Emerson on Surfaces; Hamilton Nolan on Joe Biden

Emerson: "We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them."

Emerson on Surfaces; Hamilton Nolan on Joe Biden

A Short Note on Social Change

Hamilton Nolan has an excellent post: "The Left Is Not Joe Biden's Problem. Joe Biden Is." It's his conception of how change happens (you'll find it in the latter part of his post) that I want to talk more about. Nolan: "[O]fficials ultimately do not cause change themselves—they are the end products of change." I broadly agree with this, but it is worth noting just how unrepresentative and non-participatory American political life is. If you want to make council or zoning board meetings and work full time, good luck with that! You want to show up in force, as it is not always clear what number actually sways officials. In addition, plenty of political scientists have pointed out that we have too many elections; no one really knows who does what. For example, the Texas plural executive means executive power is distributed over a number of officials. It's hard to keep track of them and they are elected by low percentages of the electorate. Still, they have no doubts about their legitimacy. The Railroad Commission eagerly approved putting a produced water recycling plant next to a Baptist summer camp. American political life is structured so as not to seek our input.

I admire Mariame Kaba greatly, and she said something to the effect of "find your lane, find your allies, fight like hell" (roughly her words, but I don't remember them exactly). I feel like so much is going on with "find your allies." There's so much to be gained by simply being present for each other. Because it's so tough in these times to get people to realize the value of that, I tend to believe change can start on a personal, local level, a level that might appear as navel-gazing until it reveals itself to be the exact opposite. People need places they can be heard, and as long as those places are willing to expand and do the work, anything is possible.

Emerson: "We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them."

I am a huge fan of Porochista Khakpour's "Just (Don't) Do It." In a few short paragraphs, she details how Lyme wrecked her life and changed her mindset. She shows how profoundly ableist the American Dream can be, how shallow and isolating even when barraging us with success. There's one sentence of hers in particular I've often repeated to myself:

I even became that person who would really chew my food, while recalling the months prior when I couldn’t manage to swallow.

Nowadays, I try my best to eat slowly, to really taste things. I'm not perfect: I distinctly recall chugging a cup of tea yesterday. Still, making time to look at and smell food, understand the texture, experience how flavors change when moved around, note an aftertaste–these are habits alien to me at 20 or 30.

Khakpour's short essay could serve as an illustration of simply being. There's so much we're told to do, to act on, to frantically panic about. If it's all unnecessary and we cut it loose, is the result that we become our authentic selves? That's not guaranteed, but at least we're not further from the truth of ourselves.


I found myself thinking about "Just (Don't) Do It" again recently. Emerson struggled to reconcile his authentic self with what he called "surfaces." From Maria Popova's The Marginalian:

With a wistful eye to how our flight away from nature and toward the bustling superficialities of society has dislocated us from the most rewarding kind of presence, Emerson writes:

"In New York lately, as in cities generally, one seems to lose all substance, & become surface in a world of surfaces. Everything is external, and I remember my hat & coat, and all my other surfaces, & nothing else. If suddenly a reasonable question is addressed to me, what refreshment & relief! I visited twice & parted with a most polite lady without giving her reason to believe that she had met any other in me than a worshipper of surfaces, like all Broadway. It stings me yet."

On the one hand, Popova notes that Emerson worries about the "superficialities of society" keeping us away from "the most rewarding kind of presence." On the other, she has smartly juxtaposed this with Emerson worrying that a woman he met only sees him as a "worshipper of surfaces," nothing real and substantial. I'm chuckling to myself, thinking that this neatly demonstrates two major concerns of ancient philosophy: 1) eros 2) how beings can be reconciled with appearances.

Emerson, in this passage from his journal, does not seem to be Prufrock, e.g. endlessly despondent about love. He would like "a reasonable question" addressed to him; he knows that will give him "refreshment & relief." He wants to be valued, he'd like questions which respect his mind, but what hurts him is a lack of control over whether he is seen in the first place. How can you be your authentic self if no one can see your authentic self?


This is a real problem for the line of thinking I've gleaned from "Just (Don't) Do It." Of course I want to be deeply grateful for as many experiences as I can be grateful for. And I want to be deeply ungrateful for experiences which are horribly unjust or involve inhuman suffering. But what does it matter if your true self can't be communicated?

Popova cites the later Emerson as saying "We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them." Emerson made his peace with surfaces; we've got to learn to work with them in some way. I'm not so sure I want to let the matter go. Two things strike as needing further comment. First, our life's work could be mindless careerism, but it could also be a thoughtful contribution to humanity and a gift for those who know us personally. How does the truth of our lives bind up with "surfaces?" Not everything I do for a given task, after all, is meaningful. Second, what about being fake? I think a number of us feel that people who enjoy manipulation are thriving, not just being.

I'm not sure when I'll get to answering those questions, though I think the work I'm doing on Nietzsche and Heidegger will help shine light on some aspects of them. As always, thank you for listening.