Emerson’s Struggle with Language and Culture

Because Emerson revoked his own ministry, one could assume that he wholly rejected the Judeo-Christian theory of wilderness as evil or dangerous. Emerson would oppose much of Garrard’s Old World wilderness, possibly even the idea of the religious hermit using nature as a safeguard or the pastoral escape from an urban city, because still implies an anthropocentric idea and nature takes a back seat (Garrard 60). Thoreau went into the woods to reflect on how to enable his own harmony with nature, not on the trivialities of human adversity. But Emerson does not quite go as far as John Muir’s pantheism (Garrard 68). However, we must acknowledge that he did suffer the same conflict Muir had, which was that he was enabled to see the beauty of nature more vastly and physically through science.

Also, Transcendentalism was a product of a schism that began when theologians along with lay scholars began to reconsider religion as permanent, going so far as to say it was a product of humanity. Emerson was very clear about what he perceived the current views of both religion and ethics did to nature, “They both put nature under foot” and later, “Culture inverts the vulgar views of nature” (Emerson 54-55). He is addressing their current state and country, which was devoutly Jacksonian. A man was a man if he owned land, commerce and industry were nearly as important as piety. “Agriculture becomes both the cause and the symptom of an alienation from the earth that monotheistic religion and modern science then completed” (Garrard 60). In America, both of these are ideals that are seen as positives back then, not negative. The state and county was then very Anglo and very Protestant, things Transcendentalism moved away from. Movement being a key word, as both Protestantism and the Aristocracy depended on the status quo to keep order and power.

Emerson, then, rejected not only the Judeo-Christian belief that nature is at its very basest an affront to humanity, but also its subordinate. However, in his struggle with language his doctrine, being both super-generalist and altogether universal, he contradicts himself or his theories overlap and cut themselves off. Yet he doesn’t totally sever himself from religion, although we must be careful not to interpret his ecclesiastical vernacular as strictly operating on the same symbolic basis as his contemporaries might have been used to. He unequivocally considers nature as feminine, and at times seems to equate Native Americans to children, albeit, projecting a more naturalistic view onto them and heralding their clairvoyant abilities to see nature clearer than the urban white man.

For Americans beginning to embrace the idea of individuality and new epistemologies, Emerson deeply seems to struggle with the semantics of language and philology. Emerson believed that our language mostly derived from symbols in nature. Yet, here is a problem, if nature gives humanity language, an arbitrary symbol and primary tool for culture, hasn’t nature contaminated itself? To navigate around this Emerson places language in what he calls the Spirit (Emerson 27). So are we nature itself? (Most people at the time I think would be terrified because of the implication that there was a phenomena going on inside everyone’s body) If every intellectual and spiritual product we conceive is based in language, nature then, is humanity and humanity is nature and nature produces these things though humanity as conduits to itself, and as a result—there really is then, only nature. Man is in his very being; through language is what Emerson calls the Father, which is also the Spirit (Emerson 27). A contradictory patriarchal archetype Emerson might have wanted to avoid.

This is typical of nature writing and it appears every time: nature is a metaphor for man. The question is, can that statement be plausibly reversed? And the irony is that Emerson knows he will always fall short of getting to the heart of Transcendentalism and nature, “Of that ineffable essence which we call Spirit, he that thinks most, will say least.” Language both enables a concept of nature but excludes it because it cannot facilitate a total idea/image/symbol to retain it in its entirety.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. Ch./Art: Full book p.1x-76.pub. American Renaissance 2009

Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. New York: Routledge, 2004.

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