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”


Emerson’s Essays: experimental experience

Emerson’s “American Scholar” (published individually in 1837) and “Circles” (1841, from his first book of essays, Essays: First Series) are not entirely essays about the essay. But they come close to that focus, if somewhat obliquely (or to use some of his own geometric imagery, tangentially), since both essays do focus in on how this writer, reader, and thinker views the meaning and method of writing, reading, and thinking. To echo Emerson from “American Scholar,” we see Emerson, the very type of scholar he is trying to redefine in that essay (and originally, a Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard’s graduation), in his “school.” In “American Scholar,” it is a school in which “creative reading” is as important as “creative writing,” but also one in which schools can be problematic, books can be too influential, read wrongly. In “Circles,” shifting the focus a bit more broadly to the method of thinking, we see that thinking as such, not just reading and writing, is necessarily experimental if it is to be natural. Only dead books and dead ideas are finished.

Given what we now know of the essay genre, of its origins in experiment and trial, essay as continuing process, not finished product, I would suggest the appropriateness of understanding Emerson to say that all of our thought, and the reading and writing that (for him, as for any scholar) primarily conveys that thought is necessarily essayistic: it is “thought thinking” (Porter’s phrase) which sounds a lot like Emerson’s famous phrase, “Man thinking.” Thus Emerson writes essays about his essaying.

Here’s the difficulty, and the creative potential, of doing so: of presenting and performing or dramatizing in an essay the experimental experience shaping that and any essay. In his journal in 1839, Emerson writes the following caution that reads to me not unlike Montaigne’s preface to his reader.

I need hardly say to any one acquainted with my thoughts that I have no System. When I was quite young I fancied that by keeping a Manuscript Journal by me, over whose pages I wrote a list of the great topics of human study, as, Religion, Poetry, Politics, Love, &c in the course of a few years I should be able to complete a sort of Encyclopaedia containing the net value of all the definitions at which the world had yet arrived. But at the end of a couple of years my Cabinet Cyclopaedia though much enlarged was no nearer to a completeness than on its first day. Nay somehow the whole plan of it needed alteration nor did the following months promise any speedier term to it than the foregoing. At last I discovered that my curve was a parabola whose arcs would never meet…. (JMN 7: 302)

Emerson fails to finish and complete his planned book that would contain all the thought in the world. “American Scholar” and “Circles” suggest that every book–and every writer and every reader and thinker–must fail at completion if it is to be authentic thinking and not the product of a “mere thinker.” And indeed, in the same journal entry, Emerson goes on to suggest that this statement of his failure is indeed rhetorical, is to the very point of his writing:

At last I discovered that my curve was a parabola whose arcs would never meet, and came to acquiesce in the perception that although no diligence can rebuild the Universe in a model by the best accumulation or disposition of details, yet does the World reproduce itself in miniature in every event that transpires, so that all the laws of nature may be read in the smallest fact. So that the truth [sic] speaker may dismiss all solicitude as to the proportion & congruency of the aggregate of his thoughts so long as he is a faithful reporter of particular impressions. (JMN 7: 302-3)

This is where Emerson’s philosophy of thinking and reading, evident in these essays, also turns toward the rhetoric organizing the essays. They are structured as a parabola rather than a curve. Parabola, in the rhetorical tradition, suggests relation through dissimilarity: analogy, allegory metaphor, metonymy are figures that we can associate with it. Here is the entry from Silva Rhetoricae.

Emerson suggests that in failing to keep all his various topics and ideas neatly categorized, separated, in failing to keep them from running over into each other, he succeeds in demonstrating or faithfully reporting the relation among all the particular impressions and smallest facts. The encyclopedia turns out to be wikipedia, all the knowledge in the world, linked and unfinished.

We can think back to Montaigne’s emphasis on “relation,” and his warning that he does not teach, only relates. Emerson also emphasizes relation. Another word for essayistic relation for Emerson is generalization. In fact, at the end of his essay on Montaigne, Emerson identifies the lesson Montaigne taught, or rather, related to him through his reading: “The expansive nature of truth comes to our succor, elastic, not to be surrounded. Man helps himself by larger generalizations. The lesson of life is practically to generalize; to believe what the years and the centuries say, against the hours; to resist the usurpation of particulars; to penetrate to their catholic sense.”

Some questions: How does this rhetoric of circulation and generalization inform his poetics, the sentences and words making up these related paragraphs of his thinking?

If a “faithful” writing of nature must be parabolic, must resist conventional or systematic logic and understanding, how then do we faithfully read such writing? How do we “understand” an Emerson essay? How might we write such an essay?

Finally, does the essay “Experience” continue in this performance and dramatization of the experimental nature of thinking and writing? It is published in 1844, in his second series of Essays, not long after the death of his first son at the age of 5. Conventionally, this essay has been read as a break with Emerson’s earlier philosophy from “American Scholar” and “Circles,” viewed as Emerson turning toward a more tragic view of life, giving up in some manner. Do you see that?

My annotated (somewhat digitally creative) reading of the Emerson texts from this week:


“American Scholar”