Emerson, Ralph Waldo

I take this evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them slip through our fingers then when we clutch hardest, to be the most unhandsome part of our condition. Nature does not like to be observed, and likes that we should be her fools and playmates. We may have the sphere for our cricket-ball, but not a berry for our philosophy. Direct strokes she never gave us power to make; all our blows glance, all our hits are accidents. Our relations to each other are oblique and casual.

So Ralph Waldo Emerson saw it, in “Experience.” In reading John Ashbery, I get the sense that he agrees entirely with Waldo, except on one key point. This lubricity of all objects, Waldo says, is “the most unhandsome part of our condition.” Ashbery disagrees. He is quite happy to be the fool and playmate of nature, to let objects slide from his grasp, and to move on to the next without regret. He is at home in the world’s transformations.

Lubricity is a constant fact in the poems in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Time, especially offers no firm hold. The future is impossible, the past non-existent, the present empty, as we learn in “As You Came from the Holy Land”:

knowing as the brain does it can never come about
not here not yesterday in the past
only in the gap of today filling itself
as emptiness is distributed
in the idea of what time it is
when that time is already past.

The emphasis on change also helps make sense of the frequent use of cloud imagery, as for instance here (“As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat”):

[…] The children
Still at their games, clouds that arise with a swift
Impatience in the afternoon sky, then dissipate
As limpid, dense twilight comes.

And here (“Poem in Three Parts”):

Mostly I think of feelings, they fill up my life
Like the wind, like tumbling clouds
In a sky full of clouds, clouds upon clouds.

Ephemerality, lubricity—these are the only constants in these poems. But what evidence is there that Ashbery is at home in this world of incessant change? The much-remarked on feature of his style, the way thoughts and images succeed one another without readily apparent connection, is one indication. If the world is never stable, then neither will his poems be stable. (More on this in a bit.) But there is also more direct evidence. In “Scheherazade,” one of the most striking poems in the volume, the slipperiness of time is explicitly given a positive valence:

In all this springing up was no hint
Of a tide, only a pleasant wavering of the air
In which all things seemed present, whether
Just past or soon to come. It was all invitation.

An invitation to what? To motion, for one, to change. But it is also an invitation to description. And this brings us back to the question of the extent to which Ashbery’s poems are stable, the extent to which they fully embrace the transitory nature of the world. The line between reality and descriptions of reality is an obsession in these poems—or, rather, the blurring of this line is an obsession.

This is seen in Ashbery’s consistent use of terms associated with writing to describe the natural world. For instance (“Scheherazade” again), leaves “are scrawled on the light” and, later in that same poem, we are told about the “story” of flowers and about stones “That read as patches of sunlight.” The world is not separate from our descriptions of it:

[…] It is we who make this
Jungle and call it space, naming each root,
Each serpent, of the sound of the name
As it clinks dully against our pleasure,
Indifference that is pleasure.

Description is an ordering of the world, and these poems are thus attempts to find (or impose; with Ashbery the distinction is not important) order in the whirling world. Are they not then at odds with change, and the ephemerality of all structure that is the result of change? To an extent, yes, but Ashbery takes this in stride. His poems are small, ephemeral joys, impermanent monuments, and they know it. They do not aim for perfection, for a separation of the good from the bad, preserving only the former. As Ashbery puts it in “Mixed Feelings”:

They look as astonishingly young and fresh as when this picture was made
But full of contradictory ideas, stupid ones as well as
Worthwhile ones, but all flooding the surface of our minds
As we babble about the sky and the weather and the forests of change.

The impression these poems give of being off-hand babbling is a carefully constructed illusion—what else could it be? But that’s the joy of it.


In an earlier post, I tried to summarize the core of Emerson’s philosophy in a few dogmatic statements. I managed it in eight. But I think I might have condensed it further, down to the following two:

  1. The individual is fundamentally alone in the world, cut off from others.
  2. The only hope for true, if partial, communion between two separate individuals requires that both burrow deeply into their own individuality, bringing what they find as a gift to the other.

Insofar as I consider myself an Emersonian, I do so because I feel the truth of both of these claims in my bones, and it was Emerson who taught me to recognize that.

I have only just begun Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, but I find myself immediately drawn in by it precisely because Pessoa (or rather Pessoa’s heteronym, Bernardo Soares) grasps both of these truths:

Sadly I write in my quiet room, alone as I have always been, alone as I will always be. And I wonder if my apparently negligible voice might not embody the essence of thousands of voices, the longing for self-expression of thousands of lives, the patience of millions of souls resigned like my own to their daily lot, their useless dreams, and their hopeless hopes. In these moments my heart beats faster because I’m conscious of it. (6)

In my first post on Pessoa, I spoke admiringly of the distance that stands between Soares and other people, a distance I know well. He sits at a location not altogether separate from them, but neither participating in their joy. He delights in it without participating. This is the right distance, I think, from which to approach these Emersonian theses, for it is the distance from which they are felt most distinctly. One is separate, and thus the aloneness is felt, but one hears the songs in the distance and understands the possibility of communion. I do not say this to suggest it is better to exist at this distance, to always evade participation, merely to highlight certain advantages of the time one spends there.

Now, I have a bit dishonestly cut off the passage in the middle. It continues on to criticize itself:

I live more because I live on high. I feel a religious force within me, a species of prayer, a kind of public outcry. But my mind quickly puts me in my place. . . I remember that I’m on the fourth floor of the Rua dos Douradores, and I take a drowsy look at myself. I glance up from this half-written page at life, futile and without beauty, and at the cheap cigarette I’m about to extinguish in the ashtray beyond the fraying blotter. Me in this fourth-floor room, interrogating life!, saying what souls feel!, writing prose like a genius or a famous author! Me, here, a genius!. . .

It is striking how exactly he hits on Emerson’s definition of genius: the expression by one individual of a thought or feeling that speaks to “the longing for self-expression of thousands of lives.” But this, his mind tells him, somewhat patronizingly, is a delusion. Pessoa certainly is more pessimistic here about the second claim than Emerson is, though such pessimism finds more voice in Emerson’s work than many of his readers think. I am not so gloomy about the prospects of communion as Pessoa—at least not most of the time. But I know the mood in which it seems an absurd vanity.

But it should not be thought that this mood is as desolate as it sounds. Though I spend less time there than Soares, it is a solitude to which I often, and happily, retreat.

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.

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.”

Recently, a friend asked me to attempt to summarize the philosophy of Ralph Waldo Emerson in 5-10 dogmatic statements. In one sense, it’s an inherently foolish enterprise, since so much of Emerson’s work is precisely about taking dogmatisms and upsetting them. His are written in a style designed precisely to prevent readers from walking away from them convinced of a set of theses. Emerson writes on the wing, following the dazzle and swoop of thought.

At the same time, it is an intriguing question, and worth trying. I do think there is a core to Emerson that can be isolated and presented in the form of dogmas, even if much is thereby lost. So here is my attempt:

  1. At the core of ethics is self-reliance: trust in one’s own perceptions and one’s own doubts.
  2. Self-reliance requires both openness and resolve.
  3. Openness is a kind of self-abandonment, in the form of receptivity to perspectives outside one’s own, a willingness to meet experiences on their own terms, to humble oneself before them.
  4. Openness is countered by resolve, by a stubborn refusal to open oneself to influences that would draw one away from oneself.
  5. Openness allows one to expand one’s capacities and sympathies; resolve steps in when this threatens to turn into utter self-effacement and lethargic bagginess.
  6. The opposite of self-reliance is conformity, the adherence to externally imposed forms of action.
  7. External imposition of forms of action can come from oneself, one’s past, one’s habits, just as much as from others.
  8. Self-reliance requires self-doubt as much as self-trust, a recognition that aspects of oneself are false and not to be relied upon; it is therefore selective.

Ask me again tomorrow, and I will probably come up with a different list, but I am not too displeased with this.