The size of writers
“Society has, at all times, the same want, namely of one sane man with adequate powers of expression to hold up each object of monomania in its right relations,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in Representative Men, a collection of seven lectures that he first delivered in 1850. He goes on to describe the situation in strikingly modern terms:
The ambitious and mercenary bring their last new mumbo-jumbo, whether tariff, Texas, railroad, Romanism, mesmerism, or California; and, by detaching the object from its relations, easily succeed in making it seen in a glare; and a multitude go mad about it, and they are not to be reproved or cured by the opposite multitude who are kept from this particular insanity by an equal frenzy on another crotchet. But let one man have the comprehensive eye that can replace this isolated prodigy in its right neighborhood and bearings—the illusion vanishes, and the returning reason of the community thanks the reason of the monitor.
The first half of this passage perfectly captures our current predicament, but the last sentence comes off as a form of wishful thinking that wasn’t true even when Emerson wrote it. The influence of “one sane man,” even if we assume that he exists, can feel meaningless compared to the power of the mob. Writers like to think that their work puts the world in perspective, but they rarely reach anyone outside their own small circle, and even if they change minds, it’s usually only to nudge them in the direction that they were already going.
I read Emerson’s essay on Inauguration Day, when the influence of responsible writers seemed weaker than ever before. In the era of alternative facts, of a free press that is dismissed as the opposition party, and of countless eloquent voices for reason whose arguments ultimately came to nothing, the stock of the public intellectual is at a historic low. But as Emerson reminds us, this isn’t anything new:
The scholar is the man of the ages, but he must also wish with other men to stand well with his contemporaries. But there is a certain ridicule, among superficial people, thrown on the scholars or clerisy…In this country, the emphasis of conversation and of public opinion commends the practical man; and the solid portion of the community is named with significant respect in every circle…Ideas are subversive of social order and comfort, and at last make a fool of the possessor. It is believed, the ordering a cargo of goods from New York to Smyrna, or the running up and down to procure a company of subscribers to set a-going five or ten thousand spindles, or the negotiations of a caucus and the practicing on the prejudices and facility of country people to secure their votes in November—is practical and commendable.
This certainly sounds familiar. There’s something inescapably American about the cult of big business and its corresponding contempt for ideas. And plenty of us have been left with the uncomfortable feeling that maybe ideas do “make a fool of the possessor,” at least when we try to find evidence to the contrary.
The observations that I’ve quoted appear in Emerson’s essay on Goethe, whom he holds up as the epitome of the writer. This is a revealing choice in itself. Goethe was the most practical of artists: Emerson calls him “the philosopher of this multiplicity; hundred-handed, Argus-eyed, able and happy to cope with [the] rolling miscellany of facts and sciences, and by his own versatility to dispose of them with ease…None was so fit to live, or more heartily enjoyed the game.” His cultural presence is diminished these days, but he remains a hugely seductive role model for young people who feel torn between a life in the world and a life of the mind. Goethe was a poet, a novelist, a scientist, a dramatist, and a productive figure in public life, overseeing the construction of mines and running the theater in Weimar. He may have been the most naturally brilliant man who ever lived—he placed first in the psychologist Lewis Terman’s controversial ranking of historical figures by intelligence—and he used his gifts to become the kind of person at forty that everyone dreams of being at twenty. A bright college graduate, brimming with unrealized potential, is a sort of larval Goethe, a Hamlet in embryo, but life has a way of closing off most of those avenues. Goethe, almost uniquely, developed every piece of himself to its fullest. But it’s worth remembering that we only remember his work as a privy councillor because he also happened to write Faust, and he was lucky to be a big fish in a small pond. As Emerson puts it: “He lived in a small town, in a petty state, in a defeated state, and in a time when Germany played no such leading part in the world’s affairs as to swell the bosom of her sons with any metropolitan pride.”
Emerson pretends to be surprised by this fact, but in reality, it’s only in such provincial surroundings that an author can hope to pass as a public figure. In Weimar, Goethe could do everything; in London or Paris, faced with competition from talented men who had nothing on their minds but practical matters, he would have had to be content with being a great writer. Any thinking human being feels small in comparison to Goethe, but when we remember how small he was compared with the world in which he lived, we start to realize that our smallness is all we have in common. At a moment when so many of us feel helpless, we should pay attention to Emerson when he writes: “Goethe teaches courage, and the equivalence of all times; that the disadvantages of any epoch exist only to the faint-hearted. Genius hovers with his sunshine and music close by the darkest and deafest eras.” And he also identifies Goethe’s only true weakness, which was his unwillingness to grasp the limits of action itself:
Mankind have such a deep stake in inward illumination, that there is much to be said by the hermit or monk in defense of his life of thought and prayer. A certain partiality, a headiness and loss of balance, is the tax which all action must pay. Act, if you like—but you do it at your peril. Men’s actions are too strong for them. Show me a man who has acted and who has not been the victim and slave of his action. What they have done commits and enforces them to do the same again. The first act, which was to be an experiment, becomes a sacrament.
Goethe lived a life of extraordinary productivity, but we only care about him—or even Weimar itself—because of what he accomplished when he was alone in his room. And at a time in which blunt, showy gestures and Faustian bargains seem to be valued over the tiny acts of secret courage that writing demands, we should take Emerson’s conclusion to heart: “The measure of action is the sentiment from which it proceeds. The greatest action may easily be one of the most private circumstance.”