by Mara Naselli
“A foolish consistency,” Emerson famously wrote, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I memorized this line in high school. It was one of those Emersonian zingers that gave me momentary purchase in my otherwise bewildered adolescent state. Nothing cohered in those days. I didn’t know who I was or where I belonged. Literature might have been a consolation, but reading required a concentration I was often too depleted to muster. But that line—that line I held onto. How delightful the feel of hobgoblin—the labial b, glottal g and l, the nasal n rolling back and forth in the mouth like a marble.
I hadn’t lived long enough to understand what Emerson meant by consistency, nor did I realize hobgoblins were both dreaded and amusing, petty little troublemakers. To my ear it was the sound of imbecility—the perfect word to describe my small suburban world that alternately objectified and ignored me. Though I hardly noticed, that sprite of a line was making light of my seriousness, skipping along with its arms swinging, like a nursery rhyme: “adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”
It was once practically an American rite of passage to read Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” in high school. Its forcefulness seemed to affirm the abundance around us. We lived in new suburbs, on land that not so long before had been open fields, and before that wooded plains. Subdivisions and gleaming, glassy shopping malls sprang up with the confidence of new money—our twentieth-century Manifest Destiny. Our world was contained within brick facades and putty-colored siding on streets with names like Kensington Cross and Buckingham Place. Bright curbs, smooth black pavement—but no sidewalks, so as not to disturb the “colonial feel.” From my Middle America blossomed entitlement and palliative consumption. Our parents had arrived. A daughter of affluence was expected to display the fruits of her parents’ achievement. Short skirts, school spirit, an absurd accumulation of extracurricular activities—the only appropriate response at the time seemed to be a feminine compliance. A silence, really. I had no language yet with which to reject the dumbing effects of material comfort.
Much of “Self-Reliance” was lost on me in my adolescent placelessness, but a line here and there rose off the surface of the page.
Envy is ignorance, . . . imitation is suicide.
Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.
Your goodness must have some edge to it—else it is none.
Emerson’s epigrammatic darts struck me, but they were not yet enough to sting me out of my depressive stupor. His aphoristic style has long lent itself to selective reading. Misreadings don’t tell us much about the author, but they tell us a great deal about the reader. I read hobgoblins in the way I needed to—to get me through those suffocating years. Emerson’s deeper confidence, however, was out of reach. I could not perceive that any kind of greatness might be within me. Teenage girls could not have genius in my suburbia. But the line cracked the door. I knew little minds. I knew slavish convention. Emerson gave me some faint notion there was something more, a place I might be able to exist.
How interesting, then, to find that Emerson himself qualified his view of foolish consistency decades after he had first written it. Arthur McGiffert, the editor of Emerson’s sermons, attested that once, when he was delivering the essay “Self-Reliance,” Emerson interrupted himself after this very line: “The sentence which I have just read I do not now believe,” he said, and then calmly returned to the text.
We should not be surprised to find Emerson had changed his mind. He was constantly turning over an idea, one observation after another, trying to find what it had to reveal. In his early essays, especially, he was looking for that source of Truth, in Nature, in the Divine, independent of the tribalisms of tradition. He was looking for the thing he hoped would drive this young country to find its own intellectual and spiritual genius.
Stanely Cavell notes that the word itself—contradiction (to say against)—is Emerson’s way of turning over the word to find what assumptions lie beneath it. There is no Emersonian philosophy or system. But there does seem to be a distinctive shift in Emerson’s tone over time. The early version of “Nature,” written in 1836, celebrates a universalizing coherence of the natural world. Like “Self-Reliance,” also an early essay, it has a sermonizing feel to it. His searching, declarative sentences ring with a confidence in divine and perceptible order, if we could be only attentive and worshipful enough. He seems to plead with us to join him in his earnest search. “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact,” he writes in his essay “Nature.” “Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of mind, and that state of mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture.” Emerson pulls us with him as he walks through a storm, peers at the world upside down with his head between his knees, or zooms by on a train, as if a phenomenological attention, an intense attunement to the vastness of the world, might save us. “Nature is a language & every new fact that we learn is a new word,” he wrote in an early journal, “but rightly seen, taken altogether, it is not merely a language but the language put together into a most significant & universal book. I wish to learn the language, not that I may learn a new set of nouns & verbs, but that I may read the great book which is written in that tongue.” What earnest searching, what faith that the expansive wonder of existence can be attended, if not comprehended. That is his source of genius. Not within, but without. For Emerson, mind is mapped onto Nature, Nature mapped onto mind.
Emerson’s bravado, particularly his essay “Self-Reliance,” is often misread as an affirmation of American independence, self-interest, and entitlement. Some readers worship his aphorisms, I think, because they misread his confidence as an affirmation of their own. Many are bolstered by his forceful independence, his rejection of charity causes, his singular determination to stand alone, but these readings are blind to the humility of his oeuvre. This American sense of self-interest is so embedded and so natural to us that we see Emerson in the way that we see many other things—as an affirmation of who we think we are.
Now, in my own middle age, I read that striving and am almost charmed by it. I heard the sureness in “Self-Reliance” when I read it in my youth, but it would have never occurred to me that I myself might grasp what Emerson was reaching for. His boldness was strange. I was not to be audacious or contrary. Emerson’s confidence could not resonate with me because I didn’t have any. I am sure I could not hear Emerson’s praise for even a child’s forthright claims on the world—I could not even imagine such boldness: “A boy is in the parlour what the pit is in the playhouse; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by. . . . He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict.”
Each reading occurs with its own particular blindness or awakening. It isn’t just a book that we are reading, but the moment of our lives in which we are reading. Our eye glides over some words and seizes upon others. In high school, I could not hear the genius in a young child’s pronouncements—I had already stepped into the shadow of the prison of adult consciousness. But when I recently reread “Self-Reliance,” I discovered that my view had changed. I have not jettisoned one interpretation for another, but my reading is enlarged, both of the text and of the reader I was then and the reader I am now. I can see the narrowness of my adolescent vision—my anger, my desire to strike out against a world that seemed not to have a place for me, my deafness to my own thinking. Now I have an inkling of the essay’s own promise: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” Is it possible that, without my knowing it, Emerson was giving me a nudge? Did he plant in me some inchoate sense I wasn’t alien? In my life of false starts and misguided aspirations, perhaps there was some undercurrent nourished in those bleak years: Seek the skeptic. Resist the bargain of comfort for complacency. “Fate is for imbeciles,” he would write in “Montaigne; or the Skeptic.” The ideas rhyme with those in “Self-Reliance” and I recognized them in the way that I recognize traces of my own face in photographs of my great aunts and grandparents. Emerson was nurturing in me an incipient defiance and I hardly noticed. “You cannot hear what I say until it is yours,” Emerson wrote in his one of his later journals, when he would have had the perspective of time. That single sentence encapsulates my own experience of reading him over the course of twenty-five years.
In fact, what is mine has changed. I now hear his boy bandying about in the parlour because I have two bandying about in mine, dispensing their own genuine verdicts with a confidence that astonishes me. “Hark! in the next room his voice is sufficiently clear and emphatic,” writes Emerson. “It seems he knows how to speak to his contemporaries. Bashful or bold, then, he will know how to make us seniors very unnecessary.” Was this not his young son Waldo?
Emerson’s Essays: First Series, which included “Self-Reliance and “Nature,” were published in March 1841. In October of that year, Waldo turned five. Emerson’s daughter Edith was born in November. In January 1842, only two months later, Waldo died.
Emerson wrote nine separate letters notifying friends and family of his son’s death. Pen to inkwell, nib to paper. Nine times over. As he wrote and rewrote that January, what could Nature have offered him? Winter’s abstraction? Rewriting, like rereading, reveals something with each draft. In rewriting, we turn the words over, trying a different order, a different cadence, each rearrangement revealing a new contour and shading. Two years later, in the essay “Experience,” Emerson makes a startling assertion.
People grieve and bemoan themselves, but it is not half so bad with them as they say. 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. That, like all the rest, plays about the surface, and never introduces me into the reality, for contact with which, we would even pay the costly price of sons and lovers. . . . Well, souls never touch their objects. An innavigable sea washes with silent waves between us and the things we aim at and converse with. Grief too will make us idealists.
It would be easy to misread Emerson here as aloof or stoic or just American tough. But there is more to this. Before misfortune had run its treads through Emerson’s life, he implored us, in “Nature” and “Self-Reliance,” to press our attention on the world, to trust our ability to attend its inevitable contradiction, to be conduits of the divine. We are the means by which things come to be seen. We can live our lives with such attention and feeling that even the merest trifle can be porous to thought.
Here, though, in “Experience,” his tone has turned from brassy to sober. What does experience teach us? It is no longer easy to tell. The perspicacious attention Emerson directed at the world suddenly does not serve him in the same way. The first line of “Experience” begins as an exhale, the kind of breath that slips out between our lips after we have asserted ourselves and been ignored. Even the cadence of it—the stress of the first word catches us off center: “Where do we find ourselves?”
How do we know anything? The mind shapes perception, but the mind also distorts. So we might turn to something higher, some ideal, we can’t prove. This is Kant’s notion of idealism, and I think this is what Emerson means when he says grief makes us idealists. It shows us how distorted our minds can become. What is reality to the mourner?
I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature. . . . I take this evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them slip through our fingers then when we clutch the hardest, to be the most unhandsome part of our condition. Nature does not like to be observed, and likes that we should be her fools and playmates.
Fifteen years after Waldo died, Emerson had his son’s coffin moved to a new vault in Sleepy Hollow. He opened it and looked inside. He laid some oak leaves on the lid and then had two slabs of granite placed atop. No insight redeems loss.
Idealism is a way to discipline the mind when the world fails us. Abstraction affords a crucial distance. How else do we cope with the loss of a body around which our lives have grown? “How much more all the particulars of daily economy; for he had touched with his lively curiosity every trivial fact & circumstance in the household,” wrote Emerson in his journal the day after Waldo died. “The hard coal & the soft coal which I put into my stove; the wood which he brought his little quota for grandmothers fire, the hammer, the pincers, & file, he was so eager to use; the microscope, the magnet, the little globe, & every trinket & instrument in the study . . . For every thing he had his own name & way of thinking.” The objects won’t let him forget. What do you say to a child who asks if heaven is real? Now, even the ideas are silent.
Death gives us nothing. We want it to reveal something, but it doesn’t. It succumbs to forgetting, as we have drunk our lethe, mixed too strongly. “Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again.” The structure of “Experience” circulates around nodes, objects of contemplation. The essay tracks Emerson’s searching thought as it moves from one to another. The sentences refuse to grasp. They spiral out like those swirling sparklers children hold on summer nights. The words and paragraphs and their embers alight and then die out. Emerson is searching, still turning ideas and words over and over, but nothing is fully illuminated. Before he looked into the heart of the glow. Now he sees the tailings disappear into the dark.
Photo credit: Undated daguerreotype of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 4 x 5 black-and-white negative, creator unknown. Courtesy of the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.