Open to Influence: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Audre Lorde on Loss

Article excerpt

Astonishing and unanticipated similarities in language, emotion, philosophical creativity, and purpose exist between Ralph Waldo Emerson's remarks about his son Waldo's death and Audre Lorde's remarks about her breast cancer. Both writers experienced and thought about their losses long and hard for the rest of their lives. Fifteen years after Waldo died, Emerson "ventured to look into the coffin" of Waldo as it was being moved to a lot on his own property (JMN 14:154). Lorde struggled with cancer for over a decade before dying of it in 1992. Probably neither Emerson nor Lorde would have pursued what I imagine here as a Whitmanesque conversation between them, let alone together with us, over time and place "which fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning into you" (Whitman 2052). (1) But Emerson begins "Experience" on a series of steps "of which we do not know the extremes" (CW 3:27), and where we find ourselves with Emerson is also in a series of steps. For us the closer steps include contemporary feminist writers, though that inclusion is potentially problematic. In her discussion of Lorde's work, Anna Wilson notes that "the restless reading and rereading that is current feminist critical practice ... is complicated. And the relationship between critic and text is shifty too" (19). To what extent can, or ought, I be usefully aware of myself as a white reader of Lorde looking for connections to Emerson, for instance, even though Lorde herself invites her reader to create her own "wider construct" (Cancer 54)? In many respects I am left simply to take Emerson and Lorde, much as Stanley Cavell takes Emerson and Thoreau, to be two of the writers "that do me the most good" (New 83) and then to suggest ways in which such a reading might contribute toward "bring[ing] us [all] out safe at last" (CW 2:42), as we find ourselves at a loss, flailing in the rather dauntingly "innavigable seals]" (CW 3:29) of the skepticism and fear that permeate American history and culture. The very project of the city on the hill, the cohesive effect of revolution, the costly investment in civil union, and the current war on terrorism all entail the sort of easily and profitably commodified conformity that Emerson and Lorde criticize, and leave us vulnerable to losing sight of other promises we have made to ourselves culturally. In a phrase that I will consider later, we are "legally blind" (Lorde Zami 21); that is, we both legitimate our blindness and we are blinded by means that are legal.

One such loss specific to the work of Emerson and Lorde is the restriction of personal mourning in favor of grieving behavior that is deemed acceptable and appropriate because it is profitable and emblematic. Mitchell Breitwieser argues, for example, in his book on Mary Rowlandson's narrative, that as a "cultural machine" (7) Puritanism "was in large measure an attempt to sublimate [Rowlandson's] mourning, to block and then redirect its vigor to various social purposes" (8). Suggestive of the degree to which this restriction was culturally assimilated is Julia Stern's review of Breitwieser's book: what she notes as "extraordinary" and "brilliant" (378) in Breitwieser's reading is his ability to identify and theorize this "obstructed mourning" (379) throughout Rowlandson's narrative, a mourning obstructed first by her community in favor of producing a socially constructive Puritan text and second by subsequent literary scholarship that inherited and perpetuated the restriction. Such a culturally created and imposed restriction serves to silence the problematic individual as embarrassingly personal while allowing social and economic expectations and practices to inscribe themselves on and over individual expression.

Emerson and Lorde persistently and painfully pursue the individual expression of their private grief as a contribution to a more public discussion of the problem of losing individuality in America, a problem which is tantamount to losing the contribution of the individual artist/thinker/critic in favor of societal interests deeply connected to corporate profit for Lorde and to deadening conformity for Emerson. …