Emerson’s English Traits is a much different work from his essays, and I have not yet learned to read it. I cannot, then, go over the movements of its thought as I would like. Instead, I will take a single passage, in which Emerson invokes a conception of Fate, and use it to make two points about Emerson’s general method. Here is the passage:
In the barbarous days of a nation, some cultus is formed or imported; altars are built, tithes are paid, priests ordained. The education and expenditure of the country take that direction, and when wealth, refinement, great men, and ties to the world, supervene, its prudent men say, why fight against Fate, or lift these absurdities which are now mountainous? Better find some niche or crevice in this mountain of stone which religious ages have quarried and carved, wherein to bestow yourself, than attempt any thing ridiculously and dangerously above your strength, like removing it. (883)
Fate is encrusted custom, and admits of two responses. You may “find some niche or crevice… wherein to bestow yourself,” or you may “attempt any thing ridiculously and dangerously above your strength, like removing it.” Emerson takes for granted the absurdity of the custom, and perhaps there are semi-narcissistic grounds to think all customs absurd, since, after all, I do not choose them; rather they are thrust upon me. Custom is geological, formed over eons by the accumulating actions of small forces, until it forms the fixed landscape we see today.
This is Fate, and by giving it is this name Emerson indicates the more usual response. Fate is precisely fatalistic—whatever one does, the outcome remains the same. Why fight against what will survive all such struggles? Obviously it is better to accommodate yourself, to carve out a small space of your own. Moreover, because Emerson sees the habits of an individual as a sort of custom, the view might be extended: I have acted this way in the past, therefore I must keep acting this way, and work around it.
It is the name that gives it away, however. It is not because this is Fate that one is better off accommodating oneself than resisting. It is because one has chosen to accommodate oneself that one calls it Fate—and so casts resistance as effete. It is a conservative and slothful mind that calls custom Fate, and a more vigorous, liberal mind would find a new name.
Below the surface, by connecting the name so closely to the response, Emerson removes Fate as an active power in the world, and places it in the human mind, as an aspect of a particular way of viewing the world. This is the first aspect of Emerson’s method I wished to highlight. It is one form taken by Emerson’s idealism.
In bringing this aspect to light, I introduced one of Emerson’s favorite dualisms, though one that does not occur in the passage cited: that between liberals and conservatives, or between democrats and aristocrats—so far as I can tell, Emerson uses the two sets of names relatively interchangeably. Since Emerson is often seen as an origin point for American pragmatism—that philosophy characterized by Dewey’s disgust with a “whole brood and nest of dualisms”—it is worth thinking about Emerson’s response to dualisms. His relation to the transcendence of dualisms is distinct from that of the pragmatists.
There is a longing for transcendence in Emerson. It comes out especially strongly at the end of the essay on Napoleon. Emerson has reduced democrat and aristocrat alike to believers in property: “both parties stand on the one ground of the supreme value of property, which one endeavors to get, and the other to keep.” (744) Thus “the aristocrat is the democrat ripe, and gone to seed”—in other words, the democrat who has won property, and doesn’t want it taken away by the new crop of democrats. Both are believers in property; only they find themselves on different sides of it. As the essay ends, Emerson voices a longing to transcend this love of property:
As long as our civilization is essentially one of property, of fences, of exclusiveness, it will be mocked by delusions. Our riches will leave us sick; there will be bitterness in our laughter; and our wine will burn our mouth. Only that good profits, which we can taste with all doors open, and which serves all men. (745)
One might read Emerson here as advocating a property-less society. I do not believe Emerson has this in mind, at least not as a practical reform. So long as there is a state in which some may eat well with time for luxury left over, while others make slaves of themselves just to eat, there will be property, and its two sides. This and other dualisms persist because—if I may—there is something fatalistic about them.
Why, then, the longing for transcendence? The situation, as Emerson finds it, is this: we are caught between dualisms, and forced to choose a side. Yet each side is partial. Neither stands completely for the true, the good. No matter one’s choice, one forgoes, to some extent, what is right. Thus the longing for transcendence, for the third option that finally promises completeness. This longing is healthy—to a point. Emerson describes, in “The Transcendentalist”, the idealist who decries this partiality:
Your virtuous projects, so called, do not cheer me. I know that which shall come will cheer me. If I cannot work, at least I need not lie. All that is clearly due today-day is not to lie. The martyrs were sawn asunder, or hung alive on meat-hooks. Cannot we screw our courage to patience and truth, and without complaint, or even with good-humor, await our turn of action in the Infinite Counsels? (204-5)
This character, the transcendentalist, waits.
‘Then,’ says the world, ‘show me your own.’
‘We have none.’
‘What will you do, then?’ cries the world.
‘We will wait.’
‘Until the Universe rises up and calls us to work.’
‘But whilst you wait, you grow old and useless.’
‘Be it so…’ (204)
The transcendentalist, the one who waits for, for instance, property to be transcended, waits indefinitely, and probably perpetually. The one who waits to act until a complete, impartial action remains, waits forever, and never acts. This is contrasted with “the man of the world” (recall the subtitle of the Napoleon essay) who believes in property, and acts. Indeed, the longing to overcome one dualism—that of democrat and aristocrat—has set us down in another: between the transcendentalist and the man of the world. Again, both choices are partial. The one is virtuous for refusing to lie, for refusing partiality, but is vicious for being effete, for being unable to act, for waiting and waiting only. The other is virtuous for being able to act, but only because of belief in miserable property, only because he embraces partiality.
This is the second aspect of Emerson’s method, the leaping from dualism to dualism, leaving them always untranscended (however much he longs to transcend them). As I understand them, the pragmatists believed they had found a way to transcend dualisms of this sort (if not these particular ones I have discussed). In this respect, Emerson was no pragmatist.
I. Thalatta! Thalatta! (5)
Seawater lingers in the mind of Stephen Dedalus. With him it is a sort of death, bringer of death and home of death.
Stephen begins his day trapped, as ever, between England and the Roman Catholic Church—appearing first in their homely guises of Haines and Buck Mulligan. It is Mulligan who first invokes the sea:
God, he said quietly. Isn’t the sea what Algy calls it: a grey sweet mother? The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtighening sea. Epi oinopa ponton. Ah Dedalus, the Greeks. I must teach you. You must read them in the original. Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother. Come and look. (5, Modern Library hardcover)
These words of Mulligan’s persist, as when Stephen, walking on Sandymount Strand, cannot but see the sea as “snotgreen.” (37) This sea is associated with Stephen’s exile. Buck Mulligan becomes the usurper who evicts (in Stephen’s mind) Stephen from his home, by taking his key. This after a long string of explicit and subtle torment, as for instance (a minor instance) when Mulligan refers to England as a “country full of rotten teeth and rotten guts. (14, cf. 50) When, at the end of Telemachus, Stephen sees Mulligan’s “sleek brown head, a seal’s, far out on the water, round,” it is a sign that the sea is a hostile place for Stephen.
Later, for instance, as he walks by the water, he begins to be sucked into the muck of sand. As his feet are slowly engulfed, his thoughts return home: “He has the key. I will not sleep there when this night comes. A shut door of a silent tower entombing their blind bodies, the panthersahib and his pointer.” (44) The sand embodies physically what his mind is imposing mentally, the sense of being trapped.
The sea is the home of corpses. Quite literally it is the new home of the drowned man who is fished up a short time later, a “bag of corpsegas sopping in foul brine.” (50) But even more it is the home of Stephen’s corpse. Mulligan calls Stephen a “poor dogsbody” (6)—one who does odd jobs. But—lest anyone think that when Stephen “lifted his feet up from the suck,” he was escaping the trap of Mulligan and Haines (44)—Stephen immediately comes across an actual dog’s body, “a bloated carcass of a dog.” Stephen makes the connection explicit, in his thoughts: “Ah, poor dogsbody. Here lies poor dogsbody’s body.” (46)
All of this is established by the operations of Stephen’s mind: the connections he makes between the sea and his own sense of exile make the sea itself the harbinger of that exile, or the locus of it. It is death to him.
II. The dead sea (61, 72)
Putting myself at risk of placing the predicate before the middle term, and so ruining the syllogism, I turn next to Poldy, who also lingers, mentally and physically, by the seaside. Bloom is of a much more even keel than Stephen.
It does not seem so at first. Bloom first thinks of the sea in what is one of his darkest moments of the day. A cloud covers the sun, and the world is, for a moment, gray. Bloom’s thoughts:
No, not like that. A barren land, bare waste. Vulcanic lake, the dead sea: no first, weedless, sunk deep in the earth. no wind would lift those waves, grey metal, poisonous foggy waters. Brimstone they called it raining down: the cities of the plain: Sodom, Gomorrah, Edom. All dead names. A dead sea in a dead land, grey and old. Old now. It bore the oldest, the first race. A bent hag crossed from Cassidy’s clutching a noggin bottle by the neck. The oldest people. Wandered far away over all the earth, captivity to captivity, multiplying, dying, being born everywhere. It lay there now. Now it could bear no more. Dead: an old woman’s: the grey sunken cunt of the world. (61)
Characteristically of Bloom, however, this does not last. Of course, as I looked at earlier today, Bloom’s mood recovers with the thought of returning to his wife. But even beyond that, the image of the dead sea is made innocuous. As Bloom goes to the chemist’s to pick up a concoction for his wife’s skin, Bloom recalls a picture he saw:
Where was the chap I saw in that picture somewhere? Ah, in the dead sea, floating on his back, reading a book with a parasol open. Couldn’t sink if you tried: so thick with salt. Because the weight of the water, no, the weight of the body in the water is equal to the weight of the. Or is it the volume is equal of the weight? It’s a law something like that. (72)
Here the dead sea is a curiosity, a strange region of the earth that offers a certain amusement to tourists: the sea where you cannot sink. It provides as well an opportunity for Bloom to stretch his brain on a math/science problem, though he does not fair well. No hint remains of the apocalyptic vision of before. It is characteristic of Bloom’s relative tranquility of mind that he quickly stabilizes after disturbances, and here is no exception. Perhaps there is a causal connection between the two events—perhaps the apocalyptic vision prompted, in some fashion, the later recollection of the curiosity—but all the as it were spiritual overtones are vanished and replaced. Bloom’s constitution is robust.
III. the sea the sea (783)
Moving on, then, to my final subject. Here I shall be more circumspect—I cannot read quickly enough to finish Ulysses in a single day, at least not if what I am doing is to deserve the epithet ‘reading’—as the passage I wish to discuss comes from the very end of Ulysses, as Molly Bloom recollects both past lovers and her choice to marry Leopold. Amidst these recollections comes a reprise of Buck Mulligan’s cry, with which I began—Thalatta! Thalatta!—only not in the Greek now, rather in the vernacular.
…O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire… (783)
Molly is caught in a torrent of thought, and here is one ecstasy within it. No longer is the sea a morass of turbid gloom, snotgreen, or a bloater of corpses, saltwhite: it flashes red with the sun. It is not musty and old, but vibrant. Nor is the play of light of the sun like the ominous image created much earlier, in Nestor: “On his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins.” (36) It is euphoric.
There may be reason to doubt this euphoria. As a good friend and perceptive reader commented on my very first post on this blog, there is something ambiguous about it, perhaps even empty. I may be downplaying these ambiguities. (Having not reread Penelope today, it is hard for me to say.) Nonetheless, I cannot help but see this repetition of Mulligan’s cry, with a total opposition of valence, as a culmination of the move of the book from negation and death to affirmation—however ambiguous that affirmation might turn out to be.
IV. A seachange this (50)
For each character, the sea takes on the shape and color that fits their moods and swings of moods. Joyce looks at the sea, not in itself, but only in relation to those who interact with it, both physically and mentally. The sea is a receptacle for Stephen, for Bloom, for Molly. It is ample enough to contain them all.
Thus ends my Bloomsday.
It being Bloomsday, I have set aside the novel that had been occupying my idle hours—D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love—and taken up Ulysses. Fortunate timing, for reading Women in Love was becoming more and more a task and not a pleasure. I do not know if I will return to the book when I complete Ulysses. Since, however, I have found in Ulysses passages that help clarify the grounds of my mistrust of Lawrence, I will take time out of my Bloomsday to excavate publicly these grounds.
A brief biography, to begin. I read and loved Sons and Lovers, and so became eager to read Women in Love. It seemed at first that that novel would equally become a favorite. But somewhere around 200-250 pages into it (about halfway), I began to become skeptical. Continued reading confirmed and deepened that skepticism, and now I have reached the point where I am not sure I was right to have enjoyed Sons and Lovers.
The basic source of the mistrust is Lawrence’s extremism—the value that he places in extreme emotions. There is no bare existence, in a Lawrence novel. Every moment is life or death, hatred or love, suffocation or intoxication. There is no ambivalence, only absolutes. But, someone will say, doesn’t Lawrence capture beautifully those moments in which, say, Gudrun Brangwen is torn, having heard Gerald Crich say just what she wanted to hear, yet nonetheless unable to go fully along with it? Yes, but this is a false ambivalence—it is two absolutes, two extremes, coexisting unstably.
This, it seems to me, is a myth. The mythical quality of Lawrence’s world may be expressed in a dilemma. Imagine for a moment that there is a perfectly real place the events of which Lawrence is attempting to describe accurately. Assume, that is, that Women in Love is a history rather than a novel. This history may be accurate, or it may be inaccurate. If accurate, it is a myth, because it leaves out the everyday, that general blankness in which the vast majority of human life is spent. The characters rocket from extreme to extreme, without passing through the middle: natura facit saltus. There is no everyday in this world. If inaccurate, it is still a myth, because it falsifies the everyday. Every slight animosity is not a hatred; every attraction not a love. Every blankness is not a death, nor every displeasure.
In either case, then, Lawrence is perpetuating a myth. The fundamental tenet of the myth states that what is valuable in life is a certain intensity of feeling—even irrespective of the valence of this feeling. I find a poverty in this tenet, and so I mistrust Lawrence. Ulysses offers a valuable alternative.
Both Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom begin their day under the spell of death—Dedalus, the death of his mother, long enough ago that his grief is controlled but still present, yet recent enough that he still dresses in mourning clothes, Bloom, the death of Dignam, a casual acquaintance. Of these two, Stephen comes closer to Lawrencian extremes, whereas Bloom is more even-keeled.
As the novel begins, Buck Mulligan, usurper, is jovially tormenting Stephen Dedalus, who is showing signs of frustration. When Mulligan asks him what it is, Stephen recounts an episode shortly after his mother’s death, in which Buck Mulligan said, “O, its only Dedalus whose mother is beastly dead.” (8) [Page references are to the Modern Library hardcover.] Shortly thereafter, as we glimpse into Stephen’s consciousness, we are treated to the sight of “the gaping wounds which the words had left in his heart.” Yet what causes these wounds is not “the offence to my mother,” but rather, “the offence to me.” (8-9) Stephen’s melodrama here is narcissistic at its base. This recasts his earlier rejection of Mulligan’s offer of a pair of grey trousers on the grounds that they were not mourning colors. The stately seriousness with which Stephen upholds the etiquette of death now seems less a tribute to his mother than a vapid sort of self-love. It is not contemptible, but it bespeaks an emptiness in Stephen’s grief. There is something disingenuous about it.
Bloom, by contrast, is neither extreme nor narcissistic. There is one moment of extremity, when a cloud covers the sun: “Desolation.” (61) Yet this is quickly dispelled by the thought of his wife’s “ample bedwarmed flesh. Yes, yes.” So too in his relation to Dignam. While walking in the street, he runs into Mr. O’Rourke. “Stop and say a word: about the funeral perhaps…” (58) Yet when he speaks, he says nothing about the funeral. Why not? I suspect because it affects him more than he lets on. Even still, Bloom, at the end of the funeral service for Dignam, thinks: “Were those two buttons of my waistcoat open all the time. Women enjoy it.” (83) This sort of vulgarity is characteristic of Bloom: at once sincere and bestial. He treats Dignam’s death with no special gravity, but with honesty. And throughout it all there is a mildness, an averageness, an unremarkableness.
Stephen’s extremes are something of a put on, disguising a lack of substance. They convey a real lack of richness, a proper emptiness. Bloom’s mildness, by contrast, is lacking nothing, for all its constraint within narrow limits of intensity. Of course, it would be wrong to identify Stephen’s extremes with those of Lawrence’s characters. The point is rather that I think the picture Joyce provides, through Stephen, is more reliable than that of Lawrence. I do not believe one can feel perpetually such strong emotions as Lawrence suggests; nor do I think one should want to.
When I first began reading Emerson and Nietzsche, I did not read them well. In particular, I read them as offering me just the sort of extremity that I find in Lawrence. At the time, I had a sense that I was dead, inside, that I could not feel much of anything. I thought Emerson and Nietzsche held the promise of a sort of perpetual ecstasy. This was a myth, my own—the myth of intensified feelings, I called it, for myself. It took me some time to disabuse myself of it.
I mistrust Women in Love because its attractions seem to want to suck me back into this myth I spent such effort overcoming. I even mistrust Sons and Lovers retroactively—I worry that what it appealed to in me was nothing more than the latent remains of this myth.
Addendum: This is not really a proper Bloomsday post; I will have another up sometime later.
Emerson’s essay on Goethe makes for a disappointing conclusion to Representative Men. Though the Swedenborg essay is but ho-hum, the remainder scintillates. The introductory essay and the essays on Plato yield crucial insights into Emerson’s conception of genius. The essays on Montaigne and Napoleon open up the skepticisms at the heart of Emerson’s philosophy. The concept of “waste stock” in the essay on Shakespeare offers profounder insight into how to read Emerson than any other source I know. But the essay on Goethe, the writer, seems to offer little of substance. Perhaps this speaks more to the mood in which I read it than to the essay itself—I am in no position to say. This post, my initial reaction, must reflect my disappointment.
At the end of the essay, Emerson lumps together Napoleon and Goethe as “being both representatives of the impatience and reaction of nature against the morgue of conventions.” (761) If there is a fatal flaw in the essay, it is that the entire essay resides in this morgue, hardly struggling against it. There is no motion of thought, merely a going through the motions. There is no animation, no vitality. There are dead letters only.
The trouble is that Emerson at every term voices consistent Emersonian themes—the selectivity of genius, the inevitability of partiality, the necessity to connect what one reads to one’s own experience—but in a way that lacks connection. What makes Emerson thrilling is the move from one thought to another, the way he refuses to rest on what he has said, but constantly reevaluates it, rephrases it, reconceives it. The ideas are, in a way, the vessels through which Emerson’s thought runs. They give it shape, but what stimulates is the thought and not the container. Here there is only the container, and not the thought.
But Emerson does diagnose his own failings well, though he does not say that is what he is doing. One of the classic Emersonian themes is the dangerous relationship humans have to their pasts: our former actions threaten to make us slaves. (I treated this at some length here.) That recurs in this essay.
Men’s actions are too strong for them. Show me a man who has acted, and who has not been the victim and slave of his action. What they have done commits and enforces them to do the same again. The first act, which was to be an experiment, becomes a sacrament. (749)
So too with this essay. Emerson has, in what came before, laid out his themes. Now he must repeat them. But the experiment is lost, and the essay becomes sacrament, the enforced repetition of his past. Emerson has become a slave to his own thought. “There is no spirit, but repetition, which is anti-spiritual.” (749)
An example will help illustrate this. Many of the essays in Representative Men follow a similar trajectory: first high praise, then a rapid reversal and criticism. There are variations: the Swedenborg essay devotes more space to condemnation than to praise, the Montaigne essay has little condemnation because Montaigne barely finds his way into the essay, and the Napoleon essay has a certain cold distance even in its praise. The purest example of the form is the Shakespeare essay—I examined Emerson’s use of the reversal here. The essay on Goethe, too, contains such a reversal. Within the essay, however, it feels unmotivated. Here is where the reversal occurs:
The old Eternal Genius who built the world has confided himself more to this man than to any other. I dare not say that Goethe ascended to the highest grounds from which genius has spoken. (758)
These two sentences are probably not enough to give the sense fully, but they at least hint at the abruptness of the change, the complete switch from one thought to the next, without any apparent ground. This is perhaps because the only ground is this: I had better not praise him too much. I had better show his partiality—not to do so would be unworthy of my name, that is, my past.
This disjointedness is, funnily enough, one of the grounds on which Emerson criticizes Goethe. Though Goethe is representative of the writer, he is incomplete as the writer. The writer, for Emerson, has really three tasks: to receive facts and experiences, to select among them those that are worthy, and to organize them. Goethe succeeds at the first two, but not at the third.
He is fragmentary; a writer of occasional poems, and of an encyclopædia of sentences. When he sits down to write a drama or a tale, he collects and sorts his observations from a hundred sides, and combines them into the body as fitly as he can. A great deal refuses to incorporate: this he adds loosely, as letters of the parties, leaves from their journals, or the like. A great deal still is left that will not find any place. This the bookbinder alone can give any cohesion to… (760)
I have read but little Goethe, and so can say nothing about the accuracy of the charge. It applies, however, to Emerson’s essay. Emerson has many wise observations—they are the observations he has made elsewhere. But they cannot find a place. They do not sit together, except physically, thanks to the bookbinder. As thoughts, they sit distant, alone, uncommunicating.
Napoleon is, for Emerson, an answer, of sorts, to skeptical doubts. I have noted that these skeptical doubts are left unanswered in Emerson’s essay on Montaigne. Or, to be more precise, they were given answers in that essay, but those answers were patent dogmatisms, and thus plainly unsatisfactory. Does Napoleon’s response fare better?
Perhaps. Emerson makes the point, in the essay on Montaigne, that “some minds are incapable of skepticism.” (706) Skeptical doubts he has just referred to as “diseases of thought”—we may then say that some minds simply do not suffer from these diseases. If that is so, then Napoleon is, for Emerson, just such a healthy individual. “To what heaps of cowardly doubts is not that man’s life an answer.” (739) It is a fact of Napoleon’s constitution that he does not suffer from the “universal imbecility, indecision, and indolence of men.” Napoleon’s lack of skepticism is not a product of reason. He has not talked himself out of any doubts—he simply does not entertain them.
Emerson’s essay is full of praise of Napoleon, much of which hints at Napoleon’s imperturbability in the face of doubts. One case, however, seems central: it is the case Emerson himself takes to exemplify Napoleon’s answer to the “heaps of cowardly doubts.” It is worth quoting at length:
When he appeared, it was the belief of all military men that there could be nothing new in war; as it is the belief of men to-day, that nothing new can be undertaken in politics, or in church, or in letters, or in trade, or in farming, or in our social manners and customs; and as it is, at all times, the belief of society that the world is used up. But Bonaparte knew better than society; and, moreover, knew that he knew better. I think all men know better than they do; know that the institutions we so volubly commend are go-carts and baubles; but they dare not trust their presentiments. Bonaparte relied on his own sense, and did not care a bean for other people’s. The world treated his novelties just as it treats every body’s novelties,—made infinite objection; mustered all the impediments: but he snapped his finger at their objections. (739-740)
The skepticism and doubt here presented is one with which Emerson perpetually struggles: the universality of objections. Take this passage from “Experience”: “There are objections to every course of life and action, and the practical wisdom infers an indifferency, from the omnipresence of objection.” (478) Objections crowd about one, and threaten to turn one’s own reason against its bearer: practical wisdom ends in paralysis, hence impracticality. Napoleon offers a response to this paralysis: he snaps his fingers. There is no rational response, only a closing of his ears. To borrow again from Nietzsche: “Wenn der Entschluß einmal gefaßt ist, das Ohr auch für den besten Gegengrund zu schließen: Zeichen des starken Charakters. Also ein gelegentlicher Wille zur Dummheit.” (Beyond Good and Evil, §107) [One could violate time’s arrow and treat Emerson’s essay on Napoleon as nothing more than a reflection on the wisdom and danger contained in Nietzsche’s remark.]
The practical efficacy of Napoleon’s response to skepticism cannot be denied. Napoleon acted. He was not paralyzed. Rather than seeking to pacify the skeptic, Napoleon ignored him or, should the skeptic be in his way, crushed him—“wo to what thing or person stood in his way!” (732) Perhaps Emerson could offer dogmatism and nothing more, in his essay on Montaigne, because there is nothing more to offer. Yet this response comes at a price.
At the end of the essay, Emerson turns on Napoleon, as he turned on Swedenborg and on Shakespeare. Here there is a more savage tone, however. Having heaped praise upon Napoleon with greater gusto than he found in discussing Swedenborg or Shakespeare, his reversal equally comes with greater force. Every point of praise in the essay becomes a criticism: Napoleon’s usurpation of ideas becomes theft and injustice, a petty lust for credit, his brilliant calculation becomes theatrical, his doctrine of immortality collapses into miserable fame, and his lack of pity becomes a lack of scruples.
Emerson goes further. Napoleon addressed the skepticism that always accompanies innovation by blowing raspberries at it. Therein lay his response, the conditions of his action. Yet Emerson ends by undermining his claim to novelty. “Here was an experiment, under the most favorable conditions, of the powers of intellect without conscience.” (744) A bit later: “the result, in a million experiments, will be the same.” (745) Napoleon was only the replication of a common experiment: “Every experiment, by multitudes or by individuals, that has a sensual and selfish aim, will fail.” Napoleon was nothing new, only an old error writ large.
We may describe the upshot as follows: Napoleon provides an answer, dogmatic but effective, to one skepticism, only to leave the door open for another, more troubling skepticism. This skepticism cuts to the heart of Emerson’s work: it is a skepticism about self-reliance itself. When Emerson, in the Montaigne essay, says that some are unable to be skeptics, he has just defined skepticism: “Belief consists in accepting the affirmations of the soul; unbelief, in denying them.” (706) When he critiques Bonaparte, he finds he cannot blame Bonaparte, and for an interesting reason: “It was not Bonaparte’s fault. He did all that in him lay, to live and thrive without moral principle.” (745) Napoleon was established, throughout the essay, as a pinnacle of self-reliance, yet his experiment ended in failure, even disaster. And Emerson cannot blame him—what else would he have had Napoleon do? Not be self-reliant?
In the skepticism that Napoleon opens up, the entire core of Emerson’s philosophy lies at stake.