More Metonymy: the thread of quotation

The second paragraph in “Quotation and Originality” provides a good example of Emerson’s use of, and philosophical interest in, metonymy–as well as its difference from metaphor. Here is the paragraph:

We prize books, and they prize them most who are themselves wise. Our debt to tradition through reading and conversation is so massive, our protest or private addition so rare and insignificant, – and this commonly on the ground of other reading or hearing, – that, in a large sense, one would say there is no pure originality. All minds quote. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. We quote not only books and proverbs, but arts, sciences, religion, customs, and laws ; nay, we quote temples and houses, tables and chairs by imitation. The Patent-Office Commissioner knows that all machines in use have been invented and re-invented over and over; that the mariner’s compass, the boat, the pendulum, glass, movable types, the kaleidoscope, the railway, the power-loom, etc., have been many times found and lost, from Egypt, China, and Pompeii down; and if we have arts which Rome wanted, so also Rome had arts which we have lost ; that the invention of yesterday of making wood indestructible by means of vapor of coal-oil or paraffine was suggested by the Egyptian method which has preserved its mummy-cases four thousand years.

Metaphor: the warp and woof of every moment, a metaphorical image of weaving, picked up by “thread” and strands–a metaphor we use all the time: the ‘thread’ of an idea in a book or discussion. Emerson’s “thread” here–or as we also could call it, his philosophy, his thesis–is that all ideas and thoughts are effects of quotation because “all minds quote.”

However, the idea of quotation is further elaborated with metonymy, where an idea is represented or discussed by way of language and image that are directly associated with the idea.

Metonymy: the various actions and materials associated quotation: books, reading, writing. And of course, these metonymic associations are particularly relevant to the essayist, certainly Emerson, who spends his life engaging with books as a reader and writer.  Emerson further extends the metonymy to the invention of machines he discusses, reinforcing the idea that all inventions are quotations of previous machines–and the ideas that those machines are based on. In this way Emerson stretches the metonymy (various things associated with the idea of quotation) to the point of metaphor (quoting a chair). But in Emerson’s philosophy of quotation, the invention of a machine or a chair is a real act of quotation (not just a metaphorical one), since ideas circulate through our thinking, reading, and writing.  In fact, I would argue that the very word “invention” here is being directly associated with writing and reading.  We can imagine inventors getting their ideas from books and other texts (blueprints, documents). But even further, I hear Emerson quoting his way back to a much older sense of “invention” from classical rhetoric: to invent means to discover, to come upon an idea. And in the rhetorical tradition, the “invention” of an argument emerges not with an original idea, but through the process of finding it already existing in previous models of thinking and writing that one studies, imitates, adapts.

How can a better grasp of metonymy help us in studying nonfiction and the essay? Metonymy is a figure of speech, just as metaphor is. But in the ways this figure focuses on details and real things associated with the idea, proximate to it (a book and its relation to the act of quotation), we can think of it as both figurative and literal at the same time. The figurative literalism or realism of this rhetorical figure will therefore be of interest in a genre (nonfiction) that wants to represent the world non-fictively. Think of it like a close-up in film. You are looking at the real thing–but in looking that closely, you might also be looking at something you haven’t seen before, something unfamiliar, surprising. This is how metonymy can work in an essay.

We will see more of this at work in Annie Dillard’s writing, a writer who reads and quotes from Emerson.





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”