Emerson’s Gnostic Democracy
Eric G. Wilson
In 1991, Allen Ginsberg, still stoked by Blake’s sunflower, told the following story to a graduate class of which I was a member.(1) During the sixties, he was asked by a leftist organization to organize an anti-war parade that would feature the usual forms of protest: didactic banners and chants. Weary of such oppositional political practices, Ginsberg suggested a third way.(2) Instead of simply reversing the ideas of the government, and thus rebelling in terms determined by the status quo, why not, he asked, plan a parade in which children would carry flags decorated not with slogans but flowers and fruits? The political organization rejected this seemingly whimsical notion. However, as Ginsberg, studied in Blake, well knew, perhaps the most potent political behaviors are not matters of corporeal warfare, angry masses pressing ideas. The most powerful political acts can be events of spiritual warfare: people awakening to the unseen possibilities of concrete presences. Ginsberg realized that a republic could be, precisely, a republic—a realm of life in which the thing, the res, is the primary concern of the people, the publicus.
Spiritual rebellion grows from attention to a particular presence. Corporeal attack relies on faith in abstract ideology. These apparent contradictions can be resolved in a vision of the thing. If things are not temporal copies of eternal forms or hunks of matter pushed around by mechanical force but numinous events proffering heterogeneous possibilities, then attention to these sites releases one from stale heavens and iron laws and throws one into unrealized horizons, invisible abysses. Likewise, if ideological positions are not meditations on evanescent currents or excursions into abysmal voids but ciphers of impalpable systems, then faith in such political views divorces one from the hums of ungraspable particulars and marries one to predictable forms—the same ideas, the same bodies, the same ruts.
In this context, political agendas of radical and conservative are equally oppressive. The conservative wishes to corral changing energies into prefabricated abstractions: traditional values. The radical defines his system in opposition to stabilities of the right and thus both supports his enemy and severs himself from concrete potentials.(3) The only way out of this impasse of warring abstractions is to embrace a third term beyond the conflict. This tertium quid is the unbridled particular, at once a site for the most traditional and the most radical: the original energy of the ancient universe, the disruptive power of the unpredictable present.
This politics of the thing is problematical. It relies on the idea that one can escape abstraction and the notion that one can transcend political bias. In our contemporary intellectual landscape, in which everyone is “always already” inscribed in discourse that preemptively conceptualizes and politicizes all particular experiences, these speculations concerning the thing sound especially troubling. However, figures like Ginsberg, Blake his teacher, and Emerson, who inflects Blake toward Ginsberg by way of Whitman, suggest that a true democracy—in which each being enjoys the widest range of possibilities for action and thought—emerges precisely from attention to particulars. Though based on an abstract theory of the thing, this concrete scrutiny might briefly liberate from abstraction. Though defined politically as the transcendence of ideology, this focus on the immediate could emancipate from political opposition. This theory is potentially “gnostic”: an attempt to transcend the hylic measures of the demiurge, to reveal the pneumatic sublimities of original things.(4)
In this essay, I explore Emerson’s politics of the thing, a gnostic democracy, to illuminate the possibilities and problems of his ideal republic as well as to emancipate him from reductive interpretive oppositions. A recent collection of essays, The Emerson Dilemma (2001), explores tensions between Emerson the transcendentalist and Emerson the reformer—between the self-reliant contemplative and the communal activist, the idealist haunting the palaces of thought and the pragmatist abolishing injustice.(5) Though this collection ably examines the relationship between these two Emersonian currents, it fails to address the third term I have been sketching—Emerson’s sense of concrete events. In excluding Emerson’s sensitivity to the particular—in presenting him as either a conservative contemplative or a radical reformer—this collection supports a bifurcation that has plagued Emerson studies for years, one that overlooks a major element of his political vision.(6)
Before turning to Emerson, I should borrow a lexicon from Blake, the visionary of the paradoxical interplay between concrete perception and gnostic liberation. Long before his spirit recited “Ah, Sunflower!” to the young Ginsberg, Blake in his marginalia to The Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds (1798) intoned, “To Generalize is to be an Idiot To Particularize is Alone Distinction of Merit.”(7) “General Knowledge” does not exist, while “Singular & Particular Detail is the Foundation of the Sublime.”(8) These distinctions reverse traditional expectations. Ideas—generally the essentials of knowledge—become delusions. Immediate perceptions—flashes usually corralled into concepts—are now revelations of the real. Theories are ignoble reductions. Direct apprehensions of particulars open into the sublime: the infinite.(9)
Setting aside for the moment the fact that Blake’s statements are themselves abstract theories, let us pause on Blake’s statement on the sublime. Unlike Burke, who maintained that the sublime grows from terrifying empirical experiences, and unlike Kant, who held that the sublime emerges from the mind’s transcendence of forms to the formless,(10) Blake, taking a middle way, believes that the sublime arises from a sensual scrutiny so intense that it penetrates to an unbounded energy at the heart of distinct forms. As Blake intones in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite.” This cleansing requires enhanced sensation: “the whole creation will appear infinite” only through “an improvement of sensual enjoyment.” Favoring the abstract over the concrete, one “sees all things only thro’ the narrow chinks of his cavern.”(11) Practicing immediate perception, one apprehends infinity in a grain of sand, and in a bird, an unseen world of delight.
How does abstraction, seemingly attuned to spirit, lead to narrowness and illusion? How does intense perception, ostensibly shackled to matter, open to infinity, to eternity? For Blake, abstraction is egocentric and retrospective. One’s concepts, no matter how putatively universal, arise from past personal experiences. My conception of my ego is an abstraction extrapolated from a selection of past experiences that arrange themselves into a consistent narrative. My ideas of love and redness and black cat and whatnot are ghostly précis arising from numerous particulars of my past, mostly forgotten. These memorial abstractions are necessary for negotiations of experience; however, if one believes that the retrospective ego and its abstractions are the only realities, then one reduces the present to a cipher of the past. He flattens the world to a double of his interior archives. He is doomed to undergo the same experiences over and over. He turns and turns and turns in what Blake calls the “same dull round.”(12)
Intense perception is charitable and prospective. If one breaks through egocentric, retrospective abstractions and immediately apprehends a particular moment, then one does not encounter an example of one’s past, a reduction of the world to the ego’s double. He experiences the concrete event as a discrete, unique pattern of a transpersonal, ungraspable energy. Scrutinizing this thing, here, now—his beloved, or a crocus—he moves from self-consciousness to other-consciousness. He becomes entranced by this particular “isness.” He gazes with increasing intensity. Suddenly, he senses in this entity, naked existence, the mystery of being. The thing becomes an event: a confluence of form and energy, other and same. This vision is of eternity in time.
But what is eternity? It is not unending duration, time everlasting. It is the pure present, not bound to memory and fraught with nostalgia or regret, and not bound to foresight and vexed with fear or anticipation. Not troubled by the pressures of history, eternity is not tensed, not tied to finite verbs. It is infinite. Infinite does not mean boundlessly large, space unceasing. Infinity is pure presence, beyond comparison with other presences that have surrounded and will surround, beyond environmental limitation. Transcending temporal and spatial distinctions, eternity and infinity—negations of the abstractions of minutes and points—are abysmal openings into a realm in which before and after, here and there, blur into a hum of ungraspable being.(13)
This recondite language (ironically abstract) can be viewed in a concrete context. Blake in his annotations to Lavatar’s Aphorisms on Man (1788) says: “the Philosophy of Causes & Consequences misled Lavatar as it has all his cotemporaries. Each thing is its own cause & its own effect Accident is the omission of act in self & the hindering of act in another, This is Vice but all Act [<from individual propensity>] is Virtue. To hinder another is not an act it is the contrary it is a restraint on action both in ourselves & in the person hinderd.”(14) To expect people and things to conform to a determining past and a determined future, to a limiting environment and a bounded horizon, is to hinder them—to impose upon them grids that deprive them of ineffable impulses and unexpected swerves. If one sees only those characteristics that conform to these abstractions, then he commits vice: the reduction of self and other to stable units forever divided—cause and effect, subject and object. In contrast, if one can break through abstractions and perceive immediately another person or thing, then one experiences a being that is the effects of its own causes, free of past and future, context and horizon. To see a being in this way—as an unrepeatable revelation of eternity and infinity—is to enjoy virtue: the unwillingness to hinder the irreducible otherness of that, or this; the willingness to open to how the event uniquely torques the abiding though unknowable pressure of being.
For Blake, Urizen, “horizon” and “your reason,” conspires against eternity and infinity. This faculty is hungry to reduce energy to form, numinous to number. As Blake proclaims in The Book of Urizen (1794), it most desires “joy without pain” and a “solid without fluctuation.”(15) Those who allow this faculty to dominate their perceptions maintain that the cosmos was created and is still maintained by a rational demiurge—Plato’s geometer, Newton’s clockmaker. For these disciples of Urizen, the real is the rational—only those events that correspond, however imperfectly, to prefabricated ideas of order, law, predictability enjoy substantial existence. Irrational and arational occurrences are unreal, wispy denizens of some impalpable void seething with illusion, chaos, error.
The most ardent students of Urizen are, on the one hand, the priest and the king, and, on the other, the heretic and the revolutionary. Not surprisingly, the potentates of religious and political orthodoxy value an organized status quo. Desiring to dictate and police what is real and what is not, they attempt to plot the potentially disruptive perceptions of their subjects onto predictable graphs. Less obviously, iconoclastic rebels are also, often unknowingly, students of Urizen, for they are controlled by the bifurcations of the tyrant. Taking seriously Urizen’s distinction between order and chaos, the rebel sides with turbulence. However, once the iconoclast topples his enemy’s structures, he must impose his own prefabricated arrangements on the world. Hence, he converts from chaos to order, and thus becomes an exemplar of the Urizen he wanted to vanquish. As Blake makes clear, when Urizen aspires to power, he creates his rebellious opposite, Orc.(16) The two principles comprise interdependent systems, each nourishing the other, each secretly mimicking that which it appears to hate.
For Blake, the poetic genius, not the political organizer, emancipates the wounded cosmos from this vicious round of tyranny and anarchy, order and chaos, conservative and radical. Blake’s genius liberates not by conceiving and concocting utopian allegories but through intensely perceiving and painting the minute pulses of the sensual world. The priest and the heretic alike, regardless of their political views, reduce the sun to ratio, the lowest common denominator of all recorded perceptions—to a coin in the sky. Hence, they do not really see the sun at all but an abstraction that keeps vital rays at a safe distance. The poet, unhindered by the politics of the agora, gazes though his eye at the strangely illuminated horizon and witnesses the sun explode into angels intoning “Holy Holy Holy.”(17) He thus experiences the sun as a numinous revelation of imaginative possibilities. Disclosing such visions in his works, he transcends the round of competing abstractions. He shocks his readers with the irreducible weirdness of things. He frees them from a temporal, closed universe, its horizons darkened by the mundane shells of memory. He opens them to an eternal, infinite cosmos, fields resilient to retrospection.
Without tracing formally the actual Gnostic influences on Blake (or Emerson), we can understand how Blake’s politics of the particular suggests a gnostic democracy.(18) The Gnostic tradition of the ancient world was not, recall, a homogeneous movement devoted to anti-materialist dualism.(19) Though heresiologists—like Irenaeus and Epiphanius—wanted to reduce a heterogeneous field of visionaries to a horde of apostates, the fact remains: a major current enlivening certain Gnostic sects of Alexandria and Rome in the early centuries of the Common Era had nothing to do with crass dualism and everything to do with perception—seeing, not fasting, as liberation.
Certainly some Gnostics, like Marcion and the anonymous author of The Secret Book According to John, focused on the corruptions of the cosmos crafted by an evil demiurge. In his Antitheses, a work no longer extant but described by Tertullian, Marcion argued that the God of the Old Testament is not the same as the God of the New. For Marcion, the Old Testament deity is inferior to the New Testament one. The former is poor creator, able to craft our botched material cosmos, and a petty tyrant, fixated on rigid codes of justice. The latter is transcendently spiritual, beyond the trappings of the material universe, as well as a font of mercy, indifferent to the laws of the fallen world.(20) The anonymous author of The Secret Book according to John dramatizes Marcion’s theory of two gods. For “John,” the origin of everything is not the Jehovah but a radically transcendent power, an “immeasurable,” “unfathomable,” “unlimited,” “invisible” void—a vast nothing. Out of this mystery emanates several thoughts, or androgynous aeons, each of which is a unique manifestation of its source. This source and its polarized outflows comprise the pleroma, the first fullness. However, one of these aeons, Sophia, disrupts the harmony, causing division, discord, and descent. This error produces the monstrous Ialtobaoth, who is exiled to an inferior material realm outside of the pleroma. He stupidly believes he is the first and only god and proceeds to produce a cosmos poorly modeled on the pleroma. This universe is our own: material instead of spiritual, hierarchical instead of polarized, ruled by a dictator instead of a supple power.(21)
While these two accounts characterize the pervasive dualism in the Gnostic tradition, other, more psychologically sophisticated Gnostics, such as Valentinus and Thomas, meditate less on the evils of matter and more on the emancipatory possibilities of sight.(22) In the Gospel of Truth, Valentinus suggests that inert matter is not a substance but a psychological condition.(23) In the beginning the abysmal plenitude itself, the unknowable deity, spawned from its own depths some primal error, the first ignorance. The instant ignorance emerged, matter appeared in the form of a dense fog. From this miasma grew the more fixed materials of forgetfulness and fear. Eventually, a world coalesced from these states, our own universe ruled by inflexible envy and hard strife, the last precipitates of the initial mist. As long as the subjects of this cosmos are ruled by ignorance—as long as they believe that the universe of the tyrannical demiurge and his viceroys, the priest and the king, is real—they suffer in this dark prison. However, when these denizens cast off psychological fear and desire, then strife and envy, fear and forgetfulness, and ignorance, all fade away, and what is left a nimble, springing abyss of energy and light: the origin of being, the spark of life.(24) In a similar way, in Thomas’s Gospel, Jesus claims that most men are “intoxicated” by images that cover the light at the core of all things. Only by becoming a “passerby,” by not dwelling on these images, can one penetrate to the light. This light, coeval with the primal abyss and Jesus’ own eternal presence, is immanent, coursing under the clumsy exteriors with which men clothe and control the cosmos: “Split a piece of wood: I am there. Lift a stone, and you will find me there.”(25)
For Blake, and Emerson, Thomas’s wood and stone would be tantamount to the abstract images that grow from egocentric fear and desire—the fear of the disturbing blooms of the unknown, the desire to reduce the world to predictable bits of discrete stuff. These abstractions—products of the primal error, the first ignorance—stick men and women into self-imposed prisons and divorce them from the mercurial streams of ineffable light. Redemption comes only in passing through these rigid concepts and facing events denuded of ideological trappings. The naked particular erupts into nothing yet seen: an unexpected inflection of the nothing that is everywhere. Beholding this thing, here, now—a ravishing grackle fading to purple—the observer is freed from the ideas that comprise his past, fraught with nostalgia or regret, and the theories that constitute his future, nervous with anticipation or dread. He is shocked by the present—a glimmer of untensed energy beyond seconds—and by the presence—a formless luminosity unhindered by points. His enduring ideologies become constraining illusions. His immediate perceptions turn vital currents.
These meditations on the political life of the thing suggest two problems and two points that I should note before turning to Emerson proper. First of all, this theory of the thing is itself an abstraction and thus part of a system of expectations that could easily divorce one from immediate perception. If I approach an event—a crocus, say, or a man sewing—and expect it to bloom into eternal glimmers and infinite currents, then I am necessarily imposing onto this instant a set of general suppositions that blind me to unique resonances. Even though Blake in gazing at the sun avoids empiricist ratio, he still seems to rely on the concepts of Christianity—angels intoning over the holy. How, then, is this theory of the concrete perception distinct from other abstractions that preclude immediate witness? Blake’s theory, though necessarily abstract, separates itself from other abstract theories in this way: its only reason for being is to undercut abstract theories. It is a self-erasing proposition, a map to be discarded once the destination appears over the horizon. Hence, even if it is difficult to escape abstractions once and for all, at least this vision of the particular questions the power and reality of abstractions and thus possibly opens an uncanny space where the long repressed thing can return.
But what if it is impossible for humans to transcend abstractions? What if, as the Derrideans and the Foucauldians maintain, everyone is inscribed in a sign system that dictates what can be seen and said, that like a Kantian category excludes the ding-an-sich? What if Blake envisions not the sublime sun but the discourse of his day? If there is nothing outside the text, nothing beyond the discourses of power, then things are but mere ciphers of the human rage for order. Yet, surely something unhuman existed for the millions of years before the eye opened into consciousness. The same endured for the additional millennia upon millennia before the tongue began to speak. An unfamiliar current springs and dives beyond thought and word. Even if humans are incarcerated in a prison house of language, these same humans have coursing through their veins the curious rhythms that have been thumping since the primal soup first felt lightning. If we are ever going to break through this prison to the sublime indifference of nonhuman things—and there is good reason to believe that some, like Blake and Emerson, already have—then in the cells themselves hides the key: a theory, comprised of words and thoughts, that says that the prison, also made of languages and ideas, is only half-real, a phantom through which one might one day slide, and find on the other side palpable bloods and saps that were formerly only the sceneries of dreams.
This theory of the thing relies on the optative mood.(26) One cannot say of it, it is true. One can only intone: this vision inspires actions that might shatter the very ideas on which the vision is based and leave one extended into a sublime realm of disturbing yet gorgeous possibilities. In this way, Blake’s, and Emerson’s, sense of the thing weakens the rift between idealism and pragmatism. Relinquishing all abstractions is probably impossible. Yet, even if the desire to be free from conception is ideal, it is a worthy yearning, for it qualifies existing abstractions and makes one more attuned to the ineffable. This idealist striving is not escapist fantasy but pragmatic labor. Refining abstractions, one discards those ideas furthest removed from particular strangeness and keeps remolding those notions closest to concrete breathing.
Gathering pragmatism and idealism into a creative dialectic, the political possibilities of concrete perception also suggest a common ground between political action and transcendental contemplation. The familiar argument goes: the contemplative, attuned to the eternal rhythms of the cosmos, is a quietist who intones, all is well and all shall be well; the activist, worried about local injustices, is a reformer who ameliorates a botched world. The sense of the thing as a site of the sublime merges these two views. Perceiving in the particular a unique inflection of the eternal present, of infinite presence, one contemplates the intrinsic value of each being. Inspired by this vision, one engages in activities—artistic, philosophical—that open others to the importance of the singular. These activities are political, for they connect the same to the different, the habitual to the strange.
Unlike Blake, who learned his vision of particular from his artistic discipline, Emerson gleaned his theory of the thing from his scientific studies. Neglected in discussions of the political Emerson, the sciences emerging at the turn of the nineteenth century significantly informed how he came to apprehend the relationship between the many and the one, individual and the collective, the bounded and the boundless. To study Emerson’s idea of the political life in the contexts of his embrace of certain trends in early nineteenth-century science is to find the third term capable of bridging the ostensible gaps between transcendentalist and reformer, idealist and pragmatist.
Recent theorists such as Katherine Hayles have cautioned against connecting politics and nature.(27) This admonishment grows out of fear that organic visions of nature, in which parts move only in relation to a whole, translate to totalitarian states, in which the whole determines the motions of the parts. Yet, this fear is based on a limited idea of the organic. One can see an organic universe as a system in which a homogeneous spirit dictates heterogeneous forms. But one can also view a living cosmos as a tense, dynamic, unpredictable interaction between boundless energy and bounded form, abyss and pattern, chaos and order. In this latter case, individuals are not mere exponents of a stable whole but non-identical eddies on tumultuous current, paralogical sites of stasis and flux. As Jean-Francois Lyotard has argued, a politics of emancipation might correspond to this cosmos—a vision skeptical toward totalizing narratives and attuned to the strange differences of particulars.(28)
As Emerson knew, several late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century scientists hungered for the sublime. In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant not only inaugurated a Copernican revolution in epistemology. He also contributed to a major scientific upheaval: the removal of matter as substance. Countering the Newtonian dogma, Kant claimed that matter is force, a field of energy in varying degrees of density and rarefaction.(29) He was not merely speculating, but rather drawing from his 1755 Theory of the Heavens, in which he had concluded that the universe is an evolving plenum of attractive and repulsive forces.(30) This theory was substantiated by William Herschel in a 1789 paper entitled “Remarks on the Construction of the Heavens,” in which he describes the heavens as “a luxuriant garden” ceaselessly germinating, blooming, fading, and reviving.(31) As Joseph Priestley found in his experiments on plants, as above, so below. Describing his discovery of photosynthesis in Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air (1776), he showed that plants, like humans, live and breathe.(32) At about the same time, Goethe’s scientific studies led him to conclude in On Morphology (1823) that “Nature has no system; she has—she is—life and development from an unknown center to an unknowable periphery.” Emerging from an abyss to an ungraspable end, the cosmos nonetheless thrives in polarized rhythms—centripetal and centrifugal forces at creative odds.(33) This emphasis on abysmal yet polarized energy over mechanism extended even to geology, whose leading exponent, Hutton, demonstrated in his Theory of the Earth (1788) that the earth is a metamorphosing pattern of infinite durations and forces.(34)
The most powerful instances of this vision came from the scientists of lightning, who found the secret of matter and perhaps life itself in boundless galvanic currents. In 1807, Davy discovered chemical affinity: electricity combines certain elements while dividing others. This revelation inspired him to conjecture in his Elements of Chemical Philosophy (1812) that matter is not comprised of corpuscles but rather of “physical points endowed with attraction and repulsion” and therefore “capable of being measured by their chemical relations.”(35) A few years later, Faraday found evidence for Davy’s hypotheses. Drawing from H.C. Oersted’s 1820 discovery of the equation of electricity and magnetism and from A.M. Ampere’s articulation of the electrodynamic law during the same year, Faraday in 1831 discovered electromagnetic induction. As he later argued in a paper published in his Experimental Researches in Electricity (1831-52), this finding proved that electromagnetic currents fill all space.(36) He explains this theory further in an 1844 essay entitled “A Speculation Touching Electric Conduction and the Nature of Matter”: “[M]atter fills all space, or, at least, all space to which gravitation extends. . . for gravitation is a property of matter dependent on a certain force, and it is this force which constitutes the matter. In that view matter is not merely mutually penetrable, but each atom extends. . . throughout the whole of the solar system, yet always retaining its own centre of force.”(37) An atom, then, is not solid but a bundle of force, a discernible pattern of infinite energy, discrete and distributed simultaneously.
Emerson’s studies in these sublime sciences—especially those of Goethe, Davy, and Faraday—revealed to him that things are not isolated atoms but unique bundles of an unbounded field.(38) Objects are not nouns but verbs, not states but events: tense coincidences of energy and form, centrifugal and centripetal force, stream and vortex. As Emerson proclaimed in an early lecture, “The Naturalist” (1834), “the whole force of the Creation is concentrated upon every point.” A plant, for instance, is a pattern of vast “agencies of electricity, gravity, light, and affinity.”(39) In another early talk, “The Humanity of Science” (1836), Emerson maintains that each thing inflects an abysmal power pervading nature “from the deep centre to an unknown circumference” (EL 2:29). He still confirms such ideas in a late lecture, “Perpetual Forces” (1862): though the fruit falls from the tree without violence, “lightning fell and the storm raged, and strata were deposited an uptorn and bent back, and Chaos moved from beneath to create and flavor the fruit” (W 10:60). Between these pronouncements, Emerson in 1841, in “The Method of Nature,” says that things are mixtures of order and turbulence:
“The wholeness we admire in the order of the world is the result of infinite distribution. Its smoothness is the smoothness of the pitch of the cataract. Its permanence is perpetual inchoation. Every nature fact is an emanation, and that from which it emanates is an emanation also, and from every emanation is a new emanation. If anything could stand still, it would be crushed and dissipated by the torrent it resisted, and if it were a mind, would be crazed” (CW 1:124).
Singular events are curling waves on an ocean beyond sounding. This sense informs this terse claim, from the 1841 “Circles”: “There are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and volatile. Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit” (1:89).
Emerson knew that he could only achieve these sublime visions through attention to particulars. Even in the rather abstract Nature of 1836, Emerson’s famous vision is dependent upon intense perception. He turns into a “transparent eye-ball,” becoming nothing to see all, while closely registering the minutia around him—the bare common, snow puddles, the crepuscular half-light, the cloudy sky. Attending to these details, he escapes the egocentric abstractions that reduce the world to a double of self. Dropping his “mean egotism,” he realizes that his particular being, like all particular beings, is a unique inflection of the “currents of Universal being”: a manifestation of an energy that is eternal—not bounded the burden of the past or the fear of the future—and infinite—not constrained by where it has been or where it is going (N 12-13). Later, in the 1841 “Self-Reliance,” Emerson turns the twilight meadow into a morning rose: “Those roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.” Most men miss this instance of pure presence, for they “do not live in the present” but with “reverted eye lament the past, or stand on tiptoe to foresee the future” (CW 1:38-9). Grasping the abstractions of memory and prediction, these men cannot be “happy or strong, a state that comes only through living with “nature in the present, above time” (39). Still later, in the 1844 “Nominalist and Realist,” Emerson proclaims that nature “resents generalizing, and insults the philosopher in every moment with a million fresh particulars. It is all idle talking: as much as man is a whole, so is he also a part; and it were partial not to see it. . . . You are on thing but nature is one thing and the other thing, in the same moment. She will not remain orbed in a thought. . . . She punishes abstractionists” (2:139). Static concepts fail, as Emerson adds, before particular men, who, like particular things, contain “somewhat spheral and infinite” (140).
Emerson in transcendentalist pieces like “The Over Soul” (1841) favored the ideal over the real. In reform lectures like “The Fugitive Slave Law” (1851), he hailed concrete protest over abstract theorizing. But sometimes Emerson drew from his scientific studies to combine these two modes. Only through intense attention a particular thing or person, can one break through to the eternal present, infinite presence. Only through embracing each thing and person as an intrinsically valuable inflection of sublime being can one become sensitive to the value of existence.
These related ideas inform Emerson’s overt political statements. In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson expresses skepticism toward political institutions, for they require conformity and reduction—the conformity of a heterogeneous mixture to an ideology, reduction of teeming particulars to two principles, us and them, good and evil. These forms of society, liberal or conservative, are in conspiracy against singular presences, against the “thousand-eyed present.” Self-reliance is the “aversion” to these ideologies. It mimics the whims of the morning rose, the flower’s untimed, unspaced spontaneity, instinct, and intuition (CW 1:29-32, 37). Hence, as Emerson proclaims in his 1844 “Politics,” “the less government we have, the better.” The ideal government is “befriended by the laws of things” and thus organized by the “universal” fact of “two poles, of two forces, centripetal and centrifugal.” Reflecting these oscillating polarities, this government is not ideological but regulative: a flexible structure that fosters the “growth of the Individual,” that allows creative antagonism among heterogeneous factions without allowing one faction to overpower the others (2:126). As Emerson adds in “New England Reformers,” also from 1844, only non-conforming individuals, not official governments or ideological institutions, can bring this ideal political body into existence. While party men reduce themselves to abstract principles and thus commit intellectual suicide, individuals, like the auroral roses they imitate, might achieve total regeneration. Open to vital currents of each unpredictable moment and point, they reform with each fresh word and gesture the original energy of being (2:154-5).
Does this mean that all spontaneous actions are political? The unconscious rhythms of nonhuman nature are obviously apolitical. However, when a human animal, self-conscious, tries to perceive immediately the pure present and attempts to participate in the curious processes he senses, then he moves toward a political consciousness close to that of Blake. He tries to live in such a way that he does not hinder others with his egocentric abstractions, and he engages in activities that shatter the narcissistic conceptions of his fellow citizens. Attempting to merge his gnosis of the morning rose and his desire to ameliorate the lives of others, Emerson works to reform aesthetically—to awaken his audiences to the political life through his art.
This does not mean that Emerson pens dogmatic political statements. On the contrary, through his notoriously cryptic, contradictory, uncanny style, he awakens his readers to the irreducible indeterminacy of words, to the sublime strangeness of the image. Perusing dense pieces like Nature, “Self-Reliance,” “Experience,” and “Fate,” one often feels as one does before a blur of colors by Pollock or a stark square of Malevich. One beholds suchness unadorned, concreteness so immediate that it resists interpretation. One experiences what Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space calls the “poetic image,” a unique reverberation of being so striking that it challenges intellectual categories. The poetic image quivers with an unrepeatable novelty. It is an unpredictable, disarming eruption of fresh experience that cannot be causally connected to what has come before or what will come after.(40) Wanting his books “to smell of pines” and to “resound with the hum of insects” (CW 1:34), Emerson in his essays created aesthetic arrestings of prefabricated abstractions. This aesthetic, profoundly non-didactic, is deeply political, a call to release things to be what they are.
Take, for instance, the “transparent eye-ball” passage. Though this sequence may by now seem almost a “transcendentalist” cliché, an abstract formula of Emerson’s philosophy, it is in fact perpetually irreducible to cogent interpretation. It arrests like the crepuscular cloud, jolts like the blowing rose. Notice the first sentence of the passage: “Standing on the bare ground,--my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,--all mean egotism vanishes” (N 12-13). Enacting in language the transformation of ego into “nothing,” Emerson employs a dangling modifier. He does not provide the subject, “I,” that the phrase “[s]tanding on bare ground” clearly modifies. The “I” falls away. Yet, it immediately reappears in another form: “I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God” (13). How can Emerson’s visionary be both nothing and something, formless and formed? Moreover, if he is a purely transparent lens, and thus unable to reflect light (and thus blind), how can he see anything, much less everything? Either he is totally transparent and therefore both blind and clear-sighted, or he is simultaneously transparent and opaque and hence actually capable of sight. We further ask: As a “current” of the “Universal Being,” is this visionary a physical flow, an electromagnetic current, or a divine power, a spiritual draft? Finally, why is the visionary “part or particle” of God? If a part, is he then a synecdoche of God, a cogent pattern revealing and containing the whole? If a particle, is he a speck or fragment broken from a whole, and thus separate from God?
Emerson’s language here is a striking particular, an uncommonly arresting disclosure of nature’s turbid harmonies. Like all disarming events—a cloud gloomy and on fire, an auroral rose quivering—the passage reveals what is always already true of everything else, all other things, though hidden, lurking under stiff abstractions. Emerson’s eye-ball passage, like many of his especially intricate linguistic sequences, functions like a sublime eruption, an event that stuns one to the core. Such explosions move beholders to consider the possibility that all matter patterns immense energy, that all material forms are polarized—that all things, properly, intensely seen, are unique inflections of eternity, infinity.
In the “transparent eye-ball” sequence, Emerson, like Blake before him, demonstrates how aesthetic power can become political inspiration. He and Blake do not crudely maintain that political art relies on political dogma. Their respective aesthetic disciplines gain political power by transcending didactic political statements.
Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus is the best guide to this paradox: the most apolitical art is the most political art. In chapter five of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914), Stephen propounds his aesthetic theory. He claims that the aesthetic event is not kinetic, a spur to desire or loathing, but static, an arrest of fear and desire. Kinetic art is “improper art” because it is either “pornographical or didactic,” inciting the urge “to posses, to go to something” or the impulse “to abandon, to go from something.” In this way, all overtly political “art” is improper, for it is both pornographical—proposing that this ideology is desirable—and didactic—arguing that that ideology is deplorable. Feeding the fearing and desiring ego with comforting abstractions, political statement divorces from the concrete, turns men and mollusks to ghosts.(41)
In contrast, “proper” art disarms abstractions by briefly arresting the fears and desires that generate didacticism and pornography in the first place. For instance, tragic pity does not evoke a desire toward a suffering object but “arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the human sufferer.” Likewise, the terror evoked by tragedy does not induce an aversion from the fearsome event; rather, it “arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.” In the same way, comedy does not encourage temporary pleasure or pain but stills the mind before what is constant in human joy.(42)
These proper arts elevate the mind beyond fear and desire, didacticism and pornography, through their revelations of the concrete resonances. What Stephen calls the “esthetic image” first strikes the mind as a “luminously” “selfbounded and selfcontained” event arising uniquely from “the immeasurable background of space and time.” It shines as this thing and nothing else. It is one whole. It possesses integrity, integritas. The mind follows the “immediate perception” of the synthetic whole with an “analysis of apprehension,” an attention to how the parts cohere into the whole, how the whole gathers the parts. The image now appears as a “complex,” a harmony of many and one. It manifests consonantia. After one has immediately perceived the image as one thing and mediately apprehended it as a consonance of whole and parts, one is finally struck by its shimmering claritas, its radiance as this thing and nothing else, its unique whatness, quidditas. Only this image, here, now, merges parts and whole in quite this way. Only this event, in this instant, devoid of past and future, only this place, beyond surroundings and horizon, inflects existence, life, being, in this particular manner. The mind beholding this thee-fold beauty experiences “the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure, a spiritual state. . . [an] enchantment of the heart.”(43)
Stephen’s radiance, emerging from a concrete experience of a particular image, is akin to gnosis—a sudden insight into the engaging mystery of this particular resonance and no other. This aesthetic gnosis releases events—things and people—from the tyranny of abstraction, the prisons of ideology. Inspired by Blake’s suns and grains of sand, by Emerson’s bare common and his blowing rose, this vision is a momentary liberation of events from edicts.
Following Blake’s prophets and presaging Joyce’s Dedalus, Emerson envisions a “non-representative government”: a civic body that resembles a natural event in presenting the unpresentable, patterning the ungraspable, and merging the irreconcilable. Though this republic is ideal, it is a horizon toward which one can pragmatically pine. Political ideologues will likely avoid as jejune a banner boasting kiwis and petunias, a sun spangled with angels, a snow puddle in the evening. Yet, the engaged artist might cultivate in the blighted world a startling vision of a rare stalk, here, in twilight, under a cloud. From this sight might spring a democracy, gnostic, liberating abysmal things from the deceptive abstractions concocted by tyrannical demiurges.
1. Ginsberg told this story in a graduate seminar on the Beat literature, which he taught at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where I was matriculated as a Ph.D. student.
2. I do not recall if it was Ginsberg who wanted to feature banners with fruits and flowers or Bob Dylan. Regardless of the particulars of the story, Ginsberg was certainly in favor of this form of protest.
3. I’m obviously being rather reductive here—indeed, rather abstract—in designating only two main political camps: the conservative and the radical. Clearly, not all conservatives merely embrace the status quo and not all radicals simply rebel against the system. Likewise, there are many nuanced positions between these two extremes. In this essay, however, I have for the sake of concision and clarity deployed this distinction that Emerson himself uses in “The Conservative” (1841): the distinction between the conservative and the radical. For Emerson, this is the archetypal conflict in the political arena, between the centripetal pull of the conservative and the centrifugal counter-pull of the radical. Though no one falls purely on one side or the other and though everyone bears elements of both sides in his perspective, these oppositions, simplified as they are, still possess explanatory and rhetorical power.
4. The Emerson Dilemma: Essays on Emerson and Social Reform, ed. T. Gregory Garvey (London and Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 2001). The essays in this fine collection explore, as T. Gregory Garvey says, “the relationship between Emerson’s understanding of ‘genius’ and ‘practical power’ as a means of integrating the substantial body of scholarship that explains Emerson’s transcendentalism with recent scholarship that has begun to recover his advocacy of abolitionism and other social reform movements. At the heart of the connection between the essays in this volume is the authors’ desire to understand how Emerson’s reform activism emerges out of his transcendentalism and how the transcendentalism that he developed early in his career shaped his involvement in reform movements during later periods” (xi). In my mind, the only problem with this otherwise excellent connection is that it does not address how Emerson’s interest in the thing, informed by his embrace of science, affected his political vision.
5. This is a point that will become clear later, but it is worth mentioning now: throughout this piece, I use “gnostic” as a generic term to designate a certain set of assumptions, regardless of historical era: one, the origin of the cosmos is not a harmonious One or an orderly Jehovah but an ungraspable abyss containing all oppositions; two, this abyss does not manifest itself in the world as good as opposed to evil or matter opposed to spirit but rather in pairs of mutually interdependent contraries; three, each being in this cosmos is a pattern of this abyss—not a unit of fallen matter separated from eternal harmony or God—and thus a coincidence of opposites, a microcosm of the macrocosm; four, this abysmal energy can be revealed and channeled by certain arts. I use the related term “Gnostic” as a more specific term to signify the historical phenomenon known as “Gnosticism,” which largely took place in Alexandria and Rome in the second and third centuries A.D. The “Gnostic” vision of course shares many elements with the “gnostic” one. Still, Gnostic is more interested in revising Judaism and Christianity than is the gnostic. Likewise, the Gnostic tends to be more averse to matter than the gnostic, and thus more hierarchical, more willing to say that matter is evil and spirit is good.
6. There have of course been excellent studies of Emerson’s political vision. None, however, has attend to how Emerson’s seemingly apolitical sense of the thing—emerging from his passion for natural science—informs his idea of the political. For me, the most profound and provocative meditations on Emerson’s politics are Stanley Cavell’s “Emerson’s Constitutional Amending,” in Philosophical Passages: Wittgenstein, Emerson, Austin, Derrida (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), 12-41; and George Kateb’s Emerson and Self-Reliance (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1995). Cavell in this essay discusses the ways in which Emerson’s “aversive” philosophical style turns away from reductive concepts and thus enacts the difficulty of being free—of endlessly facing the vital skepticism that accompanies “onward” thinking. In a similar fashion, Kateb argues that Emerson’s “mental” self-reliance—as opposed to “manual,” “physical,” or “practical” self-reliance—is a powerful political act, for it unselfishly studies the very root of the democratic vision: the ability to experience plurality, conflict, and debate without grasping hard to one view that violently excludes all others. Not surprisingly, not all critics have been so well-disposed toward Emerson’s political thinking. Maurice Gonnaud in his An Uneasy Solitude: Individual and Society in the Work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, trans. Lawrence Rosenwald (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1987) (first published in French in 1964) explores the contradictions plaguing Emerson’s supposed liberalism, his constant oscillations between revolution and reaction, especially on the question of slavery. Quentin Anderson in his elegant The Imperial Self (New York: Knopf, 1971) suggests that Emerson, in his desire to transcend culture, was politically anemic, an overly abstract thinker with no attachment to the everyday (48-51). More recently, Christopher Newfield in The Emerson Effect: Individualism and Submission in America (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996) disparages Emerson’s ostensible “celebration of democratic freedom” as a ruse for his real concern: to preach submission “to preestablished and unequal conditions” (2). This wide variety of response—and these are only a few among many responses to Emerson’s politics—suggest that none of them is sufficient. However, if, as Kateb urges, Emerson is the “American Shakespeare,” then he seems to posses the quality that Keats found in the Bard: Negative Capability, an aptitude for “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Certainly Emerson probably inhabited each of these positions at particular times, and never settled once and for all on any one of them. Given this pluralism, it appears that Cavell and Kateb are closer to Emerson’s spirit than Gannauld, Anderson, and Newfield. I hope in this essay to inflect Cavell’s and Kateb’s senses of Emerson through Emerson’s interest in the political possibilities of the thing.
7. William Blake, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman, comm. Harold Bloom (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1982), 641.
8. Blake, 647.
9. My remarks on Blake’s senses of the concrete are largely informed by Northrop Frye’s still brilliant study Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1947), 3-30.
10. Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), defines the sublime thus: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” Kant in Critique of Judgment (1790) encounters this empirical sense of the sublime by claiming that “[s]ublimity. . . does not reside in anything of nature, but only in our mind, insofar as we can become conscious that we are superior to nature within, and therefore also to nature without us.”
11. Blake, 39.
12. Blake expresses this idea—that abstract “Philosophical and Experimental” perception reduces experience to repetition—in “There Is No Natural Religion” (1788) (Blake, 2-3).
13. I am here also influenced by Frye, 45-8.
14. Blake, 601.
15. Blake, 71.
16. As Blake claims in Milton (1804), when Urizen rebels against the other forms of life, or Zoas—Luvah (emotion), Tharmas (sensation), and Urthona (imagination), Urthona immediately falls into space and time, divides into male (Los) and female (Enitharmon), and gives birth to Orc the revolutionary (Blake, 97-8).
17. Blake gives this account of seeing the sun in his description of his painting, A Vision of the Last Judgment, now lost (Blake, 565-6).
18. For a good discussion of Blake’s Gnostic influences, see Kathleen Raine, Blake and Tradition (Princeton: Bollingen Press of Princeton Univ. Press, 1968), and Paul Cantor, Creature and Creator: Myth-Making and English Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984). For Emerson’s relationship to this esoteric tradition, see Harold Bloom, Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism (London and Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1981) and Arthur Versluis, The Esoteric Origins of the American Renaissance (London and New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2001).
19. Of course, Michael Allen Williams in Rethinking “Gnosticism”: An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1996) argues that “Gnosticism” as it is usually conceived—as a cogent theological rebellion of the second and third centuries—does not really exist. He shows how the movements traditionally housed under the concept of “Gnosticism” are simply too heterogeneous to form a cogent movement. Williams is convincing in questioning the idea that Gnosticism is a homogeneous phenomenon. However, until another, more accurate term emerges into the lexicon, I feel constrained to use “Gnosticism” (or “gnosticism” [see note 5]) to refer, however loosely, to the set of ideas that I discuss in the following paragraphs.
20. Tertullian, Against Marcion, The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1979-82), vol. 3, pages 272-285.
21. The Secret Book According to John, The Gnostic Scriptures: Ancient Wisdom for a New Age, trans. and ann. Bentley Layton (New York and London: Doubleday, 1987), 28-38.
22. To sense immediately the heterogeneity of the “Gnostic” movement—ranging from matter-hating dualists to monists hoping to redeem the cosmos—one needs only to glance at the varied works in The Nag Hammadi Library, gen. ed. James M. Robinson (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1990) or in The Gnostic Scriptures. For an excellent, and moving, account of the heterogeneous fecundity of the Gnostics, see Jacques Lacarriere, The Gnostics (San Francisco: City Lights, 1989).
23. Lacarriere claims that for Valentinus, the awakened man still lives in the material world but is “totally freed from the fetters and corruptions of material nature” (69). Likewise, Hans Jonas states that in the Valentinian speculation, “matter would appear to be a function rather than a substance on its own, a state or ‘affection’ of the absolute being, and the solidified expression of that state” (174). As we shall see, Thomas also views matter as a way of seeing more than as a stable substance. In the cases of both Valentinus and Thomas, matter is negative only when it is framed as a fixed abstraction; when it is freed into concrete perception, it becomes a positive pattern of the divine.
24. Valentinus, The Gospel of Truth, in Layton, 253, 257.
25. Thomas, Gospel According to Thomas, in Layton, 385, 394, 387, 394.
26. I borrow this phrase from Emerson, via F.O. Matthiessen. Emerson in “The Transcendentalist” (1842) states that “Our American literature and spiritual history are, we confess, in the optative mood.” Mathiessen borrows this for the title of his first chapter in his still magisterial American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941).
27. Katherine Hayles, “Introduction: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science, Order and Chaos: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science, ed. Katherine Hayles (London and Chicago: Chicago Univ. Press, 1991), 15.
28. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1985), xxiv-xxv.
29. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. Martin’s, 1965), 279.
30. Kant, Theory of the Heavens. Kant’s Cosmogony as in His Essay on the Retardation of the Rotation of the Earth and Natural History and Theory of the Heavens, trans. W. Hastie, ed. Willy Ley (New York: Greenwood, 1986), 59-70.
31. Sir William Herschel, “Remarks on the Construction of the Heavens,” William Herschel and the Construction of the Heavens, ed. Michael A. Hoskin (New York: Norton, 1963), 115.
32. Joseph Priestley, Priestley’s Writings on Philosophy, Science, and Politics, ed. and intro. John A. Passmore (New York and London: Collier, 1965), 140-9.
33. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Problems,” Goethe: The Collected Works: Scientific Studies, vol. 12, ed. and trans. Douglas Miller (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1988), 43-4.
34. James Hutton, Theory of the Earth. John Hutton’s System of the Earth (1785); Theory of the Earth (1788); Observations on Granite (1794), intro. Victor A. Eyles (New York: Hafner, 1973), 304.
35. Sir Humphry Davy, Elements of Chemical Philosophy. The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy, vol. 4, ed. John Davy (London: Smith, 1839-40), 39.
36. Michael Faraday, Experimental Researches in Electricity. Great Books of the Western World, vol. 45, eds. Robert Maynard Hutchins, et al (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), 265-85.
37. Faraday, “A Speculation Touching Electrical Conduction and the Nature of Matter,” Great Books of the Western World, 855.
38. For Emerson’s rich and complex relationship to this science tradition, see Eric Wilson, Emerson’s Sublime Science (London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999), 76-97.
39. I use the following abbreviations in citing Emerson’s works throughout the remainder of this essay.
CW The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Robert E. Spiller, Joseph Slater, et. al., 5 vols. (Cambridge, MA, and London: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1971- ).
EL The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Stephen Whicher and Robert E. Spiller, 3 vols. (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard Univ. Press, 1959-72).
N Nature: A Facsimile of the First Edition, intro. Jaroslav Pelikan (Boston: Beacon, 1985).
W The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-4).
40. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas, fore. Etienne Gilson (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), xi-xiv.
41. James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1964), 256-7.
42. Joyce, 256.
43. Joyce, 266-8.