Quote of the Fortnight: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Experience”

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This week’s quote is from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, “Experience.” This excerpt discusses the phenomenon of novelty and the disappointment a child has when he reads something for the second time and it isn’t as enjoyable as the first time. Such “is the plaint of tragedy” that Emerson seeks to address.

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Once I took such delight in Montaigne, that I thought I should not need any other book; before that, in Shakspeare; then in Plutarch; then in Plotinus; at one time in Bacon; afterwards in Goethe; even in Bettine; but now I turn the pages of either of them languidly, whilst I still cherish their genius. So with pictures; each will bear an emphasis of attention once, which it cannot retain, though we fain would continue to be pleased in that manner. How strongly I have felt of pictures, that when you have seen one well, you must take your leave of it; you shall never see it again. I have had good lessons from pictures, which I have since seen without emotion or remark. A deduction must be made from the opinion, which even the wise express of a new book or occurrence. Their opinion gives me tidings of their mood, and some vague guess at the new fact but is nowise to be trusted as the lasting relation between that intellect and that thing. The child asks, ‘Mamma, why don’t I like the story as well as when you told it me yesterday?’ Alas, child, it is even so with the oldest cherubim of knowledge. But will it answer thy question to say, Because thou wert born to a whole, and this story is a particular? The reason of the pain this discovery causes us (and we make it late in respect to works of art and intellect), is the plaint of tragedy which murmurs from it in regard to persons, to friendship and love.

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