The alienation wrought by a science that at every turn divorces the world from human interests is as good a trope as any, should one wish to go troping. What makes Emerson interesting is not the custom with which he begins, but the spiraling heights to which he takes it.
Emerson begins with a narcissistic objection to science: it fails to interest us. This is a serious failing, for, as Emerson tells us later, “the secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting.” (1109) It fails to interest us because it does not tell us “what effect passes into the man.” (1099) We humans are narcissists collectively: “No object really interests us but man.” (1101) The laws in nature we care for only insofar as they have some relation to us. If science insists on denying these relations, we will have done with it.
Moreover, failure to satisfy this narcissism marks a failure of self-confidence: “We are just so frivolous and skeptical. Men hold themselves cheap and vile: and yet a man is a fagot of thunderbolts. […] A right and perfect man would be felt to the centre of the Copernican system.” (1100)
Science alienates, and must be remade human – this is Emerson’s opening gambit, and while finely expressed, does not alone suffice. The turn comes when Emerson revisits the question of what interests us: “Nothing interests us which is stark or bounded, but only what streams with life, what is in act or endeavor to reach somewhat beyond.” (1104) Here there is somewhat of a rejection of the earlier narcissism: now what is beautiful stems only from necessity, and what “is done to be seen” is base. (1104) Beauty exists not for its own sake, but as the byproduct of some usefulness.
Applied to the dead objects of science, this usefulness is found in our ability to give them some aim, by which their necessity is revealed. They cease to be ornaments then. So too humans: without some aim, we too are ornamental, and may be done without. “The pleasure a palace or a temple gives the eye, is, that an order and method has been communicated to stones, so that they speak and geometrize, become tender or sublime with expression.” (1104-05)
But narcissism returns: “The felicities of design in art, or in works of Nature, are shadows or forerunners of that beauty which reaches its perfection in the human form.” (1107) Not only science is subordinate to the human; so too is art, and all of nature. It is no coincidence that Emerson calls such artistic and natural beauty “shadows” – one cannot help but recall Plato’s shadows. Why turn to the shadows of art and trees when the sun of humanity shines?
Now, however, this narcissism is cut with the realization that we are interested in what currently lies beyond us. “Yes, I am willing to attract, but to attract a little better kind of a man than any I yet behold.” (1107) This is as it must be, for though the human form is the paradigm of beauty, actual humans are all lacking. “Faces are rarely true to any ideal type, but are a record in sculpture of a thousand anecdotes of whim and folly.” (1108)
This is a serious charge, for Emerson has noted the classic criterion of beauty: symmetry. That is what we lack. “Our bodies do not fit us, but caricature and satirize us.” (1108) Our bodies are out of proportion, not just physically, but in their distribution of talents and capabilities as well. How, then, can they be beautiful? How can we make them beautiful?
Emerson’s phrasing is crucial. He describes human faces as subjected to whim and folly – whim especially standing in opposition to necessity. “Beauty rests on necessities.” (1106) One might then think that whim is to be eliminated, that we ought to strive after perfect symmetry. This would be to ignore Emerson’s famous declaration of self-reliance, that he would write “Whim” on his doorpost. Emerson of course qualifies this – hopes it is better than whim in the end – but whim is still the starting point. The route to beauty is through whim, through the caricatured parts of us. That is why what is called for is self-reliance – reliance on just those biases and partialities that make us ourselves and not another.
Emerson’s thought moves in this direction from every angle: it is the supreme meeting point of his philosophy, where all the threads are tied together. The fundamental problem of human life is that we are partial, we are mixed: there is a material side of us, that wants bread, and usefulness, and power, and an ideal side of us, that wants art, and beauty, and morals. Self-reliance, an embrace of partiality, an acceptance of both aspects of the mixture (and a recognition that the material is not base, but foundation), is Emerson’s solution. This is what he means when he says, at various times, that nature always makes her agents headstrong in their strengths – this caricaturesque quality is what makes it possible for them to act at all. This is why, though he loves symmetry and the general, he does not love the perfect generalist, who has no tools for specific situations, and so is useless. This is why he rejects all forms of idealism that do not acknowledge their material origins: they are pale, and bloodless.
We are of mixed inheritance, “physically as well as metaphysically thing[s] of shreds and patches, borrowed unequally from good and bad ancestors.” (1108) In such a state, a certain narcissism is needed, even if we may hope it is something better than narcissism in the end.
I was unable to write this immediately after reading Emerson’s essay on Swedenborg—thus I am writing it with the benefit of a couple weeks’ forgetting. As such, for better or for worse, this post shall be somewhat cursory.
Emerson, to a great extent, learned from Swedenborg his idealism. Swedenborg saw the natural world as of secondary reality, as symbolically indicating the theological world. Thus “a horse signifies carnal understanding; a tree, perception; the moon, faith; a cat means this; an ostrich, that; an artichoke, the other…” (676) Emerson, too, adopts an idealistic view in which natural facts are symbolic for spiritual truths—I’ve discussed Emerson’s idealism here and here. However, while he has learned from Swedenborg on this point, he offers a major criticism: “The slippery Proteus is not so easily caught.” (676)
In other words, Swedenborg was wrong to affix to each symbol a single meaning. “In nature, each individual symbol plays innumerable parts, as each particle of matter circulates in turn through every system.” (676) Symbols are not so fixed as Swedenborg believed. Nature opposes every attempt to be so limited. To borrow a familiar Emersonian term, any particular use of a symbol is partial. None exhausts a symbol’s richness.
This critique I see as having two facets. The critique itself serves a defensive function, but in so doing it raises a problem that requires a countermovement. First, the defensive function. Emerson uses this criticism as a defense against conformity. A symbol seen as fixed demands conformity: it is right; therefore it must be followed. Emerson is constantly on alert for the threat of such conformity, and urges, “these books should be used with caution.” (682) Caution is required because we are apt to misplace their truth, to see it in the particular symbol used. Rather, we should look for the truth in the particular movement of the symbol—arrest this movement and the value is lost. “True in transition, they become false if fixed.” (682) Emerson makes a striking recommendation for using “these books” safely: “Any other symbol would be as good: then this is safely seen.” (682)
This advice is stated as an extreme: the particular symbol used is totally arbitrary, any other may be used, would be just as good. There is good reason for this: it shuts off all possibility of conformity. At the same time, however, it introduces a danger. This danger is not hidden: it is the danger that everything symbolic is arbitrary, that Emerson’s idealism amounts to aimless spinning, the haphazard substitution of haphazard symbols, an empty game. I confess that Emerson does not raise this problem explicitly, and hence does not respond to it explicitly—nonetheless I see the hint of a response in the essay. I make no pledge of faithfulness, of not overreading.
In the midst of his critique of Swedenborg, Emerson makes a curious claim: “the dictionary of symbols is yet to be written.” (676) The choice of image, a dictionary, is what interests me, for a dictionary is perhaps the least arbitrary book there is, a book where, at every point, not just any word would do, where the utmost of precision and fixity is required. It is clear from Emerson’s critique that any actual book claiming to be this dictionary will end up like Swedenborg’s: fixed and dead. The dictionary will always be “yet to be written.” Nonetheless, Emerson sets it up as an ideal, and that I find telling.
A dictionary—I mean an actual—is a fixed point in the flux of language use, capturing the use at a particular time. Eventually, so long as a language remains alive, every dictionary becomes obsolete. Nonetheless, in capturing a particular moment, it is held to the highest standards of rigor and accuracy. Emerson is more interested in the flux of symbol use than in its dictionary, but the very idea of a dictionary of symbols—however hazardous to that flux—indicates that, within that flux, the appearance of particular symbols at particular places is not arbitrary. It will then be a process of discovery more than of invention to deploy a symbol, to find the right symbol.
That thought, that there is something more like discovery than invention at play in creative genius, seems to me a key to Emerson’s thought. But I have gone as far as I can go with my memory of the essay that brought me to this thought, and so I end.
“It is very unhappy, but too late to be helped, the discovery that we have made, that we exist. That discovery is called the Fall of Man.” (487) Why should it be unhappy to discover that we exist? Consider how, in “Experience”, Emerson defines ‘happiness’: “To fill the hour,—that is happiness; to fill the hour, and leave no crevice for a repentance or an approval.” (478) But to know that you exist, that you act, that you might have acted differently—how is this possible without leaving a “crevice”? So there is an inherent unhappiness in our awareness. Much of the Emersonian task—and the Nietzschean task to come—is to recover joy in the face of this unhappiness.
Immediately preceding Emerson’s recharacterization of the image of the Fall is a reflection on skepticism: “The new statement will comprise the skepticisms, as well as the faiths of society, and out of unbeliefs a creed shall be formed. For, skepticisms are not gratuitous or lawless, but are limitations of the affirmative statement, and the new philosophy must take them in, and make affirmations outside of them, just as much as it must include the oldest beliefs.” (487) There is a skeptical undercurrent running throughout the essay, as when, earlier, Emerson writes what I find the most wonderful sentence in perhaps his entire corpus, “There are objections to every course of life and action, and the practical wisdom infers an indifferency, from the omnipresence of objection.” (480) Here then is a source of skepticism: for no course of action can we have absolute certainty—each is beset by some objection. Were we Cartesians about actions, refusing to act without such assurance, we would all be lumps.
And yet, and yet, does not Emerson tell us what is spiritual just a few pages earlier? Does he not say, “But the definition of spiritual should be, that which is its own evidence” (475)? Just as Descartes resolved his skepticism by an appeal to God, Emerson seems to turn to the divine—only he locates it within the self. There, in self-reliance, we find the stable ground for action, the possibility of certainty. Descartes’ solution was a cop-out; Emerson is not so sanguine. For Emerson finds, lurking beneath the spiritual, the self-evidencing, a still deeper skepticism. It is here, on this shifting ground, that he must find his affirmation, must plant his foundation.
Let us return to the Fall. “Ever afterwards, we suspect our instruments.” (487) Specifically, we suspect our perception of the world: we see through lenses tinted by our values. “We have learned that we do not see directly, but mediately, and that we have no means of correcting these colored and distorting lenses which we are.” (487) And then comes the crucial point: “Perhaps these subject-lenses have a creative power; perhaps there are no objects.” (487) Our evaluations are something creative: they make objects—say, a good man or an evil man—where there was none before. Here is idealism, and one can easily nod here, yes, yes, we know Emerson is an idealist—and in this fashion nod off. But Emerson is not just espousing a tired idealism. He is locating beneath it a disturbing skepticism: all our creativity in valuing, all our self-reliance, all our self-evidencing spirituality—all this may be in error.
That is why “the whole frame of things preaches indifferency.” (478) What is real, in the sense of mind-independent, does not support our values. It is Epicurean, random. What is creative and divine is something mind-dependent, something with no basis beyond ourselves. It is our “Fall” to have come to know this, to be unable to reify our values naively. The possibility of self-reliant affirmation remains, but no longer may it be done self-consciously—happily, if you will. For the crevice is always there, and skepticism leaks in, lingers at the margins. Can it be turned into an affirmation? Well, that is the question, isn’t it?
For a long time I have been mulling writing a post or a series of posts on the relation between poetry and prudence, collecting issues I might like to discuss, organizing them, and so forth. The fruit has not yet ripened, but when Emerson writes an essay on Prudence that addresses just this issue, I cannot but jump into the fire. This post is not what I have been and still am planning, but perhaps it shall help it to take form, or at least introduce a problem. And, in any event, I prefer green tomatoes to red, so perhaps my own immature endeavor shall not be in vain. This will be, I hope, a prolegomenon to future thoughts.
Citations, as usual, are to the Library of America volume of Emerson’s Essays & Lectures.
What right have I to write on Prudence?
Emerson distinguishes two sorts of writing: “We write from aspiration and antagonism, as well as from experience. We paint those qualities which we do not possess.” (357) Where others of his essays are written from experience, here Emerson ventures into a territory known only by aspiration and antagonism—this should be kept in mind. The essay takes the form, in effect, of an exhortation to himself: become prudent! practice the minor virtues! It is not phrased as such—rather, as advice to his readers—but Emerson takes as a rule that one ought “assume that you are saying precisely that which all think” (366), which explains his choice of presentation. What I want to suggest is that it is perhaps Emerson’s natural aloofness to prudence that leads him to underestimate one of its difficulties.
Poetry and prudence should be coincident
What worries Emerson in this essay is the apparent conflict between poetry and prudence. On the one hand, you have the purely prudent individuals, who ask only after the utility of each thing; on the other hand you have purely poetic individuals, such as scholars, who are useless at practical tasks. “The scholar shames us by his bifold life. Whilst something higher than prudence is active, he is admirable; when common sense is wanted, he is an encumbrance.” (363) Emerson wants to bridge this gap.
One way in which this gap is bridged lies in poetry itself. I have written before of the way in which literature must come to grips with its own effacement, its own non-necessity, and this essay provides more fodder for such themes. In the very first paragraph, Emerson remarks, “The poet admires the man of energy and tactics” (357), and not much later adds, in a similar vein, “The domestic man, who loves no music so well as his kitchen clock, and the airs which the logs sing to him as they burn on the hearth, has solaces which others never dream of.” (360) This is a poetic appreciation of the “domestic man”, and it is part and parcel of a view of poetry that sees poetry as celebrating what is poetic in human life, rather than as an apologia for poetry. Whitman, whose (1855) Leaves of Grass I recently read, is perhaps the best exemplar of this poetic trend, if only because this philosophy of poetry not only is borne out by the content of his poems—i.e. the poetic celebration of energy and tactics within them—but is also given explicit voice within his poems: this is what I, Walt Whitman, poet, am doing. But the examples are, really, endless.
Poetry, then, takes upon itself as a primary task the showing of itself as unnecessary by indicating the universal accessibility of poetry in everyday life, if only one looks. Not for nothing does Whitman distinguish the poet from the non-poet by the poet’s ability to see the poetry, unnoticed by the non-poet, in what the non-poet is doing. And what characterizes such lives is, above all else, prudence. Prudence in maintaining a household, in choosing a job, in spending money, etc.
Emerson draws a distinction, however, between true and base prudence. Base prudence is a devotion to matter, which “asks but one question of any project,—Will it bake bread?” (358) And Emerson’s diagnosis is grave: “This is a disease like a thickening of the skin until the vital organs are destroyed.” (358) Against this is true prudence: “The true prudence limits this sensualism by admitting the knowledge of an internal and real world.” (358)
This opens up the question of prudence onto the whole question of Emerson’s realism and idealism. Emerson’s realist pole recognizes the fixity of matter, of causal relations, of natural law, while his idealist pole sees everything as flexible under the influence of an inquiring intellect. Prudence, whether base or true, is tied to the realist axis. “Prudence does not go behind nature, and ask whence it is. It takes the laws of the world, whereby man’s being is conditioned, as they are, and keeps these laws, that it may enjoy their proper good.” (359) It is this first sentence that is key: prudence does not go behind nature, and ask whence it is. Prudence accepts that this is how it is. It is the asking after the “whence it is” that is the domain of poetry, that risks setting all things in motion, that offers the possibility of new evaluations. Poetry holds up the material world to the light of the “internal and real world.” These are the grounds on which poetry and prudence must coincide.
Here lies stubborn matter, and will not swerve from its chemical routine
Emerson has more to say about this coincidence—much of it takes the form of an exhortation to practice the minor, prudential virtues—but my gaze is here drawn to a lurking problem to do with base prudence that I do not think Emerson has sufficiently addressed. My guiding light here is in fact none other than Emerson himself, the Emerson who recognizes that there are objections to every line of action—I always forget where, exactly, this worry finds voice, maybe “Experience”. What Emerson underestimates is base prudence as a source of endless objections to poetry.
To see this requires some groundwork. Emerson is an experimental philosopher, which I take to have two fundamental aspects. First, there is an unflinching commitment to honesty to oneself, one’s true, inner self. Second, there is an ontological gambit: there is no preexisting self to which one can be honest—that self is simultaneous with the honest act. Emerson gives voice to the first of these aspects when he writes, “The natural motions of the soul are so much better than the voluntary ones” (366)—voluntary actions are chosen, but natural motions are necessitated. Emerson—elsewhere, I forget where—notes that there is really only one direction in which the soul can go at any time: any other direction and it runs into a wall. Voluntary action, choosing which way to go, inevitably leads to these walls. Freedom, for Emerson, requires the strictest necessity.
But this means that honesty to oneself is paramount—yet such honesty can always find objections from without. And base prudence is one source of such objections. An experimentally honest action need not be prudent—indeed, the material utility of any action is more or less universal and can efface individuality in the wrong way—and so the “sickness” of base prudence is precisely that the question “will it bake bread” is liable to distract from such honesty. Emerson notes that matter is “stubborn” (359), by which he refers to the fixity of natural law, but matter is “stubborn” in another way, too: it stubbornly puts this question to us.
When prudence functions in this way, as the source of endless objections, clearly poetry and prudence are not coincident. One must privilege honesty, or one must privilege utility, but in either case, they pull in opposite directions. A unity of poetry and prudence requires some method of quelling this tide of prudential objections to poetic honesty, yet Emerson, at least in this essay, provides none. Thus I can only conclude that the problem of harmonizing poetry and prudence remains unsolved.
In our encounters with others, living and dead, we see only part of what is there. With the living, we see them at separated moments; often we see only their accomplishments and not the struggle that brought them there. We see, in short, an outline, constructed on the basis of a small selection of details, while most details are lost to us. With the dead this is heightened. I experience nothing of Emerson the living body, only Emerson’s essays, Emerson’s journals, biographies of Emerson—again, a mere plan or outline of Emerson, anchored by a handful of reference points.
Emerson, in his essay “Love”, writes, “Details are melancholy; the plan is seemly and noble.” It is precisely the poverty of reference points, with respect to others, that allows us to idealize them, to make them into perfect individuals. Such a noble plan can only be sullied by a profusion of melancholy details. In our encounters with ourselves, by contrast, we are exposed to every detail. This is why the truly honest individual will find far more grounds for self-criticism than criticism of others.
In this context I want to reflect on journaling, on keeping a log of events, moods, thoughts, reflections, diagnoses. For the past two years, basically since I began this blog, I have been keeping such a journal—many of my posts in fact originate there. My first begins September 2011, though in fact that is just the first that has survived, and is predated by a few abortive attempts, dating back probably to sometime in 2009 or 2010. Recently, I have begun indexing them, which involves both rereading them and organizing their contents according to my current interests. Thus I am in the midst of a sustained encounter with my past selves.
This encounter is not so much an encounter with myself as an encounter with some other, some outsider. This other, or better, these others, are of interest to me because they became me, and because many of their problems are the same as my own—indeed, I have recovered valuable suggestions for myself from them—but equally they have different problems, and different contexts for the problems we share. Most of all, though, by its very nature the encounter takes the form of an encounter with another. I see only a small handful of details, and from these reference points construct a plan of my past selves.
What are these reference points? My journals, to an extent that in hindsight I find frustrating, mostly do not focus on the external events of my life. References to such come every five pages, perhaps. Most of the contents are more intellectual, in a value-neutral sense. They consist of reactions to works of art, reactions to philosophers, abstract reflections on philosophical topics, abstract reflections on puzzles of life, the occasional concrete reflection on the problems of life, and, above all else, self-diagnoses. To an extent that I would find surprising were the tendency not still within me, albeit now more fruitfully channeled, I was self-critical. On perhaps every other page there are obsessive worryings about my failings, sometimes optimistic, more often pessimistic.
These self-diagnoses provide a useful window into the nature of this endeavor as an experience of a succession of others, rather than with myself. One theme that arises in these self-criticisms is the worry that I am being fundamentally dishonest, that my journaling consists primarily of lies. Or, if not lies, acting. I worried that I was writing as if for an audience, and trying to please them, and that this influenced my style, my topics, etc. These critical entries are sweeping: they condemn everything to the flames.
In an abstract sense, I can understand what might have motivated this. Many of the entries are nothing more than recycled Emerson or recycled Nietzsche, and moreover on topics that, at the time, I know I had no real experience with. Yet they are written as if they are my own discoveries, and not mere secondhand recycling of others. At the same time, I have no recollection of the moods that prompted these entries—the derivative entries and the self-diagnoses both.
This is the crux. My encounter with my old journals takes place in abstraction from the moods that drove my journaling in the first place. I face, as it were, the other minds problem: my only access to my past mind is what I can reconstruct, can infer from what I wrote and how I wrote it. Now I am bemused, more than aught else, by these worries about honesty, because what I see, amidst the derivative entries, is a burgeoning creativity and reflectiveness that has made my current self, for all its flaws, possible. It is this same creativity that I attempt to cultivate here. I am friendlier with my past than my past was with itself—and than I am with myself, now.
But this is just it. The plan of my past self I have constructed, while not really idealized, is based on insufficient, highly selective reference points—points which, moreover, are viewed through my current interests—and it is this selectiveness that makes possible my new relation to my old selves. Had I to live all the melancholy details of those days over again, no doubt I would be just as critical. It is the difference between reading, say, a self-diagnosis of the hours I wasted and the experience itself of wasting those hours
These reflections were occasioned by my journaling, but the point is general, I believe. We cannot but encounter our pasts in the way we encounter others. There is a disconnect between such an experience and the experience of our daily self-encounters. The question, then, is to what creative use can we put our pasts.
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“Love”, incidentally, is perhaps Emerson’s weakest essay—that is why I have strayed so far from it. It struggles to escape the neo-Platonism it sets for itself as a launchpoint, but manages only a few half-hearted leaps, insufficient to escape the gravitational pull of the old view. But perhaps the greatest missed opportunity, in light of what I have focused on above, is the manner in which love puts two people in such contact that they must come to know one another’s details, and not just their plans—yet, for all this melancholy, they love regardless. What is it about love that manages that? But, alas, Emerson did not look in this direction.