David Fiore is back for a third helping (or fourth or fifth, I’ve lost count by now). His erudite reply to my Professor X piece investigates various ancillary points of Emerson scholarship, like his relationship to Coleridge and the important question of whether the notorious transparent eyeball can see itself. David is terrifyingly well-informed on these matters, which fortunately need not concern us here. The question was whether Emerson advocates surrender to emotion. David, to his credit, does not attempt to deny this, and really it would be impossible to deny; every second page of Emerson contains passages to this effect. He takes a different approach:
Having read some of Winters, I see now, Aaron, why you place so much emphasis upon the logical consequences of philosophical positions. But you cannot deal with Emerson (or me!) this way. For Winters, Crane is a superior Emersonian, because he is “not content to write in a muddling manner about the Way; he is concerned primarily with the End.” But this is precisely what makes him such a failure as an Emersonian–and a sane human being. Life is a problem. People, like works of art, are alive so long as they maintain their ideas in tension. To long for the resolution of these tensions, as you do Aaron, is to long for catastrophe. [Italics his.]
Since David has many distinguished predecessors in this view, like “Negative Capability” Keats, who can be excused on grounds of extreme youth, and F. Scott “Opposed Ideas in the Mind at the Same Time” Fitzgerald, I may be forgiven for insisting on some obvious points. Life is indeed a problem, many problems, which one does one’s best to solve, through exercise of the rational faculty. Man acts and chooses: each choice excludes many others. Some choices are wise, others foolish; some conduce to his well-being, others to his destruction. One can no more hold an idea and its opposite at the same time — what, in this case, could “hold” possibly mean? — than one can act on an idea and its opposite at the same time. In the face of these difficulties, Emerson recommends abdication.
Emerson sprang from the dominant 19th-century intellectual tradition in America, New England Nonconformist. It is best represented by the Holmes family (Oliver Wendell Sr. and Jr.) and the James family (Henry Sr., William, Henry, and Alice). Its products include Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. Today New England Nonconformism is extinct; Katharine Hepburn (b. 1907) was perhaps its last degenerate scion.
New England Nonconformists, with very few exceptions, were hobbyists. They liked to toy with ideas, often radical ideas and often very brilliantly. They filled the ranks of the Abolitionists and suffragettes; but they tended not to reason to these positions but intuit them. Their motto could have been Holmes Jr.’s frequent remark that he hated facts, that the chief end of man was to form general propositions, and that no general proposition was worth a damn. Holmes père et fils, Emerson, and William James were all radical skeptics philosophically who conducted themselves personally with exemplary rectitude. What constrained them was a deep prudence and moral sense, informed by the Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards, the doctrine that although good works and success on earth technically avail one nought, as all seats in the Kingdom of Heaven are reserved, they yet demonstrate one’s fitness for Election. Yvor Winters calls this a “New England emotional coloration,” accurately. To put it flippantly, the vote for women was all very well, but “never dip into capital” was a real rule to live by. (On the other hand, in the dominant 20th-century American intellectual tradition, the New York Jewish, ideas became the ticket to success.) Henry James’ American characters act not on ideas but on an inarticulable “moral sense.” This moral sense attenuated as its doctrinal background exerted less and less direct influence, until it finally vanished altogether.
This is why Emerson died rich, old, and in bed, and Hart Crane jumped off an ocean liner.