Emerson on Occupy Wall Street

It is a sign of our times, conspicuous to the coarsest observer, that many intelligent and religious persons withdraw themselves from the common labors and competitions of the market and the caucus, and betake themselves to a certain solitary and critical way of living, from which no solid fruit has yet appeared to justify their separation. They hold themselves aloof: they feel the disproportion between their faculties and the work offered them, and they prefer to ramble in the country and perish of ennui, to the degradation of such charities and such ambitions as the city can propose to them. They are striking work, and crying out for somewhat worthy to do! . . .

Society, to be sure, does not like this very well; it saith, Whoso goes to walk alone, accuses the whole world; he declareth all to be unfit to be his companions; it is very uncivil, nay, insulting; Society will retaliate. Meantime, this retirement does not proceed from any whim on the part of these separators; but if any one will take pains to talk with them, he will find that this part is chosen both from temperament and from principle; with some unwillingness, too, and as a choice of the less of two evils; for these persons are not by nature melancholy, sour, and unsocial,—they are not stockish or brute,—but joyous; susceptible, affectionate; they have even more than others a great wish to be loved. . . .

These exacting children advertise us of our wants. There is no compliment, no smooth speech with them; they pay you only this one compliment, of insatiable expectation; they aspire, they severely exact, and if they only stand fast in this watchtower, and persist in demanding unto the end, and without end, then are they terrible friends, whereof poet and priest cannot choose but stand in awe; and what if they eat clouds, and drink wind, they have not been without service to the race of man.

From “The Transcendentalist, a Lecture Read at the Masonic Temple, Boston, January, 1842.”

7 thoughts on “Emerson on Occupy Wall Street”

  1. Yes, an unformed, undertheorized spiritual yawp. To what end? The Atlanta sect denied John L. Lewis a chance to talk to them. Too much white privilege at the head. Emerson’s notion of “service” should have a much higher threshold now, I think. Recent history has taught us that higher stakes are involved.

    Apropos of nothing, have you ever read Solzhenitsyn’s Red Wheel volumes? I am currently trapped by the first one, August 1914 – the revised edition of ’83.

  2. Seems like there might be two sides to the John Lewis story, though your comment is the first news I had of it. I think that when Emerson praised the rude, unproductive, negativist character of the young reformers in this lecture, there was as yet little to justify his faith in them, so I'm not sure the OWSers don't meet the threshold. Haven't read those Solzhenitsyn volumes, sorry.

  3. The man bled on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He’s worked for decades on H.R. bill after bill, always on behalf of the poor, the working man and women, the disabled. If he does not rate an exception to their “process," then OWS are surely children who carry – completely intact – the DNA of privileged, capitalist power holders.

  4. [Sorry, it wasn’t a “no” on Friday, it was a “we’ve got a chips in the bag process” and you’ll have to wait… also we periodically open it up to the floor and you’ll have to wait through those, too.”]

    As for Solzhenitsyn, he seems to be channeling early and late Tolstoy (The Cossacks and Hadji Morat), Chekhov (The Steppe), and even, at times, Vasily Grosssman. At any rate, I’m enjoying it richly and at some sad surprise. He has seemed to disappear from American literary conversation.

  5. For Christ's sake. Lewis has said that it reminds him of his own early days.

    You don't normally demand that insurgent movements respect their elders. If you're not opposed to them.

Comments are closed.