Op/Ed

Victor Nuovo: Emerson wrestled with identity, self

25th in a series
“The Universe is alive. All things are moral. The soul, which within us is a sentiment, outside us is a law. We feel its inspiration. Out there in history we see its fatal strength.” This was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s firm belief, his creed, and we must measure every word of it. First, within himself there are sentiments, feelings; outside of himself these sentiments become law that exercises fatal strength in the course of history. Emerson’s morality was not soft and sentimental, but strong, vigorous, even strident, and dangerous, for he recognized that all the great events in history originate as feelings within a self, for good or for ill.
Emerson’s ruling belief was that he lived in a moral universe, where the difference between Good and Evil, Right and Wrong is real and consequential. This explains how sentiments become law. He believed that throughout our history Good and Evil are in mortal combat, and that Good and Right will ultimately triumph. He also believed that we need not wait until the end of the world for recompense, that to the discerning mind recompense or compensation is evident throughout history, and so it must be if, as Emerson believed, the Good is a living spirit that governs the world, if divine providence is a real force in nature and history. So it seemed to Emerson, and so it must seem to all who regard the universe from the top down, who suppose that they exist in a moral universe (see essay 2 in this series).
His essay entitled “Experience” seems to contradict this well-formed view of a moral universe and the optimism that goes along it. Experience had made his existence an enigma. “Where do we find ourselves? … We wake [into existence] and find ourselves on a stair. There are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended. There are stairs above us, which go upward out of sight … Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place in the world.” Experience made his existence seem ghostlike, insubstantial, having no proper place, like a castaway in a place not one’s own, castaway on an infinite ocean of being, or standing on an infinite stairway, which without bottom or top, leads nowhere. Life is a series of moments, of trials, experiences by which we are tested. But for what purpose? It is unclear. Trials of this sort seem better suited as torture, but in a moral universe they are supposed to edify. Here we meet Emerson the existentialist, troubled, disoriented, beset by the meaninglessness of it all.
It wasn’t the misfortunes he suffered in life that troubled him so much, although they were many and they brought him sorrow, rather it was his incapacity to grieve over them, or so it seemed to him. He thought his first wife to be an angel. Ellen Louise Tucker was only 18 when she married Emerson — he was 26. She died two years later from tuberculosis. When she died, he wrote in his journal that he did not feel despondent but happy. Yet he visited her grave every day for more than a year; with what motive? Was it sorrow or guilt? He couldn’t be sure. And some years later, when Waldo, the first child of his second marriage (to Lidian Jackson, 1802–92), died at age 5 from scarlet fever, he suffered the same incapacity to grieve, at least not to his satisfaction. But what does it mean to grieve satisfactorily? The death of a child is every parent’s nightmare, all the more for Emerson who searched for meaning in every event of his life, and who perceived in every child a reservoir of innocence and promise. “Infancy is the perpetual Messiah, which comes into the arms of fallen men, and pleads with them to return to paradise.” And the child died, and the father could not grieve.
Here, I must ask my reader to recall the idea of personal identity (see essay 22). Locke defined personal identity as consciousness of self. When I awake in the morning, or in the still hours of the night, I am conscious of being myself. Emerson’s essays are all about himself. But Emerson’s preoccupation with self was not narcissistic. His desire was to reach out to the whole of being. His self was not narrow and limiting, but expansive, inclusive, and complex. Like all of us, he had only one life, which was his alone, housed in a finite body, and from this limited standpoint he judged himself in the light of the good, the just, and the beautiful, and he found himself deficient because he could not grieve.
All that I have written thus far may seem obscure, so I will try again. Emerson’s essays are all about himself. But Emerson’s self was not some special place apart from the world, it was part of the world, a self aware of itself only as belonging to the world, perplexed and vexed by it, yet also always reaching beyond itself, interested in and existing for others. Moreover, he supposed that it was only through an awareness of others that the self knows itself. Self-consciousness reflects upon itself, and judges how it responds to all persons and things beyond itself. And when it finds that its feelings do not measure up, it pronounces judgment upon itself, which is to say that Emerson was a moralist who could not judge others until he had first judged himself. Thus, experience does not translate into happiness but a troubled conscience. Such is the nature of the Emersonian self in a universe viewed from the top down.
I will try once more. Self-consciousness is not limited to an awareness of self. When we are self-conscious, we perceive not just our perceiving selves, but “the universe alive,” persons and living things, and we relate to them not primarily through our intellect, but through our emotions. And in our mind we weigh these feelings against standards of the just, the good, and the noble, and when our sentiments and feelings fail to measure up we condemn ourselves. Such self-condemnation is not masochism, it is an expression of a refined moral sense. And finally, he supposed that through our reason, we gather all of the above together in our minds and ask, What does it all mean? To answer this question, Emerson composed essays.
Postscript: Here, regretfully, I take leave of Emerson, who, in my judgment, ranks among a handful of great philosophers that this nation has produced. It would take many essays to fathom his mind adequately. Likewise the philosophical movement known as Transcendentalism stands as a great moment not only in this nation’s history, but in the intellectual history of the world. But I have only just begun with it. I have yet to write about Henry David Thoreau and the incomparable Margaret Fuller, and others like them. This will take time, and so I must pause in this series in order to prepare myself. To be continued.

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