Saturday, June 03, 2006

Emerson's Theory of History

Emerson's theory of history in his essay History is--interesting. Emerson believes in a universal mind. Unlike Jung's much later concept of the collective unconscious from which archetypes supposedly emerge, Emerson's universal mind is, as far as I can tell, very much, if not the same as, his one soul. The universal mind is common and accessible to all men (though some for various reasons do not or cannot reach it). It is sort of like the Borg in Star Trek except everyone remains very much an individual. History is the record of the universal mind and history is contained in the universal mind. Therefore, Emerson can say "the whole of history is in one man" and it can all be "explained from individual experience." Emerson sees a relation between the hours of a life and the "centuries of time." History must then be read actively, not passively, and each reader must "esteem his own life the text, and books the commentary." If you think history is something that happened in the past, you are mistaken. History is like nature. In nature there is an infinite variety of things, but that variety consists mainly in "an endless combination and repetition of a very few laws." So too with history. On the surface there is variation everywhere, but "at the centre there is simplicity of cause." While the facts may not be identical, it is what lies behind them, what the facts symbolize, that we want to pay attention to. It is the symbolism, the spirit of the fact, which resides in the universal mind. This is how Emerson can say what he does about history. It is also how he can say

We are always coming up with the emphatic facts of history in our private experience and verifying them here. All history becomes subjective; in other words there is properly no history, only biography.
You've probably seen that last bit quoted in all kinds of places. Quoting it out of context, we've turned it into something it isn't. We have turned it into a method of creating and recording history. Emerson means it as a way to understand history by turning it into the personal. While the feminist movement spawned the idea of "the personal is political," Emerson believes the historical is personal. Bringing the historical to a personal level is a great way to make it relevant, to turn it from the study of dates to the study of ideas and people and values. I was groovin' to the Emerson tune in spite of his kooky universal mind until I realized that when Emerson says "man" he means males and by males he means males from the "superior races." Because even though when he talks about the history of religion he includes eastern religions, when he talks about the history of man, he means the history of the west. He means Greece and Rome and Europe even if he makes slight allowances for Egypt. The rest of Africa and all of South and Central America and Mexico are nonexistent. And women, well they aren't part of history, they serve as "the refinements and decorations of civil society." I now feel really sour about this essay. I think Emerson should know better. Am I wrong to think that? As a female who reads I had to learn very early in life how to pretend that when I read "he" it includes me too. In a college linguistics class I wrote a paper about the myth of the universal "he." And somewhere in my teachers-are-always-right upbringing, I found the courage to argue about it with a female professor. No matter how much I pretend and want to believe I am included when a man writes about the history of "man," I know I am not. I can find ways to forgive writers and thinkers like Montaigne and even say I love their work. But my ability to forgive is always based on when they lived. I would not expect a man writing in 1587 to have the same sensibilities as a man writing in 1841 or for that matter 2006. I had higher expectations of Emerson because he and Margaret Fuller were associates. I thought surely she would have taught him a thing or two. But apparently not. Emerson has been writing about man all along and I have been dutifully inserting "and woman." But "History" has proved itself, as history often does, and Emerson's thinking does not include me. I am not young enough or dumb enough to insist that the exclusion invalidates everything Emerson has to say. But my refined and decorative self is hard-pressed to forgive him for it. Next week's Emerson: Self-Reliance