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  • Neither Here nor There:On Grief and Absence in Emerson's "Experience"
  • Ryan White

The movement of love is circular, at one and the same impulse projecting creations into independency and drawing them into harmony.

—Charles S. Peirce

Yesterday night, at fifteen minutes after eight, my little Waldo ended his life.

—Journal of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote "Experience" (1844) after the death of his young son, a major schism in his life, and yet the essay is notable for the fact that Emerson pointedly refuses to demonstrate his grief. Tellingly, he does not even name the child, preferring the generalized and even impersonal "my son" instead. It would seem, from his words and the cursory manner in which he treats it, that the loss does not affect him: "In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate,—no more" (in 2001, 200; hereafter cited parenthetically by page [End Page 285] number). He does not show the total devastation one expects from the death of a dear child. Instead, Emerson finds himself adrift on an ocean of names and signifiers that do not find their marks, and the claim in Nature (1836) that "words are signs of natural facts" (35) can no longer be sustained. In "Experience," Emerson is principally concerned with what could be called the faultiness of language, a constitutive inability to refer to a real and stable world ("natural facts") beyond the words themselves. This manifests itself as a preoccupation with the act of naming, or pronouncing a name as an act of representation.

Not surprisingly, "Experience" is then often linked to a decisive shift away from the optimistic and affirmative transcendentalism of Nature, in particular the idea that we are fundamentally at home in the world. In fact, it would seem that Emerson's stance on naming does not differ in spirit from the Calvinist philosophy regarding representations of the natural world as well as metaphysical concepts. This applies especially and above all to the concept of God, as seen in the Puritan poet Edward Taylor's lament: "Whether I speake, or speechless stand . . . / I faile thy Glory" (quoted in Bercovitch 1975, 21). Not only are these words an expression of the inadequacy of human language, they are also charged with the failure of an ethical duty to accurately represent that which is unrepresentable. Emerson's silence can be seen to enact similar problems, with his prose continually hinting at what it cannot, will not, say: "An innavigable sea washes with silent waves between us and the things we aim at and converse with. Grief too will make us idealists" (199). If we cannot speak of that which is unspeakable, what can we say? Systems theorist Niklas Luhmann considers the problem under very nearly the same terms as Taylor: "The other possibility is silence—a silence that no longer wants to be understood as communication (but forever understood, is understandable only in this way). This does not only mean to opt for silence within the distinction between speaking and silence, but to avoid the distinction as such, so that the problem does not arise in the first place. . . . But then, doesn't one still have the problem that in a world in which one speaks, silence is possible only within self-drawn boundaries, i.e., as the production of difference?" (1994, 27). Emerson's silence would have it that his son is utterly lost along with the world itself, not to be recovered as known even in grief. Yet, as Sharon Cameron's influential essay on "Experience" poignantly demonstrates, his silence speaks despite himself. [End Page 286]

However, while the arguments of the present essay would not be possible without Cameron's important insights in "Representing Grief," I wish to depart slightly from her analysis of "Experience" in order to take Emerson more plainly at his word. Rather than read "Experience" as a "testament to the pervasiveness of a loss so inclusive that it is inseparable from experience itself" (Cameron 2007, 57), I take Emerson's claim that "I cannot get it nearer to me" (200) in reference to the loss of his...


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