The last couple of times out, I’ve talked about reading and teaching. If there was any particular approach I wanted to champion, it would be the close reading of texts. But what happens when you read something by someone who doesn’t precisely advocate close reading? Would it be in the spirit of the text to subject that writer to the scrutiny of a really close reading?
In the “On the Soul” class I teach with my philosopher pal we’ve just now veered into American thinkers, partly by accident. We eventually plan to spend a good deal of time with William James’ Principles of Psychology. Thus far, in the main, we’ve read Aristotle’s On the Soul, Augustine’s Confessions (Books X and XI), Descartes’ Meditations (I-III), The Passions of the Soul, and Hobbes’ Leviathan, (I-VI).
For whatever reason, I thought it would be fun to back up Thomas Hobbes with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Over-Soul” and then “Self-Reliance.” Why not jump an ocean and skip a couple of centuries? I honestly just blurted it out in class: “Hey, y’all want to read some Emerson?” My philosopher friend said, “Why not?” Then some students said, “Yeah, let’s read Emerson!” We scrapped the next couple of scheduled readings and launched right in. That seemed like a very Emersonian thing to do, or maybe a Monty Pythonian thing to do: “And now for something completely different!”
More dedicated readers of Emerson can probably see where this is headed. I was immediately worried about how Emerson would go over and about how our classroom practices would fit with him. We’ve often read to reveal systems of one sort or another. In “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy” George Santayana had to remind his readers twice that “Emerson had no system.” (Has anyone ever written intellectual history like George Santayana? Man alive. “When he [Emerson] came out of the conventicle or the reform meeting, or out of the rapturous atmosphere of the lecture-room, he heard Nature whispering to him: “Why so hot, little sir?” Priceless. )
Emerson’s over-soul encompasses all, brings us in touch with our common humanity. A transcendent unity we occasionally tap into, it comes mostly unbidden, something like grace. Being ineffable, words or ritual experiences most often only confuse us and get in the way of it. Like Justice Stewart’s definition of obscenity, we can’t say exactly what it is, but we know it when we see it. Emerson never defines the soul so much as continually shade its meaning, piling on examples to help us remember how it feels. He poetically describes and re-describes. My favorite comes early on when he mentions how, in certain situations, say, “conversations” or “dreams…we see ourselves in masquerade, the droll disguises only magnifying and enhancing a real element, and forcing it on our distinct notice.”
Maybe some of us have experienced this when teaching, when you talk to a class and have the distinct impression of this other self doing the talking, even to the point of having an internal dialogue running alongside the public, talking self: “This is weird, huh,” says that little self behind the self, “Who are you anyway?” I like the idea that this little voice who is aware of my performative self “in masquerade” could be a hint of Emerson’s over-soul.
More than a few observers have mentioned that Emerson didn’t really read very closely, that he looked for inspiration and cherry-picked the telling aphorism here or there to fill out his sermons. In “The Over-Soul” we get this humdinger:
The soul is superior to its knowledge; wiser than any of its works. The great poet makes us feel our own wealth, and then we think less of his compositions. His best communication to our mind is to teach us to despise all that he has done. Shakspeare carries us to such lofty strain of intelligent activity, as to suggest a wealth which beggars his own; and we then feel that the splendid works which he has created, and which in other hours we extol as a sort of self-existent poetry, take no stronger hold of real nature than the shadow of a passing traveler on the rock. The inspiration which uttered itself in Hamlet and Lear could utter things as good from day to day, for ever. Why, then, should I make account of Hamlet and Lear, as if we had not the soul from which they fell as syllables from the tongue?
Democratic envy never sounded so fine. But Shakespeare gives us words and ideas to think about. He rewards close and careful reading. Emerson suggests we needn’t bother with that too much, only to a point. At the very least, the effect will be different than what we’ve been teaching. Rather than developing over time, and slowly, with repetition, an ever-deepening appreciation for the words of a thinker, we end up doing quite the opposite. Getting a glimpse of ourselves and the over-soul in the spark of the thinker’s genius, “we think less of his compositions.” The temptation for tu quoque is almost too much here. Gee, Ralph, if you think that, then should we despise all that you’ve written too once we’ve read you enough? Even more, should we not question your very method? All those poetic re-descriptions of the over-soul beg for repeated reading until they stack up to a feeling that we understand you. But once the glimmer of understanding appears, that recognition of the over-soul in your words, it fades away as we read again; we become your “shadow of the passing traveler on the rock.”
This does bring up for me a rough analogy with Augustine’s Confessions, especially the section on memory in Book X. Both thinkers are on a search. There, Augustine wonders how we can have a memory of forgetting. If we remember we forget, then what is it we forget? Wouldn’t forgetting mean something had dropped out of existence for me? How, then, would I even know I had forgotten? If so, then why do we have this concept of forgetting if not to remember having forgot? That is, this word “forgetting,” in the strictest sense, can only be a species of remembering. Augustine burrows through the thicket of these rhetorical tangles to find God. The investigation happens in the first place because he wonders something like, to paraphrase, “how can I forget you, God?” “Are you there in the storehouse of my memory?”
Emerson is different because he never makes the deeper investigation. He warns us away from the thicket. He also wants us to find God in each human being’s originating spark of creativity. This is an example of Emerson’s pantheism. Augustine would probably call this vanity. The gulf between us and God is too great, and we experience our lack as we dive ever deeper, longing to be closer. Augustine resorts to poetic interventions only once he’s reached an impasse, after his rhetorical and philosophical formulations have bottomed out, leaving him gorgeously bereft of any other options when confronted with a God so great and eternal. This is why students can read Augustine profitably over and over again if that’s their bag. It’s also why I wonder whether we can do the same with Ralph Waldo Emerson. He resists our doing so. I also think Emerson was cagey enough to be fine with our not doing so. Get in, get your share of inspiration from the poetry, and get back out, people.
But this seems to go against nearly every fiber of my vocation as an intellectual historian. Maybe it means intellectual historians can only appreciate Emerson’s words less and less the more we read him? If that’s so, then Emerson wins. Isn’t in our job as intellectual historians not to let him win though? And in not letting him win, do we let him win by writing about him over and over again, keeping him around by puzzling over his poetic re-descriptions? In an essay like “Self-Reliance,” Emerson insists we trust ourselves and our intuitions, but we can never trust all that much anything we make in the world, our words, our institutions, our moral systems, and so on. Heroism comes from mistrusting the world we make in our associated life with one another. It means foreswearing politics as such and standing against one’s age. It reckons eternal youth, a refusal to grow up.
It means Emerson would have little patience for this vocation of ours, and yet there he is, taking up all that real estate in our presumed “canon” of eminent American thinkers. He won. He got his judgment from posterity. (I’ll leave the canon thing in the far more capable hands of a couple of my blog colleagues.) As we talked about him in class, that little parallel voice inside piped up: “God, this field I’m in is weird.” Was it the over-soul? Was it the Devil? Who cares.
The students on the whole really liked Ralph Waldo Emerson. They saw something of themselves in him. He would have wanted that. My philosopher friend spent the class periods encouraging students to get after him for his impulsiveness, for his anti-philosophy, and I spent time trying to get them to understand him before ultimately getting frustrated with him too. It felt good to be young for a little while. Then I had to grow up.
 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Over-Soul” in Selected Essays (Chicago: People’s Book Club, 1949), 185.
 Ibid, 197. “Shakspeare” is Emerson’s spelling.