Gann on Ives on Emerson

I’m having a frickin’ blast with the Essays Before a Sonata – this is what I was born to do. My essay on Ives’s Epilogue is longer than Ives’s Epilogue. I’m finding that Ives articulated a more consistent and cohesive worldview than I expected, but his writing style is like someone set off a hand grenade under his finished manuscript, and the sentences all floated down in random order. So my job is to gather all the thoughts into little piles, and present them in logical, linear order, and he actually comes off as something of a philosopher (very unlike Cage in that respect). In short, his substance is more rigorous than his manner leads one to assume. With a caveat that I’ll spend the next year revising and revising and revising, here’s a sample to whet, if possible, your appetite:


Ives’s panegyric on Emerson is chaotically written, as if in exaggerated imitation of Emerson himself, but it does circle around a number of discrete themes. Ives presents us with an Emerson that is a perfect type: a subjectivity maximally open to the infinite. Emerson’s expression is chaotic because no one subjectivity can take in the infinite all at once, but can only focus on a few shards of truth at a time. Yet because no partial truth is sufficient as even a temporary stopping point, his focus, limited as a condition of being a subjective mortal, is continually restless. “His very universalism occasionally seems a limitation” (p. 17) because the persistent focus on the infinite prevents him from pausing at any pragmatic resolution; thus Alton Locke’s irrelevant question, “What has Emerson for the working-man?” (p. 20) “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao,” proclaims Lao Tzu, and nothing that can be named is real enough to Ives’s Emerson to stand for reality. He “wrings the neck of any law that would become exclusive and arrogant.” (p. 14) He is conservative and radical both at once, because neither conservatism nor radicalism is broad enough to grasp infinity. He is “too catholic for the churches” (p. 14) because no one religion identified and codified by man is wide enough to embrace the infinite. “Many of the sincerest followers of Christ,” writes the Christian Ives, “never heard of Him” (p. 19), because what we call Christianity is merely a culturally specific, and thus inadequate, image of the infinite. It is said of the physicist Werner Heisenberg that when asked, once, what the opposite of clarity is, he replied, “Accuracy” – since accuracy is a measurement of the particular, and clarity is the apprehension of everything-at-once. Emerson, at least Ives’s Emerson, might have agreed, for as he quotes Michelangelo, “An artist must have his measuring tools not in the hand, but in the eye.” A ruler in the hand ensures accuracy, but the eye, seeing the whole, provides clarity….

Ives makes of Emerson such a flawless ideal that it occurs to us that he is not so much describing a historical person as subscribing to an epistemology. Truth is the totality of all collective experience, we might sum up this doctrine, yet any one subjectivity can only perceive a relatively tiny part of the total. These parts of the total, these shards of truth, must be grasped as they are, but we must not be quick to try to combine or arrange them into a smaller unity, for such an assemblage can only be partial, and from it the whole cannot be inferred. A partial truth too hastily assembled from too few experiences cuts off our perception of the larger whole. The desire to comprehend, the search for cohesiveness, leads us to too soon circumscribe the range of our experience and draw conclusions from too small a sample. Therefore the inability to comprehend is not a liability, and Emerson’s alleged shortcomings are actually signs of his virtue. That it is sometimes difficult to tell where Emerson’s train of thought is going shows his loyalty to his thought as he experienced it – his stream of consciousness, we would say today. “Vagueness, is at times, an indication of nearness to a perfect truth… An apparent confusion, if lived with long enough, may become orderly.” (p. 22) For Emerson to have imposed order on his floods of insight would have falsified them. “[O]ne of the keenest of his academic friends said that he (Emerson) could not explain many of his own pages. But why should he! He explained them when he discovered them, the moment before he spoke or wrote them.” (p. 22) This brings us up to the edge of a more radical proposition in Ives’s Epilogue (which we will cite more fully later) that what substance may be contained in music has less to do with what the music communicates to the listener than with what the composer felt while writing it.

Thus, whether Ives was tremendously inspired by Emerson’s style or whether he grasped on to Emerson because of the latter’s affinities with his own thought, he is using a vision of Emerson – not a false one, but a subjective and partial one nonetheless – to justify his own composing tendencies. As musical ideas occur to Ives, “he fills the heavens with them, crowds them in, if necessary, but seldom arranges them along the ground first” (p. 22) – and he ascribes this to Emerson’s thoughts in the essays. Emerson’s “paragraphs didn’t cohere,” and neither do some of Ives’s musical paragraphs. “[E]ach sentence seems not to point to the next but to the undercurrent of all” (p. 15) is partly true of Ives’s Emerson movement, though he latter does contain some developing variation; perhaps it actually seems truer of the Hawthorne movement. In other words, this essay is not merely an apologia for Ives’s Emerson movement, but for all of Ives’s music in which the continuity does not immediately seem logical. Assuming that the composer has closely followed his or her inspiration, the listener may not understand the music at first, but may take a deeper pleasure in coming to understand it tomorrow; thus the relationship between the composer and the piece of music is more important than that between the music and the listener. “Initial coherence today may be dullness tomorrow, probably because formal or outward unity depends so much on repetitions, sequences, antitheses, paragraphs, with inductions and summaries.” (p. 23) In Ives’s epistemology, music that is too clear, too easily understood, represents a lower-level reality that a listener will get tired of as he evolves.

After all, the way Ives describes Emerson is not how I would describe him. When I read Emerson with Ives ringing in my ears, as I have almost my entire life, with the exploring of spiritual immensities and hurling down of thunderbolts, I am always surprised to notice how mild-mannered the old man seems. Everything in Emerson is about balance, while the more intellectually intemperate Ives (like Thoreau, unable to exaggerate enough to tell the truth) runs to extremes. In “Fate” Emerson amasses his examples of all the ways in which we can’t possibly escape fate, and then builds up a repertoire of ways in which we have that in ourselves that will counterbalance fate. In “Self-Reliance” he proclaims his independence of all human conventions and institutions, and then launches into all the reasons that this is virtually impossible. Emerson’s tone can fly thrillingly into the grandiose at times – it’s true he “doesn’t care if he loses his head or not” – but he is more often like the kindly uncle who “thinks everyone is as good as he is.” One does sometimes lose the thread in Emerson, and can’t tell what a paragraph or two is supposed to have to do with the topic, but I find that the main thing working against an impression of unity in Emerson is his habit of not beginning paragraphs with transitional phrases, so that the beginning of each paragraph has the feel of a new inspiration. (Curiously, this very paragraph-linking continuity device lacking in Emerson is one Ives uses meticulously and successfully in his Emerson movement.) Think of how different our impression of Emerson might be if we only had one audio file of him delivering one of these lectures! In general, though, I find the paragraphs in Emerson arranged topic by topic, and though the ordering gets a little stream-of-consciousness at times, I do not sense nearly as much disunity in him, or so complex a kind of unity, as Ives ascribes to him. It need not surprise us too much that we learn more about Ives’s composing process from his Emerson essay than we do about Emerson. Emerson was a remarkably good fit for the self-image Ives wanted to project, but not a seamless one.


  1. says

    Excellent that you’ve embarked on this project, Kyle. I haven’t read the Essays in years but even now recall how scattered they seemed. I should dig out my 30-year-old paperback and have another look.