Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Alone with the gods on their thrones - Emerson's "Illusions"

Emerson’s essays are hard to remember because they are illogical.  His arguments often make no sense and are thus hard to follow.  This is not exactly a complaint, but rather the identification of  a difficulty.  Intuition, metaphor, wild leaps, misdirection, and irony are all acceptable tools for the essayist.  Emerson’s predecessors are Montaigne and Plutarch, not Kant and Descartes.

The pieces were all performances, or versions of performances, lectures before they were essays.  Given my troubles with the texts, I find it so difficult to imagine what Emerson’s audiences got out of one of his talks, but he was a successful and even popular speaker.  His essays are road-tested.  I find it helpful to imagine what the actor did with his lines.

The shortest essay in The Conduct of Life is “Illusions,” only nine pages ignoring the usual introductory poem, which is likely a mistake.  The first page, uncharacteristically, is given over to a scene, Emerson’s visit to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, where he is particularly impressed by the “theatrical trick” of a room with a ceiling that, in the dark, uncannily resemble a starry night sky.  The photo at this National Park Service site gives the barest idea of what Emerson saw.  But now Emerson has a hook – “Our conversation with Nature is not just what it seems…  The senses interfere everywhere…” – and more importantly only eight more pages, so perhaps I have a better chance of keeping up with the argument.

Which is that all is illusion, a by-product of perception, or that not all is illusion but good luck sorting the real from the rest, or that – I think this is it – that the world is real and we are responsible for what appears to be its illusory nature.  The illusion is the illusion.  “All is riddle, and the key to the riddle is another riddle.”

The world rolls, the din of life is never hushed.  In London, in Paris, in Boston, in San Francisco, the carnival, the masquerade is at its height.  Nobody drops his domino.  The unities, the fictions of the piece it would be an impertinence to break.

So in this case illusions are social.  In others they are imaginative (“What a debt if [a child’s] to imaginative books!”).  Some are perhaps necessary, instinctual defense mechanisms.

We are not very much to blame for our bad marriages.  We live amid hallucinations, and this especial trap is laid to trip up our feet with, and all are tripped up first or last.

That first line is wild, but I believe it contains a euphemism.  The examples pile up, some likely, others questionable.  Very little of this is argued except by means of association.  The reader, or listener, must make it fit, if he can:

There is no chance, and no anarchy, in the universe.  All is system and gradation.  Every god is there sitting in his sphere…  On the instant, and incessantly, fall snow-storms of illusions…  And when, by and by, for an instant, the air clears, and the cloud lifts a little, there are the gods still sitting around him on their thrones, – they alone with him alone.


  1. Emerson's essay do tend to be winding don't they? I wouldn't call them illogical though. There is always a point and sometimes I wonder if it isn't the process of thinking that is more important to him than the actual argument. I read a very astute assessment by Robert Richardson in his biography of Emerson in which he remarked that Emerson wrote sentences and then strung them together into paragraphs. Emerson also clearly loves the aphoristic turn of phrase.

  2. I like that you peg the essays as performances, given the Emerson lecture circuit (I was astonished to confirm that indeed he did visit San Francisco - even Oakland!). It makes me wonder whether he tailored his talks to what audiences wanted to hear. I mean, how reassuring to know that the gods are sitting around one on their thrones, that there's no anarchy or chance. I'd never thought of him as a sort of precursor of today's motivational speaker, but...

    Do you know that little Lawrence and Lee play, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail? It rather underscores the non-committal, even vacant nature of Emerson's lovely preaching.

  3. I am thinking of logic as a method, as a way to make an argument. So the presence of a point is incidental - the movement towards the point can be logical, impressionistic, chaotic, or assertive. Emerson does a lot of asserting. You are right that the result of this kind of argumentation leads to an emphasis on the sentences and aphorisms more than the rhetorical glue that binds them.

    I would not call Emerson vacant - I would emphasize his irony, which may be another word for non-comittal - although he can be awfully gassy. And I am not so sure that too many people in his audience were reassured by the frightening vision that ends "Illusions."

    He was a motivational speaker, that is true. "You must change your life."

    I had never heard of the Lawrence and Lee play. How curious.

  4. I've been reading Emerson lately too, and I found him too rambling and digressive, as if he couldn't keep focused on a point long enough to explore it. There's certainly mystery and ambiguity to his ideas, but I think it's mostly the obfuscation of a mind that couldn't think straight rather than the argument or the ideas being too complex.

    Perhaps the flaw is in me: I confess myself a follower of the school of clear essayism, Bertrand Russell being the epitome to me. What is funny is that Emerson, being an American, should write within this tradition, and instead he seems rather like a forerunner of the incomprehensible French.

  5. the school of clear essayism

    Exactly. Emerson was a member of an opposed school. He is not quite as radical in this way as Thoreau, who was more addicted to paradox. The Dean of their school is Thomas Carlyle.