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.