Ralph Waldo Emerson, think of him what you like. He did write an essay entitled The Poet which appears in The Portable Emerson, Viking Press (pg.241-265). This is a curious work. In addition to revealing his thoughts on poetry and being a poet, it sheds some insight on art and what it is to engage in it. To fathom any of this is to indulge in Emerson’s cosmogony. To enter there is to frequent archaic, or near archaic words, like soul, form, higher, true, spirit, genius, heaven, etc. So, so, so, we do use some of these in today’s everyday speech, but does our usage reflect the connotation of Emerson’s time, let alone Emerson himself? Emerson likewise considers conditions, situations and transformations that today we would, perhaps, relegate to the realm of social science, not art or philosophy. Abiding these archaic words and processes (someday our own, like “consumer” or “too big to fail” may become archaic), let’s consider the rudimentary cosmogony The Poet sketches out (for purposes of its own facility). Emerson’s tabula rasa would have been nature, to which he refers continuously as well as dedicates a complete essay of its own. But, you say, tabula rasa infers no innate ideas, is meant to be a blank. There’s the rub. Nature determines all (much as the ancient Chinese Tao) but the poet or artist determines nature through naming/language. “The poet is the Namer or Language–maker… the poets made all the words… Language is fossil poetry.” (252) On 247 he says of his birthday “then I became an animal”. On 242 he writes “We were put into our bodies, as fire is put into a pan to be carried about;” which leads to the oft repeated “for we are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch bearers, but children of the fire, made of it, and only the same divinity transmuted…” So there is something other than animal that goes into the make-up of what it is to be human. On 243 he states “For all men live by truth and stand in need of expression. In love, in art, in avarice, in politics, in labor, in games, we study to utter our painful secret. The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.” (Quite a secret indeed!) He continues anew with “Notwithstanding this necessity to be published, adequate expression is rare.” Not only is it guarded and contained internally, discretely (“painful secret”) but release is seldom, and necessary. What could he be talking about?
By my count, Emerson uses a form of “express” or “expression” 20 times in this 24 page essay. He does not use it lightly, but quite specifically, deliberately. “This expression or naming is not art, but a second nature, grown out of the first, as a leaf out of a tree.” (253) reinforces the earlier “man is only half himself…” while underscoring development (how we go from being pans carrying fire to “children of fire”). On 254, in describing a sculptor and his work he writes “The expression is organic, or the new type which things themselves take when liberated.” Expression is an integral part of our life and its development. The composition of freedom employs it.
Expression is part of what it is to be. It is necessary, yet hidden, requiring development (its association with liberation). It is part and parcel of nature (organic), associated with how nature is grasped, understood or described (as the tabula rasa, which is undifferentiated until named or become part of language). In describing forms of poetry he asks if it isn’t that “we participate the invention of nature?” He begins to answer this with “This insight, which expresses itself by what is called Imagination, is a very high sort of seeing, which does not come by study, but by the intellect being where and what it sees…” (255) This, in a sense, is a very active form of mindfulness (involving the body by inference since the animal is the pan that carries the fire about). It is consistent with the original Namer or Language-maker disposition to our being half ourselves, half our expression. “”Things more excellent than every image” says Jamblichus, “are expressed through images.” …Every line we can draw in the sand has expression:” (247) This expression, this naming or language making, this invention of nature while continuously part of nature (by writing on its tabula rasa of indiscriminate form) includes images “but also hunters, farmers, grooms and butchers, though they express their affection in their choice of life and not in their choice of words.” (249) “The poorest experience is rich enough for all purposes of expressing thought.” (250) It is a lived expression.
For Emerson, expression is more than what label is on one’s jeans, or what kind of burger or tattoo is desired. Contemporary use of ‘expression’ differs from the lived experience specificity required by Emerson’s thought (within that cosmogony). Today’s connotation is more one of choice and will, part of consumption. Expression once was linked to a modernist kind of genre of visual art, music, performance. Emerson’s “expression” encompasses these but likewise differs. “Hence a great number of such as were professionally expressers of Beauty, as painters, poets, musicians, and actors” (256) recognizes the difference between expression as a necessary half of our being, and expression that becomes commodified (like selling half of one’s being as laborers sell their labor). He differentiates by stating “Art is the path of the creator to his work…. The painter, the sculptor, the composer, the epic rhapsodist, the orator, all partake one desire, namely to express themselves symmetrically and abundantly, not dwarfishly and fragmentarily.” (262)
We do not wish to entertain it, but we do live with a contemporary cosmogony. Folks like Neil deGrasse Tyson reinforce our fundamentals that we are composed of all the same elements that are found throughout the universe, hence are children of the universe. Consciousness comes from neural synapses, and character is for the most part predetermined by DNA, with a little by environment. All well and good. It differs little from Emerson save that for Emerson the consciousness spawned the science (through the lived experience making for the lived expression of naming, language-making) rather than the science spawns the consciousness (something our systemic culture elides for purposes of efficiency). Emerson’s outlook has spirit producing body, a reversal of today’s body producing spirit. Expression is the production of body (the physical, “animal” experience) by spirit. It is not just that physical experience is, is something (which science does) but expression is the affirmation of self within the universe (of physical, animal experience). The hand making an image inside the cave of Lascaux was affirming “by the intellect being where and what it sees.” Contemporary thinkers like Bruno Latour or Jacques Ranciere remind us that science and sense are political, social, “participate [in] the invention of nature” through naming, language-making. “The other half is his expression” emphasizes the innate place and importance of expression, of lived experience. For Emerson lived experience is facilitated by imagination, not separated from it.
Emerson’s (“expressed”) use of expression casts a pall on the sustainability of today’s “Consume, conform, keep quiet” survival mode. It likewise calls into question the morality of contemporary economic justification for the mobility of labor – of folks needing to reinvent themselves through education to “be” certified nurses, waitresses or pipeline welders because the market is saturated with teachers, writers or furniture makers. The greatest contribution of Emerson’s “expression” of expression would be within today’s art and culture. Expression, lived expression, provides a handle by which to critique art, so much of which is systemic, genetically engineered art made from whatever can be appropriated without regard to any living or experience whatsoever.