In class on Tuesday Tori said that for her, reading Terry Tempest Williams’ commencement address, delivered to the class of 2003 at the at the University of Utah, offered welcome clarity. Such moments of clarity come to us differently, and are difficult to predict. These are points of entry, moments of insight that suggest a way forward. Remember Emerson’s saying in “The Poet”:
This insight, which expresses itself by what is called Imagination, is a very high sort of seeing, which does not come by study, but by the intellect being where and what it sees, by sharing the path, or circuit of things through forms, and so making them translucid to others.
We are where we are and you see what you see: That is to say, you are now in an ongoing conversation about democracy and culture. Make of it what you will. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman’s writings are working through the concept of culture, and their minds are grappling with the work of imagining what Whitman was working toward—let us call it a democratic theory of culture. This week we moved to occasions of commencement or convocation to trace some the implications of this idea: Emerson’s oration delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard College on August 31, 1837, “The American Scholar,” Williams’ 2003 commencement speech, “The Open Space of Democracy,” and Adrienne Rich’s 1977 convocation speech at Douglass College.
My intent in bringing these texts into conversation is to give you resources to address the questions we are thinking through
What is democratic culture? How is it (or how might it be) different from other forms of culture? What opportunities, roles, responsibilities and/or obligations are associated with life in a democratically organized society? In what forms do we find expression of democratic ideals, values, and practice? How do individuals come to organize their lives around a belief in the ideals of democracy? How do we live with the ideal and the fact—the possibilities, for example, of the logic of equality and the persistent fact of inequality? And so on.
With Tori, I discovered in Williams and Rich a way of (re)reading Emerson and Whitman. Who does not hear, having read Whitman, a process of reading and thinking described as a struggle in the opening of Rich’s remarks:
Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you; it means learning to respect and use your own brains and instincts; hence, grappling with hard work.
And who does not hear, as her essay unfolds, the self-trust so passionately advocated by Emerson echoed in Rich’s call for an active and engaged life:
The difference between a life lived actively, and a life of passive drifting and dispersal of energies, is an immense difference. Once we begin to feel committed to our lives, responsible to ourselves, we can never again be satisfied with the old, passive way.
In calling on women to embrace active as opposed to passive learning she brings her audience into an argument for access, equity, and justice in educational institutions. For as Rich says, the student must come to see herself
engaged with her teachers in active, ongoing struggle for a real education. But for her to do this, her teachers must be committed to belief that women’s minds and experience are intrinsically valuable and indispensable to any civilization worthy the name: that there is no more exhilarating and intellectually fertile place in the academic world today than a women’s college—if both students and teachers in large enough numbers are trying to fulfill this contract. The contract is really a pledge of mutual seriousness about women, about language, ideas, method, and values. It is our shared commitment toward a world in which the inborn potentialities of so many women’s minds will not longer be wasted, raveled-away, paralyzed, or denied.
This is the mind at work—in this case bringing to mind the proposition that “women’s minds and experience are intrinsically valuable and indispensable to any civilization”—work that Emerson calls the imagination, that comes “by the intellect being where and what it sees, by sharing the path, or circuit of things through forms, and so making them translucid to others.”
Emerson’s call for self-trust in the aftermath of the financial panic of 1837, Rich’s summons to engage in the democratic struggle to align ideals with reality, Terry Tempest Williams’ insistence on questioning, standing, speaking, acting—these are the voices filling the open space of what we might come to call democracy.