Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Lawrence Buell’

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.

Advertisements

Is Emerson safe to handle?

2014/05/07 9 comments

The knock on Walter Kaufmann, who is generally given credit for rescuing Nietzsche’s reputation from the Nazis, is that in carrying out this rescue operation he to too great an extent sanitized Nietzsche, made him safe. Perhaps this was once necessary, but in the end the harsher aspects of Nietzsche must be recovered. It seems to me that the same might be said of readers of and writers on Emerson. It is worth asking, in reading secondary literature on Emerson, to what extent the author smoothes over Emerson’s rough edges.

This way of thinking about the literature on Emerson occurred to me while reading Lawrence Buell’s Emerson. Buell, in his discussion of Emerson’s twin lineages—American pragmatism, and Nietzsche—notes that James made Emerson safe in a way that Nietzsche did not. “The point is not that James was a company-man pedant, for he most certainly was not, but that even Emersonian wickedness was safely canonical and therefore somewhat anodyne for him as it was not for Nietzsche.” (239) This is not the first bit of inspiration I have received from Buell’s mostly quite good book. But despite owing Buell thanks for showing me this tool, I nevertheless feel compelled to turn it on him.

One of Buell’s concerns in the book is to show how, for Emerson, self-reliance is not egotism, for the self on which one is reliant is always something transpersonal, even impersonal. It is true that Emerson speaks this way, and I myself have, in the past, taken this as comfort in my reading of Emerson. But now I suspect that this way of reading Emerson is too easy and too convenient, and not faithful to Emerson himself. In one of the locations at which Buell discusses this aspect of Emerson, he picks up on what Emerson says in “Self-Reliance”: “To believe that what is true for you in your own private heart is true for all men,—that is genius” (quoted in Buell, 236). (This quote is the one of which I was thinking when I wrote, yesterday, of “Emerson’s insistence that genius is the universalization of one’s own individuality.”) Buell comments that this shows “that the basis of the trust is that the inmost must be some sort of universal. Truth must be generated as personal experience, but personal experience can count as truth only insofar as it carries transpersonal, exemplary force.” (237)

This reading of Emerson is comforting, at least for those who stick by Emerson, because it mitigates his apparently extreme individualism, his advocacy of self-reliance even when one finds that one is “the devil’s child”. But I think Buell is putting too much hope in this purported “transpersonal, exemplary force” of the individual’s private truth—more hope than Emerson placed in it. (In what follows, I will presuppose familiarity with the themes of the short essay “Two poles of genius” that I wrote yesterday.)

Buell picks up on Emerson’s reversal of Kant to the extent that he grants that, for Emerson, “truth must be generated as personal experience,” whereas Kant’s tests of the universalizability of a maxim do not make any such detour through personal experience. That much, in Buell, is right. But it is not enough. It ascribes to Emerson the belief that what is arrived at through personal experience will be something universal, thus acceptable to all. I do not think Emerson had any such hope. In “Uses of Great Men”, the universalizing tendency of genius appears in animal guise: “every individual strives to grow and exclude, and to exclude and grow, to the extremities of the universe, and to impose the law of its being on every other creature.” (628) [I wonder, by the by, whether this passage might not be a precursor to Nietzsche’s views on will to power.] Here, the universalization of genius does not proceed in a safe, friendly manner—it is an act of aggression, of violence, from which others have to protect themselves.

Where Buell takes Emerson’s insistence on the transpersonal to provide a way of evading the charge of egotism, of promoting reliance on oneself even at the expense of others, it seems to me that Emerson was well aware that his doctrine of self-reliance had precisely the implication that it will bring individuals into conflict, that any agreement between individuals will be partial and temporary (cf. his essays on “Love” and “Friendship”), that individuals need defenses from others. Buell is making Emerson safe.