Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (The Art of Losing—Issue 58, October 2015)

Rachael M. Wilson
This Can Teach You Nothing: On Losing in Emerson and Maggie Nelson

I recently read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets after hearing her speak at Reed College on the subject of “writing the body in time.” In this lecture, Nelson talked about her friend and mentor Christina Crosby’s forthcoming memoir, Body Undone: Living On After Great Pain, in which Crosby details her life after traumatic spinal cord injury at age 50. Crosby’s memoir was apposite to the discussion, not only because it had much to do with “writing” a body, but also because Crosby’s body figures in much of Nelson’s writing. In Bluets, Crosby appears just after her accident; she is introduced in proposition 22, which opens, “Some things do change, however.”1

Discussing her friend’s life-altering injury, Nelson is careful to avoid equating suffering with “meaning.” She adamantly asserts that there is “no reason” and “no lesson” behind the accident—nothing to balance the loss or to make good the decisive negative of “becoming a quadriparalytic.”2 Nevertheless, in this book that is largely “about” loss—a book that appears, in fact, to be the means and consequence of an intense working through loss—Crosby’s experience creeps toward the allegorical, as her loss, in its extremity, risks becoming emblematic of loss itself.

Crosby’s injury, even in this second-hand telling of it, compels a reconsideration of what it is that (negatively) constitutes loss. I try to reconcile what I imagine a moment of this life to be like (knowing it’s impossible to imagine and still feeling myself trying) with a timeline of grief proposed by a quadriparalytic man who tells Crosby it will take her “at least five years” to become accustomed to her injury (for the injury to “feel like a normal part of [her] life”).3 Nelson is understandably unpersuaded by this timeline, and her incredulity resurfaces with the passage of five years in another context.

“Today is the fifth anniversary, the radio says, of the day on which ‘everything changed.’ It says this so often I turn it off,” Nelson writes.4 We infer the date to be September 11, 2006. “Everything changed. Everything changed. Well, what changed?” she asks. Her tacit answer, which closes this proposition (number 216), is a quotation from Emerson’s essay “Experience”: “I grieve that grief can teach me nothing.” What changed, the citation implies, is not the “everything” the radio voice proclaims, but precisely nothing. Rejecting the monumentalizing, empire-centric narrative of change proposed by radio’s glib personalities, Nelson refuses to turn a loss into a lesson. She also refuses the temporality of healing grief, of mourning, wherein five years’ time gives ample “distance” and grants us the “space” in which to reflect on, memorialize and let go our losses.

Counterposed to this temporality of mourning and recovery is Crosby’s “intense grief for all she has lost, a grief she describes as bottomless.”5 A bottomless grief is unmitigated, total and without recompense; it cannot be ameliorated, bettered or lessened; it does not diminish or disappear, nor can it be normalized, not in five or fifty years. This, however, is where Crosby’s experience of grief, as given to us by Nelson, differs greatly from the texture of grief Emerson relates in “Experience.”

In that essay, the other way Emerson renders the sentiment “I grieve that grief can teach me nothing” is: “The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is.”6 Somehow, the latter is simply less poetical. I’d say it’s “less bittersweet, more plainly bitter,” but in truth it’s not so bitter as bland. It should be noted that the context for these remarks is the death of Emerson’s five-year-old son. Reflecting on his loss, Emerson writes, “In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate,—no more.”7 Ironically, Emerson mourns for how little, in the end, his loss touches him; lamenting the very meagerness of his grief, he continues:

If tomorrow I should be informed of the bankruptcy of my principle debtors, the loss of my property would be a great inconvenience to me, perhaps, for many years, but it would leave me as it found me,—neither better nor worse. So is it with this calamity: it does not touch me: some thing which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me, nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me, and leaves no scar. It was caducous.8

I remember preparing a lecture on Emerson and practicing this word aloud: Was it “cad-yew-cuss,” or “cad-yoo-cuss”? I’m sure I settled on neither, or on something in between and half-muttered. Hopefully, I let my voice drop in a way that conveyed the meaning onomatopoeically “(of an organ or part) easily detached and shed at an early stage,” from the Latin caducus, “liable to fall.”9

For Emerson, the problem with loss, I related in my lecture, is that it’s too easy to lose. It’s “too easy to lose” in the sense that things (or people) are too readily, too summarily lost, and in the sense that this loss goes too easily with us—it slides into our lives and settles there prosaically—until the loss itself is lost. Grief for Emerson, contra Crosby-Nelson, is not “bottomless” at all; instead, it’s disappointingly shallow. It follows its objects, he complains, and similarly “evanesces.” As Elizabeth Bishop will later propose, “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.”

This, then, is the context for Emerson’s remark, ventriloquized in Nelson’s book, “I grieve that grief can teach me nothing.” I hope it’s clear how the variable contexts lend different inflections to the statement. In Bluets, Emerson’s apothegm seems to emphasize the profundity of loss—to point to a depth that renders our losses impervious to articulation and proof against any extraction of value (grief can teach us nothing). In “Experience,” on the other hand, the sentiment is really that loss is grossly superficial and, so, also proof against conversion into value.

While Emerson paints his grief as anemic and insubstantial, still, it doesn’t escape our notice: it is grief that organizes this lengthy essay on a topic no less encompassing than “experience.” Grief, we might say, taught him everything. This acid irony makes a masterwork of Emerson’s essay, organizing the whole into a spectacular mise-en-abîme of philosophical dejection that crystalizes in the statement quoted in Bluets and then refracts into one of the most despondent passages ever written in English:

I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature. The Indian who was laid under a curse that the wind should not blow on him, nor water flow to him, nor fire burn him, is a type of us all. The dearest events are summer-rain, and we the Para coats that shed every drop.10

This image—the one I get anyway—of humanity draped in a giant poncho, off which everything good, bad, edifying, humiliating, depressing and inspiring simply rolls, sloughs, or sheds, as if it wasn’t ever intended for us, well, this vision is so awful to contemplate that even the writing gets emotional, effectively shattering its own cool, crystalline spell. We realize: he swallowed the wrong Heraclitus. He thought change was so perpetual, there ceased to be change.

“Some things do change, however,” Nelson writes, in proposition 22, wherein we first learn of Crosby’s injury. Unlike the cynical, unfelt “day on which ‘everything changed’” (a bluff Nelson doesn’t hesitate to call), this change suffers no delusions: not ‘everything’ changed, nor did ‘nothing’ change, but only something very definite. “Some things do change”: Spines snap, lovers leave, fragments of blue fade in the sun.

At the risk of undermining an important moral communicated in Bluets—that some amount of ‘good’ isn’t always to be found, rooted or wrung out from the bad, or that some things simply ‘are what they are’ without sense or order or recompense—I would assert that it is our capacity for suffering change, even as loss, that keeps us alive. So, after her accident, composing letters to her friends with voice-recognition software, Crosby writes, insistently, “My life can change, does change.”11 It is this ability to accommodate and affirm present change and, therefore, to make space for the possibility of a future, or futures, that are changed from the present and the past—it is this that constitutes living, which is and is not ‘the art of losing.’

At the outset of this essay, I had intended to write on this strangely future-oriented sense of loss—on loss as a feeling of losing what one never had, or what was never actual but only possible. I thought, “Loss is equally the loss of what once was and what now cannot be.” This foreclosure of the future still seems to me the most insufferable form of loss (a kind of loss we might call proleptic). I imagine, without really wanting to unravel the ‘why’, that this has something to do with why grief so often registers in dreams.

But that was another essay—one that might have started with an exploration of the etymology of “loss,” a word that derives from the Old English los, meaning “destruction,” and losian, which means “to perish” or “to destroy.”12 In another essay, I could’ve written on or alongside other recently read books, like Susan Howe’s That This or Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, that intersect with and inform this meditation on losing. (And, if that had been, I almost certainly would’ve maneuvered to quote Rankine quoting Gertrude Stein on dying as “not a thing to be liking.”) In yet another essay, I might have kept in the things I’d struck from this one, like “comes through to the other side of its…” and “These sentences ring with a sense of injury…” or “initiates of losing.” Elsewhere, I might have discussed something personal. In the scope of this essay, these are my losses: the things that might have been, or briefly were. The sentence bends to give them space—a placeholder for what can’t “take place” in the end.


1Maggie Nelson, Bluets (Seattle and New York: Wave Books, 2009), p. 9. All emphasis throughout in the original, unless otherwise noted.
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2Bluets, p. 88.
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3Bluets, p. 37.
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4Bluets, p. 88.
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5Bluets, p. 92.
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6Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Experience” in Emerson’s Prose and Poetry, eds. Joel Porte and Saundra Morris (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), p. 199.
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7Ibid, p. 200.
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9“caducous,” New Oxford American Dictionary Dictionary, 3rd ed., eds. Angus Stevenson and Christine Lindberg (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
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10Emerson’s Prose and Poetry, p. 200.
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11Bluets, p. 92.
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12“loss, n.1” and “lose, v.1” OED Online.
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Thanks to David Hobbs, John Melillo, Lola Milholland, Johanna Skibsrud, Garth Swanson and Cameron Williams for reading and commenting on those other versions of this essay.