December 15, 2009

1. Buy, Sell, Hold:
An Investor’s Guide to Literature

I’ve argued that the Philosophy of Today is a non-rational philosophy, that it respects the unconscious more than reason, Zen more than Aristotle. In the last issue, I predicted that, if the Philosophy of Today gains ground, Samuel Johnson’s stock would fall (his reputation would decline) because he was a rational thinker, the product of a rational age, and he didn’t appreciate the importance of myth and the unconscious. His writings are moralizing, not mythic. This moralizing tendency is evident in his remarks on Shakespeare: “[Shakespeare] is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose.”1 In sum, I’m bearish on Johnson, and if you own any Johnson shares, I advise you to sell them.

“Where should I put the money? What are you buying now?” I’m buying the Romantics, like Coleridge and Blake, who understood intuition and the non-rational, and I’m buying Americans, like Emerson and Poe, who were influenced by the Romantics. I would rate Melville a Buy because of his grasp of the occult, and Thoreau a Buy because of his Zen. As for the ancients, I would be a seller of rational philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and I would buy Apuleius, a thinker from Late Antiquity. Since great art is eternal, I think Homer and Vergil represent good value; I would rate them a Hold.

As for Renaissance thinkers, I’m bullish on the Neo-Platonists and their successors — Pico, Bruno, Campanella, and the Hermetics and Rosicrucians who follow in their wake. I would sell the Age of Reason guys who come between the Renaissance and Romanticism — i.e., Descartes and Leibniz, Voltaire and Gibbon, etc. As for the Big Three of 19th-century philosophy — Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche — I would rate them a Hold; I wouldn’t sell them because they see the weaknesses of reason. Likewise, I would rate Freud a Hold.

Shakespeare’s stock is high, but I think it will go still higher because of his grasp of the occult and the mysterious; I would rate Shakespeare a Buy. D. H. Lawrence I would rate Strong Buy; Lawrence shares will double, if not quadruple, in the next decades because he has a deep understanding of the unconscious and the occult. As for the Big Three of modern fiction — Joyce, Proust, and Kafka — they look a little pricey now; I would rate them a Hold. I’m more bullish on the Central Europe Three — Musil, Broch, and Gombrowicz — who are cheap, and generally ignored in the U.S.

Finally, I would rate Jung Strong Buy. Take a second mortgage on your house to buy shares of Jung. True, his books aren’t clear or concise or readable, but his grasp of myth, the unconscious, and the occult is unparalleled. I would also be a buyer of the primitive — Gilgamesh, the Old Testament, fairy tales, etc. I would rate Frazer (author of The Golden Bough) a Buy; though he didn’t respect primitive thinking, he at least collected it and organized it. I would rate Joseph Campbell “Strong Buy” because he understands myth and the unconscious.

If the Philosophy of Today becomes dominant, it will result in a reevaluation of earlier writers, a reevaluation of Western civilization. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that a new philosophy creates a new civilization.

2. John Muir

I saw several episodes of the recent Ken Burns documentary on U.S. National Parks. It can be viewed online ( It’s a good documentary, and it inspired me (and doubtless many others) with a desire to visit these parks (except for a visit to Arizona and the Grand Canyon 35 years ago, I’m a complete stranger to the American West). In an earlier issue, I discussed a big new book on the Parks, written by Douglas Brinkley. The Brinkley book and the Burns documentary cover some of the same ground, but seem to have had no influence on each other.

One of the heroes of the Burns documentary is John Muir, whom I had heard of, but never read. (Muir is also featured in an American Masters documentary.) I now realize that Muir is a fine writer and a deep thinker — a Western version of Thoreau. But Muir seems unaware of Thoreau, as Thoreau was unaware of Muir (when Thoreau died in 1862, Muir was an obscure man of 24). On the other hand, Muir was a fan of Emerson, who was much better-known in the late 1800s than Thoreau. Muir met Emerson when Emerson visited Yosemite in 1871.

Muir was ecstatic at the arrival of Emerson:

When he came into the Valley I heard the hotel people saying with solemn emphasis, “Emerson is here.” I was excited as I had never been excited before, and my heart throbbed as if an angel direct from heaven had alighted on the Sierran rocks.2

Muir was too shy to introduce himself, but he sent Emerson a note, urging him not to leave Yosemite until he had seen all the sights. After receiving this note, Emerson visited Muir at the sawmill where Muir worked:

I had a study [Muir later wrote] attached to the gable of the mill, overhanging the stream, into which I invited him, but it was not easy of access, being reached only by a series of sloping planks roughened by slats like a hen ladder; but he bravely climbed up and I showed him my collection of plants and sketches drawn from the surrounding mountains which seemed to interest him greatly, and he asked many questions, pumping unconscionably.

He came again and again, and I saw him every day while he remained in the valley, and on leaving I was invited to accompany him as far as the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees. I said, “I’ll go, Mr. Emerson, if you will promise to camp with me in the Grove. I’ll build a glorious campfire, and the great brown boles of the giant Sequoias will be most impressively lighted up, and the night will be glorious.” At this he became enthusiastic like a boy, his sweet perennial smile became still deeper and sweeter, and he said, “Yes, yes, we will camp out, camp out”; and so next day we left Yosemite and rode twenty-five miles through the Sierra forests, the noblest on the face of the earth, and he kept me talking all the time, but said little himself. The colossal silver firs, Douglas spruce, Libocedrus and sugar pine, the kings and priests of the conifers of the earth, filled him with awe and delight. When we stopped to eat luncheon he called on different members of the party to tell stories or recite poems, etc., and spoke, as he reclined on the carpet of pine needles, of his student days at Harvard.

At the end of the day, Emerson’s handlers said Emerson might catch cold sleeping outside, so they were going to stay in a hotel. Muir protested, but to no avail: “The house habit was not to be overcome, nor the strange dread of pure night air.”

Accustomed to reach whatever place I started for, I was going up the mountain alone to camp, and wait the coming of the party next day. But since Emerson was so soon to vanish, I concluded to stop with him. He hardly spoke a word all evening, yet it was a great pleasure simply to be with him, warming in the light of his face as at a fire. In the morning we rode up the trail through a noble forest of pine and fir into the famous Mariposa Grove, and stayed an hour or two.... Mr. Emerson was alone occasionally, sauntering about as if under a spell. As we walked through a fine group, he quoted, “There were giants in those days,”3 recognizing the antiquity of the race.

The poor bit of measured time was soon spent, and while the saddles were being adjusted I again urged Emerson to stay. “You are yourself a Sequoia,” I said. “Stop and get acquainted with your big brethren.” But he was past his prime, and was now a child in the hands of his affectionate but sadly civilized friends.... It was the afternoon of the day and the afternoon of his life, and his course was now westward down all the mountains into the sunset. The party mounted and rode away.... I followed to the edge of the grove. Emerson lingered in the rear of the train, and when he reached the top of the ridge, after all the rest of the party were over and out of sight, he turned his horse, took off his hat and waved me a last good-bye.

I felt lonely, so sure had I been that Emerson of all men would be the quickest to see the mountains and sing them. Gazing awhile on the spot where he vanished, I sauntered back into the heart of the grove, made a bed of sequoia plumes and ferns by the side of the stream, gathered a store of firewood, and then walked about until sundown. The birds, robins, thrushes, warblers, etc., that had kept out of sight, came about me, now that all was quiet, and made cheer. After sundown I built a great fire, and as usual had it all to myself. And though lonesome for the first time in these forests, I quickly took heart again — the trees had not gone to Boston, nor the birds; and as I sat by the fire, Emerson was still with me in spirit, though I never again saw him in the flesh. But there remained many a forest to wander through, many a mountain and glacier to cross, before I was to see his Wachusett and Monadnock, Boston and Concord. It was seventeen years after our parting on the Wawona ridge that I stood beside his grave under a pine tree on the hill above Sleepy Hollow. He had gone to higher Sierras, and, as I fancied, was again waving his hand in friendly recognition.

Sierra Nevada, by the way, is Spanish for “snowy mountain range”; Nevada means “snowy” and Sierra means “mountain range.” Sierra is from the Latin serra meaning “saw”; it’s related to the English word “serrated” meaning “like a saw.” A mountain range often has a jagged, saw-tooth shape.

In 1903, Muir gave Teddy Roosevelt a tour of Yosemite. Roosevelt was then a 45-year-old President. He ventured into the back country with Muir, and camped with him in the open air. Muir was able to enlist TR’s support for his conservation causes.

I’d like to take a Muir Pilgrimage to Yosemite, as Proust took a Ruskin Pilgrimage to Venice; I’d like to read Muir in the shadow of Half Dome, as Proust read Ruskin inside San Marco. Perhaps the best edition of Muir’s writings is William Cronon’s John Muir: Nature Writings. Cronon often appears in the Burns documentary. He’s a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the same college that Muir himself attended. Consider also The Young John Muir: An Environmental Biography, by Steven Holmes.

Muir was born in Scotland in 1838. His family emigrated when he was 11, settling in Wisconsin. Muir was raised in a strict Protestant family, and was forced to memorize the Bible. “By age 11, young Muir had learned to recite ‘by heart and by sore flesh’ all of the New Testament and most of the Old Testament.”4 As an adult, Muir let go of conventional monotheism, and subscribed to a Thoreau-style pantheism. “I never tried to abandon creeds or code of civilization,” he wrote; “they went away of their own accord... without leaving any consciousness of loss.” He called the conventional image of God, “as purely a manufactured article as any puppet of a half-penny theater.”5

“We all flow,” Muir wrote, “from one fountain — Soul. All are expressions of one love. God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainizing all.”

“At age 22, Muir enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, paying his own way for several years. There, under a towering black locust tree beside North Hall, Muir took his first botany lesson. A fellow student plucked a flower from the tree and used it to explain how the grand locust is a member of the pea family, related to the straggling pea plant. Fifty years later, the naturalist Muir described the day in his autobiography: ‘This fine lesson charmed me and sent me flying to the woods and meadows in wild enthusiasm’.... Though he never graduated, he learned enough geology and botany to inform his later wanderings.”6

“In September 1867, Muir undertook a walk of about 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from Indiana to Florida, which he recounted in his book A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. He had no specific route chosen, except to go by the ‘wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find.’”7 His description of walking along the Hiwassee River in Tennessee inspired the creation of the John Muir Trail, a 20-mile trail along the Hiwassee. There’s also a John Muir Trail in California that runs for 211 miles, from Yosemite south to Mount Whitney. Here’s Muir’s description of walking along the Hiwassee:

My path all today led me along the leafy banks of the Hiwassee, a most impressive mountain river. Its channel is very rough, as it crosses the edges of upturned rock strata, some of them standing at right angles, or glancing off obliquely to right and left. Thus a multitude of short, resounding cataracts are produced, and the river is restrained from the headlong speed due to its volume and the inclination of its bed. All the larger streams of uncultivated countries are mysteriously charming and beautiful, whether flowing in mountains or through swamps and plains. Their channels are interestingly sculptured, far more so than the grandest architectural works of man. The finest of the forests are usually found along their banks, and in the multitude of falls and rapids the wilderness finds a voice. Such a river is the Hiwassee, with its surface broken to a thousand sparkling gems, and its forest walls vine-draped and flowery as Eden. And how fine the songs it sings!

Muir understood that the earth is continually changing, that it wasn’t created “once and for all,” that creation is ongoing. Muir’s grasp of geology won high praise from Louis Agassiz, who called Muir, “the first man I have ever found who has any adequate conception of glacial action.”8

One morning in 1872, Muir was awakened by an earthquake, and ran from his cabin “both glad and frightened,” exclaiming “A noble earthquake!” When the earthquake subsided, Muir surveyed the changes it had wrought.

“In 1880, Muir married Louisa Wanda Strentzel, whose parents owned a large ranch and fruit orchards in Martinez, California, a small town northeast of San Francisco. For the next ten years he devoted himself to managing the family ranch, consisting of 2,600 acres of orchards and vineyards which became very successful.... When he died, he left an estate of US$250,000. The house and part of the ranch are now a National Historical Site.”9 Like Thoreau, Muir had a practical streak, and was a born engineer. When he first came to Yosemite, Muir was hired to build a sawmill.

In 1888, weary of farming, Muir returned to his old wandering ways. He climbed Mt. Rainier, and wrote Ascent of Mount Rainier.

In 1881, Muir travelled on the USS Corwin to Wrangel Island, northwest of Alaska, and observed the glaciers and the wildlife of the far north. Out of this journey came Muir’s book, The Cruise of the Corwin. In 1899, Muir accompanied railroad executive E. H. Harriman and various scientists on Harriman’s famous exploratory voyage along the Alaska coast.

Muir had the same love of wilderness that Thoreau had. “None of Nature’s landscapes are ugly,” Muir wrote, “so long as they are wild.” Muir believed that wilderness was therapeutic: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” Muir had a deep feeling for nature, and was struck by the fact that most people have no feeling for nature — they stand apart, remain within themselves: “Most people are on the world, not in it — have no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them — undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate.”10

Muir’s love of nature seemed to embrace the whole earth:

This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.

One of the most well-known Muir quotations is about the inter-connectedness of the universe: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” He saw that life and death are inter-connected:

On no subject are our ideas more warped and pitiable than on death... Let children walk with nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights. All is divine harmony.

Like many great writers, Muir could say something that has already been said countless times, and make it seem new and fresh: “No right way is easy in this rough world. We must risk our lives to save them.”

Another writer, in addition to Muir, who’s quoted in the Burns documentary is Rudyard Kipling, who visited Yellowstone in 1889. I haven’t heard from Thomas Wolfe, however, an old favorite of mine whose Western Journal was published posthumously.

© L. James Hammond 2009
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1. “Preface to Shakespeare.” Mystical thinkers often accept death, some even celebrate it. Johnson, on the other hand, viewed death as an unmitigated evil: “The secret horror of the last is inseparable from a thinking being, whose life is limited, and to whom death is dreadful.” (Idler, #103) Johnson’s attitude toward death is characteristic of a rational thinker, a non-mystical thinker. back
2. See the Sierra Club website; for a briefer version of the Muir-Emerson meeting, see New York Times, September 24, 2009, “Muir, Emerson and the ‘Pure Night Air”, by Kate Galbraith back
3. paraphrase of Genesis 6:4, “There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.” back
4. Wikipedia back
5. Wikipedia back
6. Wikipedia back
7. Wikipedia back
8. Wikipedia. For ten miles, the John Muir Trail is accompanied by the Benton MacKaye Trail, a 300-mile trail that starts where the Appalachian Trail starts — Springer Mountain in north Georgia — then goes west of the Appalachian Trail before meeting it again in the Smoky Mountains. back
9. Wikipedia back
10. These quotes, and those that follow, are from Wikiquote. back