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Emerson: The Good Hours

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Emerson’s reactions to these overwhelming losses have tended to baffle scholars. The journals show that in each case, with the possible exception of the last, the deaths were followed by extraordinary surges of inspiration, vitality, and self-affirmation. After Ellen’s death, Emerson experienced a sense of wonder in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. In his ensuing state of exuberance, he conceived and drafted the ideas that he would subsequently publish in his seminal first book Nature, which lays out his lofty Transcendentalist doctrines about a benign cosmos, the divinity of the self, and the deep correspondence between the spiritual and material worlds.

Likewise, the death of Charles unleashed latent energies in Emerson, reinforcing his conviction that the universe is benevolent and the self absolute, so much so that he speculates that the self is the measure, if not cause, of the demise of its loved ones. The following remarks in his journals, a month after Charles’s death, reveal how, far from feeling chastened by the event, Emerson saw in it further evidence of the self’s sovereignty over matters of life and death:

As soon as your friend has become to you an object of thought, has revealed to you with great prominence a new nature, & has become a measure whereof you are fully possessed to guage & test more, as his character become solid & sweet wisdom it is already a sign to you that his office to you is closing; expect thenceforward the hour in which he shall be withdrawn from your sight.

To suggest that the other’s reality is a function of “my own constitution,” and that my friend’s death is due to my having incorporated his or her character, wisdom, or usefulness, is beyond solipsistic. Some would say it is delusional. Yet we already know that Emerson is not a “sane philosopher.” In his essay “Experience,” Emerson expresses this extraordinary thesis in veiled, somewhat milder terms: “Let us treat the men and women well: treat them as if they were real: perhaps they are.”

It was this ability of Emerson to transvalue the tragic—to earn dividends from his losses and reassert the self against calamity—that prompted James M. Cox to claim that “there is a sense in which Emerson literally feeds off the death of those around him.” In her excellent study, Emerson’s Fall (1982), Barbara Packer agrees with Cox that much of the animus directed at Emerson by scholars stems from the fact that “Emerson ought to have been crippled by his losses, they seem to feel, and they resent him for springing back with renewed force, Antaeus-like, at each contact with disaster.”

That Emerson was capable of grief is beyond question—his journals are full of it—yet what shocks his reader is that he considered even the profoundest grief shallow in meaning. “The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is,” he writes in “Experience.” “In the death of my son [Waldo], now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate,—no more. I cannot get it nearer to me.” This is neither stoicism nor denial. The death of Waldo was a “calamity”—as Emerson’s heartrending entries of February and March 1842 confirm—yet “it does not touch me.” One cannot but hold Emerson in awe for his terrifying frankness: “Some thing which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me, nor enlarged without enriching me, falls from me, and leaves no scar. It was caducous.”

As loved ones fell from him, one after another between 1831 and 1842, Emerson held on to his core conviction that there is a divine, pre-fallen self within us that cannot be touched by disease, disaster, or even death. His journals tell a fascinating story of how Emerson, against all odds, resolutely refused to give in to disappointment, which is an almost inevitable destination for the exalted and the hopeful. He somehow avoided its trap. In this regard the founding father of American letters was an exception among American writers, thinkers, and visionaries, most of whom end their careers in some form of disappointment.

Although the death of Waldo did not chasten Emerson, it caused him to cultivate a virtue we do not often associate with him: patience. In his later years he began to accept the fact that the fulfillment of the promise of genius—its transmutation into reality—cannot be rushed or forced. “Patience and patience, we shall win at the last,” he writes in “Experience” in answer to the question: “Why not realize your world?” He continued to believe that “there was never a right endeavor, but it succeeded.” This is not resignation but a recalibration of his expectations regarding the relation between history and transcendence.

In a luminous commentary on the essay “Experience,” Stanley Cavell points out that experience is not the foundation of Emerson’s philosophy, at least not in the traditional philosophical understanding of the term as empirical knowledge.3 In Emerson’s case, experience yielded a philosophy of reception—of an acceptance rather than an acquisition of knowledge. “All I know is reception,” writes Emerson, “I am and I have; but I do not get, and when I fancied I had gotten anything, I found I did not.” Cavell remarks that while traditional philosophy seeks to grasp things by concept (from capere, to seize or hold), Emerson speaks of “this evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them slip through our fingers then when we clutch the hardest.”

Reception pertains to far more than knowledge in Emerson’s philosophy, where it figures as an active, not passive, acceptance of what is given to one gratuitously. Reception is above all a form of gratitude. “I am thankful for small mercies,” Emerson writes in “Experience,” as if to his fellow Americans:

I compared notes with one of my friends who expects everything from the universe and is disappointed when anything is less than the best, and I found that I begin at the other extreme, expecting nothing, and am always full of thanks for moderate goods…. If we will take the good we find, asking no questions, we shall have heaping measures.

This is not a lesson that his nation learned from Emerson (nor from Thoreau for that matter), for America remains a place where heaping measures of the good are not enough, and where the shadow of disappointment always threatens to darken the day.

Emerson, especially after the death of Waldo, found in the sequence of days the place where life, in its intrinsic generosity, offers itself to our reception. Everything is given in and by the day. That is why life for Emerson was a “journey,” a day’s travel. The day, in turn, gives itself in “hours,” which is the most important word in Emerson’s lexicon. Just as life is a sequence of days—a journey or journal—a day is a sequence of hours. If there is a philosophy in Emerson’s lifework—be it his journals or his essays or both—it is a philosophy of the hour. Our perceptions, thoughts, moods, and convictions unfold with the days, which in turn unfold in hours, so “let us husband them.”

Emerson’s journals are best understood as his husbanding of the hours. In them he received the hours’ offerings and cultivated their potential for fullness: “To fill the hour,—that is happiness; to fill the hour and leave no crevice for a repentance or an approval.” Emerson’s essays, in turn, are best understood as the fruit of that daily husbandry. Both the journals and the essays partake of the sequential nature of days and hours. That is one reason why Emerson called his collections of essays “First Series” and “Second Series.” It is also why he answers the question that opens “Experience”—“Where do we find ourselves?”—with “In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none.”

Because the series has no endpoint we must find ourselves in each of its successive moments, must find ourselves in the day, as it were. Each day is an end in itself, just as each of Emerson’s essays is an endpoint in the series. By the same token, each of Emerson’s paragraphs is an endpoint of any given essay. Scholars have remarked that Emerson’s basic unit is the paragraph, yet just as a day is made up of hours, a paragraph is made up of sentences. When Emerson is at his best, his whole philosophy finds summation in the quintessential sentence. For example: “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.”

His days and hours gave Emerson the vast array of perceptions, experiences, triumphs, and losses that fill his journals, yet most importantly they gave him his thoughts, which dominate most of their entries. The world of thought is not the world of lived experience. It is experience, however, that allowed Emerson to become fully aware of that discrepancy. As he puts toward the end of “Experience”:

I know that the world I converse with in the city and in the farms, is not the world I think. I observe that difference, and shall observe it. One day I shall know the value and law of this discrepance. But I have not found that much was gained by manipular attempts to realize the world of thought.

The twentieth century certainly did not heed Emerson on this score, since much of its history consists precisely of “manipular attempts to realize the world of thought.” To know that the two worlds are different is enough on which to base a philosophy. And to “observe” that difference is certainly enough on which to base an ethic—not an ethic of renunciation but of the husbanding of hours.

Emerson’s statement that one day he will “know the value and law of this discrepance” reaffirms the incorruptible trust he had from early on that the universe is friendly to our innermost selves, that there is something prelapsarian in the human soul, and that, despite whatever befalls you in your experience, there is no reason to doubt or forsake the “self-trust” he so passionately advocates throughout his essays and journals. Knowledge follows upon such trust, it does not provide foundations for it. If we are patient enough—or so Emerson came to believe—that which we always knew to be true, but for which experience does not necessarily provide empirical evidence, will gradually find its realization in the world we converse with in the city and on the farm.

One difference between Emerson’s journals and his essays is that the former contain a much fuller record of both worlds, in their uneasy interaction, while the essays for the most part reflect only the world of Emerson’s thought. Those of us who are more taken by Emerson’s thinking than by his life prefer his essays to his journals for precisely that reason. What is missing in the essays, by contrast, is a record of the heroic efforts it cost Emerson to maintain that unconditional trust he had in himself, and to avoid its opposite, which is despair. The essay “Experience” merely declares: “Far be from me the despair which prejudges the law [of discrepance] by a paltry empiricism.” The journals provide a full-bodied record of Emerson’s struggles to keep despair away from his house, his days, and his hours. It is only by reading the almost two thousand pages that precede it in this edition that one can appreciate the full weight of triumph in the entry Emerson made in his journals in 1864, at sixty-one years of age: “Within, I do not find wrinkles & used heart, but unspent youth.”

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    Finding as Founding,” This New Yet Unapproachable America (Living Batch Press, 1989).

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