In his essay “Compensation,” Emerson makes a surprising claim: “Every soul is by this intrinsic necessity quitting its whole system of things, its friends, and home, and laws, and faith, as the shell-fish crawls out of its beautiful but stony case, because it no longer admits of its growth, and slowly forms a new house.”
unpacks Emerson’s repeated assertion that our reality and our minds are in constant flux. Arsić’s readings of a broad range of Emerson’s writings—the Early Lectures, Journals and Notebooks, and later lectures—are guided by a central question: what does it really mean to maintain that everything fluctuates, is relational, and so changes its identity?
Reading Emerson through this lens, Arsić asks: How is the leaving of one’s own consciousness actually to be performed? What kind of relationship is predicated on the necessity of leaving? What does it mean for our system of values, our ethics and our political allegiances, and even our personal identities to be on the move? The bold new understanding of Emerson that results redefines inherited concepts of the Emersonian individual as all-composed, willful, appropriative, and self-reliant. In its place, Arsić reveals an Emersonian individual whose ideal being is founded in mutability.
Branka Arsić’s On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson is an intellectual feast… Arsić calls herself an ‘archaeologist of Emerson’s thinking,’ no easy task considering not just the amount of Emerson’s writing (the journals alone run to sixteen volumes) but its relentless idiosyncrasy… Arsić makes Emerson into one of the great nineteenth-century moderns… It is no exaggeration to say that On Leaving will take its place among the benchmarks of Emerson scholarship of the past hundred years… One can’t help but be captivated by Arsić’s archaeology. And even if we remain (alertly, admiringly) skeptical about the idea of winding Emerson’s unruly intelligence around a single idea, that doesn’t make this book any less fun to read or any less essential.
Arsić unveils an Emerson we have not seen before, a compelling new Emerson, emphatically urban, modern, and cosmopolitan. Arsić gives us an Emerson to set next to Baudelaire (who admired and quoted Emerson) and Benjamin and Simmel. On Leaving, appropriately enough, demands our leaving, our abandonment, of the Emerson we thought we knew.
Branka Arsić’s On Leaving excavates passages from Emerson’s letters, lectures, and essays, both the celebrated and the less well known. These passages uncannily ground one another in Arsić’s thrilling analysis, revealing something like a cross-section of Emersonian thinking. Her readings contribute to a broader investigation of the epistemological, ethical, and political implications of the transitory and the nomadic in everyday life. This book will be important to anyone who prizes a scrupulous and original examination of an intriguing and difficult topic. It contains some of the best writing on Emerson in the past decade.
Arsić’s book is essential reading for anyone thinking about Emerson. It is one of the most important and certainly most original books ever published on Emerson. No one should read his work seriously again without reading Arsić as a companion. She makes Emerson the thinker for our moment.
- 404 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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