Emerson and Montaigne 2

I find it natural to parcel out my reflections on Emerson by addressing first Emersonian sentences, then paragraphs, then essays.  (This is more or less Firkins’ approach.)  Emerson uniquely composes each.  Although I have had a go once at Emerson’s sentences, I want to try to say something about them again.

I reckon that Firkin’s is right to claim that the obscurity of Emerson’s sentences has more to do with strangeness than dimness.  But I judge the strangeness more strangeness of form than of content, although content is strange too.  Emerson does something strange with sentences, he puts them together in his own peculiar way.  Part of what Emerson is doing is striving for aphoristic integrity, a cut-from-diamond hardness and perfection, for sentences that can withstand judgment simultaneously literary and philosophical, and severe.  He plays for high sentential stakes:  No sentence may be mere filler, or only a very few, at most.  Virtually every sentence has to be such as to retain perfect integrity even if isolated from its particular paragraph and particular essay.  Wittgenstein in TLP accounts for sentences so as to render the sense of any one independent of the truth of any other.  Emerson tries to write sentences such that the understanding of one is, in some sense, independent of the understanding of any other.  Sentential self-sufficiency.

But, even so, Emerson writes these sentences into paragraphs and these paragraphs into essays.  How?  How can these aphoristic atoms become molecular?  How can sentential self-sufficiency be retained in a paragraph in which sentences stand in mutual relation, perhaps even in some sort of mutual dependence?

I will let the questions hang for now.  –Back to sentences.

Emerson is also handles his lexicon strangely.  He so words sentences that often the words in them mean more, and mean it differently, than the words do in the sentences of others.  But assigning that differently meant different meaning cannot be done unless the word is left where it is.  It does what it does there, in that sentences, flanked by just those other words.  (The phenomenon is most familiar in poetry.  Emerson manages it in prose–and not in prose-poetry, in prose.)  These words play something analogous to the role that technical terms play in other writers, although they are not technical terms in Emerson.  (There are no technical terms in Emerson.)  Instead, they are carefully managed flections (inflections or deflections or reflections) of the meaning of the word, fully contextually bound, but carrying forward much of what is most completely his own in Emerson’s writing.  (Consider: ‘aversion’.)  Sentences featuring his truly characteristic lexicon cannot be paraphrased.

3 responses

  1. “How can these aphoristic atoms become molecular? How can sentential self-sufficiency be retained in a paragraph in which sentences stand in mutual relation, perhaps even in some sort of mutual dependence?”

    Could it be a Biblical influence? Emerson the secular preacher.

    The rhythm of separation (but never staccato to my inner ears) but with a loose, near fingerspitzengefühl connection?

    • I suspect you are right–the nature of the dependence is both influenced by scripture (perhaps especially the Old Testament) and by internalized preacherly cadences. I will think more about this.

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