Experience

Experience 
Ralph Waldo Emerson (From Essays, Second Series).

Emerson’s writing style is difficult. Taste changes over 160 years, but Emerson was difficult even in his own day (contrast with Thoreau’s clarity). If you’re willing to look beyond the style, though, you’ll discover the underlying content sucks.

Harold Bloom thinks Emerson is a great American genius, and the themes that we’ve come to embrace as essentially American – the honesty of physical labor, forthrightness, facing the future and continually recreating ourselves – are all present. Preachy, sanctimonious, and self-righteous, but present. And Emerson can toss out the quotes: “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.”

But this thought is at the center of his essay: “People grieve and bemoan themselves, but it is not half so bad with them as they say… it turns out to be scene-painting and counterfeit. The only thing grief has taught me is to know how shallow it is.”

This is bullshit. Of course there’s no guarantee – for some people if becomes only a dull ache – to those who allow themselves, grief can open eyes to the profound evanescence of life and the depth of each instant of seeing and feeling.

Blake and the Buddha, or Emerson. Your choice

–Jim Kornell, October 2004

Following publication of this short essay, the following exchange between Gary Milliken and Jim Kornell too place.

Jim,

You’re right, Emerson’s style is difficult. He favors aphorisms that are so boiled down they are like bricks, which is not only out of fashion today but hard to decipher without context. That’s no excuse of course. If what Emerson writes is of enduring value, the truth of it should come through. I’m not an Emerson expert, I’m not interested in coming to his defense, and I don’t know much about Harold Bloom except that he is a literary critic, but I can tell you from what I understand about Emerson, what I like about him. Most of what I know is from a biography by Robert Richardson Jr., titled, “Emerson – a Mind on Fire,” (1995), which I recently finished.

Emerson was not a stranger to death. When he was 27 his 19-year-old wife Ellen died of tuberculosis and it devastated him. He wrote “Experience” at the age of 39, about a year after his 5-year-old son Waldo, by his second wife, died. That left a permanent hole in his life that he never got over. By that time two of his brothers had died as well.

You may know that he originally trained to be a minister. According to Richardson, Emerson, at the age of 26 was “writing sermons and preaching in his father’s city, in his father’s church, in his father’s faith.” Richardson says, “The sermons were delivered forcefully and to great admiration, but they are distinguished by a mush of intellectual concession and plea bargaining and in places by a simple retreat from spiritual issues.” To fast forward a bit, Emerson was entering a spiritual crisis where he didn’t believe what he was teaching. He had serious doubts about the meaning of communion and was wrestling with the idea of immortality. He found the idea that we are all fallen problematic. He soon after left the church altogether because it wasn’t giving him what he needed.

If I understand Richardson correctly, when Emerson wrote “Experience” he was grappling with the loss of Waldo. By not looking back, by living in the moment, by staying active he hoped to heal the wound and maybe survive the loss. He is being tough and would not be defeated. There’s more to it than that, but that’s what I got out of it. I think the biography is extraordinary.

Here’s what I like about Emerson. He underwent a personal transformation and a transformation of world-view, supported largely by science. Emerson was interested in what science can teach about nature. At one point he addressed a congregation and said,” I regard it as the irresistible effect of the Copernican astronomy to have made the theological scheme of redemption absolutely incredible.” According to Richardson, “his interest in science is not now primarily theological. He does not reject the argument from design; indeed he welcomes it, but that argument is not what matters most. Emerson is much more interested in the relationship between the natural world and the human mind than he is in the natural world as proof of a designing deity.” The debates about the role of mind and consciousness in nature are still going on today and are a long way from really being understood. I will stop here.

Gary
###

Gary,

Emerson’s style doesn’t really matter as much as what he said, of course, and it is striking to see references to Darwin in work published in 1860 (since On the Origin of Species was published in 1859). I was aware he wrote Experience shortly after the death of his son; and that many of his readers would certainly have had similar experience, since ‘untimely’ death was common enough at the time (as it still is, of course, in much of the world). Two things, though, catch my eye:

o The (preacher-like) generalization of the personal to the universal. If, for Emerson, being active and doing things aided him in his grief, well and good – you could easily call it choosing engagement with life in an active, immediate way. But because it was the way Emerson chose does not make it a universal prescription, nor does it justify denigrating others’ grief as feigned or exaggerated. This may be unkind to Emerson, but it’s hard not to wonder if there was an undertone – you superficial people don’t know grief the way a profound thinker and feeler like myself does.

o The “mind over nature” attitude – which, of course, was the common assumption; Emerson could hardly be blamed for it since it was the intellectual currency of the time. However, there is precedent (the Daoists seem to have got it 2 1/2 millennia before Emerson). Thus the notion that the superior mind could rise above emotion, or pick and choose which emotions were valid – grief is trivial and a mistake, hope is real and good. In a way this is unfair to Emerson, since it’s only in the last fifteen years the underlying cognitive and evolutionary psychology, neurophysiology, and neurochemistry have brought to view of the unified nature of the mind (Damasio is a good intro to this if you haven’t yet read him and are interested). On the other hand, the notion that emotions are “base” and the mind superior to them, though it almost certainly permeated Emerson’s upbringing, is now known to be simply wrong.

The second point is the stronger, for me – it isn’t blaming Emerson so much as looking at his writings as, from that perspective, an interesting historical landmark – I do think it’s valid to call him the first original US social philosopher (as distinct from political philosopher). But, like Kant and Neitzsche (the all-time #1 most overrated philosopher), if you have a basic assumption wrong, and you base a lot of your reasoning on it – well…

Just my view.

Jim
###

Jim,

I hope that Emerson did not see himself in the role of prescribing to others, because it would contradict so much of what he said in his essays. As I understand Emerson, we each have our own private rainbow and horizon, so to speak, and it’s up to that person to express or interpret the experience. Here a quote from him that exemplify this idea and put the responsibility on the individual:

“The purpose of life is individual self-cultivation, self-expression, and fulfillment.”

I’ve been looking past his tone as a passe’ style that, although annoying, doesn’t reflect the essence of what he is saying. If in fact I’m misreading it and he IS prescribing, then I would admit that he is a pompous ass and dismiss him too.

My take on Emerson does not include “mind over nature.” Here’s another quote from Emerson,

“The mind is the center of things, so that theology, Nature, Astronomy, and history date from where the observer stands.”

My take on this is simply that where ever you stand on the planet, you are the center of your horizon. What ever date you live you are at the center between your parents and your children. Emerson’s views changed during his lifetime. He visited the Jardin des Plantes in Paris and was awestruck at the connection of all flora and fauna in the displays he saw. At the time there was much debate about classification, and the idea that classification implied connection hit home. At some point he realized that the mind is more than just at the center of things, but is somehow “embedded” in things, in other words, the observer affects the observed. (Heisenberg, of course, proved it many years later)

I haven’t found much on how Emerson deals with emotions, which suggests they were ignored or repressed as you suggest. You wrote,

> “On the other hand, the notion that emotions are “base” and the mind superior to them, though it almost certainly permeated Emerson’s upbringing, is now known to be simply wrong.”

I wonder what Emerson would say today. He was willing to change his views during his lifetime as he learned more. But the essence of Emerson is not what the science of his day said, even if it colored his views, but, how does each of us as individuals deal with what we have learned in our own time, from our own perspective. That’s enduring. With a few very notable exceptions, and valuable as it is, most science eventually turns out to be wrong as we learn more. Would you agree?

I don’t think Emerson’s basic assumptions were wrong. Everything does start with experience, it seems to me, and that was one of his basic assumptions. I agree that Emerson was “an interesting historical landmark,” but I think he was more than that. In his day science was not yet fragmented as it is today. It wasn’t even a profession. Obviously, specialization has it’s advantages, but it seems to me that we have not yet come to terms with the consequences of “universal” specialization. The two cultures that C.P. Snow wrote about are just as far apart as ever, and the general public is so far removed from what Emerson advocated (take responsibility for your own growth and education), and so far removed from what science has to teach us, (I’m on my tippy-toes here on my soap box), that 50% of the the eligible voters won’t vote and 50% of the voters will vote for the incumbent president who doesn’t have his feet on the ground in terms of science or religion.

Gary
###

Gary,

> “The purpose of life is individual self-cultivation, self-expression, and fulfillment.”

Well, he’s caught in a logical trap – if he’s not implicitly instructing you in how to live your life, then why is he writing this? He did spend his life touring and lecturing. Statements that tell you the purpose of life – those are a little broad, you have to admit. Someone who was a true Confucian would be utterly miserable trying to live as Emerson prescribes.

I don’t think that makes him a pompous ass, but I do think it means he thinks what he’s found is right for other people. I don’t think that’s a problem, though – in a way, it’s a virtue – after all, it’s our responsibility as readers to take what makes sense for us.

> My take on Emerson does not include “mind over nature.” Here’s another quote from Emerson,

“The mind is the center of things, so that theology, Nature, Astronomy, and history date from where the observer stands.”

> My take on this is simply that where ever you stand on the planet, you are the center of your horizon. What ever date you live you are at the center between your parents and your children. Emerson’s views changed during his lifetime. He visited the Jardin des Plantes in Paris and was awestruck at the connection of all flora and fauna in the displays he saw. At the time there was much debate about classification, and the idea that classification implied connection hit home. At some point he realized that the mind is more than just at the center of things, but is somehow “embedded” in things, in other words, the observer affects the observed. (Heisenberg, of course, proved it many years later)

This is fuzzy ground. While I’m pretty comfortable that the observer affects some observed things, Heisenberg was actually talking about measurement and delimitation – also (this is just my bias) I’m pretty jumpy about Heisenberg being used metaphorically. All Heisenberg really said was that the way you chose to measure something will determine what measurement you get. But as for Emerson, yes, the realization that the mind thinking about things is the mind thinking about things – that’s correct. Hume got it; I got it one night when I was 15 or 16 – but I’m not sure the effect for Hume (and me) – which was to be a lot more skeptical of one’s own thoughts – was the same lesson Emerson took from it.

But one thing I’m not skeptical about is that I’m not an Emerson scholar. So I don’t know.

> With a few very notable exceptions, and valuable as it is, most science eventually turns out to be wrong as we learn more. Would you agree?

No. Newton’s stuff is still useful. Darwin’s stuff is amazingly right. We still use Kepler’s equations. Euler is still current. I think we arrive at basic formulations, which are sometimes overthrown (or augmented by an alternate model, as general relativity augments Newtonian physics) – guess I’m not sure what “wrong” means in this context…? Some is, some isn’t…? There’s the whole issue of epistemic boundedness – how little we CAN know…

> I don’t think Emerson’s basic assumptions were wrong. Everything does start with experience, it seems to me, and that was one of his basic assumptions.

I agree completely – it’s all we ever have.

Please follow and like us: