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  • Dream a Little Dream of Not Me:The Natures of Emerson's Demonology
  • Richard Hardack (bio)

"God has made nothing without a crack except Reason."

—Ralph Waldo Emerson (1960-82, IV: 357)

"There is a crack in every thing God has made."

—Emerson, "Compensation" (1904, II: 107)


Though it focuses partly on dreams and the occult, the ulterior subject of Emerson's "Demonology"—published in the North American Review in 1877, almost forty years after it was first delivered in lecture form—is not just contradiction, but the arcane inversions, doublings, and self-dismantlings of transcendentalism itself. Between many of Emerson's pronouncements falls this shadow of Demonology, which I treat as a key aspect of his theories and essays of experience—that is, those in which his contradictions are preeminent, unsettling, and thematic. If Emerson's transcendental pantheism is suffused with, or structured by, contradiction and doubling, "Demonology" is the essay that most fitfully "performs" those inversions; in which the double emerges as twin and negative; and in which polar opposites become both coterminous and sequential in any direction (and therefore almost never linear in exposition).1

Both as the essay and concept I focus on in this article, Demonology is not a tangent or coda to Emerson's work, but the cumulative residue of an attempt to codify that which resists his overarching theory that all forces, [End Page 329] processes and attributes of nature are consistent, explicable, rational, and ultimately commensurate. Both its problematic provenance as an essay revised while Emerson suffered from failing mental acuity, and the way its tenets resist formalization, have led most scholars to treat "Demonology," as an essay and concept, either as a digression or embarrassment.2 Critics of the day, however, seemed to realize that a protean Demonology was one of the definitive components of Emerson's pantheism: for example, Enoch Pond, an inveterate critic of Emersonian thought, warned in 1852 that "Pantheism… can assume any shape, can appear in any form, adopt any creed. … We wonder not that it begins to raise its demoniac front, boasts of numbers and threatens to swallow up everything which stands in its way" (131). I reassess "Demonology"—not just in spite of its inchoate status and troubled provenance, but in part because of it—as an overlooked encapsulation of many of Emerson's ulterior tenets and a capstone of his metaphysics. In Lacanian terms, the contradictory or seemingly anomalous elements of "Demonology" represent the necessary remainders or gaps in his work that allow Emerson to address nature, a scenario complicated by the fact that the subject of these remainders is remainders. In other words, the subject of the essay is, implicitly, the cause of its own fragmentary nature. In never entirely stable ways, the demonological for Emerson represents specific forces within nature, but is also immanent to the system of nature. I also attempt to counter the lingering perception of Emerson as both a rationalist and idealist. No consistent transcendentalism generates or allows for Emerson's inconsistent pronouncements, because the inconsistency precedes the pronouncements at the level of ontology. A negation of the negation, Emerson's Demonology does not emerge in the register of symbolic spiritual transcendence, nor as part of an uplifting imaginary vision, but as a dark, racialized, feminized, and materialized "real" limit on established conventions. Emerson's [End Page 330] exposition of nature's Demonology, both in the eponymous essay and throughout his writings, thereby corroborates some poststructuralist as well as transcendental postulates. Emerson's repeated emphasis on limitation, especially the limits of reason, bear some surprising affinities with Slavoj Žižek's formulation of the Lacanian Real, which is why Žižek offers a useful interpretative language for approaching "Demonology" in particular. I am not invoking any single framework to contextualize Demonology, but trying to tease out an internal logic of Emersonian negation that often is consonant with Lacanian theory. Though it might seem an odd referent for Emerson, Žižek's postulates regarding Lacanian inversion help explicate the reflexivity that haunts Emerson's thought.

The Role of Demonology in Emerson's Work

An early lecture published as a late essay, "Demonology" functions like an internal prophecy, or a...


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