Fudge or Poetry or Maybe Spent Uranium

Emerson enthusiasts may not appreciate this take on the Great Man, but reading his essays reminds me of eating fudge. Or, possibly, reading the best poetry. And occasionally, in a dark, heavily worded moment, of trying to probe spent uranium. They are so rich, so dense, that they require multiple readings, and even then I think the only way to really begin to get to the bottom of their meaning is perhaps to write them down, word for word, by hand. Only by slowing down and parsing each sentence, each word, do I begin to have a sense of what I’m doing in his Bavarian forest of ideas and prose. I used to have a wall in my kitchen that I painted poetry on, sometimes whole poems, sometimes lines or fragments (my kids drew pictures). I found that in painting the poems, I could really begin to understand what the poet was thinking as he or she was writing. As I painted each word, I had the time to really think about the choice and meaning of that word. Then, reading the poems every day while I was eating my Cheerios or toast, they took on new meaning as life changed, the seasons changed, I changed. That’s how Emerson’s essays are. Maybe if I painted a room full of them and lived in it, I might get the full depth of his meaning. (I also might require medication.)
Maybe that’s what he really means by “creative reading.” It seems to me that what’s he saying here is that you must be actively involved in the act of reading. You can’t just let the words roll over your eyes and around your brain; you have to actively seek the meaning, with all of your mind’s “labor and invention.” This idea of “creative reading” seems clearly linked to his overarching theme of “Man Thinking.” “There can be no scholar without the heroic mind,” he says in “American Scholar.” Man Thinking is “man in his right state,” and the “active soul… sees absolute truth; and utters truth, or creates. In this action is genius … in its essence it is progressive.” He also goes on to say that a scholar without action “is not yet a man. Without it, thought can never ripen into truth.” His concept of being a full human being has everything to do with intellectual action as much as thought.
I do find a direct link here from Emerson to David Shields when Shields is talking about truth in memoir. Essentially Emerson is calling for a revolution in his intellectual world, the world of letters and scholars, and outlines what he calls the duties of the scholar: “He is to find consolation in exercising the highest functions of human nature. He is one, who raises himself from private considerations, and breathes and lives on in public and illustrious thoughts. He is the world’s eye. He is the world’s heart.” Shields is clearly calling for a more forthright and un-cynical view of genre that reflects, in some distance, the same thing Emerson is talking about. When I hear Shields say, in terms of memoir, that what matters “is the larger sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that, the power of a writing imagination is required,” I hear echoes of Emerson’s exhortations about “creative reading” and “Man Thinking.”
The rhetoric of Emerson’s essays is almost like a scientific hypothesis. This seems particularly true in “Experience,” which opens with question after question after question, very nearly a barrage of rhetorical uncertainty. It almost sounds like a rant: “Did our birth fall in some fit of indigence and frugality in nature, that she was so sparing of her fire and so liberal of her earth, that it appears to us that we lack the affirmative principle, and though we have health and reason, yet we have no superfluity of spirit for new creation?” The early portions of this essay have a lot of darkness—even in grief he describes only numbness, emptiness. A person cannot be “active” in Emerson’s terms when he is numb; transformation is impossible in this state. Rhetorically, though, he examines this state as scientifically as the rest: question, question, question, then discern an answer through aphorism, analogy, metaphor, statement.
Transformation seems key to his philosophy in this essay, and in fact this transformation is carried in the body of the essay itself as it moves from this despair and rant of the opening into a more provocative contemplation in the midsections and then eventually to a more positive, forward-looking conclusion. “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.”

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