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”


The Rhetoric and Poetics of Emerson’s Sentences

Some Critical Insight on the Rhetoric of Emerson’s Sentences:

David Robinson, a scholar of Emerson, provides an insightful critical reading of the ways Emerson’s essays work–which is also to say, the way Emerson works the reader through the essays. This can help us grasp Emerson’s philosophy of the essay, while moving us out to a broader understanding of the rhetorical effects (and effectiveness) of essays–our focal point in the next section of the course.

Here is what Robinson writes about Emerson’s “Experience” in his book Emerson and The Conduct of Life: Pragmatism and Ethical Purpose in the Later Work.

The pattern of continual doubling back, in which every new idea or perspective develops its opposite, recurs even here, when it seems as if the problem of alienation had been settled by dismissing it as frivolous. Each step toward resolution in “Experience” generates a further complication. The hidden negation revealed by each successive affirmation forces the essay into successive turns of direction. The structure of the essay’s argument thus reflects the structure of the essay’s subject. The structure of “Experience” is the structure of experience.  [63-64]

Robinson’s point is that Emerson’s apparent contradictions in the midst of his essays–this is something he is known for, and often blamed for, the lack of consistency–entail a rhetorical purpose. They are rather complications: ways that he pursues the complexity of the experience, and the thinking, that he is after. Here, then, is how Robinson characterizes the nature of an Emerson essay as a version of what Jeff Porter calls “thought thinking”:

The tensions in Emerson’s thought are apparent when one attempts to specify his intellectual position in a given essay, but to write such an essay off as contradictory misses a larger value, its ability to take the reader into an exemplary act of thinking…. They emphasize the living out of ideas. [12-13]

We will see this at work in “Quotation and Originality,” where Emerson pursues a deliberate contradiction of his earlier and more famous essay on originality, “Self-Reliance.” Or rather, pursues a seeming contradiction. Or rather, shows thought and ideas to emerge out of differences that somehow relate. Emerson enacts a counterargument–a deliberate contradiction that serves a rhetorical purpose–and does so in an argument for the necessity of ideas always to be countered. Or, to use one of the keywords of that essay: recomposed.

Some Critical and Practical Insights on the Poetics of Emerson’s sentences:

[1]F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), p. 65

“The sentence was his unit, as he recognized when confessing sadly to Carlyle (1838) that his paragraphs were only collections of ‘infinitely repellent particles.’ It is significant that he said the same thing when reflecting on society as an ‘imperfect union’:  ‘Every man is an infinitely repellent orb, and holds his individual being on that condition.’ The sentence was the inevitable unit for the man who could say, ‘A single thought has no limit to its value.’ He was at his best when he could give both release and embodiment to one of his thoughts in a plastic image; but though he talked about the unexampled resources of metaphor and symbol, his staple device was analogy. As he said, ‘All thinking is analogizing, and it is the use of life to learn metonymy.’”


[2]Robert D. Richardson, First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process (2009), pp. 55-57.

“He liked sentences that had a little bite or pop, a flash-point, and he had several different ways of achieving this effect, which we may distinguish as the whip-crack, the back-flip, the brass ring (hole in one), and the mousetrap.”

Whip-crack sentence: the final word/phrase makes the sentence snap.

“…something which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me, nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me, and leaves no scar.”

Back-flip sentence: energy comes from a surprising reversal, putting the verbal energy at end, like German puts verb at end of sentence.

“Every hero becomes a bore at last.”

“Temperament puts all divinity to rout.”

This reversal can take the form of the subject of the sentence being delayed or lost–contrary to grammatical norms. For example this one from “Experience”: “Like a bird which alights nowhere, but hops perpetually from bough to bough, is the Power which abides in no man and in no woman, but for a moment speaks from this one, and for another moment from that one” (CW 3: 34).

Brass ring: come up with unforgettable phrase that remain in English ever since.

“Hitch your wagon to a star.”

“The eye is the first circle.”

Mouse-trap sentence: baited with Latinate abstraction and sprung with plain Anglo-Saxon.

“A foolish consistency is the hobogblin of little minds.”

“…and the true romance which the world exists to realize, will be the transformation of genius into practical power.”

Hearing and Seeing Emerson’s rhythm:

I have lately been hearing a certain rhythm and tone of Emerson’s sentence-poetics, and in particular the devastating sentence from Experience that follows the revelation of the death of his son, in the rhythm of the Bon Iver song “Holocene.” We will be exploring later in the course the poetics of voice and style in essay writing. This is toward some initial grasp of that, how with Emerson and what he described as the “infinitely repellent particles” of his sentences we need to grasp not just what they say but how they sound. For Emerson, the philosophy (the idea, the sentiment, the argument, the “intellect”) is conveyed not just through the sentences, but in them. The sentences in “Experience,” it seems to me, offer syntactical and poetic renditions of: surprise, provocation, temperament, balance, mediation. They move us through the series of the essay, much as he argues we move with these ideas through the series and surfaces of life.

Here is the sentence, rendered with breaks to notice the rhythm and repetition we can hear:

So is it with this calamity:

it does not touch me:

some thing which I fancied was a part of me,

which could not be torn away without tearing me,

nor enlarged without enriching me,

falls off from me,

and leaves no scar