You Have Only to Sing

The idea that there is fundamental order in the physical world, that when we get to the bottom of things reality will be found to be constructed in a manner that excludes mere randomness, took on new life for Emerson from the work of Ernst Chladni. “Chladni’s experiments seemed to me central,” wrote Emerson. “He strewed sand on glass, and then struck the glass with tuneful accords, and the sand assumed symmetrical figures. With discords, the sand was thrown about amorphously. It seems then, that Orpheus is no fable. You have only to sing, and the rocks will crystallize.”

– from Emerson: The Mind on Fire by Robert D. Richardson Jr.

Emerson, Goethe, Appropriation

Emerson copied out long passages in which Goethe talks about originality and the influence of others. Far from feeling a need to do nothing except what is completely original and novel, Goethe actually defines genius as “the faculty of seizing and turning to account every thing that strikes us.” He protested that he himself would have got nowhere “if this art of appropriation were considered as derogatory to genius.”

– from Robert D. Richardson Jr.’s Emerson: The Mind on Fire.

The words “art of appropriation” have come to refer to the post-modern approach of artists like Sherrie Levine. But I think it is closer to the spirit of the quote to understand it as characterizing the inclusive modernism of Ives, Mahler, Berg, Stravinsky, Rochberg, Harbison, etc. (as contrasted with the more tightly focussed modernism of Webern, Varèse, Feldman, and Babbitt.)