Monday, November 30, 2009

Extra Credit

For extra credit, choose a paragraph of Emerson's challenging essay "Experience" and do a close reading of about a page. What do you notice about the tone/mood/style/techniques of the passage? How do you think it relates to Emerson's experience of having lost his son? How does it connect to course themes?


  1. Hello. This is Paola. I will try to do a close reading of the following paragraph. This essay is challenging indeed!

    Temperament also enters fully into the system of illusions, and shuts us in a prison of glass which we cannot see. There is an optical illusion about every person we meet. In truth, they are all creatures of given temperament, which will appear in a given character, whose boundaries they will never pass: but we look at them, they seem alive, and we presume there is impulse in them. In the moment it seems impulse; in the year, in the lifetime, it turns out to be a certain uniform tune which the revolving barrel of the music-box must play. Men resist the conclusion in the morning, but adopt it as the evening wears on, that temper prevails over everything of time, place, and condition, and is inconsumable in the flames of religion. Some modifications the moral sentiment avails to impose, but the individual texture holds its dominion, if not to bias the moral judgments, yet to fix the measure of activity and of enjoyment (Emerson).

  2. And here is my attempt.
    I love the first line of this paragraph. It sets the tone, which is serious and somehow plaintive.
    In the whole paragraph Emerson uses the word “temperament” two times only, yet the whole paragraph seems to revolve around that word, which may be referring to one’s manner of thinking, acting, or reacting. This word may also refer to one’s natural inclinations or predispositions. The system of illusions could be Emerson’s way of calling “life.” So life is a “system of illusions” in which we cannot see the true selves of the people we meet because our “temperament” does not let us see beyond the invisible “prison of glass” (This also may indicate that we cannot even see ourselves as well). We are forced to keep our distance, to not dig deeper into their temperaments, even though they too have some hidden natural predispositions just like us.
    The word “impulse” is connected to the idea of being alive, a sudden inclination, a natural urge. Emerson may be saying that when we meet people we want to believe that they are alive inside, yet in reality, as life passes they are no more or less alive than the rest of us. It is like our inside “impulse” is actually nothing but an “uniform tune,” which keeps playing over and over again in circles, like a “revolving barrel,” to which everyone is dancing to. Emerson may be saying that this is life: a “system of illusions,” which sooner or later becomes an “uniform tune” that keeps repeating itself, going in circles like a “revolving barrel.”
    In the following line, Emerson continues his exploration on men’s natural predispositions. Emerson says that even if one resists his true nature, his true self when morning comes, one's true nature will always be there regardless of “time, place, and condition….” It is so strong that even religion cannot eliminate it with its “flames” because one’s true nature is impossible to destroy. It is just an inherent part of us.
    Finally, Emerson says that one’s “moral sentiment,” which may refer to societal moral and values that one has learned, may rule some aspects of ourselves and our lives, yet our true selves will always have the last word, not precisely to alter what we have been taught by society, but to control, “measure,” our actions and reactions, “activity and enjoyment.”
    Emerson’s audience could not be everyone. His writing style and word choice are difficult, which, in my opinion, indicate that this essay was written for an “elite” group, well-learned and advanced people.
    His purpose was probably to “enlighten” people with revolutionary ideas about the self, the true self. Emerson probably wanted people to understand that by getting to know ourselves, we would obtain “awareness.” His ideas seem revolutionary to me, considering the time it was written. After he lost his son, Emerson probably realized how vulnerable human beings are and how illusory and absurd life may be. He probably could not find consolation in the meaningless outside world, thus he explore within himself which made him aware that this is life, a “system of illusions,” and there was simply nothing he could do about it, except explore and try to find answers within himself.

  3. Great job, Paola. I find it so interesting that Emerson is often described in relation to other text as this great celebrator of the power of the individual, but here we see how vulnerable that idea of self is.

  4. Hey, it's Katherine. Here is the text I used.
    Of course, it needs the whole society, to give the symmetry we seek. The parti-colored wheel must revolve very fast to appear white. Something is learned too by conversing with such folly and defect. In fine, whoever loses, we are always of the gaining party. Divinity is behind our failures and follies also. The plays of children are nonsense, but very educative nonsense. So it is the largest and solemnest things, with commerce, government, church, marriage, and so with the history of every man's bread, and the ways by which he is to come by it. Like a bird which alights nowhere, but hops perpetually from bough to bough, is the Power which abides in no man and in no woman, but for a moment seeks from this one, and for another moment from that one.

  5. In the first line, "it" refers to life generally and what it can do for us. Emerson here says that life needs everyone in society as a whole, with no parts missing, so that it can in turn give us this "symmetry", or excellence in proportion or balance, that we are all looking for in our lives. The second sentence gives us an image of a wheel with various colors on it that must spin very quickly so as to be the same color, which he has chosen to be white--a symbol of purity and perfection--just as the different people in society must be in unison to become one perfect whole. He uses "part-colored" instead of "multicolored" or "colorful" to describe the wheel, since he is trying to point out society as being parts or patches of a whole, instead of differences or varieties within that whole. In the next three lines Emerson discusses that we are educated by our foolishness or shortcomings, and that regardless of our outcomes in situation, we are always gaining something because there is some divine nature behind our actions. This then relates to the next issue he addresses, when he begins with saying that we can learn from childrens games, as the grander and more serious things in our society as well as the histories of each individual are much more meaningless than we may think. He concludes this idea with a beautiful image of a bird jumping onto different branches of a tree, relating "Power"(which Emerson capitalizes to show how it indeed has more power than ourselves) to this bird which never takes flight but moves from one branch to the next. "Power" never settles in one specific person, movement, or part of society, but speaks from one or another at different times. Emerson's image makes human beings seem so unimportant and subordinate to this "Power" that is given to us only at times, drawing upon the former idea that we should all see ourselves as one instead of partitioning for sake of gaining our own individual power.

  6. Great job with a difficult passage, Katherine. It's interesting that he's talking about children's games and their wisdom in an essay prompted by the death of a child.

  7. Hi, Prof.
    This is Victoria, can we still post for an extra credit, or was November 30th the only time that we had to submit it.

  8. No Victoria, if you want to wade into Emerson and have a go, have at it!