As Adrian del Caro, at the end of his translation of Beyond Good and Evil (Stanford University Press), chose to preserve the rhyme scheme of the ending “Nachgesang” at the expense of Nietzsche’s meaning,** I thought I would try my hand at a literal, deliberately artless translation. (Adrian del Caro did not attempt to preserve Nietzsche’s meter, rendering his translation accidentally artless.)
**I give an example after I give my own translation.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
From high Mountains.
Oh life’s midday! Festive time!
…..Oh summer garden!
Restless happiness in standing and peering and waiting: –
The friends I await, poised day and night,
Where do you stay friends? Come! It’s time! It’s time!
Was it not for you that the glacier’s grey
…..Today adorns itself with roses?
You the brook seeks, longingly rushes,
The wind and clouds thrust higher today into blue
To peer at you from more distant bird’s view.
In the highest place, for you was my table covered: –
…..Who dwells so near the stars
Who near the abyss’ greyest distance?
My realm – what realm has stretched itself wider?
And my honey – who has tasted it? . . . . .
– There you are, friends! – Woe, then I am not
…..The one you wanted?
You hesitate, marvel – ach, better if you resented!
I – am no longer? Swapped hand, step, face?
And what I am, you friends – I am not?
I became another? And foreign to myself?
…..Sprung from myself?
A wrestler who too often vanquished himself?
Too often braced himself against his own force,
Through his own victory wounded and obstructed?
I searched where the wind blows most sharply?
…..I learned to dwell
Where no one dwells, in barren polar bear zones,
Unlearned man and God, curse and prayer?
Became a ghost, that over glaciers goes?
– You old friends! Look! Now you look pale,
…..Full of love and horror!
No, leave! Rage not! Here – you could not reside:
Here between remotest realms of ice and rock –
Here one must be hunter and chamois-like.
A wickeder hunter I became! – Look, how steeply
…..My bow tenses!
It was the strongest who drew such a draw – – [der solchen Zug gezogen]
But woe now! Dangerous is this arrow,
Like no arrow, – away from here! For your health! . . . . .
You turn? – Oh heart, you carried enough,
…..Stark remained your hope:
For new friends hold your doors open!
The old ones leave! Leave the memory!
Once were you young, now – be better young!
What ever knotted us, a band of hope, –
…..Who reads the signs,
That love once inscribed, yet pallid?
To parchment I compare it, that the hand
Dreads to grasp, – like it browned, burned.
No longer friends, they are – yet how can I call them?
That knock at night on my heart and window,
That inspect me and say: “yet we were?” –
– Oh wilted word, that once like roses smelled!
Oh youth’s yearning that misunderstood itself!
…..For which I yearned,
That I imagined related, converted to myself,
That they became old has removed their charm:
Only who changes himself remains related to me.
Oh life’s midday! Second youth!
…..Oh summer garden!
Restless happiness in standing and peering and waiting: –
The friends I await, poised day and night,
The new friends! Come! It’s time! It’s time!
* * *
This song is over, – wistfulness’ sweeter cry
…..Died in the mouth:
A magician did it, a friend at the right time,
The midday-friend – no! Ask not who it was –
It was around midday that one became two . . . . .
Now we celebrate, confident victory unites,
…..The feast of feasts:
Friend Zarathustra came, the guest of guests!
Now laughs the world, the horrid curtain tears,
The wedding came for light and eclipse . . . . .
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Comment: an example of del Caro sacrificing Nietzsche’s meaning to the rhyme scheme.
In the fourth stanza, the poet begins to worry that he is no longer himself, and this theme dominates the fifth stanza. In the final four lines of that stanza, Nietzsche suggests a causal mechanism by which this change of identity occurred:
Ein Andrer ward ich? Und mir selber fremd?
…..Mir selbst entsprungen?
Ein Ringer, der zu oft sich selbst bezwungen?
Zu oft sich gegen eigne Kraft gestemmt,
Durch eignen Sieg verwundet und gehemmt
Del Caro translates these lines as follows:
I have become someone else? Strange to me?
…..From me unseated?
A wrestler by himself pinned and defeated?
Who strained against himself too forcefully?
Wounded and blocked by his own victory?
The first line is fine, though awkward, as is the last. The three lines in the middle, however, are all problematic. I’ll go through each in turn.
In the second line, Nietzsche uses the verb ‘entsprungen’, literally ‘sprung from’. This suggests not only that the narrator has become someone else, but further that he was himself the agent of this change. Del Caro changes this to ‘unseated’, which carries no such connotation – if anything, it suggests that it was some external force that caused the change. At best, del Caro loses an important implication, such that the line contains no information not contained in the previous line, and thus becomes redundant, distending the poem. At worst, del Caro has inserted a meaning into the poem that is opposite to what Nietzsche intended.
The next line confirms this implication of Nietzsche’s verb choice. Here del Caro’s choice of ‘defeated’ is fine, though he needlessly adds in an additional verb (‘pinned’) with no source in Nietzsche. More problematically, del Caro changes the tense of the sentence, from active – “a wrestler who too often vanquished himself” – to passive: “by himself pinned and defeated.” Where Nietzsche (again) highlights the agency involved in the narrator’s transformation, del Caro again makes it sound like something that just happens to the narrator from “outside.” Del Caro sneaks the agency back in with the “by himself,” but the force of this is attenuated. Finally, the extra verb is not only absent from Nietzche’s poem, it also means del Caro has no space to include Nietzsche’s “zu oft” (“too often”). What Nietzsche very clearly indicates is something that occurs multiple times, del Caro gives the impression was a single event.
The following line afforded del Caro a chance to rectify this mistake, as it contains another “Zu oft,” but del Caro did not avail himself of the opportunity. Instead, he switched the “too” over to a later adverb: “strained […] too forcefully.” But in fact this adverb never appears in the German. What Nietzsche actually says is that the wrestler “braced himself against his own force.” This identifies the wrestler’s “own force” (“eigne Kraft”) as the object of struggle. In del Caro’s translation, however, the object of the struggle is just “himself.” In Nietzsche’s original, the line adds new information: in vanquishing himself, he had to set himself against his own force. But in del Caro’s translation, there is once more, at best, no new information. We simply hear, again, that he’s struggling with himself. At worst, there is new information, but not that which Nietzsche wanted to convey: del Caro’s translation suggests that the cause of the change was the application of too much force, when really it is the result of the struggle occurring too often.
What is gained by these changes? The idea, I suppose, is that something of Nietzsche’s artistry is preserved. There is, in translation, always a trade-off between style and sense, and I can understand sacrificing some nuances of sense to style, though my own taste (if not talent) in translation leans Nabokovian. However, I don’t believe that is actually going on here. Preserving the rhyme scheme does not at all preserve Nietzsche’s artistry.
Consider: a different poet who writes a different poem in the same rhyme scheme does not in any sense share Nietzsche’s artistry. Whatever the meaning to be expressed, any talentless pseudo-poet can find a way to make it answer to a rhyme scheme. It is not the answering to a rhyme scheme that makes the poem, but the specific rhymes chosen. And the exact rhymes Nietzsche chose by definition cannot be translated, since they involve German words. All of the rhymes in del Caro’s translation belong to del Caro alone, even if they are constrained, very loosely indeed, by Nietzsche’s original.
Moreover, if one is to preserve something of the formal scheme to which Nietzsche’s poem answers, surely it should be to the meter. After all, as del Caro notes in his translator’s afterword, so much of Nietzsche’s writing is its tempo. The meter is a major instrument of tempo in a poem, yet del Caro makes no attempt to preserve Nietzsche’s meter. (I do not have a good enough feel for the sound of German to confidently spell out this meter, but it is obvious that it has a metric base. For instance, lines two and three of each stanza generally consist of an iamb followed by an amphibrach.) Instead, del Caro’s translation is all over the map. Just looking at the stanza thus far considered, his translation of the first line is top-heavy, while his translation of the third line is oddly lilting in a way that does not fit with the meaning.
So what, then, is gained? There is a trade-off made, but it is not between Nietzsche’s sense and his style. Instead, it is between Nietzsche’s sense and del Caro’s style. I get a sense of del Caro’s quality as a poet (you may infer what I think), but at a cost. There is, moreover, a second trade-off: between Nietzsche’s style and del Caro’s style. For there are aspects of Nietzsche’s poetic sensibility that do translate, e.g. his use of repetitions and his non-redundancy. By preserving the rhyme scheme, del Caro is forced to eliminate repetitions and neuter lines to the point of redundancy.
When I was first reading Nietzsche, before I knew any German, I believed that Nietzsche simply was not a very good poet. That belief, I am now convinced, was entirely an artifact of my having read English translations that choose to preserve the dubious façade of rhyme over the poetry involved. This is not to say that I now believe Nietzsche was a good poet – my German is not competent for that. (Aside: I hope any readers of this post will keep in mind what the translation I offered above is, namely, an exercise that may help me to one day be a competent reader of German.) But it is to say that I wish translators would make less egotistical decisions when translating Nietzsche’s poetry.
Or, if they were so inclined, more egotistical decisions – i.e. the decision to write a poem that preserves all of Nietzsche’s artistic trappings, at the expense of any attempt at line-by-line correspondence (theme and “plot” are enough) – so long as they admitted that what was provided was not so much a translation as a hybrid offspring. That would be interesting, though of course such an attempt is only appropriate for a genuine poet.
In my previous post, on Emerson’s essay “Power”, I pulled a few quotes from Emerson that saw him choosing brute animal power over human civility. Most explicit is the following: “if it be only a question between the most civil and the most forcible, I lean to the last.” (977) Emerson further claims that what is of value in power lies in the transition from the forcible to the civil, when civility has acted as a sieve removing some of the “astringency” of this brute power, but before civility has erased that power altogether. The directionality of this relationship is important. Emerson does not speak of oscillating back and forth, of constantly transitioning from one to the other. It is solely in the direction of forceàcivility. This underscores the prior position of animal force: it is the starting point of the transition. It must come first.
In Nietzsche, too, the same thought finds a voice. In his notebooks – I am working from the pilfering from these notebooks known as The Will to Power (trans. W. Kaufmann; Vintage) – there appears the following passage:
The most spiritual men feel the stimulus and charm of sensuous things in a way that other men – those with “fleshly hearts” – cannot possibly imagine and ought not to imagine: they are sensualists in the best faith, because they accord the senses a more fundamental value than to that fine sieve, that thinning and reducing machine, or whatever we may call what in the language of the people is named “spirit.” The strength and power of the senses – this is the essential thing in a well-constituted and complete man: the splendid “animal” must be given first – what could any “humanization” matter otherwise! (§1045)
Beyond being garbed in Nietzsche’s style, the thought is straight out of Emerson. The animal comes first, humanization second – given a choice between the two Nietzsche chooses the animal. As for spirit, it functions as a sieve, just as Emerson conceived it. It is valuable as a means of humanizing the animal – but not too much. For Emerson and Nietzsche both, there is an aversion to that morality that promotes the human at the expense of the animal, that sees the animal, the flesh, the senses, as needing to be denied. The thought might be put this way: such a morality uses too fine a sieve; Emerson and Nietzsche believe only in a sieve that is appropriately coarse.
It is very rare for an essay by Emerson to insist on a single point without a countermovement. Let whatever have its say, some opponent also demands a voice, and Emerson grants it. Yet in his essay on “Power”, Emerson defers this movement to later chapters of The Conduct of Life.
I have not forgotten that there are sublime considerations which limit the value of talent and superficial success. We can easily overpraise the vulgar hero. There are sources on which we have not drawn. I know what I abstain from. I adjourn what I have to say on this topic to the chapters on Culture and Worship. (985)
It is telling that Emerson imposes this delay on himself. He has just been defending the fundamental role of power in human life. Life itself he defines as the search for power, and immediately connects this to a favorite theme: selectivity. Genius is selective, Emerson teaches again and again. This may be applied to life as the search for power, for such life takes events as the ore in which power is found, that is, as something to be sifted. “He can well afford to let events and possessions, and the breath of the body go, if their value has been added to him in the shape of power.” (971)
Emerson’s picture of power is not a humanized one. He is not playing games with the word, making it mean something softer, lighter, than in a generic context it conveys. No, power is power, the ability to control and dominate, to subject some material – be it inert or animate, animal or human – to one’s will. Given the choice between power and ethics, Emerson will take power – “if it be only a question between the most civil and the most forcible, I lean to the last” (977) – and he considers seriously the worry that “conscience [is] not good for hands and legs.” (978)
Nor does Emerson see such a reliance on power as harmful. If “this power, to be sure, is not clothed in satin,” nonetheless “it brings its own antidote.” (976) The solution to the problems power raises is more power, of a different sort – counterbalancing power. Politics, with its brute clash of forces, becomes a model of self-reliance writ large: it is not goodness, conformity to civil standards, that makes for sustainable politics. It is that each comes “with a mind made up to desperate extremities.” (975) This paragraph, by the by, is a strong plank in the case for seeing Emersonian self-reliance as it must be seen: as a form of egotism.
Power is fundamental. It is because power is fundamental that Emerson defers the coming movement. To be sure, Emerson hints at it in the essay. “Physical force has no value, where there is nothing else.” (980) But Emerson cannot disparage physical force, for without it, nothing else has value. Emerson is clear where value lies:
Everything good in nature and the world is in that moment of transition, when the swarthy juices still flow plentifully from nature, but their astringency or acridity is got out by ethics and humanity. (980)
The value of power lies in its ability to be directed, when it is not an end in itself, but put toward some aim. The power, however, comes first. The aim without the power is “idle seeing,” and accounts for nothing. (982) Ethics and humanity without power leaves only tamed and neutered animals – that is why Emerson chooses the forcible over the civil. Emerson favors the moment of transition precisely because power is preserved in it. When the transition is complete, all that remains is undiluted ethics – conformity. Then brute power is again required.
Emerson draws from these views on power a consequence for the artist. As someone who has recently begun writing poetry (again, if my horrid teen years are to be counted), I found the following passage of especial significance:
The triumphs of peace have been in some proximity to war. Whilst the hand was still familiar with the sword-hilt, whilst the habits of the camp were still visible in the port and complexion of the gentleman, his intellectual power culminated: the compression and tension of these stern conditions is a training for the finest and softest arts, and can rarely be compensated in tranquil times, except by some analogous vigor drawn from occupations as hardy as war. (980)
Aside from my pet interest in the connection between Emerson and Nietzsche – who, familiar with Nietzsche, can fail to see how the German on so many occasions rewrote this very passage? – the passage is interesting for treating fine arts and intellectual endeavors as only one step removed from war, and as degenerate when further removed. Just as in politics and business, the material side of life, where self-interest and the crudest egotism rules, so also in poetry and painting, power is fundamental.
That origination of art in power has an interesting consequence:
The friction in nature is so enormous that we cannot spare any power. It is not question to express our thought, to elect our way, but to overcome resistances of the medium and material in everything we do. (984)
Art is not about expression. How many turn to poetry or other arts to express themselves, or to express a message about society, or… – in any case, to express something! And how much terrible, unreadable poetry results! What results from such endeavors is a chaos of words held together only by their meaning, a distended organization of unrecognizable shape.
This because art – as all else – is about power, is about overcoming the “resistances of the medium and material.” It is not about expression, not even about beauty. It is, in the case of poetry, about dominating words, forcing them into position, making them do the work the poet commands. (Vladimir Nabokov once said, “My characters are galley slaves.” He knew.*) There is resistance imposed by meter, by the sounds of words, by the conventions of form – all of which require power to be overcome. It is in that overcoming that the successes of poetry lie.
[*Nabokov also, to my great surprise, appears to have found Emerson’s poetry “delightful.” I can’t say I’m displeased.]
This is not to say that expression and beauty have no role. It is just: their role is secondary. They are sources of constraints. Not only must meter be obeyed (and in meter-lacking verse other constraints take over this role), but meaning must be conveyed. Thus the resistance of the medium increases. Not only must meter be obeyed and meaning be conveyed, but the result must be beautiful. The resistance of the medium becomes nearly impervious to the poet’s effort.
I have permitted myself to write the above not just because it is, I believe, true to Emerson, but because it corresponds with my own experience. I can certainly not claim a single pure success in what I have written so far, except perhaps in an isolated line here or there, but the joy I have found in writing has not come from expression, but from the thrill that comes at each moment that the material yields even a little, at each correct placement of a single word. No such joy attends the successful expression of an idea – every half-baked line of mine expresses something – and I would banish meaning from my poetry if I would not thereby lose a rich source of friction, and hence a rich source, eventually, of joy.
This realization I came to before I read Emerson’s essay and its striking claims. As I wrote in my journal, earlier in the day: “Poetry: a struggle for power over words, words that fight back.”
The simplest reason why interpretations of Emerson dissatisfy is, they are inferior agents for their task. If an interpretation aims to clarify how one is to read the text interpreted, then Emerson is his own best interpreter. All that needs to be said, by way of interpretation of Emerson, is: keep vigilant watch for those passages where Emerson explains how Emerson is to be read.
Emerson’s use of dualisms shall be my case study. Emerson is difficult on this point – I do not deny that he needs interpretation; I deny only that he does not himself supply it – and it easy to misread Emerson as seeking to transcend dualisms. This temptation is made easier by the assimilation of Emerson to the American pragmatists, who really did want to transcend, abolish, overthrow, whatever, that whole “brood and nest of dualisms.”
I notice the tendency to this sort of misreading when I read scholarly literature about Emerson. Thus Branka Arsić – to pick on only that scholar who I happen to be reading now – wants to read Emerson as radical, as seeking to replace old with new, as taking these given oppositions (materialism/idealism, for one) and leaving us with something that isn’t quite either. But it is perhaps dishonest of me to place blame elsewhere: it is an error that pervaded my first years of reading Emerson, and this post is a corrective first and foremost against myself. (As an Emersonian, I am able to find in my reading of Emerson only my own thought, my good thoughts. This has a reverse movement: that I read in scholastic exercises on Emerson only my own flaws.)
Emerson’s essay on “Fate” (the first in his The Conduct of Life) contains his clearest statement of his relation to dualisms. As is his wont, he organizes the essay around a central opposition: between Fate (also called ‘nature’ and ‘cause and effect’ and ‘animal’) and Power (also called ‘liberty’ and ‘thought’ and ‘human’). On the first page, Emerson sets out his method:
If we must accept Fate, we are not less compelled to affirm liberty, the significance of the individual, the grandeur of duty, the power of character. This is true, and that other is true. But our geometry cannot span these extreme points, and reconcile them. What to do? By obeying each thought frankly, by harping, or, if you will, pounding on each string, we learn at last its power. By the same obedience to other thoughts, we learn theirs, and then comes some reasonable hope of harmonizing them. (943)
Fate and Power appear as two truths: all is fated, and we have power. “That is true, and that other is true.” There is no talk of transcending this dualism (how does one transcend truth?), of escaping the opposition: there is only the question of reconciling them. But we are not, at first, up to the task: “our geometry cannot span these extreme points.” Given this inability to encompass them, some provisional method is needed. This is the method of “pounding on each string” until its power reveals itself. Emerson deliberately switches from a musical (“harping”) to an artless (“pounding”) verb: even if the two are harmonized in the end, the method is not itself musical. There is something brute about it. Each shall be expounded, and only then will Emerson ask after reconciliation.
This is precisely the flow of the essay. There is, first, the strong statement of fatalism: we are limited Nature. Insofar as we may experiment (and Emerson is the great philosopher of experiment), what experiment teaches us is the limits set by nature. “A man’s power is hooped in by a necessity, which, by many experiments, he touches on every side, until he learns its arc.” (952) We are different from animals, yes, but not in that we are free – it is only, our limitations differ. “The limitations refine as the soul purifies, but the ring of necessity is always perched at the top.” (952) There are “torrents of tendency,” and in their face resistance appears “ridiculously inadequate.” (951) Fate is not to be avoided.
But Power will have its turn. Man is not mere fate, “but a stupendous antagonism, a dragging together of the poles of the Universe.” (953) Man can think, and insofar as man thinks, man is free. This is, to be sure, a rare event – Emerson registers his disgust with those who crow about liberty when they are slaves, “as most men are” (953-4) – but that freedom is rare is no objection to its possibility or even its reality. When the mind is roused to activity, it does not mind what is fated, but follows its thought.
Having given both sides voice, does Emerson achieve reconciliation? There is a certain appearance of it:
Fate, then, is a name for facts not yet passed under the fire of thought;—for causes which are unpenetrated. But every jet of chaos which threatens to exterminate us, is convertible by intellect into wholesome force. (958)
Fate and Power are now inter-convertible. This is not, however, so much a reconciliation as simply a new insight about their opposition. Fate and Power may coexist; Fate is potential Power:
If Fate is ore and quarry, if evil is good in the making, if limitation is power that shall be, if calamities, oppositions, and weights are wings and means,—we are reconciled. (960)
Such is Emerson’s reconciliation: the antagonism is maintained, but is shown to be productive.
Indeed, what Emerson is doing fundamentally requires that the antagonism be maintained. Man is “a stupendous antagonism, a dragging together of the poles of the Universe.” Abolish the poles, and man is abolished. Deny (transcendence is a form of denial) Fate, and Power is without “ore and quarry.” “History is the action and reaction of these two” (964) – and keeping in mind Emerson’s equivocation between history and biography, this means that biography is also this action and reaction. Therefore, to achieve a true reconciliation, a restoration of friendly relations, is to cease all movement, to lose all power and thought. It is idleness and sloth.
But Emerson does not misspeak when he talks of “reconciliation.” I am loathe to cite a dictionary, but must: to reconcile is “cause to coexist in harmony.” There is a sense of harmony in which antagonism is permitted, and it is this sense that characterizes Emerson’s dualisms – not only the one I have examined here. A.R. Ammons captured it well, in his poem “Terrain”:
…a habitat, precise ecology of forms
mutually to some extent
tolerable, not entirely self-destroying…
Since deciding, on a whim, to write a book on Emerson, I have thought it prudent to foray further into the viny growths clinging to the trunks of his books, known more colloquially as the secondary literature. From this experience – still only in its beginnings – I have been brought to the following reflections.
I have read Lawrence Buell’s Emerson, and profited by it, but I think the book as a whole is fine, and no more than fine. Now I have begun reading Branka Arsić’ book On Leaving. I have not read much of it, but already I have profited by it. Yet I can foresee that by the end of the book I will most likely think it – just fine. Even as I enjoy it, and gain by reading it, there is a lack of enthusiasm – a dire indictment of a book about Emerson’s philosophy of leaving, given that Emerson seems to see enthusiasm as a necessary condition of leaving:
The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment. (414)
Why this lack of enthusiasm? There are a number of reasons; I begin with that reason that furnishes me with my title, and which is the root of all the others. Buell and Arsić both are interpreters of Emerson. They aim to locate what is within his text, and to draw it out. Perhaps they reorganize it, but not out of faithlessness – they only want to bring it into a light that reveals it more clearly.
One might say that their form of reading, interpretation, is Kantian, following the Kantian categorical imperative to always treat another as an end in herself, and never as a mere means to an end. They treat the text, or its meaning, as an end, and make themselves into the means by which that end is aided in its realization. Their own thought is made secondary, subservient to that of Emerson.
There are Emersonian reasons to mistrust such Kantianism. It makes the interpretation into a form of quotation, in the sense in which Emerson despised quotation:
Quotation confesses inferiority. In opening a new book we often discover, from the unguarded devotion with which the writer gives his motto or text, all we have to expect from him. If Lord Bacon appears already in the preface, I go and read the “Instauration” instead of the new book. (Here – I first read it, I believe, in his journals)
Inherent in the very idea of interpretation is the threat of redundancy: in the perfect interpretation, nothing is present that cannot be traced back, without distortion, to the interpreted text—why then, not skip the hassle, and just read the original? (There are reasons why; I shall come to them in time.)
Further disadvantages attend the decision to make the text with which one begins the end and not a means. First among these is the necessary incompleteness of all interpretation. The only text that will ever exhaust all the meaning in Emerson’s corpus, is Emerson’s corpus. Every interpretation is partial, is selective. It may pick out aspects, or strands, and make them clearer, but at the expense of cleaving them from the root system by which they are nourished. They become dead specimens only.
Because there is selection, we must ask on what basis this selection occurs. It may be selfish in a petty fashion (“I chose these aspects because they were those that interested me”), but never selfish in a properly individual fashion (“I chose these aspects because they belong equally to me, as to Emerson”), for, while the former is never complete, it at least actively avoids falsification – the latter does not, is much more careless. If there can be no individual in the selection, there can be no genius in it. It is genius that, when we are genial, redeems selection and partiality.
Where this selection most differs from the original will lie, not in the content selected (for if it is truly selected and not invented, it will all agree with the original), but in the emphases placed upon it. Too often I find these new emphases suspiciously flattering to the vanity of our contemporary tastes. It is true that Emerson was no nationalist, but should we draw our attention to that in an age in which the stupidity of nationalism is rather widely acknowledge? (Consider the audience for which such interpretations are written.) It is true that Emerson had progressive, for his time, views on women and slavery, but should we turn our eyes repeatedly to that, at a time where the non-superiority of white men to other humans is more or less obvious to all? It is, of course, a necessary if unpleasant task to have to defend Emerson from misunderstandings on these points, but this task should be accomplished as quietly and with as little fanfare as possible. To celebrate Emerson most for those aspects of his thought that today we find most comfortable – that we must avoid.
I also detect, in Arsić especially, a related, equally unfortunate tendency to “help” Emerson with the specific ways points are rephrased. Nietzsche speaks (The Wanderer and his Shadow §5) of those who “[accustom] us to a feignedly exaggerated linguistic usage” – i.e. those who surround a thing with purple prose, and make it desirable on account of how it has been described, in order to cover up for its lack of any tangible appeal. I find that same exaggeration in Arsić: who inserts into the reader’s mind images of “unrelenting aversive experimentation,” “radical restlessness,” of habit that “devastates life.” Taken alone, none is egregious, but together they leave a sense less of urgency than merely of being hectored. I cannot help but feel, moreover, that such insistence that Emerson is radical substitutes a façade of interestingness for a delicate attention to his thoughts – for if his thoughts are truly radical, they will impress on their own, without needing the help of the word.
An interpretation is at a further disadvantage with regard to its errors. Once faithfulness is pledged, one is committed to saying what Emerson said, and any deviations are to be regarded as errors. This is especially unfortunate for a book that highlights Emerson’s views on leaving, for the interpreter is chained to Emerson, and cannot leave. Each departure is, again, an error, and not a venture. Thus when Arsić overstates Emerson’s dissatisfaction with habit – e.g. by insisting that Emerson wishes we had no habits, rather than merely short habits (ch. 1, n18), or by claiming that, for Emerson, “there is no identity worthy of keeping or celebrating” (35) – the value of these ideas in themselves is not open for discussion, for discussion ends when it is noted that they are (probably) not Emerson’s ideas. Emerson never, to my knowledge, so unambiguously advocates against any ubiquitous aspect of human life. Emerson does not want there to be no habits, except perhaps in some of his most heavily rhetorical (and inevitably self-undermined) moods.
It is for this reason that I am skeptical of the interpretive enterprise, especially as it pertains to Emerson. All this is not to say there is no value to such interpretations. I have learned from Buell, and I have learned from Arsić. Both have their flaws – Arsić, for instance, has a tendency to lapse into moments of platitude or, worse, unmeaning – but they have their virtues as well. They are both good qua Emerson scholarship. I suspect nonetheless that such Kantian endeavors can never be more than “just fine”—the genius lies elsewhere, and the value of an Arsić or a Buell is secondary: it lies in directing me back to this genius with enhanced eyes.
What, then, is an alternative? If Kantianism is the flaw, perhaps some form of narcissism, of selfishness, of treating oneself as the ends and others as the means, will prove to be the key. I spoke earlier of the sense in which Emerson hates quotations; I can now go on to the sense in which he adores quotations:
When we are praising Plato, it seems we are praising quotations from Solon and Sophron and Philolaus. Be it so. Every book is a quotation; and every house is a quotation out of all forests and mines and stone quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors. And this grasping inventor puts all nations under contribution. (634)
We are incessant quoters, yes, but what we quote is waste stock, as Emerson called it in his essay on Shakespeare. Waste stock is not to be respected, not to be treated as an end in itself. It is to be used where it offers utility, and ignored where it does not. So too the writer on Emerson: Emerson should be used where he is of use, and forgotten otherwise. To treat him as a means only, to use him without respect for his wishes and intents – only that can lead to a book of primary and not secondary interest.
It may be that this leads to something unselfish in the end, to something that respects Emerson as an end. My insistence that Emerson was a genuine egotist, and that this aspect of his thought cannot be wiped away, does not deny that he hoped egotism would result in something other than mere egotism. If Emerson and I come to share a voice, then I will respect him, even revere him as a god, and this is a form of the “transpersonal” or “impersonal” that is claimed (by both Buell and Arsić) to show Emerson is no egotist. It is, however, only by a thoroughgoing egotism (coupled, I grant, with self-mistrust) that this transpersonal is achieved – and such achievement is not guaranteed, nor necessarily even likely.