References are to the Portable Emerson, edited by Carl Bode and Malcolm Cowley.
I wasn’t exactly shocked to hear that Emerson holds a recessed position in our contemporary minds, but it was odd, having read a handful of his essays previously, to hear that people have a hard time figuring how so many found their voice in him (like people in the 60s in Dylan). All I hear in myself, since reading him, is my own voice, and in others besides. Perhaps I’m overdetermined by Harold Bloom, on Emerson no less than most of what I read.
The former Unitarian minister wreaks fantastic revenge on the profession in “The Divinity School Address” (DSA). In a stance that should be called an aggressive anti-clericalism, Emerson takes the form of the Protestant Revolution radicalized. Luther and Calvin wished to replace one orthodoxy with another, but the centuries-long transplantment of religious minorities in America produced a cultural space that was consistently at odds with orthodoxy in general. Railing against all priest classes, he says that religion in American “suffers this perversion, that the divine nature is attributed to one or two persons, and denied to all the rest….” (DSA, 77) Prophesizing our contemporary desire to say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” Emerson says, “The idioms of [Jesus’] language and the figures of his rhetoric have usurped the place of his truth; and churches are not built on his principles, but on his tropes.” (78)
This last is a dark saying, particularly for the writer. Emerson struggled with this impetus, that we are all, at last, only with ourselves, his long life and this produced his strong (and easily appropriated) sense of individuality. The moral, religious sentiment, for Emerson, “is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation….” (76) Emerson’s style, consequently, is one of exhortation, and not argument. Emerson wishes to provoke us into an “original relation to the universe,” one that through “revelation to us” will help us produce “our own works and laws and worship.” (“Nature,” 7, italics mine) Without mediation by tradition we shall make ourselves by ourselves.
What Bloom calls the “anxiety of influence” produces in Emerson one of the strongest, most provocative versions of reading. What Emerson preaches is a refashioning, the taking of contingent materials in order (only in order?) to make something authentically “you,” where this at the same time means “new.” “It came into him life; it went out from him truth.” (“American Scholar,” 55) Emerson essentially shucks off concern with “authorial intention,” something an ordinary literary critic cannot do without. But for Emerson, the first pragmatist, “the sacredness which attaches to the act of creation … is transferred to the record,” and this is a “grave mischief.” (ibid.) “Genius,” for Emerson, “is always sufficiently the enemy of genius by over-influence.” (57) The suggestion is that “One must be an inventor to read well,” that the only good reading is a selective, “creative reading,” a misreading in Bloom’s terms—“the discerning will read, in his Plato or Shakespeare, only that least part,—only the authentic utterances of the oracle;—all the rest he rejects….” (58)
Harold Bloom once remarked that, despite his preternatural verbal memory, he had a tough time recalling the placement of prominent passages in Emerson, thinking it in one essay and instead finding it in another. The experience must be a common one, and I’ve already encountered it many times. It no doubt has much to do with Emerson’s solid foot in oral tradition, with its reliance on interchangeable formula, but also with his obsession with the transumption of the past, which he often identified with power and the promise of America.
Emerson is America’s theorist of self-creation and this comes out well in “Circles.” The trope of the circle contains the core of Emerson’s vision of an agonistic relation to the past. We are born into life and find ourselves amongst circles already drawn, but Emerson’s Law of Compensation says that “every action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn….” (“Circles,” 228) Emerson analogizes thinking and acting to the activity of drawing circles, as summing up a situation as this or that. As always, though, Emerson wants us to focus on the activity of drawing as the important bit, not the circle itself: “a little waving hand built this huge wall, and that which builds is better than that which is built.” (229)
Emerson’s conception of the poet goes back to its Greek roots: poiesis, or “making.” The poet is the self-maker, involved in “the transcendency of their own nature….” (“The Poet,” 255) Emerson twice calls poets “liberating gods” (257, 258) and one has to think that, in America’s lionization of freedom, that Emerson has Shelley’s maxim at heart when he says, “They [poets] are free, and they make free.” (258) This comes to a head (a little later on then our reading) when Emerson laments that he looks “in vain for the poet whom I describe.” (261) Emerson slyly bids to be that poet for America, but in the wide sense in which the Greeks first used it before the coming domination of prose in Plato’s Athenian 5th century. Presaging Whitman, America’s poet in the narrower sense, Emerson declares that “America is a poem in our eyes….” (262)
Emerson takes a much darker form in “Experience.” Waxing to the philosophical milieu current in the Old World, Emerson echoes to the gulf between the subject (person) and object. For Emerson, though, this isn’t simply a distinction between us and rocks, but between us and our desires, us and other people. This creates a great pathos, one summed up by the cliché “The grass is always greener…,” but in Emerson, “Every ship is a romantic object, except that we sail in. Embark, and the romance quits our vessel and hangs on every other sail in the horizon.” (267) Emerson grieves for the time we once had originary participation with the world, called Eden, which we were fated to be ejected with “the discovery we have made that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man.” (284) Emerson’s darkest passage, however, is the knowledge that all we hold dear is held together simply “by love on one part and by forbearance to press objection on the other part….” (285) All life is a continual negotiation, fragile and always open for option.