Friday, October 15, 2010

an Emersonian moment

When Ralph Waldo Emerson was 61 (1864), he wrote in his journal “Within, I do not find wrinkles & used heart, but unspent youth.”

In the current issue of The New York Review of Books, the reviewer of the recent publication by The Library of America of Selected Journals, 1820-1877 (2 vols.) begins by noting that “Emerson’s dominant passion was not to know but to grow. ‘Expression is all we want,’ he wrote in his journals….What must grow, ever anew, day in and day out, is one’s inner genius, which his essay ‘Self-Reliance’ defines thus: ‘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.’”

Well, not quite—

—except inasmuch as one’s private heart is exemplary of humanity, a rather audacious pretense (yet, a pretense I’m exploring in a 21stC context). But we read Emerson as the genius in the flesh that sought a sense of genius in our humanity—though relative to 19thC conceptions of self expansiveness or high scale of belonging or being.

I haven’t read Emerson extensively. I’m not, in the following, recommending that one buy the 2000+ page selections from his lifelong journaling of an original, couragous 19thC mind. But he’s a precursor for my postmetaphysicalist sense of expansive, inclusive (non-egoistic), and appreciative sense of self. I would call myself Emersonian. But more aptly, I would argue that there’s an American ethos of thought, stretching from the founding to the present, which is Emersonian, and I’m an American Earthling. [Some of the NYRB review is involved with aspects of the publication or Emerson’s life, rather than his thought, highlighted below. The best pages of the 12-page review, in PDF here, are pp. 1-2 and 6-10.]

The reviewer notes:
Self-expression through writing was an almost organic need of his, as if his genius received its daily bread from his pen. For over fifty years he spent a good part of his time writing in his journals, fostering the growth of that forever embryonic inner self whose health depended on it: “Writing is always my metre of health—writing, which a sane philosopher would probably say was the surest symptom of a diseased mind.”
As remarkable as his obsession with writing and his lusciously secular expansiveness of self was his hope and optimism in the face of grievous loss, such as the death of his wife, Ellen, the young death of his brother, and the death of his son, Waldo, when his son was 5.
Emerson’s reactions to these overwhelming losses have tended to baffle scholars. The journals show that in each case, with the possible exception of the last, the deaths were followed by extraordinary surges of inspiration, vitality, and self-affirmation. After Ellen’s death, Emerson experienced a sense of wonder in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. In his ensuing state of exuberance, he conceived and drafted the ideas that he would subsequently publish in his seminal first book Nature, which lays out his lofty Transcendentalist doctrines about a benign cosmos, the divinity of the self, and the deep correspondence between the spiritual and material worlds.


As loved ones fell from him, one after another between 1831 and 1842, Emerson held on to his core conviction that there is a divine, pre-fallen self within us that cannot be touched by disease, disaster, or even death. His journals tell a fascinating story of how Emerson, against all odds, resolutely refused to give in to disappointment, which is an almost inevitable destination for the exalted and the hopeful. He somehow avoided its trap.


Emerson, especially after the death of Waldo, found in the sequence of days the place where life, in its intrinsic generosity, offers itself to our reception. Everything is given in and by the day. That is why life for Emerson was a “journey,” a day’s travel. The day, in turn, gives itself in “hours,” which is the most important word in Emerson’s lexicon. Just as life is a sequence of days—a journey or journal—a day is a sequence of hours. If there is a philosophy in Emerson’s lifework—be it his journals or his essays or both—it is a philosophy of the hour. Our perceptions, thoughts, moods, and convictions unfold with the days, which in turn unfold in hours, so “let us husband them.”


Because [any] series [of hours or days as such] has no endpoint we must find ourselves in each of its successive moments, must find ourselves in the day, as it were. Each day is an end in itself, just as each of Emerson’s essays is an endpoint in the series. By the same token, each of Emerson’s paragraphs is an endpoint of any given essay. Scholars have remarked that Emerson’s basic unit is the paragraph, yet just as a day is made up of hours, a paragraph is made up of sentences. When Emerson is at his best, his whole philosophy finds summation in the quintessential sentence. For example: “To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.”
The reviewer closes his account of Emerson’s thought by noting “the incorruptible trust he had from early on that the universe is friendly to our innermost selves, that there is something prelapsarian in the human soul, and that, despite whatever befalls you in your experience, there is no reason to doubt or forsake the ‘selftrust’ he so passionately advocates throughout his essays and journals. Knowledge follows upon such trust, it does not provide foundations for it.”

I’d say it’s wisdom that follows from trust, and I suppose that’s what Emerson had in mind with his sense of ‘knowledge’. In upcoming discussions, I rely on a sense of trust (or belonging) in childhood love of learning which is also integral to ethical life and integral to an inclusive, expansive sense of self in creative development.