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.


Pilgrim Thinking: Dillard’s Emerson

September 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

A vision from Terence Malick’s “Tree of Life”

In Holy the Firm, Dillard signals her relation to Emerson with an explicit reference toward the end. The relation concerns the writer’s visionary experience in the world, despite all the evidence that seems to push us away from its mystery by its very mysteriousness–or worse, seemingly cruel indifference. Dillard declares: “you learn it from Emerson, who noticed that the meanness of our days is itself worth our thought; and your learn it, fitful, in your pew, at church” (57).

This Emersonian lesson on the days circles back to her opening lines, “Every day is a god, each day is a god,” where she invokes Emerson without quoting him. In her later book, she gives us the source for this Emersonian scripture learned fitfully in the pew. The Writing Life is prefaced by an epigraph of the following line from an Emerson letter to Margaret Fuller: “No one suspects the days to be gods.” Dillard concludes her first book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek–where she proposes to be a pilgrim and an anchoress (like Julian of Norwhich) rooting down to pay attention to nature, her world, where she finds herself–with this reference to an Emersonian vision: “Emerson saw it. ‘I dreamed that I floated at will in the great Ether, and I saw this world floating also not far off, but diminished tot he size of an apple. Then an angel took it in his hand and brought it to me and said, ‘This must thou eat.’ And I ate the world.’ All of it. All of it intricate, speckled, gnawed, fringed, and free” (276). In Holy the Firm, we see this sort of visionary moment, among other places–one could argue that the entire essay is about any moment, any day, as visionary–when she describes various particles, cells, and “parcels” of the world as “transparent.” Her version of Emerson’s moment of transcendence, however, reverses his famous line: I am everything: I can hardly see. There is something of this interest in the filmmaker Terence Malick’s vision of the world, its correlation of the spiritual and the material. It strikes me as particularly Emersonian in “Tree of Life.” Perhaps Dillard’s vision in Holy the Firm can help us make sense of the ways Emerson relates to Malick’s cinematic version and vision of ecstatic experience, of the “transcendentalism of everyday life,” as Emerson phrases it in “Circles.”

The Emersonian relations between Dillard and Emerson become more complexly creative when we understand that Dillard is not merely any reader of Emerson, but a reader (and writer) married to one of the great readers of Emerson, Robert Richardson, the author of the gorgeous, intellectual biography Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Richardson posted to Dillard’s website an unpublished, brief biography of Dillard. It includes the following discussion of Holy the Firm that might be useful to our purposes:

HolytheFirm began when Dillard took a line from a letter of Emerson’s to Margaret Fuller, “No one suspects the days to be gods,” and decided to make the next three days a test case. On the second day, an islander’s plane crashed nearby. In the book, facial burns disfigure  a young girl, Julie Norwich, whom Dillard had met making cider. What can we say of  the gods of these three days? the book asks. The first god is a pagan divinity, inhabiting all creation, inspiriting the mountains, a small naked manlike god tangled in the writer’s hair. The second day, “God’s Tooth,” is indifferent to the cruelty of physical accident—is absent. The third day’s god, revealed through a knapsack as light shines through skeletal ribs, is the holy God of mystery. The book ends with a return to the burned girl, rededication to vocation and a revealed vision of the baptism of Christ.

The structure of the book is a complex as a late Beethoven Quartet. HolytheFirm has three parts: creation, fall, redemption. The first part is anchored in the senses, presents the new-born island world as vivid with spirit, and presents pantheism. Part two depends on mind. It proceeds –outraged—to examine the fall, the crash of the second day,  by means of  reason, which can make no sense of needless suffering. Part three is anchored in spirit, moving through ecstasy to enlightment.  The writing teeters on the limit of what can be felt and said. All of this, it cannot be too much emphasized, is accomplished through narrative, the things of this world, the island, farm, girl, books, boy. It is narrative heightened, freighted, wrought into symbol, and narrative first and last.

The opening event illuminates the whole story, and sets out themes: a monk or artist’s life of sacrificial dedication to ego-less emptiness, fire, terror, beauty. Dillard was camped alone and reading a novel about the young French Poet, drunken Arthur Rimbaud, “that had made me want to be a writer when I was sixteen. I was hoping it would do it again.” One night a moth flies into her candle. “A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspan, flapped into the fire, dropped her abdomen into wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled and fried in a second. Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing….When it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs….All that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax—a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle’s round pool.

And then this moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick. She kept burning. The wax rose in the moth’s body from her soaking abdomen to her thorax to the jagged hole where her head should be, and widened into flame, a safron-yellow flame that robed her to the ground like any immolating monk….

She burned for two hours without changing, without bending or leaning—only glowing within, like a building fire glimpsed through silhouetted walls, like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light, kindled, while Rimbaud burned out his brains in a thousand poems, while night pooled wetly at my feet.

If Dillard learns from Emerson, what can we learn from Dillard about learning from Emerson?

By the way, back to that image from the film: it’s a nautilus, a natural, ecological, nonlinear, analogical image growth that was a favorite of Emerson’s. And the fractal dimensions of that image is a topic of interest for Dillard (read here for more on Dillard and fractals).

Transcendentalism: The Luminous Allusion of Emerson’s School

August 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

Consider this complicated image of transcendentalism, courtesy of Google Books.

There is somewhat in this image–“somewhat” (by the way) is an Emersonian phrasing for some thing, some part–that reiterates and anticipates our focus in this course on “transcendentalism” in the work of a major American writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his influence on (his relation to, his “education” of) numerous writers or “students” who read and follow him, including Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William James, W.E.B. DuBois, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ralph Ellison, Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver, and others. What is transcendentalism?

The cover of the book, a brief anthology of selected work from Emerson and Thoreau, suggests one primary association. Transcendentalism has something to do with nature–with writers interested in nature, a love for nature.  This interest will indeed be found in Emerson and the writers and artists that follow him. But the tree become head, or the head becoming a tree, offers something other than a familiar image of nature (familiar neither to tree nor to man); it’s interesting, but also somewhat unsettling. It makes me think of Emerson’s reference (in his second essay on “Nature”) to Nature as an incarnation or precipitation of mind.

The divine circulations never rest nor linger. Nature is the incarnation of a thought, and turns to a thought again, as ice becomes water and gas. The world is mind precipitated, and the volatile essence is forever escaping again into the state of free thought. Hence the virtue and pungency of the influence on the mind, of natural objects, whether inorganic or organized. Man imprisoned, man crystallized, man vegetative, speaks to man impersonated. That power which does not respect quantity, which makes the whole and the particle its equal channel, delegates its smile to the morning, and distills its essence into every drop of rain. Every moment instructs, and every object: for wisdom is infused into every form. It has been poured into us as blood; it convulsed us as pain; it slid into us as pleasure; it enveloped us in dull, melancholy days, or in days of cheerful labor; we did not guess its essence, until after a long time. [Emerson, “Nature”]

That imagery and idealism was caricatured in Emerson’s time, but also embraced. Transcendentalism is a cultural context for these writers (ideas and thinking from the mid-nineteenth century in America, particularly in the northeast where all three live and work); so it is one lens we can use. [and for more background on this lens, I refer you to Martin Bickman’s helpful overview of Transcendentalism]. But transcendentalism is also famously hard to characterize or fix into any final form or definition. That will also serve us as somewhat of a lens through which to read Emerson,  since I will argue that Emerson conceives of a literature and a writing/reading experience that is luminous and allusive. This is the language from “American Scholar” we will encounter in our first assignment:

One must be an inventor to read well. As the proverb says, “He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry out the wealth of the Indies.” There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world. We then see, what is always true, that, as the seer’s hour of vision is short and rare among heavy days and months, so is its record, perchance, the least part of his volume. 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, were it never so many times Plato’s and Shakespeare’s.

This sense of allusive (and elusive?) luminousness suggests both a problem and a potential for reading and grasping and learning from Emerson. That’s our primary goal–to learn from Emerson such that we, liberal arts scholars of the very sort Emerson often addressed in his lectures, may put his ideas to work in our scholarship; our secondary goal is to consider how others’ reading and learning from Emerson has shaped their work and more broadly, the current of American culture. (A tertiary goal, for me, as a scholar doing work on Emerson and his rhetoric of liberal education, is to engage you with some of these educational ideals shared between Emerson and the liberal arts tradition and see what I can learn from you in the process). Those writers and readers and learners have long pointed out the challenge of learning from an Emerson who is concerned precisely with how we learn, worried about the ways we are schooled. One well-known version of this recognition is given by Walt Whitman, who characterized “Emersonianism” in a piece titled luminously “Emerson’s Books (The Shadows of Them)”:

The best part of Emeronianism is, it breeds the giant that destroys itself. Who wants to be any man’s mere follower? lurks behind every page. No teacher ever taught, that has so provided for his pupil’s setting up independently–no truer evolutionist. (Whitman: Poetry and Prose [Library of America] 1055)

And, always, there is Emerson himself to reckon with. “I have been writing and speaking what were once called novelties, for twenty five or thirty years,” Emerson writes in an 1859 journal, “and have not now one disciple”: “Why? Not that what I said was not true; not that it has not found intelligent receivers but because it did not go from any wish in me to bring men to me, but to themselves. I delight in driving them from me…. This is my boast that I have no school and no follower” (JMN 14: 258).

Our primary critical guide throughout the course, the Emerson scholar Lawrence Buell, characterizes this challenge in this way: “Emerson as Anti-Mentor.”

To begin a seminar in this way is a matter of provocation. This is an Emersonian place to begin.

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