Is Emerson safe to handle?
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.