The Horizon is a Circle, After All

In reading the works of Emerson, what is most readily apparent to me is that these single essays are continuations of each other. Take for example, “Circles”, “Self-reliance”, and “Experience”. From the first through to the lattermost, the same themes repeatedly surface, often with mirrored poetics and philosophical thrusts.
“The key to every man is his thought. Sturdy and defying though he look, he has a helm which he obeys, which is the idea after which all his facts are classified. He can only be reformed by showing him a new idea which commands his own. The life of man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end.” –Emerson, “Circles”

This passage comes from the essay “Circles”, and meditates on selfness of our thoughts and actions. The imagery and philosophy is wholly loyal to the essay’s title and the rest of the content. The images of circles expanding, as ripples from a water droplet, are echoed throughout the essay and as Emerson tackles the “degrees of idealism” and “conversation” which he states is a “game of circles”, we repeatedly see that he is making an argument about the many interlocking and continuous—if discordant—aspects of our lives.

That being said, if you had not read the essay “Circles”, you could be entirely forgiven for feeling like the above passage came from the essay “Self-reliance”. This essay is famous for proclamations such as “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.” And “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” The passage from “Circles” is, if slightly poetically distinct by virtue of it’s circular imagery, philosophically consistent with the content from “Self-reliance”. In both of these, an argument is made about the originality of our thoughts and actions and the worth these things have.

Further in “Self-reliance”, Emerson introduces a new metaphor: that of travel. This is both a literal lesson and a highly symbolic one.

“Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.” –Emerson, “Self-reliance”

It is clear that it fits the slant of the rest of the essay, being a commentary on the way we pursue that which we think will expand our horizons. And in this way, while the poetics and symbols being used have evolved significantly from “Circles”, the connection to that essay still exists. As does a connection to the essay “experience”. From that essay we get the passage:

“Every ship is a romantic object, except that we sail in. Embark, and the romance quits our vessel, and hangs on every other sail in the horizon. Our life looks trivial, and we shun to record it. Men seem to have learned of the horizon the art of perpetual retreating and reference.” –Emerson, “Experience”

In this essay, Emerson has moved onto a more specific discussion of the self—the way that grief is experienced and mentalized. However, in this passage, we can see how his thoughts are still being influenced by the thinking we saw in the prior essays. The poetics of ships and travel are retained from “Self-reliance” and the themes, while now being addressed in the context of grief, are retained all the way from “Circles”.

This is not a radical insight. Nor, do I think that to say that I feel that Emerson’s essay probably make the best sense only in light of each other, is a very radical proposal. That being said, this fact provided me some of the greatest joy when reading these essays.

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Do the Mountains Still Call?

This week’s medley of readings, with the exception of Emerson, consisted of writers who became prominent in the years and decades following Thoreau’s death. Of these writers, I will focus on three—Emerson, Muir, and Leopold. Emerson and Muir have in common, along with Thoreau, that they are amateur naturalists, and their writings are celebrations of the awe-inspiring sublimity of nature. Leopold is a trained scientist, and his writings do, in some ways reflect this, often investigating specific aspects of the natural world and how they are connected.

The obvious questions are how Emerson, Thoreau’s contemporary, compares to him and how environmental writing seems to have developed since these two earlier writers. In some ways, the answers to these questions seem just as obvious. Emerson shares some notable similarities. His discussion of the stars and of the ownership (or lack thereof) of land are remarkably reflective of some passages out of Walden. Leopold is markedly different in content, being far more scientifically bent. In terms of subject, he is less philosophical than Thoreau or Emerson—he is tangible and rooted in the physical, measurable world. Muir falls somewhere between these two, in my estimation. He begins to move towards Leopold in statements such as his declaration in My First Summer in the Sierras, that “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe”. This is a clear allusion to the interconnectedness of nature, a key principle in the natural sciences, from ecology, to cell biology, to biochemistry.

So the differences are apparent and obvious. However, if you’ve been paying close attention to the brief discussion above you have probably already noticed that the differences highlighted are mostly derived from the content the authors write about. In other areas, their writings are actually quite similar. Thoreau by far, uses the most intricate and convoluted literary conventions. His sentences are long and winding and his writings are deeply steeped in metaphor and symbolism. But other stylistic and tonal aspects are held in common between all four writers—particularly Emerson, Muir and Leopold. Perhaps the most obvious of these traits is the tendency to use vivid, powerful imagery. Even Leopold is high descriptive in a way that is far more poetic than we would probably associate with scientific writing today. How many evolutionary biologists have you heard saying or writing “the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution”? Few, if any, I would imagine.

In many ways, I feel like the deep interconnectedness between celebrating and studying nature, and poetic, engaging writing is lost on many researchers today, who bemoan that the public is losing interest science and discovery. They expect the facts and innovations they uncover to speak to the general public in the same way that the scientists themselves view them. By now, we should be learning that it doesn’t work this way. I firmly believe that a large part of bringing science back to the forefront of the public’s mind is returning to a way of writing about the natural world that has been left behind. The mountains are calling, but unless a new Muir or Leopold tells us, there’s no way most of us will ever know.