226. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

A few generations ago, the starting point of a discussion about Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the writers of his time and place, seems to have been about the possibility or difficulty of American literature. For a long time, I couldn’t make heads or tails of that discussion; there was Fenimore Cooper, but he was an exception, either a derivative of Scott or else accomplishing something others couldn’t. By how could it be possible that American literature, or American art, be possible in the 1840s or 1850s? What does it even mean to say that?

Emerson, in his essay “Self-Reliance” suggests something of an answer; or perhaps I am reading into that essay an answer, but if I am, then it’s an answer that makes the essay more palatable to me.

The essay is difficult to stomach for its apparent rejection of the social, the communal, the shared customs that sustain life; its individualism is radical to the point where to realize that individualism would seem to be a rejection of social life. It seems strained in its determination to counter conformism and consistency, and careless in its sweep.

I think now that it’s carelessness is more apparent than real, a necessary by-product of its ambition, which is obviously indebted to the Romantics, but which is also, as Emerson acknowledges, as old as political life. That the essay is political, that Emerson does not stand for a libertarian rugged individualism, is apparent from the examples he selects and celebrates: Washington, Adams, the Spartans.

(I’m not supposing any of what I’m saying about Emerson is new or original; it may have been in the air so diffusely as to need no recognition by those who have long breathed it. Evidently, I haven’t.)

The ambition, then, is to provide an account of what I’ve called creativity, or creative insight, or self-expression, or spontaneity, with that latter word being a pivot of Emerson’s account:

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.

But the notion is directly explored later:

The magnetism which all original action exerts is explained when we inquire the reason of self-trust. Who is the Trustee? What is the aboriginal self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded? What is the nature and power of that science-baffling star, without parallax, without calculable elements, which shoots a ray of beauty even into trivial and impure actions, if the least mark of independence appear? The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genus, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct….Here is the fountain of action and of thought. Here are the lungs of that inspiration which giveth man wisdom, and which cannot be denied without impiety and atheism. We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams. If we ask whence this comes, if we seek to pry into the soul that causes, all philosophy is at fault.

And this in turn is I think clarified by a passage earlier still, in which the word does not feature:

A great man is coming to eat at my house. I do not wish to please him; I wish that he should wish to please me. I will stand here for humanity, and though I would make it kind, I would make it true. Let us affront and reprimand the smooth mediocrity and squalid contentment of the times, and hurl in the face o custom, and trade, and office,the fact which is the upshot of all history, that there is a great responsible Thinker and Actor working wherever a man works; that a true man belongs to no other time or place, but is the centre of things. Where he is, there is nature. He measures you, and all men, and all events. 

I’m partially shocked that I find Emerson’s words as compelling as I now do, but perhaps it is proof of them that I can read them by virtue of finding there reflections of what I’ve been thinking myself. What then do I discover there, that I do not already know?

Emerson suggests that one reason to care for history, for literature, for instances of staggering Action and Thought, of which his own essay might be numbered, is that these represent and reveal the same spontaneity, the same creative realization of self, of which we are capable; even as they are drastically, impossibly different, the exertion of self-consciousness from and upon itself (here Emerson has Kant’s account of self-consciousness and spontaneity in mind, when he writes of Action and Thinking). Knowing those others, I know myself; or I know what it means to know myself and to act as myself.

That statement aspires to be apolitical, even ahistorical, but it has political import that Emerson never pushes from his mind: in a democracy, the capacity for individuals to act and know spontaneously is as great as it could be. He accepts implicitly an Aristotelian ideal that the possibilities of the self are political, and he would say that democracy allows for the greatest chance of these possibilities being realized; but he accepts also that politics depends on how much the self realizes those possibilities. And Emerson’s essay is an exhortation because he fears that democracy can also be the crushing of spontaneity, that it offers a threat from conformity even greater maybe than the monarchies to which he alludes.

We approach Hawthorne. Art, Emerson has suggested, not only can exemplify spontaneity, but ought to take spontaneity and creativity as its subject. (In a critic like Empson, I think this equates roughly with the sense that great art celebrates some sort of spirit of the individual; in other critics, it takes other forms.). To say this as baldly as I am risks as much misunderstanding as an over-sophisticated formulation. I do not mean that art needs to be about art; nor that art needs to always demonstrate heroic acts of self-reliance; but that the quickening of the self, or the tragedy of the self prevented from coming into its being (or the perversion of self-quickening..or…or…or), are often the deepest engines of works of art.

Hawthorne’s art takes up the question of whether American political life allows this quickening, this spontaneity, to take place, and answers often in the negative. But whether American life even offers enough material for the suppression or failure of self to seem a failure is another matter; like Emerson, Hawthorne often seems to despair over the private life that the American public allows.

The alienation of American political life, on this account, is not the alienation that great art allows–an alienation from spontaneity that allows for an understanding of oneself–but an alienation from the conditions for spontaneity, both in representation and in civic engagement.

In the radicalism of his vision of what human nature can be, Emerson resembles Ruskin. But whereas Ruskin, often, turns away from politics, Emerson implicitly admits the necessity of politics–and a genuine democratic politics. Such a politics, however, giving as much to self as is possible, places great demands also what being a self means; it is a burden of creativity and spontaneity that, at its root, grants access to and expresses what, for Emerson, is a more fundamental unity of life and being (more metaphysical than Rousseau’s General Will, but not incomparable to it). Democracy requires the self-reliance that rejects even, ultimately, the personality, in favor of a self-expression that is a reconciliation with a greater unity of being (or soul). Where spontaneity is not possible, where alienation is most damaging, that genuine self-reliance that is a delivery from a cramped notion of self is no longer possible.


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