Archive for March, 2014

Gifts and morality

“Gifts” is Emerson’s shortest essay, a mere four pages in the Library of America volume of his Essays & Lectures. Even still, as is characteristic of Emerson, it contains the greater portion of his thought, escaping well beyond its putative subject. In particular, I think this essay on gifts is a useful proxy for Emerson’s distaste for morality, or at least for moralism.

There are, I think, two crucial sentences in the essay. First: “Necessity does everything well.” (536) Emerson is looking for necessity—one of Emerson’s central moves is to identify the freedom of self-reliance with a rigid sort of necessity, for after all only one action will be true to the individual, and hence self-reliant—but he does not find it in our conventions of gift-giving. In these conventions, we are expected at particular times to give others gifts—Emerson mentions Christmas and New Year. We might readily imagine a sort of necessity here: at these times, you must give gifts, at least if you are to preserve your social graces. This might be better phrased impersonally: at these times, one must give gifts—for after all it hardly matters who you are. This, I take it, is rather like the must of morality—think of Kant’s categorical imperative and his insistence on universalizing maxims: impersonality is the order of the day.

So there is a sort of necessity, but for Emerson it is misplaced. “If, at any time, it comes into my head, that a present is due from me to somebody, I am puzzled what to give, until the opportunity is gone.” (535) There is necessity up to the point that some gift must be given, but no further. This loss of necessity leads to Emerson being “puzzled”, and then the opportunity is lost—but what opportunity?

Emerson does have an image of the ideal gift: “The only gift is a portion of thyself. Thou must bleed for me.” (536) Such a gift is inherently personal, but then, Emerson wants to say, it cannot be governed by the impersonal “one must”. For how does “one” give a portion of “oneself”? The very idea is nearly if not strictly incoherent.

The problem resides, ultimately, in the idea of morality as a sort of service. Emerson could well accept the contemporary (but controversial) view that all morality is just an evolved lubricant for social interactions, coopted (since we have the brains to coopt it) to make life generally as pleasant as possible for as many as possible. Morality is just a sort of etiquette, on this view, which is why gift-giving, hardly a “moral” issue when morality is treated as venerable, may serve Emerson as a proxy.

The problem with service is that service is impersonal. Its value lies in the consequences and not in its cause. For this reason, insofar as morality is a sort of service, a consequentialist view of morality seems required. But now we get the second crucial sentence in Emerson’s essay: “They eat your service like apples, and leave you out.” (538) Service, by its very nature, leaves out the individual, for the individual is the cause, but the value lies in the consequences.

Emerson makes a motion, in his essay, to respect that there is something essential—as there surely is—in this sort of service, but it is a dismissive motion. “There are persons, from whom we always expect fairy tokens; let us not cease to expect them.” (538) The motion is dismissive because Emerson is after something greater, an interaction in which people are not mere sources of consequences, valued only insofar as they cause the right consequences. In this interaction, which elsewhere in Emerson falls under the heading of “conversation”, the mutual meeting of two self-reliant individuals, “No services are of any value, but only likeness.” (538) Conversation lasts as long as, and no longer than, the likeness persists. In such interactions, there simply cannot be any question of morality, of service: etiquette is entirely left out of the equation.

This, I hope, shows how Emerson’s vision of self-reliance excludes morality altogether.

Dickinson: continuation and finality

There is a sense of finality to Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes –“, but a strange sense. When, in the final line, we see a progression of events—chill, stupor, letting go—we cannot but take the last as indicating the releasing of one’s hold on life. What is the process of freezing (for that is what Dickinson describes)? First there is the feeling of cold, then a numb daze, too enervated even to feel cold, and then the letting go. But this straightforward process is introduced in a curious fashion. Thus far in the poem, Dickinson has described the period after a great pain, which she calls “the Hour of Lead”—a period that, she tells us, is “Remembered, if outlived, / As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –“ (emphasis added). That is to say, this letting go, so suggestive of finality, is but a part of how the hour of lead is remembered, and it is only remembered if it is outlived—and where, then, is the finality? Outliving entails continuation, and continuation rules out finality. So there is a sense of finality to the poem, but a finality that must contend with the reality of continuation. Whatever ending there is, it is not a total ending.

The movements of the soul, of which the above poem details one, are mirrored, for Dickinson, in the movements of nature, and so we might look to a poem Dickinson wrote detailing the vagaries of nature, that we might better understand her poem detailing the vagaries of the soul. “I know a place where Summer strives” describes the annual struggle between warmth and frost: how Summer “each year – leads her Daisies back –“, how, later, “Her Heart misgives Her”, and how, finally, “she pours soft Refrains / Into the lap of Adamant”.

That this poem is connected with the first can hardly be doubted, if we consider that two crucial words are shared between each. The transition from summer to winter is captured, in this poem, by the image of the Dew, “That stiffens quietly to Quartz.  In the first poem, in surveying the aftermath of a great pain, we see a “stiff Heart” which feels “A Quartz contentment”. How can we not take the co-occurrence of these words as critical? The stiffness indicates death, rigor mortis, while the image of quartz suggests the beauty inherent in this death, which is nonetheless death. What the second poem suggests is that this stiffness, this quartz beauty, is cyclical, for the poem begins by reminding us how summer each year leads back her daisies. There is something impermanent about death.

But we may not rest complacent, for now another poem urges that its voice must be heard, as it, too, wishes a word about stiffness. “I know that He exists” imagines a game, a game of bliss, but a game that proves too earnest, when the glee of bliss comes to “glaze – / In Death’s – stiff – stare –“—then the “jest” of bliss has “crawled too far”.  Here all turns on the notion of bliss. Is bliss not our aim? But bliss might come at a high price: stiffness, i.e. death.

Here we may, one last time, look to another Dickinson poem for enlightenment. “Is Bliss then, such Abyss” suggests, once again, finality, in this case because bliss “is sold just once”—that is, pass up the one opportunity, and it is gone forever. But what is interesting about the poem is its final line, which suggests what occurs when we have this choice between finality (bliss) and continuation (whatever our life on this earth amounts to, which is certainly not bliss): “Verdict for Boot!” I cannot convey the power of these lines in a post like this—could I, I would not blog, but be a poet myself—but I hope their meaning, if not their power, is clear: Dickinson (or her avatar) has chosen continuance over the finality of bliss.

And that, I think, is what is fundamental in these poems. There is a sense of finality, of the absolute, but only in a death that is permanent, unending, unsupplanted. Against this, there is a sense of continuance, in just that which recurs annually, which rejects absolute bliss in favor of that partial existence that—with all its ineluctable partiality—characterizes our humanity. I do not claim to have made sense of these four Dickinson poems (could I ever?), but I hope I have at least captured one or two of their themes, and in my relationship with Dickinson, I may count that as a substantial achievement.

A first turn of the screw, pt. II: retelling as reliving

The time has come to fulfill yesterday’s promise of an exploration of the manner in which retelling is a form of reliving in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. I have already explored this idea in the case of Beckett (links in yesterday’s post), and perhaps one day I will be able to synthesize Beckett and James, but today I hardly remember my thoughts on Beckett, and so will stick to James.

My first realization that the second narrator, in retelling her story, is reliving it came when she wrote, “I find that I really hang back; but I must take my horrid plunge. In going on the record of what was hideous at Bly I not only challenge the most liberal faith—for which I little care; but (and this is another matter) I renew what I myself suffered, I again push my dreadful way through it to the end.” (60, this volume) My realization was no great leap: she is quite explicit what is occurring. Moreover, not only does she state this idea, but she exemplifies it. The first words of her section of the story—“I remember the whole beginning as a succession of flights and drops” (11)—are echoed here in her speaking of her writing as taking a “plunge”.

There is also a disparity between these two quotes. The second speaks of memory, of remembering, not of reliving. At the outset of her tale, there is more of a distance between her and her writing. It is only gradually that her writing, as it were, takes on a life of its own. I think we see this best in the steady increase in prominence of the language of submission and mastery, of the narrator’s increasing tendency to insist upon being in the dominant position. (Tracking this increase helps me, at least, to understand why the story ends as it does.) This language conflicts with that of virtue: her self-presentation, from the start, is of herself as a virtuous person. She is desperate to be seen, publicly, in her virtue. Insofar as her writing is a form of remembering, this need dominates it: she remembers her own virtue so that others might remember it after her—writing gains her virtue an audience. But as the story goes on, we start to suspect that, however much she tells herself she is motivated by her (mostly self-imposed) duty to the children, her real motive lies in the need for domination. It is no accident that she refers to an instance in which Mrs. Grose provides her with information that “justifies” her as a “submission of memory” (74-5, my emphasis). The less her story becomes self-presentation, and the more it becomes reliving, the more her true motive shines through.

Considering this theme, of retelling as reliving, forces me to return to my thoughts of last night. There, in reflecting on the publicity of writing, and especially of its self-insufficient virtues, I worried a great deal about how I, as a reader, do not “believe” the governess, desperate as she is to be believed. Yet, insofar as retelling is a form of reliving, this problem vanishes, or at least splits. Now there are two stories to consider. One is the tale of the governess at Bly, struggling with apparitions of evil for the soul of a young boy and girl. The other is the story of the governess writing, a story that I do not receive secondhand, but watch unfold for myself. For the second story, there is no question of believing or not believing—do I not see it directly? And insofar as I am concerned with this story, the question of whether I may believe the first becomes subsidiary. Perhaps that story involves the “submission of memory” to the vicissitudes of the governess’ psychology—but these submissions bring me no sense of having been lied to. Rather, they are honestly presented phenomena, events in the second story I watch unfold.

Insofar as retelling is a form of reliving, it may be self-sufficient—that is, it may require no audience for its completion. Once the governess has written her story, her act is done, and she may die. There is nothing that requires a reader, an audience. In yesterday’s post, the reader was required because the virtues of writing were not self-sufficient. Today they are. But what, then, of the reader? What am I?

A first turn of the screw, pt. I: writing and publicity

2014/03/13 1 comment

These thoughts will inevitably be partial, as I have read Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw but once, and have hardly digested the closing pages, but I venture them nonetheless. For I do not pretend that a second reading will leave me with thoughts any less partial, only I know it will drive these thoughts I have now from my view. Better, then, to put them forth, that they might one day converse with my future.

I have been teaching, this semester, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius shares with the Stoics, with whom he might justifiably be lumped, the commitment to valuing only what is within one’s own control. Only one’s own virtue meets this strict criterion; hence, only one’s own virtue is an appropriate object of concern. Toward external events, indifference—and indifference especially toward reputation. Virtue is self-sufficient. It requires no audience. In this vein I recall also, from my Jewish upbringing, Maimonides’ teaching on charity: that the greatest gift is the one given by one who does not know the recipient, and received by one who does not know the giver. To publicize virtue spells trouble: it lets society in, with its petty demands for repayment, with its imposition of the sense of being in debt.

I find much admirable in this view, as I suspect anyone must, and much right in it, but as I read The Turn of the Screw I could not help but question it. The story is told in two parts, an introductory chapter by a first unnamed narrator, and the remainder of the novella by a governess at Bly, a haunted estate. The second narrator reveals throughout her need for an audience. She has a conception of herself as heroic, as struggling to save a human soul, as fortified in the face of danger, and she needs an audience for it. Within the text, she needs the belief of Mrs. Grose—the emotional nadir of the tale comes when she fears she has lost this belief, when Mrs. Grose does not see the apparition she sees.

But more than that, it comes out in the fact that she is writing. Sometime after the fact, she puts her story to paper. Part of this speaks to her need to be believed, her need to publicize her self-attributed virtue. That is what gets her over the activation barrier to start—and to continue—writing. (She makes it clear that her retelling of the story is a form of reliving it in all its dread, an idea that I have already explored in the case of Beckett’s trilogy. I have given this post the hopeful appellation “pt. I” in anticipation of exploring this further.) She writes this story in order to be read, in order for others to see what she has done. Her need for validation permeates the language throughout: how often she brings in the language of science—justification, confirmation, proof, falsification—and the language of the courtroom—judge, witness, trial, arraign! She needs objective support (science); she needs the vindication of a jury of her peers (court).

With this thought, we may compare her intensely serious self-presentation with the presentation, in the introduction, of her story as a bit of entertainment, to be judged by its gruesomeness and its dreadfulness, not its truth. It is received, not as something to be believed, but as something to be enjoyed. This reveals, almost comically, the extent to which she failed, but at the same time throws her intent in writing into sharper relief. (I will return to this disparity.)

But perhaps a greater part of it speaks to the very act of writing, which presupposes an audience, or at least the hope of one. The virtues of the writer cannot be private virtues, at least not without sacrificing the inherently public function of writing. Even in private writing such as journaling, one’s future self is an audience. Thoughts are not recorded to no end. One person writes, and another reads. Another way to put this is that the virtues of the writer are not self-sufficient in the way the Stoics conceived virtue. Even when they have been manifested in the writing of a text, they remain uncompleted. The act of reading, with its virtues, is yet to be done.

Moreover, this brings with it an element of instability, of risk. The most apt self-reflection in the novella comes after little Miles has been “bad”, and the governess finds that this equally puts her in a predicament. “I was confronted at last, as never yet, with all the risk attached even now to sounding my own horrid note.” (p. 71, this volume) She is not here speaking of writing, but she may as well be, for in writing down her story, in sounding her “horrid note”, she takes on a great risk: she cannot control how she is read. We already encountered this in the painful disparity between the way she so dearly wishes to be read and the way her story is presented in the introduction. But it comes out also, perhaps even more so, in how I read her. I do not take the story quite so crassly as the first narrator, yet neither do I take it in any way like that which the governess desires. (These very reflections are, I hope, ample proof of that.)

The Stoics were prudent in taking virtue to lie entirely within an individual’s control, in excluding from the domain of virtue anything that depended on others—for they aimed at tranquility of mind, a tranquility so perfect it could not be disturbed by any external event, so long as one maintained perfect virtue. If they were right to do this, and insofar as one aims for tranquility I believe they were, we must conclude that writing cannot aim at tranquility. One gets the sense, in reading Aurelius’ Meditations, that Aurelius perceived a vast gulf between individuals. Virtue, though it aims at the good of the whole, of which each individual is a part, is nonetheless a purely individual affair. Not so with writing, whose virtues submit themselves to the mercy of their readers. Writing takes a risk: it trusts its completion to people it has no basis for trusting. The virtue of our governess is out of her hands.

Proof of Emersonian concept

“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)

I have taken this quotation from Emerson’s essay on “Friendship”, of which it is the closing lines, but the same thought appears in some guise in each of Emerson’s writings, and I might have picked any essay at random to find it. At the core is his emphasis on what is absolute, on, not the hatred, but the deplorability of partial­ity. The friend must never provide for infirmity in his friend, but must treat him as a god—thus both are deified. Such, at least, is the Emersonian promise. But as my last two posts have noted, and others before them, Emerson sees that our world is not absolute, but partial. Society intermingles with individuality, infirmity with firmity, conformity with self-reliance, convention with justice. We might summarize an Emersonian formula: the absolute provides a firm response to the skeptic—if only we could grasp the absolute!

Yesterday I had an experience that served as a proof of concept, or at least an exemplification of the difficulties to be faced in the struggle against partiality. I met, in person for the first time, a person I have communicated with online for some time. Both of us would, I think, consent to being called Emersonians, if by that is meant a commitment to intensely personal creative misreadings of Emerson. We talked for roughly an hour and a half, covering a motley array of topics close to each of us. It was among the best conversations I can remember, and I would with great confidence call my interlocutor a friend.

Yet this conversation also served to make apparent the truth in Emerson’s insistence on the ineluctability of partiality. For even in this discussion among two Emersonians, I saw how we engaged in bits of social jockeying. I know I said things that downplayed those aspects of myself that are least “sophisticated” (at least in my mind), and I felt, at times, the same intent behind his words. For he would say something bold and worth saying, and then step back to correct, in advance, a misunderstanding—a misunderstanding to which I had not succumbed, but to which he could not trust me not to succumb. What is this but providing for infirmity? I can certainly say that this conversation had less of that than most, but even the slightest amount is enough to destroy absoluteness and guarantee partiality.

One topic we discussed was the importance of writing, the disappointments of meeting in person someone we know only by writing. For in writing you can simply write the society out of it. In reading the writing of another, you can have an encounter that occurs in solitude—a friendship without society, in short. But in meeting the person, society will not be kept out. Even in the best circumstances, conversation is partial. Even there, society intervenes.