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Self-reliance and self-content

It is a perpetual depression to experience how the inspiritors of wordpress conspire to represent Emerson, an endless series of quotations (first mistake) that “uplift” only to servile self-content, and never to loftiness of sentiment (second mistake) – and upon noticing that many of these quotations seem never to appear in Emerson’s writing, it is hard to avoid the thought, however briefly it lingers, that perhaps it would have been better for us all had he never lived. Thus I will undertake briefly to explain why Emersonian self-reliance wants no part in contemporary self-content.

Superficially they are similar. There is a certain sort of conformity that demands of us that we sacrifice our quirks to society, that we make our appearances, our personalities, and such take the shape that the whims of fashion (whose?) dictate. Against this oppression comes the cry that we should not so slaughter ourselves, that we should love who we are, damn imposition to hell. Follow your own path, the beat of your own drum (if we want to drag Thoreau in), etc. All well and good. But what seems not to be considered, and what I take to be central to Emerson, is the question of just what it is you are loving – how much of it is the judgment of others, internalized? There is an element of self-critique to self-reliance, without which it is complacent self-content. Without it, we are “like sick men in hospitals, we change only from bed to bed, from one folly to another; and it cannot signify much what becomes of such castaways, – wailing, stupid, comatose creatures, – lifted from bed to bed, from the nothing of life to the nothing of death.” (1122)

In a related vein, there is in modern self-love an optimism that to be oneself guarantees success, is sufficient, is the end. But Emerson’s conception is experimental, and experiments often fail. Emersonian self-reliance is laced with skepticism. All is illusion – how many ways he makes this point in the essay from which this post is growing. More to the point, “With such volatile elements to work in, ‘tis no wonder if our estimates are loose and floating. We must work and affirm, but we have no guess of the value of what we say or do.” (1121) All knowledge of what is valuable, of what works, comes from hindsight, and the hindsight pertinent to our actions might not be our own. As actors, we can only guess.

Such a curmudgeonly piece is perhaps an unbefitting end to my reading of Emerson’s major works, and doubly unbefitting for my youth. My only apology is to rest in Emerson’s claim of the counterbalancing of forces – too much of the cheery (as distinct from the cheerful) perhaps demands a dose of the dour. And if this slight experiment should fail despite (or because of) my caveating, I take small solace in the thought that that really rather makes the point.

A reader’s anti-Kantianism

Since deciding, on a whim, to write a book on Emerson, I have thought it prudent to foray further into the viny growths clinging to the trunks of his books, known more colloquially as the secondary literature. From this experience – still only in its beginnings – I have been brought to the following reflections.

I have read Lawrence Buell’s Emerson, and profited by it, but I think the book as a whole is fine, and no more than fine. Now I have begun reading Branka Arsić’ book On Leaving. I have not read much of it, but already I have profited by it. Yet I can foresee that by the end of the book I will most likely think it – just fine. Even as I enjoy it, and gain by reading it, there is a lack of enthusiasm – a dire indictment of a book about Emerson’s philosophy of leaving, given that Emerson seems to see enthusiasm as a necessary condition of leaving:

The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment. (414)

Why this lack of enthusiasm? There are a number of reasons; I begin with that reason that furnishes me with my title, and which is the root of all the others. Buell and Arsić both are interpreters of Emerson. They aim to locate what is within his text, and to draw it out. Perhaps they reorganize it, but not out of faithlessness – they only want to bring it into a light that reveals it more clearly.

One might say that their form of reading, interpretation, is Kantian, following the Kantian categorical imperative to always treat another as an end in herself, and never as a mere means to an end. They treat the text, or its meaning, as an end, and make themselves into the means by which that end is aided in its realization. Their own thought is made secondary, subservient to that of Emerson.

There are Emersonian reasons to mistrust such Kantianism. It makes the interpretation into a form of quotation, in the sense in which Emerson despised quotation:

Quotation confesses inferiority. In opening a new book we often discover, from the unguarded devotion with which the writer gives his motto or text, all we have to expect from him. If Lord Bacon appears already in the preface, I go and read the “Instauration” instead of the new book. (Here – I first read it, I believe, in his journals)

Inherent in the very idea of interpretation is the threat of redundancy: in the perfect interpretation, nothing is present that cannot be traced back, without distortion, to the interpreted text—why then, not skip the hassle, and just read the original? (There are reasons why; I shall come to them in time.)

Further disadvantages attend the decision to make the text with which one begins the end and not a means. First among these is the necessary incompleteness of all interpretation. The only text that will ever exhaust all the meaning in Emerson’s corpus, is Emerson’s corpus. Every interpretation is partial, is selective. It may pick out aspects, or strands, and make them clearer, but at the expense of cleaving them from the root system by which they are nourished. They become dead specimens only.

Because there is selection, we must ask on what basis this selection occurs. It may be selfish in a petty fashion (“I chose these aspects because they were those that interested me”), but never selfish in a properly individual fashion (“I chose these aspects because they belong equally to me, as to Emerson”), for, while the former is never complete, it at least actively avoids falsification – the latter does not, is much more careless. If there can be no individual in the selection, there can be no genius in it. It is genius that, when we are genial, redeems selection and partiality.

Where this selection most differs from the original will lie, not in the content selected (for if it is truly selected and not invented, it will all agree with the original), but in the emphases placed upon it. Too often I find these new emphases suspiciously flattering to the vanity of our contemporary tastes. It is true that Emerson was no nationalist, but should we draw our attention to that in an age in which the stupidity of nationalism is rather widely acknowledge? (Consider the audience for which such interpretations are written.) It is true that Emerson had progressive, for his time, views on women and slavery, but should we turn our eyes repeatedly to that, at a time where the non-superiority of white men to other humans is more or less obvious to all? It is, of course, a necessary if unpleasant task to have to defend Emerson from misunderstandings on these points, but this task should be accomplished as quietly and with as little fanfare as possible. To celebrate Emerson most for those aspects of his thought that today we find most comfortable – that we must avoid.

I also detect, in Arsić especially, a related, equally unfortunate tendency to “help” Emerson with the specific ways points are rephrased. Nietzsche speaks (The Wanderer and his Shadow §5) of those who “[accustom] us to a feignedly exaggerated linguistic usage” – i.e. those who surround a thing with purple prose, and make it desirable on account of how it has been described, in order to cover up for its lack of any tangible appeal. I find that same exaggeration in Arsić: who inserts into the reader’s mind images of “unrelenting aversive experimentation,” “radical restlessness,” of habit that “devastates life.” Taken alone, none is egregious, but together they leave a sense less of urgency than merely of being hectored. I cannot help but feel, moreover, that such insistence that Emerson is radical substitutes a façade of interestingness for a delicate attention to his thoughts – for if his thoughts are truly radical, they will impress on their own, without needing the help of the word.

An interpretation is at a further disadvantage with regard to its errors. Once faithfulness is pledged, one is committed to saying what Emerson said, and any deviations are to be regarded as errors. This is especially unfortunate for a book that highlights Emerson’s views on leaving, for the interpreter is chained to Emerson, and cannot leave. Each departure is, again, an error, and not a venture. Thus when Arsić overstates Emerson’s dissatisfaction with habit – e.g. by insisting that Emerson wishes we had no habits, rather than merely short habits (ch. 1, n18), or by claiming that, for Emerson, “there is no identity worthy of keeping or celebrating” (35) – the value of these ideas in themselves is not open for discussion, for discussion ends when it is noted that they are (probably) not Emerson’s ideas. Emerson never, to my knowledge, so unambiguously advocates against any ubiquitous aspect of human life. Emerson does not want there to be no habits, except perhaps in some of his most heavily rhetorical (and inevitably self-undermined) moods.

It is for this reason that I am skeptical of the interpretive enterprise, especially as it pertains to Emerson. All this is not to say there is no value to such interpretations. I have learned from Buell, and I have learned from Arsić. Both have their flaws – Arsić, for instance, has a tendency to lapse into moments of platitude or, worse, unmeaning – but they have their virtues as well. They are both good qua Emerson scholarship. I suspect nonetheless that such Kantian endeavors can never be more than “just fine”—the genius lies elsewhere, and the value of an Arsić or a Buell is secondary: it lies in directing me back to this genius with enhanced eyes.

What, then, is an alternative? If Kantianism is the flaw, perhaps some form of narcissism, of selfishness, of treating oneself as the ends and others as the means, will prove to be the key. I spoke earlier of the sense in which Emerson hates quotations; I can now go on to the sense in which he adores quotations:

When we are praising Plato, it seems we are praising quotations from Solon and Sophron and Philolaus. Be it so. Every book is a quotation; and every house is a quotation out of all forests and mines and stone quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors. And this grasping inventor puts all nations under contribution. (634)

We are incessant quoters, yes, but what we quote is waste stock, as Emerson called it in his essay on Shakespeare. Waste stock is not to be respected, not to be treated as an end in itself. It is to be used where it offers utility, and ignored where it does not. So too the writer on Emerson: Emerson should be used where he is of use, and forgotten otherwise. To treat him as a means only, to use him without respect for his wishes and intents – only that can lead to a book of primary and not secondary interest.

It may be that this leads to something unselfish in the end, to something that respects Emerson as an end. My insistence that Emerson was a genuine egotist, and that this aspect of his thought cannot be wiped away, does not deny that he hoped egotism would result in something other than mere egotism. If Emerson and I come to share a voice, then I will respect him, even revere him as a god, and this is a form of the “transpersonal” or “impersonal” that is claimed (by both Buell and Arsić) to show Emerson is no egotist. It is, however, only by a thoroughgoing egotism (coupled, I grant, with self-mistrust) that this transpersonal is achieved – and such achievement is not guaranteed, nor necessarily even likely.