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…
[In this post, I shall talk about the following poems: “So I said I am Ezra” (“Ezra”); “Coming to Sumer” (“Sumer”); “In the wind my rescue is” (“Rescue”); “I came upon a plateau” (“Plateau”). Some may be found online, but sadly not all. All are contained in this collection.]
Ammons, I am noticing, is pulled by the wind and the sea, and sinks into sand. He cannot long avoid them. Even when his attention turns to stones, as in “Coming to Sumer” and “In the wind my rescue is”, the stones are “water modeled sand molded stones” (“Rescue”)—products of the sand and the sea. These forces are not necessarily distinct. Wind, sea, and sand intertwine in the final four lines of “So I said I am Ezra”, and Ammons everywhere finds what is fluid in dust, sand, and wind: “in whorls of it” (it = wind, “Rescue”), “dark whirls of dust” (“Plateau”), “lake of sand” (“Plateau”). His poetic narrators exist in an uneasy tension with these elements and forces.
What is this tension? I hesitate to consign Ammons’ poems (of which I have read but few) to depicting a single relationship. There is nonetheless a pattern emerging, which I may point out. The wind and sea, dust and sand, have a humbling effect. They show up human pretensions for what they are. Foremost among these pretensions is that of identity: declarations of oneself are swept away, ripped away, and individuality vanishes.
Thus, in “So I said I am Ezra”, the narrator’s repeated self-declarations are “whipped” by the wind and “swallowed up” by the ocean, until it reaches the point where Ezra himself “falls out of being”—and does so by becoming “like a drift of sand / and splashed among the windy oats / that clutch the dunes / of unremembered seas”—i.e., by becoming like just those parts of nature that took from him his voice. (The phrase “dust to dust” comes to mind—it seems to be an undercurrent of these poems.) Dissolution follows his unheeded, vain insistences upon himself.
So, too, in “I came upon a plateau”. The narrator, here unnamed—though it is tempting to see him as Ezra, returned, or in a different aspect—makes his declaration on a plateau surrounded by “a circle of peaks”. These are his observers. To them, or at least before them, he cries, “spare me man’s redundancy”—then, “putting on bright clothes / sat down in the bright orthodoxy.” Already he is somewhat ridiculous—as if bright colors were any solution to the inexorable problem that there is nothing new under the sun, that all of humanity is redundant. The narrator is brought to this realization by a white snake, upon seeing which he, “succumbing in the still ecstasy”, says, “this use is colorless”. In what follows in the poem, color is never invoked, only “dark whirls of dust”. This colorlessness of nature is simpler but more powerful and more lasting than the narrator’s “bright colors”, which come to seem more and more a tastelessly gaudy display. (How strange that nature, in which values and “taste” are unknown, should be the profoundest revealer of poor taste!)
Whereas, in “So I said I am Ezra”, Ezra went unheeded, the narrator of this poem receives a response. “The peaks coughing bouldered / laughter shook to pieces”. His observers mock him. Meanwhile, the snake sloughs off, as if it were nothing, the skin that so overpowered the narrator. I am not so sure this response really differs from the lack of response in the earlier poem—mockery and indifference are cousins, if not twins.
What emerges is a picture of nature next to which our insistences on our own identity come to seem absurd, comic in their futility. Is this picture bleak? I cannot decide. At one moment it devastates me, by bringing home what I already suspect: that life, held out next to nature, is a comedic error, a foolish enterprise. But, at the next, I may agree with the narrator of yet another poem, that “in the wind my rescue is / in whorls of it”.
Thus I wrote about A.R. Ammons, whose voice whipped past me yesterday, a cry, carried by the wind: “I am Ezra.” By some chance the wind had not destroyed this message, but lofted it past with its integrity preserved. What I heard, I heard clearly, only I fear some of the signal was lost, strangled, for it began at a strange place. “So I said I am Ezra”, it began—with “so”.
But “so” is not a word for the start of a sentence. It indicates that what follows, follows—that something foregoing offers an explanation. I heard no such explanans. There is only the insistence: “I am Ezra.” Nor is the poem circular. What comes later does not qualify the “so,” but leaves the blanks, blank. Ezra, the man who announces himself as Ezra, remains caught between the dunes and the sea, each in turn carrying his protestations into nothingness. That is all there is.
I cannot, then, resolve the “so,” cannot say what it is that makes Ezra declare himself. He is simply there, declaring, until he is no longer. I cannot even say that he has a history, unknown to me—I cannot rule out the possibility that none of his message was lost in its voyage to me. Perhaps I heard it from the beginning. And why should Ezra have a history, after all? The ocean and the dunes might as well have none, for all the difference it makes to their current behavior—why then should I insist that Ezra have a history?
While I am confessing my impotencies, allow me to add this: I cannot say that Ezra’s “so” indicates—as I have been taking it to indicate—a “for this reason.” “So” may also suggest “in this way.” Ezra may only mean to say that he states himself just so. What follows, then, shows me the state of this stating. This is not implausible, for “so” recurs, later in the poem, in this guise: “As a word too much repeated / falls out of being / so I Ezra went out into the night …”
What is to decide between these two readings of that initial “so”? Say I resolved upon this second reading—I would not by this resolution squelch the question of why Ezra announces himself, just so, to the wind and the waves.
But I am beginning to feel odd. I should not have heard this message, should not be hearing it still, nor should I be writing about it. Do I not, in so doing, arrest Ezra’s fall out of being? Do I not deny him the dissolution that followed from his going unheard? It is a perverse happenstance that his voice should have reached me here, so far from either dune or sea. By what wind was it carried? By what river did it sail?
As the puppet acts it knows not why, overpowered by external compulsion, thus I find myself replacing my pen, and withdrawing.