Feb 6th 2017

ESCAPE VELOCITY: An author’s battle to conquer an Emersonian orbit

by Jack Kohl

Jack Kohl is a writer and pianist living in the New York City area. He is the author of That Iron String (A Novel of Pianists vs. Music), Loco-Motive (A Novel of Running), and You, Knighted States (An American Descendentalist Western), all from The Pauktaug Press. 

During all of my adult life as an author and pianist, Ralph Waldo Emerson has been for me the supreme and unremitting guide to the Western canon. Emerson’s writings have dominated so much of my thought that the routines I have given to the study of his works have, at times, matched the hours of maintenance that one invests as a pianist. When I showed the manuscript of the third novel in my Pauktaug series to a former professor of mine, she asked why I should create a “take-down” of anyone from the Concord group of writers, for were they not perhaps the best we have yet produced in America? I agreed that they were, especially Emerson, but I explained that since I had found his writing possesses such an inexhaustible hold upon me, I felt obliged to conspire against his influence. I decided to make my forthcoming novel, You, Knighted States, an exercise in challenging this Jupiter in my solar system. I resolved to write not a Transcendentalist but a Descendentalist Western of a mad cattle baron, a cowman who has much more in mind than a simple role in Manifest Destiny.

I had already borrowed heavily from Emerson in my preceding two published books, had created oblique challenges to his works by exulting in mad protagonists who delight in setting Emersonian notions awry. And what is an Emersonian gone awry? If a hero can see everything (including all matter and all experience, even that of moments ago) for its use as an emblem, he is, in part, an Emersonian, and a very formidable and invulnerable figure. But if he also wields too much of the “I” along with his transcendent powers of vision and thus retains a will and confidence to set the exigencies of life aright as he treads on the remote side of the masks of God – well, then, he is an Emersonian gone awry.

But even in a direct attempt to subject Emersonian ideas to high burlesque, one is left with merely an exercise in resisting the substance of Emerson’s material and themes. Whatever passing success You, Knighted States may have on its own as a burlesque of Emersonian substance, it is a failure in challenging the Emersonian style merits that I will endeavor to explain. A challenge to his substance (and by substance I mean all the tenets that we associate with Emerson’s thought) will ultimately ring as hollow as the opposite act of biographical and geographical worship of Emerson’s life and the Concord setting. I also know the foolishness of the latter very well, for at my intellectual worst I have taken countless walks and runs to Emerson’s home at 28 Cambridge Turnpike and to Walden Pond. And at this lowest ebb of interpretation – whilst looking to Emerson’s study window from his picket fence – I have wallowed in the abuse of starting points, starting points that the writer himself may never have honored. For in absorbing Emerson’s substance from his texts, one places that substance in Mind, a place in Mind just before the eyes, a place that has always seemed to me like the proverbial carrot fixed before a tethered horse’s head – that same place we deposit our own understandings from the world of solid example and grist. Thus, when we approach an already interpreted place, it remains at a remove as we approach it. It is always at that carrot’s length. It dangles just before the eyes yet out of hand’s reach if we are a thousand miles away; it dangles just before the eyes yet out of hand’s reach if we are standing in Emerson’s study or placing our hands in the waters of Walden. And that is as it should be.

But I have learned how to increase the circumference of my orbit about this Jupiter not by writing a resistance to his substance, or by a rejection of his biography, but by a deeper reading of his style – and therein I think lies the essence of Emerson’s greatest claim to the highest tier in the canon of Western thought in English. The absolutely singular foreground style of Emerson’s prose provides the student with escape velocity, derived from the gravity of this Jupiter himself.

The mechanism of that gift to Emerson’s careful readers is what I call False Zeugma (zeugma comes from the Ancient Greek for “a yoking together”). Emerson organizes taut phrases into paragraphs by design; but those taut and ostensibly sequential phrases are not often followers. They are constructed frequently of harnessed pairs of subtly antagonistic lines. Emerson often hitches his wagon to seemingly irreconcilable opposites and leaves the reconciliation to the reader’s mind. There may be a bison and grizzly in the same traces. The effect on the mind from this style is frequently much more powerful than the result one gleans from the substance of a single line or from the thesis of an entire essay. Often the reader, the rider in his wagon, is thrown violently ahead when one of the two antagonistic beasts in harness surges forward and the other seizes up before the hedge of a period. The thrown rider is forced to look back at the wagon in the previous phrase and to take stock of a rough and instructive forward journey. For example, in the essay “History”, I never fail to fly out of the wagon midway in the paragraph that contains these two adjacent sentences: “He learns again what moral vigor is needed to supply the girdle of a superstition. A great licentiousness treads on the heels of a reformation.” The first sentence back-relates; the second leads to the rest of the paragraph. Thus what a Cosmos I find in that intervening period, that little black grammatical dot!

I am convinced the design of this foreground style is very conscious in Emerson’s essays. One does not find it in his Journals with this sense of deliberation. Despite the discursive style of the Journals, one finds a conventional sense of sequence. But in the essays – especially, for me, in the supremely mighty Essays: First Series of 1841 (wherein Emerson depends a great deal on Classical allusions for his references, as if he wanders in an American wilderness wherein the plants and animals have yet to be named) – False Zeugma is there to send any careful reader out from Jupiter and onto his own course around the sun. The effect is brought about as by a self-imposed act of structure by the author, akin to that part of sonata-form which brings about the greatest beauty, beauty by demand of design and not by whim of inspiration: to wit, the focused modulation in recapitulation sections, wherein the first and second key areas from the exposition are rendered both into a reconciled tonic. One needs only to hear this moment, say, in the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 to perceive an instance wherein genius is lifted by its obligation to structure.

But Emerson’s reconciliation of opposites leaves the modulation to the reader’s mind. The reader may not be able to carry the ore out of the mine as can a Mozart, but he is allowed the thrill of striking the vein. Readers invoke the term prose-poetry when they reference a super-surface structure euphony in foreground tone; but nowhere in the entire canon of English do I know where a style, designed to serve the alchemical potential of its reader, so deserves the title of prose-poetry in reference to its grand orbital mechanics.

Emerson’s Essays: First Series really is to be read as a series. And those who neglect this fact often misconstrue the true substance of Emersonian Self-Reliance. But the non-sequential mechanics of his foreground style are not a source of dangerous gravity, but a force that is so exquisitely balanced that it sends the respectful satellite very close to the great transparent eyeball of this Jupiter, yet only to slingshot the reader to space after each pass, the reader left subject then only to an arc bound by a figurative sun, First Principles, and the Creator. The reader is still left in an Emersonian orbit, but at times, in the farthest reaches of that circle is left free. Many readers praise authors who make them think. Yet the kind of thinking that results in most cases is related to the substance of that author. I know of no other writer in the canon who, as Emerson, can draw one with such force to his book and then compel one to leave it by style, filled then with a sense that an inner light has been stoked so that the substance of the original kindling is consumed and forgotten. In Emerson’s style mechanics, his you is not as the casual and contemporary abuse and omission of the intended one; even his I is, at last, to be read as a you; he is the ultimate second person author. The discipline of our orbit grants freedom.


An interview with Jack Kohl:

Author Jack Kohl just ‘stole it from life’

by Michael Johnson

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