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Where Would Emerson Find His Scholar Now?
His speech was called “our intellectual Declaration of Independence.” Its theme was the universe itself; its hero, Man Thinking. Now, one hundred and seventy-five years later, a noted scholar sees Emerson’s great vision as both more beleaguered and more urgent than ever.
December 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 8
For Emerson literature is still the greatest intellectual power. I shake my head in wonder and envy when he claims that a writer’s words are fairly ranged against the indifference, torpor, pedantry, bad faith of man “in the degenerate state.” If there is any thinker today so inclusive and penetrating, with such an obvious effect as to make us “all of one mind,” it is surely the physicist, the last cosmologist left, and not the writers, who, whatever their talents and the considerable pleasure they give us, always look upon our lives as a “degenerate state.” As the gifted John Cheever put it in fiction, “[Why, in this] half-finished civilization, in this most prosperous, equitable and accomplished world, should everyone seem so disappointed?”
The literary world is full of itself, bemused by language as theme as well as instrument, so conscious of its separation not only from the world of power but from intelligence as power that it calls daily reality “absurd.” The writer as conscience has understandably been maddened by the frightful crimes of our century and by the ever-growing indifference to the outmoded, ever-weakening cry “J’accuse!”
Walt Whitman said that in literature “the light comes curiously from elsewhere.” For many decades now literature as taught in this country, as approvable by the most influential connoisseurs, has been a light only to itself, has had to create its own light. So it was natural for modernism to become the curriculum and to dominate all judgment even of the past. For a poetry to arise increasingly witty and chic in the style of modernism, a poetry not struggling against anything, least of all itself —a kind of travel literature full of personal echoes but without a sense of tragedy. For a fiction so minimalist that you had to admire the silences in it more than the words. For a literary criticism that persuaded docile undergraduates not much given to reading anyway that literature was just performance. No one dared quote Kafka:
“Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves. … A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
What Emerson called “discontents of the literary class” were young people around Concord he admired for wanting to change things so completely that they seemed to have “knives in their brains.” The discontents of what I should rather call the literary intelligentsia—the army of commentators and annotators forever reducing literature to their latest ideas—reflect a great sourness and introversion. The world of science, of incessant discovery and speculative intelligence, is excited and happy because there are no barriers to what it is allowed to think about. In the end, despite all our troubles, it is thinking that makes the “scholar,” it is thinking that makes us happy, it is thinking that unites us with the universe. In an increasingly tyrannical world it is thinking that tells us who we are.
In the end, it is thinking that makes us happy, it is thinking that unites us with the universe … that tells us who we are.
“These being [the scholar’s] functions, it becomes him to feel all confidence in himself, and to defer never to the popular cry. He and he only knows the world. The world of any moment is the merest appearance. Some great decorum, some fetish of a government, some ephemeral trade, or war, or man, is cried up by half mankind and cried down by the other half, as if all depended on this particular up or down. The odds are that the whole question is not worth the poorest thought which the scholar has lost in listening to the controversy. Let him not quit his belief that a popgun is a popgun, though the ancient and honorable of the earth affirm it to be the crack of doom…. Success treads on every right step. For the instinct is sure that prompts him to tell his brother what he thinks.”