(mis)Understanding Emerson

The works by Emerson: “Experience”, “Circles” and “American Scholar” deal with men, their thoughts, and their nature. The topics (among others) are discussed separately at times but seem to be considered one issue by the author. He observes men, their behaviors, and reflects on himself in what seems to be an effort to truly understand who and what men are.
At times it is hard to decipher whether Emerson is a presenter, entertaining an audience, or if he is using the writing as a tool to gain understanding on topics that interest him. The answer is probably somewhere in between. In “Experience” he writes “Every ship is a romantic object, except that we sail in.” If writing is the ship that Emerson is travelling in, then he intends it to be romantic and beautiful, certainly worthy of entertainment. The second portion of that sentence is skeptical of a person’s ability to truly understand his own production. It appears that artistic value is hard to grasp from the point of view of the artist.

I understand this sentence to represent a struggle within Emerson. He might not truly appreciate his own work as art, so he continues to wrestle with it, trying to understand humans and himself. There are strong notes of Montaigne in this skepticism, seemingly belittling people’s ability to understand almost anything, this being the cause for both men to essai. Montaigne and Emerson share this struggle. Although they would hardly admit it, they clearly have a strong sense of an audience and desire to be heard while at the same time not fully believing in their own ability to understand themselves or those who are seeing their work. Either way, it is a noble act on their part to put their insecurities on paper, exposing themselves.
This notion is extended in “Circles” where Emerson writes “Every man supposes himself not to be fully understood;” This is part of human nature. People do not feel satisfied that their views are clear and appreciated by others. The other side of the coin, and an undertone that Emerson is depicting, is that while not feeling appreciated, people have no issue projecting to understand every bone in their neighbor’s body, often judging them harshly. Perhaps simplistic and obvious, however it represents that Emerson is using his writing as a process to understand his environment. He is surrounded by people and strives to learn their general nature and their souls.
The nature and soul of a person are in dialogue with each other, according to Emerson. In “American Scholar” he writes that “Nature is the opposite of the soul, answering to it part for part.” He has identified that the nature of a person is the animal side, probably concerned with survival, food, shelter, etc. Alongside this is the spiritual element that humans possess, separating them from animals: the soul. This message is not unique to Emerson. It is very similar to ancient Judaic understanding of humans where people have an animal soul and a godly soul. The animal soul aligns with Emerson’s definition of human nature and the godly soul is what Emerson identifies as the spiritual element of humans or simply, the soul.
Emerson understands the two sides to work opposite each other but that nature answers to the soul. This gives the soul power over nature and allows humans the ability to be intellectual beyond survival. He must think so, as anything else would leave him with an audience that is unable to grasp any of what he is providing. Then again, it seems that part of Emerson’s work is devoted to his own kind of research, attempting to understand his audience, as they attempt to understand him.

One thought on “(mis)Understanding Emerson

  1. Very insightful reading of Emerson, particularly going back to Montaigne–both are exposing themselves, which makes their essays trials, experiments, and also risks–as we see particularly in Experience: “I have my heart set on honesty…” It’s a complex rhetorical project as you are sensing between the writer and the reader, mis/understanding.

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