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.
Emerson’s essay on Goethe makes for a disappointing conclusion to Representative Men. Though the Swedenborg essay is but ho-hum, the remainder scintillates. The introductory essay and the essays on Plato yield crucial insights into Emerson’s conception of genius. The essays on Montaigne and Napoleon open up the skepticisms at the heart of Emerson’s philosophy. The concept of “waste stock” in the essay on Shakespeare offers profounder insight into how to read Emerson than any other source I know. But the essay on Goethe, the writer, seems to offer little of substance. Perhaps this speaks more to the mood in which I read it than to the essay itself—I am in no position to say. This post, my initial reaction, must reflect my disappointment.
At the end of the essay, Emerson lumps together Napoleon and Goethe as “being both representatives of the impatience and reaction of nature against the morgue of conventions.” (761) If there is a fatal flaw in the essay, it is that the entire essay resides in this morgue, hardly struggling against it. There is no motion of thought, merely a going through the motions. There is no animation, no vitality. There are dead letters only.
The trouble is that Emerson at every term voices consistent Emersonian themes—the selectivity of genius, the inevitability of partiality, the necessity to connect what one reads to one’s own experience—but in a way that lacks connection. What makes Emerson thrilling is the move from one thought to another, the way he refuses to rest on what he has said, but constantly reevaluates it, rephrases it, reconceives it. The ideas are, in a way, the vessels through which Emerson’s thought runs. They give it shape, but what stimulates is the thought and not the container. Here there is only the container, and not the thought.
But Emerson does diagnose his own failings well, though he does not say that is what he is doing. One of the classic Emersonian themes is the dangerous relationship humans have to their pasts: our former actions threaten to make us slaves. (I treated this at some length here.) That recurs in this essay.
Men’s actions are too strong for them. Show me a man who has acted, and who has not been the victim and slave of his action. What they have done commits and enforces them to do the same again. The first act, which was to be an experiment, becomes a sacrament. (749)
So too with this essay. Emerson has, in what came before, laid out his themes. Now he must repeat them. But the experiment is lost, and the essay becomes sacrament, the enforced repetition of his past. Emerson has become a slave to his own thought. “There is no spirit, but repetition, which is anti-spiritual.” (749)
An example will help illustrate this. Many of the essays in Representative Men follow a similar trajectory: first high praise, then a rapid reversal and criticism. There are variations: the Swedenborg essay devotes more space to condemnation than to praise, the Montaigne essay has little condemnation because Montaigne barely finds his way into the essay, and the Napoleon essay has a certain cold distance even in its praise. The purest example of the form is the Shakespeare essay—I examined Emerson’s use of the reversal here. The essay on Goethe, too, contains such a reversal. Within the essay, however, it feels unmotivated. Here is where the reversal occurs:
The old Eternal Genius who built the world has confided himself more to this man than to any other. I dare not say that Goethe ascended to the highest grounds from which genius has spoken. (758)
These two sentences are probably not enough to give the sense fully, but they at least hint at the abruptness of the change, the complete switch from one thought to the next, without any apparent ground. This is perhaps because the only ground is this: I had better not praise him too much. I had better show his partiality—not to do so would be unworthy of my name, that is, my past.
This disjointedness is, funnily enough, one of the grounds on which Emerson criticizes Goethe. Though Goethe is representative of the writer, he is incomplete as the writer. The writer, for Emerson, has really three tasks: to receive facts and experiences, to select among them those that are worthy, and to organize them. Goethe succeeds at the first two, but not at the third.
He is fragmentary; a writer of occasional poems, and of an encyclopædia of sentences. When he sits down to write a drama or a tale, he collects and sorts his observations from a hundred sides, and combines them into the body as fitly as he can. A great deal refuses to incorporate: this he adds loosely, as letters of the parties, leaves from their journals, or the like. A great deal still is left that will not find any place. This the bookbinder alone can give any cohesion to… (760)
I have read but little Goethe, and so can say nothing about the accuracy of the charge. It applies, however, to Emerson’s essay. Emerson has many wise observations—they are the observations he has made elsewhere. But they cannot find a place. They do not sit together, except physically, thanks to the bookbinder. As thoughts, they sit distant, alone, uncommunicating.
William Sharp MacLeay, at the start of his Horae Entomologicae, a once famous but now obscure work of natural history, apologizes for himself. “In offering to the public this, his first essay in Entomology, the author thinks it by no means unlikely that he shall incur the charge of aiming at innovations in the science.” MacLeay rests on the hope, however, that the sympathetic reader will recognize that he wishes rather “to reconcile with each other the observations of his predecessors” than “to controvert or obliterate the result of their labours.” Here is a scientific climate that mistrusts novelty and values tradition, in which the appearance of innovation always requires external justification. Novelty never justifies itself.
Something like this climate permeates Emerson’s essay on Shakespeare, in which Emerson is concerned to establish Shakespeare as a genius—though we now know that we must be cautious about what this means. Two facets of genius emerge in the essay: genius as borrower, and genius as impartial. These are closely intertwined.
“Great men are more distinguished by range and extent, than by originality.” (710) It is the breadth of a man’s fine thoughts that earns him, from Emerson, the title of genius. The task of the genius, of the poet, is not to exercise choice in developing novelties. It is to be receptive what is good in the thought of his time, “forced onward by the ideas and necessities of his contemporaries.” (710) When the task is to present what is good, memory is as valuable as invention. The situation is that others speak well sometimes, and foolishly other times, and cannot tell the difference—it is the genius who can tell. Thus the geniuses of history “are librarians and historiographers, as well as poets.” (714) In sum: “The greatest genius is the most indebted man.” (710)
In the everlasting battle between tradition and invention, then, Emerson sides with tradition. It is not surprising that this should be so. There is something cheap about all innovation: it always seems to come to something not really new, and we suspect the great innovators have merely a talent for rearrangement. If, as has been posited, there is nothing new under the sun, innovation starts to seem a game, a triviality.
There are further reasons, which emerge in Emerson’s “waste stock” theory. “Shakspeare, in common with his comrades, esteemed the mass of old plays, waste stock, in which any experiment could be freely tried.” (712) The tradition furnishes the materials of the lab bench, provides a ground. This grounding occurs in two senses. First, it supplies a foundation, a stable surface on which Shakespeare can work. It is ground, dirt—and not sacred. “Had the prestige which hedges about a modern tragedy existed, nothing could have been done.” (712) Prestige attaches to individuals, to choice, to innovation, and prevents experiment. You cannot fool around with the sacred. Tradition furnishes grounding also in a second sense: it grounds the poet, prevents the poet from spinning off and losing contact with the world—spinning frictionlessly in the void, if I might steal that phrase. “The poet needs a ground in popular tradition on which he may work, and which, again, may restrain his art within due temperance.” (712) In contrast with art for art’s sake, which leads to “freak, extravagance, and exhibition,” waste stock ensures points of contact. (713)
Emerson’s choice to side with tradition, then, is not quite a true allegiance to invention’s alleged enemy. Indeed, Emerson rather allies tradition with invention—is not prestige precisely what characterizes tradition, and what tradition renders infallible and unchangeable? Yet Emerson links it to innovation: tradition and invention fight, but that fight is between fixed inventions that have been accorded prestige, and novel inventions seeking it. The old fight to maintain their place; the new to usurp it—both play the same game. Emerson’s tradition will have nothing to do with this fight. The dead suffice for experiment only, and there is no place for the living to usurp: the only place to go upon death is the stockpile.
It is for this reason that genius is a borrower, even a thief. But to call the genius a borrower, a thief, to call the poet indebted—these terms all presuppose a certain theory of property, one proper to prestige and innovation (and the tradition built of dead innovations). This theory of property belongs to the dispute Emerson wishes to leave behind, and so Emerson must substitute a new one in its place: “Thought is the property of him who can entertain it; and of him who can adequately place it.” (715) Thought belongs to whoever can use it. This is not a free for all, not a matter of all thoughts belonging to all: “A certain awkwardness marks the use of borrowed thoughts; but, as soon as we have learned what to do with them, they become our own.”
The genius is, then, if we stick with the old theory of intellectual property for a moment, a borrower. He experiments with the waste stock, and makes it his own. There remains the second aspect of genius: genius as impartial. In his highest flights of praise, Emerson praises Shakespeare for the “omnipresent humanity [that] coördinates all his faculties.” (722) Where the man of talents reveals his partiality, the “certain observations, opinions, topics” that enjoy “some accidental prominence,” “Shakspeare has no peculiarity, no importunate topic; but all is duly given.”
This conception of genius is both sympathetic and in conflict with the first definition. On the one hand, genius, as impartial, is comprehensive, selecting what is good in everything. Every innovation has a limited domain and is thus partial—impartial genius cannot, then, be innovation. Yet the first conception of genius admitted that genius had a history, that this history might be traced. Yet, Emerson tells us, “we are very clumsy writers of history”—we may write the facts of Shakespeare’s life, and of his influences, and yet see nothing of his genius. (719) To trace the history of genial theft is to miss the genius in it. There is a simple reason for this: “the Genius draws up the ladder after him, when the creative age goes up to heaven, and gives way to a new, who see the works, and ask in vain for a history.” (720)
There is tension, then, between the history of genius, the history of borrowings and thefts, and the ahistorical genius, the genius that seems to sit outside of time, eternal. Can this tension be resolved? Emerson eventually gives himself away. “There are always objects; but there was never representation. Here is perfect representation, at last; and now let the world of figures sit for their portraits.” (723) This is a contradiction in terms: it is the very essence of representation to be partial, to select some aspects to represent and not others. The scientific representation idealizes here and abstracts there; the democratic representative cannot act on every opinion of her constituency. No representation captures the full detail of what is represented—if it did, it could not function as a representation.
When Emerson calls Shakespeare the creator of perfect representations, then, he is mythologizing. He is indulging in the myth of genius, of the great figure who comes out of nowhere and sets the world aflame. And he knows this is a myth, for he said so explicitly, earlier: “It is easy to see that what is best written or done by genius, in the world, was no man’s work, but came by wide social labor, when a thousand wrought like one, sharing the same impulse.” (715) The end of the essay further confirms that Emerson knows this is a myth, for the end of the essay tears down Shakespeare, reveals Shakespeare’s own partiality. “Solitude has austere lessons; it can teach us to spare both heroes and poets; and it weights Shakspeare also, and finds him to share the halfness and imperfection of humanity.” (724)
What gives? What is Emerson doing, mythologizing Shakespeare in this way, only to turn around and strip him down to size? Emerson gives the answer: “Shakspeare is the only biographer of Shakspeare; and even he can tell nothing, except to the Shakspeare in us; that is, to our most apprehensive and sympathetic hour.” (720) In these sympathetic hours, Shakespeare’s thought becomes our own, because we use it, and experiment with it. When we are swept up in these movements of thought, then Shakespeare “is inconceivably wise; the others, conceivably.” (722) Then we stand with him outside of time, then there is ahistorical genius. The thought is all that exists.
But these sympathies are transient—allow them to last too long, and what remains is devotion to prestige. To remain with Shakespeare when after the end of our Horae Shakespearicae is to become the worshipper of prestige, to find our thoughts burdened by that awkwardness that marks true theft. Emerson’s essay mirrors, in its movement, the passing of these hours. When his thought moves with Shakespeare’s, then Shakespeare seems that mythical being, the perfect representative. But eventually their movement drifts apart, and Shakespeare returns to his partiality, regains his history.
In the end, Emerson must bring down Shakespeare in this fashion. Were he not to reveal Shakespeare’s partiality, he would merely be establishing Shakespeare as an object of prestige, of sacred tradition, and would thus render Shakespeare unusable—just as the perfect representation is unusable. Emerson slanders Shakespeare out of respect, in a way. He sees a nobler future for Shakespeare than as a relic: he is converting Shakespeare into waste stock.
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Addendum on the transpersonal
I complained, in my previous post, linked above, about those who try to save Emerson from the charge of egotism by insisting that he takes self-reliance to be reliance on something transpersonal. It seems to me that this theory of intellectual property captures what is genuinely transpersonal in Emerson’s thought.
Emerson, in the essay on Montaigne, notes that “great believers are always reckoned infidels” because they cannot accept the dogmas “dear to the hope of man”—and that surely includes the dogma of a transpersonal moral order. (707) “I believe in the moral design of the universe; it exists hospitably for the weal of souls; but your dogmas seem to me caricatures: why should I make believe them?” But is not this “moral design of the universe” itself a dogma? To defend Emerson by insisting on his belief in this dogma does, so far as I can see, more harm than good.
The theory of property suggests an alternate understanding of this transpersonality—it lies in the possibility of appropriating thoughts, of making them our own. In the hours in which we share another’s thought, there is a transpersonal bond. And even if, in these high hours, our thought is novel, some future soul may share it, so even what is uniquely ours in our own time, if ever anything is, is transpersonal. But the way to this is self-reliance. It seems to me that Emerson recognizes, and, more than recognizes, insists, that our highest hours are transient. Self-reliance at other times—will that not just be egotism? To recognize the ubiquity of partiality seems to me to require admitting that Emerson’s philosophy, though it prizes the transpersonal in a certain sense, cannot avoid egotism.
Let us admit Emerson’s philosophy for what it is—it will not suffer from it.
It takes a fool to attempt to summarize the great, shifting circle of Emerson’s philosophy with a single quote, a single arc. Yet today I believe in folly, in injustice in reading; thus I feel up to the task, and select the following, from his essay “Circles”:
Our moods do not believe in each other. (406)
If Emerson does not deserve the title “philosopher”—and many would say he does not—it is because his concern is less with solving (ha!) traditional problems of philosophy than with affixing them to moods, and then detailing the actions of these moods on one another, both their mutual hostility and their mutual embrace.
So too with “Nominalism and Realism”, with the conflicts between particulars and generalities, between parts and wholes. Every man, Emerson tells us is, is representative of truth, but is not truth, which is to say, every man is partial. This connection between representation and partiality is direct: every representation must be partial, else it would be the thing itself. Each person inhabits a fragment of the surface, and together we may perhaps trace out the full circumference, and so reveal the center, “the pure stream of thought [the man] pretends to be.” (575)
Such is the problem with which Emerson begins. Already we are outside of standard philosophical waters. Emerson is not so much concerned with the reality of kind divisions, or of patterns among particulars. Rather, he has in his sights a problem confined to the human: what is our relationship to this truth, this I suppose ideal form of a human, of which each individual is merely (more or less) representative? Obviously our relationship is, in one of its facets, to be representative. Such we must be, as we are particulars, are partial. But what does this tell us about how to live?
The first half of the essay finds Emerson befriending the realist. He draws his usual contrast between talent and genius, here under the guise of particular gifts (accompanied by deformities elsewhere) and overall symmetry. He insists that human life falls on the appearance side of the appearance/reality dichotomy: it is a “poor empirical pretension” (577). We are not, then, to be too beholden to what we see in others: we are to take from them what is an accurate representation, and discard what is inaccurate. And—echoes of Plato—he casts art, which he defines as a simultaneous eye for beauty in details and for proportion in the whole, as a sort of insanity, since proportion is something impossible for human beings. In the face of this, the philosophical response is to turn away from the surface toward the center, to contemplate the forms as well as one is able, and so aspire to the universal.
But this is only a mood:
Thus we settle it in our cool libraries, that all the agents with which we deal are subalterns, which we can well afford to let pass, and life will be simpler when we live at the center and flout the surfaces. (580)
It is a passive mood, an inactive mood: the mood of the library. The philosopher, after all, withdraws from the world and seeks for tranquility. Tranquility lies in the eternal—Parmenides perhaps captured it best with his argument that all is one, eternal, unchanging, or Zeno with his paradoxes showing there is no motion, the ultimate in tranquility and stillness. The surface is all bustle, and all ephemeral. The center leaves that behind, but at the expense of activity. Emerson cheerfully elaborates this point with what I take to be a modified form of
Emerson’s nature detests inactivity.
But this is flat rebellion. Nature will not be Buddhist: she resents generalizing, and insults the philosopher in every moment with a million of fresh particulars. (581)
This is no novel argument: it is the old argument of the impracticability of philosophers.
If we were not thus infatuated, if we saw the real from hour to hour, we should not be here to write and to read, but should have been burned or frozen long ago. (581)
This insistence of nature on particulars furnishes Emerson with the one properly philosophical (of sorts) argument he makes in this essay: that even the philosopher, and, moreover, the philosopher qua philosopher, is partial. The philosopher ignores the Janus face of nature, at once universal and partial.
You are one thing, but nature is one thing and the other thing, in the same moment. She will not remain orbed in a thought, but rushes into persons; and when each person, inflamed to a fury of personality, would conquer all things to his poor crotchet, she raises up against him another person, and by many persons incarnates again a sort of whole. (581)
Any whole there is, in Emerson’s world, is “a balance of a thousand insanities.” (581) The problem is that of reconciling these competing, contradictory insanities, or stupidities, into some sort of whole. But this is still offensive to the philosopher, for it “introduce[s] wild absurdities into our thinking and speech” (585)—absurdities being, of course, the bane of philosophy.
Emerson does attempt a reconciliation. He asserts both “that every man is a partialist” (585) and “that every man is a universalist also” (586), but I am not so sure he believes this. For, two paragraphs later, he laments: “If we could have any security against moods!” (586) (The desire for this security is itself the outburst of a particular mood.) But we cannot have such security, and so are pressed into inconsistency, to “wild absurdity,” by our vicissitudinous moods.
Returning to our opening thought, that of the disbelief of our moods in one another, we can see two interpretations of this thought. On the first interpretation, one of our moods banishes from itself all memory of its opponent. This is folly, is error, but it is useful error, for it banishes any tyranny (by way of insistence on a foolish consistency) which the old mood might inflict on the new. This folly makes possible sincerity, at the price of being an exaggeration, a mistake, a fool of nature. A mood forgets its partiality, and so may act. On the second interpretation, our moods do believe that other moods exist, but disagree with them, think them mistaken. Here our moods are aware of their own partiality—and this makes sincerity impossible. “I am always insincere, as always knowing there are other moods.” (587) It takes a sort of folly, or at least forgetfulness, to be sincere.
It is tempting, and perhaps even accurate, to see these two interpretations are reflecting yet another dimension of mood. Emerson’s essays are dizzying and enthralling precisely because they refuse to be contained by a single mood. “Nominalist and Realist”, for instance, exists both in the library and in the fields. And, in “Nature” (see my Fools of Nature post), it is clear that Emerson cannot recognize and criticize the “sad, sharp-eyed man” as sharp-eyed, without himself being somewhat that man. Emerson never describes anything foreign to himself.
But he does give a biased picture of himself. Much of the time, one mood dominates, and since writing is Emerson’s primary activity, usually it is an active mood. Thus his discussions of his passive moods are generally seen from his active perspective, and we might suspect they receive short shift. Yet it should be no surprise if Emerson’s essays should prove to be only a partial representation of his thought.
Emerson’s loftiest prose appears when he is in the throes of skepticism. Emerson’s optimism is but the palliative for his pessimism. Emerson’s hope is most insistent when he most clearly sees the grounds that rule out hope. Should I browse, then, the final page of Emerson’s “Nature” (1844) and find that, “The reality is more excellent than the report. Here is no ruin, no discontinuity, no spent ball. The divine circulations never rest nor linger” (555)—should I find this, then I know, or may reasonably infer, that what precedes such a height is Emerson plumbing the depths.
The essay begins with an image of immortal, eternal, impartial nature, nature the judge who sees humanity and finds it wanting. Such nature is ahistorical, memoryless, a never-ending “tyranny of the present.” (542) “Here no history… is interpolated on the divine sky and the immortal year.” (541) Yet there is something mocking about this landscape, the mockery of its judgment. “If there were good men, there would never be this rapture in nature. If the king is in the palace, nobody looks at the walls.” (545) This nature seems to serve as illumination of the absence of any satisfactory humans. Humanity is too condemned by its own partiality. Emerson is quite clear that he turns to this image of majestic nature for “relief” (545), for something erect to counteract fallen man. But this nature is mocking, and unsatisfying. “But it is very easy to outrun the sympathy of readers on this topic, which schoolmen called natura naturata, or nature passive. One can hardly speak directly of it without excess.” (545)
Moreover, while this image of nature is supposed to provide relief from the endlessly disappointing partiality of the world, it is not clear it can even do this, for Emerson denies any division between the natural social. “We talk of deviations from natural life, as if artificial life were not also natural.” (548) The fate of nature is tied to our own fate: if we are disappointments, so is nature. So it is: “There is in woods and waters a certain enticement and flattery, together with a failure to yield a present satisfaction. This disappointment is felt in every landscape.” (553) The language Emerson uses here, that of the failure of satisfaction, is not accidental. Rather, it highlights the joint fortunes of nature and humanity, for humanity too fails to satisfy: “Our music, our poetry, our language itself are not satisfactions, but suggestions.” (542)
This doleful vision lacks only one final twisting of the knife. It comes in the relation between the knowledge of this vision and our ability to act. “A man can only speak, so long as he does not feel his speech to be partial and inadequate.” (551) To recognize this world for what it is is to sap the ability to act. If there is a villain in Emerson’s essay, it is the “sad, sharp-eyed man, who sees how paltry a game is played, and refuses to play, but blabs the secret.” (549) But what has Emerson been in this essay if not precisely this character? Has he not been stressing to us, again and again, not just here but in every essay, our inevitable partiality? What does he have to say for himself?
Emerson has a solution to the problem he has made so vivid. It is what Nietzsche would later call the “Wille zur Dummheit”—the will to stupidity (Beyond Good and Evil, §107). I was selective in my quotation just above; let me now be more just:
And when now and then comes along some sad, sharp-eyed man, who sees how paltry a game is played, and refuses to play, but blabs the secret;—how then? is the bird flown? O no, the wary Nature sends a new troop of fairer forms, of lordlier youths, with a little more excess of direction to hold them fast to their several aim; makes them a little wrongheaded in that direction in which they are rightest, and on goes the game again with a new whirl, for a generation or two more. (549)
Or, more bluntly: “Every act hath some falsehood of exaggeration in it.” (549) Life is, in short, founded on error. To act is to err, for without error, we could not act. A clear sight of the paltriness of what we do would kill any justification for doing it. We can speak only when we do not see our speech to be partial, yet, “It is partial, but he does not see it to be so, whilst he utters it.” (551)
What this essay details is the battle in Emerson between his sharp-eyed and error-ridden moods. Dewey liked to mock the correspondence theory of truth as the “spectator theory of knowledge”—yet Emerson has more right to apply the epithet to his sharp-eyed man, for that man truly cannot act, and must be a spectator. Dewey wanted a pragmatic theory of knowledge, one that linked knowledge ineliminably to action. Emerson, by contrast, is tied to the spectator theory of knowledge, and thus what might be called the error theory of action. It is the curse of the human—so I believe Emerson shows us—to be forever caught between the knowledge that reduces us to spectation, and the error that allows us to act. We oscillate between the two, without escape. Such is our partiality. We cannot flee from this partiality into nature, for nature too can only provide suggestions. In the end, all that remains is to act, but to act is to make the error of taking up a suggestion with the belief that so taking it up will, finally, bring satisfaction. Well then, “are we tickled trout, and fools of nature?” (553) We are. There is no way around it.
I confess that I find more of value in Emerson’s skeptical moods than in his optimistic moods. The problem of life I face, vanquishing sometimes, but never permanently, is the problem of acting when I feel so unshakably that all there is to life is paltry. I have looked long enough for a solution to this problem that would tell me that life is not paltry to retain any hope of a satisfactory answer—or even a suggestive one. Better to hear that the world is so, and to be taught the value of error, that I might bring myself to the point where the error within me is as strong as the knowledge, and their struggle in turn bring me some few lofty moments.