Bruce Wilshire, author of “Wild Hunger,” seems to have disappeared. His website invites comment and so on, but the last note on his website dates to 2004 -- same for his wife, Donna Wilshire, a feminist scholar. Email attempts bounce. I’m sorry because a certain amount of repentance has set in -- I’m no longer reading him as an over-romantic Aquarian, but rather as one on the same page as me. Maybe that just means that my own ideas date to 2004, in spite of being “allergic to feminism.” I’m also getting feedback that such side comments are offensive. They are taken as being snide rather than wry, jabs rather than winks. This is partly a problem of print, I think. If you could see my face, I could show what was irony or ventriloquism. And if I could see YOUR face, I could know to reassure you. But maybe the criticism is right! The tone of writing is an integral part of the thought expressed. Anyway, let me say that I am a feminist to the degree that women are a part of the whole and so long as the ideology is not used as an excuse to persecute others, male or female. I’m only allergic to a sub-species.
Chapter three in “Wild Hunger” is called “Circular Power Returning into Itself” and begins with the author and his big dog, who leads him into the forest near his suburban home. Even in the Seventies, even less than an hour from Manhattan, there were patches of third-growth forest that could support wildlife as big as deer. Some of the critics of Wilshire’s book have said that these little personal digressions throughout the book are unnecessary and intrusive. It’s not true for me. He uses the event to address Emerson from a surprising angle. He suggests that Emerson “tapped a deep apprehension and longing in many readers.” Then he quotes: “The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable.” Here comes the flip remark: he does NOT mean “pastoring” psychic carrots and turnips. This flip is a bit of a joke, only meant as a reminder that Emerson used an antique context and rhetoric. We don’t talk about the “vegetable kingdom” much anymore. Emerson and Wilshire mean something more like Robert Graves’ “The White Goddess,” which describes the Celtic religious system based on trees and which haunts this chapter right on through.
Here’s another problematic sentence, Wilshire’s this time. “Emerson encounters a side of otherness that risks intimacy -- the contingency or sheer repulsiveness of some of the other.” I take it he’s saying that Emerson is squeamish about anything “below the belt” and resorts to fascination with the soul and even the “over-soul” to avoid real bodies, which leaves him deeply ambivalent about women. Wilshire quotes a bit of Emerson I’ve never seen before: “Few women are sane. They emit a coloured atmosphere, one would say, floods upon floods of coloured light, in which they walk evermore, and see all objects through this warm tinted mist which envelopes them. Men are not, to the same degree, temperamented; for there are multitudes of men who live to objects quite out of them.”
Emerson’s no better about non-whites (animalistic) nor even about his own body. Wilshire says, “The blindness and intensity of Emerson’s emotions suggest that projection is at work. Fear, anxiety and revulsion toward our own body is too much to bear, and the problem is thought to inhere solely in those body-ensnared others -- women, other races, wild animals. Then to protect ourselves (particularly white male body-selves) from the nightmare creatures we have created, we wall ourselves up in addictive ‘self-sufficiency.’”
Wilshire does not go into Emerson’s feelings about his first wife, who died young of tuberculosis. Emerson was blamed for her death by her family because she was very young and, they felt, not well enough to marry. Her estate, her inheritance, made his writing life possible. He denied her death and yet, after she had been dead a long time, he went to her tomb and pushed the stone lid aside to see her body. Perhaps he hoped for emptiness. Or maybe he was trying to face reality at last. The account was in his private papers and didn’t explain.
Wilshire goes on to quote from Princess Christina Belgiojoso, a close friend of Margaret Fuller, the only female Transcendentalist thinker, quite as brilliant as the men, but the one who did most of the drudgework. The Princess said that as a girl herself she lived “like a rat in a library when she was allowed to do as she chose, and like a doll in the parlor when she was not.” Exactly.
Then Wilshire turns from addressing repressive fear to the opposite: “Might there be a fear that is awe, a kind of holy fear that might stop me dead in my tracks for a moment, but allow me to continue? A fear of the encompassing everything-else, of the World-whole of which I am a small part, a fear that is reverence, that makes me belong? A holy fear, simultaneously sacrifice and sustenance, a losing of nervous ego-self that leaves room for something much greater?
“Holy fear lived through is world-excitement, part of which is the lure of not knowing clearly what holy means, how the vast teeming world can flow into us and support us, or can crush.” Now he sounds like Thoreau.
And then Wilshire says this endearing thing: “Being with the dog was often sacramental.” He doesn’t mean dog as psychopomp, guiding into death, or even dog as trusty companion and guardian, but dog as the tracer of paths into a different dimension of the ordinary world, perhaps only perceptible to smell.
Wilshire, like Emerson, believes that women, like animals, can cross this boundary and gives the full name from which “hag” evolved: “hagazussa,” “which means ‘sits on the fence’ between wilderness and civilization to ease and regulate passages across it and back again.” Bruce’s wife and he clearly share ideas. But I’m left conflicted, wanting to say “bitch” in a benign way and not wanting to be flip. “Bitch” is one of those power words that contains opposites: faithfulness and viciousness.
The chapter ends with an anecdote about Australia. Wilshire expressed surprise that white people rarely live anywhere but on the coasts, never visiting the interior. An aborigine man tells him, “It is because they do not know the interior of themselves.” Wilshire’s last sentence is, “What lies closest to hand and under our feet is overlooked: body embedded in the pulse of matter that surrounds, pervades, supports or threatens us.” I can just say yes to that.