Life, Form and Power in Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Experience"

Life, Form and Power in Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Experience"

26 Wednesday
Wed, 26/04/2023

10:00 am - 12:00 am




ENS de Lyon and the IHRIM are pleased to welcome Michael Jonik, Senior Lecturer in English and American Literature at the University of Sussex, for a month as Visiting Academic.

"Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat: up again old heart!—it seems to say,—there is victory yet for all justice; and the true romance which the world exists to realize, will be the transformation of genius into practical power." Many readers of Emerson’s "Experience", have taken this uplifting peroration to offer an optimistic counterpoint to the skepticism that emerges across the essay, the skepticism instilled from not being able to mourn the death of his son Waldo, for not being able experience life directly but only by indirect blows, if not from the "discrepance" between the world he thinks and the word he sees. Yet the hopeful tone of the passage aside, what would it mean for genius to be transformed into practical power? What indeed does this practical power entail? More generally, what does power mean for Emerson? It is perhaps remarkable given the recurrent invocations of power across the essay, and indeed across Emerson’s oeuvre, that few commentators have explored the persistent role of power in his thinking. I will explore this here in relation to notions of "life" and "form" also at work in the essay, and in other key texts by Emerson such as "Power," "Fate" and "Powers of the Mind"  in relation to idealist concepts of power in Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche, and in relation to recent work on Emerson by Cavell, Cameron, Arsic and Urbas.