An encounter with Emerson’s essays.
Caspar David Friedrich, Woman before the Rising Sun, 1818
There’s a treacherously placed bookstore in my neighborhood. To go almost anywhere from my apartment, I have to pass Walden Pond Books, and it’s next door to my usual coffee shop, so even if I didn’t decide to go in on the first pass, I probably will on the second. Many of the references in my own book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, are ones that I encountered here, in books like Braiding Sweetgrass, Spell of the Sensuous, and The Genius of Birds. The influence is so strong that when I see my book at Walden Pond, I think of it as a mushroom that grew in the store.
This past October, I found myself in the store looking at a 1990 Vintage Books edition of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays. Not having read much Emerson before, even as an English major, I was quickly drawn into his writing about time and perception: nature was a “mutable cloud, which is always and never the same,” and the task was to “[detect] through the fly, through the fly, through the caterpillar, through the grub, through the egg, the constant individual; through countless individuals, the fixed species, through many species, the genus; through all genera, the steadfast type, through all the kingdoms of organized life, the eternal unity.” There was an acid-trip quality to it that I both recognized and admired.
Reading Emerson’s essays did not feel like reading other books. Later, when I tried to describe the experience to a friend, I asked, “Have you ever read a book that made you feel, like, drunk?” Emerson’s aphorisms are forceful, his cadences dizzying, his appeal to individual will seductive. Normally I am an orderly, chapter-per-day kind of reader, using up a pack of Post-it flags and then typing up the important quotes later. But my copy of Emerson’s Essays has only one Post-it flag, in the introduction by Douglas Crase (an Emerson quote: “It seems the one lesson which this miraculous world has to teach us, to the sacred, to stand aloof, and suffer no man and no custom, no mode of thinking to intrude upon us and bereave us of our infinitude”). After that, I lost my bearings. I was always just somewhere in the book, underlining and circling, hunched over, my face too close to the page.
I had been primed for Emerson’s vision of transcendence. A month earlier, I’d taken my yearly trip to the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, just north of Monterey, California. My ostensible purpose was to see the migrating shorebirds—including the sandpipers whose murmurous flocks contain more than a little of the transcendental—but it was also just to recover and hear myself think. I had never been much of a public person, and I’d been caught off-guard by the publicity around How to Do Nothing. I was soon buried under the pile of obligations and opinions that followed. At times, it felt like I no longer knew what my book was about, or what it was that I actually thought. I felt desperate for some kind of clarity.
After roaming the hills at Elkhorn Slough until the preserve closed at 5, I decided impulsively against going straight home. Instead I drove due east and, even though it was 100 degrees and I’d already been walking all day, started up a steep trail near Fremont Peak in San Juan Bautista. I was propelled by more than mere curiosity; I was trying to leave something behind. There was an unforgiving quality to the dry and tree-less hillside, with a hot wind that drew a rasping, rattling sound from the pods of alien-looking milk vetches. Both literally and figuratively, I felt I was gasping for air. When I reached the top of the trail, the sun was beginning to set on the Diablo Range across the valley, casting it in an otherworldly shade of purple. I was filled with a volatile mix of emotions. Sweat evaporating, I wrote in my notebook that “the pain I feel is the will trying to act” and that “the real self, let out of the cage, doesn’t want to go back in again.”
The “will” I wrote of was not exactly mine; it was an artist’s will, an out-of-range frequency to be listened for with great effort. Emerson’s Essays addressed and galvanized this self-as-listener, especially in “The Over-Soul.” I felt drawn to his theological model of self-abandonment and visitation, not unlike the way the writer Simone Weil described love and attention, or the way the painter Agnes Martin would wait, alone for days and weeks, for a vision of perfection. Emerson writes, “The soul gives itself, alone, original, and pure, to the Lonely, Original, and Pure, who, on that condition, gladly inhabits, leads, and speaks through it.” I recognized my own longing for absolute clarity, my own breathless hike, in Emerson’s description of an “ascension of state,” where “[w]ith each divine impulse the mind rends the thin rinds of the visible and finite, and comes out into eternity, and inspired and expires its air.”
“The Over-Soul” is my favorite essay, but Emerson is better known for “Self Reliance,” that famous paean to individualism. This is the one where Emerson declares that “[w]hoso would be a man must be nonconformist,” and disdains society as “a join-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.” Again, the writing is seductive. For anyone adrift in the world, it is reassuring to hear that “[n]othing can bring you peace but yourself,” or that mental will can triumph over fate. It can really be this simple: “In the Will work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of Chance, and shalt sit hereafter out of fear from her rotations.”
I was far from immune to this essay. I underlined “the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” But the more I looked back on it, the more I began to wrestle with the essay’s blind spot. I didn’t immediately see it, because the blind spot was also my own.
The wrestling started when I went home for Thanksgiving. My family gatherings are small: my parents, my uncle, and I gather in my grandmother’s house, which is part of a community of small houses for the elderly. This year, as soon as we walked in the door, I was confronted with a dilemma. My mother immediately joined my grandma in the kitchen, whereas my dad went down the hall to a room where my uncle was sitting. When I asked my mom if they needed help in the kitchen, she shooed me away, so I headed down the narrow hallway to hover on the periphery of a conversation about the upcoming election primaries. This division will be all too familiar to many: women working in the kitchen, men talking politics in the next room.
As I leaned awkwardly against the wall because there wasn’t a third chair, the conversation continued as if I weren’t there. My gaze wandered over to an interesting tableau across the room. Resting on a shelf was something I’d never noticed: a copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, that favorite novel of libertarians. The main character is an uncompromising, iconoclastic, and self-made modernist architect who shared Emerson’s disdain for society and certainly followed his advice, to “suffer no man and no custom, no mode of thinking to intrude upon you and bereave you of your infinitude.”
Next to The Fountainhead was a careful pencil drawing of a black-headed gull in a frame. After staring at it for a few moments, I finally recognized this drawing as my own. I wondered why I would have drawn my grandmother a black-headed gull, an East Coast bird that I’d likely never seen, and then realized that I had drawn it years ago, before I had become a birder. I had likely been looking for a pleasant and generic subject for a drawing, googled “seagull,” and drawn one of the results, without distinguishing among them. (There’s technically no such thing as a “seagull,” only different kinds of gulls.)
Unexpectedly, everything congealed in that moment: the different rooms, the drawing, The Fountainhead, “Self Reliance,” and the critiques I had seen of How to Do Nothing. Just as I had studiously reproduced the form of the gull without knowing what it was, I saw that I had absorbed from my family and my upbringing a specific brand of individualism, valorizing and transmitting it unknowingly. I’d done this throughout my entire life, but especially in How to Do Nothing. Around my favored versions of contemplative solitude, so similar to Emerson’s, a whole suite of circumstances appeared in full relief, like something coming into focus. The women in the kitchen made the mens’ conversation possible, just as my trip to the mountain—and really all of my time spent walking, observing, and courting the “over-soul”—rested upon a long list of privileges, from the specific (owning a car, having the time), to the general (able-bodied, upper-middle-class, half white and half “model minority,” a walkable neighborhood in a desirable city, and more). There was an entire infrastructure around my experience of freedom, and I’d been so busy chasing it that I hadn’t seen it.
Just the night before, I had watched Astra Taylor’s Examined Life, a series of interviews in different locations with contemporary philosophers. While the documentary’s other subjects appear alone, Judith Butler takes a walk around the Mission District of San Francisco with Sunaura Taylor, an activist for disability and animal rights. Taylor was born with arthrogryposis and uses a wheelchair. At one point, Butler says, “I’m just thinking that … nobody goes for a walk without there being something that supports that walk outside of ourselves. And that maybe we have a false idea that the able-bodied person is somehow radically self-sufficient.”
Taylor, whose condition affects the use of her hands, tells Butler about the time she lived in Brooklyn and would have to sit in a park for hours psyching herself up to get coffee alone. “In a way it’s a political protest for me to go in and order a coffee and demand help,” she says, “simply because, in my opinion, help is something that we all need.” After they stop into a vintage store to get Taylor a sweater because it’s gotten chilly, Butler revisits this story:
My sense is that what’s at stake here is really rethinking the human as a site of interdependency. And I think, you know, when you walk into the coffee shop … and you ask for the coffee, or you, indeed, even ask for assistance with the coffee, you’re basically posing the question, do we or do we not live in a world in which we assist each other? Do we or do we not help each other with basic needs? And are basic needs there to be decided on as a social issue and not just my personal, individual issue or your personal, individual issue? So there’s a challenge to individualism that happens at the moment in which you ask for some assistance with the coffee cup. And hopefully, people will take it up and say, yes, I, too, live in that world … in which I understand that we need each other in order to address our basic needs. And I want to organize a social, political world on the basis of that recognition.
This conversation came back to me in that little house at Thanksgiving. My grandmother, otherwise healthy, had been recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s. After we all assembled in the living room, she showed me the medical alert device (also known as a “panic button”) hanging around her neck, and pointed to a small console in the corner of the room that would contact my parents if she pressed the button. Weeks earlier, she had fallen in this same living room and, unable to move or reach the phone, lay on the floor for many hours until my dad came by for his regular visit.
My immediate reaction to her story and to the button was one of terror at the contingency of the whole thing. It made my grandma seem uniquely dependent. But as I reflected on the panic button in the context of Butler’s “challenge to individualism,” it began to look more like an advanced, concrete version of an interdependence that we each bear in some form from the moment we are born. If my grandma was now hanging on by this particular thread, it simply highlighted the many other threads that keep us all aloft. It was also an intense physical illustration of the way that freedom is constrained by factors outside of one’s control—the very “wheel of Chance” Emerson thought we could afford to ignore.
In 1930, James Truslow Adams, the writer who coined the term “American dream,” wrote an essay called “Emerson Re-read,” in which he tried to account for why Emerson’s essays enchanted him as a youth but felt hollow for him as an adult. This image of independence just feels too easy, he says, noting that “economic evils trouble our sage not at all.” Adams suggests that Emerson’s self-reliance was part of an optimistic current in American thought that went hand in hand with material abundance and westward expansion. Indeed, “Self Reliance” was written five years before the term “manifest destiny” was coined, an era that celebrated the lone, able explorer setting out to tame a (supposed) wilderness. The contemplative tradition has often been supported from the outside, a hallmark of the affordances of leisure—the way that philosophy in ancient Greece was dependent on a servant class. The concept of self-reliance has always relied on something else.
None of this is to say that “Self Reliance” isn’t useful as a model of refusal and commitment. In his own time, Emerson was an outspoken opponent of slavery, the Mexican-American War, and the removal of Native Americans from their land. In our time, we could surely use the reminders to examine our relationship with public opinion and to maintain a sense of principled intuition. The best version of Emerson’s individualism is bracing, like a splash of cold water to the face, or a friend shaking you by the shoulders in order to snap you out of a daze. But for me, as for many others, everything outside the self fades away too quickly in “Self Reliance”: all of the people and circumstances that have influenced my experience of independence, my conception of my self, and even the very terms with which I think. It hides the losses that appear as my gains. And by placing the will so high above circumstance, it projects an untruthful image of equal opportunity in which the unfortunate should have just tried harder.
The tensions between agency and situation, between the individual and the collective, have never been easy to resolve. I’m trying to learn to live in the messy space between. Here, you can be both your own and not your own, responsible to communities without exhibiting the dreaded groupthink, and bound by one commitment: to examine your commitments, forever. Sometimes—many times—I’m wrong. And when I am, that is a time for listening to others, not for “keep[ing] with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” I’m reminded of an archaic form of the noun “reliance,” where it means the opposite of a dependent; a reliance was someone on whom you depended. When I examine my identity, I do see an inalienable spirit grasping for infinity. But in the very same place, I also see an intersection of historical and cultural vectors, held up by a web of countless reliances.
Emerson’s writing contains a version of the self-not-self paradox, even if it’s with eyes directed upward and inward, not outward. After all, besides “Self Reliance,” the other thing he’s most associated with is the philosophy of transcendentalism, which can entail a transcending of the self as much as it does transcending society. This is the stuff that made me feel drunk, where the boundaries of the self are breached in a meeting with something else. In “The Over-Soul,” “[o]ur being is descending into us from we know not whence … I am constrained every moment to acknowledge a higher origin for events than the will I call mine.” In “Circles,” the universe is “fluid and volatile”; the soul “bursts over that boundary on all sides”; and the heart “refuses to be imprisoned; in its first and narrowest pulses, it already tends outward with a vast force, and to immense and innumerable expansions.” In “History,” an individual is not a single entity but “a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world.”
When Emerson writes that “[t]houghts come into our minds by avenues which we never left open, and … go out of minds through avenues which we never voluntarily opened,” it almost sounds like he’s describing that day at Walden Pond Books, when the Essays found their way into my unsuspecting hands. I think of my book-mushroom growing there, the “flower and fruitage” of my encounters so far. It’s a story that belongs both to me and to my reliances. I will keep coming back to the store, retreating to the mountain, having conversations, sitting alone, tracing a path that is more a spiral than a straight line. And hard as I might work, I will be anything but self-made.
Jenny Odell is the author of How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. She teaches studio art at Stanford University.
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