Recomposition: Emerson’s Original Quotation

English: Photo of American Transcendentalist, ...

English: Photo of American Transcendentalist, writer, and minister Ralph Waldo Emerson. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Emerson has long been known as a sort of patron saint of originality in American culture. The primary location for this message is his essay “Self-Reliance” (1841). The argument of that essay would seem to be, from the title onward, that the individual and his/her genius is of utmost importance. There are many famous lines and passages in the essay that suggest this, including, perhaps most famous: “imitation is suicide.”

Believe it or not, that line and some others from the essay were used in a Reebok commercial in the 1980s. Reebok was just starting and trying to knock Nike–the shoes that everyone else was wearing. The logic was, strangely: be yourself and buy our shoes; don’t imitate Nike (imitate us).

Given this tradition of Emersonian originality, what should we make of Emerson’s later essay, “Quotation and Originality,” in which he declares surprisingly, “all minds quote”? Is this view of writing and reading and, more broadly, thinking, as some form of quotation a contradiction of his earlier views of self-reliance and “creative reading?” Does this break from the earlier essays, or somehow extend the vision?

Emerson, mid-way through the essay, seems to admit his own contradiction when he begins to voice a challenge to what he has been saying of quotation. That voice sounds much like the Emerson from “Self-Reliance”: “Quotation confesses inferiority.” Is this just a case of Emerson contradicting himself, being willfully or whimsically inconsistent? (In “Self-Reliance he claims famously: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”)

Emerson, however, has always had a more complicated vision of originality–much as the notion of originality in writing and thinking is more complicated than conventionally presented in schools. Emerson’s vision of original quotation speaks to the essay tradition and its philosophy of relating the personal and ordinary in the world of the writer to the public world of the reader. A good essayist needs to work through quotation, and consider the relation between the quotation and originality of thinking. A better context for understanding the tension between originality and quotation, I suggest, is a rhetorical tradition Emerson was familiar with. The rhetorical context for this essay, for any essay Emerson might have in mind, opens up contradiction as a strong potential for an essay, when handled honestly. Contradiction becomes counterargument; the logic in the essay moves (is not fixed), is dialectical or dynamic. Think, as Emerson liked to think, of the natural analogy of polarity. And so thought, and thinking in writing, when it accurately reflects its contexts as a natural process, moves between positive and negative poles. All things, as Emerson says, are in flux.

Composition and decomposition are the natural poles. Recomposition is the form of writing that generates from this. Reading such writing, as we also see by the end of the essay, participates in the recomposition by being inventive. Invention is a concept of classical rhetoric that speaks to the paradoxical but necessary tension between the originality of our ideas and argument and the given, quoted, borrowed structures and contexts that those ideas must live in. There is no pure originality. Of course, this line from a late Emerson essay (1868) takes us back to Emerson’s “American Scholar” thirty years before: “One must be an inventor to read well.” Thus Emerson quotes himself originally.

How does Emerson’s vision of recomposition inform David Shields’ project in Reality Hunger? How does Emerson’s vision of original quotation compare to your emerging philosophy of the essay?

My annotated (inventive? quotational?) reading of “Quotation and Originality”


Kaysen: The Rhetoric of Conflict

Vermeer: Girl Interrupted at Her Music; The Frick, NYC

In the chapter “Of Conflict” in Crafting the Personal Essay, Dinty Moore argues that the center of any essay is a problem or question that the writer seeks to resolve. The essayist, and the essay, in order to be dynamic (and not static) needs to be “conflicted.” We can connect this to Lopate’s observation that the essay is an “exercise in doubt.” I would suggest that Susana Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted offers us a suggestive example of the rhetoric of the conflicted essay in doubt. Hers is an essay that explores the dynamic nature of conflict and doubt by seeking it openly.

That condition brings us to some unfamiliar and perhaps unsettling places. Is Kaysen, then, a captive or an explorer in her experience at the hospital? Does she belong there–and if not, what on earth is she doing there? The answer seems to be a bit of both. Moore suggests as a basic structure for an essay’s conflict Hazlitt’s provocative title, “On the Pleasures of Hating” (or some other term not usually associated with pleasure). Kaysen’s template for this essay might be: On the Pleasures of Going Crazy.

Something goes wrong at the beginning, we understand. Kaysen explores this idea in the narrative in tracking back through the circumstances that got her there, particularly regarding the apparently quick decision by her therapist to send her. She frames it as a question of belief–asking the reader if we believe him or her? Kaysen does something similar toward the end of the book, exploring quite intensively the diagnosis she received (Borderline Personality Disorder) and questioning many of its assumptions.

So yes, she doesn’t belong there (thus the questions and criticism). And no, she does. At least in the sense that Kaysen embraces, both as a young woman and as the writer 25 years later, the implications of what she is doing there. She’s asking questions, which means she doesn’t have answers. She’s exploring the possibilities; she is willing, as she puts it, to cross over the “borderline” to understand the difference between sanity and insanity.

I suggest that we can associate this essayistic exploration of doubt and questioning (who’s right? who do you believe? what’s the difference?) with the rhetorical strategy of counterargument. In short, this is when the writer deliberately contradicts herself or entertains objections to her argument, her perspective, that complicate her story. It is some version of the following: “Reader, I know that there are other ways to view this; I can’t pretend that there aren’t.” In rhetorical terms, this is known as the concession (or in the Latin, concessio), the turn against one’s own position or argument. But counterargument doesn’t stop there; the writer doesn’t give up on her argument. The key move is a turn back (in classical terms, refutation), having explored the possibility that she is wrong, addressed the concerns, and answered or resolved them, enough at least to return to the argument, stronger. Not with certainty, but with more confidence. This is also viewed rhetorically as admitting a weaker point in order to make a stronger one. For more on the basic rhetorical dynamics of counterargument–something for us to engage with in our own writing for this project–consult this useful overview from the Harvard Writing Program. This use of counterargument can be traced back to ancient rhetoric and a composition practice known as dissoi logoi, arguing two sides of an issue for this purpose: “It is intended to help an individual gain a deeper understanding of an issue by forcing him or her to consider it from the angle of his opponent, which may serve either to strengthen his or her argument or to help the debaters reach compromise.”

In its dynamic and dramatic presentation of conflict, Kaysen’s narrative might be compared to Douglass’s slave narrative, or to the first bestseller of American autobiography, the captivity genre, specifically Mary Rowlandson’s (from the late 17th century). The Indian captivity story provided European readers with an experience of the others around them, of savagery, so-called; of difference. In that sense, it reads something like a travelogue, a journey into the wilderness. It is less about the individual and more about what she encounters. What I find particularly interesting, and haunting, in the case of Rowlandson is what we see at the end. When she returns, thanks (as her narrative emphasizes, must emphasize) to the providence of God, she indicates that she can’t sleep well. She has been returned, but not fully restored: she writes, “it is otherwise with me.” Her experience with the other leaves her otherwise. Another way to view this: she undergoes a transformation, a sort of initiation into an identity that is about loss and gain, about encountering another; about losing a self and finding a self. Remember where we began the course with this understanding of the classic American autobiography: the initiation into an American autobiographical identity, reflected upon in the writing (if not created by the writing), carries ambivalence and ambiguity. As Dinty Moore emphasizes, good conflict is “almost impossible to explain.”

It is great to be home again; but it is also, always, otherwise. I think Kaysen explores and meditates upon that understanding of transformation and identity in her work. Initiation–for example, going from high school to adulthood–is also an interruption. The light by which we see ourselves, as she puts it in her final lines, by way of the painting (note how effectively she uses the ekphrasitc description of the painting to conclude, and to provide a subtle framework for her thoughts): “the fitful, overcast light of life, by which we see ourselves and others only imperfectly, and seldom.”

When reading Annie Dillard, we took as a basic definition of “rhetoric” (and the “rhetorical” nature of any text) the following: every way of seeing is a way of not seeing. This makes sense given Dillard’s emphasis on seeing and on what our seeing can’t see. We could frame another basic definition of rhetoric in this way: an intellectual activity, usually though not exclusively verbal activity, oriented toward action and indeterminacy. The indeterminacy can’t be avoided since action (by the reader: her agreement, assent, belief) is contingent on changing circumstances; but at the same time, that indeterminacy means that the writer (or the rhetor, to use the older term) has a chance, an opportunity to make her case. An argument, in other words, has to be arguable; in order to be convinced, there has to be room for doubt, dispute.

Does Kaysen, then, make her case with you? Is her essay successful, rhetorically speaking? Do you leave the book knowing how she got in there? Or more problematic (as she warns us), do you understand why you aren’t in there?