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Dying at the right time

I possess a fairly lackluster memory, for which in my wiser moments I am thankful. One result of this is that I often find myself remembering a few striking words from some author or another, while all recollection of the context in which they occurred recedes into nothingness. Consequently, they come to take on a new meaning for me, forming attachments and connections the original author no doubt never intended. Nietzsche is a frequent victim of this.

As I was reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Young American” today, Nietzsche’s dictum, “die at the right time!” wormed its way into my head. Much in it is still worm, no doubt, but it did evolve a bit in the direction of man, taking on some new resonances in the context of Emerson’s essay. Because I had no terribly interesting thoughts about the essay (due perhaps to the foul mood I’ve been mired in all day), and because I promised myself I would write about each Emerson piece as I read it, this post will detail briefly these resonances. Page references are to the Library of America edition of Emerson’s Essays & Lectures, as usual.

Nietzsche’s relating dying to an appropriate time is nothing new. We naturally conceive death as having its time: consider the acceptance of death signified by the phrase, “my time has come.” What makes Nietzsche’s quote striking (and I do not intend to suggest that he was the first to do this) is that it takes the form of an imperative: it is a command to action. Now one is not to passively await his time, but rather is to actively ensure his time does not pass unaccompanied by his also passing.

I recalled this phrase when I arrived at Emerson’s discussion of feudalism and trade in “The Young American”.

Feudalism had been good, had broken the power of the kings, and had some good traits of its own; but it had grown mischievous, it was time for it to die, and, as they say of dying people, all its faults came out. (220)

This operates in the passive mode: Feudalism’s time had come, and so it had to die. Indeed, Emerson talks of the transition as the result of a beneficent power whose results are independent of human efforts. Trade, which replaces feudalism, is equally “but for a time” (221); it too must one day die.

But activity comes into the picture, for humans cannot help but act, and, being the pathologically reflective beings we are, we cannot help but obsess over how best to act. So Emerson says,

Our part is plainly not to throw ourselves across the track, to block improvement, and sit till we are stone, but to watch the uprise of successive mornings, and to conspire with the new works of new days. (221)

We have, then, an active role to play in bringing about the death of what needs to die. Yes, this is like watching the sun rise each morning: things will manage without our help, but nonetheless we ought to actively conspire with these new works.

There is a venerable tradition of likening the mind to a city, and I suggest that something of the sort is going on under the surface of this essay. By which I mean that really it is not going on in this essay at all (that I found, at least), but that it is a natural way of reading the essay if the rest of Emerson’s work is kept in mind. For Emerson conceives our selves as very much like institutions. The self is created in the creative act, the experimental act that expands the boundaries of what came before. But as the self congeals, as it grows mischievous, it comes time for it to die, and our task is not to throw ourselves across the track to save it, but to hasten its death and draw around ourselves a new self.

When is it time for an institution—whether social or mental—to die? What is it for such an institution to grow mischievous? I think we can extract an answer from a comment Emerson makes late in the essay.

Instead of the open future expanding here before the eye of every boy to vastness, would they like the closing in of the future to a narrow slit of sky, and that fast contracting to be no future? (228-9)

When there lies in front of us an open future expanding to vastness, all is well. But when the future contracts first to a narrow slit and then to nothing, then it is time to die. As Kafka puts it, in his “Little Fable” (my translation):

“Oh,” said the mouse, “the world is becoming narrower with every day. At first, it was so broad that I was afraid; I ran along and was happy that I finally saw walls to the right and left in the distance, but these long walls hasten toward one another so rapidly that I am already in the final chamber, and there in the corner stands the trap, into which I am running.” – “You have only to change the direction you run,” said the cat, and ate it.

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