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A reader’s anti-Kantianism

Since deciding, on a whim, to write a book on Emerson, I have thought it prudent to foray further into the viny growths clinging to the trunks of his books, known more colloquially as the secondary literature. From this experience – still only in its beginnings – I have been brought to the following reflections.

I have read Lawrence Buell’s Emerson, and profited by it, but I think the book as a whole is fine, and no more than fine. Now I have begun reading Branka Arsić’ book On Leaving. I have not read much of it, but already I have profited by it. Yet I can foresee that by the end of the book I will most likely think it – just fine. Even as I enjoy it, and gain by reading it, there is a lack of enthusiasm – a dire indictment of a book about Emerson’s philosophy of leaving, given that Emerson seems to see enthusiasm as a necessary condition of leaving:

The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment. (414)

Why this lack of enthusiasm? There are a number of reasons; I begin with that reason that furnishes me with my title, and which is the root of all the others. Buell and Arsić both are interpreters of Emerson. They aim to locate what is within his text, and to draw it out. Perhaps they reorganize it, but not out of faithlessness – they only want to bring it into a light that reveals it more clearly.

One might say that their form of reading, interpretation, is Kantian, following the Kantian categorical imperative to always treat another as an end in herself, and never as a mere means to an end. They treat the text, or its meaning, as an end, and make themselves into the means by which that end is aided in its realization. Their own thought is made secondary, subservient to that of Emerson.

There are Emersonian reasons to mistrust such Kantianism. It makes the interpretation into a form of quotation, in the sense in which Emerson despised quotation:

Quotation confesses inferiority. In opening a new book we often discover, from the unguarded devotion with which the writer gives his motto or text, all we have to expect from him. If Lord Bacon appears already in the preface, I go and read the “Instauration” instead of the new book. (Here – I first read it, I believe, in his journals)

Inherent in the very idea of interpretation is the threat of redundancy: in the perfect interpretation, nothing is present that cannot be traced back, without distortion, to the interpreted text—why then, not skip the hassle, and just read the original? (There are reasons why; I shall come to them in time.)

Further disadvantages attend the decision to make the text with which one begins the end and not a means. First among these is the necessary incompleteness of all interpretation. The only text that will ever exhaust all the meaning in Emerson’s corpus, is Emerson’s corpus. Every interpretation is partial, is selective. It may pick out aspects, or strands, and make them clearer, but at the expense of cleaving them from the root system by which they are nourished. They become dead specimens only.

Because there is selection, we must ask on what basis this selection occurs. It may be selfish in a petty fashion (“I chose these aspects because they were those that interested me”), but never selfish in a properly individual fashion (“I chose these aspects because they belong equally to me, as to Emerson”), for, while the former is never complete, it at least actively avoids falsification – the latter does not, is much more careless. If there can be no individual in the selection, there can be no genius in it. It is genius that, when we are genial, redeems selection and partiality.

Where this selection most differs from the original will lie, not in the content selected (for if it is truly selected and not invented, it will all agree with the original), but in the emphases placed upon it. Too often I find these new emphases suspiciously flattering to the vanity of our contemporary tastes. It is true that Emerson was no nationalist, but should we draw our attention to that in an age in which the stupidity of nationalism is rather widely acknowledge? (Consider the audience for which such interpretations are written.) It is true that Emerson had progressive, for his time, views on women and slavery, but should we turn our eyes repeatedly to that, at a time where the non-superiority of white men to other humans is more or less obvious to all? It is, of course, a necessary if unpleasant task to have to defend Emerson from misunderstandings on these points, but this task should be accomplished as quietly and with as little fanfare as possible. To celebrate Emerson most for those aspects of his thought that today we find most comfortable – that we must avoid.

I also detect, in Arsić especially, a related, equally unfortunate tendency to “help” Emerson with the specific ways points are rephrased. Nietzsche speaks (The Wanderer and his Shadow §5) of those who “[accustom] us to a feignedly exaggerated linguistic usage” – i.e. those who surround a thing with purple prose, and make it desirable on account of how it has been described, in order to cover up for its lack of any tangible appeal. I find that same exaggeration in Arsić: who inserts into the reader’s mind images of “unrelenting aversive experimentation,” “radical restlessness,” of habit that “devastates life.” Taken alone, none is egregious, but together they leave a sense less of urgency than merely of being hectored. I cannot help but feel, moreover, that such insistence that Emerson is radical substitutes a façade of interestingness for a delicate attention to his thoughts – for if his thoughts are truly radical, they will impress on their own, without needing the help of the word.

An interpretation is at a further disadvantage with regard to its errors. Once faithfulness is pledged, one is committed to saying what Emerson said, and any deviations are to be regarded as errors. This is especially unfortunate for a book that highlights Emerson’s views on leaving, for the interpreter is chained to Emerson, and cannot leave. Each departure is, again, an error, and not a venture. Thus when Arsić overstates Emerson’s dissatisfaction with habit – e.g. by insisting that Emerson wishes we had no habits, rather than merely short habits (ch. 1, n18), or by claiming that, for Emerson, “there is no identity worthy of keeping or celebrating” (35) – the value of these ideas in themselves is not open for discussion, for discussion ends when it is noted that they are (probably) not Emerson’s ideas. Emerson never, to my knowledge, so unambiguously advocates against any ubiquitous aspect of human life. Emerson does not want there to be no habits, except perhaps in some of his most heavily rhetorical (and inevitably self-undermined) moods.

It is for this reason that I am skeptical of the interpretive enterprise, especially as it pertains to Emerson. All this is not to say there is no value to such interpretations. I have learned from Buell, and I have learned from Arsić. Both have their flaws – Arsić, for instance, has a tendency to lapse into moments of platitude or, worse, unmeaning – but they have their virtues as well. They are both good qua Emerson scholarship. I suspect nonetheless that such Kantian endeavors can never be more than “just fine”—the genius lies elsewhere, and the value of an Arsić or a Buell is secondary: it lies in directing me back to this genius with enhanced eyes.

What, then, is an alternative? If Kantianism is the flaw, perhaps some form of narcissism, of selfishness, of treating oneself as the ends and others as the means, will prove to be the key. I spoke earlier of the sense in which Emerson hates quotations; I can now go on to the sense in which he adores quotations:

When we are praising Plato, it seems we are praising quotations from Solon and Sophron and Philolaus. Be it so. Every book is a quotation; and every house is a quotation out of all forests and mines and stone quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors. And this grasping inventor puts all nations under contribution. (634)

We are incessant quoters, yes, but what we quote is waste stock, as Emerson called it in his essay on Shakespeare. Waste stock is not to be respected, not to be treated as an end in itself. It is to be used where it offers utility, and ignored where it does not. So too the writer on Emerson: Emerson should be used where he is of use, and forgotten otherwise. To treat him as a means only, to use him without respect for his wishes and intents – only that can lead to a book of primary and not secondary interest.

It may be that this leads to something unselfish in the end, to something that respects Emerson as an end. My insistence that Emerson was a genuine egotist, and that this aspect of his thought cannot be wiped away, does not deny that he hoped egotism would result in something other than mere egotism. If Emerson and I come to share a voice, then I will respect him, even revere him as a god, and this is a form of the “transpersonal” or “impersonal” that is claimed (by both Buell and Arsić) to show Emerson is no egotist. It is, however, only by a thoroughgoing egotism (coupled, I grant, with self-mistrust) that this transpersonal is achieved – and such achievement is not guaranteed, nor necessarily even likely.

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Three reflections on Emerson

In the blur that has been these past three days—since I am writing this after midnight, perhaps I had better call it four—I have come to the close of Emerson’s second series of essays. Fittingly, perhaps, while reading “New England Reformers”, I had no unified idea for a post, so here are three scattered reactions upon its ideas.

[I] Another attempt to justify misreading Emerson

There is power over and behind us, and we are the channels of its communications. We seek to say thus and so, and over our head some spirit sits, which contradicts what we say. (607)

There is something more to what we say, than what we intend. It is not Emerson’s purpose here, I think, to condemn what has come to be called the intentional fallacy, the use of authorial intent in interpretation. The claim is milder, yet more invigorating nonetheless: intent is excellent, so far as it goes, but always something escapes it. We do not quite know what we say, and thus are imperfect guides to our own thought.

My readings or misreadings of Emerson take this thought as their license. A too slavish devotion to Emerson would not even leave me with Emerson. Why not, then, seek what is behind his thought? But keep in mind, here, what is likely to be found behind his thought. It can only be biography. What I am seeking behind Emerson is, inevitably, myself. I am the worst sort of reader: I put myself into the text, then pull myself back out, as if I had made some grand discovery.

Or so it stands when my readings succeed. Of course I will not deny that often, perhaps usually, they fail, and the sad result is a passable interpretation of Emerson. I shall try always to keep these to a minimum.

[II] The apparent impossibility of friendship

There can be no concert in two, when there is no concert in one. When the individual is not individual, but is dual; when his thoughts look one way, and his actions another; when his faith is traversed by his habits; when his will, enlightened by reason, is warped by his sense; when with one hand he rows, and with the other backs water, what concert can be? (599)

Here, then, is a recipe for friendship, or any other alliance between two individuals. Each is to be unified with herself—only then may she work with another. But is such unity within oneself possible? Let us look at what happens when Emerson, two pages later, tries to defend the possibility, even the inevitability of a union between two:

I do not believe that the differences of opinion and character in men are organic. I do not recognize, beside the class of the good and the wise, a permanent class of skeptics, or a class of conservatives, or of malignants, or of materialists. I do not believe in two classes. (601)

A bold statement of the unity between two, a unity on which Emerson unconditionally insists. But the price of this unity between two is disunity within the individual.

I do not believe in two classes of men, but in man in two moods, in Philip drunk and Philip sober. (601)

We know, already, that Emersonian moods do not believe in one another. Moreover, in “Nominalist and Realist”, we learn that this disunity of moods makes sincerity a sort of impossibility: “I am always insincere, as always knowing there are other moods.” (587) What, then comes of Emerson’s “concert”? Insofar as concert is possible, insofar as the two classes melt into one, there is disunity lurking below—disunity that seems to preclude the very possibility of concert. Friendship, for Emerson, may very well be impossible.

[III] Experimental lessons of science

The lessons of science should be experimental also. The sight of the planet through a telescope, is worth all the course on astronomy: the shock of the electric spark in the elbow, out-values all the theories; the taste of the nitrous oxide, the firing of an artificial volcano, are better than the volumes of chemistry. (594)

I have a hunch that the point of this passage may be expressed in terms of property, of ownership. There is a sense in which human knowledge—that which is produced by contemporary laboratories at ever-increasing rates—belongs to no one, or only to very few. Those at work in the lab may finish a successful experiment with knowledge, but perhaps no one else will. This I tried to capture, with some of its ramifications, in my recent essay on skepticism. It is not enough to read a book to come to possess knowledge, so most of today’s knowledge remains predominantly unpossessed.

For this reason, I prefer the act of discovery that brings some piece of knowledge into someone’s possession, even if that act contributes nothing to human knowledge. In Emersonian terms: every mind must go over the whole ground for itself. What a mind does not go over itself, it cannot obtain by any other means. It is the activity of science that is experimental, whereas the uptake of science is ever so much conformity and disappointment.

Intent and Experiment

While working this afternoon on a translation of Kafka’s Das Urteil—the last I shall at­tempt for a while, as I find translating distracts me from reading—I received a gift in the form of further reflections on Emerson’s “Spiritual Laws”. I must obey the gods, so here is a second post on that essay. It comes in the form of a reflection on the intentional fal­lacy. Almost everything I know about the academic debate about intentionalism, I know from Noël Carroll’s very able defense of intentionalism in Beyond Aesthetics. I am also no doubt informed by Stanley Cavell’s “Music Discomposed” and “A Matter of Meaning It” (from Must Me Mean What We Say), two wonderful texts whose content I have almost en­tirely forgotten, but whose effects I hope stick with me still.

Debate over the intentional fallacy is a bit of meta-discourse about the practice of interpretation: at stake is the way in which we go about interpreting texts. Intentionalists (such as Carroll) say that we should be guided, for the most part, by the author’s intent. What was she trying to say with the work? How did she intend it to operate? Interpretation should uncover the answers to such questions; thereby we attain understanding of the work. Against this, there are those, once led by Cleanth Brooks and W.K. Wimsatt, who argue that it is a fallacy to see interpretation as beholden to the author’s intent—they label this the intentional fallacy. Instead, interpretation should stick to the work itself, and deal only with what is present therein. I shall call Brooks and company “fallacists”, as I find the word fun to say.

In a sense I think this is a non-debate. We should ask what is the goal of interpretation. Intentionalists and fallacists will no doubt agree that the goal is either truth, understanding, or both. As I see it, intentionalists strive to be true to the author’s intent, while fallacists strive for truth to the work itself. This may lead to clashes, for what one finds in the work may not be what the author intended, but are such clashes to be resolved by matters of more than taste? I am not so sure.

Yet I do want to raise some problems, inspired by Emerson’s essay, about intentionalism and fallacism in turn. What happens if we see works, texts, as experiments? In my post from earlier today I discussed at length the relation between experiments and theories about what one is doing. As Emerson puts it, “There is less intention in history than we ascribe to it.” (306) If works are not aimed at producing some specific result, foreseen in advance, but experimental inquiries aimed at finding out what will happen, then there may be no intent to be had. Intent, in such a scenario, is something added on after the fact: ah, so I accomplished this? Very well, that is what I intended! Intentionalists would then be groping in thin air, attempting to construct a theory of the work that mirrors that of the artist—yet the artist has no such theory. In such a case, intentionalism is genuinely a fallacy.

Is this a victory for the fallacists? I do not think so. Just as the intentionalists falsely assumed that the existence of an intent to which they could be true, the fallacists falsely assume the existence of a self-sufficient work which they might be true. Not so. “What can we see or acquire, but what we are? You have observed a skillful man reading Virgil. Well, that author is a thousand books to a thousand persons. Take the book into your two hands, and read your eyes out; you will never find what I find.” (314) The work itself is unfinished until it contacts a reader, a conversational partner, with whom it may engage in a joint experiment. What are the effects of this work? A senseless question until we specify the recipient of its effects. The work exists to be encountered, and once encountered, it is permissive, willing to travel alongside its partner down innumerable paths.

Interpretation, on this view, aims neither at truth-to-intent nor truth-to-the-work, but at fidelity to one’s own experience. It is the faithful recording of the results of the experiment—just as was the original work. Indeed, the best interpretation should be a work in its own right, should produce effects as difficult to foresee as those of the original work. Do not settle for transmitting bland truths that anyone may find. The best interpretation offers itself up for a thousand encounters as intense as that from which it grew. Else it has no business being written. And, though it should go without saying, we cannot expect or enforce a foolish consistency across repeated encounters of a single work by a single individual.

Now I must confess to a sleight of hand. I have not undermined either intentionalism or fallacism, not really. For authors and artists are not blind in their creations. They do have intent as they create—vindication for the intentionalist—and they do produce self-standing works—vindication for the fallacists. The question of how to interpret such works remains open—I have contributed nothing to answering it—so long as the task of interpretation in the classic sense remains one we consider worthwhile. And therein lies my real purpose, my real intent as it were: to suggest that perhaps this classic task of interpretation is not an important one. It is a choice, so far as I can see, whether to treat of works in the manner of intentionalists and fallacists, or whether to treat of them in a more experimental manner. I urge the latter. Interpretation becomes words about words, and soon enough words about words about words. Better, to my taste, acts upon acts. I have called these acts upon acts “interpretations”, but I needn’t have. Perhaps I would have been better off following Deleuze and Guattari when they praise experimentation over interpretation. In any event, I look for encounters. I value effects over understanding.

What effects—I do not know. Not yet.