The Dilemma

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The Dilemma 07.10.2008 05:31:28 (permalink)
The early nineteenth century was the blooming time of the American Transcendentalism.  Emerson and Thoreau were among the first transcendentalists who brought the new wave to the American ideal and philosophy.  The contemporary issues as slavery, the Mexican War, and the tension of the pre Civil War forced any responsible person to get involved politically in the judgment of the government.  Emerson’s The Poet is a eulogy of the new poet who is the representative of the people, and Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience discusses the role of man under an inexpedient government.  Although Emerson’s text tends to be more philosophical and Thoreau’s writing more political, they both try to create the image of an ideal man, an American transcendentalist who is not only a great writer or philosopher, but also a great leader.  Believing that social reform must begin with the self, and being victimized by their anarchism, they suggest an isolate self-reliant type of living for an individual.  Thoreau and Emerson, who are not yet able to find any concrete solution for their ideal man, sometimes contradict themselves, and thus creating a dilemma for their own creation and tension between its social and antisocial goals in their work. 
            In An Ongoing Online Project, Paul P. Ruben states that the basic premises of the American transcendentalists are:
            … The transcendentalist “transcends” or rises above the lower animal impulses of live…
            … The transcendentalists see the necessity of examples of great leaders, writers, or philosophers, and others, to show what an individual can become through thinking and action…
                … Reform must not be emphasized – true reform comes from within…
            Emerson’s poet is a “complete man” who is the representative of all the “partial men” who lack the ability to express themselves.  Although Emerson never places himself in the place of the ideal bard that he tries to describe and using the third person while mentioning the poet, it is well understood that he has to be in the group of “complete men” in order for him to clearly describe that model.  He is likely to be the man that everybody is waiting for, the one who is able to transcend his ideal to the actual world.  Emerson states that, “Every man is so far a poet as to be susceptible of [the] enchantments of nature,” but by emphasizing the ineffective “majority of men [who] seem to be minors,” he demonstrates the necessity of the people to have an interpreter who

… is the true and only doctor; he knows and tells; he is the only teller of news, for he was present and privy to the appearance which he describes.  He is a beholder of ideas, and an utterer of the necessary and causal.  For we do not speak now of men of poetical talents, or of industry and skill in metre, but the true poet.” (E)
In Emerson’s point of view, the true poet may not possess the poetical skills, but he understands nature and knows how to decode that knowledge to his people.  He is “the sayer”, “the namer”, “the intellectual man”, “the liberating god” …   He is the bridge that unites people with their universe, and he is the man that has to be always there to say the right thing at the right time, “an utterer of the necessary and causal”.  Emerson mentions the need of a poet leader:

The poet has a new thought: he has a whole new experience to unfold; he will tell us how it was with him, and all men will be the richer in his fortune.  For, the experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet. (E)
Emerson becomes abstract discussing about the poet’s presence, which is eliminated by his own works.  His soul is detached from his body, and his words will exist, forever, without him.

So when the soul of the poet has come to the ripeness of thought, she detaches and send away from it its poems or songs, …  The songs, thus flying immortal from their mortal parent…  the melodies of the poet ascend, and leap, and pierce into the deeps of infinite time” (E).
Even though Emerson discusses the soul and the detachment of the soul and the body, he does not mean to present his idea in a theoretical way.  On the contrary, the American poet applies the abstract philosophy to the realm of life: “Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words” (E).  Since Emerson’s poet has to carry the prophetic and representative role, he cannot detach himself from the political spirit.  He is “liberating god” who is not only free but can also “make free” by his words, which “are deeds [that] are quite indifferent modes of the divine energy” (E).  Listing the issues of his contemporary time and their impasses, Emerson probably longs for his poet to sing and also to solve those problems to his people:
“… Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boasts, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon, and Texas, are yet unsung.  Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres. (E)
But, right after that, Emerson pulls himself out of the role of “a national criticism” to talk about art, and then, concludes his essay by addressing directly to the poet.
            In the last two paragraphs, Emerson contradicts himself, counseling the poet to withdraw from the society, “Thou shalt leave the world, and know the muse only” (E), and to “be content that others speak for thee”.  Not only he reverses the role of representative of the poet that he suggests in the beginning and throughout his works, but also the expressions as “Capitol and Exchange” or “without tax and without envy”, show that he cannot totally forget about the society and its problems when trying to tell his poet to be with nature or making himself washing his hands of people’s political problems.  Because of the dissatisfaction of the government’s political output, here Emerson does not address to any particular poet, but to the bard in himself, the other half of him who wants to stay away from the society.  The work itself becomes an unsolved problem: Should he stay away from his society because he is “not wise enough for a national criticism” (E), or should he represent others to fulfill his role?  Emerson never answered that question in The Poet.  The ironic tone, “O, poet”, repeated in these last paragraphs seems to ridicule himself on the creation of the ideal man who will not be able to reach the conceptual convention of social reform that Emerson suggests.  It also demonstrates that he will never be satisfied with either solution, being a hermit or a representative, and it is impossible for him to be both.
            If Emerson’s The Poet only mentions the government as an underlying theme, Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience reveals directly the disappointment a citizen feels towards his government; however, like Emerson, Thoreau also try to create the ideal man who is not very different from Emerson’s Poet.  Since Thoreau attacks unhesitatingly the government, he also suggests a reform, but back away from it right away because it is still too ideal to apply to the society.
            Thoreau’s wise man differs from the “wooden men” who blindly serve the government, and who will leave that office to his dust” (T part 1) because “he cannot without disgrace be associated” with the American authority at that time.  Thoreau’s man is the one who understands that “if [he has] unjustly wrested a plank from a drowning man, [he] must restore it to him though [he] drown (Tpart 1).  He applies the same theory to slavery: “This people must cease to hold slaves, and to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people” (T part 1).  In other words, Thoreau’s man is the HONEST man who believes his right and respect others’ rights as well.  He clearly puts himself in the group of men who are true to his definition of “man”, who look at the government from a higher stance, who understand and try to reveal the incompetence of the government to his fellow-citizens. 
Seen from a lower point of view, the Constitution, with all his faults, is very good; … but seen from a point of view a little higher, they are what I have described them; seen from a higher still, and the highest, who shall say what they are, or that they are worth looking at or thinking at all? (T part 3)
Thoreau might not forcefully seek the power of leadership, nor does he himself try to make a revolution, but while taking his stance as writer to analyze the problem of the government to people, he already puts himself in the situation of a leader.  He suggests that under the rule of a faulty government, the honest man’s “duty, at least, [is] to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support” (T).  But it does not seem that he wants to really wash his hands while involving people in the rhetorical question:
Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?” (T part 2)
He uses “we” instead of “I”, making his problem universal.  By agreeing with his ideas or his actions, whether they like it or not, the audience already plays the role of his followers.  Thoreau describes a self-reliant life where he can “live within [him]self, and depend upon [him]self always tuck up and ready for a start, and not have many affairs” (T part 2).  He tries to escape from society because the government prevents him from being an honest man who refuses to pay his poll tax.  His self-reliant life becomes a paradox since he still has to rely on his squad to work on his land. Thoreau contradicts himself sometimes talking about revolution, sometimes showing that anarchism does not prevent him to refer himself as a citizen who does not ask for such a freedom without a government, but only ask for a “better government” (T part 1). 
            Emerson’s poet as well as Thoreau’s honest man responds to the image of the American transcendentalist, the new model of man that is the hope of reform for the country.  The problem is that those men are rare to find.  If Emerson “look in vain for the poet whom [he] describe”, Thoreau believes he can hardly find a “man” in “a square thousand miles in this country” (T part 1), and “no man with a genius for legislation has appeared in America” (T part 3).  Both believe that such a man is needed to form a perfect government, but since they know that such model is an ideal and hard to find, they create an unsolved solution.  Besides, they tend to want people to be able to work on the understanding of the self to reach the reformation of the country, and not to rely on leaders.  They wish to be, and they actually are, the writers who represent others not only in poetry but also in politics, but their beliefs on the lack of honest men or true poets in the world isolate themselves from the rest of the nation, and make them, sometimes, want to wash their hands of the social life and hide in nature.  Not only Emerson and Thoreau’s ideal man is too contradictory to be true, but also the theory of reforming a society based on the change of the individual is unrealistic.  By acknowledging that the ideal men are not easy to find, they somehow recognize the dilemma that they try to create. 
Works Cited:
Emerson, Ralph Waldo.  The Poet. Thoreau, Henry David.  Civil Disobedience.
Reuben, Paul P.  An Ongoing Online Project.
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