Saturday, December 09, 2006

England vs. France and Problems With Nationalism

More on Emerson and his study of English Traits. This week we have Character and Cockayne. Emerson begins the chapter on character by addressing the reputed moroseness of the English by declaring "I do not know that they have sadder brows than their neighbors of northern climates." What a comfort. The English aren't really morose per se, it's the French who "have spent their wit on the solemnity of their neighbors" who spread that misconception. The partying French just don't understand that the English are simply "proud and private" people who are not as "easily amused" and willing to waste their time on "frivolous games" like the French are. Even in comparison with Americans, Emerson finds the English "cheerful and contented." The English have a lot going for them and Emerson waxes rhapsodic about it:

Whether a happier tribe or mixture of tribes, the air, or what circumstance that mixed for them the golden mean of temperament--here exists the best stock in the world, broad-fronted, broad-bottomed, best for depth, range and equability; men of aplomb and reserves, great range and many moods, strong instincts, yet apt for culture; war-class and well as clerks; earls and tradesmen; wise minority as well as foolish majority; abysmal temperament, hiding wells of wrath, and glooms on which no sunshine settles, alternated with a common sense and humanity which hold them fast to every piece of cheerful duty; making this temperament a sea to which all storms are superficial; a race to which their fortunes flow, as if they alone had the elastic organization at once fine and robust enough for dominion; as if the burly inexpressive, now mute and contumacious, now fierce and sharp-tongued dragon, which once made the island light with his fiery breath, had bequeathed his ferocity to his conqueror.
Emerson has used horses and mastiffs to describe the English and now we get dragons too. At least they are all beasts that have qualities of nobility, pride and power. The Cockayne chapter is sort of strange. I tried to find something definite about what Cockayne is and discovered it is a fairly common surname, a genetic condition characterized by short stature, premature aging, and light sensitivity, and a pretty little hamlet and ridge in North Yorkshire. None of these really explain why Emerson titles the chapter the way he did and mentions a "Mr. Cockayne" because it becomes quickly clear that he is not talking about a specific person. He describes a type that he spends the chapter expressing a grave dislike for. The type is, in part, described thus:
He is intensely patriotic, for his country is so small. His confidence in the power and performance of his nation makes him provokingly incurious about other nations. He dislikes foreigners.
And the highest praise he can give something is to say that it is "so English." This person will "force his island by-laws down the throat of great counties, like India, China, Canada, Australia." It is a nature that is "rank and aggressive." The only positive Emerson can come up with is to suggest that behind this nationalism is a tendency to refuse to hide personal defects and to act as though "a bald, or a red, or a green head, or bow legs, or a scar, or mark, or paunch, or a squeaking or a raven voice" is "modish and becoming" and suits one well. Not having to worry about hiding one's foibles, the English move full speed ahead, exploring, discovering, creating. But lest his American audience snigger and begin to think themselves superior, Emerson makes clear that the country of America is named after a thief. Amerigo Vespucci was a pickle-dealer in Seville. In 1499 he signed on to an expedition as boatswain's mate. They never sailed, but somehow he "managed in this lying world to supplant Columbus and baptize half the earth with his own dishonest name." Emerson's history is not correct, but I'll forgive him because the error is well-intended. Next Week's Emerson: English Wealth and Aristocracy