months of the year, throughout the winter months, and often Thoreau would assume the role of master of the house in his absence.

Most important to him was his "circle," those dozen or so people who shared his vision, were also creative, and who served to reflect back to him the substance of his message. To these people he gave of himself freely and tirelessly, writing often (six volumes of his letters are now in print) and visiting when he could. But the letters are not philosophic in the same way his essays were. They had a feeling center and were generally quite personal.

Those interested in Emerson's relation to community should read his volume of essays entitled "Conduct of Life", which he published around 1855 (rather late in his career). In this collection, the essays entitled, "Culture", "Fate", "Worship", and "Considerations by the Way" are useful. More directly relevant is his collection called "Society and Solitude", which gives more overt answers to these question but lacks depth compared to his earlier work.

WO: Emerson has been understood to be the commensurate individualist and yet he emphasized the sublimation of the personal to the universal aspects of the Oversoul. Why did he appear to have an antipathy toward personal images of God? Can personal images of God be used without "literalism" or "idolatry"?

RG: The first part of your question answers the second. If the Oversoul or Universal Mind or Eternal Being is in fact universal and we, as human beings, partake of that universality, then how can a God be "personal"?As Emerson said often (see "The Oversoul") that soul does not know Boston, Tuesday or Ralph Waldo.The soul is Being-in-the-Universe, and we are part of It. It is not part of us. We are as receptors of Universal Being and to the extent that we "hear" its logos, then we can be said to be part of that Great Mind. But the very nature of the idea of "personal" suggests a separation and a private understanding. In other words, if God is personal then the individual can say, "God spoke to me and told me that I am the Messiah, so you had better do what I tell you." The danger to such an idea should be obvious and can be found every day anywhere that someone claims a private relationship with that "personal" God. "He spoke to me," the egotist claims.

And yet, Emerson was not a Pantheist, seeing God in everything, including dead matter. For him, mind and its resulting consciousness was as close as he could come to the nature of the Oversoul. At least, he felt that only through mind could we know divine nature. In that he followed the pre-socratics, Plato, Plotinus, and eventually, the German Romantics. In that sense Mind is a distinctive substance in the universe.

It is our task to seek the divine and "through lowly listening" to know that will. Self-reliance is God-reliance and wisdom is knowing what the divine will is -- not for us in particular but for us as part of the community of Mankind.

On a personal note, I would say that the challenge we have today is to re-imagine God, to put behind us the historical and the fanciful and to create a new paradigm in which human beings participate in the divine framework just as we participate knowingly in the social and global framework. That re-imagining will require the use of reason, intellect, imagination, wisdom and love. And indeed these are the very characteristics we attribute to divinity. But God is also incomprehensible, at least to us as sense-based creatures confined for a time to biological life. But we have the divinely ordered ability to approach the perfection inherent in Being and to vow some day to return to that perfection, to join with it as the river joins the sea. Our task in life is to realize (make real) divine nature in us and in the world. All else, as the bishop said, is vanity, and vanity, of course, can be beautiful, and can even in some cases be a reflection of the divine, but it is vanity nonetheless.

WO: You have followed up your two thought provoking summaries of Emerson's thought and spirituality with a third volume God In Concord, 1999. What is the emphasis of this new book and what does it add to the content of your other works?

RG: It is never a simple matter to abstract a book-length argument. God In Concord began with a question: given Emerson's profound interest in the divine nature, what was his own (and private) understanding of God? I went to the private journals for an answer, relying less on his published (public) works. In the journals I found the true Emerson, warts and all: his uncertainties, imaginative flights, prayerful queries into the abyss. If there is a summation, it appears near the end of the book in which I make the following point:

"Emerson's place in the history of Christianity should no longer be seen as an heretical interlude but rather as a movement toward a New Deism. The new articles of faith....might be: a) God exists; b) it is our nature to seek God and what God is; c) the extent to which we approach God's attributes, we approach God; d) we are forever responsible for our actions; and e) our ultimate destiny as individuals is dependent upon our actions in this life."

I believe that Emerson lived according to these articles of faith, and I have found them sound and life-enhancing, particularly if taken seriously.

Also, I have included below a message I received this morning from the Eric Voegelin Study group, to which I belong. The entry is self-explanatory.

I have just taken a first dip into Richard Geldard's God in Concord, one of his three intellectual and spiritual studies of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I admit my knowledge of nineteenth century American history is sketchy and my previous reading of Emerson was probably limited to a couple of his essays in college. Of course he has always been one of the "great men of letters" in the American iconography, but more than that I could not remember. This book takes advantage of the publication of the sixteen volumes of Emerson's collected journals and notebooks and so it has more breadth than would a work dependent entirely upon the essays that made him famous.

It is Mr. Geldard's thesis that Emerson's transendentalism is much more than a peculiar offshoot of a nascent American culture; rather it is a harbinger and exemplar of the kind of spirituality that promises to flourish in this new century. Mr. Geldard's consciousness of Voegelinian analysis seems to be implicit throughout. Finally it is made explicit late in the text.

Emerson, a divine graduate from Harvard, threw off the respectable but ossified doctrinal trappings of his Unitarianism and called upon his fellow man to find God outside of mediating institutions and to recognize that each man's soul was a spark of the Divine Fire--with the demanding ethical consequences of that observation. He abandoned the pulpit for the podium and spoke to the masses on the Lyceum circuit while confiding his esoteric thought to his inner circle of admirers. He became a leader of the abolitionists.

Mr. Geldard's style is lucid in exploring profunditiy: "Just as the attributes of God are revealed without "person," so too the human being receives them without " person." The bridge over the abyss will not carry the weight of personality; rather, it is traversed in the mind's transparent (disembodied) eye. As such, no proof of the existence of the bridge, or of God, or of the divine nature within, can be offered in sensory terms. When Emerson asserts that all spiritual truths are their own evidence, he is affirming the principle that a spiritual experience is in and of itself a proof. Such is the definition of experiences. "It is the essence of his idealism" p 112.

Later on, Mr. Geldard explores the resemblance of Emerson's "I" and the "abyss" to Voegelin's (Plato's) Metaxy: "Emerson lived in the abysmal in-between, that space where human mind meets Eternal Mind" p 162. Emerson lived in a time when philosophy lay in ruins (to use Whitehead's term), when Christianity stood mute and stupid in the face of the Enlightenment and when the "isms," particularly Positivism, were beginning to flourish. Partly due to biographical accident and partly due to temperament, Emerson was not a systematic thinker. He was also influenced by Eastern mysticism. Often he would express his thought in evocative but equivocal or metaphorical language.It LOOKS like Emerson was an Averroist (our souls are sparks of the divine and are reabsorbed, etc.) And I hesitate to suggest it, but concepts similar to the brotherhood of autonomous persons and the role of the aristocratic thinker, etc., strongly suggest Joachim of Flora by way of the Neoplatonists whom Emerson studied. I personally tend to be too systematic and I will reread this book with great care and pleasure, in the hopes that it may lead me to a more nuanced and sympathetic understanding of Emerson.

Thank you Richard Geldard!

Fritz Wagner

WO: What aspects of the Transcendentalist/Emerson legacy are directly applicable today and what aspects of the tradition have turned out to be spiritually inadequate over time? Can you think of current exemplars of the Emersonian vision?

RG: The single most important characteristic of Emerson's work (and teaching) is his emphasis upon spiritual work as a direct "knowing" or gnosis of spiritual facts arising from human experience, and that this knowing takes place beyond the so-called "astral" plane where people love to search for demons, ghosts, angels, and other so-called "spirits." Emerson warned against this dangerous and irrelevant searching, particularly in a mid-life essay entitled "Demonology," which can be found in his complete works but not in the usual anthologies. It's worth the effort to look it up.

The New Age fascination with the astral plane is distinctly not Emersonian and is the reason that he is such a valuable source. One of the main manifestations of this lesser interest is the presence of the self-made guru or self-proclaimed messiah, who says, "I have special knowledge, so follow me." Fame is the temptation and the trap. Real enlightenment is a "we" state which the seeker arrives at as a humble servant. Emerson sought no followers, never boasted of special knowledge, or made any claims of clairvoyance.

The greatest danger we face today, in this drug-induced, electronic frenzy, with rampant claims of special knowledge and secret esoteric systems, is that people lacking real discrimination will attach themselves to any new personality or system and literally lose their soul. What is lasting in Emerson's legacy is his sanity and discipline matched with real intuitive power. If we read him seriously and thoroughly, we have a chance of moving directly from the physical realm to the spiritual without getting caught in the dangerous middle ground.

WO: Is there anything in the Emersonian vision that was culturally or philosophically limited or limiting from your point of view. If there is a flaw in Emerson's vision where would it likely be?

RG: I suppose that if there was a limitation in Emerson's vision it is his detachment from institutions, an unwillingness to be a founder or to promote community in the social sense of that word. Although he was not the loner that Thoreau was, who lived always alone, Emerson still saw the role of the Scholar as a solitary one and the call to spiritual matters as a solitary activity. In the "Transcendentalist" he spells out the powers and limits of the transcendental vision, and it takes no account of tomorrow. The true transcendentalist lives in the Eternal Now and as a result will seem to the world to be quixotic -- that is, idealistic but impractical. But this fault in Emerson was a minor one in that he did affirm that life was, after all, sturdy and that the world wanted things done, not talked about. His great text in this matter was the Gita -- his bible -- and in it Arjuna was taught by Krishna to enter fully into life and give everything over, all so-called results, to the Absolute. Never look back.

WO: Your site briefly mentions a screenplay written in commemoration of the bicentennial of Emerson's birth in 2003. What is the current status of the film? Is it in production?

RG: Various production companies are looking at my screenplay, but it presents difficulties. It will be expensive to film (about $10 million) and is probably too intellectual for most audiences -- at least so the money people say. My hope is that the project will find support in time for the bicentennial celebrations of Emerson's birth in 2003. There will be much celebration at this time (May 25) and a good film of the Emerson circle would add to the festivities.
To read more about Richard Geldard and his work click here.

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