Review: Paul Grimstad on Arsić’s “On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson”

The Feb/Mar 2010 issue of Bookforum includes a review, written by Paul Grimstad (English, Yale University), of Branka Arsić’s new book on Emerson, entitled On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson (Harvard Univ. Press, 2010). To access the review, please click here (you may be required to register to read this article, but registration is free).

Here is how it begins:

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 of Emerson’s thinking,” no easy task considering not just the amount of Emerson’s writing (the journals alone run to sixteen volumes) but its relentless idiosyncrasy. In spending as much time on relatively obscure essays and lectures as with staples like “The American Scholar” and “Self-Reliance,” as well as in reading deep in the journals and correspondence, Arsić tries to get the big picture to cohere around what she simply calls leaving.

“The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion,” Emerson tells us, and by leaving Arsić means the way such aversion can be transformed into a larger art of living. This she describes as “relocating the ordinary, taking it out of the deadly safety of the suburban mainstream and moving it into . . . zones of questioning and experimenting.” Finding in aversion a practice for cracking the husks of habit, Arsić makes Emerson into one of the great nineteenth-century moderns, up there with Charles Baudelaire and his agitated, spleen-soaked erotics of the passerby (she finds affinity between the men around ideas of the fleeting and the fugitive) and with Friedrich Nietzsche, who carried around a German translation of the Essays and jotted constantly in the margins (mostly just “Ja!” “Ja!”).

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