Perhaps of the arguments presented in both the excerpts we’ve read from Emerson’s The Poet as well as The American Scholar, the most clear is that we, as consumers of art, argument, life, death, beauty and so many other accessories of existence, are formed from even the most meager aspects of this consumption. As said in The Poet, “For we are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it…” (1). I’ve found in Whitman’s Song of the Open Road the same call for realization. He writes in section three, “From all that has touch’d you I believe you have imparted to / yourselves, and now would impart the same secretly to me,” (122).
Both Emerson and Whitman call out for the consumer of existence, which is to say those who believe that when we leave ourselves to the cyclical nature of society (to be born, to work, and to die) the world is only available to us as “rude, silent, incomprehensible” (Whitman 125), but when we refuse the mundane, refuse the satisfactory and adequate, when we “Stand there, baulked and dumb, stuttering and stammering…transcending all limit and privacy…” (Emerson 6) we realize our ability to consume.
In The American Scholar, Emerson writes, “Books are written on it by thinkers, not by Man Thinking, by men of talent, that is, who start wrong, who set out from accepted dogmas, not from their own sight of principles” (26). The every man is no different than the writers of philosophy, of science, of law and principle for these men started as every men. The crafters of truth began no different from the current consumers of it (26).
With this in mind, I am brought to the following question: Why was the call for the “soul active” as Emerson puts in The American Scholar one so difficult to answer? Why was the pantheistic idea Emerson asserts in The Poet one so difficult to accept? Was it so radical a notion in the time that only through the assertion of this-is-and-so-I-am or Song of the Open Road’s “I am fill’d with them, and I will fill them in return” (121) the call be answered?
I am struck by this idea of what it means to be such a consumer of existence. I wonder if the reason Emerson’s call for such a person—such a soul active—went unanswered until Whitman was because a true understanding of what a soul active is, was never fully grasped. I wonder if it is because, much like I have done here, so many of us commit the sin of paraphrase, pretend we know what we are talking about. I wonder if Whitman was able to answer this call because he, unlike so many others, did not attempt to explain, but rather explored. Sought out the answer rather than fostered one. What does it mean to be a consumer of existence? Is it even a question we can answer?