Victor Nuovo: Emerson on 'Experience'

Editor’s note: This is the 34th in a series of essays on the history and meaning of the American political tradition.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s earliest writings, on which the previous essay was based, portray a mind infused with a sunny confidence. In his later works his mood darkens; moments of doubt and uncertainty cloud his vision. This emergent mood is given somber and poignant expression in the essay “Experience.” Emerson does not say what caused this change of mood. He mentions the recent death of son Waldo from scarlet fever. He was only five, an innocent child, and Emerson dearly loved him. Yet it would be a mistake to interpret this essay merely as a personal expression of grief; for his thoughts carried him beyond his grief to a broader vision of the human condition and the meaning of existence. It is not somber, but not without hope.

The essay opens with a question. “Where do we find ourselves?” to which Emerson responds. “In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none.” He imagines himself as having awakened into a dreamlike state, standing midway on a flight of stairs that appears to float in infinite space; its top and bottom extend out of sight. He has no idea of how he came to be there. His very being seems to be without substance and purpose, a mere sequence of conscious events without meaning or purpose. If there is any order to them, it is not one designed to accommodate us.

“Ghostlike we glide through nature, and should not know our place again. Did our birth fall in some fit of indigence and frugality in Nature, that she was so sparing of her fire … and though we have health and reason, yet we have no superfluity of spirit for new creation? We have enough to live and bring the year about, but not an ounce to impart or invest … We are like millers on the lower levels of a stream, when the factories above them have exhausted the water.” “Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. Life is a train of moods, like a string of beads, and as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus.” We have only experience to guide us.

The terms “experience” and “experiment” were once synonymous. They have the same Latin root: experiri, to be put to the test, to be made trial of — but to what purpose? Emerson imagines a human life as a series of trials, whose purpose is never revealed. Self-consciousness is an awakening to this condition, whose chief condition is disorientation. It is as though Nature has betrayed him.

Whereas as in “Nature” we find Emerson the transcendental idealist, in “Experience” he has become an existential philosopher. The former is an optimist. The latter inclines towards pessimism. To the former, the course of nature and history is managed and directed by an all-powerful, benevolent, wise spirit, whose purposes are evident to every inquiring mind and certain to be accomplished. Its values are objective and clear. The latter is caught up in a network of subjectivity that bars the way to truth, and efforts to escape it inevitably fail. Our state is prison of desperation. “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.” Even our feelings are diminished and deprived.

The idealist is well connected to the world, confident of its purposes. The existentialist is plagued by chronic neurasthenia. Writing of the death of his son, he despairs that “it does not touch me: some thing which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me, nor enlarged without enriching me, fall off from me, and leaves no scar.” “I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.” “Nothing is left us now but death.”

Illusion, loss of feeling, despair, death, of being cast into the world for no purpose, without any end but oblivion. These are the themes of an existentialist philosopher, a skeptic and a pessimist. These are themes that better fit the world as it now is than as it appeared to be in New England 200 years ago. Perhaps after all, nothing ever changes. Life, the universe, everything seems to be governed by chance and necessity, with no ultimate purpose.

Notwithstanding, Emerson is undaunted. But the path that is now before him leading to a recovery of confidence and hope is not an easy one to follow; it is arduous, but it leads to wisdom. I’m reminded of the wise words of Sakini, in “Teahouse of the August Moon.” “Pain make man think. Thought make man wise. Wisdom make life endurable.” Emerson would agree. Human nature is not devoid of resources that make it possible to endure life’s many disappointments, and the capacity to endure them, and to employ them even creatively, in ways not before imagined.

Experience causes reflection; reflection, wisdom; and wisdom provides us with the strength to continue life’s journey with modest optimism that fits the reality of things. The words with which he concludes this essay are worth remembering: Life goes on, “but in the solitude to which every man is always returning, he has a sanity and revelations, which in the passage of time he will carry with him. Never mind the ridicule (of Naysayers), never mind the defeat (of fortune): up again old heart! –— it seems to say –– there is victory yet for justice; and the true romance which the world exists to realize, will be the transformation of genius into practical power.” And so the trial of life continues.

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