Emerson and the American Ego

September 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

We enter this week headlong into the territory most familiar to people who might have read a bit of Emerson: Emerson’s SELF, lead by the essay “Self-Reliance.” It has become, ironically, perhaps the most conventional of his essays–the one always referred to as evidence of what a literary critic called “The Imperial Self.” A more recent version of this convention, this critique of Emersonian egotism came in 2003, in the celebrations around his 200th birthday. An editorial in the New York Times blamed Emerson for the American tradition of self-absorption, the excessive egotism that leads to greed on Wall Street and go-it-alone foreign policy. Another version of this critique, less aggressive but still distrustful of Emerson, came from John Updike in the New Yorker. A more recent and more positive view of the Emersonian self and its lessons for us today can be found in this Op-Ed by the literary critic Harold Bloom “Out of Panic, Self-Reliance.” And this piece in the Chronicle, “Giving Emerson the Boot,” I think is especially flagrant in its understanding of the egoistic Emerson. And one more from 2011: “The Foul Reign of Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’.”  No subtlety here.

I said irony regarding these conventional views of the Emersonian self: the irony, of course, given that Emerson writes (in these very essays, certainly in “Self-Reliance”) about resisting convention and conformity of thinking. So what do you think? If the convention is Emersonian imperial ego, is this all that we find in this essay–or is there a resisting vision, a contrast, if not a contradiction, that we can read?

One way into this, I will suggest, is to consider more directly what Emerson himself writes and thinks regarding contradiction (and also convention). I think there is more to say than what, traditionally, people have said for Emerson. Emerson, as we have begun to discuss, is interested in a more complex understanding of our language, of or our nature, of our self and its relations. Emerson, I propose, seeks to complicate the conventions that would include the very readings, and what he will call in the essay, the “misunderstanding,” of the essay, and its key term.

Here is an entire issue of the journal In Character devoted to the idea and the word “self-reliance.” On the side of complication, one could also note the way “Self-Reliance” figured into President Obama’s 2009 Inaugural.

And to thicken the irony: here is a commercial I recall from my senior year of high school. Believe it or not, Emerson is quoted from numerous lines in “Self-Reliance” to help sell Reebok shoes. Reebok’s let you be you. Be yourself; look like everyone else.  At first view, yes, this seems to get Emerson terribly wrong. But is some of this irony in the essay itself, in Emerson’s own thinking? Perhaps, since as we learn if we read the essay carefully, the self-reliant self is never an individual, is always reliant on something else.

What’s next: using Whitman to sell Levi’s jeans?

Keywords (and contradictions)

Some of the familiar keywords of “Self-Reliance” and its concerns with the influence of society:original, individual, conformity, consistency, imitation. But our further reading this week (into “History” and “Quotation and Originality”) can help complicate and counter that familiar reading. Other terms we see emphasize not an “individual” exclusively, the self-absorbed ego that is the concern of the various op-eds disparaging Emerson, but a self that is part and particle of something larger. A self who is, by definition, not just himself or herself. These terms include “correlative” (and “correspondency”) in “History” [119], variations on the Emersonian philosophy of relation. And in “Quotation and Originality,” there is the final term of the essay: “recomposition.” There is, we learn, no original composition, no original self, since nature is the correlative of Mind. And perhaps we should already know this from “Self-Reliance,” since the essay argues for self that relies on something greater, called in one phrasing, “immense intelligence.”


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