Just the other night was a Harvest Moon. I was trying to get home after a long day of classes and meetings, and people kept stopping randomly in the middle of the sidewalk. I nearly crashed into a few of them, which only added to my frustration and rush to get home. When I finally realized that they were not just stopping to infuriate me, I followed their lead and tilted my face towards the sky. It was a breathtaking sight and completely worth being slammed into from behind.
In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature,” written in 1836, the author makes a few grand sweeping comments, namely about nature/knowledge of nature. However, the part that most piqued my interest is the first paragraph in Chapter I. This paragraph begins with “To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society.” Emerson’s idea of being in solitude and alone differs significantly from the one prevailing today.
For most people now-a-days, words like “solitude” and “alone” operate on the assumption that there are no other people in the vicinity. The Oxford English Dictionary defines solitude as “the state or situation of being alone” and defines alone as “having no one else present.” Emerson’s definitions operate on a different level. Not only must one be away from people, but also he must be away from his room to be in solitude. It seems like then, he is implying that to be in “solitude,” one must be outside.
By this definition even today’s most antisocial computer-obsessed people are never in solitude because they spend their alone time with their technology in their rooms. Though there are no other people physically around them, by Emerson’s definition, the fact that they have not left their rooms means that they are not in real solitude.
Emerson follows that statement up with another one that sounds just as riddle-like as the first: “I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me.” This gives readers a little insight into the life of Emerson, an avid reader and writer. Though he does not read and write while other people are around, he does read and write in the confines of his room. This habit makes sense because inside there are desks and chairs and other useful writing/reading tools that the outside does not offer.
Very quickly, Emerson departs from this mental image of his reading and writing habits to talk about the actual act of going outside, when he writes: “But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars.” What a simple request. It sounds almost like William Wordsworth’s advice in “The Tables Turned.” This poem has two voices, that of Matthew and that of William, that have an argument about two Enlightenment ideas. Matthew shuts himself up and reads books, while William urges his friend: “Up! up! my friend, and quit your books” (3). Like Emerson, this William character (perhaps, the voice of Wordsworth) pushes his friend to go outside and “Let nature be [his] teacher” (16). He calls for an active meditation in nature, a heart “That watches and receives” (32).
Emerson seems to also call for an active meditation in nature. He himself reflects for many lines upon stars. He says how seeing them might make one believe “the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime.” It seems that by going outside, people can contemplate great things about themselves and the about the world around them and even the universe. For added clarification, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “sublime” as “of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe.” This statement of Emerson’s echoes Coleridge’s belief that man should look past familiarity, the probable, to retain a sense of awe and wonder (as our lecture on Friday said). This idea that nature is the Book of God seems evident in Emerson’s comment that the sight of stars appearing one night after a thousand years would impress everyone and “preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!”
However, I digress from my main point. In order to experience nature in an actively meditative way and to be awed and inspired, one must go outside and be alone. Does this mean that one cannot do this if he is with another person? Does violation of the first part of Emerson’s definition of “solitude” destroy the entire experience? Or can one still experience the sublimity of the stars and the universe outside when other people are in the vicinity?
Perhaps, readers can find a possible answer in a text based off Emerson’s “Nature.” In Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall,” the author delves into Emerson’s statement about the stars appearing after a thousand years. Although in the story there is definitely a revival in religious vigor and a moment of realized sublimity, there is also a great feeling of aloneness. There are many people present, but the darkness cloisters each of them into a personal space. Surrounded by darkness, “the blood-curdling blackness” (20), the characters in the story are terrified to the point of madness.
Emerson could have chosen myriad natural phenomena to make his point, so why did he choose stars? Was it because when one goes outside at night, he feels more alone than when he goes outside during the day? Was it because one is surrounded by darkness and that darkness acts like blinders on a horse, forcing him to spend time with himself and the stars and nothing else? Was it because the stars are so far away that as Asimov puts it, they “[shine] down in a soul-searing splendor that [is] more frighteningly cold in its awful indifference than the bitter wind that [shivers] across the cold, horribly bleak world” (20)? Was it because this splendor and indifference could remind people of their own insignificance? Or was it something to do with the stars sending people a warning from somewhere or someone far away, as the last line of this first paragraph of Emerson’s reads, “But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile”?