1. Emerson’s Magic EMERSON’S MAGIC
Growing up in the middle-class Philadelphia suburbs, I always had the impression that education wasn’t about education. If you learned something in school, great, but that wasn’t the point. The point of school was to get good grades, and the point of good grades was to get into a good college, and the point of a good college was to get a good job, and the point of a good job was some or maybe all of the following: (a) to make money; (b) to be happy; (c) to be independent and not live at home; (d) to seem desirable to potential romantic partners; (e) to not be the type of person your parents are embarrassed by when they’re at a dinner party and everyone is talking about their kids. The path splintered after you finally landed a job, but when I was young that seemed a lifetime away. Before then, everything was linear and clearly checkpointed. The critical thing was to cross those checkpoints, and education was just the means to do that, not an end in itself.
At least that’s how it felt to me. That’s what the messaging in my world sounded like. I heard it from my parents, teachers, tutors, administrators, even students. It wasn’t usually explicit. Nobody said my GPA was more important than a familiarity with algebra or American history. That’s the kind of cynicism we don’t say aloud. But the implication was there, beneath all the lip service paid to “expanding our minds,” in the way an A+ was celebrated and rewarded, in the school’s ranking of students, in how standardized tests like the SAT boiled you down to a number. As children, we’re subject to so much ludicrous authority that we become experts on it. We learn exactly what our world wants from us, so we can appease it and get back to the stuff we really want to do, like Super Mario Bros. 3
. Did my world want me to know the significance of irony in Pride and Prejudice
? The atomic structure of various metals? Roman emperors? Not really. It wanted good report cards.
So I obliged. My grades weren’t great, but they were good enough, and good enough is all a relatively privileged kid has to be. I did the least amount of work necessary to cross the checkpoints and not be a disappointment to my family. This meant cramming and regurgitating info for tests, instead of actually absorbing knowledge. It meant copying a friend’s homework in the hallway before class. It meant reading the CliffsNotes rather than the books. It meant crib sheets hidden in a sleeve or saved on a TI-83 calculator. Why should I have felt any compunction about cheating? My world placed a much greater value on good grades than it did on moral principles. And what’s so moral anyway about a system that selects for good test-takers, while leaving plenty of intelligent and talented students behind? No, secondary education didn’t feel like education, and high school didn’t feel like school. It felt like a recruitment camp, where you had to persuade gatekeeping institutions to award you an opportunity everyone deserves. Ends twisted as that justified whatever means.
This is not to say I had bad teachers or went to bad schools. Some of my teachers were extraordinary, like Mr. Leventhal in eighth-grade English and Mrs. Bienkowski in twelfth-grade economics. They all, I think, sincerely wanted to teach, to pass on knowledge to their students, to help us think critically. (They couldn’t have been in it for the money.) But warped systemic incentives can prevail over the good intentions of smart and generous people. Learning is not the chief goal of most American schooling. The chief goal is turning out graduates. And those two things are not the same.
Maybe the system we have now is better than the alternatives. I hope not, but I don’t know how to fix it, so I should probably leave the indictments to those who do. All I know is how it made me feel. When I finally crossed the college checkpoint and arrived at Boston University in 2006, a school perfectly “good enough” for my parents, I was a deeply uninspired person, trained to view education as a game, not a source of joy or fulfillment. I enrolled as a film major because I had fun making silly videos with friends. Beyond that, my interests were limited to comic books and… that’s all.
It was hard to shake that cold and strategic view of learning. At first, I treated college the same as I treated high school, riding the momentum of thinking one way for a dozen years. But after a semester, an aimlessness began to gnaw at me. I still had the job checkpoint ahead, but it didn’t motivate with the same fear as earlier ones. In high school, everything matters: tests, papers, homework, participation—all of it contributes to your grade, which contributes to your GPA. If I brought home a C+, I was in deep shit, and my parents were lax compared to some. In college, grades didn’t carry the same weight. If I had been studying medicine or law, they would have, but I was a film major
. No one was going to look at my transcripts ever again. Once I realized that, the Cs opened and rushed forth in great waves. I stopped cramming, stopped buying overpriced textbooks, stopped doing homework. I stopped caring about grades and points and averages.
And I started to learn.
It’s amazing how different a class becomes when you’re not spending all your time scrawling notes, trying to sort out what will or won’t be relevant to some future exam. I recommend it. Take nothing to class but yourself. Listen, ask questions, absorb, have fun. When the test comes, try your best. All you need is a D not to fail out of college. (DISCLAIMER: Do not
take this course of action if you are studying the aforementioned law or medicine, or have an interest in going to grad school of any kind. Study for the tests, take the notes, have as little fun as possible.)
When I removed the unnecessary stress, I learned how valuable school can be. So many of my professors at BU were obsessed
with their subjects, and that enthusiasm was infectious. I became fascinated by things that were never even on my radar. Hell, I declared an archaeology minor thanks to one randomly chosen course about the antiquities trade that turned out to be enthralling. If I could go back, I’d cut out most of the film stuff and take a bunch of liberal arts classes instead: history and literature and economics and sociology. Imagine the great professors who passed me by. Imagine the obsessions that could have been…
Discovering a love of learning felt like a rebirth. That nagging sense of pointlessness yielded to a promise of substance in every direction. The world lit up with questions, and questions generated questions. It’s an exhilarating and terrifying experience to walk the road of your ignorance. Learning, you learn, is not really a process of expanding your mind, but of watching it shrink against all there is to know. It’s humbling but addicting. I followed that addiction into a new life, free from GPA anxiety, off the checkpointed path. It made college more enriching, but it went beyond that. Reading no longer felt like a chore. I hopscotched from book to book, chasing enthusiasms that moved faster than I could. I found new passions and complex ideas and finer shades of meaning. Then I found Ralph Waldo Emerson in the Barnes & Noble in Kenmore Square, on the edge of campus, under the CITGO sign.
One afternoon, while skipping a profoundly boring class (they can’t all be Archaeology 203), I walked to Kenmore, wandered into the bookstore, and, for no particular reason, picked up a copy of Emerson’s essays. I took it to the mini café near the front, bought a coffee and a scone, and read until my life changed its direction, which took about forty minutes.
Reading Emerson was like watching magic. Somehow he was able to retrieve the cloudy, half-formed thoughts in my mind and write them down with astonishing eloquence—a century and a half before I was born! This is the magic of articulation
, of putting things exactly right, and it’s been the basic obsession of all my work since that afternoon in Barnes & Noble.
You know the experience I’m talking about: someone phrases something perfectly and an idea that’s been a fog in the background of your mind suddenly solidifies. A lot of the time we aren’t fully aware of our thoughts and opinions, so when another person articulates one, it feels strange, like a surprise coming from within. Often it makes us laugh—something all stand-up comedians depend on. Their job is to articulate our opinions in clever ways, to evoke that startling laughter of recognition. The best comedians take the vaguest, most universal musings and sharpen them to a fine point. Emerson does the same.
I bought the book that afternoon—Essays and Poems
by Ralph Waldo Emerson—but kept coming back to the Barnes & Noble for weeks to read it at the mini café. It became something of a sacred space for me, not because the scones were particularly great, but because it was where I discovered Emerson and was stamped with the joy of that first high. I skipped a good number of classes in that bookstore, and for someone who never played a day of hooky in high school, there was a sense of rebellion in that. Yeah, I know: skipping class to read Emerson is maybe the lamest, least rock-and-roll rebellion in the history of rebellions, but it felt rebellious to me. Caring about something so deeply felt rebellious, and that’s the place where Emerson gave me permission to care.I
The more Emerson I read, the more my own thinking seemed murky and confused. The more it seemed like my decisions and beliefs were based on a hodgepodge of old, drifting thought-fragments, corrupted after years without reflection. A paragraph of Emerson’s was more complete than my entire belief system. His essays snowballed into towering monuments of self-expression, poetic and staggeringly lucid.
From Emerson, I learned two fundamental truths: first, that we learn by expressing, not by thinking
, which is to say that knowledge doesn’t really exist until you can write it down. What we normally imagine as “thinking” is really just a distracted form of writing, like having a disoriented drunk at a typewriter behind your eyes. Writing sobers him up. The pen (or the word processor) lets the mind compose language into knowledge that’s far more sophisticated than what that little boozer can do on his own.
On the spectrum of sophistication, speaking falls somewhere between thinking and writing, but it’s the form of language (or thought) construction we use the most. I find that once I articulate something in speech, it sticks in my mind more or less intact—but only for a little while. If it’s a thought I want to build on, writing is the only option. Otherwise, it will gradually get pulled into the quicksand of my consciousness, forgotten or folded into a mix of ill-considered motivations. But the mind doesn’t need cogent thoughts to operate.
That’s the second fundamental truth I learned from Emerson, not from his writing directly, but as a consequence of reading it. My brain was getting along just fine in all its hypocrisy and contradiction. If I kept myself busy, I barely noticed the inconsistencies. But once I slowed down and began to wonder who I actually was, what I actually believed—something we’re all inclined to do eventually—my tangled self could offer no answers.
So I read more Emerson and found some.
Looking back, I realize he was the perfect thinker for that moment in my life. Escaping from the arid mindset I described above into a jungle of meaning, I needed someone to help me articulate my overwhelming new feelings, to legitimize them for me. Emerson’s first essay, “Nature,” did exactly that. It’s the ideal companion for awakenings.
In the years before its 1836 release, Emerson served as a junior pastor at a Unitarian church in Boston, but quit the ministry after just three years. He’d grown increasingly frustrated with the Church’s teaching, believing it to be stale and doctrinaire, so he started to develop his own philosophy. You can hear Emerson’s frustrations in the essay’s opening lines:
Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies and histories and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?
Is it any wonder this appealed to me? Emerson describes a hollow world of obsolete rules, where scholars squabble over inconsequential details of archaic texts, rather than seek revelations of their own. We shouldn’t be guided by tradition just because it’s tradition, he says. We shouldn’t accept something just because it was written in a book our ancestors deemed sacred. To me, this was high school. It was prioritizing grades over learning. It was the checkpointed path. I, like Emerson, wanted to “enjoy an original relation to the universe.” I wanted to discover truths of my own, on my own.
The danger of received wisdom is a fundamental theme of Emerson’s early work. In “The American Scholar,” he explains how ancient insights get corrupted over time, how “the love of the hero corrupts into the worship of his statue.” A book can “become noxious” when it’s treated as gospel, when “colleges are built on it” and other books are written about it by those “who set out from accepted dogmas, not from their own sight of principles.” This emphasis on old wisdom creates a culture of “bookworms,” not thinkers, “meek young men [who] grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books.”
Emerson doesn’t discourage the reading of past masters, but he does warn against taking what we read—even from the most respected, even from him
—on faith. The purpose of books, he says, is to inspire our own ideas, not to demand fealty to theirs. Even genius can be harmful if it over-influences, if I am knocked “clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system.” Emerson wants to protect the individual’s trust in her own genius, her own capacity to uncover the world’s secrets. Books and the institutions that teach them are indispensable tools, but they serve us best “when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame.”
Did your schools set you alight? Or did they drill?
Of all institutions, it’s the Church that receives Emerson’s harshest rebuke, in the famous “Divinity School Address” of 1838. Think of the guts it took to deliver a fiery critique of Christianity to the Harvard Divinity School
! You have to wonder what the graduating class was thinking, inviting a man, who six years earlier deserted the ministry, to address a fresh crop of new ministers. Emerson condemns the “decaying church” for dwelling with “noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus,” when he is only a man with the same access to the Infinite Soul as everyone else. You can see how denying the special divinity of Jesus might, well, cause a stir.
While some found the speech compelling, many were scandalized by Emerson’s radical individualism. It threatened the core of their faith. For Emerson, Jesus was someone who had the courage to seek the infinite in himself, and his example should have been an inspiration for the rest of us to do the same. Instead, Christianity adopted a “vulgar tone of preaching” that commands its followers to “subordinate your nature to Christ’s nature,” that speaks of “revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead.” To Emerson, everything necessary for revelation is available here and now, in nature, in us. God isn’t a “vaunting, overpowering, excluding sanctity, but a sweet, natural goodness.”
The nice Christians at Harvard can be forgiven for their outrage. This wasn’t the Christianity they knew. It was a different philosophy altogether, incompatible with their beliefs, bordering on atheism.
Despite accusations, Emerson was not a nonbeliever—but I am, and in “The Divinity School Address” I saw ideas that made more sense to me than anything I heard in synagogue as a kid. It affirmed the essential beauty of all things, a harmony between humanity and nature. You don’t need faith to feel a oneness with the universe. Emerson, it seemed to me, emphasized the vital things about spirituality, while discarding all its outworn trappings.
But it wasn’t just that he emphasized values that resonated with me, it was how
he emphasized them. When Emerson writes that “every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to the inquiries he would put,” he captures for me the essence of introspection. Reading that line in “Nature” launched a lifetime of reflection. And when I read the following passage, from “The American Scholar,” I found the confidence to express what reflection taught me:
In going down into the secrets of his own mind, [a person] has descended into the secrets of all minds…. The poet, in utter solitude remembering his spontaneous thoughts and recording them, is found to have recorded that which men in cities vast find true for them also…. The deeper he dives into his privatest, secretest presentiment, to his wonder he finds this is the most acceptable, most public and universally true.
I knew Emerson was right about this because that’s what he was doing for me. I felt exactly how he felt when he read Montaigne’s essays:
A single odd volume of Cotton’s translation of the Essays remained to me from my father’s library, when a boy. It lay long neglected, until, after many years, when I was newly escaped from college, I read the book, and procured the remaining volumes. I remember the delight and wonder in which I lived with it. It seemed to me as if I had myself written the book, in some former life, so sincerely it spoke to my thought and experience.
It was doubly astounding to read this when I’d already had the feeling, as I said above, that Emerson was somehow articulating my own thoughts.
He articulated that
If Emerson was mentioned in one of my high school classes, I must’ve been daydreaming (which was my default mode) because I don’t remember it. That, or I brushed him off as a dreary old statue of a man, who, from his high perch in the American Pantheon, had little to say to someone like me. Clearly, I was an idiot. If there’s anything Emerson is not, it’s dreary. He’s a thinker bursting with ecstasy for life, and his prose is an attempt to bottle that ecstasy. He approaches everything with a child’s sensitivity. Often the essays swell with excitement, like a nine-year-old itching to tell you the coolest thing ever
What angels invented these splendid ornaments, these rich conveniences, this ocean of air above, this ocean of water beneath, this firmament of earth between? this zodiac of lights, this tent of dropping clouds, this striped coat of climates, this fourfold year?
Emerson is the most eloquent nine-year-old in history. And like a nine-year-old, he’s never jaded. He’s here for the drowsy and jaded souls of 1836 or today, to shake us out of it: “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!”
He’s also here to renew our self-confidence. That’s the crux of what is likely his most famous essay, “Self-Reliance,” a fullhearted plea for the individual to “Trust thyself.” If his earlier essays touched on the theme, this one places it at the core of his philosophy. Emerson rails against conformity as an epidemic evil: “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist,” he says. “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” We should refuse to “capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions,” then prepare for a backlash to that refusal: “For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure.” You have only to glance at Twitter to see a confirmation of this. But we need not worry, says Emerson, for “the sour faces of the multitude, like their sweet faces, have no deep cause, but are put on and off as the wind blows and the newspaper directs.” What we should really worry about is becoming part of that multitude, of choosing compliance over intuition, of imitating.
In the years since I first read this essay, I’ve come to see the limits of Emerson’s gospel of the self. In an admirable polemic against conformity, he goes too far in the other direction, sometimes crossing the line that separates healthy self-esteem from egomania. Trusting your gut is one thing; trusting it against all else is another. Sometimes it can be hard to make out when Emerson’s being literal and when he’s using hyperbole as a rhetorical device. Either way, saying “the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it” is excessive.
Intuition often fails us, especially when coupled with ignorance, or when we take our experience to be representative of all
experience. While I do believe that in many cases, the deeper we descend into our own minds, the more universal it gets, I also know that is not
true in many cases. And if there’s anything the revolutions in social justice have taught me, it’s that our own privileges can block us from seeing the truth of others’ lives. There is no basement level in my consciousness that could have clued me in to my wife, Lissette’s, experience as a Mexican American, for example. The solution to that cluelessness is not more reflection, but to ask questions and listen.
At times, Emerson’s contempt for society’s conforming pressures slips into a distrust of society itself: “Society never advances,” he declares. “It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on another.” Between individuals and the collective, Emerson favors the individual—to a fault. Society does
advance, and only when people stand together, when they act collectively. Emerson’s self-reliance reads as self-absorption in certain passages, and self-absorption being the keynote of our culture for some decades now, it’s clear how such thinking can hinder progress and cause all kinds of disastrous inequality. Not all multitudes are bad.
I don’t agree with everything Emerson wrote. If I did, Emerson himself would be the first to disapprove. But his points, in “Self-Reliance” and elsewhere, are subtle enough to overcome their excesses and still be of great value to the modern reader. There are ways Emerson’s exaltation of the self goes too far, but it’s also an essential message, made all the more essential for the beauty of its articulation. We all need to forge a confidence in our own mind. To achieve great things, we first need to believe we’re capable
of great things. That belief, as we know, wavers. It erodes against a constant bombardment of self-doubt. If you’re feeling low, “Self-Reliance” is the best pep talk imaginable: “You cannot hope too much or dare too much. There is at this moment for you an utterance brave and grand as the colossal chisel of Phidias, or the trowel of the Egyptians, or the pen of Moses, or Dante, but different from all these.” And confidence in the self, once attained, gives you the confidence to see its shortcomings.
At nineteen, I needed more than confidence; I needed permission to break free from the only value system I’d ever known, a value system shared by so many in my social universe. This isn’t uncommon, of course. I was probably the billionth eighteen-year-old to feel that way, the billionth bewildered teenager who left home for school, only to be shocked that the wider world didn’t operate the same way as Anytown, USA. But being the billionth didn’t make it any easier to step off the checkpointed path, to swim against the current—even if that current was nothing but a lazy river compared to what others have to face. I tacked this passage to my bedroom wall:
O father, O mother, O wife, O brother, O friend, I have lived with you after appearances hitherto. Henceforward I am the truth’s… I appeal from your customs. I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should. I won’t hide my tastes or aversions. I will so trust that what is deep is holy, that I will do strongly before the sun and moon whatever inly rejoices me, and the heart appoints.
Overdramatic? Sure. Though it would’ve been far more dramatic if I followed through with my plan to mail the quote to my parents. A lingering fear of embarrassment stopped me, but it didn’t stop me from making several other Emerson-style declarations during that period, which I cringe to remember now. At the time, however, I needed Emerson’s drama, his fearless, poetic conviction. I was a self-conscious kid, always anxious about what others thought of me. In Emerson, I saw someone unafraid of naked sincerity, willing to brave the severe light of judgment to express himself with the fire he had within. Maybe his self-assurance helped him to feel less vulnerable. Maybe he felt as vulnerable as I did, but spoke his truth nonetheless, believing it to be more valuable than a life without embarrassment. I’m just as self-conscious now as then, but Emerson gave me the nerve to overrule that annoying impulse.
That’s what I’m doing now.
In these four essays—“Nature,” “The American Scholar,” “The Divinity School Address,” and “Self-Reliance”—Emerson lays out his special brand of transcendentalism. It has a few ruling themes, but his philosophy is not systematic. It doesn’t have the internal consistency of, say, Immanuel Kant’s work, or John Stuart Mill’s, one of his contemporaries. It can’t be structured into a dogma of its own. Emerson wasn’t that rigorous, and he didn’t aim to be. As he says in one of his most famous lines, from “Self-Reliance”: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Some see this inconsistency, this fluidity, as a weakness of Emerson’s work; others point to it as the best reason for his longevity. You can put me in the second camp.
There’s obviously a place for philosophical systems, but what makes them rigorous also makes them rigid. A flaw threatens the whole structure. Emerson’s writing is never so fragile. It doesn’t resemble a building so much as a great winding river: jump in at any point from the source to the sea and you’ll be propelled with great speed through flourishing terrain, awestruck by iridescent flora you’ve never seen before, passing one after the next. As you age, the course of the river changes. What was dry now floods the banks. What was straight now bends and curves. Even after decades, there is always more to see.
Emerson isn’t a philosopher in the pure sense or a theologian. He’s an intellectual adventurer, a journalist of the mind, an essayist
. When you move beyond the core transcendental pieces, you get a better sense of this range. He tackles everything from love to manners, history to illusion, friendship to politics. None of these has the cachet of “Nature” or “Self-Reliance,” but many, in my opinion, are stronger. They dance across the boundary between art and argument, poetry and prose. They make you question the point of those distinctions.
Take, for example, “Experience,” which attempts to describe the feeling of being alive. What predominates, in this often pessimistic essay, is a sense of confusion, and he begins by dropping us into that feeling:
We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight. But the genius which according to the old belief stands at the door by which we enter, and gives us the Lethe to drink, that we may tell no tales, mixed the cup too strongly, and we can’t shake off the lethargy now at noonday. Sleep lingers all our lifetime about our eyes, as night hovers all day in the boughs of the fir-tree. All things swim and glitter.
This passage is as dreamlike and immersive as a short film by David Lynch. It captures that occasional experience we all have of waking up into our own lives
, not quite knowing how we got here or where we’re going. The essay is about the difficulty of attaining an accurate perspective on life while it’s happening, about the ways our mind warps experience—so Emerson warps the reading experience in turn. “All things swim and glitter,” including his prose:
Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus.
And so each new paragraph adopts a different mood, altering his perspective on perspective. He’s hopeful, then cynical. Assured, then full of doubt, then melancholy, then baffled. The result is an essay that simulates the psychological swings it’s analyzing.
If there’s a vein of sorrow in “Experience,” that’s because Emerson wrote it shortly after the death of his five-year-old son, Waldo, who succumbed to scarlet fever in 1842. One way you can read this essay is as a processing of that grief, which manifested in ways Emerson didn’t expect:
In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate—no more. I cannot get it nearer to me. If tomorrow I should be informed of the bankruptcy of my principal debtors, the loss of property would be a great inconvenience to me, perhaps, for many years; but it would leave me as it found me—neither better nor worse. So it is 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 from me and leaves no scar. It was caducous. I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.
I haven’t endured such a loss, but in these words I feel the bitter apathy of Emerson’s heart. Experience should teach us something. Wisdom should be the compensation for failure and loss: “To know a little, would be worth the expense of this world.” But this grief is empty. The only thing it can teach is that it doesn’t, which is the coldest comfort. “The dearest events are summer rain,” he declares, “and we the Para coats that shed every drop.”
After opening with confusion and tragedy, Emerson goes on to explore the things that mediate our experience of reality. Mood is one, the “many colored lenses” that distort what we see. Another is temperament, some blend of genetics and environment that shapes our choices and “shuts us in a prison we cannot see”:
There is an optical illusion about every person we meet. In truth, they are all creatures of a given temperament, which will appear in a given character, whose boundaries they will never pass: but we look at them, they seem alive and we presume there is impulse in them. In the moment it seems impulse; in the year, in the lifetime, it turns out to be a certain uniform tune which the revolving barrel of the music-box must play.
Have you had the experience of finding yourself back in the same place again and again, after attempts to start over, with new friends, new partners? Maybe you believed you were finally changing; then, looking back, you hear that “certain uniform tune,” your temperament finding its way to the surface once again. Does this square with the assured tone of “Self-Reliance”? It’s the opposite of a pep talk, if anything. Emerson evokes these insecurities as only he can, with alarming clarity, mustering the same persuasive force for self-doubt that he did for self-confidence.
There are moments in “Experience” when Emerson seems resigned to personality determinism. And there are moments when he fears there is no way to know the world outside his mind. But then there are passages where he rejects ignorance and despair. In a swell of optimism, Emerson denies the idea that “given such an embryo, such a history must follow,” because it overlooks our capacity for creativity
, the door in our mind that never closes: “At one whisper of these high powers, we awake from ineffectual struggles with this nightmare.” Here again, the essay demonstrates its own point.
Like all of his work, “Experience” contains countless jewels of insight, quotes you could tack on a bedroom wall. But what really makes the essay extraordinary is how it struggles with itself. On the sentence level, Emerson is peerless. But here is a subtler form of articulation, suited to the subtlety of the subject. Rather than trying to make a straightforward argument about the distortions of the mind with a distorted mind, Emerson exhibits
his psyche for the reader, conflicts and all. He lets his confidence and his doubt have it out on the page. Tone challenges text. Paragraph complicates paragraph. Any attempt to explain the texture of human experience is certain to be flawed, so Emerson creates that texture instead. We exit the essay as dazed as we entered it, but with a nuanced appreciation of his mind—and ours.
Essay by essay, Emerson brought my life into focus. I was entranced, enlightened, and inspired. I couldn’t believe someone knew how to do these kinds of things with language. It was magic, and I wanted to learn it. I wanted to retrieve the cloudy, half-formed thoughts from my head and give them shape, make them real. I wanted to excavate the secrets of my mind and see if others recognized them. I wanted to know what I actually believed, and to do that I had to write. So I wrote, and it was godawful.
But after a while, it was less godawful. And then only a little godawful. Then I graduated from godawful to awful, then from awful to bad, then from bad to unremarkable. I’m still climbing that stair, a long way from Emerson, but a long way from where I started. In the process, I read much more than just these essays, of course. Literature overflows with magicians of articulation, from Homer to Shakespeare to Toni Morrison. Each has their own tricks, their own subject matter, but all have the same goal: to say something true, to find “a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.”
It turns out that the books I was assigned in high school are
brilliant. It turns out the irony in Pride and Prejudice
significant. In school, I saw that book as a hurdle, one of many on the long path from ninth-grade English to some nebulous future job. Its content wasn’t important in itself, only as a means to answer test questions, just like the test was a means to maintain a GPA, like the GPA was a ticket to college, etc. When I picked up the book again, I read it with new eyes, the eyes Emerson gave me, and sure enough, it expanded my mind, just like my teachers hoped it would. Unclouded by dry pragmatism, this second education was better than the first. I learned for learning’s sake, for joy, for no reason at all. Ironically, this goalless self-schooling proved far more useful than the system that prioritized use
“I was simmering, simmering, simmering,” Walt Whitman once told a friend. “Emerson brought me to a boil.”
When Emerson found me, I was barely lukewarm, but the result was the same. Everything I’ve written since that afternoon in Kenmore, including this book, I owe to his inspiration. “The man is only half himself,” he writes in “The Poet,” “the other half is his expression.” More than a decade ago, Emerson helped me with the first part. The second is his work in progress.
- I. I read yesterday that Barnes & Noble shuttered the Kenmore Square branch in 2019, which isn’t a great loss, all things considered, but now I know what it feels like to learn that someone demolished your childhood home.