While reading Emerson on a hot humid lawn, nature’s sounds orchestrated my musings of his essay on poets. Rich in language, Emerson attempted to give a verbally seductive argument that painted a variety of emotional responses to the bad poetry of his day. His rational descriptive arguments sliced point to point through essayed rhetoric, giving a clearer portrait not only of the poet, but of an artist.
I was astounded by a single line. After a long description of genius, Emerson captured the essential element necessary for the artist to be an artist. He claimed, that genius expresses itself not only in the prescriptive forms, but more so through an “insight which expresses itself by what is called Imagination … [which] does not come by study, but by the intellect being where and what it sees, by sharing the path, or circuit of things through forms, and so making them translucid to others.” This qualia of creative imagination, within any medium, provides the foundation for genius in all disciplines.
We entered the library for the lecture.
The Emerson lecture started well, but slowly digressed because of contradicting analyses of the professor. I stopped listening after two hours of general claims that provided no documentation to prove veracity. My attention then diverted to look within the faces of my peers to see their reactions to these undocumented interpretations, conflating theory on theory, imposed by professorial privilege.
The faces of my peers painted stern contemplations. I projected that these captive learners felt the same confusions I experienced. I noticed their eyes slowly buried themselves under furrowed brows, and downturned smiles that began to sleep with eyes wide opened. We sat what seemed like an eternity, battling out the artistic relevance of a single piece of text; debating whether Frederick Douglas’ narrative was a work of art, outside of its utility to argue against the harms of slavery within this certain place and time.
The questions went round and round for hours. Should we consider memoir art? Is autobiography art, history, philosophy? We compared one of notoriety versus the dulled exhortations of those less talented writers. Questions whirled on the meaning of language: When is a sentence art? How can we know the intention of the writer? If all literature is art (Iris Murdoch) is a manuscript art? The questioning seemed circular.
Electrified by the contradictions, my instincts engined utterances of metaphor upon metaphor that challenged the biased analysis whenever given the chance to speak. My underlying objection to the absence of historicism in the discussion grounded my critiques. IF we analyze a piece of literature, its very essence of being claims that this intellectual property has a history. The examination of form and function, and the choices the author makes is grounded in a person’s psychology and event context. People don’t write in a vacuum. They are motivated by forces that in many ways are cultivated by alliances, and the impact of tangible external events. Philosophers more easily consider historicism, but English teachers have greater difficulty, as the text in and of itself is the primary concern.
We all gave our conclusions with detailed examples that often derailed the initial point. In the end, most participants resisted moving outside their disciplines, and so discourse met dead ends. Conclusions were left to the eye of the beholder. After hours of moving through this single author’s writing, questions about its artistic relevance remained unanswered, and historicism was swept under the rug.
Sitting for long hours makes me uncomfortable. I couldn’t help obsessing about the professors contradicting assertions. My arrogance of rightness empowered my privilege of thinking, thus I felt justified in giving my two cents whenever the moment allowed. My impatient views empowered my ego. Later, upon reflection, I felt embarrassed by my assumptions, falling into self absorbed thinking that my exhortations were of a false humility. Like a monkey that sits silently on my back, the truth that my problematic early years failed to diligently read and write feeds a repeating low self-esteem about my academic abilities. This self deprecation feeds a self-preserving, perhaps self-righteous, desire to be right.
At the end of this day long session, mental exhaustion from sitting too long overtook my atrophying legs. Although I struggled to lift myself out of the chair, once standing, I briskly made my way back to the dorm. As the hot humid weather drenched me during this mile walk home, my inner dialogue spoke aloud to an invisable audience.
In these moments of reflection, I relived my actions like a memoir, making arguments – claims and warrants – that fleetingly questioned my process. Fear is such a cunning enemy of intellect. Through my self-imposed training to turn fearful thoughts over to positive self-affirmations, I looked to just what was before me – the rationality of my arguments.
Language too easily confounds perspective. One’s chosen word to define a point in time can be contrary to the definitions used in other disciplinary contexts. Discourse then serves to clarify the confusions, and helps to build a common ground. For the surviving self, these moments of learning nurture the intuitive perspective through open-mindedness to things unimagined by the naked eye.