Rereading and Revising Emerson: Strategies

September 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

Here are some “recomposition” strategies for reading and revising Emerson this week for the first Writing Project on the challenge and problem of Emerson’s philosophical relations. (Recall that “recomposition” is the last word of the essay “Quotation and Originality”).

How best to read Emerson and the challenges, as we have both seen and heard from critics, of how he provokes and performs thinking that is dynamic, wave-like, contradictory, fluctuating?

One answer, as I understand Dillard: devote your whole life to it; become a nun, or better yet, become a moth and burn for Emerson.

But short of that, since getting burned will get in the way of the work you need to do in other places, since both Emerson and Dillard argue for the world in which we live, for experience of the days, for transforming genius into practical power, there are some ways to approach a creative reading of Emerson and his relations that will be more rhetorically effective for the project–even if that project will need to remain, in some form, unfinished in order to be truly Emersonian.

Re/composition Strategy 1: What’s working here? Use the OED. Recognize that Emerson uses language, every word, with an understanding of its historical and symbolic complexities. Recall his discussion from the “Language” chapter of Nature. Select words from passages that you have in mind, put into the OED and see what’s in the archive. You can use this to generate analysis and interpretation as well as go back to a draft and rethink that interpretation. What’s working here, in the word, in the passage, that you can expand upon, given this history. What else might you say–or what might you need to revise or counter–given a more complicated reading nested in the connotations of the language?

A further way to elaborate what’s working, what’s at work in a passage or in the essay is to make the critical connection to Buell. Use that to authorize and extend the interpretation you are pursuing.

Re/composition Strategy 2:  What else might be said here, or is being said here, or somewhere else? Use Voyant Tools to track Emerson’s words across a text, or across several texts. In addition to digging into a word, with Emerson we also need to move across an essay, and across a series of essays, looking for both repetition (of words and their images and ideas) and resistance, contradiction. Remember the difficult lesson of “pulses” in “Experience,” or the necessity of being “misunderstood” as expressed in “Self-Reliance.” We talked about counterargument as a crucial philosophical and rhetorical perspective that Emerson has in mind and puts to work.  You can do the same by asking, and having peer readers ask: what else might be said, or is being said, in this very word or phrase (for example: “understanding”)  that seems to say something different later in the essay, or in another essay? Look for ways to counter your argument, and then use that to strengthen your argument–or move on to a better one. We need to be consistent (in the end) to produce an effective argument; a foolish consistency (“I’m sticking with the argument I started with regardless”) is highly ineffective.

This sort of potential for countering perspective can also be done with the relation you pursue with Dillard or James

Re/composition strategy #3: What’s the larger project? Think about what aspects of this initial project don’t fit here, and will need more time and space. Realize that this is an incomplete project to the extent that you have an opportunity, and most likely the necessity (if you are reading Emerson effectively), to return to this thought later: develop upon it in some way for the final project, for a senior thesis project, or maybe for that essay or book you will someday write while living as a sort of pilgrim in a cabin on the Puget Sound. At the same time, getting a better grasp on the larger project (and its implications) can provide you with good material for a conclusion that your argument works toward, larger implications that are opened up at the end, even as you close your initial argument and reinforce its claims.


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