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Robert C. Pollock - Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Single Vision

Robert C. Pollock - Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Single Vision

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Published by John Uebersax
Possibly the best essay ever on the modern relevance of Ralph Waldo Emerson. From: Harold C. Gardiner (ed.), American Classics Reconsidered: A Christian Appraisal, New York: Scribner, 1958. (pp. 15-58).
Possibly the best essay ever on the modern relevance of Ralph Waldo Emerson. From: Harold C. Gardiner (ed.), American Classics Reconsidered: A Christian Appraisal, New York: Scribner, 1958. (pp. 15-58).

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Published by: John Uebersax on Aug 01, 2013
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BOOKS BY
THE
REVEREND
HAROLD C. GARDINER,
S.
J.
MYSTERIES'
END
NORMS
FOR
THE
NOVELEDMUND CAMPIONCATHOLIC VIEWPOINT ON CENSORSHIP
FATHER
GARDINER
IS
ALSO
THE
EDITOR
OF:
FIFTY
YEARS OF
THE
AMERICAN NOVEL:
A Christian Appraisal
THE
GREAT BOOKS:
A Christian Appraisal
THOMAS
a
KEMPIS:
Imitation of
Christ
AMERICAN
CLASSICS
RECONSIDERED
A Christian Appraisal
EDITED
BY
HAROLD
C.
GARDINER, S.J.
New York
CHARLES SCRIBNER'S SONS
 
14
THE
ERA OF
THE
HALF-GODS
IN
AMERICAN
LITERATURE
greater wealth of symbol, is struggling with the rooted drive ofthe human soul
"to
be a man in a perfect way
...
a man immenselyand universally, and this merely
by
being himself."
It
is for this reason
that
these authors are, in this introduction'stitle, the "half-gods" of American literature. Never, in our literaryhistory, has a comparable body of authors struggled
so
passionatelyto assess the truly human and the properly-estimated divine inhuman nature.
The
rule is perhaps proved
by
the exception: of allthe authors here studied, only Longfellow seems to have been temperamentally unable to wrestle with the angel, and
it
would seem,as the assessment of him points out,
that that
was the very reasonwhy his work was fated to remain in the category of "minorclassicism." There need be little cause for lament
that
the othersfell short of a completely satisfying literary statement or embodiment of the amazing
truth
of what human nature is in itself
and
in its relationship to fellow men, to nature, and to God. Vague"Over-Souls" and "Love Divine," formless "Destiny," and
beckon~
ing "Democracy" may too often be the deities tendered obeisance,
but
the ground and base of them all is firmer and truer than eventhe authors themselves realized. Since their day, American literature has had
no
such center.
The
onset of realism, the concern ofliterature with sociology and lately with psychiatry, have little
by
little shifted the center of interest from a profound, if oftenmisdirected, concern with the towering ethical, moral, and philosophical crises of the human situation to a worried interest inenvironment, a too-photographic recording of social stresses
and
adaptability. Perhaps today
we
have only in Faulkner an imagination rich and wide enough to grasp what almost infinite riches lie
at
the disposal of an artist who can vibrate to the challenge setbefore human nature when
it
is conceived as the age-old and stillenduring Christian tradition conceived and conceives it.Alas! the second line of Emerson's verse has not proved
true
at
least in American letters. The "half-gods" of the nineteenthcentury were not followed by "arriving gods."
But
we
can begrateful
that
at
one period in our cultural and literary history
we
did have men of a stature and a will to wrestle with the Angel.
The
extent of their failure and success, the measure of their daringand their vision can be appreciated truly only when they aregauged against the full glory of the message about man and God
that
complete Christianity gave and gives.
RALPH WALDO
EMERSON
1803-1882
The Single
Vision
ROBERT
C.
POLLOCK
~N
interpretation
f
Emerson which would claim to
do
him justice
IS
by no
~eans
a hght undertaking. For, contrary to what seemsto be a Widely held opinion, he was a very complex person whothought deeply and subtly about serious matters. Indeed, the
c~oser
we
come
t?
the I?an himself the better
we
can estimate thedifficulty of makmg a
JUSt
appraisal of his essential geniusTo?ay, thanks to the painstaking efforts of scholars
it
is possibleto gam a rounded appreciation of Emerson's
achi~vements.
At
t~e
very least,
we
can now see
that
Emerson resists easy classification,. and that,
~ore~ver,
t~ere
is little excuse for certain misconceptlo?s regardmg him which
owe
their currency to the habit of
~ouncmg
upon
ce~tain
~ords
.of his taken in isolation and withlittle
~egard
for his basic motivations, spiritual intellectual
and
esthetic. ' '
~
contemporary scholar sums up extremely well what anysenous readmg. of Em:rson should teach us, when he says:
"We
ar.e
wrong to.
thmk
of him as an Olympian seer, playing in solitude
~Ith
Plato~Ic
abstractions. The power of his writing rests notSimply
o?
his
craftsma~'s
skill, though
that
was great,
but
on thecompulsiOns and conflicts, the revelations and the doubts, theglones
a.nd
the
f~ars
which struck fire in his imagination and compelled him
~o
brmg them to definition. Genius
is
the daughter ofsuch
neces~~~Y·
B~causeh~
has this kind of power he will continueto be read. "":hile
~e
might
~nd
fault with
any
statement which
~ould
seem to Identif?' Platoms.m with abstractions in the pejorative sense,
we.
must still agree
With
the main idea expressed
by
this
~uthor,
especially when he goes on to say of Emerson
that
"hishfe of thought was not, as
it
has generally been represented
an
eventless and static thing, to be defined and assessed, like
~er-
I5
 
16
RALPH
WALDO
EMERSON
chandise,
by
a process of random sampling," and when. he says,further
"In
following
it
we
are watching a process
that
IS
alwaysabsorbing wherever
it
is
encountered-the
action of a superiorimagination taking possession of its world."
2
••
However, if
we
are to make this general assessment of the hvmgquality of Emerson's work complete,
we
should stress not
onl.Y
the dynamism of his life and thought and the great power of hisimagination,
but
also his capacity for highly disciplined thinking.And here again a contemporary author sums up the matter for uswhen she says (in reference to Emerson's ideas of literature and
art) that
"at
no
point was he soaring into a vague empyrean ofirresponsible speculation,
but
was always sustained
by
the supportof other thinkers however disparate these thinkers may be from
'
.
each other,''
3
and when, in addition, she tells us
that
his esthetictheory "is a better rationalized esthetic than his critics havegenerally suspected."
4
But
while Emerson was primarily a literary figure, he foundhimself in the situation where he had to function constructivelyon a theoretical level, and not merely with respect to poetry andliterature,
but
in relation to reality as a whole. And the burdensimposed
by
such a diversity of interests were bound
~o
have
~n-
happy results.
As
a literary figure he had to concern himself
WI~h
esthetic theory inasmuch as he wanted to show
that
estheticsensibility has
~n
indispensable function within the whole str.uc-ture of knowledge. His avowed aim was to demonstrate the obJec-tive status of esthetic experience, while justifying a symbolisticmethod in literature. Moreover, the need for a reappraisal of humanexistence in its entirety was keenly felt by him, especially sincehe could see
that
the problems confronting him as a writer andpoet waited for their solution on the answer to questions of aphilosophical nature.From first to last an artist, Emerson paid the price of his diverseefforts, even laying himself open to the charge
that
his "failingwas a lack of literary purposefulness."
5
Still,
we
may
well ques-tion whether
"a
lack of literary purposefulness" exactly states thecase, for
it
remains true
that
he played
no
small
part
in fortifyingand expanding esthetic sensibility, as the author just quoted hashimself shown.Although Emerson spent much time brooding over philosophicalmatters he never for a moment fancied himself a philosopher in
any
pu;ely formal or technical sense of the terms.
Far
from it,for he made
no
bones about his deficiency in the sort of thinking
THE
SINGLEVISION
I7
that
produced the works of a Hume or a Butler.
6
Yet, if
we
readhis
Journals
along with his
Essays,
we
surely cannot avoid seeing
that
he was capable of a high and sustained philosophical serious-ness which puts the stamp of significance on much of what he says.Indeed, as
it
has been rightly said,
"the
height
and
depth of histhought" is one of his "distinguishing excellencies."
7
Emerson was first and last
"an
artist in the medium of theory."
8
And, as an artist he brought something of value to his philosophicalreflections, namely, an esthetic sensibility which held him fastto a concrete and experiential method. This method in no wayimplied a derogatory view of philosophical speculation, although
it
did fasten his attention on the strange and complex process
by
which experience is converted into thought. Others might disparageknowing and the contemplative life, but, as one who had imbibedcopiously of Plato's wisdom, he grasped the importance and eventhe sublimity of soaring speculative thought. However, the sus-taining purpose of his philosophical efforts was simply to extendconsciousness through direct insight, and to enlarge man's visionof the world.Emerson was quite content to translate his philosophical ideasinto the broadest human terms, without trying to work them intoa strictly philosophical form. Systematic thinking of a sort therewould be, of course,
but
he would mainly content himself withthe kind of system which consists in "dotting a fragmentary curve,recording only what facts he has observed, without attemptingto arrange them within one outline
....
9
Thus, all things con-sidered, Emerson's approach was characterized
by
good sense andmodesty, and
if
his thought may
at
times seem to defy abstractlogic,
it
possesses, notwithstanding, a logic of its own, a logic oflife, which is validated in the depth of personal experience.At every step of the way, Emerson worked on two levels
at
once,
that
of principles and
that
of experience, for he saw with far morethan ordinary clarity
that
men were suffering from an impoverish-ment of both principles and experience.
But it
was especially withthe level of experience
that
he concerned himself, since he knew
that
while principles were absolutely essential, they would hardlymanifest their
truth
to men who had already imposed artificiallimits on experience. How could they possibly
pay
heed to hisreligious, ethical, and esthetic teachings,
if
they regarded
the
religious, ethical, and esthetic components of experience itself asstrictly out of bounds?
He
accordingly applied himself to thebusiness of restoring to human life a whole range of experience

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