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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.

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Three reflections on Emerson

In the blur that has been these past three days—since I am writing this after midnight, perhaps I had better call it four—I have come to the close of Emerson’s second series of essays. Fittingly, perhaps, while reading “New England Reformers”, I had no unified idea for a post, so here are three scattered reactions upon its ideas.

[I] Another attempt to justify misreading Emerson

There is power over and behind us, and we are the channels of its communications. We seek to say thus and so, and over our head some spirit sits, which contradicts what we say. (607)

There is something more to what we say, than what we intend. It is not Emerson’s purpose here, I think, to condemn what has come to be called the intentional fallacy, the use of authorial intent in interpretation. The claim is milder, yet more invigorating nonetheless: intent is excellent, so far as it goes, but always something escapes it. We do not quite know what we say, and thus are imperfect guides to our own thought.

My readings or misreadings of Emerson take this thought as their license. A too slavish devotion to Emerson would not even leave me with Emerson. Why not, then, seek what is behind his thought? But keep in mind, here, what is likely to be found behind his thought. It can only be biography. What I am seeking behind Emerson is, inevitably, myself. I am the worst sort of reader: I put myself into the text, then pull myself back out, as if I had made some grand discovery.

Or so it stands when my readings succeed. Of course I will not deny that often, perhaps usually, they fail, and the sad result is a passable interpretation of Emerson. I shall try always to keep these to a minimum.

[II] The apparent impossibility of friendship

There can be no concert in two, when there is no concert in one. When the individual is not individual, but is dual; when his thoughts look one way, and his actions another; when his faith is traversed by his habits; when his will, enlightened by reason, is warped by his sense; when with one hand he rows, and with the other backs water, what concert can be? (599)

Here, then, is a recipe for friendship, or any other alliance between two individuals. Each is to be unified with herself—only then may she work with another. But is such unity within oneself possible? Let us look at what happens when Emerson, two pages later, tries to defend the possibility, even the inevitability of a union between two:

I do not believe that the differences of opinion and character in men are organic. I do not recognize, beside the class of the good and the wise, a permanent class of skeptics, or a class of conservatives, or of malignants, or of materialists. I do not believe in two classes. (601)

A bold statement of the unity between two, a unity on which Emerson unconditionally insists. But the price of this unity between two is disunity within the individual.

I do not believe in two classes of men, but in man in two moods, in Philip drunk and Philip sober. (601)

We know, already, that Emersonian moods do not believe in one another. Moreover, in “Nominalist and Realist”, we learn that this disunity of moods makes sincerity a sort of impossibility: “I am always insincere, as always knowing there are other moods.” (587) What, then comes of Emerson’s “concert”? Insofar as concert is possible, insofar as the two classes melt into one, there is disunity lurking below—disunity that seems to preclude the very possibility of concert. Friendship, for Emerson, may very well be impossible.

[III] Experimental lessons of science

The lessons of science should be experimental also. The sight of the planet through a telescope, is worth all the course on astronomy: the shock of the electric spark in the elbow, out-values all the theories; the taste of the nitrous oxide, the firing of an artificial volcano, are better than the volumes of chemistry. (594)

I have a hunch that the point of this passage may be expressed in terms of property, of ownership. There is a sense in which human knowledge—that which is produced by contemporary laboratories at ever-increasing rates—belongs to no one, or only to very few. Those at work in the lab may finish a successful experiment with knowledge, but perhaps no one else will. This I tried to capture, with some of its ramifications, in my recent essay on skepticism. It is not enough to read a book to come to possess knowledge, so most of today’s knowledge remains predominantly unpossessed.

For this reason, I prefer the act of discovery that brings some piece of knowledge into someone’s possession, even if that act contributes nothing to human knowledge. In Emersonian terms: every mind must go over the whole ground for itself. What a mind does not go over itself, it cannot obtain by any other means. It is the activity of science that is experimental, whereas the uptake of science is ever so much conformity and disappointment.

Conversation and mood

2014/04/17 2 comments

When I converse with Emerson, as I have been doing for two or so years now, are we talking past one another? I do not deny the charge. And if I wish to suggest, with Emer­son, or with my Emerson, at least, that there is something fundamental about mood that shapes all we do and are, then I must turn a wary eye on my own interactions with Emer­son.

My companion assumes to know my mood and habit of thought, and we go on from explanation to explanation, until all is said which words can, and we leave matters just as they were at first, because of that vicious assumption. (587)

I agree with my friend here, only I am in a mood, just now, in which I do not find the assumption quite so vicious as he. I know that, in a post such as my Fools of Nature, I have, for all my attempted faithfulness to my Emerson’s thought, impressed my own mood upon the subject matter, and so been left instead with my own thought. But this seems to me as it should be. I do not read Emerson out of love of Emerson, and I do not write about Emerson to flatter him.

I take it our friendship can survive this narcissism of mine. But, if not, if I must choose between the two, I shall take the narcissism.

A first turn of the screw, pt. II: retelling as reliving

The time has come to fulfill yesterday’s promise of an exploration of the manner in which retelling is a form of reliving in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. I have already explored this idea in the case of Beckett (links in yesterday’s post), and perhaps one day I will be able to synthesize Beckett and James, but today I hardly remember my thoughts on Beckett, and so will stick to James.

My first realization that the second narrator, in retelling her story, is reliving it came when she wrote, “I find that I really hang back; but I must take my horrid plunge. In going on the record of what was hideous at Bly I not only challenge the most liberal faith—for which I little care; but (and this is another matter) I renew what I myself suffered, I again push my dreadful way through it to the end.” (60, this volume) My realization was no great leap: she is quite explicit what is occurring. Moreover, not only does she state this idea, but she exemplifies it. The first words of her section of the story—“I remember the whole beginning as a succession of flights and drops” (11)—are echoed here in her speaking of her writing as taking a “plunge”.

There is also a disparity between these two quotes. The second speaks of memory, of remembering, not of reliving. At the outset of her tale, there is more of a distance between her and her writing. It is only gradually that her writing, as it were, takes on a life of its own. I think we see this best in the steady increase in prominence of the language of submission and mastery, of the narrator’s increasing tendency to insist upon being in the dominant position. (Tracking this increase helps me, at least, to understand why the story ends as it does.) This language conflicts with that of virtue: her self-presentation, from the start, is of herself as a virtuous person. She is desperate to be seen, publicly, in her virtue. Insofar as her writing is a form of remembering, this need dominates it: she remembers her own virtue so that others might remember it after her—writing gains her virtue an audience. But as the story goes on, we start to suspect that, however much she tells herself she is motivated by her (mostly self-imposed) duty to the children, her real motive lies in the need for domination. It is no accident that she refers to an instance in which Mrs. Grose provides her with information that “justifies” her as a “submission of memory” (74-5, my emphasis). The less her story becomes self-presentation, and the more it becomes reliving, the more her true motive shines through.

Considering this theme, of retelling as reliving, forces me to return to my thoughts of last night. There, in reflecting on the publicity of writing, and especially of its self-insufficient virtues, I worried a great deal about how I, as a reader, do not “believe” the governess, desperate as she is to be believed. Yet, insofar as retelling is a form of reliving, this problem vanishes, or at least splits. Now there are two stories to consider. One is the tale of the governess at Bly, struggling with apparitions of evil for the soul of a young boy and girl. The other is the story of the governess writing, a story that I do not receive secondhand, but watch unfold for myself. For the second story, there is no question of believing or not believing—do I not see it directly? And insofar as I am concerned with this story, the question of whether I may believe the first becomes subsidiary. Perhaps that story involves the “submission of memory” to the vicissitudes of the governess’ psychology—but these submissions bring me no sense of having been lied to. Rather, they are honestly presented phenomena, events in the second story I watch unfold.

Insofar as retelling is a form of reliving, it may be self-sufficient—that is, it may require no audience for its completion. Once the governess has written her story, her act is done, and she may die. There is nothing that requires a reader, an audience. In yesterday’s post, the reader was required because the virtues of writing were not self-sufficient. Today they are. But what, then, of the reader? What am I?