Self-reliance, aesthetically considered

Why be self-reliant? Emerson offers an aesthetic justification in “Behavior”: lack of self-possession is ugly, and painfully so.

Those who are not self-possessed, obtrude, and pain us. Some men appear to feel that they belong to a Pariah caste. They fear to offend, they bend and apologize, and walk through life with a timid step. (1046)

There is a tone to our actions, and two instances of what is nominally the same action may be unmistakably distinguished by their possessing distinct tones. The one acts with assurance, the other with apology, and though the act alone be of equal value in each, we are willing followers of the former, and detest the latter.

One would say, that the persuasion of their speech is not in what they say, – or that men do not convince by their argument, – but by their personality, by who they are, and what they said and did heretofore. (1048)

One means by which such a tone is generated is through manners, etiquette – I am convinced Emerson would have named this essay “Manners” had he not already published an essay by that name in Essays: Second Series. Self-reliance stands opposed to conformity, but nonconformity here does not mean reckless abandonment of etiquette, that powerful creator of forms. Forms are requisite for expression – they are constraints only when they are imposed upon the content.

An illustration of the point may be found in poetry. Paul Fussell, in his book requisite for all readers of poetry (Poetic Meter & Poetic Form), notes that what makes poems poetic is their density: that each element may be seen to contribute to the meaning, that none are tacked on or arbitrary. If a poem contains stanza divisions, those divisions must matter. If a poem has a meter, that meter must bubble up out of the poem’s content, and prove itself worthy of it. &c.

So too actions. One can not simply add form, manners, tone to action arbitrarily. Actions require density. Or, better, persons require density.

And you cannot rightly train one to an air and manner, except by making him the kind of man of whom that manner is the natural expression. Nature forever puts a premium on reality. What is done for effect, is seen to be done for effect; what is done for love, is felt to be done for love. (1047)

No more than one can write a poem in iambic pentameter whose thought does not so move, can one cultivate a person’s appearance who remains barbaric underneath. The barbarism will show through.

One of the aesthetic markers of self-reliance – I note in passing a confidence between Emerson and Nietzsche on this point – is a mistrust of too much giving grounds. One need only watch a contemporary discussion between disputants each of whom is concerned to display his rationality, his cautiousness, his consideration of all sides, his charity to opponents to be disgusted by the ugliness of a too great love of the appearance of rationality.

Emerson noted this opposition in grand style in his essay on “Self-Reliance”:

I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. (262)

It is important, however, so he reiterates here, with an interesting variation:

Self-reliance is the basis of behavior, as it is the guaranty that the powers are not squandered in too much demonstration. In this country, where school education is universal, we have a superficial culture, and a profusion of reading and writing and expression. We parade our nobilities in poems and orations, instead of working them up into happiness. (1048)

In this expression of the point, Emerson ties it to the thought that poetry might profitably disappear – not his first time having entertained such a thought. He mistrusts that poetry (and other writing) that becomes a show of nobility, often at the expense of the enacting of that nobility. Were this form of poetry to disappear, what is poetic in it would nonetheless remain: “when a man does not write his poetry, it escapes by other vents through him […] clings to his form and manners…” (1048)

This disappearance of poetry is, moreover, annexed to a consideration of happiness: there is something sickly, unhappy, about a person who sacrifices happiness to poetizing. As a person possessive of at least pretensions to such poetizing, this thought is interesting to and useful for me. Ought I not to write, in favor of other forms of expression? I do not think so, and do not believe that I am merely gratifying myself in so thinking. What this suggests to me instead is that Emerson places a priority first on happiness (by which I do not believe he means that sloppy self-content that today sometimes carries the name). Once this is secured, it may overflow into poetry.

The requirement is that poetry be a product of joy, of healthful morning hours. If such joy be its fount, it will adopt poetic bearing of its own accord, and wear it regally. If not, all the cultivation of form imposed upon it will not protect forever the impostor.

Egotism and individuality

In his essay on “Power,” Emerson deferred his usual countermovement, and allowed himself to extol pure imposing power without admixture. Only two essays later in The Conduct of Life, when his subject turns to “Culture,” does the turn arrive. The essay begins by raising three related problems, to which culture offers some solution:

  1. Talent (power) makes us its prisoners.
  2. Talent leads to unbalance and upsets symmetry.
  3. All individualism is secured through egotism.

What we are good at, we do. To move to a new arena requires learning new skills, a period of apprenticeship, and reticence to forgo our expertise thus keeps us in the realm of our established talent. The purpose of culture, with respect to this problem, is to call in other powers as a defense against this domineering power. “Culture reduces these inflammations by invoking the aid of other powers against the dominant talent, and by appealing to the rank of powers.” (1015)

The second problem is similar. Talent and efficiency require concentration. Nothing is accomplished without specialization. Emerson hammered the point home in the essay on power: “The one prudence in life is concentration; the one evil is dissipation.” (982) But now this is seen as “overload[ing] him with bias, sacrificing his symmetry to his working power.” (1015) The end result is that “no man can write but one book” – and how true this is: Shakespeare wrote but one sonnet, Nabokov but one novel, Rothko painted and repainted a single painting, and Feldman’s compositions are all, at base, the same. The value of culture lies in promoting symmetry, in expanding outward in multiple directions. If power is a specialist, culture is a generalist.

But it is the third problem that is worst. “But worse than the harping on one string, Nature has secured individualism, by giving the private person a high conceit of his weight in the system. The pest of society is egotists.” (1015) Here individualism is distinguished from egotism – individualism is, I suppose, being a well-formed, resolute individual, who does not bend to every external influence, whereas egotism is a conceited view of one’s own worth. Such a distinction is the sort that might be taken to show that Emerson wishes to contrast his doctrine of self-reliance with egotism – it may be a form of individualism, but egotism it is not. That is a mistake.

Emerson here is making a descriptive remark about the world: the way, as a matter of unalterable fact, that individualism is secured is through egotism. Emerson made this same point in an earlier essay: such conceit is the sine qua non of all action. But mixed in with this description is the appearance of a value judgment: egotism is a “disease” and a “goitre.” (1015-6) Well, Emerson admits it has its downsides, but he infers from the unalterable fact that egotism has some use: “This goitre of egotism is so frequent among notable persons, that we must infer some strong necessity in nature which it subserves.” (1016) And this use is individuality: “so egotism has its root in the cardinal necessity by which each individual persists to be what he is.”

If individuality is distinct from egotism, it is because it has an additional element – culture. “The end of culture is not to destroy [individuality], God forbid! but to train away all impediment and mixture, and leave nothing but pure power.” (1016-7) The function of culture is to act as a sieve, as a purifying agent – exactly as it was described in the essay on power.

This leaves culture in a secondary position: egotism is the basis, and culture goes to work on this basis. Culture does not precede it, and without it culture is empty. It is striking, for an essay purportedly extolling culture and its tempering effect on power, just how sparing a role Emerson leaves for culture. He will grant its value, but prefers solitude:

We can ill spare the commanding social benefits of cities; they must be used; yet cautiously, and haughtily, – and will yield their best values to him who best can do without them. Keep the town for occasions, but the habits should be formed to retirement. (1028)

Solitude is the workspace of genius – and also of egotism. One pole of Emerson’s conception of genius is that it consists of an outward expansion, the imposition of the individual on what lies outside the individual, or, to condense this to a word: egotism. And this requires solitude.

But there is something to those who would see an impersonal element in Emerson’s doctrine of self-reliance. I contend only that one cannot understand what this impersonal element is without seeing that Emerson’s insistence on self-reliance is an insistence on a form of egotism – as it must be, if it is to be worthy of the name. What is this impersonal element, then?

We say solitude, to mark the character of the tone of thought; but if it can be shared between two or more than two, it is happier, and not less noble. (1028)

Emerson’s impersonal is egotism shared.

Pride over vanity

Emerson would rescue the vice of pride, as the natural counterpart to the vice of vanity. If we are suckered into love of opposites, we will believe that against vanity stands humility. That is a mistake, a half-truth. Pride is needed.

The virtues are economists, but some of the vices are also. Thus, next to humility, I have noticed that pride is a pretty good husband. […] Pride can go without domestics, without fine clothes, can live in a house with two rooms, can eat potato, purslain, beans, lyed corn, can work on the soil, can travel afoot, can talk with poor men, or sit silent well-contented in fine saloons. But vanity costs money, labor, horses, men, women, health, and peace, and is still nothing at last, a long way leading nowhere. (1004)

Pride is prudent, is a good economist. Vanity is a spendthrift. Let us have no talk here of the moral, the good in itself. Pride pays, while vanity costs. There is a first egotism, a first self-interest in the choice of that pride which can dispense with vanity.

Emerson, being himself the finest egotist the world produced, does not rest content with this single egotism. Pride has another:

Only one drawback; proud people are intolerably selfish, and the vain are gentle and giving. (1004)

The vain wish to be believed to be such-and-such, whereas the proud have no need for such “being believed to be.” Thus the vain will be sure to keep up appearances, to treat others well, so as to be thought well of – and not only by others. This is vanity’s egotism, the preening sort. Pride is too proud of itself to chase such shifting opinions, and neglects to make a show of giving. Pride cares for what it is, let the appearances land as they may. This is its second egotism.

Emerson offers a choice between egotisms: that of the vain and that of the proud. I cannot see that he leaves open a third path, one free of egotism altogether. He will stand no pure humility.

This choice of pride over vanity sheds light on Emerson’s finest formula for egotism: self-reliance. In the essay of that name, self-reliance is set apart from conformity. To be self-reliant is to be nonconformist. But nonconformity comes in two forms: the vain and the proud.

If the non-conformist or æsthetic farmer leaves out the cattle, and does not also leave out the want which the cattle must supply, he must fill the gap by begging or stealing. (1006)

This is a vain nonconformity, a form of self-obsession that imposes itself on its material without consideration for that material’s properties, that has not yet learned the rule of “Impera parendo” – command by obeying. (1007) How much pride it has to sacrifice, when it reduced to begging and crime!

Emerson speaks of self-reliance as a form of freedom, but this vain nonconformity ends in a version of slavery. It has not learned the secret of power, which secret might be called friction. The material obeys its own laws, and will tolerate no impositions, but learn what friction it offers up for use, and it offers up its wealth for the use of individual power. The greatest freedom is always built on the bedrock of the greatest constraint.

It is the pride of egotism to recognize this truth, and the vanity of egotism to ignore it.

Aus hohen Bergen

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.

Aftersong

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?
…..Only friend–ghosts!
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.

Intersection: Emerson and Nietzsche

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.

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