Posts Tagged ‘Uses of Great Men’

Is Emerson safe to handle?

2014/05/07 9 comments

The knock on Walter Kaufmann, who is generally given credit for rescuing Nietzsche’s reputation from the Nazis, is that in carrying out this rescue operation he to too great an extent sanitized Nietzsche, made him safe. Perhaps this was once necessary, but in the end the harsher aspects of Nietzsche must be recovered. It seems to me that the same might be said of readers of and writers on Emerson. It is worth asking, in reading secondary literature on Emerson, to what extent the author smoothes over Emerson’s rough edges.

This way of thinking about the literature on Emerson occurred to me while reading Lawrence Buell’s Emerson. Buell, in his discussion of Emerson’s twin lineages—American pragmatism, and Nietzsche—notes that James made Emerson safe in a way that Nietzsche did not. “The point is not that James was a company-man pedant, for he most certainly was not, but that even Emersonian wickedness was safely canonical and therefore somewhat anodyne for him as it was not for Nietzsche.” (239) This is not the first bit of inspiration I have received from Buell’s mostly quite good book. But despite owing Buell thanks for showing me this tool, I nevertheless feel compelled to turn it on him.

One of Buell’s concerns in the book is to show how, for Emerson, self-reliance is not egotism, for the self on which one is reliant is always something transpersonal, even impersonal. It is true that Emerson speaks this way, and I myself have, in the past, taken this as comfort in my reading of Emerson. But now I suspect that this way of reading Emerson is too easy and too convenient, and not faithful to Emerson himself. In one of the locations at which Buell discusses this aspect of Emerson, he picks up on what Emerson says in “Self-Reliance”: “To believe that what is true for you in your own private heart is true for all men,—that is genius” (quoted in Buell, 236). (This quote is the one of which I was thinking when I wrote, yesterday, of “Emerson’s insistence that genius is the universalization of one’s own individuality.”) Buell comments that this shows “that the basis of the trust is that the inmost must be some sort of universal. Truth must be generated as personal experience, but personal experience can count as truth only insofar as it carries transpersonal, exemplary force.” (237)

This reading of Emerson is comforting, at least for those who stick by Emerson, because it mitigates his apparently extreme individualism, his advocacy of self-reliance even when one finds that one is “the devil’s child”. But I think Buell is putting too much hope in this purported “transpersonal, exemplary force” of the individual’s private truth—more hope than Emerson placed in it. (In what follows, I will presuppose familiarity with the themes of the short essay “Two poles of genius” that I wrote yesterday.)

Buell picks up on Emerson’s reversal of Kant to the extent that he grants that, for Emerson, “truth must be generated as personal experience,” whereas Kant’s tests of the universalizability of a maxim do not make any such detour through personal experience. That much, in Buell, is right. But it is not enough. It ascribes to Emerson the belief that what is arrived at through personal experience will be something universal, thus acceptable to all. I do not think Emerson had any such hope. In “Uses of Great Men”, the universalizing tendency of genius appears in animal guise: “every individual strives to grow and exclude, and to exclude and grow, to the extremities of the universe, and to impose the law of its being on every other creature.” (628) [I wonder, by the by, whether this passage might not be a precursor to Nietzsche’s views on will to power.] Here, the universalization of genius does not proceed in a safe, friendly manner—it is an act of aggression, of violence, from which others have to protect themselves.

Where Buell takes Emerson’s insistence on the transpersonal to provide a way of evading the charge of egotism, of promoting reliance on oneself even at the expense of others, it seems to me that Emerson was well aware that his doctrine of self-reliance had precisely the implication that it will bring individuals into conflict, that any agreement between individuals will be partial and temporary (cf. his essays on “Love” and “Friendship”), that individuals need defenses from others. Buell is making Emerson safe.


Two poles of genius

2014/05/06 6 comments

Every attempt to fix a single view onto Emerson eventually comes to ruin. I have long felt the vibrations, as it rattled about my brain, of Emerson’s insistence that genius is the universalization of one’s own individuality, the taking of what is honest to oneself as what is honest for all. Of course this was not all Emerson said about genius, but it seemed the center around which Emerson’s views of genius were organized. It stood unopposed.

It stands opposed. Emerson writes, in the opening essay of Representative Men: “But true genius seeks to defend us from itself.” (623) It is only “vulgar talent” that wishes “to dazzle and to bind the beholder.” Now it seems that genius—always Emerson’s antithesis to talent—is not the imposition, at least in thought, of one’s own mind on all minds, but rather the defense of all other minds from just this imposition. I should have expected this moment of conflict, more than I did.

The first pole of genius is a perversion of Kant’s injunction to will only what can be willed as a universal maxim. Emerson twists it around: universalize what you will. But Emerson does not mean for petty egotism to run rampant. That genius should universalize what one wills is a test. Not the same as Kant’s test, but nonetheless not a test that all I desire will pass. There is a perpetual theme, in Emerson, that self-reliance should be something impersonal, that in it individuality should disappear. The individual disappears as Kant as well, but in a different way. Emerson reverses the directionality of Kant’s categorical imperative: rather than moving from what can be willed universally to what I myself shall will, the move is from what I will to the universal. Genius expands outward.

Yet such outward expansion is dangerous, for others, at least. Even if my genius’ belief in such universalization is genuine, should others follow me in this way, what results is mere conformity, and not more genius. For another to accept what I will is for them to go through my person and not their own—thus to give up self-reliance. Should genius get its way, should its expansion succeed, it would be to the detriment of genius. Thus the need for the second pole of genius, in which genius defends others from itself.

Genius is in conflict with itself, expanding outward even as it attempts to defend others from its expansion. Emerson’s writing lives out this conflict, defending a philosophy of self-reliance even while undercutting every attempt to pin this philosophy down to a single formulation. In this way, Emerson defends his readers from himself. Yet I take Emerson to have been aware that these defenses are insufficient on their own. He writes:

For nature wishes every thing to remain itself; and, whilst every individual strives to grow and exclude, and to exclude and grow, to the extremities of the universe, and to impose the law of its being on every other creature, Nature steadily aims to protect each against every other. Each is self-defended. Nothing is more marked than the power by which individuals are guarded from individuals… (628)

The first visage of genius here appears, though it is not called by name. Against it, each individual has defenses. A vision of life emerges: it is the clash of genius with genius, my genius with yours, and my genius with my own. Such is the peril of life.