Change Artist

On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson BY Branka Arsic. Harvard University Press. Hardcover, 404 pages. $49.

The cover of On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson

Fresh from having resigned his pulpit in the Second Unitarian Church, and after briefly considering becoming a botanist, Ralph Waldo Emerson decided to try his hand at philosophy. His 1836 pamphlet, Nature, contains a theory of history, an ethics, a philosophy of language, and an aesthetics. The system, if we can call it that, is a sort of Orphic pantheism. Among its teachings are that nature is a hieroglyph of our minds, that there exists an “occult relation between man and the vegetable,” and that we “expand and live in the warm day, like corn and melons.” The book hits its psychedelic zenith when we hear of the egoless ecstasy the philosopher feels after stepping over a snow puddle, during which he becomes a “transparent eyeball.”

In giving up Nature’s recondite grandeur for the moodier medium of the essay, Emerson arrived at the prose style for which he is famous and that gives him a place alongside Bacon and Montaigne as an aphorist. His essays unfold not so much as arguments, but as leaps the reader feels provoked to connect (“I step along from stone to stone over the Lethe which gurgles around my path,” he wrote in his journal). As an effort at imagining how the earlier enthusiasm for building philosophical systems might be carried over into the whole of the American author’s thought, Branka Arsić’s On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson is an intellectual feast. Her guiding question—“What does it really mean to hold that everything fluctuates, and, being relational, changes its identity?”—sets off one of most thorough studies we have. Arsić calls herself an “archaeologist of Emerson’s thinking,” no easy task considering not just the amount of Emerson’s writing (the journals alone run to sixteen volumes) but its relentless idiosyncrasy. In spending as much time on relatively obscure essays and lectures as with staples like “The American Scholar” and “Self-Reliance,” as well as in reading deep in the journals and correspondence, Arsić tries to get the big picture to cohere around what she simply calls leaving.

“The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion,” Emerson tells us, and by leaving Arsić means the way such aversion can be transformed into a larger art of living. This she describes as “relocating the ordinary, taking it out of the deadly safety of the suburban mainstream and moving it into . . . zones of questioning and experimenting.” Finding in aversion a practice for cracking the husks of habit, Arsić makes Emerson into one of the great nineteenth-century moderns, up there with Charles Baudelaire and his agitated, spleen-soaked erotics of the passerby (she finds affinity between the men around ideas of the fleeting and the fugitive) and with Friedrich Nietzsche, who carried around a German translation of the Essays and jotted constantly in the margins (mostly just "Ja!" "Ja!").

Aversion in this broad sense extends to the truism that Emerson is some kind of programmatic “Transcendentalist.” Made sclerotic by routinized use in countless classroom anthologies, the word has become an obstacle to accessing Emerson’s thought. While Emerson was always ambivalent about signing on to this or that cause (his attacks on conformity stem in part from his revulsion at groupthink), it may come as a surprise that his lecture “The Transcendentalist” is written as if he were a spectator reporting on a startling local phenomenon. But Emerson was open to, and persuadable by, the tumult of day-to-day events and was roused from his skepticism about social action by what he took to be the untenable scandal of the Fugitive Slave Law—and slavery in general—as something monstrously against nature. Arsić finds in this dissenting Emerson a test site for other political incarnations: a vegetarian Emerson (“You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughter-house is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity,” he writes in “Fate”) and, in a bitter twist on leaving, an Emerson concerned about the “catastrophic . . . legal crime” of the Cherokee removal. There is an original discussion of Emerson the cosmopolitan, not only in relation to canonical Kantian arguments that find the universal embedded in the rational, but also through Emerson’s quirky, little-studied lecture on “Table Talk.” In what she calls a “subterranean strain in his philosophy,” Arsić discusses in Emerson’s comparison of dinner-table conversation to Parisian café culture a further link to la république des lettres. “Table Talk” contains, among other things, an attack on “leakers” (those who can’t keep a secret), a critique of gossip, and a caution against the making of jokes. To be fair, this last arises from the distinction between joking and wit, but it does remind one a little of Herman Melville’s caricature of Emerson, in The Confidence Man, as a humorless Brahmin, “purely and coldly radiant as a prism.”

Any discussion of Emerson must come to grips with his prose, which can jump from the plain to the self-consciously artificial in the space of a clause. At times Arsić’s emphasis on abstract organizing principles—whether named leaving, aversion, or becoming—comes at the expense of an appreciation of sound, rhythm, and diction and can even be tone-deaf. A couple of examples: Turning to the essay “Experience,” Arsić considers Emerson’s dialogue with “physicians,” to whom he gives the line “Spirit is matter reduced to an extreme thinness: O so thin!” I’ve always taken this to be facetious, as if Emerson were satirizing the lengths to which a physician must go to justify what the essay elsewhere calls a “sty of sensualism.” But Arsić cites it as evidence of Emerson’s view that mind might ultimately be reduced to matter. She also points to Emerson’s proto-Whitmanian list in “The American Scholar”: “What would we really know the meaning of? The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body.” In that “glance of the eye” Arsić sees a “power that subverts the values of the Western logos.” Given that Emerson’s next clause quests after “the ultimate reason of these matters” so that they might be ranged “instantly on an eternal law,” it seems unlikely that the address is out to topple the Logos.

Though there is nothing controversial about the idea that Emerson is something other than a dyed-in-the-wool idealist (or, for that matter, an egoist), it’s hard to escape the idealistic implication of such lines, and they are all over the place in Emerson. In “History” he writes, without a shred of equivocation, “He that is once admitted to the right of reason is made a freeman of the whole estate,” and in “The Over-Soul,” he says, “With each divine impulse the mind rends the thin rinds of the visible and finite, and comes out into eternity.” Rather than passing over language like this, might it not be treated as part of a moment of fixity from which one is again set to “leave”? In any case, Emerson’s art of the sentence—his genius for setting delicacies flush against jabs—is sometimes muted under Arsić’s architectonics.

As a treatment not quite of style but rather of grammar, we do get a wonderful appendix on the relation of Emerson’s writing to modal logic. Arsić describes the addition of the appendix as her “following the sound practice of medieval scholastic philosophers who would accompany their treatise with a discourse on logic.” She calls this, borrowing from the essay “The Transcendentalist,” thinking in the “optative mood”—the logic of the “if,” of the “possible,” or of the “wish.” Optative modality is for Arsić a way of fusing the “pragmatics of the thinking of leaving and the ontology of becoming” and so gives us the key to the “fascinating rigor” of Emerson’s thought. It is an added treat that the appendix takes the form of a gently polemical corrective to Perry Miller’s influential 1940 essay “From Edwards to Emerson,” about which he wrote, in a preface to a later printing: “Clearly, the sequence I strove to outline [from the Puritans to Transcendentalism] requires at least a volume of documentation. Possibly I may yet find the time and energy to supply it, but I welcome assistance, even though that shall prove my hunches wrong.” Arsić takes Miller at his word.

It is no exaggeration to say that On Leaving will take its place among the benchmarks of Emerson scholarship of the past hundred years, from Oscar W. Firkins’s still fresh and informative 1915 study Ralph Waldo Emerson and Stephen Whicher’s midcentury Freedom and Fate to Barbara Packer’s superb 1982 study Emerson’s Fall and Stanley Cavell’s pathbreaking—and ongoing—engagement with the writer (Cavell is a consistent presence throughout Arsić’s book). And what Arsić calls leaving sometimes sounds like what Richard Poirier described as Emerson’s “trying to liberate himself and his readers from the consequences of his own writing.” Without explicitly acknowledging the pragmatist tradition, Arsić’s Emerson—a restless analyst never sitting still long enough to be pinned down—is close to Poirier’s experimental writer.

Despite the manifestolike opening lines of Nature—that “our age is retrospective” and “gropes among the dry bones of the past”—one can’t help but be captivated by Arsić’s archaeology. And even if we remain (alertly, admiringly) skeptical about the idea of winding Emerson’s unruly intelligence around a single idea, that doesn’t make this book any less fun to read or any less essential.

Paul Grimstad is assistant professor of English at Yale University and a regular contributor to Bookforum.