Monday, October 27, 2008

Emerson, Another Hero of Everyday Aesthetics

Emerson is another hero of everyday aesthetics. In “The American Scholar” he says: “One of these [auspicious] signs [of coming days] is the fact, that the same movement which effected the elevation of what was called the lowest class in the state, assumed in literature a very marked and as benign an aspect. Instead of the sublime and beautiful; the near, the low, the common, was explored and poetized. That, which had been negligently trodden under foot by those who were harnessing and provisioning themselves for long journeys into far countries, is suddenly found to be richer than all foreign parts. The literature of the poor, the feelings of the child, the philosophy of the street, the meaning of household life, are the topics of the time. It is a great stride. It is a sign, — is it not? of new vigor, when the extremities are made active, when currents of warm life run into the hands and the feet. I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provencal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds. What would we really know the meaning of? The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body; — show me the ultimate reason of these matters; show me the sublime presence of the highest spiritual cause lurking, as always it does lurk, in these suburbs and extremities of nature; let me see every trifle bristling with the polarity that ranges it instantly on an eternal law; and the shop, the plough, and the leger, referred to the like cause by which light undulates and poets sing; — and the world lies no longer a dull miscellany and lumber-room, but has form and order; there is no trifle; there is no puzzle; but one design unites and animates the farthest pinnacle and the lowest trench.

This idea has inspired the genius of Goldsmith, Burns, Cowper, and, in a newer time, of Goethe, Wordsworth, and Carlyle. This idea they have differently followed and with various success. In contrast with their writing, the style of Pope, of Johnson, of Gibbon, looks cold and pedantic. This writing is blood-warm. Man is surprised to find that things near are not less beautiful and wondrous than things remote. The near explains the far. The drop is a small ocean. A man is related to all nature. This perception of the worth of the vulgar is fruitful in discoveries.”

This is mainly, as is clear, praise for the avant-garde poetry of his time. (We would call this poetry Romantic…but then Emerson reserves that term for something remote, like Arabia.) He praises this poetry for what it studies: the near, the low, and the common. The poetry was concerned with everyday life, e.g. the “feelings of the child” and “the meaning of household life.” Philosophers however are rare today who would agree that “things near are not less beautiful and wondrous than things remote.” Now of course, even if Emerson were right it would not necessarily follow that the things themselves, i.e. household life, are aesthetic. You can write poetry about feelings of a child or the meaning of household life without finding them beautiful. But one feels that he does find them beautiful: otherwise why go beyond the poets to speak directly about embracing the common and the vulgar.

It might be argued that Emerson is not concerned with aesthetics but with meaning. He wants to see the meaning of “[t]he meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and the gait of the body.” But, certainly all of these things can be experienced aesthetically. Moreover, discovering the meaning of something is not contrary to discovering it aesthetically. The next line makes clear what the meaning is, for Emerson. He finds “the sublime presence of the highest spiritual cause lurking, as always it does lurk, in these suburbs and extremities of nature.” The suburbs and extremities are these vulgar phenomena, the phenomena of everyday life. So God lurks in the vulgar things of everyday life. As Emerson puts it, “one design unites and animates the farthest pinnacle and the lowest trench.” I don't go in for the idea of some sublime lurking spirit, ultimate reasons or a single designer (did I mention I was an atheist?), but I do for the notion of trifles being ripe with meaning, for embracing the common, for finding that things near are no less beautiful than things remote, and even for the idea that this is somehow especially an American task (as implied by the title of his essay, although he mentions only British and German writers)...think of Warhol and Rauschenberg.

1 comment:

David said...

I'm not sure what 'the sublime presence of the highest spiritual cause' actually means, though I approve of it and admire it as sequence of words, but Leddy's enframing and therefore emphasizing of Emerson's linking of so-called high and low reminds me of another Emerson opinion -- 'We are distinct, not separate' -- and makes me wonder to what degree the aesthetic of the everyday has a moral dimension; that is, to what degree, if any, does everyday aesthetics imply entanlgement with others and therefore moral responsibility for others?