Monthly Archives: November 2016

In The Ethics of Identity, Kwame Anthony Appiah attempts to articulate the role of identities within human life from an individualist vantage:

If there is something distinctive in my approach, it is that I start always from the perspective of the individual engaged in making his or her life, recognizing that others are engaged in the same project, and concerned to ask what social and political life means for this ethical project we share. (xvii)

The first chapter of the book is devoted to characterizing the nature of “the individual engaged in making his or her life,” the nature of what Appiah calls “self-creation.” He writes under the sign of John Stuart Mill, who characterized self-creation as constrained by history, human nature, and personal circumstance, but nonetheless dependent on the free creativity of the individual, who must choose the life he makes. Against the Millian view, Appiah poses two rivals, the Romantic and the Existentialist.

The Romantic sees self-creation as less creation than discovery. The individual has an authentic self, and the task of making a life involves uncovering this authentic self, freeing it from all external, perturbing influences. Authenticity is truth to an already given meaning. Of the two parts of the Millian picture—constraint and creativity—the Romantic emphasizes constraint above all, and minimizes creativity.

Unsurprisingly, Appiah’s Existentialist takes precisely the opposite approach. There is no pre-given self, waiting to be found. History and other sources of constraint exist, to be sure, but they hardly constrain. Every option is left open. Whatever one is not, one must choose not to be. One must not feebly excuse themselves by saying that the option was not open to them (for whatever external reason). There may be no such deferrals of one’s own authority. Thus the Existentialist sees self-creation is consisting entirely of creativity.

One may certainly question whether any actual Romantic or Existentialist thinker answers to Appiah’s depiction, but that is not to my purpose here. The dynamic that Appiah has set up is between a view of self-creation as a balancing act between constraint and creativity, and two possible, though perhaps never actually held, views that privilege one of these to the exclusion of the other. Appiah is certainly right to favor the middle position. Indeed the obviousness of the need for both constraint and creativity is one reason why I question whether either extreme has actually been held. For instance, Appiah quotes Foucault’s critique of Sartre’s invocation of authenticity within an existentialist framework. Foucault argues that this notion is incompatible with the denial of a pre-given self, and claims that “we have to create ourselves as a work of art.” Appiah thinks that Foucault’s view ignores the material constraints on self-creation. But this is unfair, for Foucault could not possibly have been unaware that every individual work of art is constrained and shaped by artistic tradition, available materials, contemporary technology, one’s sense of an audience, and so forth. Constraint is built into Foucault’s metaphor.

So Appiah’s balanced view might be less controversial (among those who care about self-creation, at least) than he thinks. But the balanced view, as I have stated it, which I believe is fair to how Appiah states it (at least so far; better statements may be forthcoming) is an abstraction, and an impoverished one. To favor it over the Romantic and Existentialist views is correct, abstractly, but misses out on something essential: the role of the Romantic and Existentialist views in the phenomology of self-creation.

Enter Emerson. On the surface, Emerson reads most like a paradigm Romantic thinker, even appearing to answer closely to Appiah’s caricature. Certainly Emerson is a descendant of the Romantic tradition, of Coleridge and not Bentham (to borrow Mill’s contrast). At the heart of his work is the ideal of self-reliance, and Emerson constantly characterizes this in terms of authenticity to one’s true self:

On my saying, What have I to do with the sacredness of traditions, if I live wholly from within? my friend suggested,—“But these impulses may be from below, not from above.” I replied, “They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will then live from the Devil.” No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. (Self-Reliance)

Here the “law… of my nature” is contrasted with that perverting influence, “the sacredness of traditions.” Fidelity to one’s authentic self is not merely the highest law, in this picture, but the only law. But to characterize Emerson as a Romantic on this basis would be to see only half the picture. For Emerson equally frequently reads like an Existentialist:

The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them. […] A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul simply has nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. (Self-Reliance)

Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back. (Circles)

While, in the first quote, authenticity appears (or appears to appear) in the guise of “self-trust,” what Emerson goes on to say nearly voids it of content. Everything external is a perverting influence, true—and everything one has been in the past is equally a perverting influence, a siren call to a foolish consistency. Everything but the choice that appears right to one at that moment is relegated to mere perturbation and inauthenticity. Thus Emerson here collapses into the pure Existentialist view, just as Foucault argued in the case of Sartre. In the quote from “Circles,” this is even clearer: no material influences are sacred, none profane. There is only experimentation. This notion of experimentation implies uncertainty: one does not know, in choosing, that one is acting authentically. That can only be found out after the fact.

So is Emerson a Romantic or an Existentialist? It is a question ill-posed. We might look to his own words for guidance, perhaps he is sometimes one, sometimes the other, and, wary of insisting on a “foolish consistency,” articulates now one in hard words, now the other. This is part of the answer, but if we consider this oscillation from the abstract vantage at which Appiah discusses the conflict, it appears like a foolish inconsistency, a mere inability to make up his mind. The problem is that that is the wrong vantage point in the first place.

To understand Emerson, it is essential to recognize that his primary aim is not to provide an abstract discussion of the nature of self-reliance. He is equally concerned to capture the lived experience of self-reliance, the phenomenology of it. And in that phenomenology, both Romanticism and Existentialism play a role, not as intellectual positions to be accepted or denied, but as expressions of a particular sort of experience. For, regardless of whether there is or is not a pre-given self, ontologically speaking, I certainly know the experience of feeling that I have made decisions that were not true to myself, however “true to myself” is to be theoretically understood. The Romantic insistence on authenticity, on self-discovery over self-creation, speaks to this experience. But equally there is the experience of all material, all context, as utterly impotent to tell me what to do, of the dizzying freedom of being forced to choose, of being unable to rule anything out. And this feeling gives us the Existentialist.

For the task of self-creation, it is not enough to accept, bloodlessly, the balanced view, though, bloodlessly considered, that is the correct view. It is also required that one learn to live with both Romantic and Existentialist experiences, to learn practically to balance them. Emerson’s enduring value is that he captured this phenomenological oscillation more accurately than anyone I know.


On a recent visit to the Art Institute of Chicago, this painting arrested me more than any other. It presents the appearance of extreme simplicity, a mere line drawing, but this appearance is deceptive. Klee neatly divides up the labor in the painting: the black lines do the main representational work, while the color provides the mood and representational accents (e.g. the red that gives the mouth body). I am struck by the placement of the hands. More than anything else in the painting, this placement conveys its eerie, unsettling emotion. And then I notice that in fact the head is connected to the body only by the hands. It took me a while to catch this, the drawing of the figure seems so natural. I am struck as well by the horizontal lines, which divide up the space on the painting. The way that the spaces they create break up or merge together as one travels horizontally along the painting gives it vibrancy, a sense of motion. And it is the fleeing figure that marks the breakpoints, integrating foreground and background together.

I am a novice to painting, so my opinion is not worth much, but this painting speaks to me in a way no other painting ever has. Thank you, Mr. Klee.

This mesa plain had an appearance of great antiquity, and of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world-making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau. The country was still waiting to be made into a landscape. (Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop, in Cather: Later Novels, Library of America, p. 334)

At the close of Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, the archbishop Jean Marie Latour has built the cathedral that he has long wanted to build, and, as he recollects how it was built, he praises its architect:

How exactly the young Molny, his French architect, had done what he wanted! Nothing sensational, simply honest building and good stone-cutting,—good Midi Romanesque at its finest. (p. 442)

This captures the book well. The land the life it chronicles are harsh, sensationally so, but Cather tells it without sensation. She presents us with the facts: this is how it is, and it would be uncouth to make too much of it. There is too much work to be done to spend one’s days lamenting these harsh conditions. One can only accept them and meet them. Such is the manner of Latour, of Father Joseph Vaillant, and of all they meet, and such is the manner of Cather’s writing.

It is a harsh world, and a shifting and changing world, not quite formed, still fluid—like a mesa plain. Cather travels through it and finds and chronicles the life that is there to find, that has sprung up and made its living there. Plant life, human life—no matter: she loves it all, equally. When there is conflict, she does not take sides, but recounts it fairly, as the land might recount it. Thus everything proceeds with an air of necessity, to which one can only adapt, which one cannot change.

By the end, American architecture, with its American style of imposition on the landscape, has begun to impinge on Latour’s world just as he is leaving it: another change, another fluidity, another unpersuadable necessity. This new architecture clashes with the cathedral Latour has built. Soon its Midi Romanesque style will be out of place, a relic. Such is the way of things. Such is how it must be.

Even the title of the book announces a necessity, that final necessity toward which the book must inexorably push, until at least death has come for the archbishop, and the book ends.

It is a beautiful book.

In an earlier post, I defended the ideal of the communicative poet, writing:

The communicative poet always speaks to the individual, to the (perhaps unknown) friend. I know for whom I write. I can see him, can imagine his responses, his delights and consternation. It is always an individual I see, and I speak to him directly. If I am lucky, and if I develop my nascent talents sufficiently to warrant such luck, perhaps I shall find multiple such readers, but they do not thereby form an assembly. I never reach out to the mass.

In What is Art?, Tolstoy adopts a thoroughly different understanding of what it means for a poet (or any artist) to communicate. He sees the task of art as furthering the brotherly union of all people. The artist seeks to convey some feeling to his audience, to infect them with this same feeling. Importantly, for Tolstoy, this art must be accessible, infectious, to all. Any art that is in any regard private is depraved. Obviously, this stands in stark contrast to my view of art as communicative always privately, always to the individual. What are the consequences of a view such as Tolstoy’s for art?

Tolstoy’s basic opposition to art that is anything less than global in its prospective reach is that all such art creates an ingroup (those for whom the art is for) and an outgroup (everyone else). And this, he says, is opposed to “the religious consciousness of our time.” The religious consciousness of any given time represents the highest thought thus far achieved by humanity. In our time (that is, Tolstoy’s time), this thought was “the consciousness of the fact that our good, material and spiritual, individual and general, temporal and eternal, consists in the brotherly life of all people, in our union of love with each other” (p. 126). In former times it consisted of more localized unions, it “united only one part of human society among others” and was concerned with a desire “for the power, grandeur, glory and prosperity” of that group (p. 127). Such, for instance, is the feeling conveyed by Homer’s Iliad. But such art is no longer acceptable, because religious consciousness has ascended to a higher thought.

There is much in the background theory about religious consciousness to disagree with, but I will put that aside, for, even if we grant that theory, Tolstoy’s position still impoverishes art, for two reasons. First, because the insistence on universality is inherently exclusive in a manner that Tolstoy wholly overlooks. The desire for brotherly union with all people is noble, I am sure, and by some people genuinely felt. But it is not my desire. I find humans mostly miserable up close, though almost infinitely sympathetic from the right distance. My ideal is not brotherly union with all, but close communion with a few and distant, mutual toleration with the rest. This does not involve any hostility between the ingroup and outgroup, a possibility Tolstoy simply fails to see. (Whatever else it may be, Tolstoy’s What is Art? is certainly not charitable to its opposition.)

No doubt Tolstoy would call this desire of mine depraved, a failure to live up to the religious consciousness of the time. This is in keeping with Tolstoy’s fundamentally dishonest method of arguing in the book—dishonest in the sense that any disagreement with his position is indicative, for Tolstoy, of some moral failure on the part of him who disagrees—and all I can do is shrug at his suggestion of the perversity of my desire. With Emerson, I say, “[it does] not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.”

Thus Tolstoy would impoverish art by eliminating all art for and by people like me, people who prefer the intensity of a private conversation between two to the mass union of many.

Tolstoy’s view, if enacted, would lead to a second impoverishment of art. Tolstoy’s view that art operates by infecting others with some feeling felt by the artist, if taken in its most basic form, has the consequence of stripping art of all its emotional nuance. On Tolstoy’s model of how art communicates, the artist has some feeling (which feeling must, in our time, be compatible with the brotherly union of all) that he would communicate. The artist then makes a work of art that, if successful, brings others to share this same feeling. Tolstoy nowhere suggests any more complicated model of infection than this fairly direct one, and the general tenor of the book suggests to me that he really does want us to adopt this simple view. So I will treat it as his considered view.

This model of how art communicates in effect means that art, on Tolstoy’s model cannot consider feelings that are impure, problematic. Suppose the artist has some feeling from which he is estranged, yet which he cannot escape—certainly a common enough experience for me, and one that underlies much of my poetry. Suppose the artist wants to convey this tangled relationship to himself, acknowledging its reality as well as its problematic status. Perhaps he is uncertain how to feel about it, and wishes to capture this uncertainty. Such a work of art is, on Tolstoy’s picture, impermissible, because, rather than seek to infect the audience with some feeling, it seeks to make the audience regard that feeling from a position quite different than infection. The entire realm of attitudes we take toward our feelings is forbidden territory for art, on Tolstoy’s view, because it cannot fit the infection model.

It may seem as if I am being unfair to Tolstoy. But I do not think so. Tolstoy is insistent that the only means of communication appropriate to art is infection. Thus art cannot, for Tolstoy, treat of feelings not worth infecting another with, feelings that are only worth communicating in some other form. And this is an impoverishment of art.

I therefore reject Tolstoy’s vision of the function of art. I think it a vision that forbids art to serve the purpose for which people like myself turn to it, and is therefore a vision that is exclusive to those able to share Tolstoy’s desire for the brotherly union of all people. Tolstoy justifies this exclusion by insisting that all who lack that desire are depraved, are failing to live up to the religious consciousness of the time. Perhaps he is right. I think it unlikely in the extreme, but I will grant the supposition hypothetically. Suppose Tolstoy is right, and in my desire for more private, localized communication, I am depraved. Suppose I have failed to attain to the highest thought thus far attained by humanity’s religious consciousness. So be it. What do I care of Tolstoy’s “highest” and “lowest”? These “are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.”

In 1817, Manoah Bodman published An Oration on Death, “an account of his religious experiences interspersed with occasional poems.” One of these poems is included in the Library of America collection of 19th century American poetry (from which the above quote). It is a simple piece, not without charm, but ultimately not a poem I am likely to remember. Here is the text of the poem:

What rich profusion here,
Is scatter’d all abroad,
To make us love and fear,
Obey and worship God.
……And sound his praise,
………Through every clime,
……In constant lays,
………Till end of time.

The huge leviathan,
The oyster and the eel,
The lion and the lamb,
Each in their nature feel.
……And go abroad,
………In quest of food,
……Depend on God,
………For every good.

These shining crumbs of clay,
With yellow, green and gold,
March on their lucid way,
And day in night unfold.
……And shine so bright,
………And please themselves,
……And fill’d with light,
………They quit their cells.

Is dull conformity
Confin’d to spirits alone,
Who all so clearly see
The Great, the Three in One?
……Forbid it sense,
………It cannot be:
……In heaven’s immense,
………They different see.

My main difficulty is that is didactic: there is a message it wants to send, and it is purely accidental that this message happened to be expressed in rhyme and meter. Take, for instance, the second stanza, in which Bodman presents the “rich profusion” of the animal world. Why choose just those animals as representatives? The leviathan, the lion, and the lamb are understandable (though cliché) choices, but what significance have the oyster and the eel (besides rhyming with “feel”)? And why is the action they are shown to undertake searching for food? Indeed, given the didactic aim of the piece, why not highlight the diversity of their actions, rather than their sameness? The stanza makes the point it needs to make, but it lacks the necessity that characterizes the best poetry. It could have been quite different and made the point equally well. The specific character it has seems arbitrary.

I think this is the general weakness of the poem. I do not need to belabor it. I await still a poem from this volume that captures me.