A POWER TO TRANSLATE THE WORLD: NEW ESSAYS ON EMERSON AND INTERNATIONAL CULTURE by David LaRocca and Ricardo Miguel-Alfonso, eds., Reviewed by Laura Dassow Walls
 

A POWER TO TRANSLATE THE WORLD: NEW ESSAYS ON EMERSON AND INTERNATIONAL CULTURE
Eds. David LaRocca and Ricardo Miguel-Alfonso
(UPNE/ Dartmouth, 2015) 354 pp.
Reviewed by Laura Dassow Walls on 2016-11-10.

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Emerson once observed that "each individual soul is such, in virtue of its being a power to translate the world into some particular language of its own" ("The Method of Nature" [1841]). Emerson's meditation on the power of translation becomes the keynote to this ambitious collection, a significant contribution to recent debates over the transnational turn in American literary and cultural criticism. What is the relationship, ask the editors, "between translation and the international, between some such world we are said to share and the culture(s) that claim(s) to inhabit it?" (1). Alert readers will notice here an interesting shift: whereas recent debates have centered on "Re-Mapping the Transnational" (as in the name of the book series, edited by Donald Pease, in which this volume appears), LaRocca and Miguel-Alfonso insist instead on the term "international." In their view, true transnationalism was not yet available in the nineteenth century, caught up as it was in nation-building and the defense of national identities (3-4). And translation? This they intend less as literal translation (LaRocca, in his own essay on Maeterlinck, freely admits he doesn't read French) than as a metaphor for "influence," understood not as directly causal but as "the ongoing rhizomatic effects of reading" (13). Finally, why Emerson? Because his work--including his own identity as "an American writer"--is "a crucial node in the matrix of national, literary, and philosophical identities in many countries around the world" (20).

Despite the editors' caution, the authors of this "prismatic" collection of seventeen essays range widely across the field, exploring permutations ranging from the rankest nationalism through theories of the transnational to wistful ideals of cosmopolitanism. That Emerson was international, no one doubts: the rhizomes of his own reading-beyond-borders are evident everywhere, though only one essay, by Robert Habich, examines the problem of Emerson's actual, bodily travel to foreign countries. The nations and literatures discussed here are almost all those Emerson himself took up: England and Germany figure largely, and fully seven of the essays dwell on "the East," both Far and Near; yet the hemispheric Americas are represented by just one essay, on a Chilean poet. Absent, as the editors note, are entire worlds: Africa, modern India, Oceania and the Antipodes, Canada and Mexico. I'll also mention (since they don't) U.S. America's internal nations, though as Emerson was aware, indigenous peoples from Maine to California to Hawai'i were fighting for political and cultural sovereignty even as they were being deterritorialized, removed, or destroyed.

Such omissions are revealing--not merely because they suggest an abundance of subjects for further study (22), but also because they point toward larger omissions that go not merely unmentioned but unseen. Emerson's "world" was largely composed of "essences unchanged by man; space, the air, the river, the leaf" (Nature [Library of America 1983] 8), and he could define "Culture" as "educating the eye to the true harmony of the unshorn landscape" (Early Lectures [Harvard 1964] II:216). By contrast, the "world" of this volume is wholly human, and "culture" here concerns political boundaries only. Anyone interested in Emerson's modes of translating the world of "nature" into reservoirs of moral meaning, let alone into reservoirs of actual, technological power, will find no answers here. That is, for all its usefulness in broadening "contexts," this book fits comfortably within the familiar poststructural disciplinary paradigm, in which scholars think about thinking and write language about language, externalizing everything else as background and thus dodging the kind of interdisciplinary questions raised by those who ask what "the human" externalizes in order to name and empower itself--questions that obsessed Emerson, and whose traces are everywhere visible, though unremarked, on these pages. There are, in short, many worlds in this book--but no planet.

The lead essay, by Donald Pease, brilliantly illustrates the strengths and limitations of this disciplinary approach. In "The Anti-Slave from Emerson to Obama," Pease deconstructs both Emerson and Obama as provocateurs who take their power from their constitutive position outside the "already represented world" (33). By looking to the slave as the inverted mirror image of himself, Emerson could look to the "anti-slave" Toussaint L'Ouverture as the necessary break with progressive history, the historical figure who will, at last, disrupt and transform the historical order. Emerson, that is, did not rise above conflict to offer an "abstract universal position," but universalized a singular partisan position, Toussaint's anti-slave, into what Emerson would call "higher law." Were Obama, too, to take up the anti-slave position, he too could achieve such a transformative disruption; instead, by limiting himself to the existing symbolic order, he can function only within the antinomy of messiah or terrorist, a rift that creates structural impasses that trap Obama within America's racial history. The only way out of such impasses, concludes Pease, is to reanimate the "radical imagination" embodied by Toussaint and Emerson (39-40). But then the question becomes whether Emerson's "higher law" is truly a radical transformation of the existing order, or is, instead, the very means to empower that order, by drawing on the constitutive forces Emerson imagines to be external to human society--that is, forces that belong to the realm of "Nature," or "Fate," and therefore can be categorically excluded from history even as they can be drawn upon endlessly to power history's infinite ascent. But such a question can only be asked if one stops deconstructing the modern liberal imagination from within, and starts deconstructing the entirety of modernity from without--a place more and more of us are finding ourselves today.

The volume's remaining essays, while various in tone and intent, generally adopt Pease's method: deconstructing the concept of borders by showing how what is presumed to be outside the border is actually a constitutive condition of the border itself. The book's first section, "Emerson Beyond Borders in His Time," follows Pease's contribution with four additional essays that examine how borders are simultaneously crossed and constituted. In his remarkable essay, David Robinson shows that "a transcultural reconception of religion in the nineteenth century" (43) occurred not merely among Emerson's post-Christian followers, but among such border-crossers as Rammohun Roy, whose mission to reform Hinduism was influenced by William Ellery Channing. Even as Roy, back in India, was founding the Brahmo Samaj (Society of God), which created a Hindu "cosmopolitan spirituality" (45), Emerson was encountering Hinduism in the pages of Victor Cousin, which inspired his Hindu-inflected Neoplatonic vision of the Over-Soul; such alternative spiritualities led to the formation, in 1867, of the Free Religion Association, an interactive parallel to the Brahmo Samaj. The two traditions merged in the twentieth century when Gandhi's subversive philosophy was welcomed and embraced in the United States as the inevitable unfolding of the moral law, establishing a moral alternative to the failures of Western civilization.

The other essays in this section suggest additional ways of border-crossing. Monika Elbert details the pivotal role played by Goethe in the imagination of such American women writers as Fuller and Alcott, who turned Emerson into a "spiritual stand-in" for the distant Goethe. Len Gougeon asks why the British aristocracy sided, during the Civil War, not with the Union's emancipatory politics but with the slave-holding Confederacy. As Gougeon's class analysis shows, northern abolitionism was linked with an international crusade for human rights that included the laboring classes as well; though this crusade threatened the interests of the British ruling classes, it was enthusiastically supported by British liberals, Chartists, and trade unionists, who thus sided with the Union and read the Civil War as part of a global struggle for human rights and progressive democracy. Robert Habich closes this section with a revealing study of Emerson as an international tourist, showing that his complex reactions to actual border-crossing, during his first trip to Europe in 1832-33, followed quite closely the four stages of "culture shock" as recently outlined by tourism theory. The exceptional Emerson thus turns out to be, in at least this one respect, just as ordinary as everyone else.

Most of the six essays of the second section, "Emerson and Global Modernity," compare the literary work of Emerson with that of a single writer from a different national tradition. The exception is Herwig Friedl's exacting, erudite, and exciting analysis of Emerson's influence on German thought from 1850 through the rise of Hitler in 1933. According to Friedl, who has uncovered a rich archive of German readers and scholars of Emerson, they can be roughly divided in two: while some of them appropriated Emerson for German nationalism (even insisting that Emerson was "really" German), others evinced "an exemplary cosmopolitan openness and liberalism" which deserves to inspire transnational readings of Emerson even today (154). The single-author studies include LaRocca's essay on Emerson and Maeterlinck, which uses "somatic semiosis," or a theory of gestures, to suggest a possible influence of the earlier writer upon the later; Ricardo Miguel-Alfonso's essay on the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro, who used Emersonian poetics to found the important modernist movement known as creacionismo; and Richard Deming's elegant meditation on Emerson and Rilke, which refuses the question of influence-as-such to exemplify reading as a catalyst for the imagination. Deming concludes that transmission of Emerson "becomes itself a kind of circle" whose waves move outward from a center across the whole of Europe and throughout Romanticism (177). K. L. Evans reclaims Matthew Arnold's ideal for criticism as an extension of Emerson's own critical/cultural criticism, which asks not for mere critical opinions but inspires creative work. And finally, Daniel Rosenberg Nutters takes up Emerson and Henry James to show what James does in The Golden Bowl: following Emerson, he converts the limits of "Fate" (including the limits of the realist novel) into imaginative power.

The third section, on Emerson and the "Far East," opens with Naoko Saito's plea to recover Emerson's way of "becoming cosmopolitan in an age of globalization" (218). By reading Emerson through Stanley Cavell, Saito argues that boundaries can never be crossed except by being retained; languages and cultures, Saito suggests, can be mediated in such a way that the human subject can regain the inner, without seclusion, and reclaim the outer, without dissolving boundaries--a mode of thinking that can help Japanese citizens respond to the Fukushima crisis. The other two essays here turn to Emerson and China. While Mathew Foust minutely probes Emerson and Confucius for possible parallels and influences, the co-authors Neal Dolan and Laura Jane Wey broadly survey Chinese culture and history to show how Emerson's thought overlaps Taoism (despite the historical impossibility of any influence of Taoism on Emerson), Buddhism, and Confucianism. Finally, the co-authors track the more recent "lurching course of Chinese political and social history" (236) through contrasts: while the liberal pragmatist Hu Shi turned to Emerson to reiterate the central role of the individual in accessing natural law, the communist revolutionary Li Dazhao creatively (mis)read Emerson in quest of "collective betterment rather than individual realization" (245). The contradiction is resolved by the essay's concluding call for an overlapping of the global liberal consensus with the truths of China's own traditions, which can then counterbalance and correct each other (247).

The three essays in the volume's final section take up Emerson and the "Near East." Kenneth Sacks opens his lengthy and groundbreaking essay, "Emerson and Some Jewish Questions," with an exhaustive debunking of conventional charges that Emerson was anti-Semitic; he moves on to consider how Emersonian "natural religion," especially as manifested in the Free Religious Association, gave Jewish theologians a way to grow beyond, even while respecting, their own Jewish religious traditions--until they were faced with the difficult challenge of "surrendering historical exceptionalism" (290). Turning from Sacks's Jewish questions to specific Jewish readers, David Mikics fascinatingly shows how Emerson has been read by five modern Jewish intellectuals--Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Saul Bellow, Stanley Cavell, and Harold Bloom--who each, variously, discern a bond between Emerson and Jewishness or find a deep but provocative difference. The provocations of difference are also taken up by the volume's final essay, Roger Sedarat's analysis of Emerson's impact on Middle-Eastern readers. Just as Emerson is haunted by a Persian presence he can neither subvert nor subdue, Emerson himself, Sedarat argues, haunts Middle-Eastern readers of today, who find in him something radically foreign yet deeply, and uncannily, familiar. Sedarat thus reminds us that in the United States, "hybrid" immigrant writers must also, just as much as those born in America, "come through Emerson," though they bear the added weight of their own substantial, and ancient, traditions--traditions to which Emerson, paradoxically, returns them in spirit (323).

Given the editors' stated resistance to transnational and cosmopolitan readings of Emerson, it's remarkable how consistently their authors explore exactly those dimensions of Emerson's thinking. The longing to be, not inter- or between-nations, but in some deep sense beyond the limits of nationhood, prevails throughout the book. But while this book does not offer a coherent perspective, it invigorates by means of sudden discoveries, cross-connections, overlaps, and gaps, as each of these "prismatic" essays reflects the question afresh. Today, with the post-Brexit tear-down of a transnational Europe well underway, with nations around the world demonizing their internal minorities while building walls to exclude the waves of stateless refugees washing across political borders, the editors' assumption that the nationalism of Emerson's day was yielding to a globalized modernity seems downright quaint. Borders and limits no longer seem like outgrown relics of the past but like a fate descending upon us from a future we never anticipated. This book proposes that our fate, today, brings us closer to Emerson than we have been in many decades. And if cosmopolitanism is a dream that Emerson himself failed to realize, he clearly inspired the dream in others--and he may help keep it alive for us, too, as we face the challenges of our planetary world.

Laura Dassow Walls is William P. and Hazel B. White Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame.


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