from Inquiry, Volume 6, Number 1, Spring 2001
© Copyright 2001 Virginia Community College System
Return to Volume 6, Number 1
An instructor of American literature shares his experiences of teaching Emerson to the modern student.
A wisecracking critic once observed that Ralph Waldo Emerson only made sense to him under a very special set of circumstances: at an altitude of 30,000 feet as the airplane approached the speed of sound. A good number, dare I say the majority, of our students who have become acquainted with Emerson's essays for the first time in a survey of American literature course have shared the same opinion or have been spared disorientation entirely by turning to The Idiot's Guide to American Literature or by the dubious benevolence of an English professor who somehow made an apparently seamless transition from Irving to Hawthorne, Poe, Dickinson, Melville and Whitman¾ by skipping Emerson altogether. The need exists to bring arguably the most important figure in American letters down to earth where he belongs.
As for my credentials, I have taught EmersonÕs works for more than ten years, at the college and university levels, and in these years the challenge of teaching the Concord Sage has only grown in its appeal for me. I can't resist the temptation to share some part of this accumulated experience with my fellow instructors.
The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is because man is disunited with himself....The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common. (79)
From a rather lofty vantage, one might object that the subject in question is the most extraordinary confluence of truly difficult trends, both Eastern and Western. However, it is perfectly possible to do justice to Emerson without rehashing the entire history of Western philosophy (Kant and Hegel in particular), the state of institutional religion in nineteenth-century America, and the relation between the atman and Brahman. The philosopher Wittgenstein once observed that he knew he had mastered a given system of thought if he could succinctly explain it to an eighteen-year-old. I work as a teacher out of the same conviction. All of the abstract principles that concern us here are susceptible to realization and thus explication in our own experience. Emerson calls upon the instructor to attend closely to this concept so that the principal educational objective may be achieved, so that our students may attend more closely to their own engagement with the world and themselves. The pedagogical project is in this respect universal; I see myself cultivating in the classroom what Aristotle called the ability to see in the familiar the unfamiliar. Emerson is almost without parallel in American letters for fostering this ability.
[Every] object rightly seen, unlocks a new faculty of the soul. All things with which we deal, preach to us. (55)
The first principle¾ that the mind is not a blank slate upon which the external world deposits its impressions¾ is encountered everywhere in literature and in life. For your students to grasp it, there is no obligation to introduce John Locke. The mind is not passive, a mere receptacle or mirror. The vast majority of our students think that it is; they are convinced of it. Therefore, the establishment of this first principle not only serves them as an indispensable guide to Emerson but also contains within it the potential to rather sweepingly reorient them to their own experience.
[A] spiritual life has been imparted to nature; that the solid seeming block of matter has been pervaded and dissolved by a thought; that this feeble human being has penetrated the vast masses of nature with an informing soul, and recognized itself in their harmony, that is, seized their law. In physics, when this is attained, the memory disburthens itself of its cumbrous catalogues of particulars, and carries centuries of observations in a single formula. (198)
There is no need to speak of Kant and the difference between things as they are in themselves and as they appear to mind. Instead, you should make a bold dash for all the concrete details of life. The point you are trying to get across is that the mind reaches out to all the objects of the external world and lends them a certain "coloring" without one necessarily being aware of it. Yet, the devil remains in the details. I will supply a number of these right now: Have your students imagine that they are sitting in a movie theater watching The Sky Monsters of Mongo Bay. At this point in the epic action, a group of unfortunate humanoids are being chased down by a number of multiple mandibled creatures from outer space who like nothing better than the smell of fear. Just beyond all the desperate scrambling in the foreground the rugged terrain stretches back to the shore of Mongo Bay. Now you are ready to pose the question: ÒWhat element of this experience is incontrovertibly mind projected?Ó Or, ÒIs there any difference between what you see as a spectator and what is actually on the screen?Ó The answer? The movie screen is a two-dimensional surface. It has width and height but is nearly perfectly flat. The terrain surrounding Mongo Bay does not recede into the distance; it is perfectly vertical. The fleeing humanoids do not pass before and behind each other but rather through each other. Granted, The Sky Monsters of Mongo Bay is a one-of-a-kind film, but the phenomenon of mind projection is identical regardless of the cinematic subject. You might go further and even challenge the students to watch a movie and see it as it really is, entirely depthless. They will immediately see the difficulty involved.
I once employed an even more personal illustration in an effort to more fully integrate this rudimentary Emersonian insight into everyday living experience. There exists a much worn red and green Christmas stocking hat with a white tassel suspended at the peak by means of a thread or two. From some putative objective standpoint, the hat is a worthless item of no value and, if truth must be told, something of an eyesore. It is such a disintegrated and bedraggled article because my father wore it every Christmas morning for as long as I can remember. When Dad died last Thanksgiving, he was laid out in his best brown suit and in a polished oaken casket with brass fittings and handles. Immediately above his folded hands, built into the casket, was a drawer for the reception of valuable items. I will never forget walking up to my father's side as he lay there, gently folding and inserting that ragged Christmas hat into the drawer that I then closed. The stocking hat, you see, was not a mere thing in the world. My memories had invested it with a sacred importance. It meant much to me. I was sacrificing it to my father, and I liked the thought that it would remain near him.
Idealism sees the world in God. It beholds the whole circle of persons and things, of actions and events, of country and religion, not as painfully accumulated, atom after atom, act after act, in an aged creeping Past, but as one vast picture which God paints on the instant eternity for the contemplation of the soul. (678)
The point is that we live in a world of meanings, of mind projection, not of things. If we ever actually met a mere thing, it would baffle us and we wouldn't know what to make of it. I have mentioned a movie and a stocking hat, but there is nothing in the world that does not receive the impress of the mind. A Chinese student writes in her own language. When she beholds the markings that constitute this language, she doesn't see them as I do, as arbitrary scratchings much like those left by a bird upon the sand. Her mind has already reached out to them and appropriated them in terms of what she knows, and they are invested by her learning with an orderliness and meaning they do not have for me. By the same mind projection, the markings of English are not arbitrary for me (except sometimes when I am reading an e.e. cummings poem). I would have to struggle mightily to see a word like boy or tree as arbitrary inscriptions. If the student can understand the principle presented above, that the mind asserts itself by way of thought and feeling, in terms of the illustrations I have presented (easily supplemented endlessly), she is on her way to understanding one of our most important American stylists and thinkers. There is also the fact, worth mentioning, that this insight transfers readily to other seemingly discrete concerns in the academic curriculum and immediately into a restoration of a sense of wonder, the recovery of the familiar as the unfamiliar, by which that which is flat, frozen and fixed falls away.
There is a second principle to consider as we approach Emerson. Ask your students to backtrack for a moment and bask once more in the familiar. Suggest this: If the mind were a blank slate, a mirror of sorts that records on its surface the images of the external world, the mind would still be without a sensory impression of substance. I can have a very vivid dream in which I imagine that I am having a conversation with my Dad. I can smell his cologne, hear his voice, see him smiling there before me. I might even put my hand on his shoulder and experience everything so vividly that I am utterly convinced of his material reality. However, as I learn immediately upon waking, this was only a dream. The pleasurable images of my Dad I had enjoyed in my sleep were without substance, his substance; they were only relatively empty mental impressions. If, however, the mind as a slate or mirror could record upon itself substance as substance, I could never be deceived by my dreams. A nightmare would have no power to frighten. Alas, the mind bears no impression of substance, only images.
If the mind traffics only in images, everything we behold is only what it is by virtue of contrast, context, relation. Chalk leaves an impression on the board because the board is black. The color navy blue can only be known because it is darker than a paler shade. The letter a is only meaningful, whether it is printed or calligraphied, because its shape cannot be confused with the other characters that constitute our alphabet. Similarly, woman is woman because of man, and vice versa. How could one explain gender or human anatomy without reference to contrast, that of man to woman? We can recognize a face because it is different from those of others. If the mind knew anything of substance, we wouldn't run into all of those endless and often comical confusions presented by identical twins. The twins are entirely different in substance¾ one fleshly being is not the other¾ but they are so like each other in appearance (the images they present to mind) that we often have to look for a distinguishing mark, a telltale mole or way of laughing.
Substance always eludes the mind. We imagine it exists, but we take this on faith (perhaps the faith in language). The minds in which we are trapped provide not a particle of evidence for materiality. Intellectual science has been observed to beget invariably a doubt of the existence of matter. Turgot said,
He that has never doubted the existence of matter may be assured he has no aptitude for metaphysical inquiries. It fastens the attention upon immortal necessary uncreated natures, that is, upon Ideas; and in their beautiful and majestic presence, we feel that our outward being is a dream and a shade. (68)
Does the student doubt the critique of substance Emerson offers? That's okay. Emerson should always be presented as an experiment in intellectual imagination. I only call upon my students to suspend disbelief long enough to listen and read with an open heart. One clearly desirable end of the educational process is to forget about our own convictions long enough to walk around in the shoes of someone who doesn't share them. The famous philosopher Bertrand Russell once said that the value of philosophy is not the acceptance of one theoretical system of belief over another but the experience of having looked deeply into life, death, God, and the universe from as many perspectives as possible. The byproduct of all these imaginative leaps is a vastly expanded ability to reflect wisely upon our own lives and come to engage others who most certainly won't share our peculiar beliefs point by point. As the world shrinks, it expands.
You could imperiously shout the students and their intuitive objections down, saying that Emerson has entered the canon of American literature and that he has long been featured in The Norton Anthology. You could say that Emerson is a towering genius who has shaped the history of literature, religion, and philosophy. I am not even tempted to express myself in these invidious terms. The student recoils and with good reason. Emerson is counterintuitive. It is best to present Emerson as requiring an attentive posture of empathy that every student knows quite well. For example, you meet a friend who is upset. You listen but don't really understand her distress. She makes a claim or two that you doubt ("Is this only her perception?" you might wonder), but because you are a compassionate person you wait, suspend your doubts for some time, in the sincere effort to imaginatively see the matter as she does. Something like this ability lies at the very basis of lasting human attachment, and the same skills must be employed with Emerson--skills we probably already possess.
A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time, is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole. Each particle is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world. (60)
So things as we know them are not individual, fixed in their substance. A thing stands forth in the mind invested with meaning, and it is only what it is by virtue of contrast and context. The blue chair is not brown. One of the twins has a distinguishing mole. The chalk is white. This over here is near and that over there is farther away. By our common understanding of time, the present moment is what it is as not being past or future. This is round and that is square. This is hard and that is softer. Consonants are those alphabetic shapes which are not vowels. The darkness is only what it is as an absence of light. A thing in the mind is never simply itself, a self-evident substance¾ never self-identical. The Emersonian critique of things and substances extends to value. Labor has no inherent value in our everyday world. If a thousand men want to hold the same job, the wage the successful applicant will receive for his labor will be depressed by all the demand for the position. A house is made of wood and steel and a sundry of other materials, but if the real estate market or the overall economy is such that no one wants to buy the house it has no market value. A developer more interested in the land upon which the house stands might make the purchase and bulldoze the house to clear what he sees as the more valuable acreage. Value is relative, context dependent. The "thingness" of the item matters not so much (the wood and steel) as the value some other person invests in the item as this accords with her own personal mind-projected appraisal. A father is extremely valuable to his wife and children, but when he stands in a trench and the context in which he moves is an all-subsuming military strategy intent upon defeating an enemy, he becomes expendable. Most people think that if a felonious character hurts others willingly, his value as a human being has gone down. Some would call for him to die in the electric chair. The felon's mother might see things differently.
It would seem then that even the value of human life floats and fluctuates within a wider context. I own stock in an American company. My ability to support myself and my family may depend upon the value of this holding. However, when the stock market in Asia crashes, the value of my stock is liable to go down. A depression in Germany can spread to the United States and vastly depress the value of labor and commodities of all sorts. What determines the value of any given thing¾ my father's Christmas hat, my home, my labor, my lifeÑdepends upon context, relation, things other than the thing itself. Where does all of this leave us? The thing has been deprived of substance and it has lost its inherent value. A thing is only what it is to mind as an image that reveals itself as the lightening does against the backdrop of a darkened sky; it is only what it is by means of difference and context. Similarly, a thing is only valuable within context, a mind projection that invests it with much or little value within a wider framework. All that is left is the context that forms meaning and in which value floats. In other words, all that remains is context and value.
Value floats, now to this and to that, but value there is. Some contexts are local and others cosmos-wide, but context there is. The only approach is via mind. So we are left with value, an ever-expending context and mind. And it is precisely at this point that many students of Emerson will have to take the greatest leap of all because for Emerson the ultimate source of value and of context and of mind exists at the most extended circumference. It is spirit or God.
To impart to our students in this scientific age an even intellectually experimental belief in spirit and a realm of invisibility is perhaps the greatest challenge a teacher of Emerson faces. Almost everyone believes in the visible, in the empirical, in the rationally verifiable, and in science. When we get sick, we go to a scientifically trained physician. When the car breaks down, we take it to a mechanic skilled in the assessment of a material system. When we flip a switch, the lights go on.
Scratch with a fingernail even the most religious people of our own day and one might well discover a materialist. Science has carried the day. Personally, I have no agenda. As far as I am concerned, every agenda is finally provincial. We want to free our students from this provincialism and liberate for them a space in which all systems of belief, however much they bulk absolute before our eyes, can be seen from a distance. My business for the moment is Emerson. He is worthy in his own right, but I am also using him as a lever to ever so gently position my students beyond the mainstream cultural determinism.
So let me introduce one more principle that informs Emersonian thought by way of a pedagogical exercise. Have your students imagine a solid cube of silver, one foot on every side. In the light it is a dazzling spectacle. Imagine now that the lights have been turned out and pervading all is an impenetrable blackness. Has the block of silver, in its transition from light to darkness, lost any of its being? Most students will insist that it has not. The being of this silver is its substance. Rephrase the question. Has the block of silver lost any of its substance in the dark when it can no longer be seen? Most again will say that it has not. The conclusion then is that if there is being or substance, it is invisible. If the loss of appearance is no loss of being, the appearance of the thing has nothing to do with the silver¾ its subtraction results in no loss. Therefore, the appearance relative to the silver is nothing, and the nothing is precisely that which has no being or substance. But I tend to personalize matters further.
When I was in my early twenties, I lived on the far north side of Chicago and worked on the near southwest side. To get to work I had to drive down Lake Shore Drive and along my left hand was Lake Michigan. When the sky overhead was cloudy, the lake was a dreamy green. When clear, the same body of water was a dazzling, intense blue. Did these changes in appearance correspond neatly to changes in the lake itself? If they did not, then changes in appearance have little or nothing at all to do with the things-in-themselves (in this case the lake qua lake). If there is being or substance, it is not visible. As such, if we persist in our belief in being, we can only understand it as an invisible presence. If we believe in value we cannot over time trace it to any given thing; but if we persist in the belief that value exists, however floating, it belongs to an infinitely expandable context that allows it to be identified. The land is not the sea. The earth is not the sky. Both are defined only within the context of the infinity, for all we know, of all that we suppose to be. For Emerson, being exists. It is invisible; it is spirit. For Emerson, the ultimate circumference and source of value or goodness is God. Everything is relative in that it only makes sense finally within this absolute context.
The letter A is meaningful only within the context of a system of signs that are all different from each other. The letter A is only meaningful to those who have learned in such a fashion that their mind projections make sense of it. Languages of whatever sort only matter within the context of human beings who strive to communicate. Human beings only are valuable within the context of the world and the privileged place they presume to assume in it. The world only stands out within the context of outer space or the otherworldly. And then context recedes rather infinitely to its widest circumference. However, the laws of mind are so constituted that the necessity for a value-formative, ever-expanding context resonates in the heart as an ultimate truth. This ultimate truth, of context deriving its meaning from the enveloping one in which it is contained, and so on to no end, can be apprehended intuitively and by every human being. The name assigned to this ultimate context makes little difference. Emerson calls it God, in that it is ultimate, but the experience of it is what it is and one could say that no labels are necessary.
The laws of moral nature answer to those of matter as face to face in a glass. The axioms of physics translate the laws of ethics. (53)
I have chosen a certain set of illustrations to lead my students into the depths of this truly profound thinker. Others may be easily substituted. Einstein changed everything, and with quantum physics the universe is becoming more and increasingly more Emersonian by the day. An electron that is mechanically observed behaves differently from one that is not. E=MC2 reduces matter to energy. Is the next reduction to intelligence, spirit?
Of that ineffable essence which we call Spirit, he that thinks most, will say least. We can foresee God in the coarse, and, as it were, distant phenomena of matter; but when we try to define and describe himself, both language and thought desert us, and we are helpless as fools and savages. That essence refuses to be recorded in propositions.... (712)
If science is steadily catching up with Emerson so is philosophy. The philosopher has discovered, most self-consciously in the twentieth century, that language fails us. Because it consists of binary oppositions (right/wrong, up/down, happiness/unhappiness, being/nothingness, good/evil, etc.), we tend to experience the world as consisting of these oppositional presences hermetically sealed off against each other. However, language is neither adequate to thought, experience nor the world. I can say that something is hard, dark, and sweet¾ but no one would confuse this with the experience of eating chocolate. The same is obviously true of spiritual revelation. No sacred text can capture this direct personal experience and transmit it down through the ages. Language and the thought that is linguistically based are consecutive and linear. "A man with no hair is bald. Socrates has no hair. Therefore, Socrates is bald." Or consider this: "X + 4= 7; therefore, X = 3." The apparent reality of the world is that it is nonconsecutive and nonlinear. In the eternal now of our experience, everything happens simultaneously. Right now there is a student studying for my next exam, a child in China is crying for dinner, the Chicago El is racketing through the snow. As Emerson observed, "Words are finite organs of the infinite mind. They cannot cover the dimensions of what is in truth. They break, chop, and impoverish it." (61)
If you are to make known the system of knowledge you have mastered, in this case Emersonian, you must do so within the widest and most accessible context possible. The mastery on your part is always prior, and the delicate art of teaching intervenes. What you know, what has transformed your own experience, must find expression in the medium of communication or a set of learning activities that makes student-teacher engagement possible. And engagement is sharing, transmission, the mutual identification of something that draws us all together and out into the open.
A subtle chain of countless rings
The next unto the farthest brings;
The eye reads omens where it goes,
And speaks all languages the rose;
And, striving to be man, the worm
Mounts through all the spires of form. (35)
Where finally is Emersonian optimism confirmed? In the circumference, in the intuitive apprehension of that in which our lives transpire. Emerson achieved his most valuable insights in the silence, but you must direct and in this direction say something, as Emerson felt compelled to do. You will point the way to what Emerson calls "the least" if you are direct and very much to the point from the student's perspective. Emerson is abstract, sometimes seeming to fly at 30,000 feet. It is your instructor's task then to introduce the relevant content within the immediacy of everyday experience and all the difficult problems of perception.
Emerson, Raiph Waldo. Selected Essays. New York: Penguin, 1985.
Patrick McCarty teaches American literature at Central Virginia Community College.