A Reading in Emerson
by Branka Arsic
Harvard University Press
$49.95 List Price
Fresh from having resigned his pulpit in the Second Unitarian Church, and after briefly considering becoming a botanist, Ralph Waldo Emerson decided to try his hand at philosophy. His 1836 pamphlet, Nature, contains a theory of history, an ethics, a philosophy of language, and an aesthetics. The system, if we can call it that, is a sort of Orphic pantheism. Among its teachings are that nature is a hieroglyph of our minds, that there exists an "occult relation between man and the vegetable," and that we "expand and live in the warm day, like corn and melons." The book hits its psychedelic zenith when we hear of the egoless ecstasy the philosopher feels after stepping over a snow puddle, during which he becomes a "transparent eyeball."
In giving up Nature's recondite grandeur for the moodier medium of the essay, Emerson arrived at the prose style for which he is famous and that gives him a place alongside Bacon and Montaigne as an aphorist. His essays unfold not so much as arguments, but as leaps the reader feels provoked to connect ("I step along from stone to stone over the Lethe which gurgles around my path," he wrote in his journal). As an effort at imagining how the earlier enthusiasm for building philosophical systems might be carried over into the whole of the American author's thought, Branka Arsić's On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson is an intellectual feast. Her guiding question—"What does it really mean to hold that everything fluctuates, and, being relational, changes its identity?"—sets off one of most thorough studies we have. Arsić calls herself an "archaeologist