Saturday, August 7, 2010

Emerson on Writing and the Lack of Originality

"We sit down with intent to write truly & end with making a book that contains no thought of ours but merely the tune of the time."[1] How true! Nor is it just true of our own thoughts. Everywhere you look: "the tune of the time." Even worse: often there is no "tune" to it at all. It's all just "pc" (or "politically correct," in accordance with one or the other "side.")

Still, Emerson also had a deeper and more important point: "Every common place we utter is a formula in which is packed up an uncounted list of particular observations. and every man's mind at this moment is a formula condensing the results of all his conclusions."[2]

He does not go quite far enough. It would be bad enough, if the "common places" were only our own conclusions, but they really are, in fact, for the most part the conclusions of others we unreflectively accept as our own: "the tune of the time," if we are lucky, a cacophony of different common places, if we are not. Whether 1834 was in this regard better than 2010 remains an open question.

1. Joel Porte, ed., Emerson in His Journals (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1982), p. 127.
2. Emerson in His Journals, p. 124.

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