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Staten, Nietzsche, Emerson

While reflecting on Staten’s Nietzsche’s Voice, I suggested that a strength of the book is how it traces out ambivalences and oscillations in Nietzsche’s works. I included a quote from Staten in which he suggests that Nietzsche in one mood advocates a self-overcoming in which the boundaries of self-identity dissolve, but in another mood recoils from this possibility and tries to preserve those boundaries. I still think this is a strength of the book, but writing about Emerson last night reminded me of a thought that I have long toyed with that suggests that Staten might be missing an underlying unity to Nietzsche’s thought on this point. Here I want to go some small way toward fleshing out—though not resolving—this worry.

The worry begins with my secret belief that Emerson and Nietzsche are the same soul in distinct bodies. Whenever I read their work in close proximity I am always surprised by the frequency of Nietzschean comments in Emerson and Emersonian comments in Nietzsche. One of the areas in which I have most seen this overlap is in their views on selfhood. So I want to reflect briefly on Emerson, and then suggest that if Nietzsche’s views on the self can be treated in a similar way (and I think there is a reasonable likelihood of this), then perhaps Staten has failed to see a certain unity to Nietzsche’s work.

In my post last night on Emerson, I wrote this: “One aspect of Emerson’s philosophy is that, in our moments of creative self-overcoming (which are also our moments of self-reliance), we grasp a universal truth…” That is, Emerson sees the self as most firmly defined at precisely the moment when the self is overcome. Self-reliance implies staying within one’s own boundaries, relying on one’s own intuition, not following social conventions, etc.—in short it requires a well-defined self set apart from others, for how can one stay within one’s own boundaries if such boundaries are not clearly defined? And yet when Emerson discusses the activity of the self-reliant person, this activity is precisely self-overcoming, self-transcendence. Emerson likens the activity to drawing a circle around oneself. Given time, this circle becomes constraining and a wider circle must be drawn, exploding the boundaries of the older one. This metaphor lets us see that Emerson is working with two notions of the self, which shows how Emerson can simultaneously praise self-reliance—staying within the boundaries of the self—and self-overcoming—exploding beyond those boundaries. The boundaries of self-reliance, the boundaries within which we are to stay, are those of the new circle, of the self formed in the activity of the genius. The boundaries of self-overcoming are those of the old circle, the remnant of past genius that, once the initial act of genius is past, becomes a source of self-imitation equally inimical to self-reliance as the imitation of others.

That is, Emerson is on the one hand working with a notion of the self in a more traditional sense, though he theorizes this in a different manner than is usual. On the other hand, he also develops a notion of the self that is constituted precisely in the activity of genius, in “shooting the gap”, a self that does not pre-exist and direct this activity but rather forms alongside it. Thus we can see the coexistence of self-formation and self-dissolution in the activity of genius. I will further add that Emerson always connects this activity to the grasping of a single, universal Truth, to a participation in the “oversoul”. In this way, the activity of genius stretches beyond the confines of the organism to something more universal, another sense of self-dissolution, of the erasing of boundaries between self and others.

What I want to suggest, but not argue for right now, is that Nietzsche may well be doing something similar. The same retreats into oneself, the same fortification of boundaries around oneself that keep others out, occurs as frequently in Emerson as in Nietzsche, albeit perhaps more often in his journals than in his essays. A psychodialectical reading of Emerson thus could, I think, produce precisely the pattern found in Staten’s reading of Nietzsche: the same ambivalences and oscillations. But while there are oscillations of mood, there is an underlying unity of thought. To see self-reliance and self-overcoming as in tension, as competing possibilities, is to miss the overall movement of this thought.

The similarity between Nietzsche’s thought and Emerson’s on this point is one of the reasons that I have my hypothesis about the sameness of their souls. I am writing this from memory and so cannot cite specific passages, but the general strain of Nietzsche’s thought—an extreme individualism coupled with an equally extreme critique of the very unity of the individual—is in accord with what I have traced in Emerson. This leads me to suspect that, while Staten is no doubt picking up on very real changes in the mood of Nietzsche’s texts, he is perhaps incorrect in taking them to reveal a Nietzsche unable to decide just what he wants. In different moods, Nietzsche may be emphasizing distinct aspects of his views on the self, but they might nonetheless be distinct aspects of a single coherent view.

This post ought to convince no one, for I have not substantiated this suggestion anywhere close to sufficiently. But I hope it at least motivates the question, which will certainly feed into my future reading of Nietzsche.

  1. 2013/08/24 at 14:56

    The flux of the self. It seems to make sense that the self would be in fixed state however it is in constant growth. The self exists in a limitless boundary, not too far from the idea of space of tao. The boundaries are there but they are constantly expanding. This idea can closely be linked to art where what is good or bad art exists on a plane of subjective objectivity. The linking of contradictions wears the clothing of truth.

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