70. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

This year, Emerson dawned on me. Piecemeal–not as piecemeal as aphoristic bumper-stickers and magnets–but in units of language that span sentences (or periods). The passage which overcame my objections comes near the start of “Self-Reliance”:

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. (“Self-Reliance”)

I resisted because it seemed too near to saying that literature could only confirm, but not disrupt; that even the most passionate readers could only recognize and not discover.

It seemed also adolescent in its sense of entitlement: that literature is there for what you already know and believe, and not to challenge what you know and believe.

But Emerson knew his outlook to be shaped on a wildly cultivated extension of principles that first dawn on most of us during adolescence: Do not think that the youth has no force, because he cannot speak to you and me. Hark! in the next room his voice is sufficiently clear and emphatic. It seems he knows how to speak to his contemporaries. Bashful or bold, then, he will know how to make us seniors very unnecessary.

And Emerson’s self-entitlement is demanding as well as strident; like Prince Hal, he knew that a proper sense of entitlement coincides with a comprehension of the responsibilities towards that to which one is entitled. Unlike Prince Hal, Emerson’s self-entitlement is radically democratic: the estate to which all are entitled is the self—carrying with it the same burdens of governance as a kingdom.

I was wrong to read Emerson as suggesting that literature could not disrupt, or could not discover: the discovery, however, lies in accepting the majesty–and the sovereignty—of the thoughts that we have already possessed, which return to take possession when we encounter them in works of literature. Literature grants us the opportunity to learn from, and be governed by, our selves. The horizon of understanding is always our own, but the self is made, by works of literature, to become another, which takes possession of us. The discovery of our thoughts in “alienated majesty” constitutes a discovery; can provoke a reorientation towards the world.

But as I grant what strikes me as the rightness of Emerson’s perception, I am left to ask what is so affecting about his articulation. First, I can say what, in this passage above, it is; then I can say, more generally, what it is not.

In the passage above, the burden of surprise and the burden of thought is shifted onto what is normally the weakest major muscle group in the language: modifiers. (Verbs, nouns, and pronouns are often both stronger; prepositions and articles are not major muscle groups, which is why authors who can consistently generate power from them are often of the first rank, as with Wordsworth). The spine of the passages consists of a series of adjectival-noun combinations: “rejected thoughts,” “affecting lesson,” “certain alienated majesty,” “good-humored inflexibility,” “masterly good sense.” The surprise is two-fold: Emerson’s muscular syntax, with the strong active verbs and rotating subjects, marches forward to a bizarre conclusion—that an encounter with great literature allows us to master ourselves, to be mastered by our own thoughts, at the penalty of submitting to the thoughts of another—and, at the same time, moves in a different direction, each adjective qualifying the nature of the encounter with literature and power but qualifying on each occasion so as to move the thought in directions oblique to the general path: with each adjective we feel the pressure of what Empson (not Emerson, but an Emersonian figure in his embrace of contradictions) called the “readiness for arguments unpursued.” How thoughts come to be rejected; that lessons are affecting in their persuasiveness; what alienated majesty–and, what’s more, a “certain” alienated majesty resembles; how inflexibility may be good-humored and yet true to itself; and how masterly good sense may both be right and exact a submission that we will regret—these are matters for thought that jostle us, side to side, as we scramble to keep up with Emerson in his rapid, broad gait.

What we see the adjectives doing in that passage is a microcosm for what Emerson knew himself to be doing elsewhere: The voyage of the best ships is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks.

In explaining how this is so on a larger scale, I will say how I do not think Emerson should be approached. The editor of the blue-back Cambridge text, Kenneth Sacks, writes in his introduction that, for Emerson:

The purpose of thinking lay not in creating a systematic structure, but in the energy emanating from the clash of ideas. To “unsettled all things” was, he declared in “Circles,” his primary goal. That is why it is futile to hold Emerson accountable for logical incoherence.

And later:

“Self-Reliance” contains passages of such soaring idealism that it may be the most quoted essay in American literature. But mixed with dazzling insights are arguments that appear to go nowhere. Emerson, Joel Porte observed, “was less interesting in exhibiting his thoughts than he was in presenting himself in the act of thinking.” “Self-Reliance” is a demonstration that the process of thinking, and not its result, defines the individuals.

I heartily dislike both of these ways of talking about any artist, let alone Emerson: not because art or literature cannot present the act of thought, but because presenting the act of thought necessarily involves an exhibition of thoughts, and the coordination of the thoughts depends on their substance as well as on the fact that they are thoughts in the first place. Emerson would be worthless were he offering a barrage of second-rate thoughts; it is the thoughts that are on display.

In the earlier instance, Sacks makes what I think is perhaps an error of wording: it is not “futile to hold Emerson accountable for logical incoherence.” But if he is not held accountable, then the force of his arguments are missed entirely. Without the standard of logical coherence in mind, Emerson’s refusals to make his arguments cohere are not able to be appreciated. A better way of making the point would have been to say that it is essential to hold him accountable for logical incoherence, and then to imagine the account he would offer as to why logical coherence is not, at least as we conceive it, essential to his mode of argumentation.

That might seem a quibble. But beneath it stands a difference in approach to Emerson: there needs to be coherence at some level when we read an author, even if we do not locate that coherence in the transitions between paragraphs (Emerson tends to break his paragraphs where he abandons one line in favor of another; the result is jarring, and not as the jump between aphorism is jarring, because he has gained a momentum by paragraph’s end that an aphorism is incapable of providing). Even if there are contradictions in Emerson’s position, he invites us to recognize us that these positions do  and must  cohere in a self, on account of some exigency of life and the world. We are simply wrong to expect for the coherence to be explicable only in terms of the conventions of logical, philosophical paraphrase. (Or else according to what Emerson calls “a foolish consistency”).

It may be, even, that they cohere by virtue of what they are united against; by what they seek to avoid; that opposing themselves, they nonetheless all stand in joint opposition against something greater, in which case they can be set in the same range or set.

Emerson speaks of inevitable coherence, of the limits that are there whether we would or not, when he writes in “Self-Reliance”:

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 us above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or brice emit a breath every moment.

The coherence of his purpose in an essay that celebrates the self is that which permits Emerson to exuberantly stray down paths of arguments unpursued. The coherence of the self is what binds an individual to recognize that he need not pursue a project of consistency over a life-time.

Implicit here is Emerson’s embrace of determinism (explicit elsewhere, in “Fate”); he readily acknowledges it because it permits him to relish the experience of feeling free.

The only choice that a person must make as regards their self is whether they will recognize the mastery of their own thoughts, will submit knowingly to what has originated in them as against others, or whether they will live as if they are conforming to the mastery of others’ principles. From an objective standpoint, the difference perhaps is null: “no man can violate his nature,” so conformity is neither here nor there (ruminates Emerson in that drawling concession of “I suppose”); but, from a subjective standpoint, to know what one’s nature is might make for a life of a great deal less misery.

And what is more, since one’s own nature is expansive, capacious, to live without violating one’s own nature does not mean living in its most fertile and hospitable regions; it might be that the refusal to conform, the urge to know one’s own thoughts, is a prerequisite for living within one’s nature according to standards that one can approve. Hence Emerson can insist that people come to know themselves. Nature binds, but it binds variously; the confines of nature are not unalterable.

The oppositions and clashing aspects of Emerson’s prose, the adjectives that overhang prospects without trails, these are reminders of how varied and digression the terrain of the self can be; they do not deny its fundamental coherence, but they deny harmony and they warn against an urge for monotony.



  1. From this, it sounds to me like what allowed Emerson to dawn on you was the realization that a rigorous self-doubt is the underpinning of all self-reliance. Look at the problem he sets for himself, and manifestly fails to solve, in his essay on Montaigne. It seems to me that many of Emerson’s readers fail to recognize that his most striking passages of “soaring idealism” come at the end of his essays. This suggests first of all a desire to have a “big ending,” understandable from a rhetorical perspective, though I tend to find these the weakest parts of his essays. So that already undercuts them somewhat. And then you look closer, and you can see that they very often occur precisely after Emerson has raised an issue that he cannot solve. They read like (ineffective) attempts to console himself for this failure, like attempts to talk himself out of taking seriously a problem that weights him down. And that recognition, should wholly obliterate the reading of Emerson as primarily an idealist or optimist. That is a side of his thought, to be sure, but a side that is only understandable against the larger backdrop of moods that provides it a place.

    And I think you are right to take on his readers who forego any demand for coherence in his thought. In one of his essays, I forget which at this point, he develops a notion of a “long logic” that is supposed to provide that coherence—even if one never quite grasps that long logic for himself. The point about “foolish consistency” is related to this idea of a long logic: the worry is that too slavish insistence upon consistency *now* will in the end work against the achieving of a long logic in one’s thought.

    You don’t know, because I don’t know the words to express it, how happy it makes me to find another person who reads Emerson well.

    1. I forgot to add that, in the very quote you began with, it is crucial that what one recognizes is one’s “rejected thought.” They come back to us in chiding form, as reminders of our failures of self-reliance. Hence the “alienated” character of their majesty, they are ours, but we have disdained to own them. The reencounter is thus more than a little awkward.

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