Posts Tagged ‘Ralph Waldo Emerson’

Emerson Expression

April 19, 2014

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.


Life Is Short

August 26, 2013

Life is short, so one should enjoy it. Life is short, so one should find meaning in it. These two admonitions create a certain tension. Much continental philosophy and aesthetic theory reflects this tension within their discourse. Enjoyment seems to be not enough for a satisfying aesthetic experience. Meaning, as the basis of action and philosophy, elides the mundane, the everyday, the material.

Karl Marx was born in 1818; Ralph Waldo Emerson 15 years earlier. Emerson died in 1882; Marx a year later (roughly as contemporary as Mick Jagger and Jon Bon Jovi). Charles Darwin was a fellow rock star (1809-1882). Both Marx and Emerson were influenced by Hegel and his writings, philosophy and approach. It is hard to believe that Darwin did not know of Hegel. Volumes have been written on these contemporaries. Nothing new here. Suffice to say Emerson evolved Hegel different than Marx. Marx threw out the “spirit” aspect of meaning and replaced it by what makes for meaning within the capitalist status quo of the time – material. Emerson, perhaps much more cognizant of actual human bondage (than Marx) because of his everyday experience of living in a land where humans were considered material within the capitalist status quo (could be bought, sold and treated legally as property), focused on the “spirit” aspect, but without necessarily discarding the material. We all think we know what is attributed to Marx re: religion, but no memory permeates today of Emerson’s disposition to material, what makes for physical experience.

Capitalism’s emphasis on the material as fundamental to value (and meaning) differs little from Marx’s emphasis on the material as fundamental to value and meaning. The how’s and the why’s may differ but the material as foundational does not. Materialism determines value and meaning with either. In that they are brothers. Within continental philosophy this fraternal relationship seems to surface and reify with the thought and production of Guy DeBord and his Society of the Spectacle. The ultimate evolution of this affinity of meaning and value is found with Baudrillard’s writing on our culture, and simulacra (with regard to the values and meaning of materialism expressed as such). Emerson finds meaning and value with what is not tangible. Within his writing he advocates that what is not tangible has a bearing on the conduct of life and the determination of meaning. Early within his essay “The Poet” he writes “The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.” (again the Hegelian influence?). From DeBord and Baudrillard we associate expression today with material – material presence and the material being that accompanies “having”. Even the meaning and value of words and language changes within the hegemony of materialism. Emerson is also known for having been a poet, part of his appreciation and valorization of language (in a Marxist sense?). Language as material, maybe not, but as a material (sensual) experience, for sure, for sure. And therein lies the separation from the tension of continental philosophy, of meaning and enjoyment. For Emerson, to enjoy produces meaning. Within the materialist disposition (capitalist or socialist), the meaning that is material (that material “is”) does not necessarily correlate with or produce enjoyment (Jay Leno may have a lot of “stuff”, but is that what brings joy to his life?). Life is short. One should enjoy it as that is the only way to find meaning within the short span. But what brings joy? For Emerson, this was a (and “the”) philosophic question, something to be considered critically. It would be presumptuous (and flippant) to give the knee jerk answer as a distraction, past time, religious conviction or addiction. Joy for Emerson isn’t automatic, predetermined or guaranteed, but rather involves the half of a person that is not “his expression.”

The Good

August 9, 2013

Recollection returns the admiration Dr. Tew expressed for the single, solitary bee during some long ago assembly of Ohio beekeepers. He was awestruck that this individual would exit the colony where there is the support of her fellows, and the safety of numbers, to fly off into the great unknown. I guess it stuck with me by the way he presented it, rather analytically from a scientist’s perspective – someone who has spent his life studying bees. We tend to knee jerk anthropomorphize anything not “like us”. Forgotten is that butterflies, bees and other insects don’t “know” what is out there. Off they go into the very, and always, immediate unknown.
My neighbor is not right. No, not in an argumentative sense, rather he has been unlike his fellows in thought, behavior, and socialization since birth. Today I guess he would be described as challenged, or severely disabled though he gets around and lives alone. Many of us who live around him would describe him as a pain since it is almost impossible to communicate with him. He demands, and if the demand is not met, he curses loudly and vehemently (disabilities are not always as portrayed by Hollywood). Of late he has deemed himself to be our self-appointed evangelist. Have you gone to church? No matter what the response, he condemns you to hell (perhaps he’s lonely?). The latest is asking what is written on a piece of paper in his hand (which the committed do-gooder is more than willing to read for what he believes to be an illiterate. Not!). The scrawl spells “dread”, and of course, a sermon on going to hell with a veritable Whitman’s Sampler of assorted gospel invectives follows.
In The Gleam Of Light: Moral Perfectionism and Education in Dewey and Emerson (2005) Naoko Saito tries to show the close connection between Dewey and Emerson, through some of the writing on this matter by Stanley Cavell (who considers the opposite). Emerson’s influence appears in Dewey’s early work and then in his later writings according to Saito. She addresses a major criticism of Dewey in a chapter entitled The Gleam of Light Lost: Transcending the Tragic with Dewy after Emerson, something both Emerson and Cavell address and wrestle with but Dewey is considered to have elided (all problems can be solved through a sound pragmatic approach). Curious insights that speak to our time arise out of the considerations of these various thinkers that Naoko brings together. Emerson (and then later Dewey) mourns/bemoans the “lost individual”, asleep to the life within/without ( Shades of the unexamined life is not worth living!). The emphasis with Emerson, and later through Saito’s interpretation of Dewey, is on setting forth, struggling to create/achieve meaning, to learn, to grow. Of course, no apparent end is given for all this setting forth, learning and growing. In contemporary times, this has been perverted as “process” – i.e. process art, or “the learning process”, etc. (but not processed food). The “process” has become the end (something Saito points out is NOT the case by referencing the role and place of imagination with morality in both the writings of Emerson and Dewey). Saito works hard to stress the difference between the valorization of today’s “process” and the role or place of struggle, setting forth, growth, etc. with Emerson, et al. She writes: “[T]he good is anything but guaranteed in advance; it is to be created ahead, as “consequences” in the future, or as Cavell says, proven only on the way. Potentiality is not “a category of existence” that is being unfolded. Instead, “potentialities cannot be known till after the interactions have occurred” in terms of “consequences”” (pg. 116).
And so the bee returns to the hive loaded down with pollen and a gut full of nectar after her adventure in the great unknown. Its fellows will be nourished by this contribution achieved with such great effort and peril. The future of the colony will be determined by this struggle with what it knows not. I think this is what Saito is pointing at. The scrawl of today, held up with any considerations of democracy, education or growth (taken in whatever sense), spells out “dread”. Forgotten is that a known outcome, a machine determined inevitability is not exactly how things happen. “The good is anything but guaranteed in advance; it is to be created ahead, as “consequences” in the future, or as Cavell says, proven only on the way.”