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Disappointment

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.

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