As this blog still gets a steady stream of views, it seems worth noting that I now post at resistingtheintelligence, primarily though not exclusively about poetry.
I had observed long since that to give the thought a just & full expression, I must not prematurely utter it. Better not to talk of the matter you are writing out. It was as if you had let the spring snap too soon. [Emerson, Journal A]
For a while now, since completing my reading of Emerson’s Essays & Lectures, I have felt that this blog has outlived its usefulness. In its early stages, the prospect of a readership induced me to write; without such a prospect in my mind, I would not have written out my ideas. Today, thanks to my efforts here, I am in the habit of writing for myself, and do not need an external audience – at least not yet. That has been the good effect of my blogging.
What, however, have I posted here but premature utterances, if my posts be considered in themselves and not for their role as a sort of training? Every idea on which I wrote was one I was in the process of working out but had not worked out fully. Nothing was a finished project, but always a work in progress. Yet the air of finality given them has, perhaps, prevented their further development: they were dropped from the tree before they were ripe, and now they rot.
For that reason, I believe it is time to cease blogging – but not writing. I now retreat into the solitude of my own thoughts, and set to work on myself for myself.
Inspired by a recent comment on an old Kafka translation of mine, I decided to translate “Die Wahrheit über Sancho Panza” – probably my favorite of Kafka’s short short stories. (More accurately, I decided to revise an old translation I did at the same time as my translation of “Kleine Fabel” – a translation I didn’t much like even at the time that I did it.) The biggest problem with the existing English translations that I have seen (the Muirs’, of course, and the more recent translation by Joyce Crick in A Hunger Artist and Other Stories, Oxford World Classics) is that they sacrifice the intricate sentence structure of the German to comprehensibility. In the original German, however, the power of the story rests precisely in the escalating structure of the first long sentence, with its many diversions and clarifications (and similarly for the second, slightly shorter sentence). Much of this works by splitting verbs from their objects in a way that is awkward in English (cf. “succeeded… in diverting” and “serenely followed… Don Quixote” in my translation below) – hence the temptation to rearrange. I felt that temptation as I worked on this translation, but in the end avoided it. To maintain comprehensibility, I had to introduce other distortions, usually by spelling out a whole word where Kafka could get away with something less (e.g. where Kafka has “derart,” I am compelled to spell out “his devil”) – my only defense is that all translations are evil, and I take this to be the lesser evil. Without further ado, then:
Sancho Panza, who incidentally has never boasted of it, succeeded in the course of years, by providing a host of knight and robber novels in the evening and night hours to his devil, to whom he later gave the name Don Quixote, in diverting his devil from himself, that this then unrestrainedly performed the maddest deeds, but deeds that, lacking a predetermined object, which should have been Sancho Panza, harmed nobody. Sancho Panza, a freer man, serenely followed, perhaps out of a certain feeling of responsibility, Don Quixote on his processions and had thereof a great and useful entertainment unto his end.
It is a perpetual depression to experience how the inspiritors of wordpress conspire to represent Emerson, an endless series of quotations (first mistake) that “uplift” only to servile self-content, and never to loftiness of sentiment (second mistake) – and upon noticing that many of these quotations seem never to appear in Emerson’s writing, it is hard to avoid the thought, however briefly it lingers, that perhaps it would have been better for us all had he never lived. Thus I will undertake briefly to explain why Emersonian self-reliance wants no part in contemporary self-content.
Superficially they are similar. There is a certain sort of conformity that demands of us that we sacrifice our quirks to society, that we make our appearances, our personalities, and such take the shape that the whims of fashion (whose?) dictate. Against this oppression comes the cry that we should not so slaughter ourselves, that we should love who we are, damn imposition to hell. Follow your own path, the beat of your own drum (if we want to drag Thoreau in), etc. All well and good. But what seems not to be considered, and what I take to be central to Emerson, is the question of just what it is you are loving – how much of it is the judgment of others, internalized? There is an element of self-critique to self-reliance, without which it is complacent self-content. Without it, we are “like sick men in hospitals, we change only from bed to bed, from one folly to another; and it cannot signify much what becomes of such castaways, – wailing, stupid, comatose creatures, – lifted from bed to bed, from the nothing of life to the nothing of death.” (1122)
In a related vein, there is in modern self-love an optimism that to be oneself guarantees success, is sufficient, is the end. But Emerson’s conception is experimental, and experiments often fail. Emersonian self-reliance is laced with skepticism. All is illusion – how many ways he makes this point in the essay from which this post is growing. More to the point, “With such volatile elements to work in, ‘tis no wonder if our estimates are loose and floating. We must work and affirm, but we have no guess of the value of what we say or do.” (1121) All knowledge of what is valuable, of what works, comes from hindsight, and the hindsight pertinent to our actions might not be our own. As actors, we can only guess.
Such a curmudgeonly piece is perhaps an unbefitting end to my reading of Emerson’s major works, and doubly unbefitting for my youth. My only apology is to rest in Emerson’s claim of the counterbalancing of forces – too much of the cheery (as distinct from the cheerful) perhaps demands a dose of the dour. And if this slight experiment should fail despite (or because of) my caveating, I take small solace in the thought that that really rather makes the point.
The alienation wrought by a science that at every turn divorces the world from human interests is as good a trope as any, should one wish to go troping. What makes Emerson interesting is not the custom with which he begins, but the spiraling heights to which he takes it.
Emerson begins with a narcissistic objection to science: it fails to interest us. This is a serious failing, for, as Emerson tells us later, “the secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting.” (1109) It fails to interest us because it does not tell us “what effect passes into the man.” (1099) We humans are narcissists collectively: “No object really interests us but man.” (1101) The laws in nature we care for only insofar as they have some relation to us. If science insists on denying these relations, we will have done with it.
Moreover, failure to satisfy this narcissism marks a failure of self-confidence: “We are just so frivolous and skeptical. Men hold themselves cheap and vile: and yet a man is a fagot of thunderbolts. […] A right and perfect man would be felt to the centre of the Copernican system.” (1100)
Science alienates, and must be remade human – this is Emerson’s opening gambit, and while finely expressed, does not alone suffice. The turn comes when Emerson revisits the question of what interests us: “Nothing interests us which is stark or bounded, but only what streams with life, what is in act or endeavor to reach somewhat beyond.” (1104) Here there is somewhat of a rejection of the earlier narcissism: now what is beautiful stems only from necessity, and what “is done to be seen” is base. (1104) Beauty exists not for its own sake, but as the byproduct of some usefulness.
Applied to the dead objects of science, this usefulness is found in our ability to give them some aim, by which their necessity is revealed. They cease to be ornaments then. So too humans: without some aim, we too are ornamental, and may be done without. “The pleasure a palace or a temple gives the eye, is, that an order and method has been communicated to stones, so that they speak and geometrize, become tender or sublime with expression.” (1104-05)
But narcissism returns: “The felicities of design in art, or in works of Nature, are shadows or forerunners of that beauty which reaches its perfection in the human form.” (1107) Not only science is subordinate to the human; so too is art, and all of nature. It is no coincidence that Emerson calls such artistic and natural beauty “shadows” – one cannot help but recall Plato’s shadows. Why turn to the shadows of art and trees when the sun of humanity shines?
Now, however, this narcissism is cut with the realization that we are interested in what currently lies beyond us. “Yes, I am willing to attract, but to attract a little better kind of a man than any I yet behold.” (1107) This is as it must be, for though the human form is the paradigm of beauty, actual humans are all lacking. “Faces are rarely true to any ideal type, but are a record in sculpture of a thousand anecdotes of whim and folly.” (1108)
This is a serious charge, for Emerson has noted the classic criterion of beauty: symmetry. That is what we lack. “Our bodies do not fit us, but caricature and satirize us.” (1108) Our bodies are out of proportion, not just physically, but in their distribution of talents and capabilities as well. How, then, can they be beautiful? How can we make them beautiful?
Emerson’s phrasing is crucial. He describes human faces as subjected to whim and folly – whim especially standing in opposition to necessity. “Beauty rests on necessities.” (1106) One might then think that whim is to be eliminated, that we ought to strive after perfect symmetry. This would be to ignore Emerson’s famous declaration of self-reliance, that he would write “Whim” on his doorpost. Emerson of course qualifies this – hopes it is better than whim in the end – but whim is still the starting point. The route to beauty is through whim, through the caricatured parts of us. That is why what is called for is self-reliance – reliance on just those biases and partialities that make us ourselves and not another.
Emerson’s thought moves in this direction from every angle: it is the supreme meeting point of his philosophy, where all the threads are tied together. The fundamental problem of human life is that we are partial, we are mixed: there is a material side of us, that wants bread, and usefulness, and power, and an ideal side of us, that wants art, and beauty, and morals. Self-reliance, an embrace of partiality, an acceptance of both aspects of the mixture (and a recognition that the material is not base, but foundation), is Emerson’s solution. This is what he means when he says, at various times, that nature always makes her agents headstrong in their strengths – this caricaturesque quality is what makes it possible for them to act at all. This is why, though he loves symmetry and the general, he does not love the perfect generalist, who has no tools for specific situations, and so is useless. This is why he rejects all forms of idealism that do not acknowledge their material origins: they are pale, and bloodless.
We are of mixed inheritance, “physically as well as metaphysically thing[s] of shreds and patches, borrowed unequally from good and bad ancestors.” (1108) In such a state, a certain narcissism is needed, even if we may hope it is something better than narcissism in the end.