2005 Norton Scholar’s Prize Winning Essay

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    The Communal Space Between: Reconciliation in Emerson’s "Experience"

    Rachel C. Banner

    In the opening pages of "Experience," a melancholy Ralph Waldo Emerson mourns that Nature never gave mankind the ability to make direct contact with objects: "Direct strokes she never gave us power to make; all our blows glance, all our hits are accidents" (288). Emerson launches the reader into an empty and innavigable space that he sees as perpetually existing between the individual and that which is other. This divide appears, at the essay’s beginning, to resist any attempts at the creation of a bridge. The world that Emerson confronts the reader with in these opening passages is one of disillusionment and disorientation, where perception is concealed in a fog. He makes no assertions that can comfortably position the reader within the space. Instead, the reader is placed squarely in the midst of "a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that is has none," and on an eternal staircase, "which we seem to have ascended" but cannot recollect the means of having done so (285). The emphasis here is immediately on the futility of perception: it is possible to apprehend only the current state of things, without being able to recall the processes that led to the moment. Emerson laments that one can believe, based on fragmented surface appearances, but never truly know—to apprehend the true meaning of the moment as it passes.

    Emerson instead sees a world relentlessly pervaded with disjunction, and he expresses a frustration, rooted in the pain of his son Waldo’s death, that between any experience and the apprehension of that experience there is an inherent loss. He notes that we are always and only left with a sense of fragmentation, and that our understanding comes only when the moment has passed us by. Comprehension requires reflection, and in that fleeting pause for understanding, all that is left is the recollection of an experience. When he first mentions the death of his son, it is with an eerily disconnected sense that "I seem to have lost a beautiful estate,—no more. I cannot get it nearer to me" (288). The dispassionate tone of the language, the comparison of a child’s death to a piece of real estate, shocks the reader and highlights the stark desperation of the paradox that Emerson finds himself mired in; the only permanence in life seems to be the inevitability of experiencing loss. It is an "unhandsome part of our condition," indeed (288). In this sense, then, Emerson mourns not only the loss of his son, but also the loss of the experience of loss itself. He grieves that "grief can teach me nothing," because even grief, with all its emotional gravity, is nevertheless subject to being lost in the bombardment of consecutive experiences.

    This lamentation and explication of the paradox of the loss of loss gives birth to a new desire in the essay’s unfolding. Emerson resolves to operate within the disjunction, the space between the soul and its object, and comes to reenvision this space between as a place where apparent oppositions—between the past and the present, or presence and absence—can be reconciled. Such readjustment of perception allows for the fusion of these discrepancies, as loss comes to be understood as a new presence capable of spanning the disjunction and facilitating a new and lasting contact with the son that he has lost. The work of the essay lies in merging the individual isolating experience into a universal understanding of all experience as being necessarily defined by loss. The circular form of the essay reflects Emerson’s new understanding of loss, as the text becomes a literal manifestation of his proposed solution to the problem. The solution, of course, lies in an Emersonian embrace of paradox—no intellectual shortcuts allowed. Emerson means for the reader to understand the text as a space that eventually will be encompassed by, and lost, in the onslaught of new thought that it should ideally produce in its reader.

    Most critics agree that "Experience" is about loss, about the discrepancy between reality and our perceptions of reality. However, the precise nature of Emerson’s meditation on loss remains an area of dispute in much critical discourse on the text. Emerson’s casual reference to the death of his son in the essay’s introduction is acknowledged as an integral part of the work in scholarly readings. However, critics seems divided as to whether the mention of Waldo’s death functions as an implicit yet driving force of the essay, or whether it is given as just one example, albeit a very powerful one, of the strict limitations imposed upon the human capacity to truly feel the full import of any experience.

    Those critics who view Waldo’s death as the axis of "Experience" argue that the entire work is an exercise in grief, Emerson’s way of getting the experience nearer to him. O’Keefe argues that Waldo’s death acts as the "displaced center of the essay" (128). The work is thus Emerson’s attempt to reestablish an inviolable connection with his son in an entirely new way, outside the boundaries of conventional thought about death. O’Keefe’s argument centers on Emerson’s revelation that the self can never experience "the death-of-the-Other," as he terms it, because it is a wholly singular and private event for the Other, regardless of any familial bonds. According to O’Keefe, "the real existential horror of Emerson’s awareness is that I go on" (124). Similarly, Cameron’s characterization of "Experience" as elegy insists upon the fact that Waldo’s death imbues the entire essay with Emerson’s attempts at redefinitions of grief and mourning. She places a great deal of emphasis on the paradox inherent in the work by noting that Emerson insists on the inability of Waldo’s death to touch him, yet the successive topics he discusses within the essay are all undoubtedly colored by this devastating event. The bulk of the essay acts as a "reiteration of Waldo’s death" (29). The pattern of the work, in which Emerson seems to invite and then retract several kinds of explanation for the proper apprehension of experience, reflects his struggle to find a steadfast hold on the particular experience of his son’s death. Connection between the experience and an understanding of the experience seems impossible. Therefore, Cameron asserts that the essay’s primary functions are to locate and define a new sphere of connection, to derive power from the gap between experience and apprehension, and thus to establish a connection with Waldo within this loss, seeing as this space between them is now the one commonality between the self and the other.

    Other critics find no flaw within this argument in regard to the overarching ideas of the work. However, their arguments deviate from those of Cameron and O’Keefe in that they view the passages on Waldo’s death as a springboard of sorts for Emerson’s later ruminations on the nature of all human experience. Schirmeister argues that Emerson’s struggle to redefine notions of relation and connection to one another is indicative of a larger need to redefine the very nature of community. In her estimation, the singularity of Waldo’s death is relevant to the essay only as it can be applied as a generality to the loss of all things. A true sense of community must be founded not on familial relations, mutual understanding, or a full and immediate grasp of experience, but in the absence of these things. Ellison suggests that "Experience" reflects Emerson’s need to differentiate between the domestic sentimentality and private devastation of Waldo’s death and the philosophical connotations that a disengaged view of the event allows. "Largely constituted by this unsteady resistance to the occasion" (158), she suggests, the work delves into the masculine, analytical sphere of a more generalized commentary on human relations to experience. Arguing an even further departure from the centrality of Waldo’s death to the whole, Norwood roots his reading in a discussion of "the lords of life" that, in his argument, constitute the essay’s main structure. He reads the work as Emerson’s being in search of an audience with a reality that would help to give loss, any and every loss, a higher purpose (24). The consequent presentation of the lords is a logical progression toward an ultimate detachment from the self in order to fuse with the universal flow of Being (36).

    While all these interpretations have textual relevancy, I find difficulty in accepting any one of them as a fundamental basis for my own reading of "Experience." All are primarily concerned with the same elements of the work, and they are persuasive as far as they go, yet each argument needs to be pushed further. The contrasting entities of singularity and generality, private and public, individual and universal that are the source of the argument between these two critical camps seem to me to ignore a tenet of Emersonian thinking: namely, that no distinction can be made between any of these so-called opposing elements. Viewed within this context, the critical dispute regarding the place of grief in "Experience" should not be regarded as disagreement at all. One interpretation is not complete without the other; the currents flow in both directions. Cameron’s elegiac characterization of the essay presents a view of the work in which private grief has a universal applicability, while Schirmeister’s interpretation reflects a search for communal sentiment that occurs within the confines of a single experience. The reconciliation between these two seemingly disparate ideas is present in the communal space between: a place of loss that is both everything and nothing, always and never, past, present, and future. This space that I speak of springs from Emerson’s assertion that "The middle region of our being is the temperate zone," because in this space between an expansion of thought becomes possible. "Between these extremes is the equator of life, of thought, of spirit, of poetry" (296). All of the critics discussed are conscious of the presence of this idea in the essay, yet they do not fully carry the thought over into an understanding of the text that allows it to be both emotional and analytical. Therefore, their disparate views on the heart of the essay and, more specifically, on the centrality of the passages on Waldo’s death are impossible to categorize as right or wrong. They are merely separate means to the same end, parts of the whole that have yet to be integrated.

    The blurring of distinctions between the individual entity and the unified whole is a recurrent idea in Emerson’s work. In some of his other essays—"Self-Reliance," for example—he posits that a true individual, by nature of that individuality, assimilates into a universal consciousness. This notion, when applied to "Experience," leads to the perception that a private experience is perhaps the only way to achieve unification with a broader truth. However, I would go even further in arguing that singular experience is not the means of arriving at a universal maxim, but that, for Emerson, individual experience simply is the only universal. The essay is not solely about Emerson’s personal experience with grief, nor is it only a philosophical examination of experience in general. Rather, the true heart of the essay lies in paradox. By recognizing that perception limits our knowledge of the universe, we see that both this limitation on perceptions and the ability to feel the inherent losses of existence are the universal hallmarks of all experience.

    Emerson also attempts to overcome the distances between apparent oppositions by perceiving difference in a new way. The inability to make contact that troubles Emerson in the essay’s beginning springs from frustration at his loss of the experience of Waldo’s death. Through the course of the essay, however, this sense of loss is reenvisioned, allowing it to be perceived as a new thread facilitating connection between the self and the other, the soul and its object. The core of the essay lies in the idea of unity by way of diversity. This new understanding of the paradox enables Emerson to come to "accept the clangor and jangle of contrary tendencies," because he can reconcile seeming oppositions as merely two sides of the same object, parts of a more expansive whole (296). The vital importance of the circle in Emerson’s other work is also integral to the structure of "Experience." In his earlier essay "Circles," Emerson suggests that the great satisfaction of thinking is its expansive, circular shape, which ultimately proceeds toward a generalization that is, in Emerson’s account, "always a new influx of the divinity into the mind. Hence the thrill that attends it" (230). In its struggle to reenvision individual experience as a means of attaining generalization, "Experience" has no center, but runs in a circular pattern.

    In a way, the end of "Experience" delivers us right back to the beginning. In the opening sentence of the essay’s final paragraph, Emerson declares, "I know that the world I converse with in the city and in the farms is not the world I think. I observe that difference and shall observe it" (310). Here, Emerson continues to recognize disjunctions—the gap between his thoughts and the external world. However, this continued observation of difference is now perceived in a manner that characterizes difference as a conduit meant to foster expansion, or generalization, of thought. In an inherent paradox, Emersonian generalization occurs by way of the continued observation of difference. A reductive reading of the essay focuses on either generalization or singularity as its operating principle, when it is necessary to recognize that they are entirely dependent upon and inextricably linked to one another.

    By the end, the essay’s center shifts from a view of the isolated self unable to make contact with an experience to one that envisions the lack of contact, the space between, as a new method of connection. In the sentence immediately following the passage quoted above, an undeniably more hopeful Emerson than the one in the essay’s beginning asserts that "one day I shall know the value and law of this discrepance" (310). His articulation of the desire to know, to continue a study of these discrepancies, marks a cleanly executed return to the essay’s original question, "Where do we find ourselves?" (285). At this point, however, the work implicitly suggests that the answer to the question can be only "no longer here." The circle of the text has been completed. Emerson has taken his ideas as far as they can stretch in this particular space. Paradox becomes the ultimate solution offered, as the only available option for further expansion of the ideas presented here must lie in a willingness to overstep the boundaries of this "textual sphere" in a push toward new connection. Emerson foresees a moment of generalization that encompasses all the work done in the textual space of the essay and also moves beyond its confines—an as yet undetermined time when it will finally be possible to know.

    The circularity of "Experience" and the fact that the essay is meant to finally drive the reader onward and outward from itself are the markers of Emerson’s belief in the unifying power that exists in the transient nature of experience. Individual experience is the only universal maxim because all experiences are marked by the fact that they must eventually end—our experience of any moment is one of universal apprehension because every moment must eventually pass on and be lost. The absence that the loss of experience occasions, the inevitability of the occurrence of loss, is the essential component for advancement toward ultimate generalization and a merge into universal Being. In such a way, Emerson is at last able to draw the experience of Waldo’s death nearer to him because the loss and even the subsequent loss of the loss are now understood as leading him closer to and not further from the contact he desires. "Experience" recognizes that our knowledge is always limited: we can know only what the world is not, and we can gather only fragments of the whole. However, in accepting and redefining these limitations, the essay finds a way to move beyond them. The essay asserts that we must find confidence enough to operate within the expansive confines of a space that is both nowhere and everywhere, because the only place that we can truly find ourselves is at the site of loss. It is impossible to return to the experience itself. Yet, as Emerson suggests at the essay’s end with the resolute encouragement "Never mind the defeat. Up again—old heart!", power can be derived from a view of loss that emphasizes its ability to drive the mind perpetually outward to concentric circles of new thought—a movement that is finally, in the work’s estimation, the only lasting means of contact.

    Works Cited

    • Cameron, Sharon. "Representing Grief: Emerson’s ’Experience’." Representations 15 (1986): 15-41.
    • Ellison, Julie. "Tears for Emerson: Essays, Second Series." The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Joel Porte and Saundra Morris. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. 140-61.
    • Emerson, Ralph W. "Circles." Nature and Selected Essays. Ed. Larzer Ziff. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. 225-38.
    • ---. "Experience." Nature and Selected Essays. Ed. Larzer Ziff. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. 285-311.
    • Norwood, Kyle. " ’Somewhat Comes of It All’: The Structure of Emerson’s ’Experience’." American Transcendental Quarterly 9 (1995): 21-39.
    • O’Keefe, Richard. " ’Experience’: Emerson on Death." American Transcendental Quarterly 9 (1995): 119-29.
    • Schirmeister, Paula. "Settling Accounts: ’Experience’." Less Legible Meanings: Between Poetry and Philosophy in the Work of Emerson. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999. 119-46.