Home > Emerson R. W., Philosophy > Is Emerson safe to handle?

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.

  1. 2014/05/07 at 16:11

    Yea, I think Emerson as he matured and in such works of essays as The Conduct of Life produced this sense of defense you speak of. Of course his whole life was based on the way ‘from’ man rather than on man. So he didn’t have a great deal of sympathy for crowds or groups or sociality. For him Solitude was King… I mean think of his war with that great neo-reactionary Thomas Carlyle. No love lost there. Emerson could be cantankerous if needed. Much like Twain he had this kind of persnickety and ironic stance if not the bitter humor of the old Mississippian.

    • 2014/05/07 at 16:25

      What do you mean by his “war” with Carlyle? I’ve never read any Carlyle, so I really only know of his relationship with Carlyle through secondary literature of various sorts (I haven’t registered any of Emerson’s explicit reactions to Carlyle in memory), but there I’ve always seen it portrayed as Emerson admiring Carlyle, even if he was, in the end, quite different from Carlyle.

  2. 2014/05/07 at 17:43

    Ah, their meeting in 1847 documented by many biographers. I finally found the story online rather than typing the whole thing out:


    Emerson received a forwarded letter from Carlyle demanding that he come to London at his first convenience. On the 25th, taking up the invitation, he travelled to London via Manchester. At ten o’clock that night, Carlyle, and his wife Jane, received a knock on their door at 5 Cheyne Row, Chelsea. Emerson had just stepped out of the cab from Euston Station. Their initial meeting in 1847, however, did not go well and exposed major disagreements.

    Carlyle had been rushing to finish an article on some unpublished letters of Oliver Cromwell to send to Fraser’s Magazine before Emerson arrived. The following morning they walked two miles north to Hyde Park, then via Buckingham Palace, St James’s Palace, and the Mall to Trafalgar Square, where a column bearing Admiral Nelson’s statue had recently been installed. Behind it lay another massive addition to the London cityscape, which had appeared in the interval since Emerson’s last visit: the new building into which the National Gallery had relocated in 1838. They visited the collection. Leaving, they turned left past St Martin-in-the-Fields and came into The Strand. They went into the bookshop of John Chapman, Emerson’s London publisher, at number 142. It was in this building that Emerson would reside during the spring and summer of 1848.

    Emerson recorded his observations of Carlyle over the day in his journals and letters, taking particular notice of his intensity, frustration, and gloominess. He had a strong, virulent ‘religious tinge . . . coupled . . . with the utmost impatience of Christendom & Jewdom. . . . He talks like a very unhappy man, profoundly solitary, displeased & hindered by all men & things about him, & plainly biding his time, & meditating how to undermine & explode the whole world of nonsense which torments him.’ The Carlyles began to resent Emerson’s presence nearly immediately. On the 28th Jane Carlyle wrote a backbiting letter while Emerson was still in the house to her aristocratic friend, Lady Harriet Baring. The letter is so good, below is a full transcription:

    …So far, all has gone better than you predicted; they do not hate one another yet; C still calls Emerson ‘a most polite and gentle creature! a man of really quite Sepharic nature! tho’ on certain sides of him overlaid with mad rubbish’ And Emerson still (in confidence to me) calls C ‘a good Child(!) in spite of all his deification of the Positive, the Practical – most astonishing for those who had first made acquaintance with him in his Books.’!

    Polite and Gentle, this Emerson certainly is; he avoids with a laudable tact, all occasions of dispute, and when dragged into it, by the hair of his head, (morally speaking) he gives under the most provoking contradictions, with the softness of a feather-bed.

    For the rest; I hardly know what to think of him, or whether I like him or not. The man has two faces to begin with which are continually changing into one another like ‘dissolving views,’ the one young, refined, almost beautiful, radiant with – what shall I say? – ‘virtue its own reward’! the other decidedly old, hatchet-like, crotchety, inconclusive – like an incarnation of one of his own poems! In his speech he is not dogmatical the least in the world, nor anything like so fantastical as his letters give one to suppose; in fact, except for a few phrases consisting chiefly of odd applications, of the words ‘beauty’ and ‘child’; he speaks simply and clearly, but without any eloquence or warmth – What I should say he failed in is what the Yorkshire wool-cleaner called ‘natur’ – He is genial, but it seems to be with his head rather than his heart – a sort of theoretic geniality that (as Mazzini would say) ‘leaves me cold.’ He is perhaps the most elevated man I ever saw – but it is the elevation of a reed – run all to hight without taking breadth along with it. You will not I think dislike him as you expected, but neither will you like him – He is to breakfast with Rogers tomorrow morning under the escort of Mrs Bancroft, and goes to Liverpool I believe tomorrow night, to lecture ‘all about.’ When he returns to London, as a Lecturer, I fancy he will go into Lodgings –

    I am sure C. Is disappointed, thinks him, if he would ‘tell the truth, and shame the Devil’ a man of no sort of significance – but he is still under the restraining grace of Hospitality, and of a certain regard to consistency: besides he has had no opportunity of unbosoming himself to me on the subject, as we have literally not been five minutes alone together since Emerson arrived: he (Emerson) sits up after me at nights and is down before me in the mornings, till I begin to feel as if I had got the measles or some such thing…. Ever most truly / Yours / Jane Carlyle… / Please burn the letter

    At some point during the visit a dispute erupted. Emerson did not share Carlyle’s understanding of Oliver Cromwell, the puritan dictator and subject of his recent work, as the great hero of the seventeenth century. He wrote home that when he discussed his inability to appreciate Cromwell in the same way Carlyle, in response, turned ‘quite fiercely’ upon him. One version of the story, recorded by George Searle Phillips, who came to know Emerson later in the year, reads: ‘he [Carlyle] rose like a great Norse giant from his chair — and, drawing a line with his finger across the table, said, with terrible fierceness, “Then sir, there is a line of separation between you and me as wide as that, and as deep as the pit!”’

    The Carlyle-Emerson friendship was never the same after this visit. Carlyle summed up his impressions of Emerson in his letters. He was ‘a rather thinner man than was expected.’ Speaking of his coming lectures in the North, Carlyle predicted failure. Emerson’s messages were ‘too airy and thin for the solid practical heads of the Lancashire region.’ Carlyle’s prediction was that Emerson would turn over no soil and have no impact in England — ‘by none such was the Thames ever burnt!’ He had come, Carlyle opined, with a ‘rake rather than a shovel.’ He wrote that Emerson was far less talented than anticipated, and finally concluded that, ‘Friends, it is clear, we can never in this world, to any real purpose, be.

  3. 2014/05/07 at 17:53

    So yea, I was a little hyperbolic in using ‘war’… more of an emphasis. But they continued to correspond till Carlyle died, but no longer after this meeting with the former gusto!

    • 2014/05/07 at 19:05

      Thanks for the link—quite interesting. On the one hand I feel like it would be very useful to know more about the sources of their conflict and what it says about their respective philosophies, but on the other that would require reading Carlyle and nothing I’ve seen has ever suggested that would be a worthwhile way of spending my time, beyond the insight it might offer into Emerson.

    • 2014/05/07 at 19:20

      Yet, one has to admit, Emerson did see something in Carlyle worth his time and effort for a lifetime… so sometimes, even for someone on the Left, it might behoove you to wander over into the ultra-conservative or reactionary world just to see what lays there.

      I, too, wondered why Emerson felt it necessary to correspond with Carlyle for a lifetime… but one can read the full letters from them and see why.

      Not sure if you’ve read the Correspondence between Emerson and Carlyle? – a book in itself…

    • 2014/05/07 at 20:02

      I have not read that correspondence yet. It will happen one day, to be sure.

  4. 2014/05/07 at 23:15

    Not to get too far away from Emerson, but my personal knock on Kaufmann has been that his translations are not all that good of Nietzsche the writer–though that may just be my long way around coming to the same conclusion about what the knock really is.

    • 2014/05/07 at 23:28

      My German is not nearly good enough, and I have not studied Kaufmann’s translations much (a lot of my initial Nietzsche reading was through him, but most of the editions I currently have are by others) to be sure of this, but I imagine that Kaufmann’s sanitization of Nietzsche showed through in his writing. As a general rule, I try to use the Cambridge editions of Nietzsche—so far I’ve found them reasonably good.

      That said, when I read Nietzsche in German (always a very slow, halting process), I always find it more rewarding—once I pin down the sentences—than any English translations I’ve encountered. Something always goes missing.

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