Home > Emerson R. W., Philosophy > Melancholy details

Melancholy details

In our encounters with others, living and dead, we see only part of what is there. With the living, we see them at separated moments; often we see only their accomplishments and not the struggle that brought them there. We see, in short, an outline, constructed on the basis of a small selection of details, while most details are lost to us. With the dead this is heightened. I experience nothing of Emerson the living body, only Emerson’s essays, Emerson’s journals, biographies of Emerson—again, a mere plan or outline of Emerson, anchored by a handful of reference points.

Emerson, in his essay “Love”, writes, “Details are melancholy; the plan is seemly and noble.” It is precisely the poverty of reference points, with respect to others, that allows us to idealize them, to make them into perfect individuals. Such a noble plan can only be sullied by a profusion of melancholy details. In our encounters with ourselves, by contrast, we are exposed to every detail. This is why the truly honest individual will find far more grounds for self-criticism than criticism of others.

In this context I want to reflect on journaling, on keeping a log of events, moods, thoughts, reflections, diagnoses. For the past two years, basically since I began this blog, I have been keeping such a journal—many of my posts in fact originate there. My first begins September 2011, though in fact that is just the first that has survived, and is predated by a few abortive attempts, dating back probably to sometime in 2009 or 2010. Recently, I have begun indexing them, which involves both rereading them and organizing their contents according to my current interests. Thus I am in the midst of a sustained encounter with my past selves.

This encounter is not so much an encounter with myself as an encounter with some other, some outsider. This other, or better, these others, are of interest to me because they became me, and because many of their problems are the same as my own—indeed, I have recovered valuable suggestions for myself from them—but equally they have different problems, and different contexts for the problems we share. Most of all, though, by its very nature the encounter takes the form of an encounter with another. I see only a small handful of details, and from these reference points construct a plan of my past selves.

What are these reference points? My journals, to an extent that in hindsight I find frustrating, mostly do not focus on the external events of my life. References to such come every five pages, perhaps. Most of the contents are more intellectual, in a value-neutral sense. They consist of reactions to works of art, reactions to philosophers, abstract reflections on philosophical topics, abstract reflections on puzzles of life, the occasional concrete reflection on the problems of life, and, above all else, self-diagnoses. To an extent that I would find surprising were the tendency not still within me, albeit now more fruitfully channeled, I was self-critical. On perhaps every other page there are obsessive worryings about my failings, sometimes optimistic, more often pessimistic.

These self-diagnoses provide a useful window into the nature of this endeavor as an experience of a succession of others, rather than with myself. One theme that arises in these self-criticisms is the worry that I am being fundamentally dishonest, that my journaling consists primarily of lies. Or, if not lies, acting. I worried that I was writing as if for an audience, and trying to please them, and that this influenced my style, my topics, etc. These critical entries are sweeping: they condemn everything to the flames.

In an abstract sense, I can understand what might have motivated this. Many of the entries are nothing more than recycled Emerson or recycled Nietzsche, and moreover on topics that, at the time, I know I had no real experience with. Yet they are written as if they are my own discoveries, and not mere secondhand recycling of others. At the same time, I have no recollection of the moods that prompted these entries—the derivative entries and the self-diagnoses both.

This is the crux. My encounter with my old journals takes place in abstraction from the moods that drove my journaling in the first place. I face, as it were, the other minds problem: my only access to my past mind is what I can reconstruct, can infer from what I wrote and how I wrote it. Now I am bemused, more than aught else, by these worries about honesty, because what I see, amidst the derivative entries, is a burgeoning creativity and reflectiveness that has made my current self, for all its flaws, possible. It is this same creativity that I attempt to cultivate here. I am friendlier with my past than my past was with itself—and than I am with myself, now.

But this is just it. The plan of my past self I have constructed, while not really idealized, is based on insufficient, highly selective reference points—points which, moreover, are viewed through my current interests—and it is this selectiveness that makes possible my new relation to my old selves. Had I to live all the melancholy details of those days over again, no doubt I would be just as critical. It is the difference between reading, say, a self-diagnosis of the hours I wasted and the experience itself of wasting those hours

These reflections were occasioned by my journaling, but the point is general, I believe. We cannot but encounter our pasts in the way we encounter others. There is a disconnect between such an experience and the experience of our daily self-encounters. The question, then, is to what creative use can we put our pasts.

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“Love”, incidentally, is perhaps Emerson’s weakest essay—that is why I have strayed so far from it. It struggles to escape the neo-Platonism it sets for itself as a launchpoint, but manages only a few half-hearted leaps, insufficient to escape the gravitational pull of the old view. But perhaps the greatest missed opportunity, in light of what I have fo­cused on above, is the manner in which love puts two people in such contact that they must come to know one another’s details, and not just their plans—yet, for all this melan­choly, they love regardless. What is it about love that manages that? But, alas, Emerson did not look in this direction.

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