> The Myth of Self-Reliance
> By Jenny Odell
> An encounter with Emerson’s essays:
> I share this not because I agree with it. In fact
> I think Jenny Odell misreads Emerson in some very
> fundamental ways. But it is always a delight to
> read other people’s take on this essay, which
> shares in the Shakespearean quality of being
> different for every reader and indeed goes on to
> be different to ourselves as we re-read it over a
I just read Jenny Odell's essay (for which I thank you), and I agree with [at least most of] what you are saying.
I think the value (or relative non-value) of Emerson's works and thought, and in particular the personal usefulness of this specific essay written by Emerson, is greatly dependent on the varied realities of any given reader's life.
In my case, I first read "Self-Reliance," that day in Mrs. Cline's class, when I was fourteen years old (younger than anyone else in my class; I had previously skipped twice), when I was, involuntarily and incomprehensibly, in the central midst of what were, quite obviously, very deep extended family problems which made absolutely no sense by any rational standards or perspectives.
I was extremely confused, because of what appeared, to me, to be a crazy/insane/incomprehensible family milieu within which I had not the remotest, slightest, scintilla of suspicion might be centered around, what was in truth, my very biological existence as a living human being. (As I learned over two decades later, to my complete and totally unsuspecting amazement: my "father" who raised me was my biological uncle, and his brother, my "uncle," was my actual biological father--and EVERYONE in the family knew this but me.)
This, the fact that I was not my father's daughter, was impacting my life in day-to-day ways which made no sense at all (I would get punished, and sometimes fairly brutally, for what, to any other family, would be achievements: good grades, school awards, etc.)
Prior to my reading "Self-Reliance," my only coping mechanism had been to lump all of the physical/emotional maltreatment of me with all of the, extremely outspoken, racism which my mother's family had brought with them on their way west from Oklahoma. In California history, the "Okies" moving west to California during the Depression was one of our state's most important events, and my maternal family was part of that major migration....thanks to my Aunt Tomi and the huge personal sacrifices she made in order to move her entire family west. [My maternal step-grandfather had been KKK when he lived in Kansas (before he married my grandmother), and my aunt (his biological daughter), and my uncle (from that side of the family, through marriage), were the two most virulent racists I have ever personally known].
So I grew up in a family where, for me individually, "up" was "down" (I got punished, and sometimes really badly, for the achievements any other kid I knew was congratulated for), and every other opposite duo in the life which swirled around me was turned inside out.
When I first encountered "Self-Reliance" in American Lit, I was a kid who was actively mentally searching for some kind of dependable and solid rationality in my life.
> “I’d done this throughout my entire life, but
> especially in How to Do Nothing. Around my favored
> versions of contemplative solitude, so similar to
> Emerson’s, a whole suite of circumstances
> appeared in full relief, like something coming
> into focus. The women in the kitchen made the
> mens’ conversation possible, just as my trip to
> the mountain—and really all of my time spent
> walking, observing, and courting the
> “over-soul”—rested upon a long list of
> privileges, from the specific (owning a car,
> having the time), to the general (able-bodied,
> upper-middle-class, half white and half “model
> minority,” a walkable neighborhood in a
> desirable city, and more). There was an entire
> infrastructure around my experience of freedom,
> and I’d been so busy chasing it that I hadn’t
> seen it.“
> I have never been in a position to not see it.
I "saw" it all right, even before I read the essay in American Lit that day, but I had no framework to understand it because--at home and within my extended family--everything was topsy-turvy. What "Self-Reliance" gave to me, at the age of fourteen, was the framework I had been, rather desperately (because I didn't know if I actually WAS insane or not--most of my family thought I was actually insane) searching for.
> Born from a long line of lower working class
> drudges, rough, ready, none too romantic, and
> nothing taken for granted, because it cannot be
> afforded, I have yet to feel my body not chained
> to a myriad of dependencies. Odell’s confessed
> blindspot is not my own (nor do I think it is
We are all chained to "a myriad of dependencies," beginning with our families of birth--and then extending steadily outwards: to our local communities, to our nation, to the planet and to all of our planet's inhabitants. The "chains" are real, but what I discovered in "Self-Reliance" was a way to continue to exist within those dependencies, while understanding the larger context(s) which is/are simultaneously also true.
> What was and is necessary for me, as I jumble
> around within this endless chain of dependencies,
> which of course entails all kinds of
> responsibilities, is to hold the ‘me myself’,
> as Whitman has it, aloof, to keep “in the midst
> of the crowd...the independence of solitude,”
> and to do so “with perfect sweetness”.
> It is too easy to conflate our self with our body,
> our self with our labour, our profession; our
> responsibilities, creeds, faiths, beliefs; our
> race, culture, nation; our heritage and lineage.
> We are more than these, and every single
> individual is more than these.
Yes....this is what *I* got out of "Self-Reliance."
> My gratitude to RfM for a spot to fumble around
> amidst a busy, noisy life.
My sentiments exactly. In many ways, RfM has been the best, most supportive, venue for cognitive "fumbling around" I have ever had access to during my lifetime.
My gratitude towards this board, to its founders (Thank you, Eric!), and to its various members of Admin who have each been SO important through the years, and towards the people who gather here, is immense.
Thank you to EVERYONE!!
Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 01/18/2020 01:23AM by Tevai.