American Literature Research Seminar

alrs mt2020

Trinity term 2021

Seminars will be held at 5.30pm on the following Thursdays on Zoom. To receive Zoom links and circulated readings, please join the ALRS mailing list by sending a blank email to: alrs-subscribe [at]

Dr Thomas Constantinesco, Université Paris Diderot/Oxford
20 May: ‘Emerson’s Economy of Pain’

Abstract: Excerpted from a book project on the writing of pain in nineteenth-century American literature, this paper explores Ralph Waldo Emerson’s philosophy of pain. I argue that this philosophy hinges on an economic structure of “compensation” that recognizes the reality of pain, but seeks to cancel it eventually by promising to convert present pain into future gain. I also examine two main challenges to his metaphysics of pain. On the one hand, the psychological shock of the death of Emerson’s son in 1842 laid bare the limits of his idealism, as the dream world of transcendental, pain-free joy turned into a nightmarish vision of extreme yet immaterial suffering. On the other hand, the spectacle of the pain of enslavement, which Emerson’s abolitionist lectures repeatedly dramatize, complicates his earlier, critical engagement with the demands of sentimentality and its underlying logic of sympathetic identification, even as it evinces the problematic uses of black pain in the imagination of white freedom and safety. Reading Emerson’s engagements with pain thus helps to illuminate the ethical and political difficulties that underwrite and undermine his Transcendentalist philosophy.