- Poetry and Pragmatism by Richard Poirier
Faber, 228 pp, £20.00, November 1992, ISBN 0 571 16617 2
Richard Poirier, now in his middle sixties, seems to me perhaps the most eminent of our living literary critics, at least in the United States. He has a central position in contemporary American letters, as the editor of Raritan, the best of our quarterly reviews, and as the presiding spirit of the Library of America, the definitive publisher of the classic texts of the national literature. His own books chart much of the development in American criticism during the last three decades, from The Comic Sense of Henry James (1960) and A World Elsewhere (1966), through a middle phase in The Performing Self (1971) and Norman Mailer (1972), on to the major study of Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing (1977), and culminating in The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections (1987) and Poetry and Pragmatism (1992), now belatedly under review. More perhaps than anyone else, Poirier has led the fierce revival of Ralph Waldo Emerson that has proceeded from about 1965 to the present moment. Though I am going to lament Poirier’s drive to obscure the truth that Emerson essentially was a religious writer, akin to other gnostics ancient and modern, I begin by acknowledging a debt to the example of Richard Poirier. In a bad time he continues to represent what is strongest in his nation’s critical intelligence, and he yields nothing to mere fashion or to the ideology of the politicised academic rabblement. He is precisely what Emerson meant by ‘the American scholar’, the ‘single candle’ that might yet illuminate all men and all women.
Poirier’s early study of Henry James through The Portrait of a Lady already urges us to think of Isabel Archer ‘as an Emersonian Becky Sharp’ who chooses to marry a parody of Emerson’s transcendentalist, and only then sees her error. The seed of all Poirier is in one prophetic paragraph that exalts American literary nationalism:
The connection between James and Emerson is worth attention because ... the idealistic and romantic attitudes towards experience which are to be found in Emerson’s essay are observable as well in the whole body of significant American fiction from Melville and Hawthorne to Faulkner. The relationship between James and Emerson is important within the larger fact that both of them subscribe to attitudes which are discernibly American, regardless of whether the literature derives from New England, New York, the South or the West. It has often been said that Isabel Archer is an imitation of George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, but it is apparent from all the novels of James which have no resemblance to Middlemarch, and from their Emersonian echoes, that The Portrait of a Lady could have brought the theme of aspiration to the point it does without the help of George Eliot.
That Isabel Archer’s idealism is Emersonian is indisputable, even if a reader may wonder why Henry James was so ungenerous when he wrote about Middlemarch. In retrospect, Poirier’s book on James seems largely a prelude to the much more powerful A World Elsewhere, which established its author’s critical importance. Subtitled ‘The Place of Style in American Literature’, A World Elsewhere defines Emerson’s style as ‘his projected presence in the rhythms and vocabularies of his prose’ and finds a triumph of that style in the most notorious of all Emersonian epiphanies, the ‘transparent eye-ball’ passage in Nature’s first chapter:
Standing on the bare ground, – my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space. – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance.
Rather curiously, the Poirier of A World Elsewhere remarked of this that ‘Emerson’s opposition to conventional systems prevents his appealing for support to any realities constituted outside his own language.’ Emerson, with his vast affinity for esoteric spiritualities, might have wondered at that, but I would set aside Poirier’s early scepticism in gratitude for a grand sentence that cheered me up greatly in 1966, and delights me still: ‘Emerson in many respects is American literature, both by virtue of the themes and images of which he is its storehouse and because of the exciting ways in which the impossible ambitions he has for his writing often fail, but only just barely, of being realised.’
Poirier now regards this as far too modest an assertion: Emerson in Poetry and Pragmatism is the strongest American writer, indeed the American Shakespeare or Montaigne. It fascinates me to see how Emerson came to possess Poirier, a possession partly caused by the critic’s participation in the ferment of 1967-70, the background to the embattled essays of The Performing Self, for me the most problematic of his books. Here Norman Mailer briefly displaced Emerson at the centre, with An American Dream and Why Are We In Vietnam? joining the Beatles as exemplary manifestations of ‘the phenomenon of performance’. The best chapter in Norman Mailer, published a year later, is the long concluding meditation called ‘The Minority Within’, where Mailer is praised for his honesty in not evading ‘those feelings, expressions, possibilities in the material that are perhaps incommensurate with the effect being striven for’. Whether the Mailer of Harlot’s Ghost still deserves that salute must seem dubious to the author of Poetry and Pragmatism, who found his own way back to Emerson in his study of Robert Frost, the avowed disciple of Emerson among major modern American poets. Certainly the Poirier of A World Elsewhere returns exuberantly in Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing, a superb instance of close reading as well as of American critical continuity with the spirit of Emerson and of William James, with whom Poirier will continue to pair Emerson down to the present. I sadly observe that the composite Emerson/William James bothers me in Poetry and Pragmatism, where sometimes Emerson (as I conceive him) yields to Poirier’s Pragmatic duo. In the Frost book, Emerson essentially is the sceptical essayist of ‘Experience’ rather than the visionary essayist of ‘Self-Reliance’ or the near-nihilist sage of The Conduct of Life. Poirier better than most knows that there are several Emersons, but he wants an Emerson as pugnacious and sceptical as himself, and he gets one. In the study of Frost, Poirier’s Emerson is the most appropriate version of the American Montaigne, particularly because he is very close to Frost’s Emerson.
I don’t expect that Poirier’s study of Frost will be surpassed, but even it is most important as an entry into Poirier’s major works, The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections and Poetry and Pragmatism, which need to be read together, if only because the more recent book would be hard to understand without its precursor. The Renewal of Literature associates ‘pragmatism’ with the action of literary troping, a surprising move on Poirier’s part, particularly when we discover that ‘Emersonian pragmatism’, for Poirier, is what generally we call ‘nihilism’. Emerson’s version of the God within disappears in his disciple Poirier:
The human desire to make its presence known to itself and to the world, to make a difference to and in the world – must it not, even in its original muteness, have expected that there really was something waiting to be discovered, something ‘inside’ that no other creature possessed? Exactly at this point pragmatism reveals its tough-mindedness as against the tender-minded who want to bring into the story a necessary God and a necessary soul. A pragmatist, by which I mean some version of Emerson, might have to use the words ‘God’ or ‘soul’, but would go on to suppose, as I do, that there was in fact really nothing outside to depend on and nothing inside either, nothing except the desire that there should be more than nothing.
After that, the surprise fades when the final chapter of these ‘Emersonian reflections’ is called ‘Writing Off the Self’, a wonderfully disenchanted meditation where we are given a new American sublime, one ‘experienced precisely by the relaxed indifference of the will’. One can begin to wonder just how Poirier’s Emerson differs from Francis Crick, who genially insinuates that the will is merely another nerve cell. Crick’s ‘astonishing hypothesis’ would meet Poirier’s version of the pragmatic test, but I do not think that Emerson (or Wallace Stevens) is ever so absolute a reductionist. Arguing with reductionists always seems to me both difficult and useless; the better argument goes on within the reductionists themselves. Poirier, sometimes very subtly, argues more with himself in Poetry and Pragmatism than ever before, which is why it is his best book, even if its ‘Emerson’ is an endless eccentric, unlike the Emerson who longed endlessly to speak to the Central Man. Emerson on the soul is slippery enough, but interpreted by Poirier the sage becomes slipperiness itself:
There is, from Emerson, an inferable story or narrative of soul, even if it is an open-ended one. Soul repeatedly finds itself in a circle, a circle which is already one of its creations, one of its texts, one of the governing principles that it has helped bring, or is in the act of bringing, to consciousness. Each such circle takes its shape, he says, on ‘the great deep’, which is an equivalent, as I understand it, of Emersonian mind or genius or over-soul.
That ‘great deep’ is Emerson’s trope for what the gnostics called the pneuma or ‘spark’, a final fact within Emerson that was no part of the created world. Unlike Poirier’s, Emerson’s moods often deviated from pragmatism. In his frequent transcendental moods, our grandfather Emerson believed that what was best and oldest in him was ‘part or particle of God’. Certainly Emerson knew that this was trope, but he knew also much that was beyond trope, thus failing Poirier’s pragmatic test. Ecstasy is an Emersonian mood antithetical to Poirierian nihilism; Poirier’s rigorous writing off (of) the self sends me back, by recoil, to Stephen Whicher’s simplified but accurate three-stage model for Emerson’s spiritual career: transcendental self-reliance; sceptical experience; nihilistic fate and power. True, the three phases mix and mingle at every moment, but the tendency is as Whicher outlined it: towards the abyss. There may be two or three or four steps, according to the genius of each, Emerson observed in a late notebook, but for every seeing soul, he added, there were finally just two facts: ‘I and the Abyss.’ Poirier pragmatically makes the two facts one. Certainly that gives us an Emerson eminently suitable for a Western world drifting towards millennium, and Poirier manifests admirable style in so pragmatising his Emerson, particularly after he tells us that this means troping his Emerson.
Poetry and Pragmatism, then, might be called a dialectical lyric of a rather severe sort. It has little (or nothing) to do with Richard Rorty’s influential post-pragmatism but stems from the Maileresque performing self and from Frost’s appropriation of the fate-and-power Emerson of The Conduct of Life. Poirier tells us that, for his Emersonian pragmatist, ‘there cannot be a crisis of authority which is not also the occasion for celebration and release,’ which reminds us of Poirier’s stance during the student uprisings of 1969. Yet that is hardly his position now, a quarter-century later, as he confronts the absolute disappearance of authority in our universities and in literary studies in particular. With a Frostian, casual shrug, Poirier emphasises that we were mistaken in ascribing the potential for authority either to literature or to its interpretation:
And while there is some healthy scepticism currently at work in criticism, especially as directed against literature’s claims to transcendence or the incorporation of values, that scepticism needs also to be directed at the language of criticism itself and at its claims to large significance. Literature, including criticism, exists in time, but fortunately it does not exist all of the time. Literature exists only when it is being read by someone, which is not often, not for long, and not by very many. Maybe it is at most a stalling for time.
This has a wry charm, perhaps a wisdom, and is doubtless pragmatic, but is it at all Emersonian? ‘The intellect is stimulated by the statement of truth in a trope, and the will by clothing the laws of life in illusions. But the unities of Truth and of Right are not broken by the disguise.’ That is the darker Emerson of ‘Illusions’ in The Conduct of Life, yet as always he asserts extraordinary values. Whatever pragmatisms he fostered, Poirier’s included, Emerson was not stalling for time. Shrewd and vitalistic, perhaps he was lying against time, like all gnostics, but that is a very different enterprise. The Emerson I have read incessantly these last thirty years is more unnerving even than Poirier’s, and yet moves us towards a vision, rather than to a Frostian ‘momentary stay against confusion’. Since I feel more affinity for Poirier than for any other contemporary Emersonian, I have to address the puzzle of how our Emersons can be so different. Is there, with so slippery an aphorist as Emerson, any way of establishing a centre to him? Both of us seem to locate it in the same area, in Emerson’s equivocal attitude towards the largest of all instances of ‘genius’, Shakespeare’s plays, but even here we reach antithetical conclusions. Emerson was a great but wildly uneven literary critic: he judged the fictions of his walking-companion Hawthorne to be good for nothing, and he discovered splendours in the poetry of the younger William Ellery Channing that are invisible to everyone else. Yet I prefer Emerson on Shakespeare to most other critics, especially now, when the rabblement of New Historicists are reducing Shakespeare to only another manifestation of the ‘social energies’ of the English Renaissance. Poirier shares with the rabblement a fondness for Foucault, but Emerson superbly is irreconcilable with the savage reductionist of ‘the death of the author’. No one else states Shakespeare’s uniqueness with Emerson’s persuasive force, as here in Representative Men:
Shakespeare is as much out of the category of eminent authors, as he is out of the crowd. He is inconceivably wise, the others, conceivably. A good reader can in a sort nestle into Plato’s brain, and think from thence; but not into Shakespeare’s. We are still out of doors. For executive faculty, for creation, Shakespeare is unique. No man can imagine it better. He was the farthest reach of subtlety compatible with an individual self, – the subtlest of authors, and only just within the possibility of authorship. With this wisdom of life, is the equal endowment of imaginative and of lyric power. He clothed the creatures of his legend with form and sentiments, as if they were people who had lived under his roof, and few real men have left such distinct characters as these fictions. And they spoke in language as sweet as it was fit. Yet his talents never seduced him into an ostentation, nor did he harp on one string. An omnipresent humanity co-ordinates all his faculties. Give a man of talents a story to tell, and his partiality will presently appear. He has certain observations, opinions, topics, which have some accidental prominence, and which he disposes all to exhibit. He crams this part, and starves that other part, consulting not the fitness of the thing, but his fitness and strength. But Shakespeare has no peculiarity, no importunate topic, but all is duly given; no veins, no curiosities; no cow-painter, no birdfancier, no mannerist is he: he has no discoverable egotism: the great he tells greatly, the small, subordinately. He is wise without emphasis or assertion; he is strong as nature is strong, who lifts the land into mountain slopes without effort, and by the same rule as she floats a bubble in the air, and likes as well to do the one as the other. This makes that equality of power in farce, tragedy, narrative, or love-songs, a merit so incessant; that each reader is incredulous of the perception of other readers.
Emerson catches the precise way in which Shakespeare’s difference in degree from all other writers becomes a difference in kind. ‘We are still out of doors,’ foreign to Shakespeare’s brain. He is ‘only just within the possibility of authorship’, because beyond comparison, and so universal in appeal (except evidently to New Historicists) ‘that each reader is incredulous of the perception of other readers.’ And yet Emerson wants more, even if he cannot quite name the desire:
Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, Chaucer, saw the splendour of meaning that plays over the visible world; knew that a tree had another use than for apples, and corn another than for meal, and the ball of the earth, than for tillage and roads: that these things bore a second and finer harvest to the mind, being emblems of its thoughts, and conveying in all their natural history a certain mute commentary on human life. Shakespeare employed them as colours to compose his picture. He rested in their beauty; and never took the step which seemed inevitable to such genius; namely, to explore the virtue which resides in these symbols, and imparts this power, – What is that which they themselves say? He converted the elements, which waited on his command, into entertainments. He was master of the revels to mankind. Is it not as if one should have, through majestic powers of science, the comets given into his hand, or the planets and their moons, and should draw them from their orbits to glare with the municipal fireworks on a holiday night, and advertise in all towns, ‘very superior pyrotechny this evening!’ Are the agents of nature, and the power to understand them, worth no more than a street serenade or the breath of a cigar’? One remembers again the trumpet-text in the Koran. – ‘The heavens and the earth, and all that is between them, think ye we have created them in jest?’ As long as the question is of talent and mental power, the world of men has not his equal to show. But when the question is to life, and its materials, and its auxiliaries, how does he profit me? What does it signify? It is but a Twelfth Night, or Midsummer Night’s Dream, or a Winter Evening’s tale. What signifies another picture more or less? The Egyptian verdict of the Shakespeare Societies comes to mind, that he was a jovial actor and manager. I can not marry this fact to his verse. Other admirable men have led lives in some sort of keeping with their thought but this man in wide contrast. Had be been less, had he reached only the common measure of great authors, of Bacon, Milton, Tasso, Cervantes, we might leave the fact in the twilight of human fate; but that this man of men, he who gave to the science of mind a new and larger subject than had ever existed, and planted the standard of humanity some furlongs forward into chaos, that he should not he wise for himself, – it must even go into the world’s history, that the best poet led an obscure and profane life, using his genius for the public amusement.
My favourite sentence there is the very American: ‘Are the agents of nature, and the power to understand them, worth no more than a street serenade, or the breath of a cigar?’ The point is hardly Puritan, since Emerson goes on to deplore the priests and prophets, whose ‘half-views’ are contrary to Shakespeare’s, and so only reflect ‘half-men’ as well, leading to a conclusion that irritates the anti-Emersonians: ‘The world still wants its poet-priest, a reconciler who shall not trifle with Shakespeare the player, nor shall grope in graves with Swedenborg the mourner, but who shall see, speak, and act, with equal inspiration.’
This only can be Emerson’s Central Man, confessedly in the optative mood. Walt Whitman momentarily seemed just that to Emerson, but faded fast (in the master’s view). What are we to make of a critic who longs for a poetry never yet written, and never to come (as he himself well knows). I tend to see it as Emerson’s tribute to the divine possibilities of the human; Poirier sees otherwise, and says that for Emerson the question of genius essentially is an irony: ‘Apparently we are to imagine a criticism which finds genius only after the demolition of texts, the disappearance of writing, the collapse into itself of the historicity of composition.’
Emerson, as I read him, does not collapse the writing of Lear and Hamlet in any way, but rather sees that Shakespeare is the greatest of contingencies for us. In Emersonian theory, we ought to contain Shakespeare, but pragmatically Emerson realises that Shakespeare contains us. That for Emerson, is the true Fall of Man, that literary history should he the lengthened shadow of William Shakespeare. Poirier’s pragmatism, unlike Emerson’s, denies any anxious relation to earlier creations, texts or truths. Emerson preaches against such anxiety, but his delight in being slippery never reaches Poirieresque dimensions. He does not write ‘always from the inside out’, as Poirier insists, because he sometimes allows himself to be tendentious, and has a design upon us, his readers. Poirier wants his Emerson to be casual and tentative, because he fears that Emerson otherwise will be like T.S. Eliot or Carlyle, dogmatic and aggressive. Well, Emerson is a very aggressive writer, though never dogmatic, and though he can he tentative enough, I have never found a casual moment in him. It fascinates and grieves me that Poirier, the critic who loves Emerson best, certainly the only reader who finds Emerson to be of near-Shakespearean eminence, is compelled so to despiritualise him as to destroy the palpably religious temper of the great essays. No religious writer ever has been at once so heterodox and so exoteric as Emerson. To lose Emerson as prophet of the American Religion is very nearly to lose Emerson. Poirier is too strong to yield to current fashion; temperament governs his vision of Emerson. That perhaps after all is what is most Emersonian about Richard Poirier.