Miscellaneous Works:解説・評論・講義:Biography as Re-presentation

Biography as Re-presentation: 
On Emerson's "Representative Men"

Takayuki Tatsumi

『慶應義塾大学日吉紀要 英語英米文学』第10号(1988年8月):71-84頁

Let us start with an examination of what Representative Men (1850) as a book represents in terms of Emerson's chronology. The thing which interests us first is its title, "Representative Men," with its obvious allegiance to Carlyle's Heroes and Hero-Worship. Carlyle suggested in 1845 that Emerson "take an American hero, one whom you really love, and give [us] a History of him, —make an artistic  bronze statue (in good words) of his Life and him!" (Gross 211). Though Emerson had already, in the preceding decades, attempted to portray the ideal hero peculiar to America in a number of essays including "The American Scholar" (1837) and "The Divinity School Address" (1838), Carlyle apparently felt a certain dissatisfaction with Emerson's concept of the hero in these works. What must have dissatisfied Carlyle most is that Emerson did not illustrate his vision with any actual American hero. Therefore, if Emerson had been willing to respond to Carlyle, he might have devoted at least one chapter to a great man of America.


Instead of discussing any American hero, however, Emerson selected for Representative Men Plato, Swedenborg, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Goethe. Paying attention to such a selection, critics like Theodore Gross try to introduce the idea of the transition between an early Emerson as the religious idealist and a later Emerson as the secular pragmatist. We are advised by Gross to recognize the difference between the democratic author of "The American Scholar" or "The Divinity School Address" and the aristocratic author of Representative Men, English Traits (1856), and The Conduct of Life (1860). This interpretation emphasizes Emerson's growing preference for European countries, England among others. And yet, this is a quite superficial analysis, because the early Emerson (to invoke Gross's schema) had already written biographies of John Milton, George Fox, and Edmund Burke—but no American. Since Gross's distinction proves inadequate, we had better uncover how Emerson as an American reads or misreads the life and work of the great men.

It is clear that Emerson was disappointed with every great man he met with the partial exception of Carlyle (Allen 453). In this sense, Carlyle was the only teacher of Emerson. But, as most of the six figures in Representative Men were at once appreciated and depreciated, Carlyle was also to be at once respected and criticized. And it is Emerson's rejection of Carlyle's suggestion of the appropriate hero-portrait that gives us a key to understanding the reason why he entitled the book Representative Men, not American Heroes and Hero-Worship.

What distinguishes Emerson from Carlyle is his lack of worship for the six figures. According to Allen, "the six men were not exactly heroes to him, and he did not worship them, though he admired each for one reason or another and found in each something with which he identified—most with Plato, though almost as much with Montaigne" (452). The Carlylean sense of heroes conflicts with the Emersonian sense of representative men, since the representative men are not the objects of worship. In the essay called "Uses of Great Men," an introduction to representative men, Emerson states: "Men have a pictorial or representative quality, and serve us in the intellect. Behmen and Swedenborg saw that things were representative. Men are also representative; first, of things, and secondly, of ideas" (618). We might well be reminded of his discussion of language in Chapter IV of Nature, in which he determines that "Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts" (20). Accordingly, for Emerson the representative men are also "particular natural facts" which symbolize "particular spiritual facts," that is, ideas. This can be endorsed by the way he selected the six great men: they are selected, not because they are the greatest but because they represent different ideas. Plato represents philosophy, Swedenborg mysticism, Montaigne skepticism, Shakespeare poetry, Napoleon the secular world, and Goethe literature. Emerson further explains: "Man, made of the dust of the world, does not forget his origin; and all that is yet inanimate will one day speak and reason" (619). Here man is only that which used to be inanimate and later is animated by the intermediation of idea. Insofar as idea comes first for Emerson, it is no wonder that man is only thought to represent it. While Carlyle's hero is based upon the concept of great man as an entity, Emerson's representative man is no more than the sign of any idea. Depriving the hero of the individual self, Emerson radically criticizes Carlyle's naive humanism. The following statement would be of great use:
I admire great men of all classes, those who stand for facts, and for thoughts. . . . I like a master standing firm on legs of iron, wellborn, rich, handsome, eloquent, loaded with advantages, drawing all men by fascination into tributaries and supporters of his power. Sword and staff, or talents sword-like or staff-like, carry on the work of the world. But I find him greater, when He can abolish himself, and all heroes, by letting in this element of reason, irrespective of persons; this subtiliser, and irresistible upward force, into our thought, destroying individualism; the power of so great, that the potentate is nothing. (625)
Such a way of thinking corresponds with what Emerson said in "Circles": "The only sin is limitation" (406). To be individual is to confront a limitation. In order to evade the impasse we must cease to be individual, by abolishing ourselves. What is more, Emerson tells us to compromise our egotism and to "be another: not ourselves [thyself], but a Platonist; not a soul, but a Christian; not a naturalist, but a Cartesian; not a poet, but a Shakespearian" (629). To sum up, the decentralization of the individual self provides us with an opportunity to become "another."

With this formula as its background, it is easier for us to read Representative Men. We already know that each biographical chapter is mostly characterized by juxtaposition of appreciation with depreciation. This anatomy of the work can be supported by Emerson's own view of biography manifested in "History": "All history becomes subjective; in other words, there is properly no history; only biography" (241). Emerson's positive and negative criticism of great men is, therefore, the result of biography, which is informed by subjectivity. But, by the same token, writing a biographical world invites Emerson to become another, "Not-I," abolishing himself.


In this sense, chapter II, "Plato; or, the Philosopher," can be said to reflect the biographer's own image. "This leads me to that central figures, . . . whose biography he has likewise so labored, that the historic facts are lost in the light of Plato's mind. Socrates and Plato are the double star, which the most powerful instruments will not entirely separate. . . . he was able . . . to avail himself of the wit and weight of Socrates, to which unquestionably his own debt was great; and these derived again their principal advantage from the perfect art of Plato" (649 and 652). By writing a biography, Plato becomes Socrates, and, by being written about in the biography, Socrates becomes Plato. Now it is not so much the transcendental vision of the hero as the form of biography that makes someone become another. As Gay Allen pointed out, Emerson most closely identifies with Plato, and by force of this identification Plato the philosopher is transformed into Plato the biographer. Now Plato presents us with his Janus-faced image, which was already inherent within the double role of Socrates:
The rare coincidence, in one ugly body, of the droll and the martyr, the keen street and market debater with the sweetest saint known to any history at that time, had forcibly struck the mind of Plato, so capacious of these contrasts; and the figure of Socrates, by a necessity, placed itself in the foreground of the scene, as the fittest dispenser of the intellectual treasure he had to communicate. (652)
This chapter is, thus, the epitome of the whole book.

As for Swedenborg, it is not difficult for us to suppose that Emerson must have felt sympathy with his theory of "correspondence":
In the first volume of the "Animal Kingdom," he broaches the subject in a remarkable note.—
"In our doctrine of Representations and Correspondences, we shall treat of both these symbolical and typical resemblances, and of the astonishing things which occur, I will not say, in the living body only, but throughout nature, and which correspond so entirely to supreme and spiritual things, that one would swear that the physical world was purely symbolical of the spiritual world; . . ." The correspondence between thoughts and things henceforward occupied him. "The very organic form resembles the end inscribed on it." A man is in general, and in particular, an organized justice or injustice, selfishness or gratitude. (673 and 675)
"The correspondence between thoughts and things" reminds us of Emerson's own theory of the correspondence between spirit and natural facts. However, he is later forced to criticize Swedenborg, mainly because the theologian "fastens each natural object to a theological notion;—a horse signifies carnal understanding; a tree, perception; the moon, faith, a cat means this, an ostrich, that; an artichoke, this other" (676). We may guess that Emerson here perceives the great danger his own system might have fallen into. He rather appreciates Swedenborg's moral insight, which "entitles him to a place . . . among the lawgivers of mankind" (677). Swedenborg as the mystic gives way to Swedenborg as the lawgiver of mankind.

The biography of Shakespeare begins with the repetition and development of Emersonian anti-individualism of the great hero: "Great genial power, one would almost say, consists in not being original at all, and suffering the spirit of the hour to pass unobstructed through the mind" (711). The recognition of this power, which recalls "negative capability," leads Emerson to make the most of Shakespeare's talent for experimenting on "the mass of old plays" (712). This does not mean, nonetheless, that Shakespeare was a traditionalist but that he was only familiar with the relativity of all originality (Cf. 715). What matters most is his "wisdom of life and imaginative and lyric power" (722). And it is this power of expression, "or, of transferring the inmost truth of things into music and verse," that makes him the type of the poet as well as "a main production of the globe," that is, the object of natural history (723). Emerson succeeds in explaining the way the genius is constructed:
It is easy to see that what is best written or done by genius, in the world, was no man's work, but came by wide social labor, when a thousand wrought like one, sharing the same impulse. Our Old English Bible is a wonderful specimen of the strength and music of the English language. But it was not made by one man, or at one time; but centuries and churches brought it to perfection. There never was a time when there was not some translation existing. (715)
To be brief, Emerson interprets genius in light of what Jonathan Culler might have called the conglomerate of "literary competence." Such a frame of reference naturally carries us to the problem of genius and literary historical convention. Nevertheless, we are previously alarmed not to introduce the simple concept of "history" to the text of Emerson, because "all history becomes so subjective that there is properly no history but only biography." By the way, can we so easily grasp "biography" in the Emersonian sense, if we encounter the following passages?
Shakespeare is the only biographer of Shakespeare; and even he can tell nothing, except to the Shakespeare in us; that is, to our most apprehensive and sympathetic hour. He cannot step from off his tripod, and give us anecdotes of his inspirations. (720)
As far as it is not one but Shakespeare who is privileged to write the biography of Shakespeare, Emerson's logic actually denies neither history nor biography; he only admits the possibility of autobiography. If, then, what he writes in The Representative Men may not be the "biography" of the six figures, it must be called the "autobiography" of someone—of Emerson himself most plausibly.

The next chapter on Napoleon Bonaparte might be a nice illustration of the point. The author writes:
Every one of the million readers of anecdotes, or memoirs, or lives of Napoleon, delights in the page, because he studies in it his own history. Napoleon is thoroughly modern, and, at the highest point of his fortunes, has the very spirit of the newspapers. He is no saint,—to use his own word, "no capuchin," and he is no hero, in the high sense. The man in the street finds in him the qualities and powers of other men in the street. He finds him, like himself, by birth a citizen, who, by very ineligible merits, arrived at such a commanding position, that he could indulge all those tastes which the common man possesses, but is obliged to conceal and deny; . . . (728)
To read the biography of Napoleon, then, is to read into it the autobiography of the reader himself. In this respect, we may suppose that Emerson kept in mind Napoleon, when he affirmed in the opening chapter anti-individualism and the chance to become another. Napoleon surpasses the limit of individuality and becomes another just by "adapting to the masses around him" (728), so that he monopolizes and usurps other minds in the paradoxical sense. The author himself already described the ideal hero as the "monarch, who gives a constitution to his people; a pontiff, who preaches the equality of souls, and releases his servants from their barbarous homages; an emperor, who can spare his empire" (625-26). In consequences, Napoleon is none other than "the man of the world," because he becomes, by way of abolishing himself, the compendium of democratic society in the nineteenth century. Napoleon becomes everyone else—this formula strongly underwrites the possibility that any biographer replaces the object of the biography in question, transforming biography necessarily into autobiography.

While Napoleon reflected the external life of the nineteenth century, it is Goeth who expressed its internal life. He is too metaphysical to remain a writer. According to Emerson, Greek or Roman life was simple and comprehensible, whereas modern life is so multitudinous and distracting.
Goethe was the philosopher of this multiplicity; hundred-handed, Argus-eyed, able and happy to cope with this rolling miscellany of facts and sciences, and, by his own versatility, to dispose of them with ease; a manly mind, unembarrassed by the variety of coats of convention with which life had got encrusted, easily able by his subtlety to pierce these, and to draw his strength from nature, with which he lived in full communion. . . . He has no aims less large than the conquest of universal nature, of universal truth, to be his portion: a man not to be bribed, nor deceived, nor overawed; of a stoical self-command and self-denial, and having one test for all men,—What can you teach me? All possessions are valued by him for that only; rank, privileges, health, time, being itself. (751 and 758) 
It is noteworthy that, by displacing Goethe the writer with Goethe the philosopher, Emerson returns to the topic of philosophy he was supposed to discuss in the chapter on Plato. The chapters examined above all displace the presupposed role of each great man with another role. In that process Emerson discloses how easily a great man becomes another man. Plato the philosopher is replaced by Plato the biographer, Swedenborg the mystic by Swedenborg the lawgiver of mankind, Shakespeare the poet by Shakespeare the object of natural history, Napoleon the man of the world by Napoleon as the common man, and Goethe the writer by Goethe the philosopher. They form a circle representing the Emersonian transcendental vision, which opens with philosophy and ends with philosophy. Therefore, limitation being the only sin, as the essay "Circles" would have called it, sins is to be overcome by a philosophical balance.

Finally, we have a chance to examine the significance of Montaigne the skeptic. What makes possible the philosophical balance is the circular structure of this book is nothing but the chapter on Montaigne. If other great men are placed on the circumference, Montaigne just stands in the center as the still point. This is why the chapter on Montagne is chapter IV in the middle of the whole book consisting of seven chapters (although the first of those chapters is the introduction, not an analysis of a representative man).

Emerson starts the discussion with two classes of people: "One class has the perception of difference, and is conversant with facts and surfaces; cities and persons; and the bringing of certain things to pass; the men of talent and action. Another class has the perception of identity, and are men of faith and philosophy, men of genius" (690). Both classes must be problematized, because they are wrong by being extremes. Now a third party, the skeptic, appears. His philosophical ancestor is Socrates, who could see that he could not see: Socrates, moreover, answered to someone who asked whether he should choose a wife "that, whether he should choose one or not, he would repent it" (694). Emerson continues: "This, then, is the right ground of the skeptic,—this of consideration, of self-containing; not at all of unbelief; not at all of universal denying, nor of universal doubting,—doubting even that he doubts" (695). It aptly underscores Emerson's own system, in which "many of those who would classify themselves as believers are unbelievers," just as "Jesus of Nazareth was a skeptic to the orthodox Jews of his day" (Packer 209). Emerson continues:
He took and kept this position of equilibrium. Over his name, he drew an emblematic pair of scales, and wrote Que sais je? under it. As I look at his effigy opposite the title-page, I seem to hear him say, '. . . Our condition as men is risky and ticklish enough. One can not be sure of himself and his fortune an hour, but he may be whisked off into some pitiable or ridiculous plight. Why should I vapor and play the philosopher, instead of ballasting, the best I can, this dancing ballon? So, at least, I live within compass, keep myself ready for action, and can shoot the gulf, at last, with decency. If there be any thing farcical in such a life, the blame is not mine: let it lie at fate's and nature's door.' (699)
Montaigne does not conceal the tendency towards "equilibrium" in life by being a skeptic, just as Emerson "ballasts" the whole structure of The Representative Men by placing Montaigne in the middle. Emerson emotionally identifies with Montaigne rather than systematically explicating his philosophy. It is, therefore, no wonder that critics like Charles Lowell Young wrote: "With all his understanding, then, of the skeptical position, and not without sympathy therewith, Emerson was curiously indifferent to anything more particular or concrete. He made no attempt to distinguish Montaigne's scepticism from an earlier or later stage of his thought, or otherwise to limit or define it" (23-24).

Once an author's identification with the object of biography is complete, it becomes difficult to determine whether he is writing a biography or whether he is writing an autobiography. As we have just suggested, when Emerson writes "He took and kept this position of equilibrium" in the above quoted passage, we cannot determine whether this "equilibrium" informs Montaigne's philosophy of skepticism or whether it characterizes Emerson's writing of the whole book we are reading now. Put simply, it is possible that, by reading Montaigne, Emerson replaces him: Emerson becomes Montaigne and Montaigne becomes Emerson.

Paul de Man once described the effect of autobiography as "the revolving door" between life and fiction (69-70). Here we would like to suppose that biography produces the effect of the revolving "circle" between the object  and the writer. While the five representative men endlessly sliding into each other on the circumference, Montaigne himself in the center ceaselessly replace and is replaced by Emerson, exactly because even the "center" is constructed in the form of "circle." Such a concentric reading of The Representative Men corresponds with what is written in the essay "Circles":
The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. . . . The natural world may be conceived of as a system of concentric circles, and we now and then detect in nature slight dislocations, which apprize us that this surface on which we stand is not fixed, but sliding. (403 and 409)
Montaigne is called the philosopher of "fluxions and mobility" (696), as the essay "Circles" is built up around the belief that "there are no fixtures in nature": "The universe is fluid and volatile" (403).

To put it another way, by repudiating history as a Christian linear progression, and by employing Montaigne's system of skepticism, Emerson succeeds in reinterpreting history as "fluid change," which is most characteristic of his Transcendentalism in opposition to Orthodox (Richardson, Jr. 58-59). Just as Emerson / Montagne replaces Montagne / Emerson, or, just as the circular structure brackets the linear structure, so Transcendentalism transcends the limit of Orthodoxy. The Emersonian structure of "concentric circles," then, is the metaphor of the act of decentralization, which is primarily caused by the contradiction within the form of biography.

Indeed, each representative man represents each idea noted, but the whole book of Representative Men re-presents the eternal revolution between biography and autobiography.

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