Thus I wrote about A.R. Ammons, whose voice whipped past me yesterday, a cry, carried by the wind: “I am Ezra.” By some chance the wind had not destroyed this message, but lofted it past with its integrity preserved. What I heard, I heard clearly, only I fear some of the signal was lost, strangled, for it began at a strange place. “So I said I am Ezra”, it began—with “so”.
But “so” is not a word for the start of a sentence. It indicates that what follows, follows—that something foregoing offers an explanation. I heard no such explanans. There is only the insistence: “I am Ezra.” Nor is the poem circular. What comes later does not qualify the “so,” but leaves the blanks, blank. Ezra, the man who announces himself as Ezra, remains caught between the dunes and the sea, each in turn carrying his protestations into nothingness. That is all there is.
I cannot, then, resolve the “so,” cannot say what it is that makes Ezra declare himself. He is simply there, declaring, until he is no longer. I cannot even say that he has a history, unknown to me—I cannot rule out the possibility that none of his message was lost in its voyage to me. Perhaps I heard it from the beginning. And why should Ezra have a history, after all? The ocean and the dunes might as well have none, for all the difference it makes to their current behavior—why then should I insist that Ezra have a history?
While I am confessing my impotencies, allow me to add this: I cannot say that Ezra’s “so” indicates—as I have been taking it to indicate—a “for this reason.” “So” may also suggest “in this way.” Ezra may only mean to say that he states himself just so. What follows, then, shows me the state of this stating. This is not implausible, for “so” recurs, later in the poem, in this guise: “As a word too much repeated / falls out of being / so I Ezra went out into the night …”
What is to decide between these two readings of that initial “so”? Say I resolved upon this second reading—I would not by this resolution squelch the question of why Ezra announces himself, just so, to the wind and the waves.
But I am beginning to feel odd. I should not have heard this message, should not be hearing it still, nor should I be writing about it. Do I not, in so doing, arrest Ezra’s fall out of being? Do I not deny him the dissolution that followed from his going unheard? It is a perverse happenstance that his voice should have reached me here, so far from either dune or sea. By what wind was it carried? By what river did it sail?
As the puppet acts it knows not why, overpowered by external compulsion, thus I find myself replacing my pen, and withdrawing.
When I cast about for a starting place for a discussion of Emerson, that perpetually quoted and misquoted line from “Self-Reliance” always offers itself: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” So too did it offer itself to early reviewers of Emerson, who all sound the same voice when it comes to Emerson’s “system.” Let us examine a few of these reviews. (All gathered in this book. Emerson citations are to the Library of America volume of his Essays & Lectures.)
A first reviewer, unnamed, writing for the New York Review, notes that “the volume contains no system, nor any attempt at one.” Indeed, “We doubt, however, whether Mr. Emerson has carefully compared his views with each other.” What we are left with “are rather fragments, and glimpses” and not “a logical or even continuous discussion.” But the reviewer does allow one point on which Emerson is “rigidly systematic”: in claiming “there is no moral law but the instincts of our own being.” Naturally, this is “impracticable” and finds “no basis in the nature of man.” The work as a whole is a “work of moments, and for youth.”
A second reviewer, C. C. Felton, writing for the Christian Examiner, is equally critical. “The Essays cannot be said to contain any system,” and indeed we should not be surprised, given that Emerson “has expressed such sovereign contempt for consistency.” Slyly, Felton finds “no fault with this,” as he received ample warning; nevertheless “a writer, whose opinions are so variable, cannot wonder if they have but little value in the eyes of the world.” Nonetheless, he has a “general doctrine, for example, with regard to the instincts,” and this general doctrine, “if acted upon, would overturn society, and resolve the world into chaos.”
The two reviews are more or less identical, despite their containing distinct words arranged in a distinct order. Though in one case, they do not even contain distinct words. Both reviews, though critical, marvel at Emerson’s language, with caveats. The first reviewer: “In a style, which on every page delights us by its simplicity and grace, and offends us by an affected quaintness…” And Felton: “Some of his sentences breath the most exquisite music, of which language is capable… but the effect of his powers of style is not a little diminished by a studied quaintness of language…” The convergence of the two reviews is striking—they capture fairly accurately a first experience of Emerson.
That what they capture is not entirely determined by their negative reaction to Emerson can be seen by a glance at a third review, by Orestes Brownson, in the Boston Quarterly Review. This review is much longer, and while I have not read all of it, a quick survey shows that it is much more positive. Nonetheless, in the first paragraph, we find yet again: “They contain no doctrine or system of doctrines.” Brownson engages in a bit of reflection on this point: how does this mean we should read the work? The Essays “consist of detached observations, independent propositions, distinct, enigmatical, oracular sayings, each of which is to be taken by itself, and judged of by its own merits.”
This is enough. We are to forego any attempt to find consistency in Emerson; we are to read his works as containing accidentally collected bits to be assessed in isolation. This is the method, more or less, of the first two reviewers as well, though they never give it such clear voice. All three, I think, get Emerson wrong. And they get Emerson wrong in a way that, had they simply read Emerson a bit more carefully, they would have found Emerson warning against all along.
I do not mean to rebut the claim that Emerson’s works contain no system. They do not, not really. But they are marked by a species of consistency, one Emerson is careful to describe. As I am sure I have noted in some earlier post, when Emerson condemns consistency, what he condemns is foolish consistency—the qualifier we may presume indicates that not all consistency is so condemned. In his essay “Intellect”, he does some work to illustrate what sort of consistency he favors, which he baptizes “long logic.”
In passage which begins with the assertion of “the superiority of the spontaneous or intuitive principle over the arithmetical or logical” (419), Emerson offers ample food to the critic—but only if one overlooks the careful use of the word “principle”, a crucial word for Emerson. Principles, for Emerson, are connected with the divine, the moral law, the systematization of facts—with every name, that is, that Emerson gives to the chief good he incessantly praises. The intuitive principle, while connected to acting on the whims of the moment, is not something as transitory as a whim. And if we read two sentences later, Emerson makes this explicit: “We want, in every man, a long logic.” (419)
This logic is “the procession or proportionate unfolding of the intuition.” (419) It takes place over time. Each mind has, instinctually, “its own method” which it must follow out. And the way to do that is to “Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason. It is vain to hurry it. By trusting it to the end, it shall ripen into truth, and you shall know why you believe.” It is this trusting of his instincts to their end that gives Emerson’s work its long logic, its wise consistency.
Two older posts of mind give an example of this long logic at work. In my post on Nature, I followed Emerson’s famous transparent eyeball passage as it underwent modifications, twists and turns. It begins as a passive receptivity, an influx of the divine, but over the course of the essay it becomes something more, something active and creative. Emerson distinguishes in “Intellect” between “intellect constructive” (i.e. Genius) and “intellect receptive” (422)—what occurs in Nature is the transition from the receptive intellect to the constructive intellect. The conceptions and images shift, do not quite sit consistently to one another, but that is precisely because Emerson, the author, has changed, and would have the reader change, too. This is long logic at work; it comes with the sacrifice of a foolish consistency. The process in “The Method of Nature” is similar; I leave you to peruse it for yourself.
In this way we can see the problem with Brownson’s method. That there is no system, no arithmetical logic, as it were, to Emerson, does not mean that we should take his writing as consistent of disjointed bits, to be evaluated for itself. Emerson stresses, again and again, everywhere—indeed it is this, and not his views on instinct, that might with justice be called the one rigidly systematical aspect of this thought—that the essence of Life lies in movement. To ignore the long logic of his works is to ignore their movement, and so to miss out on everything alive in them.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
So ends the main body of this post. But I cannot resist some further comment on my series of posts on poetry and prudence. As we saw, the first two reviews hammered Emerson for the impracticability of his views on instinct. On the one hand, I hope I have called attention to some strains of Emerson that help combat the charge. Yet with my other hand I would like to accept the criticism on Emerson’s behalf. The charge of impracticality is one Emerson should accept. While in his essay on “Prudence” Emerson hopes for a reconciliation of poetry with prudence (see my first post in the series), by “Circles” he more firmly recognizes the ineluctable antagonism between them. (Pause to consider that this itself is another manifestation of Emerson’s long logic.) He sees the need to sacrifice prudence to trust: where prudence conflicts with self-reliance, choose self-reliance. And they will conflict; there is no eluding that.
In “Intellect” Emerson reaffirms this. “God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please,—you can never have both.” (425) Repose and comfort are the domain of prudence. But truth, as we have just seen, lies in movement, change, self-overcoming—and thus contradiction of one’s past self. One may repose in one’s habits, one’s system, but such a lack of activity is stultifying. Trust in one’s instincts—not only momentarily, but “to the end” (419)—is the method by which truth is obtained. If this is impracticable, if this is an assault on prudence, so be it, for the choice between truth and repose is a choice. That has its risks, but Emerson is happy to accept them.
A philosophical friend of mine and I have been engaged in a long, slow conversation about the value of philosophy written in the poetic style. He, skeptical, attempts to characterize the reasons for this skepticism. I, sympathetic, grope equally for reasons in its defense. This conversation began anew today, and upon reading Emerson’s “The Over-Soul”, I found he wished to chime in. At the risk of ignoring Emerson’s own advice, which says that conversation can only be between two, I shall allow him here his voice. This leniency has proven ill-guided, for my intended three quickly became a crowd: Friedrich Nietzsche and D. H. Lawrence too, I discovered, lurked, awaiting their chance to speak.
Emerson, as so often, faces doubt about what he is saying. “Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual” (385), he tells us: those holy moments of inspiration are, by the measure of arithmetic, only a small portion of our life, and when they have passed, we cannot do them justice in words. “Yet I desire, even by profane words, if I may not use sacred, to indicate the heaven of this deity, and to report what hints I have collected of the transcendent simplicity and energy of the Highest Law.” (386) So Emerson talks to us, puts words before us, and they are more sacred than he thinks. They glow with that poetry that characterizes his best essays.
What Emerson is trying to do is to capture in writing something of these moments of inspiration, of the expansion of the soul out to the impersonal. What characterizes these moments? Life poses riddles, questions, problems—chief among them, the question of how to live. It is just this question, in all its forms, that is answered in these moments, and Emerson insists that there is something ineffable about the answers. “An answer in words is delusive; it is really no answer to the questions you ask.” (393)
Why should that be? In defending unpoetic philosophy, my friend stressed its emphasis on clarity and especially unambiguity, on being as little open to interpretation as possible. That allows the more direct transfer of knowledge. Language becomes thin, inessential except as a vehicle for a truth lurking behind it. In poetry, by contrast, there is an open-endedness of interpretation—or, as I prefer, experimentation. I would go so far as to say that poetry is only half accomplished when unread—only when a reader makes some use of it does it fully take form, for a moment. But that is my ontological commitment, not his. This open-endedness is, as he puts it, an anathema to philosophical unambiguity.
So it is. But my suggestion, which I find in Emerson as well, is that this clarity is good only for certain sorts of questions, and not for these riddles of life, as Carnap called them, somewhere. The solution to these riddles does not come via an intellectual exercise, but by living. As D. H. Lawrence puts it, “As for the words and thoughts and sighs and aspirations that fly from him, they are so many tremulations in the ether, and not alive at all.” What is wanted here is not philosophical clarity. It is, of course, possible that we are wrong here, that life’s questions may be sorted into two sorts: those answerable in words, and, the remainder, those answerable by the idiosyncrasies of personal taste. I do not think so, but I have no argument.
But what can Emerson say in defense of his essay, which seems to attempt to answer such a question, and in words? “The nature of these revelations is the same; they are perceptions of the absolute law. They are solutions of the soul’s own questions. They do not answer the questions which the understanding asks. The soul answers never by words, but by the thing itself that is inquired after.” (393) Emerson’s essay does not give us this thing itself, and he is under no illusions about this. “The only mode of obtaining an answer to these questions of the senses is to forego all low curiosity, and, accepting the tide of being which floats us into the secret of nature, work and live, work and live, and all unawares the advancing soul has built and forged for itself a new condition, and the question and the answer are one.” (394)
What value there is in his essay must come from elsewhere than from its being a vehicle for some truth that we can acquire by reading it. And it is the open-endedness of his poetic style that makes this possible. I want to revive here in modified form the old philosophical distinction between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance. I derive it from D. H. Lawrence: “If you are a philosopher, you talk about infinity, and the pure spirit which knows all things. But if you pick up a novel, you realize immediately that infinity is just a handle to this self-same jug of a body of mine; while as for knowing, if I find my finger in the fire, I know that fire burns, with a knowledge so emphatic and vital, it leaves Nirvana merely a conjecture. Oh, yes, my body, me alive, knows, and knows intensely. And as for the sum of all knowledge, it can’t be anything more than an accumulation of all the things I know in the body, and you, dear reader, know in the body.”
There is, on the one hand, a knowledge that is impersonal, built up from the patient labors of philosophers and scientists and innumerable others, an edifice that can be constructed so patiently precisely because it can be conveyed in words, the less ambiguous, the better. On the other hand, there is “the accumulation of all the things I know in my body.” In the old distinction, this latter served as the building blocks for the former, the incorrigible foundation on which the latter was based. In the new, they are distinct: what is accumulated in the body cannot be transmitted.
Emerson distinguishes two sorts of writers, those who write from within, as actors, as those with experience, “as parties and possessors of the fact” (395), and those who write “from without, as spectators merely, or perhaps as acquainted with the fact on the evidence of third persons.” He is tracking the same distinction. But again the problem arises: what is the value of his writing, even if it comes from experience. For those who read it, it seems, will be left only with the evidence of third persons, and will be spectators.
If the writing is to have value, then, it must be because it in some fashion provokes the one who reads it to some new experience, some new knowledge by acquaintance, and not new knowledge by description. Here, unambiguity is not the ultimate virtue, because there is nothing to be transmitted. The thickness of the language, which makes it open-ended, is necessary precisely so that a thousand readers may take it in a thousand directions, on the basis of their own experience, their own accumulations in the body. Lawrence puts it thus: “Books are not life. They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a tremulation can make the whole man alive tremble.”
Lawrence is being polemical: he thinks philosophy, poetry, and science all lack this power—it is solely the province of the novel. Disagreed. But more interesting is the explicit awareness he has of the novel as something secondary. “Books are not life. They are only tremulations on the ether.” What is primary is life; books are just in the service of this. This I take to be a characteristic trope of poetic philosophy: that it finds itself and must find itself something secondary.
Emerson, for instance: “The great poet makes us feel our own wealth, and then we think less of his compositions. His best communication to our mind is to teach us to despise all he has done.” (396) The great poet, and the great philosopher-poet, urges us to forget him, that we might seek ourselves. The use of books is to turn us toward life, but once so turned, we do not need them, and even find them oppressive. “Though in our lonely hours we draw a new strength out of their memory, yet, pressed on our attention, as they are by the thoughtless and customary, they fatigue and invade.” (400)
Nietzsche has been patient, but now he insists on having his turn. At the end of part one of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in the section titled “On the Bestowing Virtue”, Zarathustra takes leave of his disciples, and offers the following advice: “Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have denied me will I return to you.” Zarathustra is first a teacher, but “One repays a teacher badly if one always remains a pupil only”—so Zarathustra is second a friend, but only after the pupils have left, have rejected him in favor of their own lives.
Now other voices, claiming the principle of fairness, say I ought to let them speak as well. Whitman and Plato I hear, and others I do not recognize. But my fingers are weary, and my thread in danger of being lost. The experience that originated this post is fading, and it risks falling further into description than it has. So I end it here.