We ask what good writing might be. One and a half sentences from Emerson’s essay “Montaigne; or the Sceptic”:
“Each man woke in the morning, and with an appetite that could eat the solar system like a cake; a spirit for action and passion without bounds; he could lay his hand on the morning star: he could try conclusions with gravitation or chemistry; but, on the first motion to prove his strength, — hands, feet, senses, gave way, and would not serve him. He was an emperor deserted by his states, and left to whistle by himself, or thrust into a mob of emperors, all whistling…”
I have a copy of these words on a bookshelf in my bedroom. They are within a frame that also contains a picture of my son, only a few days old, lying on his back, eyes most definitely closed, hands in little infant half fists. So there’s a kind of joke: my infant son Jonah seems to be without the least spirit for action, hardly an emperor and incapable of whistling.
But the picture is also there as a recognition of the beauty of Emerson’s prose. Wherein does it lie? The sentences are long, we quickly notice. And there are how many analogies? To eating the solar system, to the emperor—at least two. And there is such an extravagance, such a courage of imagination. What images! Eating the solar system like a cake, laying one’s hand on Venus, the mob of whistling emperors. (Critical writing on Emerson might lay some stress on this latter idea and its relation to these United States in which every man, and now every woman, too, could be President and everyone thinks, however imperfectly, for himself or herself.)
I return to the length of the first sentence. We could, in our modern times, put a period after “bounds” without doing too much damage. After “chemistry,” however, no; the phrases need to be woven together, and to rush headlong at the same time.
In conclusion, I would come back to my infant son and the contrast between reality—the reality of an infant—and Emerson’s analogies and vision. In a certain sense this is Emerson’s point, “the yawning gulf between the ambition of man and his power of performance, between the demand and supply of power, which makes the tragedy of all souls.” That was from the previous paragraph of the essay. In the same paragraph as our one and a half sentences, Emerson writes of “the universal grief of young and ardent minds.” Divine providence has shown each of us heaven and earth and filled us—
“with a desire for the whole; a desire raging, infinite; a hunger, as of space to be filled with planets; a cry of famine, as of devils for souls. Then for the satisfaction, — to each man is administered a single drop, a bead of dew of vital power, per day, — a cup as large as space, and one drop of the water of life in it.”
The problem Emerson is describing is belied by the beauty and extravagance of his prose. Thanks to our ability (or a rare few of us’s ability) to write, or to make art and music more generally, we can indeed eat the solar system like a cake, and enjoy being surrounded by so many other dukes and dauphins, all more or less equally enamored of their own whistling.
William Eaton is an award-winning journalist, novelist, and writer of philosophical essays and dialogues. Surviving the Twenty-First Century, a collection of his essays from Montaigbakhtinian.com, was published last year by Serving House Books. One of Eaton’s dialogues, The Professor of Ignorance Condemns the Airplane, was staged in New York in 2014. He is editor of Zeteo, an online journal for generalists. (updated 4/2016)
William Eaton has also published in AGNI as William Eaton Warner.