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Self-reliance, aesthetically considered

Why be self-reliant? Emerson offers an aesthetic justification in “Behavior”: lack of self-possession is ugly, and painfully so.

Those who are not self-possessed, obtrude, and pain us. Some men appear to feel that they belong to a Pariah caste. They fear to offend, they bend and apologize, and walk through life with a timid step. (1046)

There is a tone to our actions, and two instances of what is nominally the same action may be unmistakably distinguished by their possessing distinct tones. The one acts with assurance, the other with apology, and though the act alone be of equal value in each, we are willing followers of the former, and detest the latter.

One would say, that the persuasion of their speech is not in what they say, – or that men do not convince by their argument, – but by their personality, by who they are, and what they said and did heretofore. (1048)

One means by which such a tone is generated is through manners, etiquette – I am convinced Emerson would have named this essay “Manners” had he not already published an essay by that name in Essays: Second Series. Self-reliance stands opposed to conformity, but nonconformity here does not mean reckless abandonment of etiquette, that powerful creator of forms. Forms are requisite for expression – they are constraints only when they are imposed upon the content.

An illustration of the point may be found in poetry. Paul Fussell, in his book requisite for all readers of poetry (Poetic Meter & Poetic Form), notes that what makes poems poetic is their density: that each element may be seen to contribute to the meaning, that none are tacked on or arbitrary. If a poem contains stanza divisions, those divisions must matter. If a poem has a meter, that meter must bubble up out of the poem’s content, and prove itself worthy of it. &c.

So too actions. One can not simply add form, manners, tone to action arbitrarily. Actions require density. Or, better, persons require density.

And you cannot rightly train one to an air and manner, except by making him the kind of man of whom that manner is the natural expression. Nature forever puts a premium on reality. What is done for effect, is seen to be done for effect; what is done for love, is felt to be done for love. (1047)

No more than one can write a poem in iambic pentameter whose thought does not so move, can one cultivate a person’s appearance who remains barbaric underneath. The barbarism will show through.

One of the aesthetic markers of self-reliance – I note in passing a confidence between Emerson and Nietzsche on this point – is a mistrust of too much giving grounds. One need only watch a contemporary discussion between disputants each of whom is concerned to display his rationality, his cautiousness, his consideration of all sides, his charity to opponents to be disgusted by the ugliness of a too great love of the appearance of rationality.

Emerson noted this opposition in grand style in his essay on “Self-Reliance”:

I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. (262)

It is important, however, so he reiterates here, with an interesting variation:

Self-reliance is the basis of behavior, as it is the guaranty that the powers are not squandered in too much demonstration. In this country, where school education is universal, we have a superficial culture, and a profusion of reading and writing and expression. We parade our nobilities in poems and orations, instead of working them up into happiness. (1048)

In this expression of the point, Emerson ties it to the thought that poetry might profitably disappear – not his first time having entertained such a thought. He mistrusts that poetry (and other writing) that becomes a show of nobility, often at the expense of the enacting of that nobility. Were this form of poetry to disappear, what is poetic in it would nonetheless remain: “when a man does not write his poetry, it escapes by other vents through him […] clings to his form and manners…” (1048)

This disappearance of poetry is, moreover, annexed to a consideration of happiness: there is something sickly, unhappy, about a person who sacrifices happiness to poetizing. As a person possessive of at least pretensions to such poetizing, this thought is interesting to and useful for me. Ought I not to write, in favor of other forms of expression? I do not think so, and do not believe that I am merely gratifying myself in so thinking. What this suggests to me instead is that Emerson places a priority first on happiness (by which I do not believe he means that sloppy self-content that today sometimes carries the name). Once this is secured, it may overflow into poetry.

The requirement is that poetry be a product of joy, of healthful morning hours. If such joy be its fount, it will adopt poetic bearing of its own accord, and wear it regally. If not, all the cultivation of form imposed upon it will not protect forever the impostor.

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Long Distance Communication

“We should meet each morning, as from foreign countries, and spending the day to­gether, should depart at night, as into foreign countries. In all things I would have the island of a man inviolate. Let us sit apart as the gods, talking from peak to peak all round Olympus.” (522)

Communication, for Emerson, takes place at long distance, or ought to. Emerson’s essay “Manners” is on etiquette, on fashion, and Emerson extracts what he can from the theme. It is a shifting, unstable ground, different in each part of the world, and in the same part at different times, but Emerson tries to locate what honor he can. What is good in fashion stems from self-reliance and a sort of primal power. “In a good lord, there must first be a good animal, at least to the extent of yielding the incomparable advantage of animal spirits.” (515) Fashion molds this animal nature, but does not eliminate it.

But ultimately, Emerson cannot say much in favor of manners. They are purely a social lubricant. “They aid our dealing and conversation.” (517) Yet, as the quote above shows, dealing and conversation is not Emerson’s home—it is a place of which he is greatly skeptical, which should be entered only occasionally, as a long distance voyage from one’s own island—an island which must “in all things” remain inviolate. Or, in other words, communication is, or ought to be, long distance.

Not only that, but it is, I suspect, in part to avoid the trappings of manners that Emerson prefers long distance communication. “Moral qualities rule the world, but at short distances, the senses are despotic.” (523) Amoral manners are required to preserve beauty when we see each other at close range—better not to be at close range at all, and preserve the absolute rule of morality. This is really one of Emerson’s most anti-social essays: morality is individual, manners are social, and manners only interfere with morality.

“My gentleman gives the law where he is; he will outpray saints in chapel, outgeneral veterans in the field, and outshine all courtesy in the hall. He is good company for pirates, and good with academicians; so that it is useless to fortify yourself against him; he has the private entrance to all minds, and I could das easily exclude myself, as him.” (516)

This antisociality manifests itself also in Emerson’s brief moment of touching upon other minds skepticism. The worry of other minds skepticism is, roughly, that the consciousness of an individual is a sort of bubble, a region to which its possessor has access first-hand, and all others only second hand. But if I can never experience what lies inside the mind of another, how can I have knowledge of another’s mind?

Much like in the essay I discussed yesterday, Emerson offers a resolution to the problem. The gentleman “has the private entrance to all minds”—the gentleman, in short, is not plagued by this skepticism. But this invocation of the gentleman comes at the start of Emerson’s essay, before the major reversal comes. I place this reversal at the point where Emerson says, “The persons who constitute the natural aristocracy, are not found in the actual aristocracy.” (527) But even more than the failure of society to pick out its gentlemen, there may be a paucity of gentlemen altogether, indeed there may be a total absence. For the gentleman here is another of Emerson’s fantasies, alongside the scholar in “The American Scholar”, for instance. The best we mortals are allowed is to “sit apart as the gods, talking from peak to peak all round Olympus.” We do not get a resolution to this skepticism; we must leave the island of consciousness inviolate.