The Transcendentalist

It is not to be denied that there must be some wide difference between my faith and other faith; and mine is a certain brief experience, which surprised me in the highway or in the market, in some place, at some time, – whether in the body or out of the body, God knoweth, – and made me aware that I had played the fool with fools all this time, but that law existed for me and for all; that to me belonged trust, a child’s trust and obedience, and the worship of ideas, and I should never be fool more. Well, in the space of an hour probably, I was let down from this height; I was at my old tricks, the selfish member of a selfish society. My life is superficial, takes no root in the deep world; I ask, When shall I die and be relieved of the responsibility of seeing a Universe which I do not use? (Emerson 253-254)

You will soon figure out that Transcendentalism, and especially New England Transcendentalism, is one of my major fields of interest. I came to love this field of study and, amongst others, its most famous representative, Ralph Waldo Emerson, during my masters degree. My love for the topic was definitely not love at first sight. It grew on me – a little bit at a time. Studying it was born out of necessity as a course on Emerson was the only one that fit into my overloaded university schedule. Due to personal issues, which had nothing to do with uni, it took me a while before I managed to write my paper on Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”. In the meantime, I came to like the lecturer and continued to do courses on American pragmatism, which is sometimes seen as a child of transcendentalism, and other early 20th century American Lit. When it was time to decide in which field I should specialise and write my thesis, I knew it had to include Emerson.

These days, I read an Emerson essay here and there to give me something to think about as he more and more appeals to my own inner struggles or thoughts. Many readers of Emerson think that he is a self-assured man, a rebel who just broke all his ties with his former life once he uncovered how rotten Denmark or in his case the Unitarian Church was. Not just this church but basically any institutionalised form of belief. But he is a struggling man and that’s one of the reasons why I think he is so appealing and convincing. Many of his fellow Transcendentalist have an air of eccentricity about them. Alcott in particular seems to most people to be nothing but a mere loser, who wasn’t able to provide for his family and was the reason why his world-famous daughter, Louisa May, not only struggled financially in spite of her immense success but also why she basically worked herself to death taking care of her father.

However, Emerson in his essay “The Transcendentalist” not only refuses to give a clear-cut definition of the term transcendentalist but also uses this opportunity to show that society’s problems with people who choose a different way of living and thinking, has nothing really to do with that particular person, instead society is to blame. The main reason, I dare to claim, for the clashes between “common” folk and transcendentalists is that they work as a mirror and show us our own shortcomings:

They prolong their privilege of childhood in this wise; of doing nothing, but making immense demands on all the gladiators in the lists of action and fame.[…] Then these youths bring us a rough but effectual aid. By their unconcealed dissatisfaction they expose our poverty and the insignificance of man to man. (249-250)

These men dare to listen to a voice inside them, which is, according to Emerson, present in every single being but silenced by society’s demands. They don’t do nothing because they’re lazy, no goods, bums – they “stand in greater want of the labor […] but […] do not work like your work” (252-253). Why do something that you don’t feel any connection to, any passion for? Something that somebody else is way better at?!

Unfortunately, man is part of two worlds: the inner world (his soul, his thoughts) and the outer (society, family). And Emerson is definitely aware of this fact. He himself is a family man. Without shame he excludes himself from the group of brave men who dare to listen to their inner calling. This becomes obvious as he takes the position as mediator, interviewer and admirer.

Transcendentalists, as I said, fulfil the function of a mirror. Their thoughts aren’t necessarily new; they just need to be voiced time and again to remind mankind that there is a higher power at work. Remind mankind of alternatives, possibilities. To remind man that he is part of nature, of a universe.

But the thoughts which these few hermits strove to proclaim by silence as well as by speech, not only by what they did, but by what they forbode to do, shall abide in beauty and strength, to reorganize themselves in nature, to invest themselves anew in other, perhaps higher endowed and happier mixed clay than ours, in fuller union with the surrounding system. (258)

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Transcendentalist”; Ralph Waldo Emerson: Nature and Selected Essays. Ed. Larzer Ziff. New York: Penguin Group, 2003. 239-258. Print.
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