September 19, 2015 § Leave a comment
The best Emersonian readers I have studied and learned from all suggest that Emerson’s philosophy of experience is not merely discussed or developed in the essay of that name, but communicated through it. In a real sense, these readers argue, the experience of reading the essay “Experience” is a key part of its philosophy.
David Robinson, to take one example, provides an insightful critical reading of the ways Emerson’s essays work–which is also to say, the way Emerson works the reader through the essays. This can help us grasp Emerson’s philosophy of the essay, and the ways his essays do philosophy. In the next section of the course, we can pursue this further as a matter of his poetics (Buell, for example, will discuss “Experience” in the chapter on Emersonian poetics) and eventually his rhetoric.
Here is what Robinson writes about Emerson’s “Experience” in his book Emerson and The Conduct of Life: Pragmatism and Ethical Purpose in the Later Work.
The pattern of continual doubling back, in which every new idea or perspective develops its opposite, recurs even here, when it seems as if the problem of alienation had been settled by dismissing it as frivolous. Each step toward resolution in “Experience” generates a further complication. The hidden negation revealed by each successive affirmation forces the essay into successive turns of direction. The structure of the essay’s argument thus reflects the structure of the essay’s subject. The structure of “Experience” is the structure of experience. [63-64]
Robinson’s point is that Emerson’s apparent contradictions in the midst of his essays–this is something he is known for, and often blamed for, the lack of consistency–entail a philosophical purpose. They are rather complications: ways that he pursues the complexity of the experience, and the thinking, that he is after. Here, then, is how Robinson characterizes the nature of an Emerson essay as a version of thought in the dynamic action of complication, which is to say, thinking.
The tensions in Emerson’s thought are apparent when one attempts to specify his intellectual position in a given essay, but to write such an essay off as contradictory misses a larger value, its ability to take the reader into an exemplary act of thinking…. They emphasize the living out of ideas. [12-13]
There is proximity in the critical insight that Lawrence Buell provides in his discussion of the “self-reliant thinking” that his essays provoked and performed: “His compressed, metaphorical prose was intended both to perform self-reliant thinking and provoke it” (68).
We see this performance at work in “Quotation and Originality,” where Emerson pursues a deliberate contradiction of his earlier and more famous essay on originality, “Self-Reliance.” Or rather, pursues a seeming contradiction. Or rather, shows thought and ideas to emerge out of differences that somehow relate. Emerson enacts a counterargument–a deliberate contradiction that serves a rhetorical purpose–and does so in an argument for the necessity of ideas always to be countered. Or, to use one of the keywords of that essay: recomposed.
Given the tradition of Emersonian originality, what should we make of the claim in”Quotation and Originality” that “all minds quote”? Is this view of writing and reading and, more broadly, thinking, as some form of quotation a contradiction of his earlier views of self-reliance and “creative reading?” Does this break from the earlier essays, or somehow extend the vision?
Emerson, mid-way through the essay, seems to admit his own contradiction when he begins to voice a challenge to what he has been saying of quotation. That voice sounds much like the Emerson from “Self-Reliance”: “Quotation confesses inferiority.” Is this just a case of Emerson contradicting himself, being willfully or whimsically inconsistent? (In “Self-Reliance he claims famously: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”)
Emerson, however, has always had a more complicated vision of originality–much as the notion of originality in writing and thinking is more complicated than conventionally presented in schools. Emerson’s vision of original quotation speaks to the essay tradition and its philosophy of relating the personal and ordinary in the world of the writer to the public world of the reader. A good essayist needs to work through quotation, and consider the relation between the quotation and originality of thinking. A better context for understanding the tension between originality and quotation, I suggest, is a rhetorical and logical tradition Emerson was familiar with. This philosophical context for the essay, for any essay Emerson might have in mind, opens up contradiction as a strong potential for an essay, when handled honestly. Contradiction becomes counterargument, a rhetorical strategy; the logic in the essay moves (is not fixed), is dialectical or dynamic. Think, as Emerson liked to think, of the natural analogy of polarity. And so thought, and thinking in writing, when it accurately reflects its contexts as a natural process, moves between positive and negative poles. All things, as Emerson says, are in flux. The same should be the case, he suggests, for the ideas and arguments in writing. [For more on the rhetorical strategy of counterargument, with an eye toward bringing it into your own writing more effectively, consult this brief discussion of Counterargument from Harvard’s Writing Center.]
Composition and decomposition are the natural poles. Recomposition is the form of writing that generates from this. Reading such writing, as we also see by the end of the essay, participates in the recomposition by being inventive. Invention is a concept of classical rhetoric that speaks to the paradoxical but necessary tension between the originality of our ideas and argument and the given, quoted, borrowed structures and contexts that those ideas must live in, relate and respond to. This is something you will be working through in your writing projects: taking an accepted or conventional or given understanding, raising questions or observing problems or confusion regarding that conventional view, and seeking in your response an answer that recomposes our understanding.
What place of recomposition–or, as it were, re-composure–does Emerson find and offer us, by the end of “Experience”? Where do we find ourselves?
Some further reading and thinking on the rhythm of Emerson’s thinking (and sentences).
I have lately been hearing a certain rhythm and tone of Emerson’s philosophical sentences, and in particular the devastating sentence from “Experience” that follows the revelation of the death of his son, in the rhythm of the Bon Iver song “Holocene.” We will be exploring later in the course the poetics of voice and style in essay writing. This is toward some initial grasp of that, how with Emerson and what he described as the “infinitely repellent particles” of his sentences we need to grasp not just what they say but how they sound. For Emerson, the philosophy (the idea, the sentiment, the argument, the “intellect”) is conveyed not just through the sentences, but in them. The sentences in “Experience,” it seems to me, offer syntactical and poetic renditions of: surprise, provocation, temperament, balance, mediation. They move us through the series of the essay, much as he argues we move with these ideas through the series and surfaces of life.
Here is the sentence, rendered with breaks to notice the rhythm and repetition we can hear:
So is it with this calamity:
it does not touch me:
some thing which I fancied was a part of me,
which could not be torn away without tearing me,
nor enlarged without enriching me,
falls off from me,
and leaves no scar
October 25, 2011 § Leave a comment
Something startles me when I thought I was safest. This opening line from Whitman’s “This Compost” (originally published in the 1856 edition) comes to mind when I try to make sense of “Democratic Vistas.” Whitman seems startled by where he finds himself in post-Civil War, reconstruction America. (Remember Emerson’s opening line in his great essay “Experience”: Where do we find ourselves?) It is and isn’t the America and the democracy he had been envisioning in his writing since 1855. It is strange and familiar. And I feel startled by the essay: interested in where it wants to go, familiar with some of its echoes of the Whitman of Leaves of Grass, and startled by its inability to get there. You thought Emerson’s essays were strange? Folsom and Price in chapter 6 of Re-Scripting Walt Whitman provide helpful social and historical context for Whitman’s essay and for the problem of reconstruction in his writing. I copy below two relevant paragraphs. Should you be interested in doing more with this strange but important text in Whitman, or with Whitman and race and reconstruction, I invite you to read further in the chapter.
If “Passage to India” and “After All Not to Create Only” were celebratory (perhaps at times naively so), Democratic Vistas mounted sustained criticism of Reconstruction-era failures. Based in part on essays that had appeared in the New York journal the Galaxy in 1867 and 1868, Democratic Vistas responds most immediately to a racist diatribe by the Scottish essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle, “Shooting Niagara: And After?” Carlyle’s “great man” view of history left him impatient with democracy and opposed to efforts to expand the franchise in either the US or Britain. For him, the folly of giving the vote to blacks was akin to going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Whitman grants Carlyle some general points, acknowledging, for example, the “appalling dangers of universal suffrage in the U.S.” because of the “people’s crudeness, vices, caprices.” In fact, Whitman gazes piercingly at a society “canker’d, crude, superstitious and rotten,” in which the “depravity of our business classes . . . is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater.” Yet he contrasts these current problems with “democracy’s convictions [and] aspirations” and ultimately provides a ringing endorsement of democracy as the safest and only legitimate course for the US. His thought on the intertwined fates of the US and democracy—his “convertible terms”—is future-oriented. He preceded the philosopher and educator John Dewey in arguing that the United States was not yet made and thus could not be categorically assessed, just as the history of democracy was yet to be written because “that history has yet to be enacted.” “We have frequently printed the word Democracy,” Whitman wrote in Democratic Vistas; “Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawaken’d” (PW, 2:390). Democracy always remained for Whitman an ideal goal, “resid[ing] altogether in the future” (PW, 2:390), and never a realized practice. The history of America, so he hoped, would eventually define the word for the first time, because in his own day, he believed, democracy was only “in its embryo condition” (PW, 2:392). Crucial to his program for strengthening democracy are what he calls “personalism” (a form of individualism in which every person develops uniquely but always remains aware of his or her interconnectedness with the larger social body) and the nurturance of an appropriate “New World literature” that would demand more aggressive reading habits, literature that would awaken the populace and make them argue with the author instead of lull them to sleep and have them passively accept whatever the author professed.
For all of the idealism of Democratic Vistas, however, the work clearly arose out of Whitman’s struggle with the radical politics of the Reconstruction era, and it raises troubling and perhaps unanswerable questions about his attitudes toward the Radical Republican agenda of quickly securing civil rights and voting rights for freed (male) slaves. If Whitman’s faith in the future of American democracy was clear, his vision of the place of African Americans in that future was blurred. As he was writing Democratic Vistas, the shape of the new nation was uncertain, as malleable as the intense debates and shifting votes of a Congress that was revising the very Constitution and threatening to impeach the president, Andrew Johnson. Whitman, during this time, continued to spend evenings visiting the Civil War hospitals that remained opened, still filled with wounded soldiers two years after the war had ended, but he also devoted some of his time to trips to the Capitol to watch the extraordinary night sessions with their impassioned debates on Reconstruction legislation, including the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. For the Radical Republicans who controlled Congress, the war increasingly seemed to have been fought not just to emancipate the slaves (the Thirteenth Amendment had taken care of that) but to enfranchise them and guarantee them equal rights under the Constitution (this was the arena of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and the amazing debates dealt with the very tricky issue of trying to unwrite the Constitutional provision that slaves counted as only three-fifths of a person, and trying to inscribe just what the black person’s newly granted full humanity meant). Whitman, like many Americans, was unsure about where he stood on these momentous issues.
Whitman refers early in the essay to the People–the promise of America and democracy, but also, always, the problem. The people, we learn, are in need of some learning. But the People are ungrammatical, untidy, and their sins gaunt and ill-bred. (968) But who are the people? Who are to be included? How do the people learn or realize this democracy that is not yet fulfilled?
Where does Whitman leave us? He argues that Democracy is still unwritten, and that it will be written, or brought to life, by the Poet or Literatus. So, in the early 1870s, we seem to be right back where we started: with Emerson’s call for an American scholar (in 1837) and Poet (in the 1840s). Whitman defines the need for this literature, without defining the type or shape of it. Does he know what it looks like? Is it Whitman’s own literature? Whitman’s notion of gymnastic reading, described toward the end of Democratic Vistas (not included in the excerpt in Norton), suggests why he is hesitant to define things:
Prospecting thus the coming unsped days, and that new order in them — marking the endless train of exercise, development, unwind, in nation as in man, which life is for — we see, fore-indicated, amid these prospects and hopes, new law-forces of spoken and written language — not merely the pedagogue-forms, correct, regular, familiar with precedents, made for matters of outside propriety, fine words, thoughts definitely told out — but a language fann’d by the breath of Nature, which leaps overhead, cares mostly for impetus and effects, and for what it plants and invigorates to grow — tallies life and character, and seldomer tells a thing than suggests or necessitates it. In fact, a new theory of literary composition for imaginative works of the very first class, and especially for highest poems, is the sole course open to these States. Books are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay — the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does. That were to make a nation of supple and athletic minds, well-train’d, intuitive, used to depend on themselves, and not on a few coteries of writers.
October 17, 2011 § Leave a comment
The keyword, the crypt-word, of Whitman’s Civil War prose, so far as I can see, is “convulsiveness.” It comes toward the end of memoranda that he puts at the center of his autobiography, Specimen Days. In the original Memoranda During the War, the section shows up in an introduction, warning the reader of the “convulsive” character and condition of the writing to come. Here is the passage, in total [from the UVA e-text of Memoranda]:
DURING the Union War I commenced at the close of 1862, and continued steadily through ’63, ’64 and ’65, to visit the sick and wounded of the Army, both on the field and in the Hospitals in and around Washington city. From the first I kept little note-books for impromptu jottings in pencil to refresh my memory of names and circumstances, and what was specially wanted, &c. In these I brief’d cases, persons, sights, occurrences in camp, by the bedside, and not seldom by the corpses of the dead. Of the present Volume most of its pages are verbatim renderings from such pencillings on the spot. Some were scratch’d down from narratives I heard and itemized while watching, or waiting, or tending somebody amid those scenes. I have perhaps forty such little note-books left, forming a special history of those years, for myself alone, full of associations never to be possibly said or sung. I wish I could convey to the reader the associations that attach to these soil’d and creas’d little livraisons, each composed of a sheet or two of paper, folded small to carry in the pocket, and fasten’d with a pin. I leave them just as I threw them by during the War, blotch’d here and there with more than one blood-stain, hurriedly written, sometimes at the clinique, not seldom amid the excitement of uncertainty, or defeat, or of action, or getting ready for it, or a march. Even these days, at the lapse of many years, I can never turn their tiny leaves, or even take one in my hand, without the actual army sights and hot emotions of the time rushing like a river in full tide through me. Each line, each scrawl, each memorandum, has its history. Some pang of anguish — some tragedy, profounder than ever poet wrote. Out of them arise active and breathing forms. They summon up, even in this silent and vacant room as I write, not only the sinewy regiments and brigades, marching or in camp, but the countless phantoms of those who fell and were hastily buried by wholesale in the battle-pits, or whose dust and bones have been since removed to the National Cemeteries of the land, especially through Virginia and Tennessee. (Not Northern soldiers only — many indeed the Carolinian, Georgian, Alabamian, Louisianian, Virginian — many a Southern face and form, pale, emaciated, with that strange tie of confidence and love between us, welded by sickness, pain of wounds, and little daily, nightly offices of nursing and friendly words and visits, comes up amid the rest, and does
–4-not mar, but rounds and gives a finish to the meditation.) Vivid as life, they recall and identify the long Hospital Wards, with their myriad-varied scenes of day or night — the graphic incidents of field or camp — the night before the battle, with many solemn yet cool preparations — the changeful exaltations and depressions of those four years, North and South — the convulsive memories, (let but a word, a broken sentence, serve to recall them) — the clues already quite vanish’d, like some old dream, and yet the list significant enough to soldiers — the scrawl’d, worn slips of paper that came up by bushels from the Southern prisons, Salisbury or Andersonville, by the hands of exchanged prisoners — the clank of crutches on the pavements or floors of Washington, or up and down the stairs of the Paymasters’ offices — the Grand Review of homebound veterans at the close of the War, cheerily marching day after day by the President’s house, one brigade succeeding another until it seem’d as if they would never end — the strange squads of Southern deserters, (escapees, I call’d them;) — that little genre group, unreck’d amid the mighty whirl, I remember passing in a hospital corner, of a dying Irish boy, a Catholic priest, and an improvised altar — Four years compressing centuries of native passion, first-class pictures, tempests of life and death — an inexhaustible mine for the Histories, Drama, Romance and even Philosophy of centuries to come — indeed the Verteber of Poetry and Art, (of personal character too,) for all future America, (far more grand, in my opinion, to the hands capable of it, than Homer’s siege of Troy, or the French wars to Shakspere;) — and looking over all, in my remembrance, the tall form of President Lincoln, with his face of deep-cut lines, with the large, kind, canny eyes, the complexion of dark brown, and the tinge of wierd melancholy saturating all.More and more, in my recollections of that period, and through its varied, multitudinous oceans and murky whirls, appear the central resolution and sternness of the bulk of the average American People, animated in Soul by a definite purpose, though sweeping and fluid as some great storm — the Common People, emblemised in thousands of specimens of first-class Heroism, steadily accumulating, (no regiment, no company, hardly a file of men, North or South, the last three years, without such first-class specimens.)
I know not how it may have been, or may be, to others — to me the main interest of the War, I found, (and still, on recollection, find,) in those specimens, and in the ambulance, the Hospital, and even the dead on the field. To me, the points illustrating the latent Personal Character and eligibilities of These States, in the two or three millions of American young and middle-aged men, North and South, embodied in the armies — and especially the one-third or one-fourth of
–5-their number, stricken by wounds or disease at some time in the course of the contest — were of more significance even than the Political interests involved. (As so much of a Race depends on what it thinks of death, and how it stands personal anguish and sickness. As, in the glints of emotions under emergencies, and the indirect traits and asides in Plutarch, &c., we get far profounder clues to the antique world than all its more formal history.)Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors, (not the few great battles) of the Secession War; and it is best they should not. In the mushy influences of current times the fervid atmosphere and typical events of those years are in danger of being totally forgotten. I have at night watch’d by the side of a sick man in the hospital, one who could not live many hours. I have seen his eyes flash and burn as he recurr’d to the cruelties on his surrender’d brother, and mutilations of the corpse afterward. [See, in the following pages, the incident at Upperville — the seventeen, kill’d as in the description, were left there on the ground. After they dropt dead, no one touch’d them — all were made sure of, however. The carcasses were left for the citizens to bury or not, as they chose.]
Such was the War. It was not a quadrille in a ball-room. Its interior history will not only never be written, its practicality, minutia of deeds and passions, will never be even suggested. The actual Soldier of 1862-’65, North and South, with all his ways, his incredible dauntlessness, habits, practices, tastes, language, his appetite, rankness, his superb strength and animality, lawless gait, and a hundred unnamed lights and shades of camp — I say, will never be written — perhaps must not and should not be.
The present Memoranda may furnish a few stray glimpses into that life, and into those lurid interiors of the period, never to be fully convey’d to the future. For that purpose, and for what goes along with it, the Hospital part of the drama from ’61 to ’65, deserves indeed to be recorded — (I but suggest it.) Of that many-threaded drama, with its sudden and strange surprises, its confounding of prophecies, its moments of despair, the dread of foreign interference, the interminable campaigns, the bloody battles, the mighty and cumbrous and green armies, the drafts and bounties — the immense money expenditure, like a heavy pouring constant rain — with, over the whole land, the last three years of the struggle, an unending, universal mourning-wail of women, parents, orphans — the marrow of the tragedy concentrated in those Hospitals — (it seem’d sometimes as if the whole interest of the land, North and South, was one vast central Hospital, and all the rest of the affair but flanges) — those forming the Untold and Unwritten History of the War — infinitely
–6-finitely greater (like Life’s) than the few scraps and distortions that are ever told or written. Think how much, and of importance, will be — how much, civic and military, has already been — buried in the grave, in eternal darkness !……. But to my Memoranda.
I key in on this vision of “stray glimpses” and convulsive writing: of representation that not only has limitations, but wants somehow to preserve them. It seems to me it has much to do with what Whitman means by ‘the real war will never get in the books.’ I have also argued that this has something to do with Whitman’s photographic vision of the war that comes through this prose–which can be contrasted with the actual photographs made famous by Brady and Alexander Gardner (image here: Harvest of Death).
Is this a different Whitman–this vision of limitation? Perhaps. But there is also a parallel for us to consider from Emerson. The apparent shift that Emerson seems to make around “Experience.” This too seems to focus more on limitation and suffering–and presumably for good reason. But is the writer’s recognition of that limitation completely foreign to the celebrated singing of “Song of Myself”?Yet again, I think the concept of metonymy holds for us a key. The vision in the war memoranda (as throughout Specimen Days) is thoroughly, sometimes disturbingly, metonymyic. The effects of war represented best (after all) in the “parts of the actual distraction” as Whitman puts it in the “Convulsiveness” chapter of SD. And we know that vision is not new to Whitman–also characterizes the poetry. And it is the same metonymy that shows up in Emerson’s thinking (early and late) and figured in this line from “Experience”: “I know better than to claim any completeness for my picture. I am a fragment and this is a fragment of me.”
The difference to consider, rather, is the way Whitman’s Civil War poetry (so it seems to me) is not as thoroughly metonymyic. In fact, seems much more interested in metaphor, and in producing metaphors of war, in celebrating war as metaphor. Or so it seems to me in the earliest poems in Drum-Taps.
This is the argument, it seems, of “The Real War Will Never Get in the Books,” positioned at the end of the war memoranda section in Specimen Days. Whitman demonstrates the argument in practice most vividly in the chapter just before that, “The Million Dead, Too, Summ’d Up.” The bulk of the chapter is a massive sentence fragment.
The dead in this war—there they lie, strewing the fields and woods and valleys and battle-fields of the south—Virginia, the Peninsula—Malvern hill and Fair Oaks—the banks of the Chickahominy—the terraces of Fredericksburgh—Antietam bridge—the grisly ravines of Manassas—the bloody promenade of the Wilderness—the varieties of the strayed dead, (the estimate of the War department is 25,000 national soldiers kill’d in battle and never buried at all, 5,000 drown’d—15,000 inhumed by strangers, or on the march in haste, in hitherto unfound localities—2,000 graves cover’d by sand and mud by Mississippi freshets, 3,000 carried away by caving-in of banks, &c.,)—Gettysburgh, the West, Southwest—Vicksburgh—Chattanooga—the trenches of Petersburgh—the numberless battles, camps, hospitals everywhere—the crop reap’d by the mighty reapers, typhoid, dysentery, inflammations—and blackest and loathesomest of all, the dead and living burial-pits, the prison-pens of Andersonville, Salisbury, Belle-Isle, &c., (not Dante’s pictured hell and all its woes, its degradations, filthy torments, excell’d those prisons)—the dead, the dead, the dead—our dead—or South or North, ours all, (all, all, all, finally dear to me)—or East or West—Atlantic coast or Mississippi valley—somewhere they crawl’d to die, alone, in bushes, low gullies, or on the sides of hills—(there, in secluded spots, their skeletons, bleach’d bones, tufts of hair, buttons, fragments of clothing, are occasionally found yet)—our young men once so handsome and so joyous, taken from us—the son from the mother, the husband from the wife, the dear friend from the dear friend—the clusters of camp graves, in Georgia, the Carolinas, and in Tennessee—the single graves left in the woods or by the road-side, (hundreds, thousands, obliterated)—the corpses floated down the rivers, and caught and lodged, (dozens, scores, floated down the upper Potomac, after the cavalry engagements, the pursuit of Lee, following Gettysburgh)—some lie at the bottom of the sea—the general million, and the special cemeteries in almost all the States—the infinite dead—(the land entire saturated, perfumed with their impalpable ashes’ exhalation in Nature’s chemistry distill’d, and shall be so forever, in every future grain of wheat and ear of corn, and every flower that grows, and every breath we draw)—not only Northern dead leavening Southern soil—thousands, aye tens of thousands, of Southerners, crumble to-day in Northern earth.
September 25, 2011 § 2 Comments
Annie Dillard is best known as a nature writer. Her first book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) looks a lot like Thoreau in the 20th century: her pilgrimage is to live by a creek in western Virginia for two years and describe what she sees, how she lives. In spirit, however (and I use that word deliberately), there is much in Dillard that is from Emerson. That shouldn’t surprise.
In her book The Writing Life, she uses Emerson for an epigraph:
No one suspects the days to be gods.
In Holy the Firm, her second book, that is where the book begins: a meditation on the spirituality in a day:
Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time.
This connection to Emerson deepens–and more to our point, Dillard deepens our reading of Emerson, perhaps–when we recognize the difficulty this understanding of every day a god brings to living. Holiness holds forth in time, but it is not always, maybe not ever, a pretty picture.
Dillard in Holy the Firm seems to me to be Emersonian, to have learned from Emerson, in at least two ways of note. The first is in her thinking: she is interested in Emerson’s ecstasy, the kind of transcendentalism made famous in his “transparent eyeball” vision from Nature. She has a version of that, it seems to me, late in the book when she meditates on the idea of holy the firm and how one touches the absolute through it. She describes a mystical moment, you will recall, with a bottle of wine in her backpack. Dillard’s vision of nature reminds me that Emerson’s own vision is complicated: is spiritual and transcendant, but also focused on the materiality of our relations, and its limitations. Dillard’s book, it seems to me, combines the Emerson of Nature with the Emerson of “Experience” and “Fate”: nature is no sentimentalist; she is trying to be honest about our condition, to be inspired by the circumstances of spirit (here called God or god or creator or the created) but also to take courage in the face of those circumstances. The power play of holy fire, as she calls it, as we know from the example of her Julie Norwich, can burn through skin.By the way, her Julie Norwich is a metonym (change of name) for an English mystic from the 14th century, Julian of Norwich. Julian comes up in Pilgrim when Dillard tries to fathom the cruelty of creation and suffering.
In my own terms, learned from Emerson, I could argue that for Dillard (as for Emerson), the spiritual is never wholly made spirit, never made only metaphor, but closer (in linguistic terms) to an ongoing metonymy: this is what allows humans to relate to it, but also to live through it. Dillard’s moth to the flame, on this view, is not metaphor, not the great organizing symbol of this book; it is its more basic, underlying metonymy–like “holy the firm.”
There is also the matter of Dillard’s style: I would suggest it as Emersonian–or as also taking courage from Emerson in the ways that he seeks to have the ‘honesty’ of his vision play out in the conditions and circumstances of his lines. In the way Dillard moves and circulates in her lines, it seems to me, she learns from Emerson’s experience as a writer.