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Emerson’s Myths of the Fall

ISSUE:  Spring 1984
Emerson’s Fall: A New Interpretation of the Major Essays, By B. L. Packer. Continuum. $12.95.

The doctrines of the Over-Soul, correspondence, and compensation seem nowadays to add up to shallow optimism and insufferable smugness,” Perry Miller wrote in 1940. “Fortunately,” he went on, “no one is compelled to take them seriously.” Surely that comment marks the low point in Emerson’s reputation, which suffered throughout the early decades of this century as the rebellion against the American provincial past identified him as the chief enemy. So the great American radical of the 1830’s became the very symbol of repression in the 1930’s. It is an irony that Emerson, keenly sensitive to the dialetic of history, would have appreciated. Somewhere near mid-century, though, Emerson’s stock began to rise. Miller’s bemused and wary skepticism was replaced by F.O. Matthiessen’s confidence in the importance of Emerson’s artistry (1941), and Stephen F. Whicher’s recognition of the complexities of the inner man standing beneath the affirmative pose of the essays (1953). When, in 1962, the first volume of Harvard’s new edition of Emerson’s Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks appeared, a major revival had begun. With the completion of that series, and the 1982 celebration of the centennial of his death, Emerson had assumed a place as the central voice of America’s intellectual past.

What could account for this turnaround? Matthiessen’s concentration on Emerson’s symbolic turn of mind accorded well with the new criticism; Whicher made of Emerson’s life a version of the tragic congenial to the modern sensibility; the revival of studies in Unitarian theological history forced a reconsideration of the “rebelling” Emerson. Even the current interest in literary theory has recognized in Emerson a sympathetic historical sensibility. But central to this revival was the appearance, over the last two decades, of Emerson’s reedited Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, source material which laid before scholars with extraordinary clarity the development of a rich and complex mind. The significance of such an edition, finally, is the critical fruit it can bear. Barbara Packer’s Emerson’s Fall proves that Emerson’s career can still sustain the profoundest of critical inquiries.

The significance of Packer’s work is that it addresses directly the issue of Emerson’s availability to the contemporary reader. Her ostensible subject is Emerson’s myth, or in his case myths, of the fall of man. This title also plays against Whicher’s influential reading of Emerson’s own “fall” from early optimism to a final fatalism and determinism. But Packer’s formal framework is in fact a very adept way of phrasing a more pressing question: how can we, now in the 1980’s, find intellectual space for a man willing to say, as Emerson did in his first book Nature, “ We must trust the perfection of the creation so far as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy.” For Packer, this optative Emerson is, fundamentally a visionary. His affirmations are less earned or achieved than realized; they are gifts, not accomplishments. And her sensitivity to Romantic echoes and parallels from Blake to Stevens is persuasive evidence of his kinship to the visionary tradition.

But if to Emerson much was given in moments of insight, much was also required. His insights were fleeting; his recognition of their absence was acutely painful. His struggle was to believe how these repeated “glimpses of a world that might be adequate to [the soul’s] desires” could be reconciled with “the mysterious persistence of evil, suffering, and death.” Packer explains that Emerson maintained his balance through a series of four fables of the fall, which changed as his career did. In Nature (1836) he proposed theories of “contraction” and “dislocation” to explain the fall. In the early 1840’s, Emerson proposed in “Circles” a fable of “ossification,” and in “Experience,” a theory of “reflection.” All of these fables are recognitions of the lack of consonance between the world and the mind. Each in its own way answers Miller’s charge of “smugness” and “shallow optimism.” But the most revealing of them is the myth of “dislocation” which Packer locates in Nature.

Her discussion on Nature is the heart of the book, and it establishes her as both a fine speculative critic and a rather determined historical scholar. Both traits are necessary to take Emerson’s measure. What she finds is that Emerson’s controversial metaphor of enlightenment—”I become a transparent eyeball”—is less a stroke of poetic fancy than a complicated rendering of Emerson’s reading in some stimulating, but only half-baked optical theory in David Brewster’s 1831 account of Sir Isaac Newton’s Opticks. The “fits of easy transmission and reflexion” which were the law of light were “also the soul’s law,” Emerson said in his 1833 Journal, and suggestions of his debt to Brewster are included in notes to volumes 4 and 5 of the Journals by Alfred R. Ferguson and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. What Packer recognized is that Emerson made of these theories “a complex symbolic system that he retained to the end of his life.” Brewster theorized that light particles had attractive and repulsive poles or axes, in order to explain the variable qualities of transparency and opacity in certain phenomena of light. For Emerson, the soul, which as Packer noted was imaged as the “Eye,” also had such poles. The visionary moments came, as Emerson said, when “the axis of vision” became coincident with “the axis of things.” But when this coincidence was missing, things would “appear not transparent but opake.” As Packer notes, Emerson offers this theory with “formulaic terseness,” confident that it “explains all phenomena.” In particular, it explains the fall: the world seems thick, heavy, opaque to us when we experience a “dislocation” of our vision and its objects.

While this may suggest that it is less smugness or shallowness that we have to fear in Emerson than pseudoscientific babble, the case is actually different. It matters very little how good a scientist Emerson was, for he used external fact only as a scaffolding for his symbolic imagination. Once he had his symbol—coincidence and dislocation, transparency and opacity—the scaffolding could collapse without harm. Though they do vary, each of the other versions of the fall is kin to the idea of dislocation. The myth of “contraction” is propounded in the late Orphic chants of Nature which depict man as “the dwarf of himself.” Once a “world-creating spirit” whose very consciousness was nature, “man began to ebb, to shrink, leaving the body of nature surrounding him like a vast shell.” Only when moments of location or transparency return is this connection reestablished. Similarly, the myth of “ossification” tries to explain how the forces of society, human forces, seem always to form the most persistent obstacles to the rejuvenation of the creative power of the individual. It is as if man has conspired against himself or, more precisely, that the works of man have themselves become the barriers to future progress. As Packer argues, Emerson’s sense that society can be the soul’s greatest enemy cannot be dismissed, as some have done, as “an infantile disregard for the realities of associated life.” It explains the restlessness which every reader feels in Emerson—the sense of a man threatened by the inevitable hardening of every sentence as he puts it down. It is the straitjacket of dead actions—one’s own and others—that threaten the self. That threat often does lie, for Emerson, in the fond hope of cooperative action. Those dead actions most often take social or institutional forms.

Emerson’s final version of the fall was a myth of reflection, a conviction of the tragic consequences of self-consciousness. To be threatened by the very results of your own creative power—that can make of self-consciousness a destructive force. It can, Packer finds, begin in “that slight pause of self-praise that makes us too enamored of our past thoughts to shoot the gulf to new ones.” Thus our self-consciousness can become a form of ossification, can dislocate us from nature. Emerson, therefore, thirsted for the possessed or “daimonic” individual, seeing glimpses of him in Jones Very or Charles King Newcomb (who finally disappointed him) and writing his ideal into “The Poet.” Such a desire to be out of the self is a curious culmination for so dogged a defender of the self, but it is clear that Emerson aches for such escape in his later essays. Self-reflection is the inevitable result of Emerson’s intensely introspective moral rigor, but it puts the world at arm’s length. The self becomes, ironically, too strong, and only surprise, or the daimonic abandonment of creativity, can restore us to experience. Packer finds another potential solution to Emerson’s prison of self-consciousness in his praise of the middle ground of “Montaigne,” where he embraces “the moral sentiment” as the solution to skepticism because it suggests to us that the details of daily life are “saturated with deity and with law.” This answer to the fall of reflection, as Packer acknowledges, may not satisfy “the modern reader” even though it does establish “the steadiness of [Emerson’s] vision.” More importantly, and here Packer could profitably have extended her analysis, it suggests that Emerson later found certain values in the pragmatism of moral action—and indeed of aesthetic and political action—which suggest interesting connections with the pragmatists, the next important generation of American thinkers.

Packer’s is a probing, insightful, and ruthlessly honest book. It forgives Emerson none of his shortcomings, but, perhaps because of that, he emerges as an exemplar of the modern thinker whose desire to affirm consistently runs aground the difficulties of experience. Even though the heart of Emerson’s Fall is in the early Emerson of Nature, the questions it most effectively brings forward are those of the later works. Her Emerson, like Whicher’s, is in some senses a tragic figure, for his explanations of the fall, necessary to his vision, come at increasingly sharp costs to his faith in the possible achievement of himself and others. This is particularly true of his final myth of reflection, forged in part from his self-accusing grief over the death of his son. But Packer does establish that “Emerson’s vision in these later essays has not narrowed,” and that such optimism as he can salvage from the pain of the fall is anything but shallow. By opening the question of Emerson’s later work in so challenging a way, Emerson’s Fall points beyond itself, as, in Emerson’s view, all compelling criticism must.


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