“Democracy depends on engagement, a firsthand accounting of what one sees, what one feels, and what one thinks, followed by the artful practice of expressing the truth of our times through our own talents, gifts and vocations”
“Do we dare step back–stretch–and create an arch of understanding?”
-Terry Tempest Williams, The Open Space of Democracy
“There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time” (113), Emerson remarks in the inaugural essay in the First Series, “History.” His argument that we need to learn the art of reading history “actively and not passively” is not unlike the idea we started with in this class: Whitman’s description of reading as a “gymnast’s struggle” in his essay “Democratic Vistas.” Emerson says, “to esteem his own life the text, and the books the commentary” (115). This is a radical proposition—should we have the ability to read it.
It is a proposition that was radical in Emerson’s time as well as our own. What it really means to “live amid hallucinations,” in that estimable Emersonian phrase, is to live a life without the fullness of self at the heart of Emerson’s thought. When he says at the end of “History” that a person is “a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world,” he means what he says.
To read sympathetically, and morally, is Emerson’s way of reminding his reader of the obligations of history. We read history to know our selves. But to know our selves is to know that any mediation on freedom or justice, any affirmation of a liberal democracy, must begin in the soil and with the roots. Here is a passage from the essay “Fate” in which he is thinking through the consequences of Manifest Destiny, and in particular the question of race:
The population of the world is a conditional population not the best, but the best that could live now; and the scale of tribes, and the steadiness with which victory adheres to one tribe, and defeat to another, is as uniform as the superposition of strata. We know in history what weight belongs to race. We see the English, French, and Germans planting themselves on every shore and market of America and Australia, and monopolizing the commerce of these countries. We like the nervous and victorious habit of our own branch of the family. We follow the step of the Jew, of the Indian, of the Negro. We see how much will has been expended to extinguish the Jew, in vain. Look at the unpalatable conclusions of Knox, in his “Fragment of Races,” — a rash and unsatisfactory writer, but charged with pungent and unforgettable truths. “Nature respects race, and not hybrids.” “Every race has its own habitat.” “Detach a colony from the race, and it deteriorates to the crab.” See the shades of the picture. The German and Irish millions, like the Negro, have a great deal of guano in their destiny. They are ferried over the Atlantic, and carted over America, to ditch and to drudge, to make corn cheap, and then to lie down prematurely to make a spot of green grass on the prairie.
The race question was central to Emerson’s time. He had read Robert Knox’s The Races of Men as well as other attempts to make sense of the idea of race. When these lines are fully contextualized in the history of Emerson’s time, as one of Emerson’s readers, Eduardo Cadava writes, it is difficult not to read them as referring to the violent history of American colonization and imperialism, “for they put before us the violence, the inequality, the economic oppression, and colonialist and racist exclusions that affected, and continue to affect, so many human beings in the history of not only America but the earth” (The Other Emerson 106).
The question that Emerson raises in the first passages of “Fate” is “how shall I live?” can be answered by acknowledging that we might choose to become more aware of the “illusions” or the “hallucinations” that insulate us from the “guano” in the history and destiny of human beings. This is analogous to the central argument of a book I have been teaching for many years by Barry Lopez, The Rediscovery of North America. Lopez speaks eloquently about the need to develop a recognition, much like what Emerson is calling for, of a historical and material and spiritual and psychological dimension of geography—of the place where we find ourselves, as Emerson might say. It follows that any (Emersonian) meditation on freedom and justice, any endorsement or affirmation of the ideals of liberal democracy, must begin with the violent history of colonization (of the Americas) and of imperialism.