In Emerson’s “American Scholar” he asserts his goal is to proclaim that America can and should slough off the historical legacy of European thought and literature. Ever after our poets are confronted with the requirement to “make it new” (Pound); or as Waldo says in his first book, “Nature,” “Build, therefore, your own world.”
Hard to square with the profound thought that there is “nothing new under the sun.” But Billy Shakesalot is English so we must shake him off! (Though we seem unable to shake off the longer ecclesiastical history encased in that poetry.)
Emerson’s injunction, delivered in 1837, is vexed in and of itself. “America” is “new” to be sure, but only in its European peopling of the land; and scholars are past-seekers on the whole. Perhaps he should have only offered a calling to American Recorders (but as Bartleby’s, all of us prefer not to). And in a way, he did: “The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances. He plies the slow, unhonored, and unpaid task of observation.” However, Americans have done nothing of the sort (Thoreau and his descendants notwithstanding) and rather the opposite. We are at speed to create appearances from any fact at hand.
The intelligentsia of this whelp state decided to create something new, not out of nothing, but out of everything. There is no spine in the structure. We are told we are a great experiment! But democracy is not “new”; republicanism is not “new”. What is? Well, nothing, really.
What was new was instead the fact of untrammeled land. Our “open” markets were only a facet of an open space, unexploited, unsourced. And so anyone could be rich if you were lucky, if you were criminal, if you were fearless, if you were a killer. So, for a time there is an opening for new landed gentry. Still, those slots at court were quickly filled and only the ghost of that possibility remained. The propertied were once again feudal lords.
But, and here is our burden, the idea remained: this required our new lords, senators and presidents, be nimble, that they be quick, in order to sell more candlesticks. What Lords need are serfs, and the mercantile and mercenary economy, the real truth of this country, made this possible.
The emptiness that is confused with possibility courts the protean…we yearn for difference and change, though at base, there is only sameness. Emptiness and yearning; these are the pinion points of the capital society.
This is heightened greatly by one conspicuous absence: We lack visible history; the only history we have is genocidal. And even if that weren’t so the philosophy of the native peoples wouldn’t do anyway as it understood life differently–being is ephemeral; as a monotheist state promulgating our victory in heaven and the duration of our individuality, we could not make use of that.
We have no “sites” and no landmarks. What is arguably our most famous landmark? Plymouth Rock. This is not a Colosseum; this is not a pyramid; this is not a Great Wall; this is not Stone Henge. It is an extremely ambiguous “text”.
What monuments we do have are as young as the founding and they were made with an eye to emulating a past that was historic, the Roman past and the Roman architectural grandeur. But we were not a people of Rome…we were Northern European and the very paleness of the marble used in our monument city speaks to our whitewashing of the abyssal emptiness at our core.
We resent any other history as “borrowed” or as the history we had to run away from like a rebellious and ungrateful child.
And so, as F. Scott Fitzgerald has said (himself stuck with a “past” in his very name), in what might be our most psychologically resonant empty book, The Great Gatsby--not the great American novel, but the representative novel of Americans–“we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”; but which?
As human animals we are creatures of descent. We need to praise our past, our history, our discoveries, our adventures, our conquests, our cities, our arts. We need to have come out of it in order to make more of it.
In America, we praise robber barons and oil tycoons and pirates, even telling our children lies about the land’s “founding father.”
In America, we praise a wayward spirit we commend as adventuresome and entrepreneurial. We praise those who do not commit; who do not see a thing through, but “make their mark” and move on.
In America, we praise the uselessness of gadgetry; we praise obsolescence because we are the soul of this. Built in America is built to be replaced. Make it new means get rid of the old.
It is no wonder that we praise most the mercurial element that most represents the nothingness in our hearts: Money.
How could it be otherwise? We are untethered; we are un-umbilical. There are no ties that bind.
In being free to be anything we have always only been nothing.