Thursday, December 8, 2011

An Immodest Defense of Emerson

It was with the greatest shock, incredulity and finally anger that I opened up a copy of the New York Times Magazine of December 4 in this final month of a surely awful year of 2011 to come upon an article attacking my hero Ralph Waldo Emerson. Reading this piece by one Benjamin Anastas made me realize why I am such an irregular reader of the New York Times and, while I will not go so far as Gore Vidal who infamously called it a "bad paper" I have to conclude that it has, much like The New Yorker under Tina Brown's reign, fallen prey to the worst twin vices of a sophomoric and cheap populism and utilitarianism or instrumentalism.

Would it were so that the article is a bit of a popish prank and not to be taken as a definitive piece on Emerson, yet I can't help but feel that it is very much a piece of its time and raises the issue of how and why context and relevance should be dislodged from center stage in favor of values that are at least a bit more capacious, to say nothing of transcendental.

I don't have space enough and time to do justice to Emerson. Alas, I don't want to do a close reading of Emerson's "Self-Reliance" in order that I may totally refute this - I don't know what to call it - cultural criticism.

Emerson, whatever else he may be, is to American arts and letters something like our Shakespeare. I don't remember the last time a piece with a punk or Rock irreverence indulged in a take-down of the Bard, except perhaps to wrangle over whether in fact he or the Earl Of Oxford was the biographical and historical author of the plays. Indeed, pop culture and media is all too happy to praise Shakespeare, but usually for the worst of reasons, as in a dissection of the cleverness of the narrative strategies.

The first problem then is a basic lack of respect for Emerson. Anastas does not mince words. The subtitle refers to the influence of Emerson's "Self-Reliance" as a "foul reign", Emerson's essay is called pap, and worst of all it is compared with the worst of our popular motivationalists and hucksters, but, incredibly, to the disfavor of Emerson: "Is there anything worth salvaging among the spiritual ramblings, obscure metaphysics and aphorisms so pandering that Joel Osteen might think twice about delivering them?"

Joel Osteen? Joel Osteen is a sort of fundamentalist redneck who crossed over to mainstream non-fiction, is he not?

This is the first misreading: that Emerson is part of a so-called American single line and that he is a forerunner of Rick Warren, Dr. Phil, Wayne Dyer, and Werner Erhard to pick some of the most representative examples. How do I know that Emerson is not of their party?

For one thing Emerson is not engaged in a propositional and representational project.

And the language of Anastas reveals that at heart Anastas is every bit the stereotypical socialist and materialist. He hates metaphysics and is impatient that any mention of selfhood that treats the self with any importance at all (although, Anastas misreads Emerson so deeply that Anastas takes Emerson to be one who believes in something like a real and unified self far more than Emerson, the latter ever the profoundest of mystics, ever does). I get the feeling that spiritual is a code word here for unscientific and for any kind of snake oil. As for politics, Emerson never ascribes to the self or subscribes to a view of the self that has anything remotely in common with American conservatism or, in the pathetic case of Ayn Rand, Russian/American paleo-Conservatism. Nowhere in his writings does Emerson tell us to forget the poor or to justify poverty (His essay 'Compensation' is usually dragged into the proceedings as Exhibit A for the Marxist attack upon Emerson, but "Compensation" is trying to raise all sorts of problems about the problem of free will and evil, not to justify the status quo). Emerson (like, say, Chatal Ackerman in film) is interested in questions of consciousness more than he is in practical politics. (Anymore than Ackerman is a straightforward Feminist.)

In short, though Emerson can be labeled, if you must, as a kind of individualist he is no stoic and he is no right-winger. He is not even, as we shall see, really an individualist, because he feels that selfhood contains and is always already constituted by the surrounding environment, the whole human race, and perhaps even more.

As for the question of science versus spirituality, for all of his scientific and socialistic pretensions, Anastas never makes any genuine or coherent case against Emerson. This leads to the second problem, that of misreading or misinterpretation, above all the question of style.

Emerson, unlike Anastas, really believes in style. Anastas is quite a stylist himself, indeed uses it quite well, but the style chosen is the post-Pauline Kael style of flash, crackle and pop as in when Kael was asked why she defended so many entertaining Hollywood movies replied "what is wrong with entertainment? Do this people think it should be punishment?" But Anastas does NOT think that style is the measure of a thing. For Anastas verification is the only measure.

Anstas' first error is to hew to a very old view of language or style whereby words (or, in cinema, editing, lighting, mise en scene etc.) are a means to transparency, and the function of sentences is to get at the essence of things. But there is a problem here because Emerson is really a Modernist avant la lettre, and Emerson simply does not have an Aristotelian view of language. In practical terms Emerson is closer to a Proust, even a Beckett or Chantal Ackerman. That is, the way Emerson is usually read - as a kind of visionary or sage - is precisely to fall into the very attitude towards the world Emerson most wants us to be rid of. In this sense Emerson is quite American in his distrust of official titles and claims to innate gifts. (And his critics are often Continental)

Yet Emerson comes to us in disguise, as a Yankee populist preacher. This should remind us that the most extraordinary things (Emerson's oeuvre) are always misread as more ordinary than they really are, (as in the reception of Robert Frost's poetry, for example, or Duke Ellington's music, the latter initially and falsely consigned to the genre of mere dance music) and that extraordinary things arrive dressed in modest or civilian raiment. (Though this last comment on my part will strike those with a Continental cast of mind as hopelessly American in more than one sense of that unstable and slippery designation).

Let us look at the opening of Self-Reliance, at the offending words that Anastas feels gave rise to a host of sins of our post-1968 world: relativism, New Age excess, selfishness and worse:

I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instil is of more value than any thought they may contain. To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—— and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried. Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes much impression on him, and another none. This sculpture in the memory is not without preestablished harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray. We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.

Notice throughout his tone: it is magesterial and measured. It is also suffused with greatest passion. He creates a rhythm through a certain syntax. We are. A man is. God will not. It is delivered. The eye was placed. This is Biblical and spiritual language to be sure. If Anastas is of the party of science he will not be pleased by this kind of tone. Yet the tone is, in language, something like that of John Coltrane in A Love Supreme, in music. It is curiously at once completely secular and free of any partisan creed or catechism and yet built from the syntax and tropes of scriptural and sacred writing and oration. This combination of the two is part of Emerson's genius.

Emerson is positing here that there is such a thing as genius or greatness, that there is something special about a John Milton, that there is value to artistic originality. He is also saying, along with Kant, that we should dare to use our own reason, and not rest or lean on the opinions of others. The alternative to this picture of life is not good community, cooperation or socialism. The alternative to Emerson's "ideal", if it can be called that (because for him it always already exists and is not dependent upon futural schemes or dates), is actually something like everyday tyranny at best or totalitarianism at worst. This is Emerson as a champion of Liberty, broadly understood, and as a small d democrat.

The whole essay starts off with a quite explicit theory of not only what art is but how to know great art when one encounters it. Nowhere in all of the oration of a Werner Erhard or a Dr. Phil is anything like a theory of art ever put forth.

Anastas' error goes in both directions. We cannot hold Emerson responsible for the errors or outrages of self help hucksters or for eroding our sense of deference towards meritocratic authority anymore than we can hold Karl Marx responsible for a Joseph Stalin or the Eastern Bloc histories. We also cannot merely read Emerson in a way that is only relevant to our present day concerns.

"I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instil is of more value than any thought they may contain".

He is also saying the sentiment trumps content. This is Emerson being most modernistic. Like Susan Sontag, it's style all the way down for him.

Here is Emerson rejecting anything like selfishness:

"Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed does not. The same particle does not rise from the valley to the ridge. Its unity is only phenomenal. The persons who make up a nation to-day, next year die, and their experience with them".

So much for great and heroic visions of selfhood. The unity is "only phenomenal". Only. Anastas has not read closely enough.

And style is of the essence here because, unlike the motivational preachers, religious or secular, of our time, Emerson rarely communicates in the syntax of reductive, declarative sentences. Yet he tricks us: he always begins with declarations. But it is still a trick nonetheless. This is his most accessible work, yet one comes upon sentences with twists and turns like the following. The most important strategy Emerson uses is to make one or two explicit declarations but then, in an hypnotic fashion, to undo them as much as defend them:

"I suppose no man can violate his nature. All the sallies of his will are rounded in by the law of his being, as the inequalities of Andes and Himmaleh are insignificant in the curve of the sphere. Nor does it matter how you gauge and try him. A character is like an acrostic or Alexandrian stanza; — read it forward, backward, or across, it still spells the same thing. In this pleasing, contrite wood-life which God allows me, let me record day by day my honest thought without prospect or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt, it will be found symmetrical, though I mean it not, and see it not. My book should smell of pines and resound with the hum of insects. The swallow over my window should interweave that thread or straw he carries in his bill into my web also. We pass for what we are. Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment".

At a first reading it appears that he is saying; this is what a character is; this is how a self works. We end up according to who we are. And so on.

But notice he says "I suppose that no man". Why the suppose? And what are we to make of "contrite wood-life which God allows"? Why is it pleasing? Should it be pleasing? Especially after an apparent celebration of will? Notice how excessive this seems when compared to the previous declaration. Notice too how he piles example upon example: poetic metaphors from Nature and Myth for example, cultural allusion, and then insists that it "spells the same thing". Had Emerson really wanted to give an instruction or sermon why does he insist upon this hypnotic accumulation of density, of stuff, especially in the context of telling us to ignore past traditions or rote book learning? Why does he interrupt with references to swallows and Alexandrian stanzas? It seems to me that these accumulations provide a proper "key" to understanding Emerson, surely more than any clear message.

He seems to say that we should not analyze, yet this whole essay is a kind of analysis or diagnosis of conformity and an offer of a solution to the problem of that conformity. Yet there is nothing more self possessed and powerful than his tone throughout. He wants some kind of conformity between he and the reader. Then again he wants us to argue too. He wants us to assent to the greatness of a Milton yet wants us to not assent to what "doesn't work for me" in contemporary parlance. But Emerson never tells us what to do with the culturally or emotionally stunted person who can't see Milton's value or even read Milton (or worse, sees in Milton only a crude sociological value, as in, "how did a Christian like Milton think of his faith in that particular time period?)

Even most contradictory, he says that what is important is what is "new in Nature", yet remarks elsewhere that there is nothing truly new and that society neither exactly progresses or declines.

He even suggest both that we cannot help what we do, and yet that our will is free and determines our lot in life, as in "we get what or who we are." A misinformed reader will likely say in response, "which is it Waldo"? A Joel Osteen would never equivocate so because he literally has the arrogance to assume he can save our souls.

It is most telling that Anastas attacks the work as rambling. Emerson, like jazz, is rambling. He does not get to the point. Like much of American art, it is episodic rather than classical.

When Anastas calls it rambling he is confronting a particular style.

Emerson will have none of this clarity. Because he is interested in the "zigzag of a hundred tacks". He is not interested in a seamless and straight line.

If we are reading Emerson properly we should be a bit confused, in truth. How are we to be true to ourselves and yet live in harmony with others? First I am told to idealize the child and in another place I am told to criticize the rote learning of so many children. I am told that no man can violate his nature but also told that many are conformist and thus in violation of their nature, or else it is in their true nature to conform. Since we are being told not to conform, then what do we do with and about the conformist?

But these zigzags are a means chiefly of creating sentiment, as opposed to thought. If you read Emerson for content alone you might consider him undistinguished, even dated. But if you fall into the hypnosis of his style, the accumulation of all of his many exhortations, something will happen to you, inside of your consciousness, something not unlike the effect of certain experimental movies or certain immersive improvisational music. Emerson is not interested in proofs so he is destined to disappoint or disturb a certain kind of skeptic like Anastas.

A real inheritor of Emerson is the saxophonist John Coltrane. Another is filmmaker Fred Wiseman. Both could be considered spiritual ramblers of the highest order. The comparison will give a sense of what I take to be valuable in Emerson.

It is not accidental that in a dispirited age such as ours, when so many problems seem to admit of communal solutions, especially in a broken economy with so much suffering, that a poet of sentiment like Emerson would come to be regarded with suspicion. But that is not his problem but ours. There is a crucial role for sentiment in our life, not the sentiment of communal emotion and agreement, not the sentiment that does away with intellect altogether, but rather the venerable attempt to think without thoughts that underscores so much that has been exciting about the Modernist project. Emerson wants us to put different uses for our intellect, not to save the world or understand it, but rather, I think to savor it, to experience it, which though it surely involves the brain is an altogether different matter than conceptual cognition.

But the question of just what this difference is - between ordinary cognition and experience - and where such difference lies, is a question with which I will end this discussion.


  1. I'm really sorry that you used your very fine essay on Emerson to denigrate a teacher and humanitarian like Werner Erhard who has worked his whole life to ensure that others are able to experience their own greatness.

    While he did not offer a theory of art, his programs have helped to transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of people during the last 40 years.

    His philosophy is not that of a so-called "self-help huckster" but of a man devoted to raising our experience of who we are to a new level. Here are just a few examples:

    "We can choose to be audacious enough to take responsibility for the entire human family.
    “We can choose to make our love for the world be what our lives are really about."

    “Each of us now has the opportunity, the privilege, to make a difference in creating a world that works for all of us. It will require courage, audacity, and heart. It is much more radical than a revolution – it is the beginning of a transformation in the quality of life on our planet."

    "We must have people capable of real heroism. Not the kind of heroism which ends up in glory, but the kind of heroism which ends up in the truth, in what works, in what is honest and real being brought out and made available to others."

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  3. Nowhere in my essay do I attack Werner Erhard. I do identify him as a major figure in popular consciousness and psychology studies alongside the other names. I never call him a huckster. I used that word as a paraphrase or shorthand of one conventional reading of such self help authors. I merely wanted to state that the project of such figures is different than Emerson's in both intent and style.

    I find a lot of what Erhard has to say to be much more intelligent that many other figures with his fame. He appears to have been influenced by Emerson. He is certainly influenced by much ancient spiritual wisdom. Unfortunately he is also unduly influenced by Heidegger, which might account for some of the negative aspects of both EST and the Landmark Forum. I don't want to get into the question of those groups here both because

    1. there are so many who have been helped by Erhard's teachings, especially to get outside the trap of "belief" and certain limiting intellectual stories.

    2. Conversely, there are people who have not been helped, to put it politely. There appear to be real problems with the internal workings of the organizations.

    3. This makes me unwilling to enter into any discussion weighing the pros and cons of EST and so on. It is too hot a topic and I have other interests.

    Finally, I do have some problems with Joel Osteen because I take him to be representative of the all too simplistic psychology and religious movements that create mass enthusiasms.

    All the names mentioned are representative of the consciousness revolution. That revolution was and is of immense importance but I would be dishonest to say that it has only been to the good. The record is very mixed, probably like any major movement in any culture.

    I am glad you enjoyed the essay. And I am happy for you and those that benefited from Erhard's projects. I am not on any particular mission on my blog unless it is John Keats' notion of Truth and Beauty, broadly understood, and, not always holding them to be one and the same either.


  4. Great essay, Mitch. I've realized that lately whenever I disagree with someone so strongly as to want to come to blows with them, it's over these types of issues of identity and art. You're right that Anastis never has a legitimate argument with Emerson, but only with people that have misused him. And you're right that the fundamental lack of respect is really egregious. So, does Anastis think Nietszche was a get-rich-quick huckster for admiring Emerson? What your essay really points out though is how concepts of identity in general have shifted so much as to make the concept of genius, and even of identity in a certain sense, really pernicious. We live in an age of glorified mediocrity, and what Anastis seems to be truly offended by is Emerson's suggestion that individuals can be at different stages or levels of consciousness and creativity. Mediocrity has become a kind of religion in which its priests hold a position of moral superiority against anyone who doesn't conform. Yet anyone who practices this religion is a hypocrite, as it is impossible to go through life without assigning value to things and without admiring products of individual human spirit, even if one isn't conscious of doing so. To object to Emerson's words is to reject art in favor of politically correct self-effacement. I'd choose art any day. I would indeed call Anastis' article "The Foul Reign of the Cult of Mediocrity."

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  6. Addressing this:

    "Emerson wants us to put different uses for our intellect, not to save the world or understand it, but rather, I think to savor it, to experience it, which though it surely involves the brain is an altogether different matter than conceptual cognition."

    Not save the world but savor it - great line, and great distinction.

    "But the question of just what this difference is - between ordinary cognition and experience - and where such difference lies, is a question with which I will end this discussion."

    It may come down to simple acceptance of "what is" in one's life, enabling us to appreciate what we have here and now, rather than yearning for something in the future or the past.

    This from Emerson may shed some light:

    "I know how delicious is this cup of love–I existing for you, you existing for me; but it is a child clinging to his toy, an attempt to eternize the fireside and nuptial chamber; to keep the picture alphabet through which our first lessons were prettily conveyed. This early dream of love, though beautiful, is only one scene in our life-play. In the processions of the soul from within outward, it enlarges its circles, like light proceeding from an orb. It passes from loving one to loving all; and so, this one beautiful soul opens the divine door through which he enters to the society of all true and pure souls. Thus in our first years are we put in training for a love which knows neither sex, person, nor partiality; but which seeks virtue and wisdom everywhere, to the end of increasing virtue and wisdom.”

  7. What a great way to begin the New Year by reading your comments on my piece. Many thanks!

  8. Anna Biller: Thanks so much for these words in particular: "it is impossible to go through life without assigning value to things." That in essence is the major point. Indeed the entire world is shot through with value and meaning, and, like it or not, people - all of us - are at different states of consciousness and "evolution" with as many glories and flaws. But I have a question. Are you suggesting that a cult of mediocrity is the side effect or a result of a flattening of values or willful blindness to the difference in values? Or are you suggesting that mediocrity ( a term which, admittedly is a deeply difficult conception in its own right, with a mixed and troublesome critical and linguistic history), is a kind of deep unconscious, an unspoken, assumed starting point - perhaps the steepest price paid for the loss of a certain hierarchy in educational institutions, or the desire to simply not offend anyone, or be paternalistic and protective?

  9. Jen I also appreciate that you took a stab at answering the question with which I end the piece. That will give me something to think about.