An entire interpretation of Emerson, more satisfactory perhaps than any yet written, could be developed by taking Emerson’s essay on Montaigne as its center, radiating outward to see each of Emerson’s major essays and books as a partial response to some skepticism or another, a response that sees to it “that justice shall be done to [skepticism’s] terrors.” The thought is appealing that I should one day write this interpretation—but not today. This post is the occupation of but a few idle hours; my envisaged interpretation could only be the product of a much greater indolence.
It is not uncommon to find kind souls interested in saving Emerson from his appearances. If he appears to value egotism and even narcissism, point to his belief in an underlying moral order that is transpersonal. If he appears to glorify talent, note his sharp distinctions between talent and genius. If he seems an irrationalist and lover of contradiction, highlight the oft-neglected “foolish” in that most famous of quotations. And so forth. I am not so sure of this endeavor: it seems to me too much a saving of Emerson from himself. Perhaps the appearances are the reality, only a part of it, to be sure, but a reality that should be acknowledged and even admired, rather than diminished. Flight is not very courageous.
With that in mind, I want to laze a while with the talent/genius distinction. It is easy enough to point out that he makes the distinction, for he does so, again and again. It is much more difficult to state what the distinction is, since it varies considerably. The manner in which it varies exemplifies one aspect of Emerson’s skepticism, the skepticism countenanced in his essay on Montaigne. In exploring this, I shall say a few words about why this skepticism belongs to Emerson, and not Montaigne, why the essay would have been more appropriately called “Emerson; or, the skeptic.”
Emerson draws the talent/genius distinction three times in this essay. None matches another. On the opening page, Emerson contrasts the practical man with the philosopher, the prudent with the poetic:
One class has the perception of difference, and is conversant with facts and surfaces; cities and persons; and the bringing certain things to pass;—the men of talent and action. Another class have the perception of identity, and are men of faith and philosophy, men of genius. (690)
This reads purely descriptively—that is, it does not make its motivation immediately apparent. The first hint of this motivation comes quickly, as Emerson launches into a criticism: “Each of these riders drives too fast.” This point he illustrates by showing how neither believes in the other, how the philosopher-poet-genius looks at objects in a way that “beholds the design,” a look that leads him to “presently undervalue the actual object,” how the men of the “animal world” and “practical world” have no time for “metaphysical causes,” how “hot life” washes away all such speculations. Of course I can only note my own reactions, but they tell me that in this conflict the man of talent comes out looking better than the man of genius, even granting that both appear as incomplete and unsatisfactory. Better hot life than pallid gaze. Better action than perception.
Only later does the motivation become fully apparent, however, when, into this antagonism between “the abstractionist and the materialist” there enters “a third party to occupy the middle ground between these two, the skeptic, namely.” (693) The distinction is made in order to set up the entrance of the skeptic, in order to make his appearance seem necessary. It is a distinction drawn in a skeptical mood, a mood that believes in neither talent nor genius, a mood that examines both and finds both wanting, the talented, imprudent, the genius, disproportionate. But we cannot rest here:
Shall we say that Montaigne has spoken wisely, and given the right and permanent expression of the human mind, on the conduct of life? (701)
This is a question, and we cannot presuppose an answer. Up until now Emerson has been recounting the skeptical position, but from the standpoint of an outsider. Emerson has explained the view, and his attraction to Montaigne, but I am reading Emerson, not Montaigne. I want what Emerson knows, not what Montaigne knows. A summary has no intrinsic value. The question is a relief, then: it signals that finally we shall see Emerson.
Relief is short-lived. Emerson launches into a response to skepticism that is more dismissal than response: “We are natural believers” (701), it begins, and gets no more convincing from there. In the midst of this there is a second talent/genius distinction. Our belief in truth is the belief in an order to the world, a moral tie between events. “Seen or unseen, we believe the tie exists. Talent makes counterfeit ties; genius finds the real ones.” (701) Here, the mood underlying the distinction is made more readily apparent: it is a conservative mood, one that likes institutions and distrusts reform. And even as Emerson details it, he increasingly distances himself from it, until he comes to admit that, however much it pulls us, “the skeptical class… have reason, and every man, at some time, belongs to it.” (702) We have, then, an oscillation of mood, each of which defines genius and talent differently.
After recognizing the failure of this first attempt to dispel the threat of skepticism, Emerson tries again, insisting that he shall this time do justice to his target. “I shall not take Sunday objections, made up on purpose to be put down. I shall take the worst I can find, whether I can dispose of them, or they of me.” (703) But the skepticism that reappears is not the same as before. What came before was, perhaps, partially at least, Montaigne’s skepticism. What follows is Emerson’s skepticism, in three guises, each recognizable in other essays by Emerson. In its first guise, it is “the levity of intellect”, the genius that mocks earnestness, action, the “gymnastics of talent.” (703) This is the talent/genius distinction of a new skeptical mood, and it again does not line up with the first distinction, nor, of course, the second.
In its second guise, Emerson’s skepticism is that of moods—most especially the fact that moods do not believe in one another. “There is the power of moods, each setting at nought all its own tissue of facts and beliefs.” (704) This leads to the sly suspicion that “the opinions of a man on right and wrong, on fate and causation, [are] at the mercy of a broken sleep or an indigestion[.]” (704) And we can see the genius/talent distinction, as it appears in this essay, as an exemplification of this: one’s opinion of the difference between genius and talent, as well as their value, seems to turn on one’s mood.
In its third guise, skepticism lies in the ubiquity of illusions. To examine this third, deepest form of skepticism is beyond me here, and I only offer some advice to the reader: ask yourself whether Emerson’s response to this skeptical objection—decidedly not a “Sunday objection”—amounts to more than a “Sunday response,” and remember the right of every person “to insist on being convinced in his own way.” (706) Nor can I help but note that Emerson’s book The Conduct of Life ends with a chapter called “Illusions”, given that Emerson’s exploration of the question whether “Montaigne has spoken wisely […] on the conduct of life” (701, emphasis added) sees the sharpest skeptical challenge as lying in illusions. But I am straying from my path…
To return: as it appears in this essay, the talent/genius distinction appears three times, each time affixed to a particular mood—twice to (distinct) skeptical moods, once to a conservative mood. The first skeptical mood is not Emerson’s; nor is the conservative mood. The second skeptical mood is Emerson’s, but Emerson exists in antagonism with it; he does not sit comfortably with it. To fully grasp Emerson’s relation to this mood would require writing the book I decided not to write today, would require understanding the struggle with skepticism that lies beneath all of Emerson’s profoundest work. It is enough to note now that even in this mood that Emerson owns, his distinction between talent and genius does not receive full assent.
The talent/genius distinction, then, cannot so easily be taken a fundamental doctrine in Emerson. There is no one distinction to be made, there are many, and they exist in an unstable relationship. No one claims finality, no one forever vanquishes the other. Each is attached to a mood, and moods rotate, and do not believe in one another. Each distinction is quite sharp, clear enough in itself, but overlay them all and what results is all fuzz and obscurity—and in any case it is not clear that genius always comes out on top. A defense of Emerson that fixes him—is that a help? A fortress that defends him from intrusion also prevents him from extrusion. Does he not admire Montaigne, who,
In the civil wars of the League, which converted every house into a fort, […] kept his gates open, and his house without a defence. All parties freely came and went, his courage and honor being universally esteemed. (698)
I was unable to write this immediately after reading Emerson’s essay on Swedenborg—thus I am writing it with the benefit of a couple weeks’ forgetting. As such, for better or for worse, this post shall be somewhat cursory.
Emerson, to a great extent, learned from Swedenborg his idealism. Swedenborg saw the natural world as of secondary reality, as symbolically indicating the theological world. Thus “a horse signifies carnal understanding; a tree, perception; the moon, faith; a cat means this; an ostrich, that; an artichoke, the other…” (676) Emerson, too, adopts an idealistic view in which natural facts are symbolic for spiritual truths—I’ve discussed Emerson’s idealism here and here. However, while he has learned from Swedenborg on this point, he offers a major criticism: “The slippery Proteus is not so easily caught.” (676)
In other words, Swedenborg was wrong to affix to each symbol a single meaning. “In nature, each individual symbol plays innumerable parts, as each particle of matter circulates in turn through every system.” (676) Symbols are not so fixed as Swedenborg believed. Nature opposes every attempt to be so limited. To borrow a familiar Emersonian term, any particular use of a symbol is partial. None exhausts a symbol’s richness.
This critique I see as having two facets. The critique itself serves a defensive function, but in so doing it raises a problem that requires a countermovement. First, the defensive function. Emerson uses this criticism as a defense against conformity. A symbol seen as fixed demands conformity: it is right; therefore it must be followed. Emerson is constantly on alert for the threat of such conformity, and urges, “these books should be used with caution.” (682) Caution is required because we are apt to misplace their truth, to see it in the particular symbol used. Rather, we should look for the truth in the particular movement of the symbol—arrest this movement and the value is lost. “True in transition, they become false if fixed.” (682) Emerson makes a striking recommendation for using “these books” safely: “Any other symbol would be as good: then this is safely seen.” (682)
This advice is stated as an extreme: the particular symbol used is totally arbitrary, any other may be used, would be just as good. There is good reason for this: it shuts off all possibility of conformity. At the same time, however, it introduces a danger. This danger is not hidden: it is the danger that everything symbolic is arbitrary, that Emerson’s idealism amounts to aimless spinning, the haphazard substitution of haphazard symbols, an empty game. I confess that Emerson does not raise this problem explicitly, and hence does not respond to it explicitly—nonetheless I see the hint of a response in the essay. I make no pledge of faithfulness, of not overreading.
In the midst of his critique of Swedenborg, Emerson makes a curious claim: “the dictionary of symbols is yet to be written.” (676) The choice of image, a dictionary, is what interests me, for a dictionary is perhaps the least arbitrary book there is, a book where, at every point, not just any word would do, where the utmost of precision and fixity is required. It is clear from Emerson’s critique that any actual book claiming to be this dictionary will end up like Swedenborg’s: fixed and dead. The dictionary will always be “yet to be written.” Nonetheless, Emerson sets it up as an ideal, and that I find telling.
A dictionary—I mean an actual—is a fixed point in the flux of language use, capturing the use at a particular time. Eventually, so long as a language remains alive, every dictionary becomes obsolete. Nonetheless, in capturing a particular moment, it is held to the highest standards of rigor and accuracy. Emerson is more interested in the flux of symbol use than in its dictionary, but the very idea of a dictionary of symbols—however hazardous to that flux—indicates that, within that flux, the appearance of particular symbols at particular places is not arbitrary. It will then be a process of discovery more than of invention to deploy a symbol, to find the right symbol.
That thought, that there is something more like discovery than invention at play in creative genius, seems to me a key to Emerson’s thought. But I have gone as far as I can go with my memory of the essay that brought me to this thought, and so I end.
[After reading “Plato; or, the Philosopher” in Representative Men]
“If the tongue had not been framed for articulation, man would still be a beast in the forest.” (636)
Emerson is content with any dogma, so long as he may subvert it to his own ends. Let it be language that distinguishes humanity from the animals, as long tradition would have it—let it be so, but now let us look more closely at what this power of language is. You would treat it as something new, something finished, something higher than the animal, as the divine half of such mixed creatures as ourselves. Emerson is content to leave us creatures, only modified.
The phenomenon with which Emerson begins, is this: articulation seems to replace violence. When two individuals find themselves unable to communicate, they fight, and are opposed; once they have figured out how to voice their meanings, they desist. “As soon as they can speak and tell their want, and the reason of it, they become gentle.” (636) It is a trite thought, that language allows us to resolve disputes verbally that might otherwise bring us to use force, but this thought is not a resting place—rather a springboard.
“The progress is to accuracy, to skill, to truth, from blind force.” (637)
“Blind force” is the crucial phrase, here. What is human is accuracy, and skill, and truth; what is animal is blind force. We have encountered this distinction, in different garb, before. The tendency of every individual to grow and exclude—this is blind force, a striving intrinsic to life, even when life is unconscious of any such force. Yet Emerson calls this ‘genius’—so genius is something animal, at one of its poles.
In society, such genius is tempered, but in two ways. On the one side it is tempered by etiquette and conformity, by the relaxation of oneself for the sake of others. This may be out of genuine moral concern, or mere cowardice—the distinction is of little import right now. On the other side it is tempered by the other pole of genius, that which seeks to defend us from itself. This marks the transition from blind force to accuracy, skill, and truth. Here is the human side of genius, not something over and above the animal, but a modification thereof, a somewhat different way of exerting one’s force. It takes on a certain sort of sociality.
There is, then, not a sharp split, in Emerson, between the human and the animal. And this is brought home by the fact that the human pole of genius is only ever imperfectly realized. We still need defenses from one another. Every friendship is partial, lasting only for a brief period of agreement, before we again become odious to one another. And so on. Each of these themes in Emerson brings home the point: that we are imperfectly human, that there are times where the only way to avoid conflict is to opt for the first method of tempering blind force—that, in such cases, it may, one suspects, be better to be animal.
The knock on Walter Kaufmann, who is generally given credit for rescuing Nietzsche’s reputation from the Nazis, is that in carrying out this rescue operation he to too great an extent sanitized Nietzsche, made him safe. Perhaps this was once necessary, but in the end the harsher aspects of Nietzsche must be recovered. It seems to me that the same might be said of readers of and writers on Emerson. It is worth asking, in reading secondary literature on Emerson, to what extent the author smoothes over Emerson’s rough edges.
This way of thinking about the literature on Emerson occurred to me while reading Lawrence Buell’s Emerson. Buell, in his discussion of Emerson’s twin lineages—American pragmatism, and Nietzsche—notes that James made Emerson safe in a way that Nietzsche did not. “The point is not that James was a company-man pedant, for he most certainly was not, but that even Emersonian wickedness was safely canonical and therefore somewhat anodyne for him as it was not for Nietzsche.” (239) This is not the first bit of inspiration I have received from Buell’s mostly quite good book. But despite owing Buell thanks for showing me this tool, I nevertheless feel compelled to turn it on him.
One of Buell’s concerns in the book is to show how, for Emerson, self-reliance is not egotism, for the self on which one is reliant is always something transpersonal, even impersonal. It is true that Emerson speaks this way, and I myself have, in the past, taken this as comfort in my reading of Emerson. But now I suspect that this way of reading Emerson is too easy and too convenient, and not faithful to Emerson himself. In one of the locations at which Buell discusses this aspect of Emerson, he picks up on what Emerson says in “Self-Reliance”: “To believe that what is true for you in your own private heart is true for all men,—that is genius” (quoted in Buell, 236). (This quote is the one of which I was thinking when I wrote, yesterday, of “Emerson’s insistence that genius is the universalization of one’s own individuality.”) Buell comments that this shows “that the basis of the trust is that the inmost must be some sort of universal. Truth must be generated as personal experience, but personal experience can count as truth only insofar as it carries transpersonal, exemplary force.” (237)
This reading of Emerson is comforting, at least for those who stick by Emerson, because it mitigates his apparently extreme individualism, his advocacy of self-reliance even when one finds that one is “the devil’s child”. But I think Buell is putting too much hope in this purported “transpersonal, exemplary force” of the individual’s private truth—more hope than Emerson placed in it. (In what follows, I will presuppose familiarity with the themes of the short essay “Two poles of genius” that I wrote yesterday.)
Buell picks up on Emerson’s reversal of Kant to the extent that he grants that, for Emerson, “truth must be generated as personal experience,” whereas Kant’s tests of the universalizability of a maxim do not make any such detour through personal experience. That much, in Buell, is right. But it is not enough. It ascribes to Emerson the belief that what is arrived at through personal experience will be something universal, thus acceptable to all. I do not think Emerson had any such hope. In “Uses of Great Men”, the universalizing tendency of genius appears in animal guise: “every individual strives to grow and exclude, and to exclude and grow, to the extremities of the universe, and to impose the law of its being on every other creature.” (628) [I wonder, by the by, whether this passage might not be a precursor to Nietzsche’s views on will to power.] Here, the universalization of genius does not proceed in a safe, friendly manner—it is an act of aggression, of violence, from which others have to protect themselves.
Where Buell takes Emerson’s insistence on the transpersonal to provide a way of evading the charge of egotism, of promoting reliance on oneself even at the expense of others, it seems to me that Emerson was well aware that his doctrine of self-reliance had precisely the implication that it will bring individuals into conflict, that any agreement between individuals will be partial and temporary (cf. his essays on “Love” and “Friendship”), that individuals need defenses from others. Buell is making Emerson safe.
Every attempt to fix a single view onto Emerson eventually comes to ruin. I have long felt the vibrations, as it rattled about my brain, of Emerson’s insistence that genius is the universalization of one’s own individuality, the taking of what is honest to oneself as what is honest for all. Of course this was not all Emerson said about genius, but it seemed the center around which Emerson’s views of genius were organized. It stood unopposed.
It stands opposed. Emerson writes, in the opening essay of Representative Men: “But true genius seeks to defend us from itself.” (623) It is only “vulgar talent” that wishes “to dazzle and to bind the beholder.” Now it seems that genius—always Emerson’s antithesis to talent—is not the imposition, at least in thought, of one’s own mind on all minds, but rather the defense of all other minds from just this imposition. I should have expected this moment of conflict, more than I did.
The first pole of genius is a perversion of Kant’s injunction to will only what can be willed as a universal maxim. Emerson twists it around: universalize what you will. But Emerson does not mean for petty egotism to run rampant. That genius should universalize what one wills is a test. Not the same as Kant’s test, but nonetheless not a test that all I desire will pass. There is a perpetual theme, in Emerson, that self-reliance should be something impersonal, that in it individuality should disappear. The individual disappears as Kant as well, but in a different way. Emerson reverses the directionality of Kant’s categorical imperative: rather than moving from what can be willed universally to what I myself shall will, the move is from what I will to the universal. Genius expands outward.
Yet such outward expansion is dangerous, for others, at least. Even if my genius’ belief in such universalization is genuine, should others follow me in this way, what results is mere conformity, and not more genius. For another to accept what I will is for them to go through my person and not their own—thus to give up self-reliance. Should genius get its way, should its expansion succeed, it would be to the detriment of genius. Thus the need for the second pole of genius, in which genius defends others from itself.
Genius is in conflict with itself, expanding outward even as it attempts to defend others from its expansion. Emerson’s writing lives out this conflict, defending a philosophy of self-reliance even while undercutting every attempt to pin this philosophy down to a single formulation. In this way, Emerson defends his readers from himself. Yet I take Emerson to have been aware that these defenses are insufficient on their own. He writes:
For nature wishes every thing to remain itself; and, whilst every individual strives to grow and exclude, and to exclude and grow, to the extremities of the universe, and to impose the law of its being on every other creature, Nature steadily aims to protect each against every other. Each is self-defended. Nothing is more marked than the power by which individuals are guarded from individuals… (628)
The first visage of genius here appears, though it is not called by name. Against it, each individual has defenses. A vision of life emerges: it is the clash of genius with genius, my genius with yours, and my genius with my own. Such is the peril of life.