Hiking with my young dog in the rainy woods, I think of Emerson. Normally, when amped on endorphins in inclement weather, I recall the seer of American optimism’s most jubilant moment: ’Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.’
Today, as the pup bounces and skitters and slides along the trail, slippery with rotting underbrush, I feel myself twitch. Even at play, my body insists on a tensile state. It’s not Emerson the seer but Emerson the grieving father I call to mind.
Later, at home, I flip a battered anthology open to ‘Experience,’ bookmarked years ago with a white paper clip. The essay, written after his son Waldo’s death, is longer than I remember, or maybe the timely, snappy news pieces that dominate my reading lately just make everything substantive and considered seem interminable.
Parts of ‘Experience’ are so boring, so perfectly pedantic, so preciously Emersonian, that I tear up at the thought of audiences sitting through his lectures. I’m nostalgic for a time I can barely remember that included long moments, unmarred by emergency, to create and consume culture. Even as we collectively fret over the breakdown of the American experiment, the flurry of outrages and injustices leaves little time for mourning: There’s hardly energy to contemplate the experiment when all energy must be deployed to salvage it.
Emerson, on the other hand, takes all the time in the world. He turns his grief over and over on the page, examining it, holding it up to his own sunny monolith of thought as if to see whether that structure, already swaying with built-in contradictions, will crumble.
I scan the bible-thin pages, selfishly giving his grief for a lost child my time because it makes me feel that perhaps humanism is not dead. It’s a friendly, soporific activity to revisit the marginal notes and underlinings, which peremptorily point out philosophical contrasts with earlier, happier essays. I linger over the description of Waldo’s death, a few lines that shade the entire piece: ‘In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate,—nothing more. I cannot get it nearer to me.’
Here loss, a singular devastating event, doesn’t compare to the loss of sensation when you keep on keeping on. The grief comes in not feeling grief palpably enough: ‘There are moods in which we court suffering, in the hope that here, at least, we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth. But it turns out to be scene-painting and counterfeit. The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is.’
Faced with this emotional subterfuge, Emerson lowers the bar in a way that’s painful to read and familiar to recount these days, when we shut down the barrage of news only to turn to Netflix for repose. ‘Do not craze yourself with thinking,’ he admonishes us pragmatically, ‘but go about your business anywhere. Life is not intellectual or critical, but sturdy. Its chief good is for well-mixed people who can enjoy what they find, without question.’
But there are always questions with Emerson, which is why we tolerate him. ‘Experience’ is a humbled litany, an ode to falling down and getting, if not entirely up again, then on. The final lines gear up to be a sop, a salve for the reader: ‘Patience and patience, we shall win at the last.’ Shall we, though? I ask out loud. The sentiment borders on patronizing—I wonder if optimism will ever feel authentic again—but he gives us reason to press on:
‘Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat: up again, old heart!—it seems to say,—there is victory yet for all justice.’
Emerson, like all of us inspecting optimism through the pall of loss, equivocates. He refuses to encourage the reader (or himself) directly, summoning instead a voice that ‘seems to say’ better days are ahead.
Still, reading it as hungrily as I usually click over to entertainment for repose, I feel myself return to my body. I feel my jaw slacken and the muscles taut around my knees release. I feel the company of everyone who has lost their high-mindedness only to locate a scrap of something ambivalently hopeful in the corner of their minds. I realize that maybe the jubilance of being ‘glad to the brink of fear’ is just the easy side of an obligation to go gladly to that brink and meet it with excellence, by fighting harder for all justice. Mostly I feel less alone in loss.
Jessica Collier: Breaks away.