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The Poetics of Transition: Emerson, Pragmatism, and American Literary Modernism

The Poetics of Transition: Emerson, Pragmatism, and American Literary Modernism

by Jonathan Levin

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The Poetics of Transition examines the connection between American pragmatism and literary modernism by focusing on the concept of transition as a theme common to both movements. Jonathan Levin begins with the Emersonian notion that transition—the movement from one state or condition to another or, alternately, the figural enactment of that movement&mdash


The Poetics of Transition examines the connection between American pragmatism and literary modernism by focusing on the concept of transition as a theme common to both movements. Jonathan Levin begins with the Emersonian notion that transition—the movement from one state or condition to another or, alternately, the figural enactment of that movement—is infused with power. He then offers a revisionary reading of the pragmatists’ view of the permeability of subjective and objective realms and of how American literary modernists stage this permeability in the language and form of their writing.
Levin draws on the pragmatist and neopragmatist writings of William James, John Dewey, George Santayana, Richard Rorty, and Cornel West to illuminate the work of modernist literature. In turn, he illuminates the poetic imperatives of pragmatism by tracing the ways in which Henry James, Gertrude Stein, and Wallace Stevens capture the moment of transition—a paradoxical moment that, once it is represented in language or art, requires its own perpetual overcoming. Throughout, he explores how modernist writers, who are masters at recording such “illegible” moments of transition in their poetry and prose, significantly contribute to an expanded understanding of pragmatism and its underlying aesthetics. By linking Emerson with the progressive philosophy of turn-of-the-century pragmatism and the experimentation of American literary modernism, Levin offers new insight into Emerson’s lasting influence on later American philosophers, novelists, and poets.
The Poetics of Transition will interest scholars and students in the fields of literary criticism, neopragmatism, literary modernism, and American literature.

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From the Publisher
“Lucid and solidly argued, The Poetics of Transition will immediately be recognized as an essential and instructive contribution to the now thriving study of pragmatism, especially in its relation to the uses of language in American poetry and fiction.”—Richard Poirier, author of Poetry and Pragmatism

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Duke University Press
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The Poetics of Transition

Emerson, Pragmatism, & American Literary Modernism

By Jonathan Levin

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9858-5


Divine Overflowings: Emerson's Pragmatic Idealism

EMERSON IS BEST known as a Transcendentalist and hence a philosophical idealist, but his Transcendentalism and idealism are inconsistent and full of tantalizing contradictions and paradoxes. Pragmatism itself has often been depicted as a critical rejoinder to philosophical idealism. There is, however, an abiding affinity between pragmatism and the idealism it would refute. Many neopragmatists are made uncomfortable by what they style the latent Hegelianism of some of the major works of pragmatism, and their adoption of the pragmatic method hinges on their separating that latent Hegelianism from what they characterize as pragmatism's genuine antifoundationalism. In what follows, I want instead to develop a way of understanding how pragmatism crucially depends on its latent idealism and to begin to approach this pragmatic idealism by disentangling a series of contradictions and paradoxes embedded in Emerson's writing.

Every attentive reader already knows that Emerson, like Whitman, contradicts himself. Emerson justifies his many self-contradictions in his essay on Montaigne: "Why pretend that life is so simple a game, when we know how subtle and elusive the Proteus is? Why think to shut up all things in your narrow coop, when we know there are not one or two only, but ten, twenty, a thousand things, and unlike? Why fancy that you have all the truth in your keeping? There is much to say on all sides" (EL 694). Contradiction and multiplication of perspectives are Emerson's stock in trade. They are among the literary effects which make his writing distinctly modern. Stephen Whicher, linking Emerson with Whitman, Melville, and Henry Adams, notes that "we are dealing with a mind that makes any assertion of belief against the felt pull of its lurking opposite, the two forming together a total truth of experience larger than the opposing truths of statement of which it is composed." Henry James Sr. did not call Emerson a "man without a handle" for nothing, although it might be more apt to think of him as a man with all too many handles.

I am less interested, however, in the general, even marvelously self-contradictory texture of Emerson's prose than in a series of related contradictions and paradoxes that help shape Emerson's pragmatic idealism. These contradictions and paradoxes actually allow Emerson to balance, without exactly resolving, some of his deepest intellectual and spiritual conflicts. For one thing, Emerson's pragmatic idealism is grounded in a delicate balance of skepticism and faith. It is, for a certain kind of mind, unsettling to allow skepticism and faith to share the same psychological space. Emerson, however, thrives on his ability to make assertions that he will immediately reject or revise. He is a great believer, but he is also a careful skeptic, and he is more interested in the ways in which we believe and doubt, in the actual flow of experience, than in systems of belief or a systematically sustained skepticism. This dimension of his project has proven somewhat elusive to his critics. Emerson's prose is a little like the beautiful statue he describes in his essay "Love," which is beautiful "when it begins to be incomprehensible, when it is passing out of criticism" (EL 332). What could be more natural, given such elusiveness, than to try to hold him in place, to make him comprehensible by passing him into criticism: to play at Menelaus on the Egyptian strand, holding tight to a slippery Proteus in order to win the prophecy. But Emerson ever prefers the God to the critic. Skepticism and faith are both perfectly natural and vital attitudes, and Emerson attempts to cultivate both without reducing them to a petty consistency. As his Proteus analogy suggests, such contradictory energies, however incoherent and inconstant, actually constitute his idea of the sacred.

Emerson never defines what he means by the sacred. He decided very early that Christianity promoted notions of God and redemption as mediated through Jesus Christ that were simply too narrow and exclusive to encompass his own intuition of God. It is always unclear just what God means to Emerson. He certainly has no compunction about citing sources from every imaginable tradition or assimilating the latest scientific evidence to his conception of the sacred and ideal. Nor does he hesitate to declare his own unimpeded impulses divine. Indeed, nothing could provide more certain access to the sacred. Emerson would neither limit his conception of God nor define a term like the sacred too narrowly. "The only sin," he comments in "Circles," "is limitation" (EL 406). Many spiritual and imaginative acts serve the interests of the sacred, and it would be a loss, by Emerson's calculations, to promote anyone at the expense of so many others. Emerson's pragmatic idealism aims to cultivate the sacred without limiting it to any of its particular representations.

This is why Emerson is so dismissive of organization, even organization in the name of what is ostensibly good. Writing in his 1841 "Lecture on the Times" of what he calls the temptation of the young reformer to "lend himself to public movements," Emerson urges resistance to "the degradation of a man to a measure": "I must act with truth, though I should never come to act, as you call it, with effect. I must consent to inaction. A patience which is grand; a brave and cold neglect of the offices which prudence exacts, so it be done in a deep, upper piety; a consent to solitude and inaction, which proceeds out of an unwillingness to violate character, is the century which makes the gem" (EL 163). To consent to inaction, as Emerson puts it here, is actively to exercise restraint: a form of active passivity that locates agency precisely where it vanishes from the scene of its potentially visible triumph. Such "brave and cold neglect of the offices which prudence exacts" could easily devolve into a moral void, but it is redeemed —to the extent that it is redeemed—by the "deep, upper piety" in which this neglect is conceived and executed.

But what distinguishes a morally bankrupt neglect from a "patience which is grand"? Surely, as stated in this passage, nothing that can be formulated as a code of prescribed behavior. The "deep, upper piety" in which Emerson's neglect is conceived is rather a state of mind governed by the effort, necessarily imperfect and inconclusive, to imagine our lives in light of our most profound aspirations and ideals. Anything that would put a definitive shape on those aspirations and ideals, that would define them, would also constrain the imaginative process whereby we envision and project those aspirations and ideals. By making our access to the sources of moral authority too assured, it would effectively limit the vital, ongoing cultivation of the sacred. Because our moral natures are always in the making, we must submit our most cherished ideals to a perpetual, demanding vigilance.

It may seem odd to begin a study linking Emerson to pragmatism with a reference to one of Emerson's not infrequent calls to social inaction. William James conceived pragmatism as a form of intellectual activism: "A pragmatist turns his back resolutely and once for all upon a lot of inveterate habits dear to professional philosophers. He turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power" (W 2:508-9). James's formulation suggests that we determine the nature of our truths and ideals by engaging our human problems just as they come to us, not by the magic of metaphysical speculation. For James as well as for Dewey after him, metaphysics is a pale and inadequate substitute for the application of human Intelligence to concrete social problems. On the surface of things, Emerson appears to be bored by these human problems. He is bored by them, to the extent that they fail to engage his deepest imaginative sympathies. He writes of Transcendentalists in his 1842 address "The Transcendentalist" that "life and their faculty seem to them gifts too rich to be squandered on such trifles as you propose to them": "What you call your fundamental institutions, your great and holy causes, seem to them great abuses, and, when nearly seen, paltry matters. Each 'Cause,' as it is called, —say Abolition, Temperance, say Calvinism, or Unitarianism,—becomes speedily a little shop, where the article, let it have been at first never so subtle and ethereal, is now made up into portable and convenient cakes, and retailed in small quantities to suit purchasers. You make very free use of these words 'great' and 'holy,' but few things appear to them such" (EL 203). Long before mass media and celebrity combined to create a new way to package liberal causes, Emerson recognized that ideals are as easily commodified as other consumer goods, and that once commodified, they cease to engage our imaginative energies. Convenience and portability undermine Emerson's larger project of making human beings, the basis, for Emerson, of all genuine social reform.

In fact, Emerson was all his life a champion of social reform. His first major address on slavery came not after Daniel Webster's infamous March 1, 1850, speech in support of the Compromise of 1850 and its Fugitive Slave Act (which outraged Emerson), nor in 1844 when he gave an Emancipation Day address in Concord, but as early as 1837, in a Concord address on "Slavery." This talk is largely unknown because it was never published and the manuscript has not survived, but the notes for the talk do appear in Emerson's journal. Although these notes reveal that Emerson held racist assumptions about Blacks, and that he did not see a larger role for white Northerners than voting their conscience — attitudes that would evolve over the next two decades — they also reveal his moral outrage at the institution of slavery and his support of its abolition. Emerson is perfectly unambiguous on this score: "There is a little plain prose which has got I know to be somewhat tedious by often repetition which yet needs to be said again & again, until it has perforated the thick deaf ear, that no man can hold property in Man; that Reason is not chattel; cannot be bought & sold; and that every pretended traffic in such stock is invalid & criminal" (JMN 12:153-54). Emerson's language in the notes is sometimes quite passionate: "It is barbarism; it is amputation of so much of the moral & intellectual attributes of man" (JMN 12:158). The story of Emerson's involvement with the abolitionists has only slowly come to light, but it is unmistakable. Despite his early racial bigotry, Emerson opposed slavery from the first and considered it a moral duty to oppose it. Over time, he steadily demanded more of himself and of his fellow citizens.

Emerson supported many causes over the years, working with their various formal associations. He led an April 1838 effort to organize opposition to Van Buren's plan to relocate the Cherokee Nation and drafted an open letter to Van Buren protesting that "such a dereliction of all faith and virtue, such a denial of justice, and such deafness to screams for mercy were never heard of in times of peace and in the dealing of a nation with its own allies and wards, since the earth was made." He also served on committees, like the local Concord school committee, and gave addresses on various causes, like his 1838 address to the American Peace Society, "The Peace Principle," after which Garrison declared Emerson "a man of the new age." The record of all of this activity has been slow to accumulate, in part because the earliest portraits of Emerson underplayed or altogether neglected this activity and in part because Emerson's major published essays —the essays Emerson himself chose to put before the reading public — relentlessly insist that social reform can only follow from self reform.

Emerson summarizes his dissatisfaction with the mania to reform in "New England Reformers," an address written and delivered early in 1844, just months before his emancipation address: "The criticism and attack on institutions which we have witnessed, has made one thing plain, that society gains nothing whilst a man, not himself renovated, attempts to renovate things around him: he has become tediously good in some particular, but negligent or narrow in the rest; and hypocrisy and vanity are often the disgusting result" (EL 596). "Disgusting" is a strong word, and one can only imagine that Emerson uses it to indicate his anger at his fellow citizens' capacity to support this or that cause without ever examining their more intimate obligations. His charge of hypocrisy reflects his sense that effective reform builds from within: "It is handsomer to remain in the establishment better than the establishment, and conduct that in the best manner, than to make a sally against evil by some single improvement, without supporting it by a total regeneration" (EL 596). Emerson holds his reformer to what may seem an impossibly high standard, but he does so to incite his audience, to make them recognize that so long as their rhetoric of reform refuses to acknowledge the interrelatedness of all institutions and their flaws —including institutions on which the reformer vitally depends — there can be no meaningful reform. This is precisely the sort of contradiction with which Emerson simply learned to live.

Emerson even insists that there is no position (or language) outside the present order of things from which to critique it: All our things are right and wrong together. The wave of evil washes all our institutions alike. Do you complain of our Marriage? Our marriage is no worse than our education, our diet, our trade, our social customs. Do you complain of the laws of Property? It is a pedantry to give such importance to them. Can we not play the game of life with these counters, as well as with those; in the institution of property, as well as out of it. Let into it the new and renewing principle of love, and property will be universality. (EL 596)

This position on the danger of causes reflects Emerson's sense that such causes become a means of avoiding other obligations, assuaging the conscience without engaging it in the more demanding, uncertain struggle for renewal. Emerson never opposes social commitments, and in fact frequently encourages them, but he also insists that such commitments must flow from, and return to, a more profound, far-reaching concern. Above all, that commitment should not impede the continuing development of the individual, though of course this also means, however paradoxically, the continuing development of the myriad unfolding purposes that constitute the world. The sheer narrowness of devotion to a single cause struck Emerson as antithetical to the proper spirit of charity, which should recognize that the individual is defined not by any single purpose or ideal but by a complex web of purposes and ideals that together link individuals, with all their various needs and desires, to the world and to others in the world. Since every individual achieves meaning or purpose only within this complex web, every individual has a responsibility to the life of the whole.

It should be apparent that Emerson's discussion of reform turns on a subtle and pervasive paradox in his argument. The individual self has obligations only to itself ("Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string" — "Self-Reliance"), but those obligations at the same time reflect the individual's relatedness to the world as a whole ("Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events" —the next sentence in "Self-Reliance" [EL 260]). The more individuated piety becomes, the less it is able to affect relations that extend in all directions; at the same time, if pious ideals are never individuated, they may never have any real effect in the world. This is the fundamental paradox at the heart of Emerson's writing: we only ever recognize the good as it is embodied in some particular circumstance, but any particular embodiment is a limitation of the good and so a hindrance to its further development. "Every spirit makes its house," as he puts it in a passage cited earlier, "but afterwards the house confines the spirit" (EL 946).


Excerpted from The Poetics of Transition by Jonathan Levin. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author

Jonathan Levin is Associate Professor of English at Columbia University and Associate Editor of Raritan Review.

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