In his essay on “Power,” Emerson deferred his usual countermovement, and allowed himself to extol pure imposing power without admixture. Only two essays later in The Conduct of Life, when his subject turns to “Culture,” does the turn arrive. The essay begins by raising three related problems, to which culture offers some solution:
- Talent (power) makes us its prisoners.
- Talent leads to unbalance and upsets symmetry.
- All individualism is secured through egotism.
What we are good at, we do. To move to a new arena requires learning new skills, a period of apprenticeship, and reticence to forgo our expertise thus keeps us in the realm of our established talent. The purpose of culture, with respect to this problem, is to call in other powers as a defense against this domineering power. “Culture reduces these inflammations by invoking the aid of other powers against the dominant talent, and by appealing to the rank of powers.” (1015)
The second problem is similar. Talent and efficiency require concentration. Nothing is accomplished without specialization. Emerson hammered the point home in the essay on power: “The one prudence in life is concentration; the one evil is dissipation.” (982) But now this is seen as “overload[ing] him with bias, sacrificing his symmetry to his working power.” (1015) The end result is that “no man can write but one book” – and how true this is: Shakespeare wrote but one sonnet, Nabokov but one novel, Rothko painted and repainted a single painting, and Feldman’s compositions are all, at base, the same. The value of culture lies in promoting symmetry, in expanding outward in multiple directions. If power is a specialist, culture is a generalist.
But it is the third problem that is worst. “But worse than the harping on one string, Nature has secured individualism, by giving the private person a high conceit of his weight in the system. The pest of society is egotists.” (1015) Here individualism is distinguished from egotism – individualism is, I suppose, being a well-formed, resolute individual, who does not bend to every external influence, whereas egotism is a conceited view of one’s own worth. Such a distinction is the sort that might be taken to show that Emerson wishes to contrast his doctrine of self-reliance with egotism – it may be a form of individualism, but egotism it is not. That is a mistake.
Emerson here is making a descriptive remark about the world: the way, as a matter of unalterable fact, that individualism is secured is through egotism. Emerson made this same point in an earlier essay: such conceit is the sine qua non of all action. But mixed in with this description is the appearance of a value judgment: egotism is a “disease” and a “goitre.” (1015-6) Well, Emerson admits it has its downsides, but he infers from the unalterable fact that egotism has some use: “This goitre of egotism is so frequent among notable persons, that we must infer some strong necessity in nature which it subserves.” (1016) And this use is individuality: “so egotism has its root in the cardinal necessity by which each individual persists to be what he is.”
If individuality is distinct from egotism, it is because it has an additional element – culture. “The end of culture is not to destroy [individuality], God forbid! but to train away all impediment and mixture, and leave nothing but pure power.” (1016-7) The function of culture is to act as a sieve, as a purifying agent – exactly as it was described in the essay on power.
This leaves culture in a secondary position: egotism is the basis, and culture goes to work on this basis. Culture does not precede it, and without it culture is empty. It is striking, for an essay purportedly extolling culture and its tempering effect on power, just how sparing a role Emerson leaves for culture. He will grant its value, but prefers solitude:
We can ill spare the commanding social benefits of cities; they must be used; yet cautiously, and haughtily, – and will yield their best values to him who best can do without them. Keep the town for occasions, but the habits should be formed to retirement. (1028)
Solitude is the workspace of genius – and also of egotism. One pole of Emerson’s conception of genius is that it consists of an outward expansion, the imposition of the individual on what lies outside the individual, or, to condense this to a word: egotism. And this requires solitude.
But there is something to those who would see an impersonal element in Emerson’s doctrine of self-reliance. I contend only that one cannot understand what this impersonal element is without seeing that Emerson’s insistence on self-reliance is an insistence on a form of egotism – as it must be, if it is to be worthy of the name. What is this impersonal element, then?
We say solitude, to mark the character of the tone of thought; but if it can be shared between two or more than two, it is happier, and not less noble. (1028)
Emerson’s impersonal is egotism shared.
In my previous post, on Emerson’s essay “Power”, I pulled a few quotes from Emerson that saw him choosing brute animal power over human civility. Most explicit is the following: “if it be only a question between the most civil and the most forcible, I lean to the last.” (977) Emerson further claims that what is of value in power lies in the transition from the forcible to the civil, when civility has acted as a sieve removing some of the “astringency” of this brute power, but before civility has erased that power altogether. The directionality of this relationship is important. Emerson does not speak of oscillating back and forth, of constantly transitioning from one to the other. It is solely in the direction of forceàcivility. This underscores the prior position of animal force: it is the starting point of the transition. It must come first.
In Nietzsche, too, the same thought finds a voice. In his notebooks – I am working from the pilfering from these notebooks known as The Will to Power (trans. W. Kaufmann; Vintage) – there appears the following passage:
The most spiritual men feel the stimulus and charm of sensuous things in a way that other men – those with “fleshly hearts” – cannot possibly imagine and ought not to imagine: they are sensualists in the best faith, because they accord the senses a more fundamental value than to that fine sieve, that thinning and reducing machine, or whatever we may call what in the language of the people is named “spirit.” The strength and power of the senses – this is the essential thing in a well-constituted and complete man: the splendid “animal” must be given first – what could any “humanization” matter otherwise! (§1045)
Beyond being garbed in Nietzsche’s style, the thought is straight out of Emerson. The animal comes first, humanization second – given a choice between the two Nietzsche chooses the animal. As for spirit, it functions as a sieve, just as Emerson conceived it. It is valuable as a means of humanizing the animal – but not too much. For Emerson and Nietzsche both, there is an aversion to that morality that promotes the human at the expense of the animal, that sees the animal, the flesh, the senses, as needing to be denied. The thought might be put this way: such a morality uses too fine a sieve; Emerson and Nietzsche believe only in a sieve that is appropriately coarse.
It is very rare for an essay by Emerson to insist on a single point without a countermovement. Let whatever have its say, some opponent also demands a voice, and Emerson grants it. Yet in his essay on “Power”, Emerson defers this movement to later chapters of The Conduct of Life.
I have not forgotten that there are sublime considerations which limit the value of talent and superficial success. We can easily overpraise the vulgar hero. There are sources on which we have not drawn. I know what I abstain from. I adjourn what I have to say on this topic to the chapters on Culture and Worship. (985)
It is telling that Emerson imposes this delay on himself. He has just been defending the fundamental role of power in human life. Life itself he defines as the search for power, and immediately connects this to a favorite theme: selectivity. Genius is selective, Emerson teaches again and again. This may be applied to life as the search for power, for such life takes events as the ore in which power is found, that is, as something to be sifted. “He can well afford to let events and possessions, and the breath of the body go, if their value has been added to him in the shape of power.” (971)
Emerson’s picture of power is not a humanized one. He is not playing games with the word, making it mean something softer, lighter, than in a generic context it conveys. No, power is power, the ability to control and dominate, to subject some material – be it inert or animate, animal or human – to one’s will. Given the choice between power and ethics, Emerson will take power – “if it be only a question between the most civil and the most forcible, I lean to the last” (977) – and he considers seriously the worry that “conscience [is] not good for hands and legs.” (978)
Nor does Emerson see such a reliance on power as harmful. If “this power, to be sure, is not clothed in satin,” nonetheless “it brings its own antidote.” (976) The solution to the problems power raises is more power, of a different sort – counterbalancing power. Politics, with its brute clash of forces, becomes a model of self-reliance writ large: it is not goodness, conformity to civil standards, that makes for sustainable politics. It is that each comes “with a mind made up to desperate extremities.” (975) This paragraph, by the by, is a strong plank in the case for seeing Emersonian self-reliance as it must be seen: as a form of egotism.
Power is fundamental. It is because power is fundamental that Emerson defers the coming movement. To be sure, Emerson hints at it in the essay. “Physical force has no value, where there is nothing else.” (980) But Emerson cannot disparage physical force, for without it, nothing else has value. Emerson is clear where value lies:
Everything good in nature and the world is in that moment of transition, when the swarthy juices still flow plentifully from nature, but their astringency or acridity is got out by ethics and humanity. (980)
The value of power lies in its ability to be directed, when it is not an end in itself, but put toward some aim. The power, however, comes first. The aim without the power is “idle seeing,” and accounts for nothing. (982) Ethics and humanity without power leaves only tamed and neutered animals – that is why Emerson chooses the forcible over the civil. Emerson favors the moment of transition precisely because power is preserved in it. When the transition is complete, all that remains is undiluted ethics – conformity. Then brute power is again required.
Emerson draws from these views on power a consequence for the artist. As someone who has recently begun writing poetry (again, if my horrid teen years are to be counted), I found the following passage of especial significance:
The triumphs of peace have been in some proximity to war. Whilst the hand was still familiar with the sword-hilt, whilst the habits of the camp were still visible in the port and complexion of the gentleman, his intellectual power culminated: the compression and tension of these stern conditions is a training for the finest and softest arts, and can rarely be compensated in tranquil times, except by some analogous vigor drawn from occupations as hardy as war. (980)
Aside from my pet interest in the connection between Emerson and Nietzsche – who, familiar with Nietzsche, can fail to see how the German on so many occasions rewrote this very passage? – the passage is interesting for treating fine arts and intellectual endeavors as only one step removed from war, and as degenerate when further removed. Just as in politics and business, the material side of life, where self-interest and the crudest egotism rules, so also in poetry and painting, power is fundamental.
That origination of art in power has an interesting consequence:
The friction in nature is so enormous that we cannot spare any power. It is not question to express our thought, to elect our way, but to overcome resistances of the medium and material in everything we do. (984)
Art is not about expression. How many turn to poetry or other arts to express themselves, or to express a message about society, or… – in any case, to express something! And how much terrible, unreadable poetry results! What results from such endeavors is a chaos of words held together only by their meaning, a distended organization of unrecognizable shape.
This because art – as all else – is about power, is about overcoming the “resistances of the medium and material.” It is not about expression, not even about beauty. It is, in the case of poetry, about dominating words, forcing them into position, making them do the work the poet commands. (Vladimir Nabokov once said, “My characters are galley slaves.” He knew.*) There is resistance imposed by meter, by the sounds of words, by the conventions of form – all of which require power to be overcome. It is in that overcoming that the successes of poetry lie.
[*Nabokov also, to my great surprise, appears to have found Emerson’s poetry “delightful.” I can’t say I’m displeased.]
This is not to say that expression and beauty have no role. It is just: their role is secondary. They are sources of constraints. Not only must meter be obeyed (and in meter-lacking verse other constraints take over this role), but meaning must be conveyed. Thus the resistance of the medium increases. Not only must meter be obeyed and meaning be conveyed, but the result must be beautiful. The resistance of the medium becomes nearly impervious to the poet’s effort.
I have permitted myself to write the above not just because it is, I believe, true to Emerson, but because it corresponds with my own experience. I can certainly not claim a single pure success in what I have written so far, except perhaps in an isolated line here or there, but the joy I have found in writing has not come from expression, but from the thrill that comes at each moment that the material yields even a little, at each correct placement of a single word. No such joy attends the successful expression of an idea – every half-baked line of mine expresses something – and I would banish meaning from my poetry if I would not thereby lose a rich source of friction, and hence a rich source, eventually, of joy.
This realization I came to before I read Emerson’s essay and its striking claims. As I wrote in my journal, earlier in the day: “Poetry: a struggle for power over words, words that fight back.”
The simplest reason why interpretations of Emerson dissatisfy is, they are inferior agents for their task. If an interpretation aims to clarify how one is to read the text interpreted, then Emerson is his own best interpreter. All that needs to be said, by way of interpretation of Emerson, is: keep vigilant watch for those passages where Emerson explains how Emerson is to be read.
Emerson’s use of dualisms shall be my case study. Emerson is difficult on this point – I do not deny that he needs interpretation; I deny only that he does not himself supply it – and it easy to misread Emerson as seeking to transcend dualisms. This temptation is made easier by the assimilation of Emerson to the American pragmatists, who really did want to transcend, abolish, overthrow, whatever, that whole “brood and nest of dualisms.”
I notice the tendency to this sort of misreading when I read scholarly literature about Emerson. Thus Branka Arsić – to pick on only that scholar who I happen to be reading now – wants to read Emerson as radical, as seeking to replace old with new, as taking these given oppositions (materialism/idealism, for one) and leaving us with something that isn’t quite either. But it is perhaps dishonest of me to place blame elsewhere: it is an error that pervaded my first years of reading Emerson, and this post is a corrective first and foremost against myself. (As an Emersonian, I am able to find in my reading of Emerson only my own thought, my good thoughts. This has a reverse movement: that I read in scholastic exercises on Emerson only my own flaws.)
Emerson’s essay on “Fate” (the first in his The Conduct of Life) contains his clearest statement of his relation to dualisms. As is his wont, he organizes the essay around a central opposition: between Fate (also called ‘nature’ and ‘cause and effect’ and ‘animal’) and Power (also called ‘liberty’ and ‘thought’ and ‘human’). On the first page, Emerson sets out his method:
If we must accept Fate, we are not less compelled to affirm liberty, the significance of the individual, the grandeur of duty, the power of character. This is true, and that other is true. But our geometry cannot span these extreme points, and reconcile them. What to do? By obeying each thought frankly, by harping, or, if you will, pounding on each string, we learn at last its power. By the same obedience to other thoughts, we learn theirs, and then comes some reasonable hope of harmonizing them. (943)
Fate and Power appear as two truths: all is fated, and we have power. “That is true, and that other is true.” There is no talk of transcending this dualism (how does one transcend truth?), of escaping the opposition: there is only the question of reconciling them. But we are not, at first, up to the task: “our geometry cannot span these extreme points.” Given this inability to encompass them, some provisional method is needed. This is the method of “pounding on each string” until its power reveals itself. Emerson deliberately switches from a musical (“harping”) to an artless (“pounding”) verb: even if the two are harmonized in the end, the method is not itself musical. There is something brute about it. Each shall be expounded, and only then will Emerson ask after reconciliation.
This is precisely the flow of the essay. There is, first, the strong statement of fatalism: we are limited Nature. Insofar as we may experiment (and Emerson is the great philosopher of experiment), what experiment teaches us is the limits set by nature. “A man’s power is hooped in by a necessity, which, by many experiments, he touches on every side, until he learns its arc.” (952) We are different from animals, yes, but not in that we are free – it is only, our limitations differ. “The limitations refine as the soul purifies, but the ring of necessity is always perched at the top.” (952) There are “torrents of tendency,” and in their face resistance appears “ridiculously inadequate.” (951) Fate is not to be avoided.
But Power will have its turn. Man is not mere fate, “but a stupendous antagonism, a dragging together of the poles of the Universe.” (953) Man can think, and insofar as man thinks, man is free. This is, to be sure, a rare event – Emerson registers his disgust with those who crow about liberty when they are slaves, “as most men are” (953-4) – but that freedom is rare is no objection to its possibility or even its reality. When the mind is roused to activity, it does not mind what is fated, but follows its thought.
Having given both sides voice, does Emerson achieve reconciliation? There is a certain appearance of it:
Fate, then, is a name for facts not yet passed under the fire of thought;—for causes which are unpenetrated. But every jet of chaos which threatens to exterminate us, is convertible by intellect into wholesome force. (958)
Fate and Power are now inter-convertible. This is not, however, so much a reconciliation as simply a new insight about their opposition. Fate and Power may coexist; Fate is potential Power:
If Fate is ore and quarry, if evil is good in the making, if limitation is power that shall be, if calamities, oppositions, and weights are wings and means,—we are reconciled. (960)
Such is Emerson’s reconciliation: the antagonism is maintained, but is shown to be productive.
Indeed, what Emerson is doing fundamentally requires that the antagonism be maintained. Man is “a stupendous antagonism, a dragging together of the poles of the Universe.” Abolish the poles, and man is abolished. Deny (transcendence is a form of denial) Fate, and Power is without “ore and quarry.” “History is the action and reaction of these two” (964) – and keeping in mind Emerson’s equivocation between history and biography, this means that biography is also this action and reaction. Therefore, to achieve a true reconciliation, a restoration of friendly relations, is to cease all movement, to lose all power and thought. It is idleness and sloth.
But Emerson does not misspeak when he talks of “reconciliation.” I am loathe to cite a dictionary, but must: to reconcile is “cause to coexist in harmony.” There is a sense of harmony in which antagonism is permitted, and it is this sense that characterizes Emerson’s dualisms – not only the one I have examined here. A.R. Ammons captured it well, in his poem “Terrain”:
…a habitat, precise ecology of forms
mutually to some extent
tolerable, not entirely self-destroying…