Two poles of genius
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.