Friday, September 28, 2007

On Emerson's weird transparent eyeball

"Standing on the bare ground, - my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infnite space, - all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God." - Nature, Chapter 1.

To the left is the best "Emerson the transparent eyeball" I could find. I remember a more finished cartoon in my high school English textbook. The cartoon is by Transcendentalist poet Christopher Cranch, a friend of Emerson, so I don't think it was meant to mock, although many people took it that way.

With the transparent eyeball, the ridiculous and the sublime are right next to each other. But I think it's the very fleshiness of the eyeball that grounds the passage. It's the something to go with the nothing in the next phrase. Put in a more generic word - "vessel" or "conduit" or some such - and the whole passage risks a quick trip to infinite space, as pure hot air. That eyeball gives you something to hang on to.

James Wood has criticized Nabokov and similar authors for visually-oriented writing that overemphasizes what can be seen and neglects the rest of the sensual world. Emerson's Nature has the same narrowness - the language is all "seeing" and "eye". Maybe it's just a synecdoche (part standing in for the whole) for the senses in general. But I wonder if an Emerson who preferred music to poetry or birds to stars might have had a different emphasis.

Or maybe the language is borrowed from the philosophic sources. Was there a hint, or more, of Kant and company in there somewhere? Possibly in the chapter titled "Idealism"? Help. I wonder if this stuff comes via Carlyle and Coleridge? How was Emerson's German?

Or, another theory, is our visual vocabulary (colors and shapes, for example) so much richer than that of the other senses that writers interested in precision are naturally drawn, or trapped, there?
All right, I'm looking at the cartoon. The hat is just ridiculous. And the waistcoat.


  1. I have no idea how Emerson's German was, but I know that he read Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and that would be where he gets the Kant from. And Carlyle, of course...good catch. Check out STC's "Aids to Reflection" (1829), which we know that Emerson liked a great deal. There's also some indication that he pursued more information about the Kantian Ideal through Sartor Resartus. I know that there was this incredibly (allegedly) important article published by Frederic Hedge (on Coleridge...go figure) that Emerson was supposed to have gotten all excited about back in 1833, which I have not read, but Fichte scholars get all worked up over.

    Anyway, for no good reason, this "Emersonian eyeball" passage always reminds me of the Wire record "A Bell Is a Cup Until It Is Struck." That is, of course, apropos of nothing.

  2. I found a few excerpts of the Frederic Hedge essay on the ol' internet. Explained a lot. A lot about the transmission of German idealism to the US, not a lot about Coleridge or Kant. Very helpful.