Monday, January 25, 2010

Major, William, and Bryan Sinche. "Giving Emerson the Boot." CHRONICLE REVIEW January 17, 2010.

Americanists of the world, unite! Weary with the cult of Ralph Waldo Emerson—the Sage of Concord, the Father of American Transcendentalism—ours is a call to arms. We have awakened from a century-long sleep to find ourselves confronted with a grave mistake, an intellectual blunder: an unseemly idolatry for one of the most confounding of American writers. Speed thee to thy rest, pernicious Sage, for we will submit our students to you no more. What is it about the old man that so vexes? To begin, there's the ego. Other than the odd English major, virtually every student encountering Emerson for the first time (there's almost never a second) gains very little from the exercise other than a rough appreciation for what it must be like to sit in the company of a boorish deity. Emerson writes from on high. (Is it any wonder that another boor, Frank Lloyd Wright, was such a devoted follower?) Our man has taken in a holy draught of air and unfortunately decided to let it out, and his followers have been keen on following the scent ever since. Our students, however, rightly detect something more foul. What a student finds, in fact, is a set of contradictory, baffling, radical, reactionary ideas that offer no practical guidelines for actual human behavior. And that's the good news. Most students can hardly be expected to grapple with Emerson's Nature or "Experience" with any degree of efficacy. They may come to understand some of the major principles and tensions and perhaps, later on in some dark hour, Emerson will re-emerge to teach a lesson about not trusting appearances or the value of stoicism. In all likelihood, students will leave Emerson having been immersed in a confused stew of 19th-century occultism offered up in schizophrenic prose. And we, their professors, often act as if their difficulties stemmed from their own lack of imagination. The fault, though, is that of the author. Because of Emerson's obscurantist and peripatetic style, his meanings—assuming there are some—are hidden. Consider this koan, one among many: "It is essential to a true theory of nature and of man, that it should contain somewhat progressive. Uses that are exhausted or that may be, and facts that end in the statement, cannot be all that is true of this brave lodging wherein man is harbored, and wherein all his faculties find appropriate and endless exercise. And all the uses of nature admit of being summed in one, which yields the activity of man an infinite scope." That is the prose of a crazy person. . . .

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