Master-ful-less-ly Supercilious

Fall Plowing, Grant Wood (1931)

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost, — — and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good- humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till.

Emerson, “Self-Reliance”

***

Perhaps the only formal whaling code authorized by legislative enactment, was that of Holland. It was decreed by the States-General in A. D. 1695 . But though no other nation has ever had any written whaling law, yet the American fishermen have been their own legislators and lawyers in this matter. They have provided a system which for terse comprehensiveness surpasses Justinian’s Pandects and the By-laws of the Chinese Society for the Suppression of Meddling with other People’s Business. Yes; these laws might be engraven on a Queen Anne’s farthing, or the barb of a harpoon, and worn round the neck, so small are they.

I. A Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it.

II. A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.

But what plays the mischief with this masterly code is the admirable brevity of it, which necessitates a vast volume of commentaries to expound it.

Melville, “Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish”

***

By noon we were let down into the Merrimack through the locks at Middlesex, just above Pawtucket Falls, by a serene and liberal-minded man, who came quietly from his book, though his duties, we supposed, did not require him to open the locks on Sundays. With him we had a just and equal encounter of the eyes, as between two honest men.

The movements of the eyes express the perpetual and unconscious courtesy of the parties. It is said, that a rogue does not look you in the face, neither does an honest man look at you as if he had his reputation to establish. I have seen some who did not know when to turn aside their eyes in meeting yours. A truly confident and magnanimous spirit is wiser than to contend for the mastery in such encounters. Serpents alone conquer by the steadiness of their gaze. My friend looks me in the face and sees me, that is all.

Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

***

‘And now behold Jonah taken up as an anchor and dropped into the sea; when instantly an oily calmness floats out from the east, and the sea is still, as Jonah carries down the gale with him, leaving smooth water behind. He goes down in the whirling heart of such a masterless commotion that he scarce heeds the moment when he drops seething into the yawning jaws awaiting him; and the whale shoots-to all his ivory teeth, like the Lord out of the fish’s belly. But observe his prayer, and so many white bolts, upon his prison.’

Melville, “The Sermon”

***

Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present. He is blessed over all mortals who loses no moment of the passing life in remembering the past. Unless our philosophy hears the cock crow in every barnyard within our horizon, it is belated. That sound commonly reminds us that we are growing rusty and antique in our employments and habits of thoughts. His philosophy comes down to a more recent time than ours. There is something suggested by it that is a newer testament,—the gospel according to this moment. He has not fallen astern; he has got up early and kept up early, and to be where he is is to be in season, in the foremost rank of time. It is an expression of the health and soundness of Nature, a brag for all the world,—healthiness as of a spring burst forth, a new fountain of the Muses, to celebrate this last instant of time. Where he lives no fugitive slave laws are passed. Who has not betrayed his master many times since last he heard that note?

Thoreau, “Walking”

***
From east and west across the horizon’s edge,
Two mighty masterful vessels sailers steal upon us:
But we’ll make race a-time upon the seas—a battle-contest yet! bear
lively there!
(Our joys of strife and derring-do to the last!)
Put on the old ship all her power to-day!
Crowd top-sail, top-gallant and royal studding-sails,
Out challenge and defiance—flags and flaunting pennants added,
As we take to the open—take to the deepest, freest waters.

Whitman

***

But not only is the sea such a foe to man who is an alien to it, but it is also a fiend to its own offspring; worse than the Persian host who murdered his own guests; sparing not the creatures which itself hath spawned. Like a savage tigress that tossing in the jungle overlays her own cubs, so the sea dashes even the mightiest whales against the rocks, and leaves them there side by side with the split wrecks of ships. No mercy, no power but its own controls it. Panting and snorting like a mad battle steed that has lost its rider, the masterless ocean overruns the globe.

Melville, “Brit”

***
Rise O days from your fathomless deeps, till you loftier, fiercer sweep,
Long for my soul hungering gymnastic I devour’d what the earth gave me,
Long I roam’d amid the woods of the north, long I watch’d Niagara pouring,
I travel’d the prairies over and slept on their breast, I cross’d
the Nevadas, I cross’d the plateaus,
I ascended the towering rocks along the Pacific, I sail’d out to sea,
I sail’d through the storm, I was refresh’d by the storm,
I watch’d with joy the threatening maws of the waves,

I mark’d the white combs where they career’d so high, curling over,
I heard the wind piping, I saw the black clouds,
Saw from below what arose and mounted, (O superb! O wild as my
heart, and powerful!)
Heard the continuous thunder as it bellow’d after the lightning,
Noted the slender and jagged threads of lightning as sudden and
fast amid the din they chased each other across the sky;
These, and such as these, I, elate, saw—saw with wonder, yet pensive
and masterful,
All the menacing might of the globe uprisen around me,
Yet there with my soul I fed, I fed content, supercilious.

***

Now listen to me, don’t listen to him. He’ll tell you the lie you expect. Which is partly your fault for expecting it.

He didn’t come in search of freedom of worship. England had more freedom of worship in the year 1700 than America had. Won by Englishmen who wanted freedom, and so stopped at home and fought for it. And got it. Freedom of worship? Read the history of New England during the first century of its existence.

Freedom anyhow? The land of the free! This the land of the free! Why, if I say anything that displeases them, the free mob will Iynch me, and that’s my freedom. Free ? Why, I have never been in any country where the individual has such an abject fear of his fellow countrymen. Because, as I say, they are free to Iynch the moment he shows he is not one of them.

No, no, if you’re so fond of the truth about Queen Victoria, try a little about yourself.

Those Pilgrim Fathers and their successors never came here for freedom of worship. What did they set up when they got here? Freedom, would you call it?

They didn’t come for freedom. Or if they did, they sadly went back on themselves.

All right then, what did they come for ? For lots of reasons. Perhaps least of all in search of freedom of any sort: positive freedom, that is.

They came largely to get away – that most simple of motives. To get away. Away from what? In the long run, away from themselves. Away from everything. That’s why most people have come to America, and still do come. To get away from everything they are and have been.

‘Henceforth be masterless.’

Which is all very well, but it isn’t freedom. Rather the reverse. A hopeless sort of constraint. It is never freedom till you kind something you really positively want to be. And people in America have always been shouting about the things they are not.

Lawrence, “The Spirit of Place”

 

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1 Comment

  1. Sarah September 13, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    I enjoyed the Lawrence passage quite a bit! Thanks for sharing.

    Reply

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