does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, March 6, 2010

My Debt to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Ayn Rand

At fourteen, I devoured countless pulp romance novels, in addition to Hugo, de Maupassant, Austen, et al. They did not change my life, though, the way two other writers did: Ayn Rand and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In retrospect, this was an improbable combination of mentors since transcendentalist Emerson would have thought little of atheist Rand, and Rand herself dismissed Emerson’s abilities as a philosopher. Perhaps, then, it is a testimony to how unformed a person I was at fourteen that both of them had a towering influence on me at the same time.

The first mentor, Ayn Rand, helped me address my unease with the highly charged religious atmosphere I was born into. I became her devoted acolyte (!), reading all her novels and essays. Indeed, I hung on to her every word for years until, well, I didn’t anymore. I am no longer an atheist . For a summary of my current beliefs, read My Religious Primer post.

Apart from easing my transition into my then atheism, Rand is directly responsible for steering me into a business career. I so admired her fictional heroines, who tackled as equals men in the business world, that I thought, “I can do that!” Much to my family’s amazement, I went on to get my MBA and to embark on a business career that eventually took me to several continents. I left that career quite early, but I remain forever grateful to Ayn Rand for spurring me on to try something which, given my family background, I would never have known existed; much less, tried.

My other mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote an essay, “Self Reliance,” which gave wings to my inner sense at fourteen that my differentness should be honored and not repressed. I was so smitten by this essay that I taped excerpts from it all over my bedroom walls. My mother never learned English but when she saw those yellow bits of paper stuck on the walls, she’d grumble, sensing correctly that their content was rebellious somehow. My father and brother did understand English but their reaction was simply to stand in front of the quotes and then turn around to look at me quizzically. My brother might even have said I was nuts.

Recently, my discussion group studied this Emerson essay, and I quickly found myself remembering that bedroom wall papered with Emerson quotes. I also re-discovered the source of the quote I had coincidentally added last year to this blog’s favorite quotes section.

“Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession ... Do that which is assigned to you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much.”

The more mature me can take issue with Emerson on many fronts, but this quote remains compelling in its admonition to honor my uniqueness. This is true not only for my personal life, but also for my fiction, where I always strive to avoid being derivative.


Maggie May said...

I love how powerful words can be, to take two such different perspectives and cull what you needed from each is wonderful. I had a period of reading and researching Ayn Rand and took much from what I read, discarded the rest, and moved on. I ended up being- she would hate this- more interested in the actuality of her life than the ideas of her mind.

Justin said...

It doesn't surprise me that you embraced Emerson as Rand was reinforcing your atheism. Once we free ourselves from religion, we need a new way of approaching the world, a moral foundation, in the broadest sense of the word moral. Emerson is great source for that.

Nevine said...

We should all honor our uniqueness, especially in our writing. If we don't honor our uniqueness, we don't honor who we are. Our writing is the voice that speaks who we truly are. I've read writing by some so-called authors who tried to imitate others before them. I felt like they stifled their own talent, and honored somebody else rather than themselves.

And, I recall reading Rand in my early twenties. Though I took issue with some of her ideas, she certainly was a refreshing voice for women - that is for sure!


Kathryn Magendie said...

“Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation; but of the adopted talent of another you have only an extemporaneous half possession ... Do that which is assigned to you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much.”


I have not read Rand yet, and I know I need to....yes...
Every time I come to your blog, I am mezmerized by the waterfall image . . . I always have to stop and stare at it....

Judith Mercado said...

Maggie May, like you I ultimately took from Ayn Rand only those elements of lasting value; for me, strength as a woman.

Justin, we are on the same page as to the value of Emerson.

Nevine, uniqueness is at once easy to prescribe but not always reached in one's writing. I constantly ask myself where the honesty in my writing is. That of course can only come from one's unique perspective. Otherwise, it becomes ... derivative.

Kathryn, that waterfall image captured me from the start, and as often as I see it, which is daily, it still has the power to move me. As for Rand, I wouldn't read her for great literary value, but rather because she has been a sort of phenomenon through her lasting impact on several generations.

A Cuban In London said...

I've got Ayn Rand in my 'to read' list and if truth be told 'Atlas Shrugged' scares the living s**t out of me. I think I have only read one of Emerson's essays and that was back in uni and can't remember much of it.

I love the way you detail your passing from a religious upbringing into a self-reliant, atheist attitude. It does definitely bring something unique to your blog and I would dare to say, though I haven't yet found out, to your fiction. I agree with Nevine, your uniqueness is unique, redundancy intended. :-)

Greetings from London.