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Emerson has long been accused of being cold and unreachable, of losing himself in the oxygen-thin air of the ideal. “Surely I could wish you returned into your own poor nineteenth century,” Thomas Carlyle wrote to him in 1841, “its follies and maladies, its blind or half-blind, but gigantic toilings, its laughter and its fears, and trying to evolve in some measure the hidden Godlike that lies in it.” Although Emerson would respond with indignation to this friendly criticism, we can nonetheless feel a certain gratitude towards Carlyle for having articulated it. For Emerson’s best work came not when he launched himself into the stratospheres of transcendentalism, nor, as some critics uncomfortable with Emerson’s religiousness have opined, when he concerned himself strictly with the earthly and solid, but rather when he sought to acknowledge both of these realms and reconcile them. Emerson’s own theory of art seems to support this judgement, specifically, his repeated insistence that ideas ought to be represented not only symbolically but concretely. In his journal, for example, he proposes that “[t]here are two powers of the imagination, one, that of knowing the symbolic character of things and treating them as representative; and the other...is practically the tenaciousness of an image, cleaving unto it and letting it not go.” Writing in Nature, alternatively, Emerson says that the true artist is one who can “pierce [the] rotten diction” of abstraction and grandiloquence and “fasten words again to visible things.”
Of course, Emerson’s practice of art did not always mesh with his theory of it. As Carlyle’s letter indicates, Emerson’s goals were the “altitudes of Transcendentalism”, the pinnacles of spiritual insight which would leave the mundane physical world far behind. Emerson can for this reason often seem distant and aloof, skeptical of what we might call the “real” world—and yet he is also kept tethered to it in one significant way: that is, by sociality. For in Emerson, people not only represent spiritual ideals but can literally embody them. While much of Emerson’s transcendental thinking took place in the security of his own mind, another part of it was always unfolding in front of him in the uncertain arena of social relationships, always offering its own account of spiritual possibilities distinct from those of the privately-imagined ideal. We are left with pressing uncertainties: Who are these others, and what is our relationship to them? Are we hopelessly isolated from each other, as Emerson often laments, or is there indeed a chance for genuine human contact?
In this project, I attempt to track Emerson’s views on sociality over the course of three essays: Nature (1836), “Love” (1841), and “Experience” (1844). Each easy is written partially in response to the death of a loved one in Emerson’s wife (his brother Charles, his first wife Ellen, and his son Waldo, respectively), and so I will explore how Emerson’s social vision is affected (or not affected) in turn by each of these tragedies. Although I do generally see Emerson drifting into solipsism into his later work, my intent is not so much to argue for a particular narrative as it is to simply to explore the various aspects of Emerson’s sociality as it evolved throughout his career. I am particularly interested in seeing how Emerson attempts to reconcile the idea of particularity in social relationships with a wider, humanistic unity, what he calls the “Over-Soul.”
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Patterson, Luke R., "Friends, Lovers, Ideals: A Look at Sociality in Emerson" (2016). Senior Projects Fall 2016. 17.