More on books from The Atlantic Monthly.
From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashbacks: "The Sage and the Magazine" (December 23, 2003)
A collection of writings by and about Ralph Waldo Emerson, two hundred years after his birth.
The Atlantic Monthly | July 1957
Dry Light and Hard Expressions
Author, critic, and Professor of American Studies at Amherst College, Alfred Kazin has drawn this refreshing comparison of the two famous sages of Concord, both of whom were contributors to the Atlantic in its early years. Each man lives for us today in his journals, and it is in these self-revelations that Mr. Kazin looks for the greatness of each.
by Alfred Kazin
like," said Emerson, "dry light, and hard clouds, hard expressions, and hard manners." The writers who become our saints and sages, the wise men of our tribe, they who help us to live—there is only one way by which we can know them: their genius for compression. They are the ones who are always stripping life down to fundamentals and essentials, to aphorisms and parables and riddles, and if we ask what is holy about men whose life sayings often shock and hurt as much as they illuminate, the answer is that the final compression they get into their speech is a compression they have attained in their lives. The absolute in their writing is an absolute they have learned to live, and the sometimes overemphatic sharpness, the well-known intolerance by holy men, the cutting blow, the very quickness with which they sum up life and eternity in a sentence, is only the expression in words of the attempt to meet existence with the greatest possible directness.
This is what Thoreau meant when he said that he wanted to "drive life into a corner," when he appealed to his distracted countrymen: "Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance . . . till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake." The imagery—one might better say the music—with which he brings to an ecstatic end this second chapter of Walden is a whirl of variations on the single theme of the ultimate, the "point d'appui below freshet and frost and fire"—bedrock, facing a fact until it divides you through the heart and marrow like a sword, the sky whose bottom is pebbly with stars, the deep deep earth through which the intellect works like a cleaver. Thoreau, because he yearned to possess the infinite spaces suggested to him by his imagination, wanted to base this infiniteness on some image that would be immediately graspable, that would look so sharp and definite and accessible, in his telling of it, that he could lead you up to it, make you feel it, give it to you. Blake spoke of "the world in a grain of sand"; Thoreau's desire was to make you feel this in the ultimate sensation that man could possibly express of his connection with nature. If he could have rolled himself up in the world, have tasted it in every cell of his being, this and this alone would have made him feel that he was communicating his supreme privilege of ecstasy. And it is the attempt to mark this sensation of maximum contact that he tried to get into his prose—"wildness," the taste of a muskrat eaten raw, walking blind through dark woods at night, a swim in the infinite silence of Walden Pond. Fundamentally, Thoreau's best writing is an attempt to get up to the point where he can reduce human experience to communion with nature and this communion to images of total physical ecstasy.
But this same need of compression, of the absolute expression, of the ultimate in speech that will condense and contract your whole experience, can find easier forms. In Emerson, whom we tend these days to underestimate because of the priggishness that so often wars with his genius, the poet's need of condensation takes the form of epigram. There are epigrams in Thoreau, too, perhaps even more of them; but they are the steps up to his temple, the rehearsals of his style; they do not express the reaches of his ultimate feeling. In Emerson, on the other hand, epigrams, aperçus, bare notations which seem to cross his journal in a single motion from his eye to his hand, serve for that sidelong glance into things which expresses him far more characteristically than the ecstasies described in his first book, Nature. For Emerson's conception of himself was not as a solitary walker in nature but as an oracle, a clairvoyant, a seer; and his truest moments come when he speaks in slightly veiled disclosures from on high, when he exemplifies the quality that Thoreau missed in Carlyle—he retires "behind the truth he utters."
Emerson's compressiveness takes the form of intellectual wit, of the sentence that gives you not a description of external nature to be embraced, but a definition of things in which you can rest. He exemplifies the traditional role of the founder of new religions by providing his audience, his possible disciples, with a set of maxims which give spiritual tangibility to the otherwise nameless and indistinct blur of the outside world. Such maxims are definite names for spiritual things and so convince us of their reality; they lay down a pattern of steppingstones across what would otherwise be the terror of an utterly alien world. Without man, there is utter silence; a true sentence cuts into this silence and gives man a habitation in the universe. "The maker of a sentence, like the other artist," Emerson wrote in 1834, "launches out into the infinite and builds a road into Chaos and Old Night, and is followed by those who hear him with something of wild, creative delight." Emerson's sentences are compressed because they are pronouncements; they show the way; they teach. He thought so habitually in "sayings" that he himself found "each sentence an infinitely repellent particle."
Emerson's professional task was to build up his scattered sentences into essays, but he naturally began with just those pronouncements that someone else would have thought it necessary to prove. He once noted of a new lecture "that it was a very good house, only the architect had unfortunately omitted the stairs." And the genius of Emerson is that he did not try to change himself, that his professional need to write essays and to deliver lectures did not pressure him out of his natural tendency to the orphic, the fragmentary, the epigram. By the 1870s, when his powers had begun to fail him, he allowed his daughter Ellen and James Elliot Cabot to put together new essays by "excerpting and compounding" from old manuscripts exactly as he had done for himself. He was not merely dependent upon such help but, in a very significant sense, indifferent to the final result.
merson's genius is in the sudden flash rather than in the suavely connected paragraph and page. He is a writer who is so natural a stylist that even in his masterpiece, the Journals, certain sentences come from the habit of writing well rather than from having anything to say. His good things, however, are always neat. "Love is the bright foreigner, the foreign self." "Dante's imagination is the nearest to hands and feet that we have seen." He will refer to Alcott as a "tedious archangel" and remark of the British that they remind him of old Josiah Quincy, "always blundering into some good thing." "Every new writer is only a new crater of an old volcano." "Life is in short cycles or periods; rapid rallies, as by a good night's sleep."
In that superb book, English Traits, he noted that "Loyalty is in the English a sub-religion. They wear the laws as ornaments," and went on to say that "The religion of England is part of good-breeding. When you see on the continent the well-dressed Englishman come into his ambassador's chapel and put his face for silent prayer into his smooth-brushed hat, you cannot help feeling how much national pride prays with him . . . . So far is he from attaching any meaning to the words, that he believes himself to have done almost the generous thing, and that it is very condescending in him to pray to God." He could be wonderfully sharp. "Their religion is a quotation; their church is a doll; and any examination is interdicted with screams of terror. In good company you expect them to laugh at the fanaticism of the vulgar; but they do not; they are the vulgar." "If Socrates were here, we could go and talk with him; but Longfellow, we cannot go and talk with; there is a palace, and servants, and a row of bottles of different coloured wines, and wine glasses, and fine coats."
The best examples of Emerson's compressiveness, his gnomic gift, lie in those sentences with which he surprised himself. Emerson's genius is so contentedly solitary (where Thoreau's is lonely) that one feels that for him the high point of his writing was the discovery of some aspect of nature (often human nature) which was an uncovered secret. Like his famous Aunt Mary, whom he called a sibyl, a Cassandra with a terrible gift of penetration, he had the clairvoyant's gift for letting life come to him. "A man finds out that there is somewhat in him that knows more than he does. Then he comes presently to the curious question, Who's who? which of these two is really me? the one that knows more, or the one that knows less? the little fellow or the big fellow?" One feels about Emerson not merely that there was a private self concealed behind the public self, but that this private self was continually making discoveries that Emerson knew instantly how to seize.
In reading Thoreau's Journals, one senses always the heroism of a will tensing itself almost to the breaking point, a quest for details in nature that would distract Thoreau from his inwardness—details which he could assemble and fuse for that final encounter with nature in which he anticipated the consummation of his existence. "I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home." All of Thoreau is in that sentence. It is this everlasting preparedness, militancy, expectancy before nature, this perpetual gathering of arrowheads and meteorological data and Oriental scriptures, that makes Thoreau's lifework, the Journals, all one tension and that invests his frustration in the end with the truest quality of human tragedy—which does not make the effort to "drive life into a corner" any less heartbreaking. Sentence after sentence, gathered like the stones in David's sling, whitened and sharpened and polished—to be flung against a power too great to be conquered and too indefinite to be embraced! Emerson does not go forth to battle, he waits; and the communion with nature that he describes is not one which he has gone out to find but one that has revealed itself to him.
It is this that in a way makes Emerson a truer observer than Thoreau, though Emerson did not consciously look so much or so far—or so hard. Thoreau looked for the immanent connection; he saw in nature details that had been flung off from some larger whole that he still hoped to find; his most characteristic symbols are poignant, like the Indian arrowheads he was always finding under his feet in Concord, fragments of the vanished Indian past which he tried to reassemble in his notes. Thoreau is a true mystic: for him there is always a lost Eden, a divine background in nature. To this he can relate what he picks up on his walks, but of this he has lost something incommunicable, "a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove." His description of the simplest objects in nature can be unbearably moving: one feels so keenly his own trembling at the veil that keeps the world from us. Who, after all, can possess the world, can put all nature into our hand? Thoreau's imagery has all the characteristically painful longing, the Schmerz, of the romantic mystic. But Emerson lights upon truths that delight in themselves, that reveal a hidden law. There is the well-known passage in his Journals, repeating his experience at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris:
The universe is a more amazing puzzle than ever, as you glance along this bewildering series of animated forms—the hazy butterflies, the carved shells, the birds, beasts, fishes, insects, snakes, and the upheaving principle of life everywhere so incipient, in the very rock aping organized forms. Not a form so grotesque, so savage, nor so beautiful but is an expression of some property inherent in man the observer—an occult relation between the very scorpions and man. I feel the centipede in me—cayman, carp, eagle, and fox. I am moved by strange sympathies; I say continually, "I will be a naturalist."
Emerson looks upon the universe as a witness, not as a lover. He waits for things to display themselves before him so that he can "yield to the law of their being." Without being in the least a scientist, he is often impressively disinterested and curious about phenomena. He complained that "Now many are thought not only unexplained but inexplicable; as language, sleep, madness, dreams, beasts, sex." Emerson is at his best not when he is announcing the Oversoul to the people or flattering his audience, but when he is idiosyncratic, spare and strange; in those moods of almost sleepy reflection and passive wonder one feels that he is entirely open to his unconscious, that he can get it to speak through him in the same way, to use his own image, as the tree puts itself forth through its leaves and branches. "The secret of the world is the tie between person and event . . . . The soul contains the event that shall befall it, for the event is only the actualization of its thoughts and what we pray to ourselves for is always granted." It is in this understanding that, as Thoreau says, the poet retires "behind the truth he utters," and then we feel that Emerson's writing arm somehow moves exactly to the pressure of the vision in his brain. Like Blake "taking down" the "Songs of Innocence," he has only to dip his pen and write.
It is then that Emerson attains a greatness beyond that of the moral philosopher and national prophet. He can openly rejoice in the fact that he really has no disciples, and he shows himself not merely shrewd but uncomfortably penetrating. At his best, in his most private mood, his only aim is quiet understanding, to find the law which is spanned by the mind of that representative man whom he called "the poet." It is in these little bits of Emerson's Journals—scattered portraits, wayward reflections, fragments that are witty not only in the exactness of their expression but in the effect they have on the reader, for they disconcert and undercut—that we see the particular essence of a genius which, beginning as "self-trust," has made itself a kind of open channel by which truth can reach men, has converted itself wholly into an instrument of meditation and of style.
What do you think? Discuss this article in the Books & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.
Copyright © 1957 by Alfred Kazin. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July 1957; Dry Light and Hard Expressions; Volume 200, No. 1; 74-76.