Posts Tagged ‘Vladimir Nabokov’

Egotism and individuality

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:

  1. Talent (power) makes us its prisoners.
  2. Talent leads to unbalance and upsets symmetry.
  3. 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.

Power, not expression

2014/07/15 1 comment


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.”