Emerson and the Umpires of taste

It’s not particular fashionable to admit that I love Emerson. Indeed, for as long as I’ve been in literary studies, Emerson and the other Romantics have been the arch-enemies that others have sought to dismiss, disparage, demote, decenter, damn, and deconstruct. Among other things. As an undergraduate this had a religious and an aesthetic cast. On a religious scale,Ralph Waldo Emerson Emerson was a heretic who could say in all seriousness that poets are liberating gods, that we are part and parcel of God, and that he was a transcendatal eyeball (or something like that) creating the universe through his imagination. And we all thought Mitt Romney’s Mormonism might be just a little bit odd. What need the consolations of Christ when the advent of the world came through the exercise of the individual imagination, consort of the Oversoul?


On an aesthetic scale, Emerson and the romantics were merely gauche, optimistic naifs willing to blather on about the state of their own souls when what was really needed was the hard and broken nose of modernism, which viewed the soul of the poet with only a little less scepticism than the machinations of the modern world. Both strains of anti-Romnticism came together in the aesthetic pieties and the pious aesthetics of T.S. Eliot. Odd mix for me, but I’d still rather read Eliot’s Waste Land than Emerson’s Poetry. But, too, I’d rather read any one of Emerson’s essays than any essay that Eliot ever wrote. They are a poetry of their own, and by that I mean they move me and change the way I see the world in some of the same ways that Eliot’s poetry moves and changes me.

(Unfashionable admission number two–I became a scholar of English during a semester in which I spent hours memorizing lines of T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land to deliver as part of an oral interpretation class. Who says it’s not a song?)

(Unfashiongable admission number three–I admit to the perversity of liking equally and in different ways the long, engorged, and lusty lines of breathy Walt Whitman and the Puritan and technical severity of Eliot’s poetry that tends to exist only on the page. The belief that you can only like one kind of thing, that we can’t like poetries that are polar opposites is, in the words of Emerson, a contradiction that is the hobgoblin on little minds. Read much. Love much. Contain multitudes.)

Which brings me to the “umpires of taste” who are the target of the first line of Emerson’s essay “The Poet.” Obviously Emerson has in mind the critics of his age, but my general interest is the way that Emerson looks at and understands reading. The umpires of reading are seeking to create rules for reading and writing, to arrive at a proper reading. What is the right thing to like, what is the best thing to read, what is the best way to read, what is the proper understanding of a text. This is the kind of reading that Emerson derides when he priviledges writing over reading, when he dismisses the reading of books for the making of books. He is, of course, suspicious of reading in general, as “The American Scholar” makes plain. However, there is a kind of reading that is a kind of poetry. Indeed, it’s not to much to say that writing is a kind of reading, and that reading is a kind of writing, if we understand that both can require the agency of the imagination.

There is, of course, a kind of reading that is purely instrumental. The gaining, processing, and storing of information. Too often, this is the kind of reading that we encourage in school, and the kind of reading that we think is the primary and first point of reading. Any other kind of reading only comes later, or is suspect if it doesn’t subject itself to this. The umpires of taste sniff at the inspiration, the personal connections, the new insights that readers bring to a text, sniff and subject such readings to the rules and requirements of reading properly.

Emerson reverses this academic privileging of analysis under reposed and quieted emotion.

“An imaginative book renders us much more service at first, by stimulating us through its tropes, than afterward when we arrive at the precise sense of the author. I think nothing is of any value in books excepting the transcendental and extraordinary. If a man is inflamed and carried away by his thought, to that degree that he forgets the authors and the public and heeds only this one dream that holds him like an insanity, let me read his paper, and you may have all the arguments and histories and criticism.”

Amen and Amen. The Discipline of English is often not ill-named a discipline, since it’s goal can often end up being to transform these wild and boggy responses to the chant of the universe to automatic responsa, with criticism as dull as memorized prayers.

Ok, I’ll be more composed and analytical tomorrow. But first I had to say that Emerson does a service by getting at why we chose to read in the first place. Before we had to read in order to write a disseration, or publish an essay, or teach a class. When we were lovers plain and simple.

I hope that isn’t the same thing as saying before we grew up.

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2 thoughts on “Emerson and the Umpires of taste

  1. Emerson is one of the building blocks of this nation. Look at the third world countries…that is what it used to be like for people before people like Emerson brought it out of that dismal situation.

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