An entire interpretation of Emerson, more satisfactory perhaps than any yet written, could be developed by taking Emerson’s essay on Montaigne as its center, radiating outward to see each of Emerson’s major essays and books as a partial response to some skepticism or another, a response that sees to it “that justice shall be done to [skepticism’s] terrors.” The thought is appealing that I should one day write this interpretation—but not today. This post is the occupation of but a few idle hours; my envisaged interpretation could only be the product of a much greater indolence.
It is not uncommon to find kind souls interested in saving Emerson from his appearances. If he appears to value egotism and even narcissism, point to his belief in an underlying moral order that is transpersonal. If he appears to glorify talent, note his sharp distinctions between talent and genius. If he seems an irrationalist and lover of contradiction, highlight the oft-neglected “foolish” in that most famous of quotations. And so forth. I am not so sure of this endeavor: it seems to me too much a saving of Emerson from himself. Perhaps the appearances are the reality, only a part of it, to be sure, but a reality that should be acknowledged and even admired, rather than diminished. Flight is not very courageous.
With that in mind, I want to laze a while with the talent/genius distinction. It is easy enough to point out that he makes the distinction, for he does so, again and again. It is much more difficult to state what the distinction is, since it varies considerably. The manner in which it varies exemplifies one aspect of Emerson’s skepticism, the skepticism countenanced in his essay on Montaigne. In exploring this, I shall say a few words about why this skepticism belongs to Emerson, and not Montaigne, why the essay would have been more appropriately called “Emerson; or, the skeptic.”
Emerson draws the talent/genius distinction three times in this essay. None matches another. On the opening page, Emerson contrasts the practical man with the philosopher, the prudent with the poetic:
One class has the perception of difference, and is conversant with facts and surfaces; cities and persons; and the bringing certain things to pass;—the men of talent and action. Another class have the perception of identity, and are men of faith and philosophy, men of genius. (690)
This reads purely descriptively—that is, it does not make its motivation immediately apparent. The first hint of this motivation comes quickly, as Emerson launches into a criticism: “Each of these riders drives too fast.” This point he illustrates by showing how neither believes in the other, how the philosopher-poet-genius looks at objects in a way that “beholds the design,” a look that leads him to “presently undervalue the actual object,” how the men of the “animal world” and “practical world” have no time for “metaphysical causes,” how “hot life” washes away all such speculations. Of course I can only note my own reactions, but they tell me that in this conflict the man of talent comes out looking better than the man of genius, even granting that both appear as incomplete and unsatisfactory. Better hot life than pallid gaze. Better action than perception.
Only later does the motivation become fully apparent, however, when, into this antagonism between “the abstractionist and the materialist” there enters “a third party to occupy the middle ground between these two, the skeptic, namely.” (693) The distinction is made in order to set up the entrance of the skeptic, in order to make his appearance seem necessary. It is a distinction drawn in a skeptical mood, a mood that believes in neither talent nor genius, a mood that examines both and finds both wanting, the talented, imprudent, the genius, disproportionate. But we cannot rest here:
Shall we say that Montaigne has spoken wisely, and given the right and permanent expression of the human mind, on the conduct of life? (701)
This is a question, and we cannot presuppose an answer. Up until now Emerson has been recounting the skeptical position, but from the standpoint of an outsider. Emerson has explained the view, and his attraction to Montaigne, but I am reading Emerson, not Montaigne. I want what Emerson knows, not what Montaigne knows. A summary has no intrinsic value. The question is a relief, then: it signals that finally we shall see Emerson.
Relief is short-lived. Emerson launches into a response to skepticism that is more dismissal than response: “We are natural believers” (701), it begins, and gets no more convincing from there. In the midst of this there is a second talent/genius distinction. Our belief in truth is the belief in an order to the world, a moral tie between events. “Seen or unseen, we believe the tie exists. Talent makes counterfeit ties; genius finds the real ones.” (701) Here, the mood underlying the distinction is made more readily apparent: it is a conservative mood, one that likes institutions and distrusts reform. And even as Emerson details it, he increasingly distances himself from it, until he comes to admit that, however much it pulls us, “the skeptical class… have reason, and every man, at some time, belongs to it.” (702) We have, then, an oscillation of mood, each of which defines genius and talent differently.
After recognizing the failure of this first attempt to dispel the threat of skepticism, Emerson tries again, insisting that he shall this time do justice to his target. “I shall not take Sunday objections, made up on purpose to be put down. I shall take the worst I can find, whether I can dispose of them, or they of me.” (703) But the skepticism that reappears is not the same as before. What came before was, perhaps, partially at least, Montaigne’s skepticism. What follows is Emerson’s skepticism, in three guises, each recognizable in other essays by Emerson. In its first guise, it is “the levity of intellect”, the genius that mocks earnestness, action, the “gymnastics of talent.” (703) This is the talent/genius distinction of a new skeptical mood, and it again does not line up with the first distinction, nor, of course, the second.
In its second guise, Emerson’s skepticism is that of moods—most especially the fact that moods do not believe in one another. “There is the power of moods, each setting at nought all its own tissue of facts and beliefs.” (704) This leads to the sly suspicion that “the opinions of a man on right and wrong, on fate and causation, [are] at the mercy of a broken sleep or an indigestion[.]” (704) And we can see the genius/talent distinction, as it appears in this essay, as an exemplification of this: one’s opinion of the difference between genius and talent, as well as their value, seems to turn on one’s mood.
In its third guise, skepticism lies in the ubiquity of illusions. To examine this third, deepest form of skepticism is beyond me here, and I only offer some advice to the reader: ask yourself whether Emerson’s response to this skeptical objection—decidedly not a “Sunday objection”—amounts to more than a “Sunday response,” and remember the right of every person “to insist on being convinced in his own way.” (706) Nor can I help but note that Emerson’s book The Conduct of Life ends with a chapter called “Illusions”, given that Emerson’s exploration of the question whether “Montaigne has spoken wisely […] on the conduct of life” (701, emphasis added) sees the sharpest skeptical challenge as lying in illusions. But I am straying from my path…
To return: as it appears in this essay, the talent/genius distinction appears three times, each time affixed to a particular mood—twice to (distinct) skeptical moods, once to a conservative mood. The first skeptical mood is not Emerson’s; nor is the conservative mood. The second skeptical mood is Emerson’s, but Emerson exists in antagonism with it; he does not sit comfortably with it. To fully grasp Emerson’s relation to this mood would require writing the book I decided not to write today, would require understanding the struggle with skepticism that lies beneath all of Emerson’s profoundest work. It is enough to note now that even in this mood that Emerson owns, his distinction between talent and genius does not receive full assent.
The talent/genius distinction, then, cannot so easily be taken a fundamental doctrine in Emerson. There is no one distinction to be made, there are many, and they exist in an unstable relationship. No one claims finality, no one forever vanquishes the other. Each is attached to a mood, and moods rotate, and do not believe in one another. Each distinction is quite sharp, clear enough in itself, but overlay them all and what results is all fuzz and obscurity—and in any case it is not clear that genius always comes out on top. A defense of Emerson that fixes him—is that a help? A fortress that defends him from intrusion also prevents him from extrusion. Does he not admire Montaigne, who,
In the civil wars of the League, which converted every house into a fort, […] kept his gates open, and his house without a defence. All parties freely came and went, his courage and honor being universally esteemed. (698)
[My human/animal seminar met for the final time today. These thoughts were occasioned by a discussion therein. I will miss it dearly.]
John Cage apparently related the following story about Morton Feldman. Reflecting on the phrase “free as a bird”, he went to a park to observe them. Upon returning, he remarked, “You know? They’re not free: they’re fighting over bits of food.” (The story may be found, I am told, in his Silence: Lectures and Writings.) I wish to understand this as a zoomorphic experience.
I obtained this concept—which I am now perverting—in a discussion in my human/animal seminar. One student distinguished anthropomorphism—placing human characteristics onto animals—from zoomorphism—using animals to learn about humans. I was perplexed; I found it difficult to see how we could use animals to learn about humans without anthropomorphizing. The context of the discussion was the use of animals—actual animal bodies and representations of animals alike—in art, so I ran through works of art I find particularly successful at using animals to teach me something about what it is to be human. In every case, I found human interests guiding the treatment of animals. Animals were viewed not as they are, but as they are for humans. And so, I expect, is how it must be. What we wish to learn about ourselves from animals, we first place upon them. Then we extract them back out, perhaps with remarkable artistry and great insight, but this still does not amount to a pure zoomorphism.
Is zoomorphism that does not collapse into anthropomorphism possible? I think it is, in the form of a skepticism that creeps in at the margins. What I am envisioning is a visceral, direct experience of animals that brings us to the realization of just how distorting our anthropomorphisms are, how much we humanize animal life in order to learn from it. In such an experience, we are forced to confront the fact that animal lives do not exist for us, that what they are for animals is no doubt wholly distinct from what they are for us, and that we have very limited access to what animal lives are for animals.
Joyce’s conception of epiphanies might serve as a model for such an experience. I conceive of it as transformative. We have a dominant mode of relating to the world, one in which we treat of animals insofar as they are useful to us, whether materially or conceptually. These experiences crystallize a skepticism about this dominant mode. They compose, as it were, a minor strain moving below the surface, occasionally rising into view. They make us realize—and force us to reflect upon—the differences between animal life for animals and animal life for humans. They bring us to see our everyday anthropomorphism as something truly imposed upon animals.
Cage’s story about Feldman is an example of such thinking. Birds as a model of freedom is a well-worn trope, one that is inherited and taken for granted, more or less unquestioned. Yet Feldman took it upon himself to investigate directly, and found it lacking. Birds fighting over food are not free. Certainly they are not concerned with serving as an inspiration for humans. They are concerned about getting food, though this still gives us little insight into what it is to be a bird fighting for food. This is a zoomorphic experience.
I think there is an even better example of zoomorphic experience: that of Montaigne, playing with his cat. At some point, playing with his cat, Montaigne realizes that he is treating the cat as a partner in his play, as something with whom Montaigne is playing. But then he asks: “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a pastime to her more than she is to me?” (This may be found in his “Apology for Raymond Sebond”, the longest by far of his Essays.) This amounts to a realization, not at an abstract level but quite concretely, that he has taken for granted his cat as a thing for him to play with, and that he is equally as much something for his cat—though what this something is, neither he nor anyone else can say. The only individual capable of saying is the cat itself, and it cannot speak. The experience Montaigne records is the purest instance of zoomorphism I have encountered.
I have praised experience over thought. Why is this? It comes down to my expectation that a genuine zoomorphism will be transformative, will change, for however brief a time, the way one relates to animals. And, in brief, I distrust the ability of pure thought to effect such a transformation. I call Nietzsche to my aid. In Daybreak §30, he makes an insightful comment about the inheritance of customs: “In its ultimate foundation – in this case that means: in its first generation. For when the habit of some distinguishing action is inherited, the thought that lies behind it is not inherited with it.” [Cambridge edition.] It is easy to inherit a sort of zoomorphism as a habit of thought, a custom one follows as it were thoughtlessly, without connection to direct experience. In praising zoomorphic experience over zoomorphic thought, I am praising zoomorphic thought in its first generation, and not as mere habit.
I lack faith in thought. Speaking for myself only, though I am sure I am not alone, thought without a direct connection to experience, to its instances of application, is effete. It spins frictionlessly, making no contact with action or the world. Or, as Nietzsche puts it in another place, “The most confident knowledge or faith cannot provide the strength or the ability needed for a deed, it cannot replace the employment of that subtle, many-faceted mechanism which must first be set in motion if anything at all of an idea is to translate itself into action.” (Daybreak §22) By contrast, I expect experiences of the sort I have countenanced to possess that power.
With such experience, an old thought becomes original. I do not believe in progress for the simple reason that I must go over the same ground as those before me, must grapple with the same enduring problems. I cannot much trust my inheritance until I have made it my own through experience. Zoomorphism as thought is nothing new, and it is easy to think. But to really experience it is to accomplish something new and original, in the only sense of originality one can countenance in a world where the sun shines each day on the nothing new (my gratitude to Samuel Beckett). What is so remarkable about Montaigne’s essays in general is the manner in which he applies his experiences in order to work on himself. He is not merely thinking, he is going over the ground of thought with the aid of his individual set of experiences. Because of that, he achieves, at least once, a pure zoomorphism.
Samuel Beckett once wrote, “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new” (Murphy). The nothing new glistening in the sunlight includes, of course, Samuel Beckett’s own oeuvre, which is no more novel than anything else, despite including several. I want here to suggest a few parallels between Beckett’s Three Novels, which I discussed extensively in an earlier series of posts, and Montaigne’s essay on philosophizing as learning to die. The upshot is that we may understand Samuel Beckett’s work as pure philosophy by this criterion.
Naturally, there being nothing new under the sun, the ideas that I am attributing to Montaigne need not have originated there. The essay, number 20 in book I of his Essays, contains a long section in which Montaigne imagines personified Nature chastising her human inhabitants for their fear of death. My copy of the work (in the Everyman’s Library edition of Montaigne’s Complete Works, pp. 67-82) suggests this speech is largely a paraphrase of Seneca and Lucretius (fn5, p. 77). And certainly the notion of philosophy as preparation for death can be traced back to that venerable lineage.
A few intriguing themes arise in Montaigne’s essay. One is the impossibility of newness that we have already seen in Beckett. “And if you have lived a day, you have seen everything. One day is equal to all days.” (78) What good is it to fear death, if remaining alive will bring you only more of the same? Indeed, the tedium might even make one desire death—which occurs in Beckett’s novels.
Even more interesting than this, however, are Montaigne’s reflections on the relationship of death to life. Montaigne brings up the classic theme that death is not a harm, since after your death there is no one left to be harmed by it, and while you are alive you are not yet dead and so not harmed by death—except insofar as you fear it. “It [death] does not concern you dead or alive: alive, because you are; dead, because you are no more.” (80) And related to this is the correct remark that death cannot be experienced, for you must be alive to have experiences; death ends all experiences and so stands as the unexperienceable limit of experience. This is grounds for condemning those who condemn death: “How simple-minded it is to condemn a thing that you have not experienced yourself or through anyone else.” (80)
This impossibility of experiencing death is hugely important in Beckett’s work. In my earlier posts I discussed at great length the ways in which Beckett word and object are mixed up in his work. Retelling is reliving, so what is said to occur and what actually occur come to exist in a zone of indiscernibility (to use Deleuze’s phrase) in which it is inherently impossible to tell one from the other. And what this means is that death never actually enters into Beckett’s work. It always exists at the limit, outside of it. For if retelling is reliving, then death is the end of retelling. But the retelling itself cannot contain its own end; the end is its limit. Thus Molloy, Malone, and the unnamable narrator of The Unnamable all approach infinitesimally close to death, but their deaths never enter the text. The inexperienceability of death is thus an essential portion of the structure of Beckett’s work.
Montaigne, earlier in his reflections, bluntly states, “The goal of our career is death” (69). Life itself is no more than a long march toward death. Every step forward (in time or space) is a step forward to death. In Nature’s speech, this becomes, “The constant work of your life is to build death. You are in death while you are in life; for you are after death when you are no longer in life. Or, if you prefer it this way, you are dead after life; but during life you are dying; and death affects the dying much more roughly than the dead, and more keenly and essentially.” (78)
What I take Montaigne to suggest here is that life, at least human life, since humans are conscious of their ineluctable end, is inevitably structured by its end, death. Life is best conceived as the process of dying. And this more than anything else I have mentioned is crucial to Beckett’s Three Novels. That dying is a process is established on the first page of Molloy: “For example my mother’s death. Was she already dead when I came? Or did she only die later? I mean enough to bury.” (4) Dying here is an extended process: one may die more or less (and as the rest of the novel makes clear, Molloy is progressively dying more and more). Eventually one reaches a threshold past which one is dead “enough to bury.” Beckett’s novels are about the process of dying, as it is structured by death, which exists at their limit but is not contained within them. In short, Beckett’s novels are about life itself, in its essence.
Montaigne’s Essays are the record of a man rigorously at work on himself, diagnosing himself that he might cure himself. In so doing he prepares himself for death—that is to say, he philosophizes. On this mountainous model, such work is precisely the work of philosophy. What I hope I have compellingly defended here is that Beckett’s Three Novels constitute just this same sort of work, and that we should not let a superficial difference of genre obscure the fact that the Three Novels are, fundamentally, philosophy.
In my post this morning on Montaigne, I speculated about why Montaigne ended the essay as he did, with a vivid picture of slaughter and lack of compassion. The choice to end the essay with an example, especially after he had seemingly just reached a conclusion, puzzled me. My suggestion was that he aimed to provoke a particular reaction, sadness, that primed the reader for the next essay, “Of Sadness”.
I do not want to retract that hypothesis. But I do want to qualify it in light of further reflection on the essay. For just preceding the example is the conclusion of the essay, the moral, and that moral is precisely that “it is hard to found any constant and uniform judgment” on man. This should provide some pause about my hypothesis. Montaigne has just shown us by example how distinct techniques may provoke the same response: both obsequiousness and stubbornness may, for example, elicit mercy. And he has further shown us how the same technique performed on different people may bring about entirely contrary reactions. Indeed, the example of Alexander that ends the essay shows exactly this.
So it is then a bit strange to suggest that Montaigne’s choice about how to end the essay is an attempt to cause a particular feeling in his readers. The very skepticism the essay attempts to establish undercuts any such attempt. I can certainly say that his choice worked that way in my case, but it would be quite disrespectful to the essay to generalize my case and make it Montaigne’s intention. Montaigne cannot predict and control that accurately his reader’s path through the Essays.
But, as I said, I do not wish to retract my hypothesis, but rather merely qualify it. We can understand what Montaigne is doing by considering the preface “To the Reader”, in which Montaigne describes the book as work on himself. So what I want to suggest now is that Montaigne is attempting to produce an effect in himself, using a technique based on his own self-understanding. Remember that he self-identifies as someone more prone to compassionate mercy than esteeming mercy—thus a sad image such as he presents is likely to impact him in the right way.
Seen as an attempt by Montaigne to provoke an effect in himself, then, we can understand the strange conclusion to his first essay. That it had the same effect in me is a fortuitous coincidence—or a clear source of interpretive bias. I am not competent to say which.