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Celebrating thought? Or sweetening it?

2014/02/23 8 comments

My month long hiatus from Emerson, begun upon the completion of my readings of his Essays: First Series, I have mercifully allowed myself to bring to end. I bathe again in these cleansing waters, and through their efforts may come to see myself—perhaps, I hope—more clearly. Upon diving into “The Poet”, first of his Essays: Second Series, I immediately ran into an old thought: that form and content are inseparable.

For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing. (Em. 450, Library of America volume of his Essays & Lectures)

The notion that, in poetry, and even literary prose, the form is not separable from the content, but contributes ineliminably to it, is perfectly correct, perhaps even obvious, yet is so often repeated as to have become essentially empty. But Emerson has a way of making old thoughts new, of recovering what always remains new within them, but which has been obscured by their descent into the fogs of platitudicity. (In this way, he serves to liberate these thoughts from the prisons that have congealed around them—thereby “He unlocks our chains, and admits to us a new scene” [Em. 463], and so is a poet himself.) What results when Emerson dispels this fog? I want to approach the question via a critique of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), for reasons that will become apparent by the time I have reached my end.

Lucretius, as an Epicurean poet, finds himself in a bind. For, as an Epicurean, he must stick to the reasoning that established atomism—this is to be discovered by logic, and not invented by poetic artifice. The poetic form of his work, that is, cannot contribute any content to the Epicurean view, cannot play any role in the actual thinking of Epicurean thoughts. Yet, as a poet, he must justify the poetic form of the work, an especially difficult task if that form is more liable to obscure the arguments than enhance them. We may suspect that Lucretius’ real reason for his use of poetic devices and form is the sheer joy of it: “Joyfully I visit virgin springs and draw their water; joyfully I cull unfamiliar flowers.” (Lucr. I.928—I am using the translation by Martin Ferguson Smith, published by Hackett.) Yet he also gives us a more practical reason for his technique. He is writing the poem to Memmius, in an attempt to convert him and so save him. (For all their well-motivated, well-placed distaste for religion, the Epicureans could nonetheless be quite “religious” in their own behavior. This is not a criticism.) Lucretius is well aware that Epicurean doctrines, as materialistic doctrines always are, are liable to be off-putting. His poetic form is a correction for this:

Doctors who try to give children foul-tasting wormwood first coat the rim of the cup with the sweet juice of golden honey; their intention is that the children, unwary at their tender age, will be tricked into applying their lips to the cup and at the same time will drain the bitter draught of wormwood—victims of beguilement, but not of betrayal, since by this means they recover strength and health. I have a similar intention now, since this philosophy of ours often appears somewhat off-putting to those who have not experienced it, and most people recoil back from it, I have preferred to expound it to you in harmonious Pierian poetry and, so to speak, coat it with the sweet honey of the muses. (Lucr. I.938-948)

Lucretius’ poetic form is a sweet, external coating, but it has no impact on the contents inside. It is a bit of benevolent trickery: Lucretius hopes Memmius will, because of the poetic sweetness, imbibe the bitter Epicurean contents before he knows what he is drinking—a bit of paternalism justified, if at all, by the Epicurean promise to cure fear and anxiety.

Here is a philosophy of poetry that rejects—in a manner which is perfectly justified—the old thought in which I claim Emerson has found something new. Lucretius’ self-understanding of his application of poetic form is a good one, indeed the only one possible to an Epicurean, and if there is something lacking in this self-understanding we may suspect there is something lacking in the Epicurean philosophy generally. But the mere thought that form and content are inseparable is not enough to show anything lacking: better to give up that thought than Epicurus’ insights—after all, the loss of a platitude is no loss at all. To bring out the conflict, then, we shall have to understand what is new in Emerson’s thought—both come to light together.

For the Epicurean, there are only two sources of value in the world: pleasure provides positive value, and is to be sought, and pain provides negative value, and is to be avoided. Of course, to seek pleasure and to avoid pain are not at all the same thing, any more than to seek truth and avoid error are the same, and the Epicureans take their stand: avoid pain even at the expense of certain pleasures. (One can, in this respect, liken them to Descartes, who makes the analogous move for the case of truth and falsity: avoid all error even if it comes at the expense of believing any truth.) To this end, the Epicureans make a twofold division of pleasures: there are kinetic pleasures and static pleasures. (They also make a threefold division of pleasures into natural + necessary, natural + unnecessary, and unnatural + unnecessary, but this division will not concern me.) Kinetic pleasures, such as the sating of hunger by eating, involve, first, a painful departure from some equilibrium state (in this case, being sated), followed by, second, a pleasant return to that state. The pleasure lies not in the state itself, but in the return to it—in that way, kinetic pleasures are possible only if they are preceded by pain. For this reason, the Epicurean says, they are to be minimized.

Static pleasures, by contrast, are those pleasures one feels simply in virtue of being in the equilibrium state. As they involve no departure, they involve equally no pain: they are pure pleasure. A paradigmatic example, I take it, would be the pleasure that results from being in a state of Epicurean tranquility: to know the nature of the world, and to know there is nothing to fear in death—this is to share in the blessed, perfectly undisturbed happiness of the gods. It is to be a god on earth. (We shall return to the Epicurean gods.) Lucretius’ goal is to bring Memmius to this state, but he can do so only by administering bitter medicine. Thus his sweet coating is needed. It is not part of the thought, however, and once Memmius is converted, the form becomes unnecessary, for the thought itself will sustain him, will bring him peace.

This twofold division of pleasures, which Emerson never, to my knowledge, brings up explicitly or implicitly, nonetheless seems to me the primary deficiency in the Epicurean view, from an Emersonian standpoint. The notion of a static pleasure implies a stable state, an equilibrium threatened, to be sure, by external forces, but which may be defended and preserved, and tranquility maintained. Emerson may perhaps allow such pleasures, and certainly would rank them above kinetic pleasures of the sort the Epicureans denounce, but for him there is a third pleasure, the highest: the pleasure of transition.

But nature has a higher end, in the production of new individuals, than security, namely, ascension, or, the passage of the soul into higher forms. (Em. 458)

The persistent worry, for Emerson, is that any stable state, any purported equilibrium, will congeal into a prison—and then it hardly deserves the name “equilibrium.” It is for this reason that I said above only that Emerson “may perhaps allow” static pleasures—in much of his thought, in fact, he questions their very possibility. But even allowing for security’s possibility, there is still a higher insecurity. The soul ascends, not once, but perpetually, for falling follows each ascension. Where, for the Epicurean, there is a single metamorphosis by which one attains a perfectly blessed state, for the Emersonian there is only the perpetual perfection of oneself, without ever achieving a perfect state. “For, the metamorphosis once seen, we divine that it does not stop.” (Em. 461) The Emersonian distrusts the state attained in favor of the state yet to be attained: each attained state is merely initial; power and joy lie in the movement of attaining, not in the having attained—“in the shooting of the gulf”, he says elsewhere (“Self-Reliance”). (I must confess my debt, in this language of attained and unattained, to Stanley Cavell’s marvelous Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome.) Kinetic pleasure—for what else could this be called?—thus regains its priority over static pleasure.

This difference in ranking of pleasures is given voice in the Epicurean and Emersonian treatments of the gods. Epicurus, longing to dispel the fears associated with the gods of Greek mythology, imagined perfectly blessed, perfectly material creatures that could not be disturbed by the wailings of our prayers. Human happiness does not require intervention by the gods, but imitation of them. With the exception of his mortality, an insignificant difference, Epicurus was literally a god on earth, by Epicurean lights. Emerson, by contrast, will have no truck with perfection and stability in his gods: he praises the gods of the old mythology precisely for their defects—Vulcan’s lameness, Cupid’s blindness—and for the way the gods “use[d] defects and deformities to a sacred purpose”—“to signify exuberances.” (Em. 455)

Because kinetic pleasure, in this Emersonian sense, is nothing other than a change in form, we can understand why thought must create its own form, must not be something independent of form, capable of sweet or bitter expression. “The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.” (Em. 448) It is “Man Thinking”—as Emerson puts it elsewhere (“The American Scholar”)—who is so transformed, and there is no separation between the thinking and the being transformed. The thinking is the transition from the attained and imprisoning to the unattained and liberating form. The form, then, is integral to the liberation, and so to the thought. Thus we can see what is new in the Emersonian thought, while at the same time accepting what is impoverished in the Epicurean philosophy.

But here I run aground, again, on my old difficulty—already explored at the end of my series on Prudence and Poetry, but not there resolved, and so still an open wound, exposed to infection. I have not singled out Lucretius for critique by accident: it is he, or rather Epicurus, who was perhaps the first to create this wound. My trouble is that I cannot simply follow Emerson, and abandon Lucretius. For while there is too much good in Emerson’s vision of life for me to give it up, there is too much right in Epicurean ontology for it to yield so easily. I worry, in short, that my love of Emerson is not compatible with my commitment to an (broadly) Epicurean ontology.

This conflict may be captured, at the most general level, by considering that Emerson is an idealist, of sorts, whereas Lucretius is a materialist. This comes out in the following phrase of Emerson’s, one of my favorites from “The Poet”: “For all men have the thoughts whereof the universe is the celebration.” (Em. 453) The universe celebrates human thoughts: what a beautiful image! How thoroughly idealist, however, perhaps even narcissistic (does the universe exist to celebrate us?)—and how utterly incompatible with the knowledge, which I take to be very well-established, that humanity is an accidental occurrence in a tiny region of a universe that does not celebrate anything at all, let alone our vast miseries and paltry joys.

I know that is our condition, yet I cannot give up the Emersonian vision. Every so often, I console myself with the thought that Emerson, perhaps, shared this knowledge—for instance, when he praises figures such as Pythagoras, Swedenborg, and Oken for having “introduce[d] questionable facts into [their] cosmogony” (Em. 462, my emphasis)—but in my sober moments I recognize these consolations as false, as desperate. I take more heart when Emerson speaks of the writer who “sees nature beneath him, and uses it as his exponent” (Em. 463), for does this not suggest an idealism that is located not in nature herself, but in the thinker’s use of nature? And is it not then compatible with a dull but correct materialist ontology? Or is this simply another false consolation?

I cannot say. This is the perpetual tension of my thought. Epicurus and Emerson do battle within me. One day, perhaps, they shall be reconciled, or one shall vanquish the other. In the meantime, I can only hope to use their war as the (unstable) foundation of my own ascent. I can only hope, that is, to put them to use as my own exponents.

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