A blog on political conflict and the ways we make sense of it

Month: March, 2013


When I was an undergrad, I took a class in the English Department called “Issues and problems in literature: Vitalism.” It was one of the more challenging courses I took, and one of the most fascinating. While the material was not explicitly concerned with American poetry and literature, we spent a considerable amount of time […]

Notes on Emerson’s component parts of nature

From, “Nature: Essays and Addresses,” (Harvard Library, 1934)

In a series of blog entries, I intend to spend time unraveling Emerson’s concept of nature and its relation to the self. It is my hope that I will confirm my hunch about Emerson as a vitalist romantic. And in a broader sense, I am keen to discover the narrative legacy Emerson’s representation of nature-self unity that still finds expression in American culture today. In a nutshell, Emerson is one of those interesting cross-over figures who is both literature and political though. It is my argument that political thought is just as formative in creating American notions of identity and myth. What that means, I will let his texts and my more nuanced arguments articulate for themselves.

In the introduction to Nature, Emerson notes that there is very little that man’s art can change in nature, saying

Nature, in the common sense, refers to essences unchanged by man; space, the air, the river, the leaf. Art is applied to the mixture of his will with the same things, as in a house, a canal, a statue, a picture. But his operations taken together are so insignificant, a little chipping, baking parching, and washing that in an impression so grand as that of the world on the human mind, they do not vary the result.

Necessary but insignificant. It is not through transformative work that man transforms himself. Emerson’s position on the boundless quantity of nature allows man to work to see oneself everywhere in nature but also as an inconsequential force against it. By “against it” I mean that Emerson underestimates the real destructive capacity that man has in nature. I also mean to suggest that Emerson is not actually dealing with nature tout court, but nature mediated from the perspective of intellect and aesthetics.

There is support for this reading. Later (in “Discipline,” a small section in Nature), Emerson says that all of nature is a mediation, and during this discourse as in earlier ones, language and communication are subsumed under the category of nature. So, it seems that nature is perhaps mistaken for artifice and that is why is it unlimited, infinitely wise, and a mediate force between man and unity. In fact, I would argue that the “nature” Emerson refers to is an aestheticized representation of nature infused with poetic and intellectual meaning, and from this standpoint, it is easy to imagine nature as a mediating force, instead of the object of mediation that man only reaches through intellectual capacities.

Becoming America: the Paradox of Emerson’s Romanticism

American scholar and the ossification of man; instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm, it is not the avoidance of life or people, but full interaction with it, while remaining oneself, in solitude of the mind, where man becomes himself. “Drudgery, calamity, exasperation, want, are instructors in eloquence and wisdom.” Full engagement in everyday life and problems is the counterbalance of thought.

Emerson does not ignore or deny history. He uses and cites great men and actions from it. Although he also says that there are as many great men in his day than in ancient times in one essay, in his address on the American Scholar he taunts their puny nature.

The great man is not to be found in the halls of learning, or in church, insinuates Emerson. And if he does tread those places he does not dwell there: they did not make him become a man and a thinking man. He has been made out of his own efforts, and he is his own god. His is a religion of self. Becoming is a central category for Emerson’s thought; but it is also a self made possible by location. Not in Europe, not in Boston, but in the woods. The woods of America. Without the notion of progress, his hyper-individualism paves the way for nihilism. Emerson’s man has a complex relationship with America. Its institutions and its leaders are fools, while he will not revoke reverence for the founders who fashioned a continent from nothing. It would seem that the land determines the great American man. He makes himself out of the earth. He fashions himself in proportion to the vital landscape and rugged outlook that promises him greatness. But, from what a distance this man stands from actual nature. Perhaps there is a pond, a mountainside, a roaring tide. These are places in his mind more so than on his humble porch. Emerson’s nature reveals itself through prose depicting a stylized Romantic landscape. It has been hewn out of the violent and deathly hazards into a wild, but not quite savage, work of art.

Representations of the self and of the land are symbiotic in the sense that Emerson’s “becoming” is founded on an artifice of naturalism that has its origins in civilization. In fact, I am interested in arguing that the central paradox of Emerson’s thought lies in the tension between essence and history, vitalism and nihilism, nation and self, nature and society. All of these words are spun out of the same essential non-logical (as opposed to illogical) quest for universal experience of self outside of time. To borrow from Heidegger’s Letter on “humanism,” Emerson is emblematic of man who lives in the direct realm of experience, and therefore lives ahistorically. And yet, his desire to transcend the literal and the logical confines of history and its legacy of the Enlightenment marks the impulse of American Reconstruction in pursuit of finding itself.