More On Emerson’s Incarnational Method

I intend to get to Emerson on Montaigne, really to get to it, soon.  But I find myself wanting, needing I guess, to say more about what I turbidly called “Emerson’s Incarnational Method“.  I was drawn to that phrase because it seemed, and still seems to me to educe something deeply important in Emerson, something both inspiring and difficult.  I addressed the inspiring last time.  I want now to address the difficult.  I do so with hesitancy, for reasons that should be apparent momentarily.

A common complaint about Emerson is that he lacks a sense of tragedy.  There is something to that.  Recall the awful scene of Emerson having Waldo exhumed, so that he can see that Waldo is dead, that Waldo’s dust is returning to dust.  Emerson wants to think and write Incarnationally; he wants to live that way.  But he cannot manage it resolutely.  (Can anyone?)  When writing to read in public, he tends always to see the relationship of fact to morals, to see the heavens in the earthly world.  And this makes him, and his urging his readers toward self-reliance and self-obedience, too Docetist.  He has a hard time with the hard facts, with the facts in relation to sensation. He writes from a luminous sense of omniscence, of omnipotence:  everything is transfigured, aglow with uncreated light.  But in his writing for himself, in his living, he finds that he is a dwarf, omni-nescient, powerless.  He is too Ebionite.  His son is taken from him in the sixth year of his joy, but Emerson cannot accept that.  Death, in particular the death of Waldo, seems like the triumph of sensation over morals, a putting-out of the uncreated light, darkness.  As he puts it in a journal entry (the one I am weaving into this post), he knows himself defeated constantly, but believes he is “born to victory”.

It strikes me that Emerson lacks a true sense of the sacramental.  (I believe this shows itself in Emerson’s (mis)understanding of religious ritual.)  For Emerson, creation itself is and should be sacramental, and the Incarnation he is and strives better to be is itself an instance of the sacramental, and is oriented toward the fullness of the sacramental.  The Incarnation finishes the sacramental activity of creation. Emerson needs to see the material as itself what realizes the spiritual, the tangible as what itself what realizes the moral.  But he all-too-often sees the material as opposed to the spiritual, the tangible as opposed to the moral.  So seeing, he all-too-often confronts facts divided, divided into the side that is related to sensation and the side that is related to morals.  So seeing, he becomes overwhelmed with the material, with sensation, and cannot find his way out of the darkness.  He would have Waldo immortal; he cannot imagine Waldo resurrected:  he is left with Waldo dead.  –How can someone born to victory be so defeated?

2 responses

  1. I’m not at all familiar with Emerson’s Incarnational Method, or his view on death. Are these from his journal?

    A former colleague sent me this quote the other day: “From the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.” — Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species

    I realized that Darwin’s quote could be understood from two different perspectives. From the evolutionary perspective, death by natural selection may lead to the production of higher species; From a Christian perspective, death, in particular the death of Jesus, is the triumph of light over darkness, the spiritual over the carnal, the heavenly over the earthly.

    • Interesting comment about Darwin’s line. I’ve coined the (likely unhappy) phrase “Incarnational Method”. But the quotation my post leans on is in the journals: Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, vol 8, p. 228.

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