Emerson’s Essays: experimental experience

Emerson’s “American Scholar” (published individually in 1837) and “Circles” (1841, from his first book of essays, Essays: First Series) are not entirely essays about the essay. But they come close to that focus, if somewhat obliquely (or to use some of his own geometric imagery, tangentially), since both essays do focus in on how this writer, reader, and thinker views the meaning and method of writing, reading, and thinking. To echo Emerson from “American Scholar,” we see Emerson, the very type of scholar he is trying to redefine in that essay (and originally, a Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard’s graduation), in his “school.” In “American Scholar,” it is a school in which “creative reading” is as important as “creative writing,” but also one in which schools can be problematic, books can be too influential, read wrongly. In “Circles,” shifting the focus a bit more broadly to the method of thinking, we see that thinking as such, not just reading and writing, is necessarily experimental if it is to be natural. Only dead books and dead ideas are finished.

Given what we now know of the essay genre, of its origins in experiment and trial, essay as continuing process, not finished product, I would suggest the appropriateness of understanding Emerson to say that all of our thought, and the reading and writing that (for him, as for any scholar) primarily conveys that thought is necessarily essayistic: it is “thought thinking” (Porter’s phrase) which sounds a lot like Emerson’s famous phrase, “Man thinking.” Thus Emerson writes essays about his essaying.

Here’s the difficulty, and the creative potential, of doing so: of presenting and performing or dramatizing in an essay the experimental experience shaping that and any essay. In his journal in 1839, Emerson writes the following caution that reads to me not unlike Montaigne’s preface to his reader.

I need hardly say to any one acquainted with my thoughts that I have no System. When I was quite young I fancied that by keeping a Manuscript Journal by me, over whose pages I wrote a list of the great topics of human study, as, Religion, Poetry, Politics, Love, &c in the course of a few years I should be able to complete a sort of Encyclopaedia containing the net value of all the definitions at which the world had yet arrived. But at the end of a couple of years my Cabinet Cyclopaedia though much enlarged was no nearer to a completeness than on its first day. Nay somehow the whole plan of it needed alteration nor did the following months promise any speedier term to it than the foregoing. At last I discovered that my curve was a parabola whose arcs would never meet…. (JMN 7: 302)

Emerson fails to finish and complete his planned book that would contain all the thought in the world. “American Scholar” and “Circles” suggest that every book–and every writer and every reader and thinker–must fail at completion if it is to be authentic thinking and not the product of a “mere thinker.” And indeed, in the same journal entry, Emerson goes on to suggest that this statement of his failure is indeed rhetorical, is to the very point of his writing:

At last I discovered that my curve was a parabola whose arcs would never meet, and came to acquiesce in the perception that although no diligence can rebuild the Universe in a model by the best accumulation or disposition of details, yet does the World reproduce itself in miniature in every event that transpires, so that all the laws of nature may be read in the smallest fact. So that the truth [sic] speaker may dismiss all solicitude as to the proportion & congruency of the aggregate of his thoughts so long as he is a faithful reporter of particular impressions. (JMN 7: 302-3)

This is where Emerson’s philosophy of thinking and reading, evident in these essays, also turns toward the rhetoric organizing the essays. They are structured as a parabola rather than a curve. Parabola, in the rhetorical tradition, suggests relation through dissimilarity: analogy, allegory metaphor, metonymy are figures that we can associate with it. Here is the entry from Silva Rhetoricae.

Emerson suggests that in failing to keep all his various topics and ideas neatly categorized, separated, in failing to keep them from running over into each other, he succeeds in demonstrating or faithfully reporting the relation among all the particular impressions and smallest facts. The encyclopedia turns out to be wikipedia, all the knowledge in the world, linked and unfinished.

We can think back to Montaigne’s emphasis on “relation,” and his warning that he does not teach, only relates. Emerson also emphasizes relation. Another word for essayistic relation for Emerson is generalization. In fact, at the end of his essay on Montaigne, Emerson identifies the lesson Montaigne taught, or rather, related to him through his reading: “The expansive nature of truth comes to our succor, elastic, not to be surrounded. Man helps himself by larger generalizations. The lesson of life is practically to generalize; to believe what the years and the centuries say, against the hours; to resist the usurpation of particulars; to penetrate to their catholic sense.”

Some questions: How does this rhetoric of circulation and generalization inform his poetics, the sentences and words making up these related paragraphs of his thinking?

If a “faithful” writing of nature must be parabolic, must resist conventional or systematic logic and understanding, how then do we faithfully read such writing? How do we “understand” an Emerson essay? How might we write such an essay?

Finally, does the essay “Experience” continue in this performance and dramatization of the experimental nature of thinking and writing? It is published in 1844, in his second series of Essays, not long after the death of his first son at the age of 5. Conventionally, this essay has been read as a break with Emerson’s earlier philosophy from “American Scholar” and “Circles,” viewed as Emerson turning toward a more tragic view of life, giving up in some manner. Do you see that?

My annotated (somewhat digitally creative) reading of the Emerson texts from this week:


“American Scholar”





Montaigne: Portraying Passage

Michel de Montaigne.

Michel de Montaigne. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is a link to my copy of the essay “Of Repentance,” employing some new media “paint” to annotate and portray how I engaged with this essay: http://scrible.com/s/kEw22

Here is Montaigne‘s preface to his Essays, “To the reader”:

12th June 1580

Reader, thou hast here an honest book; it doth at the outset forewarn thee that, in contriving the same, I have proposed to myself no other than a domestic and private end: I have had no consideration at all either to thy service or to my glory. My powers are not capable of any such design. I have dedicated it to the particular commodity of my kinsfolk and friends, so that, having lost me (which they must do shortly), they may therein recover some traits of my conditions and humours, and by that means preserve more whole, and more life-like, the knowledge they had of me. Had my intention been to seek the world’s favour, I should surely have adorned myself with borrowed beauties: I desire therein to be viewed as I appear in mine own genuine, simple, and ordinary manner, without study and artifice: for it is myself I paint. My defects are therein to be read to the life, and any imperfections are my natural form, so far as public reverence hath permitted me. If I had lived among those nations, which (they say) yet dwell under the sweet liberty of nature’s primitive laws, I assure thee I would most willingly have painted myself quite fully and quite naked. Thus, reader, myself am the matter of my book: there’s no reason thou shouldst employ thy leisure about so frivolous and vain a subject. Therefore farewell.


We can think of the ways Montaigne revisits in the opening of the essay “Of Repentance” the logic or philosophy he establishes for the whole book, the entire project of his essays. He makes an argument for what we tend to call and think of as a subjective view of life, what MM refers to as “private.” He can only portray himself and his private and ordinary and simple experience in the world. That’s a limitation of his book–or so he tells us. He knows, and goes on to argue, that such portrayals and representations of the private and ordinary, the limitations of one’s experience, make up the very matter of life. And thus, too, the matter of his book.

To connect back to our initial discussion of the dramatic elements of the essay, we can see that MM establishes his “I” as a persona in the very process of telling us (this is the rhetorical part) that it is not a public persona, not what one would usually expect from conventional “nonfiction” up to his point in time: moral philosophy and teachings representing great and public lives addressing constant truths, how all should live–not merely how one person lived, or better yet, tried or attempted or “essayed” to live. This tension between the conventions of writings about great, public lives, fixed for all time (Plutarch, for example) and MM’s approach to the personal and ordinary, the passing, the subjective, identifies a dramatic tension in his essays. We can begin to see, here, why MM is thought of as the inventor of the genre. Recall the point that the essay moves toward resonance or recognition, something more subjective and complex than mere understanding in our sense of “information.” Montaigne suggests in setting up the book and the essay “Of Repentance” that such partial (but clearly insightful) recognition is all he can do; all any one of us can do; and thus all that his attempt (his essay) to portray his limitations can offer.

Let’s think of the ways, even in the first couple paragraphs of the essay, that MM’s philosophy of his essay blends as well into his rhetoric (how he organizes and structures and portrays the thinking in the sentences and paragraphs) and poetics (the words and figures that makes the portrayal–the paint).

Following Montaigne’s propensity to invoke words that suggest correlations and unconventional connotations (the poetic term here is “pun”) between life and writing, the matter or “composition” of nature and the matter/composition of his book, I am assuming that “passage” is one such pun, operative in French (the origins of the word) as it is in English. For some etymology, see the OED entry for passage. While you are at it, consider the entries for other phrases used by Montaigne poetically in this sense of multiple connotations, including “composition” and the word “essay” itself.

And finally, we can look to Emerson (the American essayist we will be reading shortly) for some insight into Montaigne’s poetics, and the way his poetics, his sentence style and vernacular language, plays a role in his rhetoric and philosophy–what these essays are about, what they are doing. Here is Emerson in his essay “Montaigne; or, the Skeptic” (1850):

The Essays, therefore, are an entertaining soliloquy on every random topic that comes into his head; treating every thing without ceremony, yet with masculine sense. There have been men with deeper insight; but, one would say, never a man with such abundance of thoughts: he is never dull, never insincere, and has the genius to make the reader care for all that he cares for.

The sincerity and marrow of the man reaches to his sentences. I know not anywhere the book that seems less written. It is the language of conversation transferred to a book. Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive. One has the same pleasure in it that he feels in listening to the necessary speech of men about their work, when any unusual circumstance gives momentary importance to the dialogue. For blacksmiths and teamsters do not trip in their speech; it is a shower of bullets. It is Cambridge men who correct themselves and begin again at every half sentence, and, moreover, will pun, and refine too much, and swerve from the matter to the expression. Montaigne talks with shrewdness, knows the world and books and himself, and uses the positive degree; never shrieks, or protests, or prays: no weakness, no convulsion, no superlative: does not wish to jump out of his skin, or play any antics, or annihilate space or time, but is stout and solid; tastes every moment of the day; likes pain because it makes him feel himself and realize things; as we pinch ourselves to know that we are awake. He keeps the plain; he rarely mounts or sinks; likes to feel solid ground and the stones underneath. His writing has no enthusiasms, no aspiration; contented, self-respecting and keeping the middle of the road. There is but one exception,- in his love for Socrates. In speaking of him, for once his cheek flushes and his style rises to passion.

Montaigne’s style of writing, Emerson suggests, is alive with everything in his head, the blood coursing through his body. This is the point in writing the essays; this is the point, the pulse (to stay with his metaphor) the reader feels when touching the matter of his man-made book. Emerson also offers us an insight, I believe, toward understanding what Montaigne means in his claim, “I do not teach, I only relate.” Emerson concludes his assessment of Montaigne in this way:

The expansive nature of truth comes to our succor, elastic, not to be surrounded. Man helps himself by larger generalizations. The lesson of life is practically to generalize; to believe what the years and the centuries say, against the hours; to resist the usurpation of particulars; to penetrate to their catholic sense. Things seem to say one thing, and say the reverse.

The essay is needed to relate that things say or how they seem with an underlying or unseen reality that says the reverse. At some level, then, the essay is an exploration in the uncanny nature of life. As Emerson elsewhere puts it: “Everything has two handles.”

Some further reading and thinking (in addition to Emerson on Montaigne):

Here is an essay/blog on Montaigne as the father of the essay and the blog: “What Bloggers Owe Montaigne”