I know that I have been posting on this blog very sporadically (to the point of posting barely at all, the road to hell being paved with what it is) nonetheless, I set out now once again to write regularly and share my thoughts--we'll see how long that lasts. I love coming up with reading lists. Last year I set myself the goal of rereading John Crowley's Aegypt quartet along with reading Samuel Delany's Neveryon quartet. I considered writing on them but felt my reactions still too unformed, perhaps in a few years when I reread them I will have something more definitive to say. This past year I read quite a bit of American literature--beginning with David McCullough's biography of John Adams, then Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, Emerson's Journals, David S. Reynold's biography of Whitman, McCarthy's Blood Meridian, Faulkner's Light in August, Conrad's Nostromo (I read Conrad because he seems part of a line of influence from Melville to McCarthy that I was interested in tracing backwards) and Melville's Moby Dick, and finishing the year with David McCullough's biography of Truman. I read and skimmed through quite a few histories and reread quite a bit of David Bromwich. I hope to post again before the year is out giving a full summary of my reading. For now I'd like to share these reflections on Emerson.
Division and Unity
I have spent the year thinking about America’s literary heritage, which for me means I’ve been thinking about Emerson. At the heart of my reading were the journals (in the abridged Library of America edition). Emerson prophesied a figure he called “the central man.” It is easy to reduce this to merely one more iteration of the great man theory. Carlyle, at his worst, succumbs to this, but Emerson is more elusive. One example of Emerson’s elusiveness can be seen in his consideration of Amos Bronson Alcott. After several pages of general praise Emerson concludes:
Alcott sees the law of man truer & farther than any one ever did. Unhappily, his conversation never loses sight of his own personality. He never quotes; he never refers; his only illustration is his own biography. His topic yesterday is Alcott on the 17 October; today, Alcott on the 18 October; tomorrow, on the 19th. So will it be always. The poet rapt into future times or into deeps of nature admired for themselves, lost in their law, cheers us with a lively charm; but this noble genius discredits genius to me. I do not want any more such persons to exist. Part of this egotism in him is a certain comparing eye which seems to sour his view of persons prosperously placed, & to make his conversation often accusing & minatory. He is not selfsufficing & serene.
It is little fault on Alcott if he falls short, no individual met Emerson’s strict criteria. And yet, as Steven Whicher observed in Freedom and Fate, Emerson is not very clear either on the specific qualities that constitute this figure. He often speaks of “the erect position,” but what precisely is that?
Emerson is suggestive in his negative response to Shelley. Is it merely Emerson’s native New England Puritanism that rebels against Shelley’s atheism and sexual liberty? I rather suspect it is the Lucretian and Epicurean element in Shelley that bothered him. Ralph Richardson’s biography of Emerson recounts his anxiety over the theodicy problem he encountered in Hume and Epicurus—that if there is a God he cannot be both all powerful and good otherwise how can we account for evil. Emerson famously expressed this anxiety in his remark, “A believer in Unity, a seer of Unity, I yet behold two.”
Writing in his journals on November 27, 1839, Emerson considers the sense of division in himself which leads him, in turn, to his attack on Shelley:
Shelley is never a poet. His mind is uniformly imitative; all his poems composite. A fine English scholar he is, with taste, ear, and memory; but imagination, the original authentic fire of the bard, he has not. He is clearly modern, and shares with Wordsworth and Coleridge, Byron, and Hemans the feeling of the Infinite, which so labors for expression in their different genius. But all his lines are arbitrary, not necessary,' and therefore, though evidently a devout and brave man, I can never read his verses.
Emerson will mention Shelley a few more times in the journals, but his opinion never changed. He is always circumspect in his praise and ultimately dismissive. This is puzzling for me considering Emerson’s unabashed early enthusiasm for Whitman, himself deeply influenced by Shelley. It is possible that Whitman’s Lucretianism did not block Emerson’s admiration because it was mediated by Whitman’s strong personality. Shelley’s poetry is indeed wracked with division. Whitman accepts everything, multitudes, contradictions, and finds unity in his acceptance.
Historians of Utopia usually begin first with Plato before turning to Thomas More as the origin proper. The same historians are usually free to admit the porous nature of their subject, confessing that the idea of a better world has existed since the dawn of history. Auden phrased these conceptions of an ideal world as Edens and Jerusalems. Edens are pastoral paradises whereas Jerusalems are urban perfect societies and so are utopias proper.
Emerson was interested in utopian thought, particularly Fourier, but seemed uninterested in its real world manifestations, like Brook Farm. Instead, he sought a kind of utopian figure, a person who could hold all things together. Often this interest presented itself as a concern for the unification of the arts and sciences. Many figures were exemplary for Emerson but principle amongst them were Goethe and Swedenborg. Emerson ultimately turned from both. For Goethe:
I dare not say that Goethe ascended to the highest grounds from which genius has spoken. He has not worshipped the highest unity; he is incapable of a self-surrender to the moral sentiment…He is fragmentary; a writer of occasional poems and of an encyclopaedia of sentences. When he sits down to write a drama or a tale, he collects and sorts his observations from a hundred sides, and combines them into the body as fitly as he can. A great deal refuses to incorporate: this he adds loosely as letters of the parties, leaves from their journals, or the like. A great deal still is left that will not find any place. This the bookbinder alone can give any cohesion to; and hence, notwithstanding the looseness of many of his works, we have volumes of detached paragraphs, aphorisms, Xenien,*(33) etc.
One might take issue with Emerson’s assessment of Goethe. The Renaissance scholar, Michael Martin, in his book on Sophiology titled The Submerged Reality, sees Rudolph Steiner as both the fulfillment of Goethe’s promise and the answer to Romanticisms failed quest for unity. Steiner was both a poet, a theologian, and a practical innovator in many spheres of life.
Regarding Emerson’s ultimate verdict on Swedenborg, Sam McGuire Worely writes in Emerson, Thoreau, and the Role of the Cultural Critic, “In placing a fixed moral identity in the external world Swedenborg betrays the centrality of human will that Emerson had at first hoped to find there. Instead of being a matter of human will and understanding, Swedenborg’s moral universe becomes closed and determinate (40).”
Plato comes closer. Plato is both the scientist and the poet. He is able to focus on particulars as well as view the whole. In his essay on Plato in “Representative Men” Emerson says, “Each student adheres, by temperament and by habit, to the first or to the second of these gods of the mind. By religion, he tends to unity; by intellect, or by the senses, to the many. A too rapid unification, and an excessive appliance to parts and particulars, are the twin dangers of speculation.” There is a passage in Shelley's Defense of Poetry that comes to mind, “The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave.” The ideal figure, then, should command a mastery over both these faculties of the intellect.
It is likely that Emerson’s focus on the individual over society has excluded him from classification among great utopian thinkers. John Crowley, himself an exceptional author of utopian novels, wrote in an essay titled “The Labyrinth of the World, the Paradise of the Heart” that all utopias are ultimately centered around this dual concern of the individual and society. Crowley concludes his essay with the argument that the value of utopias is not as practical instruction manuals but rather as rich visions of possible worlds. Few would argue this point, the history of applied utopian thought and its utility for totalitarian regimes is all too well known. If Emerson’s utopianism receives a fuller consideration it may prove his evasiveness to be a boon.