Tag Archives: reading

Your Commonplace Book

As you become immersed in Emerson over the next few weeks I would like you to begin keeping notes in your “commonplace book.” You are looking for quotations that capture something worth capturing–statements, provocations, aphorisms, and so on. Below I have gathered a few that stand out to me, first from Emerson, and then from some of his readers:

“Literature is a point outside our hodiernal circle, though which a new one may be described. The use of literature is to afford us a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it.”

—“Circles,” 178

“All thinking is analogizing, and it is the business of life to learn metonymy.”

—“Poetry and the Imagination”

“One must be an inventor to read well.”

—“The American Scholar”

“Next to the originator of a good sentence is the first quoter of it”

—“Quotation and Originality”

“The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire, is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle.”

—“Circles”

“The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action”

—“The American Scholar”

“Where do we find ourselves?”

—“Experience”

“In dealing with the State, we ought to remember that its institutions are not aboriginal. . . .”

—“Politics”

“Cannot I conceive of the Universe without a contradiction?”

—“Journals, May 26, 1837?

“This revolution is to be wrought by the gradual domestication of the idea of Culture. The main enterprise of the world for splendor, for extent, is the upbuilding of man. Here are the materials strewn along the ground.”

—“The American Scholar,” 66

“What seemed, then, to be the more earnest and less critical of his hearers a revelation from above was in truth an insurrection from beneath, a shaking loose from convention, a disintegration of the normal categories of reason in favor of various imaginative principles, on which the world might have been built differently. This gift of revolutionary thinking allowed new aspects, hints of wider laws, premonitions of unthought-of fundamental unities to spring constantly into view. But such visions were necessarily fleeting, because the human mind had long before settled its grammar, and discovered, after much groping and many defeats, the general forms in which experience will allow itself to be stated. These general forms are the principles of common sense and positive science, no less imaginative in the origin than those notions we now call transcendental, but grown prosaic, like the metaphors of common speech, by dint of repetition”

—George Santayana, “Emerson,” Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, 634

“Our philosophical habits will prompt us to interpret the surface of writing as its manner, its style, its rhetoric, an ornament of what is said rather than its substance, but Emerson’s implied claim is that this is as much a philosophical prejudice as the other conformities his essay decries, that, so to speak, words are no more ornaments of thought than tears are ornaments of sadness or joy. Of course, they may be seen so, and they may in a given case amount to no more; but this just means that expressions are the last thing to take at face value.”

—Stanley Cavell, “The Philosopher in American Life,” 740

“His writing dramatizes his agitations when confronted with the evidence that the words he is putting down on paper, including words of resistance and dissent, are themselves products of ‘previous human thinking,’ including his own. . . . Emerson is forever trying to liberate himself and his readers from the consequences of his own writing, not merely the consequences of other people’s writing. . . . He is saying that his own acts of composition, the very efforts at non-conformity that result in his troping of previous truths—that these fill him with apprehensions about encirclement and fixity.”

—Richard Poirier, Poetry and Pragmatism, 767–68

“The primary aim of Emerson’s life and discourse is to provoke; the principal means by which he lived, spoke, and write is provocation. At the ‘center’ of his project is activity, flux, movement, energy.”

—Cornel West, “The Emersonian Prehistory of Pragmatism,” 743

A Note on Poetics

This week we will be working with a distinction between two kinds of textual work: poetics and hermeneutics.1 This distinction is described well by a professor who teaches at Cornell University, Jonathan Culler, in his elegant little book Literary Theory:  A Very Short Introduction:

Poetics starts with attested meanings or effects and asks how they are achieved. (What makes this passage in a novel seem ironic? What makes us sympathize with this particular character? Why is the ending of this poem ambiguous?) Hermeneutics, on the other hand, starts with texts and asks what they mean, seeking to discover new and better interpretations. (61)

Most literary criticism will draw on the resources of both kinds of work when working on a text. We might be reading a short story, for example, and  identify (or sympathize) with a character we might discuss how that identification would determine the meaning of the story (hermeneutics or interpretation). At the same time, we might discuss how the language of a story creates associations that undermine a narrative point of view or how a controlling metaphor reinforces gender associations (poetics).

When you are interpreting a text to determine what a text means you are involved in hermeneutics. This kind of writing in literary studies, as Jonathan Culler reminds us, comes out of law and religion, fields in which people are working to establish authoritative legal or religious interpretation to guide action (Literary Theory 61). The other interpretive project is poetics. This kind of writing, associated with linguistics and contemporary rhetoric, sets out to examine how texts are made, as well as to account for how the structure of a text (a sonnet, for example) achieves the effects that it does. Culler describes this basic distinction well. “Taking meanings or effects as the point of departure (poetics) is fundamentally different from seeking to discover meaning (hermeneutics)” (61).

Remember that attention to how the text is put together (poetics) will help you make a persuasive case; in fact, your interpretive writing will be in part judged by how well you reach your interpretive conclusions—what you are able to do with the elements of the text you highlight and use to support your conclusion.

Note The term poetics is used to talk about the theory or principles of making poems and, more broadly, in reference to the aesthetic principles of any subject or inquiry (Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space comes to mind.) Poetics also refers to a body of writing that elaborates on these theories and principles, such as Aristotle’s Poetics, Edgar Allen Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” or William Carlos Williams’ “The Poem as a Field of Action.” The term hermeneutics refers to principles employed in the interpretation (or exegesis) of religious writing or in the field of law (“legal hermeneutics”). The work often discussed in accounts of the hermeneutic tradition include Friedrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey, Hans Georg Gadamer and E.D.Hirsch.

Work Cited Jonathan Culler,  Literary Theory:  A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.