William Sharp MacLeay, at the start of his Horae Entomologicae, a once famous but now obscure work of natural history, apologizes for himself. “In offering to the public this, his first essay in Entomology, the author thinks it by no means unlikely that he shall incur the charge of aiming at innovations in the science.” MacLeay rests on the hope, however, that the sympathetic reader will recognize that he wishes rather “to reconcile with each other the observations of his predecessors” than “to controvert or obliterate the result of their labours.” Here is a scientific climate that mistrusts novelty and values tradition, in which the appearance of innovation always requires external justification. Novelty never justifies itself.
Something like this climate permeates Emerson’s essay on Shakespeare, in which Emerson is concerned to establish Shakespeare as a genius—though we now know that we must be cautious about what this means. Two facets of genius emerge in the essay: genius as borrower, and genius as impartial. These are closely intertwined.
“Great men are more distinguished by range and extent, than by originality.” (710) It is the breadth of a man’s fine thoughts that earns him, from Emerson, the title of genius. The task of the genius, of the poet, is not to exercise choice in developing novelties. It is to be receptive what is good in the thought of his time, “forced onward by the ideas and necessities of his contemporaries.” (710) When the task is to present what is good, memory is as valuable as invention. The situation is that others speak well sometimes, and foolishly other times, and cannot tell the difference—it is the genius who can tell. Thus the geniuses of history “are librarians and historiographers, as well as poets.” (714) In sum: “The greatest genius is the most indebted man.” (710)
In the everlasting battle between tradition and invention, then, Emerson sides with tradition. It is not surprising that this should be so. There is something cheap about all innovation: it always seems to come to something not really new, and we suspect the great innovators have merely a talent for rearrangement. If, as has been posited, there is nothing new under the sun, innovation starts to seem a game, a triviality.
There are further reasons, which emerge in Emerson’s “waste stock” theory. “Shakspeare, in common with his comrades, esteemed the mass of old plays, waste stock, in which any experiment could be freely tried.” (712) The tradition furnishes the materials of the lab bench, provides a ground. This grounding occurs in two senses. First, it supplies a foundation, a stable surface on which Shakespeare can work. It is ground, dirt—and not sacred. “Had the prestige which hedges about a modern tragedy existed, nothing could have been done.” (712) Prestige attaches to individuals, to choice, to innovation, and prevents experiment. You cannot fool around with the sacred. Tradition furnishes grounding also in a second sense: it grounds the poet, prevents the poet from spinning off and losing contact with the world—spinning frictionlessly in the void, if I might steal that phrase. “The poet needs a ground in popular tradition on which he may work, and which, again, may restrain his art within due temperance.” (712) In contrast with art for art’s sake, which leads to “freak, extravagance, and exhibition,” waste stock ensures points of contact. (713)
Emerson’s choice to side with tradition, then, is not quite a true allegiance to invention’s alleged enemy. Indeed, Emerson rather allies tradition with invention—is not prestige precisely what characterizes tradition, and what tradition renders infallible and unchangeable? Yet Emerson links it to innovation: tradition and invention fight, but that fight is between fixed inventions that have been accorded prestige, and novel inventions seeking it. The old fight to maintain their place; the new to usurp it—both play the same game. Emerson’s tradition will have nothing to do with this fight. The dead suffice for experiment only, and there is no place for the living to usurp: the only place to go upon death is the stockpile.
It is for this reason that genius is a borrower, even a thief. But to call the genius a borrower, a thief, to call the poet indebted—these terms all presuppose a certain theory of property, one proper to prestige and innovation (and the tradition built of dead innovations). This theory of property belongs to the dispute Emerson wishes to leave behind, and so Emerson must substitute a new one in its place: “Thought is the property of him who can entertain it; and of him who can adequately place it.” (715) Thought belongs to whoever can use it. This is not a free for all, not a matter of all thoughts belonging to all: “A certain awkwardness marks the use of borrowed thoughts; but, as soon as we have learned what to do with them, they become our own.”
The genius is, then, if we stick with the old theory of intellectual property for a moment, a borrower. He experiments with the waste stock, and makes it his own. There remains the second aspect of genius: genius as impartial. In his highest flights of praise, Emerson praises Shakespeare for the “omnipresent humanity [that] coördinates all his faculties.” (722) Where the man of talents reveals his partiality, the “certain observations, opinions, topics” that enjoy “some accidental prominence,” “Shakspeare has no peculiarity, no importunate topic; but all is duly given.”
This conception of genius is both sympathetic and in conflict with the first definition. On the one hand, genius, as impartial, is comprehensive, selecting what is good in everything. Every innovation has a limited domain and is thus partial—impartial genius cannot, then, be innovation. Yet the first conception of genius admitted that genius had a history, that this history might be traced. Yet, Emerson tells us, “we are very clumsy writers of history”—we may write the facts of Shakespeare’s life, and of his influences, and yet see nothing of his genius. (719) To trace the history of genial theft is to miss the genius in it. There is a simple reason for this: “the Genius draws up the ladder after him, when the creative age goes up to heaven, and gives way to a new, who see the works, and ask in vain for a history.” (720)
There is tension, then, between the history of genius, the history of borrowings and thefts, and the ahistorical genius, the genius that seems to sit outside of time, eternal. Can this tension be resolved? Emerson eventually gives himself away. “There are always objects; but there was never representation. Here is perfect representation, at last; and now let the world of figures sit for their portraits.” (723) This is a contradiction in terms: it is the very essence of representation to be partial, to select some aspects to represent and not others. The scientific representation idealizes here and abstracts there; the democratic representative cannot act on every opinion of her constituency. No representation captures the full detail of what is represented—if it did, it could not function as a representation.
When Emerson calls Shakespeare the creator of perfect representations, then, he is mythologizing. He is indulging in the myth of genius, of the great figure who comes out of nowhere and sets the world aflame. And he knows this is a myth, for he said so explicitly, earlier: “It is easy to see that what is best written or done by genius, in the world, was no man’s work, but came by wide social labor, when a thousand wrought like one, sharing the same impulse.” (715) The end of the essay further confirms that Emerson knows this is a myth, for the end of the essay tears down Shakespeare, reveals Shakespeare’s own partiality. “Solitude has austere lessons; it can teach us to spare both heroes and poets; and it weights Shakspeare also, and finds him to share the halfness and imperfection of humanity.” (724)
What gives? What is Emerson doing, mythologizing Shakespeare in this way, only to turn around and strip him down to size? Emerson gives the answer: “Shakspeare is the only biographer of Shakspeare; and even he can tell nothing, except to the Shakspeare in us; that is, to our most apprehensive and sympathetic hour.” (720) In these sympathetic hours, Shakespeare’s thought becomes our own, because we use it, and experiment with it. When we are swept up in these movements of thought, then Shakespeare “is inconceivably wise; the others, conceivably.” (722) Then we stand with him outside of time, then there is ahistorical genius. The thought is all that exists.
But these sympathies are transient—allow them to last too long, and what remains is devotion to prestige. To remain with Shakespeare when after the end of our Horae Shakespearicae is to become the worshipper of prestige, to find our thoughts burdened by that awkwardness that marks true theft. Emerson’s essay mirrors, in its movement, the passing of these hours. When his thought moves with Shakespeare’s, then Shakespeare seems that mythical being, the perfect representative. But eventually their movement drifts apart, and Shakespeare returns to his partiality, regains his history.
In the end, Emerson must bring down Shakespeare in this fashion. Were he not to reveal Shakespeare’s partiality, he would merely be establishing Shakespeare as an object of prestige, of sacred tradition, and would thus render Shakespeare unusable—just as the perfect representation is unusable. Emerson slanders Shakespeare out of respect, in a way. He sees a nobler future for Shakespeare than as a relic: he is converting Shakespeare into waste stock.
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Addendum on the transpersonal
I complained, in my previous post, linked above, about those who try to save Emerson from the charge of egotism by insisting that he takes self-reliance to be reliance on something transpersonal. It seems to me that this theory of intellectual property captures what is genuinely transpersonal in Emerson’s thought.
Emerson, in the essay on Montaigne, notes that “great believers are always reckoned infidels” because they cannot accept the dogmas “dear to the hope of man”—and that surely includes the dogma of a transpersonal moral order. (707) “I believe in the moral design of the universe; it exists hospitably for the weal of souls; but your dogmas seem to me caricatures: why should I make believe them?” But is not this “moral design of the universe” itself a dogma? To defend Emerson by insisting on his belief in this dogma does, so far as I can see, more harm than good.
The theory of property suggests an alternate understanding of this transpersonality—it lies in the possibility of appropriating thoughts, of making them our own. In the hours in which we share another’s thought, there is a transpersonal bond. And even if, in these high hours, our thought is novel, some future soul may share it, so even what is uniquely ours in our own time, if ever anything is, is transpersonal. But the way to this is self-reliance. It seems to me that Emerson recognizes, and, more than recognizes, insists, that our highest hours are transient. Self-reliance at other times—will that not just be egotism? To recognize the ubiquity of partiality seems to me to require admitting that Emerson’s philosophy, though it prizes the transpersonal in a certain sense, cannot avoid egotism.
Let us admit Emerson’s philosophy for what it is—it will not suffer from it.