On Emerson’s use of dualisms
The simplest reason why interpretations of Emerson dissatisfy is, they are inferior agents for their task. If an interpretation aims to clarify how one is to read the text interpreted, then Emerson is his own best interpreter. All that needs to be said, by way of interpretation of Emerson, is: keep vigilant watch for those passages where Emerson explains how Emerson is to be read.
Emerson’s use of dualisms shall be my case study. Emerson is difficult on this point – I do not deny that he needs interpretation; I deny only that he does not himself supply it – and it easy to misread Emerson as seeking to transcend dualisms. This temptation is made easier by the assimilation of Emerson to the American pragmatists, who really did want to transcend, abolish, overthrow, whatever, that whole “brood and nest of dualisms.”
I notice the tendency to this sort of misreading when I read scholarly literature about Emerson. Thus Branka Arsić – to pick on only that scholar who I happen to be reading now – wants to read Emerson as radical, as seeking to replace old with new, as taking these given oppositions (materialism/idealism, for one) and leaving us with something that isn’t quite either. But it is perhaps dishonest of me to place blame elsewhere: it is an error that pervaded my first years of reading Emerson, and this post is a corrective first and foremost against myself. (As an Emersonian, I am able to find in my reading of Emerson only my own thought, my good thoughts. This has a reverse movement: that I read in scholastic exercises on Emerson only my own flaws.)
Emerson’s essay on “Fate” (the first in his The Conduct of Life) contains his clearest statement of his relation to dualisms. As is his wont, he organizes the essay around a central opposition: between Fate (also called ‘nature’ and ‘cause and effect’ and ‘animal’) and Power (also called ‘liberty’ and ‘thought’ and ‘human’). On the first page, Emerson sets out his method:
If we must accept Fate, we are not less compelled to affirm liberty, the significance of the individual, the grandeur of duty, the power of character. This is true, and that other is true. But our geometry cannot span these extreme points, and reconcile them. What to do? By obeying each thought frankly, by harping, or, if you will, pounding on each string, we learn at last its power. By the same obedience to other thoughts, we learn theirs, and then comes some reasonable hope of harmonizing them. (943)
Fate and Power appear as two truths: all is fated, and we have power. “That is true, and that other is true.” There is no talk of transcending this dualism (how does one transcend truth?), of escaping the opposition: there is only the question of reconciling them. But we are not, at first, up to the task: “our geometry cannot span these extreme points.” Given this inability to encompass them, some provisional method is needed. This is the method of “pounding on each string” until its power reveals itself. Emerson deliberately switches from a musical (“harping”) to an artless (“pounding”) verb: even if the two are harmonized in the end, the method is not itself musical. There is something brute about it. Each shall be expounded, and only then will Emerson ask after reconciliation.
This is precisely the flow of the essay. There is, first, the strong statement of fatalism: we are limited Nature. Insofar as we may experiment (and Emerson is the great philosopher of experiment), what experiment teaches us is the limits set by nature. “A man’s power is hooped in by a necessity, which, by many experiments, he touches on every side, until he learns its arc.” (952) We are different from animals, yes, but not in that we are free – it is only, our limitations differ. “The limitations refine as the soul purifies, but the ring of necessity is always perched at the top.” (952) There are “torrents of tendency,” and in their face resistance appears “ridiculously inadequate.” (951) Fate is not to be avoided.
But Power will have its turn. Man is not mere fate, “but a stupendous antagonism, a dragging together of the poles of the Universe.” (953) Man can think, and insofar as man thinks, man is free. This is, to be sure, a rare event – Emerson registers his disgust with those who crow about liberty when they are slaves, “as most men are” (953-4) – but that freedom is rare is no objection to its possibility or even its reality. When the mind is roused to activity, it does not mind what is fated, but follows its thought.
Having given both sides voice, does Emerson achieve reconciliation? There is a certain appearance of it:
Fate, then, is a name for facts not yet passed under the fire of thought;—for causes which are unpenetrated. But every jet of chaos which threatens to exterminate us, is convertible by intellect into wholesome force. (958)
Fate and Power are now inter-convertible. This is not, however, so much a reconciliation as simply a new insight about their opposition. Fate and Power may coexist; Fate is potential Power:
If Fate is ore and quarry, if evil is good in the making, if limitation is power that shall be, if calamities, oppositions, and weights are wings and means,—we are reconciled. (960)
Such is Emerson’s reconciliation: the antagonism is maintained, but is shown to be productive.
Indeed, what Emerson is doing fundamentally requires that the antagonism be maintained. Man is “a stupendous antagonism, a dragging together of the poles of the Universe.” Abolish the poles, and man is abolished. Deny (transcendence is a form of denial) Fate, and Power is without “ore and quarry.” “History is the action and reaction of these two” (964) – and keeping in mind Emerson’s equivocation between history and biography, this means that biography is also this action and reaction. Therefore, to achieve a true reconciliation, a restoration of friendly relations, is to cease all movement, to lose all power and thought. It is idleness and sloth.
But Emerson does not misspeak when he talks of “reconciliation.” I am loathe to cite a dictionary, but must: to reconcile is “cause to coexist in harmony.” There is a sense of harmony in which antagonism is permitted, and it is this sense that characterizes Emerson’s dualisms – not only the one I have examined here. A.R. Ammons captured it well, in his poem “Terrain”:
…a habitat, precise ecology of forms
mutually to some extent
tolerable, not entirely self-destroying…