In Defense of Emerson: Reading for the Lustres


Before I read Micah Mattix’s Weekly Standard essay in dispraise of Emerson, “Where’s Waldo?” I was curious to see what line of attack would be pursued. Critics on the left commonly assail Emerson for his individualism, for those features of his rhetoric we might call Reaganesque (“Are they my poor?”). But Emerson was a metaphysical radical, a believer that the unity of the world-spirit transpired through the endless flux of the phenomenal world. This belief may be used against the presumed petrifaction of the welfare state, but it also forbids advocacy for hereditary privileges and traditional institutions of all types. Emerson, in fact, would not be opposed to his own demotion from the literary canon, believing that the veneration of old books and dead traditions was an intolerable idolatry and that each age had to speak in its own voice. Would Mattix give us the conservative case against Emerson, something like what we find implied in Poe and Hawthorne?

Not really. Mattix lays out mostly neutral complaints. Emerson is philosophically confused, he charges, imprecise in his use of terms and occasionally banal in his gospel of uplift. The Emerson admirer will reply that he is not merely contradictory but dialectical and synthetic, and that his upbeat sentences are always tempered by recognition of experience’s real pains and travails. Mattix further claims that Emerson was less important within the Transcendental movement than were practical social reformers, more of whom should be added to the Norton Anthology(!), to which I would frankly reply, in the spirit of “Self-Reliance,” Who cares about practical social reform? We’re talking about literature! I am not generally an advocate for neoconservative political policy, so the value for me of neoconservative organs like The Weekly Standard lies in their cultural writers’ general adherence to the common sense, not at all common among my good friends and colleagues on the intellectual left, that undergraduate literary anthologies ought not to be clogged with the writings of practical social reformers.

The closest Mattix gets to any ideological agenda is his scornful observation that the deconstructionists led the Emerson revival of the late twentieth century, when the poetics of Eliot, Pound, and co. were overthrown in English departments to make way for a Romantic restoration, on the theory that the Romantics did not seek in their writings the formal and political closure pursued by the bards of New Criticism. True enough, but what does this prove on its own? Emerson is a romanticist and not a classicist, and deconstruction is romanticist and not classicist, but surely we knew that already.

I want to answer Mattix only because I love Emerson. Not as a philosopher or politician, but as a writer. So I will not argue on ideological grounds that Emerson is right and somebody else is wrong, but rather that his writings give narrative and lyric pleasures, the pleasures of experience made manifest in beautiful or memorable or fit language, which is why he is still read as an artist in prose almost two centuries after his time, while the less literarily gifted members of his circle, whatever their contributions to social life, are not so regarded. Any real classic has to strike the contemporary reader as a contemporary book, one that still speaks; Emerson still addresses me, and I want to make some notes as to how and why.

One of Emerson’s looser recommendations, infuriating to a certain temperament (to me in certain moods), is his advice not to read systematically but rather for insight and pleasure:

I read Proclus, and sometimes Plato, as I might read a dictionary, for a mechanical help to the fancy and the imagination. I read for the lustres, as if one should use a fine picture in a chromatic experiment, for its rich colors. ‘Tis not Proclus, but a piece of nature and fate that I explore. It is a greater joy to see the author’s author, than himself. (“Nominalist and Realist”)

While this is not my general practice, it is how I read Emerson, and how his writing invites us to read it. But for the sake of this defense, I will look closely at one essay, “Circles” (1841), and try to explain what rich colors I gather from it.

Emerson writes arresting psychology, by which I mean vivid descriptions of inner states we all know. He is as good at this as any novelist, as good as Tolstoy or George Eliot. In “Circles,” he portrays the evanescence of belief and enthusiasm as we go through life:

The man finishes his story,—how good! how final! how it puts a new face on all things! He fills the sky. Lo, on the other side rises also a man and draws a circle around the circle we had just pronounced the outline of the sphere. Then already is our first speaker not man, but only a first speaker. His only redress is forthwith to draw a circle outside of his antagonist.

Just turn from Emerson to his critics among his contemporaries to see this truth enacted. Read Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse” to watch self-reliance get turned into a sick joke; read Melville’s “Benito Cereno” to see the benign political meliorism of the Boston Brahmin Emersonian progressive, figured in the person of Captain Delano, as an indecent insensibility to the omnipresence of oppression and terror; read Dickinson’s poems for all the wry and mocking doubt of a daughter who questions her earthly and heavenly fathers’ ultimate benevolence. When Emerson has finished his story, other stories circumscribe it.

Our moods do not believe in each other. 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.

This hardly requires comment. My older writings seem written by a stranger. I do not even know any longer the facts I seemed to know when I wrote them. What happened? We are creatures of mood. Is this good or bad? It just is. Emerson’s faith that all things conduce toward unity and the good is more than empty optimism, because it allows him to describe everything in the neutral and nonjudgmental terms we associate with the greatest writers of poetry and fiction, with Shakespeare and Keats and Dostoevsky. In this sense, he contributed to making the essay a literary form that could stand without embarrassment beside the others and do in its own way what they also do: create nuance, ambiguity, dialogue, tension, conflict, and drama.

Men cease to interest us when we find their limitations. The only sin is limitation. As soon as you once come up with a man’s limitations, it is all over with him. Has he talents? has he enterprises? has he knowledge? It boots not. Infinitely alluring and attractive was he to you yesterday, a great hope, a sea to swim in; now, you have found his shores, found it a pond, and you care not if you never see it again.

Here we might raise a moral objection against Emerson’s idealism. Is this not a counsel to various forms of infidelity? Possibly. Part of Emerson’s synthetic philosophy is the reconciliation of opposites. If you believe this, then it is really foolish to run around in search of novelty, because the limit you perceive in another is in your perception and not in the person you behold. On the other hand, feeling that you have come to the end of someone is a real feeling, not to be moralized away, and as a real feeling it deserves literary expression. In passages like this, Emerson gives us more than daily-planner uplift, because he recognizes that all the philosophy in the world cannot make life simple or nice.

Each new step we take in thought reconciles twenty seemingly discordant facts, as expressions of one law. Aristotle and Plato are reckoned the respective heads of two schools. A wise man will see that Aristotle Platonizes. By going one step farther back in thought, discordant opinions are reconciled by being seen to be two extremes of one principle, and we can never go so far back as to preclude a still higher vision.

This is one of the high points of learning, very crisply described. When you understand for the first time that seeming opposites in philosophy or politics or aesthetics share common assumptions that you can contest, thus challenging both opposed ideologies at once—that creates a vertiginous and even addictive (witness the career of Žižek) pleasure in the student. When I was an undergraduate, I understood deconstruction to be an unremitting attack on literary values, including those of the American canon; only later did the above insight, that Romanticism and deconstruction shared several key commitments, come to me in a flash, a flash Emerson depicts so well here as the sudden attainment of a higher perspective.

I might also mention Emerson’s metaphors, which he sees as the essence of writing, since they embody the unifying vision that perceives the spiritual whole behind fragmentary phenomena. Mattix offers some bad or mixed ones; I will give you a good one (two, actually, but adjacent rather than mixed, unless one really is a pedant):

Our culture is the predominance of an idea which draws after it all this train of cities and institutions. Let us rise into another idea; they will disappear. The Greek sculpture is all melted away, as if it had been statues of ice: here and there a solitary figure or fragment remaining, as we see flecks and scraps of snow left in cold dells and mountain clefts in June and July.

If the thesis of Emerson’s essay is true, if life is a series of concentric circles rippling out to infinity without end, then why not leave Emerson behind, as Mattix suggests, and head out for the receding shore without him? Emerson admits the charge:

And thus, O circular philosopher, I hear some reader exclaim, you have arrived at a fine pyrrhonism, at an equivalence and indifferency of all actions, and would fain teach us that if we are true, forsooth, our crimes may be lively stones out of which we shall construct the temple of the true God.

But he also says this:

The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory and to do something without knowing how or why; in short to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.

And if the most charged literary language of the past forms an inspiring contrast with the language of the present, then that too will surprise us. Emerson always surprises me; as an old professor of mine says, sometimes he sounds like grandpa, but then he shocks you. Perhaps he sounds like grandpa so he can shock us. A classic is a book from the past that does not seem to belong to the past, that partakes in the endless circular renewal of nature Emerson describes, that flowers again in the spring. For me at least, Emerson is a classic.