A moody distinction
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)