Posts Tagged ‘poetry’

So I said I am Ezra (A.R. Ammons)

2014/04/19 2 comments

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.


Celebrating thought? Or sweetening it?

2014/02/23 8 comments

My month long hiatus from Emerson, begun upon the completion of my readings of his Essays: First Series, I have mercifully allowed myself to bring to end. I bathe again in these cleansing waters, and through their efforts may come to see myself—perhaps, I hope—more clearly. Upon diving into “The Poet”, first of his Essays: Second Series, I immediately ran into an old thought: that form and content are inseparable.

For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing. (Em. 450, Library of America volume of his Essays & Lectures)

The notion that, in poetry, and even literary prose, the form is not separable from the content, but contributes ineliminably to it, is perfectly correct, perhaps even obvious, yet is so often repeated as to have become essentially empty. But Emerson has a way of making old thoughts new, of recovering what always remains new within them, but which has been obscured by their descent into the fogs of platitudicity. (In this way, he serves to liberate these thoughts from the prisons that have congealed around them—thereby “He unlocks our chains, and admits to us a new scene” [Em. 463], and so is a poet himself.) What results when Emerson dispels this fog? I want to approach the question via a critique of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), for reasons that will become apparent by the time I have reached my end.

Lucretius, as an Epicurean poet, finds himself in a bind. For, as an Epicurean, he must stick to the reasoning that established atomism—this is to be discovered by logic, and not invented by poetic artifice. The poetic form of his work, that is, cannot contribute any content to the Epicurean view, cannot play any role in the actual thinking of Epicurean thoughts. Yet, as a poet, he must justify the poetic form of the work, an especially difficult task if that form is more liable to obscure the arguments than enhance them. We may suspect that Lucretius’ real reason for his use of poetic devices and form is the sheer joy of it: “Joyfully I visit virgin springs and draw their water; joyfully I cull unfamiliar flowers.” (Lucr. I.928—I am using the translation by Martin Ferguson Smith, published by Hackett.) Yet he also gives us a more practical reason for his technique. He is writing the poem to Memmius, in an attempt to convert him and so save him. (For all their well-motivated, well-placed distaste for religion, the Epicureans could nonetheless be quite “religious” in their own behavior. This is not a criticism.) Lucretius is well aware that Epicurean doctrines, as materialistic doctrines always are, are liable to be off-putting. His poetic form is a correction for this:

Doctors who try to give children foul-tasting wormwood first coat the rim of the cup with the sweet juice of golden honey; their intention is that the children, unwary at their tender age, will be tricked into applying their lips to the cup and at the same time will drain the bitter draught of wormwood—victims of beguilement, but not of betrayal, since by this means they recover strength and health. I have a similar intention now, since this philosophy of ours often appears somewhat off-putting to those who have not experienced it, and most people recoil back from it, I have preferred to expound it to you in harmonious Pierian poetry and, so to speak, coat it with the sweet honey of the muses. (Lucr. I.938-948)

Lucretius’ poetic form is a sweet, external coating, but it has no impact on the contents inside. It is a bit of benevolent trickery: Lucretius hopes Memmius will, because of the poetic sweetness, imbibe the bitter Epicurean contents before he knows what he is drinking—a bit of paternalism justified, if at all, by the Epicurean promise to cure fear and anxiety.

Here is a philosophy of poetry that rejects—in a manner which is perfectly justified—the old thought in which I claim Emerson has found something new. Lucretius’ self-understanding of his application of poetic form is a good one, indeed the only one possible to an Epicurean, and if there is something lacking in this self-understanding we may suspect there is something lacking in the Epicurean philosophy generally. But the mere thought that form and content are inseparable is not enough to show anything lacking: better to give up that thought than Epicurus’ insights—after all, the loss of a platitude is no loss at all. To bring out the conflict, then, we shall have to understand what is new in Emerson’s thought—both come to light together.

For the Epicurean, there are only two sources of value in the world: pleasure provides positive value, and is to be sought, and pain provides negative value, and is to be avoided. Of course, to seek pleasure and to avoid pain are not at all the same thing, any more than to seek truth and avoid error are the same, and the Epicureans take their stand: avoid pain even at the expense of certain pleasures. (One can, in this respect, liken them to Descartes, who makes the analogous move for the case of truth and falsity: avoid all error even if it comes at the expense of believing any truth.) To this end, the Epicureans make a twofold division of pleasures: there are kinetic pleasures and static pleasures. (They also make a threefold division of pleasures into natural + necessary, natural + unnecessary, and unnatural + unnecessary, but this division will not concern me.) Kinetic pleasures, such as the sating of hunger by eating, involve, first, a painful departure from some equilibrium state (in this case, being sated), followed by, second, a pleasant return to that state. The pleasure lies not in the state itself, but in the return to it—in that way, kinetic pleasures are possible only if they are preceded by pain. For this reason, the Epicurean says, they are to be minimized.

Static pleasures, by contrast, are those pleasures one feels simply in virtue of being in the equilibrium state. As they involve no departure, they involve equally no pain: they are pure pleasure. A paradigmatic example, I take it, would be the pleasure that results from being in a state of Epicurean tranquility: to know the nature of the world, and to know there is nothing to fear in death—this is to share in the blessed, perfectly undisturbed happiness of the gods. It is to be a god on earth. (We shall return to the Epicurean gods.) Lucretius’ goal is to bring Memmius to this state, but he can do so only by administering bitter medicine. Thus his sweet coating is needed. It is not part of the thought, however, and once Memmius is converted, the form becomes unnecessary, for the thought itself will sustain him, will bring him peace.

This twofold division of pleasures, which Emerson never, to my knowledge, brings up explicitly or implicitly, nonetheless seems to me the primary deficiency in the Epicurean view, from an Emersonian standpoint. The notion of a static pleasure implies a stable state, an equilibrium threatened, to be sure, by external forces, but which may be defended and preserved, and tranquility maintained. Emerson may perhaps allow such pleasures, and certainly would rank them above kinetic pleasures of the sort the Epicureans denounce, but for him there is a third pleasure, the highest: the pleasure of transition.

But nature has a higher end, in the production of new individuals, than security, namely, ascension, or, the passage of the soul into higher forms. (Em. 458)

The persistent worry, for Emerson, is that any stable state, any purported equilibrium, will congeal into a prison—and then it hardly deserves the name “equilibrium.” It is for this reason that I said above only that Emerson “may perhaps allow” static pleasures—in much of his thought, in fact, he questions their very possibility. But even allowing for security’s possibility, there is still a higher insecurity. The soul ascends, not once, but perpetually, for falling follows each ascension. Where, for the Epicurean, there is a single metamorphosis by which one attains a perfectly blessed state, for the Emersonian there is only the perpetual perfection of oneself, without ever achieving a perfect state. “For, the metamorphosis once seen, we divine that it does not stop.” (Em. 461) The Emersonian distrusts the state attained in favor of the state yet to be attained: each attained state is merely initial; power and joy lie in the movement of attaining, not in the having attained—“in the shooting of the gulf”, he says elsewhere (“Self-Reliance”). (I must confess my debt, in this language of attained and unattained, to Stanley Cavell’s marvelous Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome.) Kinetic pleasure—for what else could this be called?—thus regains its priority over static pleasure.

This difference in ranking of pleasures is given voice in the Epicurean and Emersonian treatments of the gods. Epicurus, longing to dispel the fears associated with the gods of Greek mythology, imagined perfectly blessed, perfectly material creatures that could not be disturbed by the wailings of our prayers. Human happiness does not require intervention by the gods, but imitation of them. With the exception of his mortality, an insignificant difference, Epicurus was literally a god on earth, by Epicurean lights. Emerson, by contrast, will have no truck with perfection and stability in his gods: he praises the gods of the old mythology precisely for their defects—Vulcan’s lameness, Cupid’s blindness—and for the way the gods “use[d] defects and deformities to a sacred purpose”—“to signify exuberances.” (Em. 455)

Because kinetic pleasure, in this Emersonian sense, is nothing other than a change in form, we can understand why thought must create its own form, must not be something independent of form, capable of sweet or bitter expression. “The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.” (Em. 448) It is “Man Thinking”—as Emerson puts it elsewhere (“The American Scholar”)—who is so transformed, and there is no separation between the thinking and the being transformed. The thinking is the transition from the attained and imprisoning to the unattained and liberating form. The form, then, is integral to the liberation, and so to the thought. Thus we can see what is new in the Emersonian thought, while at the same time accepting what is impoverished in the Epicurean philosophy.

But here I run aground, again, on my old difficulty—already explored at the end of my series on Prudence and Poetry, but not there resolved, and so still an open wound, exposed to infection. I have not singled out Lucretius for critique by accident: it is he, or rather Epicurus, who was perhaps the first to create this wound. My trouble is that I cannot simply follow Emerson, and abandon Lucretius. For while there is too much good in Emerson’s vision of life for me to give it up, there is too much right in Epicurean ontology for it to yield so easily. I worry, in short, that my love of Emerson is not compatible with my commitment to an (broadly) Epicurean ontology.

This conflict may be captured, at the most general level, by considering that Emerson is an idealist, of sorts, whereas Lucretius is a materialist. This comes out in the following phrase of Emerson’s, one of my favorites from “The Poet”: “For all men have the thoughts whereof the universe is the celebration.” (Em. 453) The universe celebrates human thoughts: what a beautiful image! How thoroughly idealist, however, perhaps even narcissistic (does the universe exist to celebrate us?)—and how utterly incompatible with the knowledge, which I take to be very well-established, that humanity is an accidental occurrence in a tiny region of a universe that does not celebrate anything at all, let alone our vast miseries and paltry joys.

I know that is our condition, yet I cannot give up the Emersonian vision. Every so often, I console myself with the thought that Emerson, perhaps, shared this knowledge—for instance, when he praises figures such as Pythagoras, Swedenborg, and Oken for having “introduce[d] questionable facts into [their] cosmogony” (Em. 462, my emphasis)—but in my sober moments I recognize these consolations as false, as desperate. I take more heart when Emerson speaks of the writer who “sees nature beneath him, and uses it as his exponent” (Em. 463), for does this not suggest an idealism that is located not in nature herself, but in the thinker’s use of nature? And is it not then compatible with a dull but correct materialist ontology? Or is this simply another false consolation?

I cannot say. This is the perpetual tension of my thought. Epicurus and Emerson do battle within me. One day, perhaps, they shall be reconciled, or one shall vanquish the other. In the meantime, I can only hope to use their war as the (unstable) foundation of my own ascent. I can only hope, that is, to put them to use as my own exponents.

Emerson’s long logic

2014/01/20 1 comment

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.

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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.

Poetry and Prudence III: Emerson as messenger

2014/01/12 4 comments

Christianity, Kierkegaard is careful to tell us, is not a doctrine but a message. What does this entail? A message is to be lived, much more than believed. The individual task, for one who hears the message, is “living in it, expressing Christianity in one’s life.” (§141) Because of this, a message is addressed differently than a doctrine. A doctrine is given to a crowd that is asked to believe it. It is impersonal: it does not matter who said it, but only that it is true, and it speaks to all at once, regardless of who they are. A message, by contrast, is individually expressed, even when written—it does, that is, respond differently to different readers, contra Socrates in the Phaedrus. A message looks past the crowd to the individual. It is Socrates’ ability to do just this that makes him, in Kierkegaard’s eyes, more Christian than most self-professed Christians. “The great thing about Socrates was that even when he was accused and faced the People’s Assembly, his eyes did not see the crowd, but only the individual.” (§127)

The Bible, as the text carrying God’s message for humanity, is thus to be read in a very individual, personal manner. Kierkegaard laments that “no one any longer reads the Bible merely as an individual human being.” (§135) What is the danger of reading it as doctrine? It is that one attempts to sort out the precise way of characterizing the doctrine before one lives it—“always this sham that one must make sure the doctrine is in perfect shape before one can begin to live in accordance with it—which means that one never gets around to it.” (§135) But understanding can never precede living—as Kierkegaard insists, “temporal existence never becomes quite intelligible.” (§136)

Because the Bible contains a message and not a doctrine, there is a perpetuity to the Christian task: each individual and each generation must renew it. “The accumulated erudition of preceding generations is essentially superfluous.” (§141) Thus, the messenger’s task is not to draw firm, settled conclusions. That only encourages doctrine. Instead, one should “incite the listener to independent thinking”—it is for this reason that Plato, following Socrates, “does not draw any conclusions, but leaves a sting.” (§146) It is a sting that cannot be turned into doctrine, but can only yield further thought, further stings. (Things will be different regarding the message as it is presented in the Bible—which carries a special sort of authority—and as it is presented in Kierkegaard, who speaks without authority. But I don’t feel competent to discuss this in any depth.)

The problem of treating Christianity as a doctrine leads Kierkegaard to or past the brink of heresy: “Christianity has long been in need of a religious hero who, in fear and trembling before God, had the courage to forbid people to read the Bible.” (§135) I am only half-facetious—if that—when I suggest that Emerson may be the figure Kierkegaard desired.

Emerson is a messenger. He addresses individuals, and would spark them to change. What is his message? He is uncertain about the prospect of putting it into words: he thinks the influx of the divine is something ineffable, of which his essays are mere shadows. Yet there are themes. In “Circles”, he insists on the impermanence of all things. “There is no virtue which is final; all are initial.” (411) There is the appearance of permanence, but it is just appearance: “Every thing looks permanent until its secret is known.” (404)

The thinker, insofar as the thinker is a lover and follower of truth, must thus forego any hope of stability. The thinker must be prepared for reform, must be ready to “cast away our virtues […] into the same pit that has consumed our grosser vices.” (411) The valor of the thinker lies in “his preferring truth to his past apprehension of truth; and his alert acceptance of it, from whatever quarter.” (407) All may be superseded, the past, the force of habit be damned. The Emersonian thinker or scholar fundamentally unsettles: “Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk.” (407)

Because the thinker can only unsettle, the thinker must disclaim all authority. Kierkegaard did this too, quite explicitly—he spoke with no authority; all authority lay with God. So too with Emerson, for all their differences. “But lest I should mislead any when I have my own head and obey my whims, let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back.” (412)

Take at least five minutes to feel those words before returning to mine, I beg you.


Emerson’s task must be understood with this renouncing of authority in mind. He does not write to persuade, but to provoke. Emerson attributes this task to the poet, but that is false modesty: any task Emerson lays on the poet he lays on himself. “He smites and arouses me with his shrill tones, breaks up my whole chain of habits, and I open my eye on my own possibilities.” (409) Emerson’s work is a sting, and it can only bear two offspring: the lives of those stung, and the stings to which those lives give rise. Sting begets sting, and nothing ever settles.

So there is an instability inherent in the Emersonian view, an endless succession of unsettlings, without resolution. In Kierkegaard, the Bible may provide some stability: as God’s message, it can serve as an anchor. But with Emerson, the Bible is only one more sting, one more provocation, and not the message itself. This is what we see in his Divinity School Address. For Emerson, the message is ever unwritten. All that exists is sting upon sting, sting giving rise to sting.

My title promises some discussion of prudence, so I had better deliver, lest I be besmirched as a man not of his word. Emerson is direct about prudence: “The great man will not be prudent in the popular sense; all his prudence will be so much deduction from his grandeur.” (410) And Emerson speaks specifically of the sacrifice of prudence to some god—not the god of ease and pleasure, for then “he had better be prudent still”, but “to a great trust.” It is a trust in his virtue, whatever that may be, and a trust that external circumstance will not impede him from living his virtue, that marks the great man. What makes this trust possible? The answer lies at the beginning of Emerson’s essay, when he alludes to two consequences of the circular principle. One is the non-finality of all virtues. The other is what he traced in an earlier essay: the principle of compensation.

This principle gives Emerson a source of security. While it is impersonal, his principle of compensation gives him confidence in experimenting at the expense of prudence. In this way, it functions similarly to the way God functions for Kierkegaard, who in his diary often thanks God for gracing him with circumstances that helped him to remain devoted to his task. For both, there is a layer of safety.

But what if one cannot accept either God or compensation? What if one is resolutely atheist? Kierkegaard suggests the possibility of being a Christian without worrying if it is true: “What a great help it would be already in Christendom if someone said, and acted accordingly: I don’t know if Christianity is true, but I will order my whole life as if it were, stake my life thereon—then if it proves not to be true, eh bien, I don’t regret my choice, for it is the only matter I am concerned about.” (§157) But this, I think, requires suspension of judgment, which I lack. I actively believe otherwise, so this road is closed to me, even if I wished to take it.

So here is my question: is such a sacrifice of prudence to the god of a great trust possible for me if I believe that there is nothing in which to place my trust, but only a cold, inanimate universe, a mass of atoms swirling in the void? But here I must break off. I have asked a question words cannot answer. Only my life can answer that.

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This will be my final post in the Poetry and Prudence sequence, I believe. The first two may be found here and here. Many months ago I started planning a sequence of posts on this theme, mulling over them, gathering sources—and above all never putting any words onto any pages. After reading Emerson’s essay on “Prudence”, I decided to rescue the project from its neglect, mostly scrapping the original plan. When I began writing this post, I had no intention of its being—or not being—the last, but I think I pushed the question as far as it can go, or at least as far as I can now take it. So, I suppose, it is over.


I have looked at the following texts:

Søren Kierkegaard. The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard. Ed. Peter Rohde.
Ralph Waldo Emerson. Essays & Lectures. Library of America.

On the value of poetic philosophy

2014/01/02 3 comments

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.