My recent receipt of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (ed. Thomas H. Johnson) offers as fine an opportunity as any to plunge once again into her sea, admiring now the individual drops of poetry, now the ocean they compose, now the one may struggle against the other. Here I encounter Dickinson’s own invitation to her poetry in the light of my existing, if meager, knowledge of what is to come.
The volume is arranged more or less in chronological order, though not perfectly so. This yields the placement of two poems—“There is another sky” (1851) and “On this wondrous sea” (1853)—at the beginning of my renewed encounter. There are, in fact, two other poems mixed in, both written for Valentine’s Day, one in 1850, the other in 1852. They are stylistically quite different from her other poems, and I shall ignore them; I accept whatever perils doing so entails. The first of these poems functions as an invitation to the poetry to follow—whether Dickinson intended it as such, I do not know—while the second illustrates a further aspect of the mood permeating the first. What follows is my response to this invitation. If I have a theme, it is of the dangers of writing one’s introduction first, rather than last, writing it with the audacity of hope rather than the maturity of experience. I say “dangers”, but I do not condemn: I find inestimable richness in the result, and, moreover, am myself writing this introduction in ignorance of just what is to follow.
It will be good to begin with the text of “There is another sky”:
There is another sky,
Ever serene and fair,
And there is another sunshine,
Though it be darkness there;
Never mind faded forests, Austin,
Never mind silent field –
Here is a little forest,
Whose leaf is ever green;
Here is a brighter garden,
Where not a frost has been;
In its unfading flowers
I hear the bright bee hum;
Prithee, my brother,
Into my garden come!
In isolation, I do not think the poem is much—only with eyes trained by reading the later poems does its significance come into view. The surface of the poem is quite straightforward: a distinction between the outer world with its change of seasons, its sunsets, and the more stable inner world. The inner is a model of the outer, only with greater stability, and a positive—so it seems—stability at that: the inner celebrates a perpetual spring, an ever serene sky, ever green leaves, unfading flowers, ever humming bees. It is addressed to her brother, Austin, and she ends by inviting him into her garden. The poem hums with optimism, with confidence.
It also introduces themes and images that persist throughout her career: the inner world as best modeled after the seasons, the bee and the flower, the sunset, the frost. With this knowledge, the poem begins to look like an invitation into her poetry—of course the direct address to her brother remains, but is easy to “forget” by the final lines—since, of course, that poetry is well-described as a faithful record of her inner world. But what this invitation promises is not at all what the explorer of the forest will discover.
This optimism carries over into her poem from 1853—and from 1854, though I will not look at the one—the text of which is:
On this wondrous sea
Ho! Pilot, ho!
Knowest thou the shore
Where no breakers roar –
Where the storm is o’er?
In the peaceful west
Many the sails at rest –
The anchors fast –
Thither I pilot thee –
Land Ho! Eternity!
Ashore at last!
More of Dickinson’s themes arrive: first and foremost, life as a sea. The sea is dangerous, violent, unstable—contrasted with the stability of land and Eternity. The character of an introduction emerges more and more when this poem is combined with the last. We get, first, a description of the contents to follow—the exploration of “my garden”—and now a definite sense of direction: a move from turbulence to eternity. Eternity is here situated at the end of life, as what is reached upon death, sunset of the soul in the “peaceful west”.
At first, the poems seem to disagree with one another about the location of stability: the first places it within life, in Dickinson’s inner world; the second, at the end of life, with death and eternity. But the second poem is not espousing the sentiment that life is a burden and death a relief: though the sea is stormy, it is nonetheless “wondrous”. This suggests, to me, the same placidity in the midst of external turbulence that the first poem offers, and thus I see them as consistent.
So we have Dickinson’s introduction and invitation to Dickinson. There is a description of the contents, the task: an exploration of the inner world. And there is the description of the movement, the goal: a movement toward death and eternity. It could not be much clearer. But there is a reason why one is always advised to write the introduction last, after all else is complete. A project never quite ends up the way it is planned from the start—new discoveries lead to new goals, and often contradict initial expectations. So too, inevitably, with Dickinson.
I will bring this out by looking at just two later poems, chosen somewhat arbitrarily. The second, because it has to do with the sea, and because when I first read it it struck me sufficiently that I remembered it upon reading “On this wondrous sea”. The first, because it also has to do with the sea, and because I happened to notice it while looking for the second. So, first, “The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea –“:
The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea –
Forgets her own locality –
As I – toward Thee –
She knows herself an incense small –
Yet small – she sighs – if All – is All –
How larger – be?
The Ocean – smiles – at her Conceit –
But she, forgetting Amphitrite –
Pleads – “Me”?
Once again, Dickinson places herself at sea, only now, she does not sail on it, but is part of it. There is no question of a drop finding stability ashore: there is only the sea, endless, perpetual sea. Nor is the sea still wondrous—or, it is, but not in the same way as before. Rather, it is something within which the drop wrestles. The drop is forgetful: she “forgets her own locality”, cannot see her place in the sea, would be larger than she is, “Pleads – ‘Me’?”—gets trapped, in short, in a harmful egoism, a selfish egoism. The rebuke is gentle: the ocean “smiles”—I do not think it mocking, though Dickinson as poet mocks herself, the absurdity of her conceit.
The shift in the metaphor, from being at sea to being in the sea, makes all the difference. Again, a drop cannot seek stability ashore. The goal toward which she first set sail has turned out to be illusory and impossible, and the placidity with which she traveled has become struggle. There is no purposeful movement, only wrestling in place.
But, while the shift in metaphor is central to this poem, it is not the only way in which the promises of her introduction can break down. Keeping with the old metaphor will do just as well, as “The difference between Despair” well shows:
The difference between Despair
And Fear – is like the One
Between the instant of a Wreck –
And when the Wreck has been –
The Mind is smooth – no Motion –
Contented as the Eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust –
That knows – it cannot see –
Here Dickinson explores two emotions or moods that one would not have expected to find inside her garden, given her introduction. Despair is likened to the instant of a wreck, fear to the aftermath. Despair is short but tumultuous: cracking timber, the boat being sucked downward, the knowledge of impending death. But fear is quite different. It is placid: the surface is smooth again, there is contentment. It is almost as if one is not even alive, is a bust. Fear knows it cannot see, and does not despair of the fact. It is a sort of grim determination.
We have returned to the image of being at sea and not in it. But if this is so, then what we are seeing is the outcome of the voyage begun with such hopes of reaching shore. Despair and the wreck are ineluctable, and so too the aftermath of fear. Any such voyage will end this way, sucked into life, and no longer heading toward eternity. And then comes fear. Like in her garden, there is a tranquility, but now it is not the tranquility that comes with an endless spring, rather it is a grim determination and contentment. The optimism has vanished.
These two poems illustrate but part of the overall shift in Dickinson’s work from these two early poems. They illustrate what breaks the optimism of those poems. But I do not mean to suggest that Dickinson’s poetry is a poetry of despair. Her quest for eternity is not halted but changed: eternity shifts from being something at the end of life to something found within life, with all its struggle and horror. The result is not optimism—grim determination may well capture it—but I do not feel anything is lost. What is gained is richer, if more terrible—richer because it is more terrible.
These poems also illustrate the power of metaphors, for Dickinson. Dickinson, in those two early poems, brings in metaphors in a youthful, naïve way. She models the inner world on the outer, with its change of seasons and its sunsets, and she models life as a voyage at sea. She does so in an optimistic spirit, and there is a beauty in that. But once she has set down these metaphors they take on a life of their own, and she is led down paths she did not anticipate. The inner world, modeled against the outer, increasingly ceases to represent a happier version of the outer and a bulwark against its vicissitudes—it comes to mirror it. And the voyage at sea exposes Dickinson to the possibility and ineluctability of wrecks. She, in her optimism, overlooked these possibilities, but now she must confront them.
This illustrates, then, the danger of writing an introduction before the work is completed. Dickinson makes promises she cannot fulfill, raises issues with which she must continually struggle and which continually defy her initial optimism. The advice to write the introduction last is of the highest prudence. But there is something poetic about the introduction written at the beginning, and not simply placed there after the fact.
The difference stems from the difference in perspective that each necessarily takes. The introduction written last is a view from above, the view of a spectator surveying the completed work. That the work is her own is important, but the introduction serves only to state her accomplishments, and hardly to contribute to them. The introduction written first, by contrast, is inherently active, is a view from within. It contributes to the project it attempts to introduce, by setting out—and not just describing—paths that will be followed. Of course, these descriptions end up false, but that does not make the description any less valuable. As the example of Dickinson shows, these naïve, youthful, optimistic introductions raise complications that cannot be foreseen, but the struggle with these complications may yield unforeseen fruit. The falseness of the description arises precisely because it raises issues beyond its control, introduces problems that elude its grasp—the very sources of its value.
But perhaps Dickinson captured the difference best. An introduction written at the end is on firm land, “ashore at last”. An introduction written first is, by contrast, at sea, lost, with no land in sight, excepting what is hallucinated. Introductions from above may yield the eternity of a destination reached, but introductions from within offer the eternity of endless beginning and struggle—a more terrible, but for that very reason richer, eternity.
For a long time I have been mulling writing a post or a series of posts on the relation between poetry and prudence, collecting issues I might like to discuss, organizing them, and so forth. The fruit has not yet ripened, but when Emerson writes an essay on Prudence that addresses just this issue, I cannot but jump into the fire. This post is not what I have been and still am planning, but perhaps it shall help it to take form, or at least introduce a problem. And, in any event, I prefer green tomatoes to red, so perhaps my own immature endeavor shall not be in vain. This will be, I hope, a prolegomenon to future thoughts.
Citations, as usual, are to the Library of America volume of Emerson’s Essays & Lectures.
What right have I to write on Prudence?
Emerson distinguishes two sorts of writing: “We write from aspiration and antagonism, as well as from experience. We paint those qualities which we do not possess.” (357) Where others of his essays are written from experience, here Emerson ventures into a territory known only by aspiration and antagonism—this should be kept in mind. The essay takes the form, in effect, of an exhortation to himself: become prudent! practice the minor virtues! It is not phrased as such—rather, as advice to his readers—but Emerson takes as a rule that one ought “assume that you are saying precisely that which all think” (366), which explains his choice of presentation. What I want to suggest is that it is perhaps Emerson’s natural aloofness to prudence that leads him to underestimate one of its difficulties.
Poetry and prudence should be coincident
What worries Emerson in this essay is the apparent conflict between poetry and prudence. On the one hand, you have the purely prudent individuals, who ask only after the utility of each thing; on the other hand you have purely poetic individuals, such as scholars, who are useless at practical tasks. “The scholar shames us by his bifold life. Whilst something higher than prudence is active, he is admirable; when common sense is wanted, he is an encumbrance.” (363) Emerson wants to bridge this gap.
One way in which this gap is bridged lies in poetry itself. I have written before of the way in which literature must come to grips with its own effacement, its own non-necessity, and this essay provides more fodder for such themes. In the very first paragraph, Emerson remarks, “The poet admires the man of energy and tactics” (357), and not much later adds, in a similar vein, “The domestic man, who loves no music so well as his kitchen clock, and the airs which the logs sing to him as they burn on the hearth, has solaces which others never dream of.” (360) This is a poetic appreciation of the “domestic man”, and it is part and parcel of a view of poetry that sees poetry as celebrating what is poetic in human life, rather than as an apologia for poetry. Whitman, whose (1855) Leaves of Grass I recently read, is perhaps the best exemplar of this poetic trend, if only because this philosophy of poetry not only is borne out by the content of his poems—i.e. the poetic celebration of energy and tactics within them—but is also given explicit voice within his poems: this is what I, Walt Whitman, poet, am doing. But the examples are, really, endless.
Poetry, then, takes upon itself as a primary task the showing of itself as unnecessary by indicating the universal accessibility of poetry in everyday life, if only one looks. Not for nothing does Whitman distinguish the poet from the non-poet by the poet’s ability to see the poetry, unnoticed by the non-poet, in what the non-poet is doing. And what characterizes such lives is, above all else, prudence. Prudence in maintaining a household, in choosing a job, in spending money, etc.
Emerson draws a distinction, however, between true and base prudence. Base prudence is a devotion to matter, which “asks but one question of any project,—Will it bake bread?” (358) And Emerson’s diagnosis is grave: “This is a disease like a thickening of the skin until the vital organs are destroyed.” (358) Against this is true prudence: “The true prudence limits this sensualism by admitting the knowledge of an internal and real world.” (358)
This opens up the question of prudence onto the whole question of Emerson’s realism and idealism. Emerson’s realist pole recognizes the fixity of matter, of causal relations, of natural law, while his idealist pole sees everything as flexible under the influence of an inquiring intellect. Prudence, whether base or true, is tied to the realist axis. “Prudence does not go behind nature, and ask whence it is. It takes the laws of the world, whereby man’s being is conditioned, as they are, and keeps these laws, that it may enjoy their proper good.” (359) It is this first sentence that is key: prudence does not go behind nature, and ask whence it is. Prudence accepts that this is how it is. It is the asking after the “whence it is” that is the domain of poetry, that risks setting all things in motion, that offers the possibility of new evaluations. Poetry holds up the material world to the light of the “internal and real world.” These are the grounds on which poetry and prudence must coincide.
Here lies stubborn matter, and will not swerve from its chemical routine
Emerson has more to say about this coincidence—much of it takes the form of an exhortation to practice the minor, prudential virtues—but my gaze is here drawn to a lurking problem to do with base prudence that I do not think Emerson has sufficiently addressed. My guiding light here is in fact none other than Emerson himself, the Emerson who recognizes that there are objections to every line of action—I always forget where, exactly, this worry finds voice, maybe “Experience”. What Emerson underestimates is base prudence as a source of endless objections to poetry.
To see this requires some groundwork. Emerson is an experimental philosopher, which I take to have two fundamental aspects. First, there is an unflinching commitment to honesty to oneself, one’s true, inner self. Second, there is an ontological gambit: there is no preexisting self to which one can be honest—that self is simultaneous with the honest act. Emerson gives voice to the first of these aspects when he writes, “The natural motions of the soul are so much better than the voluntary ones” (366)—voluntary actions are chosen, but natural motions are necessitated. Emerson—elsewhere, I forget where—notes that there is really only one direction in which the soul can go at any time: any other direction and it runs into a wall. Voluntary action, choosing which way to go, inevitably leads to these walls. Freedom, for Emerson, requires the strictest necessity.
But this means that honesty to oneself is paramount—yet such honesty can always find objections from without. And base prudence is one source of such objections. An experimentally honest action need not be prudent—indeed, the material utility of any action is more or less universal and can efface individuality in the wrong way—and so the “sickness” of base prudence is precisely that the question “will it bake bread” is liable to distract from such honesty. Emerson notes that matter is “stubborn” (359), by which he refers to the fixity of natural law, but matter is “stubborn” in another way, too: it stubbornly puts this question to us.
When prudence functions in this way, as the source of endless objections, clearly poetry and prudence are not coincident. One must privilege honesty, or one must privilege utility, but in either case, they pull in opposite directions. A unity of poetry and prudence requires some method of quelling this tide of prudential objections to poetic honesty, yet Emerson, at least in this essay, provides none. Thus I can only conclude that the problem of harmonizing poetry and prudence remains unsolved.
There is something wrong with reading a Dickinson poem in isolation, or so it seems to me. For every poem I am compelled to ask: but where is your brother who questions you? Where is your sister who answers your question? Your mood is contractive, withdrawn—where then is your expansive counterpart? Your mood is impeccably expansive—where does the skepticism you cannot avoid find voice, if not within your confines? Only on a few happy occasions have I located such conversations between her poems—the last gave rise to my first post about her work—but yesterday I found another, and should like to report on what I overheard.
Nature – sometimes sears a Sapling –
Nature – sometimes sears a Sapling –
Sometimes – scalps a Tree –
Her Green People recollect it
When they do not die –
Fainter Leaves – to Further Seasons –
Dumbly testify –
We – who have the Souls –
Die oftener – Not so vitally –
The poem is born in violence: the searing of a sapling, the scalping of a tree, but then nature is violent, which is precisely why it provides Dickinson such a good model for the soul. I am speaking generally, however, for here nature is no such model—indeed is set against the soul. What Dickinson shows us is the aftermath of this violence, the effect of it: it is a sort of vital death. For while the sapling or tree may die when so struck by lightning—I cannot but treat nature’s instrument here as lightning, for a reason that will be apparent once we see the second poem—it is recollected by her “Green People”.
Dickinson’s choice of the word ‘recollect’ is fascinating. It plays on two, maybe three, senses of the word. The first sense is the obvious one, the recollection that goes on in our memory all the time. Nature remembers her dead in their offspring—that is the testimony of the fainter leaves. Yet there is also a second, material sense of the word. Trees are, after all, mere collections of matter, and that collection is disrupted in the searing or scalping, but it may then be re-collected—indeed this is the mechanism of nature’s remembrance. Then there is a third sense, really a modification or enlarging of the first, if we recall Plato’s theory of recollection in this context: all knowledge is recollection of previously known truth. The new trees of further seasons are recollections of the old equally in this Platonic sense: new embodiments of an old truth, perhaps the oldest.
Through this rich notion of recollection—Dickinson condenses so much into a single word!—we get a sense of the vitality inherent in this death. Here we must make a distinction between vitality/productivity/creativity and what I will call inventiveness. Inventiveness is the production of the new, but of what is new in but a relative sense. For examples of inventiveness, in poetry for instance, encompass the inventions of new techniques. But this amounts only to rearrangements of words, and the same pattern will hold true for any example of inventiveness you care to show me. Inventiveness produces new arrangements, but hop down a level and the matter is the same. What is vital about the death of the trees, however, is not this sort of inventiveness that is fully compatible with the non-existence of anything new; rather it is the re-production of the old, its recollection. Of course this recollection does not produce identical forms—which would amount to the adherence to tradition that is the age-old opponent of inventiveness or “innovation”—and so there is room for inventiveness within it. Only now this inventiveness is not for the sake of finding the new because the old does not satisfy, is not enough, but because what exists is insufficient for the expression of the old. The vitality of the death of the trees is, as a fictitious version of Beckett might have put it, that vitality that finds the old forever untried.
In contrast to this stand the humans, those who have the souls. Dickinson carefully refers to the trees’ testimony as dumb, as silent—in short, as lacking language, that defining characteristic of we ensouled ones. Only now, instead of serving as a source of our dignity, our souls seem to be a hindrance, for we, unlike the trees, “Die oftener – Not so vitally –“. Dickinson does not expand on this, leaving only questions. Is it language that strips our death of vitality? Or if not, just what is it about our souls that strips our deaths of this vitality? And why do we die “oftener”?
Good questions all. But one question itself sears, and will sear until it is answered. Dickinson, I see you spiraling inward, see you contracting around this skeptical thought, but where is the outward movement that will redeem you?
He fumbles at your Soul
He fumbles at your Soul
As Players at the Keys
Before they drop full Music on –
He stuns you by degrees –
Prepares your brittle Nature
For the Ethereal Blow
By fainter Hammers – further heard –
Then nearer – Then so slow
Your Breath has time to straighten –
Your Brain – to bubble Cool –
Deals – One – imperial – Thunderbolt –
That scalps your naked Soul –
When Winds take Forests in their Paws –
The Universe – is still –
This poem is linked to the last by a word and an image. The word is primary: before a tree was scalped; now it is your naked soul. Before, the agent went unmentioned; now, it is lightning—and thus I cannot but read the other poem as detailing the aftermath of a lightning strike. The poem is a description of the process leading up to this strike—first stanza—as well as its aftermath—second stanza. There is someone, an unnamed “He” who is the source of the strike, and you, the recipient. The process is likened to him warming up at an instrument, of which you are the strings, fumbling before the real show starts. Tentativeness and mistakes characterize this period, but these “fainter Hammers” serve as preparation, and then—the moment arrives.
That is a clumsy description of the poem: it lacks sensitivity to how the poem operates. For while the poem describes, it also and more importantly enacts. At each point, what the poem says is happening in this process, the poem is also itself doing. Consider the first eight and a half lines, until “Then nearer –“. The poem itself is fumbling, not quite establishing a rhythm: we have two long sequences—20 and 19 syllables, respectively—in which no dashes occur to provide room for a breath, and each is followed by short gasps, first of six syllables after the first passage, then two quick gasps of three syllables each after the second. The poem itself cannot catch its breath.
But this is still preparation for what is to come, and this preparation soon takes definite form. For just as Dickinson says that the fainter hammers come “so slow / Your Breath has time to straighten –“, the poem itself evens out, first with a calm ten syllables in which our breath does indeed straighten. Then it slows even more as our brain bubbles cool, and we begin to feel what it describes. And then— — —the four, short, emphatic bursts in which the thunderbolt is dealt—and my own soul is scalped. Lastly, then, the soft rustling of the final stanza, and, between two dashes, the final island of stillness.
Perhaps it is language that, in the prior poem, cuts us off from vital death. If that is so, this poem seeks to remedy this loss, for the process it causes in the reader is just such a vital death. Why do I say this? The poem is linked to the previous by a word and an image—I cannot take that as accidental, even if the linkage really amounts only to the word. Do I have more conclusive evidence of a genuine link? I do not, except the shivers that dance up and down my spine, the bubbling that cooled and hardened and left a stillness to everything, the woods in which I read the poem, rustled by the paws of wind. This is an old truth I sense; the question is, can I give it form.
Do not be fooled by the title: Emerson’s essay “Friendship” is much more a plea for solitude than a treatise on friendship. This begins mildly enough—
I chide society, I embrace solitude, and yet I am not so ungrateful as not to see the wise, the lovely, and the noble-minded as from time to time they pass my gate. (342, Essays & Lectures, Library of America)
—but is swiftly heightened:
The soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude; and it goes alone for a season, that it may exalt its conversation or society. (344)
Friendship and solitude are two poles, and the individual oscillates between them, each inducing the other state. This already establishes that a treatise on friendship must be just as much a treatise on solitude. Yet, above, I contended that the essay is a plea for solitude. That takes some explaining.
At this point in the essay, Emerson is in a theoretical mode, does appear to be working on a treatise. This does not last. For, in between these two quotes, Emerson has raised a skeptical worry, and as we shall see that worry comes to dominate the essay. If the soul oscillates between periods of solitude and periods of society, we must ask: where, along this oscillation, did Emerson’s soul find itself in the writing of this essay? Here is the worry:
We doubt that we bestow on our hero the virtues in which he shines, and afterwards worship the form to which we have ascribed this divine inhabitation. (343)
The worry, more or less, is that the soul bestows a form on the would-be friend, and then worships that form, and not the friend himself. Virtue, Emerson insists throughout the essay, has an affinity for itself; what he here suspects is that the felt affinity for another’s virtue is in fact merely an affinity for the projection of one’s own virtue. And, in that case, what we have is not genuine friendship, but merely a sort of solitude with an extra body. But some legwork is required to understand this in greater depth.
Friendship depends on common truth, on two individuals who together grasp the divine mind. So Emerson writes:
By oldest right, by the divine affinity of virtue with itself, I find them, or rather not I, but the Deity in me and in them derides and cancels the thick walls of individual character, relation, age, sex, circumstance, at which he usually connives, and now makes many one. (343)
What is divine in me finds what is divine in another, and this shared divinity is the ground of the friendship. What is interesting here is that the Deity “derides and cancels the thick walls of individual character”—friendship requires the effacement of partiality and particularity. But one must be careful here, for effacement of partiality can go quite wrong.
In a defense of the view that friendship must be between two, and not between more, Emerson suggests it is for this reason:
In good company, the individuals merge their egotism into a social soul exactly co-extensive with the several consciousnesses there present. No partialities of friend to friend, no fondnesses of brother to sister, of wife to husband, are there pertinent, but quite otherwise. Only he may then speak who can sail on the common thought of the party, and not poorly limited to his own. (349)
Let us tally the elements here. We have, first, the effacement of partialities, of particular relationships, and poorly limited individual thought. And, second, we have a common thought, shared by all parties, that is the basis of speech. How much this looks like Emerson’s description of friendship. Only,
Now this convention, which good sense demands, destroys the high freedom of great conversation, which requires an absolute running of two souls into one. (349)
Here, however, it is precisely these elements, the effacement of partiality and the shared thought, that is destructive, that eliminates any possibility of friendship. And it does so by preventing two souls from running into one. The problem is a problem of tempo: good society effaces what is particular too quickly, too hastily, in the name of good sense, a certain prudence. So it enforces a shared thought; this is imposed on the conversers rather than arrived at freely.
This emphasis on slowness is of the essence. A too quick effacement of partiality ends all possibility of friendship because it is nothing other than partiality and individual character that provides the method for arriving at shared truth. “There must be very two, before there can be very one.” (350) To strip one of these particulars too hastily, not to “respect the naturlangsamkeit (sic) which hardens the ruby in a million years” (344), is to strip simultaneously the very ability to form a higher union. Good society, in its haste, makes of commingling mere wine and dreams.
Yet these uneasy pleasures and fine pains are for curiosity, and not for life. They are not to be indulged. This is to weave cobweb, and not cloth. (345)
We “descend” to meet others, instead of waiting for them at the heights; we get impatient for company, and sacrifice our particularity. And the result is mere cobweb, something that hides in the shadows and is easily swept away. Insubstantial fluff. I am reminded here of that magnificent poem by Emily Dickinson:
To hang our head—ostensibly
And subsequent, to find
That such was not the posture
Of our immortal mind
Affords the sly presumption
That in so dense a fuzz
You—too—take Cobweb attitudes
Upon a plane of Gauze!
Emerson sets a high bar for friendship, and if that bar cannot be met, communion must be foregone. Recall that underlying all of this is the skeptical worry that we never truly find someone who possesses our shared virtue, that we merely impose a form upon another, then worship the form we have bestowed. And Emerson, here, replies to this skepticism with a concession:
The higher the style we demand of friendship, of course the less easy to establish it with flesh and blood. We walk alone in the world. Friends, such as we desire, are dreams and fables. But a sublime hope cheers ever the faithful heart, that elsewhere, in other regions of the universal power, souls are now acting, enduring, and daring, which can love us, and which we can love. (352)
Emerson softens his concession with a “sublime hope”, but how consoling is this? How lonely it is, to walk in the world without companions, and only to know that somewhere, maybe, such a companion is to be found, only you and he shall never meet. Our particularities, to which we must remain true, forever drive us apart. And what of when we do meet one we consider a friend?
The essence of friendship is entireness, a total magnanimity and trust. It must not surmise or provide for infirmity. It treats its object as a god, that it may deify both. (354)
With this, the essay ends, and on the surface it possesses an optimistic glow—but how may it be taken than as a direct reply to the skeptical worry earlier raised? Here Emerson admits that in all we call friendship, we treat the other as they are not, as a god, in order to deify them. Emerson in effect does his earlier skepticism one better: not only does the friend need deifying, oneself equally needs to be deified.
From this I surmise that Emerson wrote the essay in the midst of a deep spiritual solitude. Later, perhaps, he would be ripe for a friendship, but at the time of writing friendship was not possible for him. Emerson addresses the topic of friendship as a means of exploring his own solitude; friendship is not his real target.
In our encounters with others, living and dead, we see only part of what is there. With the living, we see them at separated moments; often we see only their accomplishments and not the struggle that brought them there. We see, in short, an outline, constructed on the basis of a small selection of details, while most details are lost to us. With the dead this is heightened. I experience nothing of Emerson the living body, only Emerson’s essays, Emerson’s journals, biographies of Emerson—again, a mere plan or outline of Emerson, anchored by a handful of reference points.
Emerson, in his essay “Love”, writes, “Details are melancholy; the plan is seemly and noble.” It is precisely the poverty of reference points, with respect to others, that allows us to idealize them, to make them into perfect individuals. Such a noble plan can only be sullied by a profusion of melancholy details. In our encounters with ourselves, by contrast, we are exposed to every detail. This is why the truly honest individual will find far more grounds for self-criticism than criticism of others.
In this context I want to reflect on journaling, on keeping a log of events, moods, thoughts, reflections, diagnoses. For the past two years, basically since I began this blog, I have been keeping such a journal—many of my posts in fact originate there. My first begins September 2011, though in fact that is just the first that has survived, and is predated by a few abortive attempts, dating back probably to sometime in 2009 or 2010. Recently, I have begun indexing them, which involves both rereading them and organizing their contents according to my current interests. Thus I am in the midst of a sustained encounter with my past selves.
This encounter is not so much an encounter with myself as an encounter with some other, some outsider. This other, or better, these others, are of interest to me because they became me, and because many of their problems are the same as my own—indeed, I have recovered valuable suggestions for myself from them—but equally they have different problems, and different contexts for the problems we share. Most of all, though, by its very nature the encounter takes the form of an encounter with another. I see only a small handful of details, and from these reference points construct a plan of my past selves.
What are these reference points? My journals, to an extent that in hindsight I find frustrating, mostly do not focus on the external events of my life. References to such come every five pages, perhaps. Most of the contents are more intellectual, in a value-neutral sense. They consist of reactions to works of art, reactions to philosophers, abstract reflections on philosophical topics, abstract reflections on puzzles of life, the occasional concrete reflection on the problems of life, and, above all else, self-diagnoses. To an extent that I would find surprising were the tendency not still within me, albeit now more fruitfully channeled, I was self-critical. On perhaps every other page there are obsessive worryings about my failings, sometimes optimistic, more often pessimistic.
These self-diagnoses provide a useful window into the nature of this endeavor as an experience of a succession of others, rather than with myself. One theme that arises in these self-criticisms is the worry that I am being fundamentally dishonest, that my journaling consists primarily of lies. Or, if not lies, acting. I worried that I was writing as if for an audience, and trying to please them, and that this influenced my style, my topics, etc. These critical entries are sweeping: they condemn everything to the flames.
In an abstract sense, I can understand what might have motivated this. Many of the entries are nothing more than recycled Emerson or recycled Nietzsche, and moreover on topics that, at the time, I know I had no real experience with. Yet they are written as if they are my own discoveries, and not mere secondhand recycling of others. At the same time, I have no recollection of the moods that prompted these entries—the derivative entries and the self-diagnoses both.
This is the crux. My encounter with my old journals takes place in abstraction from the moods that drove my journaling in the first place. I face, as it were, the other minds problem: my only access to my past mind is what I can reconstruct, can infer from what I wrote and how I wrote it. Now I am bemused, more than aught else, by these worries about honesty, because what I see, amidst the derivative entries, is a burgeoning creativity and reflectiveness that has made my current self, for all its flaws, possible. It is this same creativity that I attempt to cultivate here. I am friendlier with my past than my past was with itself—and than I am with myself, now.
But this is just it. The plan of my past self I have constructed, while not really idealized, is based on insufficient, highly selective reference points—points which, moreover, are viewed through my current interests—and it is this selectiveness that makes possible my new relation to my old selves. Had I to live all the melancholy details of those days over again, no doubt I would be just as critical. It is the difference between reading, say, a self-diagnosis of the hours I wasted and the experience itself of wasting those hours
These reflections were occasioned by my journaling, but the point is general, I believe. We cannot but encounter our pasts in the way we encounter others. There is a disconnect between such an experience and the experience of our daily self-encounters. The question, then, is to what creative use can we put our pasts.
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“Love”, incidentally, is perhaps Emerson’s weakest essay—that is why I have strayed so far from it. It struggles to escape the neo-Platonism it sets for itself as a launchpoint, but manages only a few half-hearted leaps, insufficient to escape the gravitational pull of the old view. But perhaps the greatest missed opportunity, in light of what I have focused on above, is the manner in which love puts two people in such contact that they must come to know one another’s details, and not just their plans—yet, for all this melancholy, they love regardless. What is it about love that manages that? But, alas, Emerson did not look in this direction.