Friday, October 31, 2008

Emerson's Active Resignation

As the year slows down and gradually dies, I usually suffer periodic dips and falls in my mood. (Granted, these dips are less severe now that I live in a place where the sun stays up later than 5 p.m.--but they're still there.) And this year promises to be even sadder, even bleaker, what with the economy slowing down too--although hopefully not dying.

I'm revising a paper for publication today. The paper reads T.S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday through the lens of Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays. I won't post the whole thing here, but my analysis of Emerson seems apropros today--perhaps it gives us a model of how to approach this increasingly bleak year.


Ralph Waldo Emerson was a sometimes uncomfortable combination of poet and philosopher; Emerson, not to put too fine a point on it, was a Buddhist/Christian mystic who was nevertheless one of the greatest intellectual minds in the history of American thought. Indeed, John Dewey claims him “as the one citizen of the New World fit to have his name uttered in the same breath with that of Plato"--and he gives as his reason that both Plato and Emerson “set poet and philosopher over against one another."

Emerson does not lay his philosophy out in a systematic fashion, and he oftentimes makes what seem like contradictory statements, but he nevertheless sets forth a more-or-less cohesive philosophy. Like other philosophers (and I am thinking specifically of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche here, although there are many other examples), his work must be taken as a whole to be comprehended; the reader cannot examine one isolated essay--as so many American literature survey courses do--and proclaim even its own meaning, let alone the meaning of Emerson’s thought as a whole.

Emerson reads like one of Bach’s concertos: He states his theme outright, and the volume and frequency of its repetitions can sometimes make it difficult to hear the countermelodies behind it. Emerson’s main theme is indeed self-reliance, but it is a peculiar kind of self-reliance. Because he believes in an Oversoul, because he believes that all beings consist of essentially the same thing, it is not as easy as saying “trust yourself.” Trusting oneself ultimately means submitting oneself to spiritual laws and to fate, and even self-expression ultimately expresses every self in the entire universe; Emerson refers to our failure to express ourselves as our being “ashamed of that divine idea which each one of us represents." Ultimately, no contradiction exists for Emerson between following one’s best light and resigning oneself to fate and to the laws of the universe. To trust oneself is the same thing as to believe in fate.

Authors often use fate as a negative trope, but Emerson approaches this system of trust and resignation joyfully. In “Circles,” for example, he declares that every improvement, every assertion we make stands in need of another one. He paraphrases Milton here: “Me miserably!” says Satan in Paradise Lost,
Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threat’ning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a Heav’n. (4.73-78)
Compare this, however, with Emerson’s paraphrase: “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” He does not sound like Milton’s Satan here; he has no fear of divine retribution, and he certainly does not view life as a hell. His use of the “lower deep” ultimately affirms life; if the ground opens up, he seems to say, it is cut from the same cloth as the sunrise, just something new to experience.

Fate decrees that no accomplishment is ever enough, but Emerson does not seem melancholy about this state of affairs; nothing lasts forever, but when he loses a friend, he says, “he gains a better.” The universe ultimately acts justly, and he trusts that he will receive what he deserves and that each day will be followed by another, for better or for worse.

Or perhaps not. The world is constantly in flux, according to “Circles,” and Emerson’s mood changes with the fluxes. At times, this changefulness becomes almost unbearable:
To-day I am full of thoughts, and can write what I please. I see no reason why I should not have the same thought, the same power of expression, to-morrow. What I write, whilst I write it, seems the most natural thing in the world; but yesterday I saw a dreary vacuity in this direction in which now I see so much; and a month hence, I doubt not, I shall wonder who he was that wrote so many continuous pages. Alas for this infirm faith, this will not strenuous, this vast ebb of a vast flow! I am God in nature; I am a weed by the wall.
If Emerson sounds upbeat when he describes the world’s constant replacing of itself in “Circles,” it is because he writes when he feels like “God in nature”; for the flip side of the equation, for Emerson as “a weed by the wall,” we must turn to “Experience.”

“Experience” finds Emerson in despair over existence itself, which has clearly become a chore for him—a curse, really, since “It is very unhappy . . . the discovery we have made, that we exist.” Life may not be meaningless, but its meaning is certainly unknowable, and Emerson says that “All our days are so unprofitable while they pass, that ‘tis wonderful where or when we ever got anything of this which we call wisdom, poetry, virtue.” Human relationships become impossible, “oblique and casual,” and even the Divine, usually present in all things, seem distant:
God delights to isolate us every day, and hide from us the past and the future. We would look about us, but with grand politeness he draws down before us an impenetrable screen of purest sky, and another behind us of purest sky. “You will not remember,” he seems to say, “and you will not expect.”
Much of the tone of “Experience” depends on Emerson’s attitude toward God here; does he bitterly say that “God delights to isolate us,” or is the passage a sincere acknowledgement of the necessity of submitting to the divine? If the former, then Emerson has become Beethoven (or Melville’s Pierre), deaf but still screaming at heaven’ if the latter, then he more closely resembles Kierkegaard’s Abraham, a knight of faith who trusts that God has a reason for our lack of knowledge of the future (and indeed, for our alienation).

For the first half of the essay, Emerson seems made of despair and anger, alienated from the nature that used to offer so much comfort, from the men who were manifestations of God, and from the God who manifested Himself in all these things. But shortly after this ambiguous outburst heavenward, his tone changes, however slightly:
Man lives by pulses; our organic movements are such; and the chemical and ethereal agents are undulatory and alternate; and the mind goes antagonizing on, and never prospers but by fits. We thrive by casualties. Our chief experiences have been casual.
Emerson plays with the double meaning of “casualty” here--on the one hand, individuals prosper only by chance, chance which by its very nature happens only occasionally. On the other hand, humankind propers through casualties--deaths, disasters--that somehow make us stronger. And indeed, Emerson seems to prosper through the writing of “Experience.” He finds a way to reconcile the unspeakable darkness of the world with his pan(en)theistic theological and anthropological vision. But he cannot name the agent of reconciliation:
I am not the novice I was when I was fourteen, nor yet seven years ago. Let who will ask, where is the fruit? I find a private fruit sufficient This is a fruit,—that I should not ask for a rash effect from meditations, counsels, and the hiving of truths. I should feel it pitiful to demand a result on this town and country, an overt effect on the instant month and year. The effect is deep and secular [far-reaching] as the cause. It works on periods in which mortal lifetime is lost.
Emerson’s “private fruit” nearly has to be unsatisfying for the reader; we rely on Emerson for intellectual answers, among other things, but none come here. Instead, he gives us a mystical solution, an individualistic acceptance of Fate that can be described but never named.

Emerson fleshes this concept out further in one of his final essays, “Fate,” from The Conduct of Life. Early in the essay, he posits mankind as the fool of nature, subject to “strokes . . . not to be parried by us.” Chief among these strokes is the fact that we are who we are and that we can do little to change that fact. His theme in “Fate” has striking echoes with “Experience”--humankind is isolated and helpless, and life is hard—but he adopts a more scientific language, as he tosses out references to biology and phrenology. Fate somehow seems harder, more set in stone, in the later essay, but it is still not all-powerful; it always serves something, and it always accompanies free will:
To hazard the contradiction,—freedom is necessary. If you please to plant yourself on the side of Fate, and say, Fate is all; then we say, a part of Fate is the freedom of man. Forever wells up the impulse of choosing and acting in the soul. Intellect annuls Fate. So far as a man thinks, he is free.
Fate, then, is not altogether a bad thing; like the casualties in “Experience,” humankind can prosper from it. Fate hedges about us but it hems us in only “to bring up our conduct to the loftiness of nature. Rude and invincible except by themselves are the elements. So let man be. Let him empty his breast of his windy conceits, and show his lordship by manners and deeds on the scale of nature.” Fate, rightly used, simultaneously humbles and aggrandizes individuals--it shows people their correct place in the universe, neither weed by the wall or God in nature but both, “for a little while lower than the angels,” as Hebrews 2:9 puts it (NAS).

1 comment:

John Corrigan said...

I'd be interested to read your paper.... I lately published on Emerson and in the last chapter read Eliot through the prism of Emerson. If you're interested, please take a can get a limited preview on the following link. Cheers, John