Thursday, October 24, 2013

`We Should Wish to Hug Him'

“A man known to us only as a celebrity in politics or in trade, gains largely in our esteem if we discover that he has some intellectual taste or skill; as when we learn of Lord Fairfax, the Long Parliament's general, his passion for antiquarian studies; or of the French regicide Carnot, his sublime genius in mathematics; or of a living banker, his success in poetry; or of a partisan journalist, his devotion to ornithology.” 

That’s Ralph Waldo Emerson in the chapter on “Culture” in The Conduct of Life (1860), and he’s self-flatteringly mistaken. Voting for a Congressman because he reads Flaubert is like choosing a dentist because he plays the harpsichord. It’s a species of vanity. We’re congratulating ourselves for our good taste and cultural discernment even if we haven’t read L'Éducation sentimentale and even if a professional’s cultural pretensions have nothing to do with the job we’ve chosen him for. I don’t care if my cardiologist reads Proust. On Tuesday, Mike Gilleland posted Emerson’s next sentence without comment: 

“So, if in travelling in the dreary wildernesses of Arkansas or Texas, we should observe on the next seat a man reading Horace, or Martial, or Calderon, we should wish to hug him.” 

I laughed. I can’t speak for the people of Arkansas but in Texas we’re not partial to random fits of hugging, and we maintain a distinction between literary criticism and spontaneous acts of affection. I’ve never read Calderon but if I were to spy a man on the bus reading Horace or Martial, I would respect him and not presume to interrupt his pleasure. People have been shot for less. Also, no wilderness is dreary, not even in Arkansas. Later in the paragraph, the Sage of Concord works up a good head of New England snobbery: 

“A man is a beggar who only lives to the useful, and, however he may serve as a pin or rivet in the social machine, cannot be said to have arrived at self-possession. I suffer, every day, from the want of perception of beauty in people. They do not know the charm with which all moments and objects can be embellished, the charm of manners, of self-command, of benevolence. Repose and cheerfulness are the badge of the gentleman, -- repose in energy.” 

No, a man is a beggar who begs. A man who “only lives to the useful” at least is not useless. He may be working to support a family, and there’s no shame in that, even if he doesn’t read Jonathan Franzen. Emerson continues: “A cheerful, intelligent face is the end of culture, and success enough. For it indicates the purpose of Nature and wisdom attained.” 

What if Emerson were to gaze on the faces of Dr. Johnson, Yvor Winters and Whittaker Chambers? Would he hurry to hug them?

1 comment:

Denkof Zwemmen said...

I think you’re being too hard on Emerson here. We are 150 years on and live in a very different society.
The fourth example he gives, the journalist devoted to ornithology, is not a literary one. When he deplores a “want of perception of beauty in people” I think we can translate that, in our own terms, as “want of an interest in something of the world outside the mundane, what Emerson refers to as ‘the useful.’”
Here in exurban New York State our friends are our friends, of course, but we have little difficulty discerning an “intelligent face” among the various other people we have contact with, whether they are behind cash registers at the supermarket, come to the house to fix a leaky toilet or a recalcitrant computer, or try to sell us something at Best Buy. The interesting thing is that when we do happen to get into conversations with these intelligent looking people, it invariably turns out that they have outside interests: quilting, décollage, building airplanes (not model ones in the example I’m thinking of), gardening, collecting cowboy memorabilia – seldom literature, although there was the guy who put up a fence for us who was an aficionado of 18th century philosophy and was able to expound on Kant with a clarity I’d never found in the pages of a book.
Speaking of politicians who love Flaubert, have you seen the interview, translated from a French journal, with Justice Stephen Breyer in the latest New York Review of Books. He’s an expert on Proust and French literature. Interesting to compare that interview with a interview with Justice Scalia that appeared recently in New York Magazine. They’re each intelligent, but Scalia seems to revel in his native intelligence, while Breyer deprecates his, and ascribes whatever intellectual gifts he has to what he has learned. Interesting. Only in America.
Finally: are you aware of how similar are the three faces that you chose as unhuggable by Emerson? They could be different portraits of the same person.