PUBLISHED IN COLLEGE ENGLISH
Scholars have begun to question the timeworn ritual of honoring clarity as the highest virtue of rhetorical practice. In this article, I argue that Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his famous Divinity School Address, made a virtue of provocative obscurity.
Through a reading of the controversy surrounding the Address, I first show how the 19th-Century Unitarian establishment's conception of a God as an individual affected their conception of human community. Because all persons were thought to be unitary and separate, the role of rhetoric was to bind human beings together through communication. Clarity guarded this communication, and so clarity became associated with staving off chaos and faction.
Next, I show how Emerson’s rhetoric offers a radical critique of clarity and the presuppositions that support it. For Emerson, all humans cohere in--or perhaps as--the divine, which is by nature free and creative. Because no basic separation among persons exists, communication is not necessary to bring them together. And because communication is not necessary, clarity is no longer essential to communal peace. Rather, human beings are never more knit together than when they exercise their shared divinity in diverse forms of life and language. When this unified diversity is threatened by imitation and conformity, language serves the purpose of provocation. The Emersonian rhetor seeks to free their auditors by inviting them to exercise their creativity anew.
Emerson's Address prompts teachers and scholars of English to reexamine how we think about communication, how we conceive of and teach writing, and how Emersonian obscurity has been and can be put to use in the wider world.