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TOWARD THE DEATH AND FLOWERING OF TRANSCENDENTALISM IN
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
2007 Timothy Gilmore
I thank the chair, Dr. David Leverenz, and members of my supervisory
committee, Drs. Susan Hegeman, Stephanie Smith, and Louise Newman. Special thanks
also go to Dr. William Slaughter and Dr. Michael Wiley at the University of North
Florida and Dr. James Smethurst at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst for their
support and motivation. Thanks also must go to Jo Carlisle, for her constant support and
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS .......... .......... ..... ............................ 3
LIST OF FIGURES................... ................... ............................... 5
ABSTRACT ........... ............................................ ............6
1 INTRODUCTION ............... ........... .. ... ................. ........ 7
2 MISPRISIONS OF GERMAN IDEALISM AND EMERSON'S THREE
FIGURES OF COMPLETION .................. ................ ................... 19
3 MARGARET FULLER'S UNSYSTEMATIC ARCHITECTURE...............42
4 THOREAU' S PROJECT OF RECOVERING THE IRRECOVERABLE: THE
THING-IN-ITSELF ANDTHE THING-IN-ITS OPPOSITE........................65
5 AN OUROBORIC UNDERSTANDING OF OPPOSITION IN WALT
WHITMAN'S "SONG OF MYSELF"................... .....................95
6 [SELF] IDENTIFICATION WITH/OF THE OUROBORIC IN"SONG OF
MYSELF": A READING OF WHITMAN THROUGH HERBERT
M A R C U SE ....................................................... 119
7 HUMANIZATION THROUGH INTERPERSONAL OPPOSITION IN
DRUM-TAPS .............. .. ....... .. ............... ............ 140
8 THE RHETORICAL OUROBORIC IN WHITMAN' S WAKE; OR, THE
OUROBORIC INTERRELATION OF SPEAKER AND SUBJECT SINCE
WHITMAN. PART ONE: SANDBURG, HUGHES, AND THE BEATS....... 166
9 THE RHETORICAL OUROBORIC IN WHITMAN' S WAKE; OR, THE
OUROBORIC INTERRELATION OF SPEAKER AND SUBJECT SINCE
WHITMAN. PART TWO: PARRA, THE BLACK ARTS, AND SPOKEN
W ORD ................... .................... .................. .. .......... 202
W ORKS CITED................... .................... .................. .. ......... 223
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH ................... ........................................ 232
LIST OF FIGURES
1-1 Immanuel Kant Engraving Framed by an Ouroboros....................8
5-1 The Ouroboros ........... ............................... ..............125
5-2 American Indian Motif of Ouroboros ...................................... 126
5-3 "Old Man" Series, Photographed by Thomas Eakins......................139
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
TOWARD THE DEATH AND FLOWERING OF TRANSCENDENTALISM
IN WALT WHITMAN
Chair: David Leverenz
I trace American Transcendentalists' concern with opposition into the poetry of
Walt Whitman. This trajectory begins with misprisions of Kant's ideas about the
opposition of material and ideal, misprisions picked up and reinterpreted by Ralph
Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau. Whereas the
Transcendentalists prioritize one side of an oppositional relationship, based on their focus
on the Ideal, Whitman reinterprets opposition as defining each through the other. I use
the symbol of the ouroboros, the serpent swallowing its tail, to illustrate Whitman's
reinterpretation. Whitman's ouroboric understanding of opposition works on a
macrocosmic level with more abstract opposition and on a microcosmic level to explain
the self as always defined through the other. I use the theories of Herbert Marcuse to
show how Whitman's ouroboric of the self and other works to "humanize" the subject, to
liberate the subject from objectification. Finally, I show how this microcosmic ouroboric
influences twentieth-century poetry toward increased spokenness and toward an
extension of the ouroboric of self and other to the poetic speaker and his or her subject.
In the 1984 Wolfgang Peterson fantasy film, The NeverEnding Story, a little boy
named Bastian loses himself in a strange book, a book described as "not safe," the story
of which is the unending tale of human imagination. The hero of the story, Atreyu, the
story-side version of the reader, wears an amulet called the Auryn around his neck. As
long as he wears the amulet, he has the power to keep the story "neverending," to fight
off "the Nothing," which threatens to destroy the psychogeographical realm of story and
imagination that exists within the book.
When Bastian reads of the presentation of the Auryn to Atreyu by the
representative of "the Childlike Empress," he's stunned to realize it's the same symbol as
the one on the cover of his strange book. It is, in fact, the symbol of two serpents,
convoluted together and swallowing each other's tails. The Auryn symbolizes the
neverending nature of the story in the same way the lemniscate symbolizes infinity in
mathematics, by showing a closed circuit with no end and no beginning. The Auryn is, in
fact, a variation of the ouroboros, the symbol of the serpent swallowing its tail, which I
use as a trope in the following study.
The ouroboros has had wide-ranging symbolic uses. Later in this study, I mention
uses made of the symbol by Margaret Fuller, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Jorge Louis
Borges, Carl Gustav Jung, and French historian and archaeologist Louis Charbonneau-
Lassay. The ouroboros appears in much older motifs as well, from ancient cultures
worldwide. Even Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent in Aztec mythology, sometimes
appears biting his tail.
The ouroboros became an especially common symbol in alchemy, and as an
alchemical symbol has also found its way toward use as a philosophical and literary
trope. In his 1656 A Letter to a Friend, English alchemist and physician Sir Thomas
that the first day should make the last, that the tail of the snake
should return into its mouth precisely at that time, and they
should wind up upon the day of their nativity, is indeed a
remarkable coincidence, which, though astrology hath taken
witty pains to salve [sic], yet hath it been very wary in making
predictions of it. (93)
Randall Clack writes about how alchemical symbols become important tropes for writers
of the American Renaissance. Concerns with such themes as opposition, reconciliation,
and regeneration in alchemy yielded frequent use of concepts such as the philosopher's
stone and symbols such as the phoenix, the hermaphrodite, and the ouroboros, which
Clack traces to Margaret Fuller (117). Indeed, I begin Chapter 5 with Fuller writing about
the ouroboros. Meanwhile, an 1812 engraving by J. Chapman of Immanuel Kant
Figure 1-1. Immanuel Kant Engraving Framed by an Ouroboros
is framed with an ouroboros.1
1 Numerous popular culture texts use the ouroboros, including science fiction novels and television series.
In 1994, composer Kay Gardner completed Oratorio: Ouroboros: Seasons ofLife, a "neopagan oratorio."
In Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, time is described as ouroboric and shown with a hand-drawn
Recently, the ouroboros has appeared in popular science books like Jeremy
Narby's The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge and Joel R. Primack' s
and Nancy Ellen Abrams's The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering our
Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos. Narby's book, the interesting premise of which is a
little hard to swallow (no ouroboric pun intended), argues that hallucinogenic medicinal
plants used by indigenous peoples in such places as the Peruvian Amazon yield
metaphoric imagery that may be directly tied to the inner workings of human health.
Particularly, Narby thinks the widespread indigenous vision of the sacred snake may be
directly connected to the DNA spiral. As he puts it, "the biosphere itself, which can be
considered 'as a more or less fully interlinked unit,' is the source of the [shamanic]
images" of spiral serpents with sacred healing knowledge (131). Primack and Abrams use
the image of the ouroboros as a trope for connecting the two seemingly incompatible
realms of physics: relativity and quantum theory:
But then a very strange thing happens. As we continue along the
Cosmic Uroboros to the very tip of the tail, gravity becomes
extremely powerful again. The reason is that gravity's strength
increases as objects get closer to each other, and at the tip of
the tail distances between particles are almost unimaginably
small. The Cosmic Serpent swallowing its tail represents the
possibility that gravity links the largest and the smallest sizes
and thereby unifies the universe. This actually happens in
superstring theory, a mathematically beautiful idea that is our
best hope for a theory that could unify quantum theory and
illustration. Meanwhile, in Jack Kerouac's personal mythology, most directly dealt with in the lesser known
novel Dr. Sax, good is represented by Dr. Sax and evil by the "Great World Snake," which lives
underground. This imagery may also have influenced Jim Morrison's rambling about a seven-mile long
snake in the "ancient lake" in The Doors' song, "The End." Similarly, James Wright translates Pablo
Neruda's "Some Beasts," ending,
And deep in the huge waters
the enormous anaconda lies
like the circle around the earth,
covered with ceremonies of mud,
relativity. In string theory, sizes smaller than the Planck length
get remapped into sizes larger than the Planck length. (163)
In using the ouroboros as a central symbol for their writings, Narby, Primack, and
Abrams argue for the use of convenient symbols for tropes.
I use the ouroboros as a trope to describe Walt Whitman's appropriation and
evolution of American Transcendentalist concerns with opposition. The use of such a
trope makes sense in light of mid-nineteenth century European and American writers'
usage of alchemy and the occult. Any quick look at mid-nineteenth century science will
indicate that the areas we now consider legitimate science and pseudoscience were
intricately bound together. Darwin's 1859 On the Origin of Species came onto a stage
already occupied by more occult theories, such as phrenology. Also, Utopian ideals and
experiments such as George Ripley's Brook Farm, which lasted from 1841 to 1847 and
along the way turned to Fourierist principles with the construction of the communal
building known in Fourierist thinking as a philanstery, competed with such trends as
Sylvester Graham's vegetarianism, touted as a cure for alcoholism and sexual urges.2
Emanuel Swedenborg and Franz Mesmer led the way for the introduction of Spiritualism
to America, the latter promoting his ideas of "animal magnetism," or invisible physical
influence between two people without touching. The progeny of such ideas can be seen in
Margaret Fuller's notion of woman having an "electrical, inspired, lyrical nature"
(Woman in the Xii)ieenlth Century, 76). In this historical context, an alchemical symbol
used to portray relationships of opposition, as indeed Fuller briefly used it, should not
2 Today we mostly remember Graham as the inventor of Graham crackers.
I use the ouroboros in a very particular way, not merely to symbolize infinity, or
to represent any and every relationship of opposition. Nor is my use of it mystical or
spiritualist. I do not employ the ouroboros to describe the concerns American
Transcendentalism per se held with opposition. The ouroboros serves as a trope to
describe Whitman's understanding of opposition, which I see as quite different from the
understandings of the Transcendentalists. My first chapters will show how American
Transcendentalists-particularly Emerson, Fuller, and Thoreau-see the relations of
opposition. Their understandings, though each different, are central to explaining what
the transcendence in Transcendentalism signifies. Crucial to my argument is the idea that
different Transcendentalists prioritized particular sides of oppositional relationships, thus
defining transcendence in varied ways from writer to writer. Whitman does something
vastly different. Paradoxically, as is the way with the ouroboric, Whitman's refusal to
prioritize a particular side of an oppositional relationship allows his understanding of
opposition to become personal and political.
The American Transcendentalists themselves initially became concerned with
opposition primarily for religious and theological reasons, as I point out in Chapter 2.
The problem with the Transcendentalists in regard to their emphasis on the historical and
the political cannot be that they never make social and political forays. Certainly,
Emerson later writes about his abhorrence of slavery, Thoreau pens "Civil Disobedience"
after his refusal to pay the poll tax in protest of slavery and the Mexican-American War,
and Margaret Fuller becomes an early voice of feminism. In fact, in Fuller's oft-
overlooked travelogue, Summer on the Lakes, the American Indian becomes the site
wherein several opposition are, at the very least, brought into contact with each other. In
its apparent ramble, the book is comprised of an architecture built of opposition
centering on the central polarity of male and female. Gender becomes linked directly with
a desire to "see" those who had been made other, whether those who had moved out to
the frontier, or the American Indian. She engages the politics of the mid-century frontier
as well as the politics of gender.
Nor might there be any writer or thinker who justly claims exception from the
historical and the political. But the Transcendentalists always undermine their steps
toward the political with their own claims for transcendence, even though their forms of
transcendence differ from one writer to the next. Those writers who align themselves
most closely to Emerson's definition of Transcendentalism as Idealism most greatly
undermine their attempts at the political. Even Thoreau, who relies on the senses, relies
on them in order to catch a glimpse of the ideal. When he has a problem with human law,
it's because he finds it out of accordance with "higher law." Because Thoreau privileges
the ideal, his thinking comes short of being ouroboric. Nevertheless, his emphasis on the
senses moves us further from Emerson and closer to Whitman. Whitman's understanding
of opposition as creating themselves through each other means that the ideal cannot be
privileged above the material. Each creates itself through the process of interacting with
the other. Thus, this world matters entirely, and the political and historical are granted
entry into Whitman's worldview.
I see the ouroboric occurring on two different scales, a macrocosmic and a
microcosmic scale. Politicization becomes possible through the macrocosmic because
ouroboric sustenance embodies the relationships of opposition, making them fully
physical. The particulars of this world cannot be made secondary to a universal or ideal
realm, because these opposites exist through each other. This move in itself
simultaneously completes the Transcendentalist project beginning with Emerson by fully
fleshing out opposition, and undoes it by making the spiritual and physical depend on
one another. In Whitman, relationships of opposition then become ouroboric, and
thereby Transcendentalism can be said to meet its death and its full flowering. Whitman's
greatest politicization, however, occurs through the microcosmic ouroboric, where his
politics are those of the personal.
The first three chapters deal with the precursors to Whitman. Whitman was
neither Transcendentalist, nor Idealist, but he does inherit his concern with opposition
from Emerson, Fuller, and Thoreau, and the American Transcendentalists themselves
from Coleridgean misprisions of Kant. These chapters show the differing prioritizations
of opposition leading up to Whitman. The important point is that all these precursors did
prioritize. Emerson priorities the ideal over the material with no apology, even defining
Transcendentalism as Idealism. Emerson's ideas of Idealism are based on Coleridge's
misreadings of Kant, where Coleridge interprets Kant's "reason" as "intuitive." For
Emerson, intuition can be seen as a way of knowing, even though Kant had said that
"intuitions without concepts are blind" (Critique of Pure Reason, 93). Emerson's
epistemology is entirely ungrounded. The senses are not even necessary. Fuller chastises
and mocks Emerson for this tendency, claiming for herself the earth against Emerson's
heaven. Though Fuller claims the physical, she nevertheless idealizes it. Her feminism
uses the paranormal qualities of the "electric" and "magnetic" to replace woman's
"fluids." Her gender politics call for celibacy until marriage can be a union of equals and
desexualizes the fluids of the body. Whereas Fuller brings us closer to Whitman in terms
of aligning herself toward the earth, Thoreau brings us closer by seeking to know the
ideal through the material. Though Thoreau sees truth as an essentialist and transcendent
property, he believes in employing the physical senses to catch a glimpse of it.
The next three chapters focus on Whitman's use of opposition. Chapter 5 uses
"Song of Myself' to establish what an ouroboric understanding generally means, whereas
Chapters 6 and 7 take Whitman's ouroboric in a more personal direction. In order to do
that, we must move from Whitman's macrocosmic ouroboric opposition (life/death,
spiritual/physical, male/female, part/whole, etc.) to the microcosmic. The particular
microcosm with which his ouroboric concerns itself is the relationship between "I" and
Chapter 6 zooms in on this microcosmic ouroboric by using the ideas of Herbert
Marcuse. The OxfordEnglish Dictionary gives a definition for reificationn" that is itself
based on Marcuse's Reason andRevolution. The entry quotes Marcuse's statement that
reification is a process through which "all personal relations between men take the form
of objective relations between things." I argue that Whitman's humanizing of the self by
defining it through the other works against reification, and that this very process
illustrates the political as defined through the personal. Because, in Marcuse's view,
"affirmative culture" affirms the capitalist social structure by siphoning off and sealing
away the material complaints of individuals, it creates a contained space, a condensed
space, a reservoir, of dissatisfaction. "Song of Myself' can be seen as working against
"affirmative culture," by emphasizing the material as necessary for the spiritual. With
that understanding, the individual as material being finds his existence through
interrelation with other individual human beings. Though I don't intend to try to prove
whether these effects in Whitman's poetry were intended, I do point out a number of
instances of wordplay that indicate he was quite aware of the tendencies of a newly
industrial economy to reduce human relationships to economic ones.
Moving through the Whitman chapters, the focus increasingly narrows, from his
general understanding of opposition relating to each other on a large scale to his very
personal, and thereby political, understanding of the interrelations of self and other,
finally analyzed concretely in close readings of several poems from Drum-Taps.
Whitman's emphasis on the opposition of divine and human appears in the face of the
injured whom the poet thinks is "the face of the Christ himself, / Dead and divine" ("A
Sight in Camp"). The poet himself moves amongst the injured like a lustful Christ,
dressing wounds, while "Many a soldier's kiss dwells on [his] bearded lips" ("The
Wound-Dresser"). Whitman's direct Civil War poems in Drum-Taps are some of his
most personal, where the macrocosmic always seems to come through the microcosmic
and interpersonal. I argue that the idea of Whitman as national healer rings superheroic,
giving us a heavy-handed cartoon of a giant who, having sounded his "barbaric yawp
over the roofs of the world" ("Song of Myself, Sec. 52), now straddles the crevasse
known as the Mason-Dixon line and brutely muscles the two halves of the nation back
together. But to argue against this image of Whitman the national healer, in fact, allows
me to argue for a more complicated political figure in Whitman, where the politics is
personal and charged with eroticism. In this political Whitman, the humanizing effect of
interpersonal sympathy belies the reification that folds human beings into banners and
mass rallies, that makes them become one united cause for war. Chapter 7 serves as the
final application of the ideas of the previous two chapters.
Chapters 8 and 9 swing my narrative arc to the increasingly political poetry that
follows Whitman. In delineated Whitman's influence, I could have focused on the High
Modernist poetry of William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Hart Crane. In fact, in
Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Americus, Book I (2004), a Homer speaking "wild demonic /
demotic Greek" includes among "Whitman's wild children" Ezra Pound, William Carlos
Williams, and Charles Olson in one trajectory (9-10). But that phrase, "Whitman's wild
children" comes from the title of a book by Neeli Cherkovski3 that offers "portraits" of
several Beat poets. Similarly, in Ferlinghetti's poem, Homer continues to chart a more
countercultural direction. "Dare I say to you that poetry / ain't what it used to be" (11).
This assertion works as an observation, not a complaint. After all, Homer speaks here in
"demotic." To prove his point, Homer makes an inventory of "pay-toilet poets groaning
with graffiti," "eyeless unrealists" and "self-occulting supersurrealists," "Nuyorican
slammers and gangsta rappers," and "Zen brothers of poetry," amongst many others. My
concern in this study lies more with this second trajectory, one of counterculture,
populism, and spokenness.
Alexis de Tocqueville had said that in a democratic society, the poet need not
contemplate the ideal, the mythological, the heavenly and sublime, but instead, de
Tocqueville says bitingly, "I need only contemplate myself' (564). The obvious
counterpoint in Whitman would be his "I celebrate myself' at the beginning of "Song of
Myself." Yet in post-Whitman American poetry, the poet contemplating himself quite
often comes to mean the poet contemplating the people, inasmuch as he sees himself as
voxpopuli. The poetry of Carl Sandburg and Langston Hughes obviously fits the bill of
populist poetry in the early twentieth century. Whitman's influence on this poetry caused
3 Cherkovski also wrote a biography of Ferlinghetti. See Chapter 8.
a simultaneous move toward spokenness and the microcosmic ouroboric in which the "I"
and "you" becomes extended to the poetic speaker and the subject of the poem. The
increased spokenness, the twentieth-century follow-through to Whitman's "blab of the
pave" ("Song of Myself," Sec. 8), can be clearly mapped out.
More complicated, however, is how much the speaker truly interrelates with his
subject. Sandburg's populism often comes across as too self-conscious, speaking more to
itself than to its subject, whereas Hughes' musical conversations (or conversational
music) represents the speaker as part of the people. Hughes can be seen to speak not only
for and to the community of Harlem, but i/ i/h the community in a truly interrelational
ouroboric. This tension, illustrated by Sandburg and Hughes, carries forward into the
oxymoronically avant-garde populism of Beat writers as well, especially Ginsberg and
Ferlinghetti, into the "antipoetry" ofNicanor Parra, and into the increasingly
performative poetry of the Black Arts and Spoken Word movements. Even in Black Arts
poems that would seem to represent the voices of the community, the same tension
persists. The poetry of Nikki Giovanni, for example, has been said not so much to exploit
the obvious us vs. them dichotomy of black vs. white, as a revolutionary I calling the you
of the black community toward it (Harper, 250). Meanwhile, in Sonia Sanchez' later
"Song No. 2," the speaker and subjects) infuse one another in a clear extension of the
ouroboric relationship of self and other. The speaker speaksfor the community, for these
"young girls," by speaking i/ ilh them, so that they have voices through her voice.
In Debbora Battaglia's "Problematizing the Self: A Thematic Introduction" to her
edited collection Rhetorics of Self-Making, she writes that
there is no selfhood apart from the collaborative practice of its
figuration. The "self" is a representational economy: a reification
continually defeated by mutable entanglements with other subjects'
histories, experiences, self-representations; with their texts, conduct,
gestures, objectifications [...] and so forth. (2)
The balance of this "representational economy" is precisely what's at stake in Whitman's
microcosmic ouroboric and in the post-Whitman poetry I trace. Paradoxically, if the self
can itself be called a reificationn," its "defeat" though the "entanglements" and
interrelations with the other allows the "I" to reach its full human potential, in Marcusean
terms. In the post-Whitman poetry that tends toward spokenness, the speaker must
become fully entangled with the subject, so that representation means only speakingfor
and speaking to when it can convincingly mean speaking i/ ilh
Though I do not consider the American Transcendentalists to be ouroboric
thinkers, it might be said that a certain ouroboric of theform of the writing I analyze
works through my narrative. Though I treat the Transcendentalists predominantly as
essayists and prose writers, it also makes sense to consider them as poets, and their prose
as poetry, especially in the case of Emerson. Contrasted to the German Idealists, for
example, their writing abstains from systematic thinking, and Emerson's essays are
impressionistic. Of course, Emerson always wanted to be a poet, and I do end the first
chapter with a look at his poem, "Threnody." Yet Whitman creates what I call an anti-
Transcendentalist Transcendentalism in the form of poetry, ostensibly (if only ostensibly)
a radical shift in form from Transcendentalist prose. Though I point out in my last two
chapters that Transcendentalism still greatly influences American poetry, it is the lineage
of Whitman's anti-Transcendentalist Transcendentalism that primarily infuses today's
poetry of spokenness and of the microcosmic ouroboric of "I" and "you."
MISPRISIONS OF GERMAN IDEALISM AND EMERSON'S
THREE FIGURES OF COMPLETION
The connection between American Transcendentalism and German and British
Romanticism has been well established. Ralph Waldo Emerson himself categorized the
Transcendentalist, in the essay of the same name, as an idealist, linking the American
writers to German Idealism. Yet American scholarship frequently downplays the
transatlantic connection. Sacvan Bercovitch blames this blind spot partly on "the chronic
resistance of Americanists, in their zealous search for National Character, to give due
attention to 'foreign' influences" (4). Establishing an American literature was a major
theme of mid-nineteenth century American writers, and scholars since them have often
continued to emphasize their originality at the expense of received influence. As Patrick
J. Keane says in his crucial study, Emerson, Romanticism, andIntuitive Reason: The
Transatlantic "Light ofAll Our Day," "transmission necessarily precedes transformation.
Not even Emerson is sui generis" (85).
Yet it would also be misleading to assume the influence from German Idealism on
American Transcendentalism to be too direct or even well interpreted and understood by
the Transcendentalists. Instead, German Idealist influence on the Emersonian and
generally Transcendentalist obsession with opposition obtains through the misreadings
and misunderstandings of third parties. It's also through these misreadings that Emerson
points to three figures-Christ, the poet, and his departed son Waldo-as "complete"
human beings in a kind of personal Trinity. Each exemplifies the "complete" human
being by ordering, or having ordered, his central opposition (each to be discussed in
turn) in what Emerson understands as the requisite Idealist hierarchy.
Though my goal at the beginning of this chapter is to discuss the link from
German Idealism to American Transcendentalism-and more precisely from Kant to
Emerson-through Samuel Taylor Coleridge, I must first explain why this present goal is
not as ambitious as it may seem. Mainly, it serves as a setting for my later and primary
goal, which is to discuss Whitman's use of opposition. Here, I will discuss the primacy
Emerson grants to the consideration of relationships of opposition, and how he attains
this concern from Coleridge's reworking (some say bungling) of Kant. This chapter
should not be seen as setting the scene for a larger argument about German Romanticism
and Idealism or even for a discussion of the American Transcendentalists' applications of
their concerns with opposition on the nineteenth-century political landscape.
Let me offer a brief explanation for the latter statement. As Gay Wilson Allen
describes it in his biography of Emerson, the Unitarian minister's ouster from the
ministry came about from a central Emersonian (and later Whitmanic) concern about
opposition, specifically those of Christ's divinity and his humanity. Emerson had
decided he could not oversee the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, because he no longer
considered Christ divine in the way he believed was expected of an ordained minister:
[H]is central theme, after proving to his own satisfaction that the
Lord's Supper had no clear authority in the New Testament, was
that Christ came into the world to provide a living religion to take
the place of the empty formalism of the Jewish religion, not to
instigate new forms and rituals. (Allen, 192)
Emerson did not see Christ as the exclusive son of God, but, he later stated in his address
to the Harvard Divinity School, as a teacher who said, in effect, "'I am divine. Through
me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or see thee, when thou
also thinkest as I now think"' (Emerson, 67). As a result of this stance, the Second
Church in Boston had voted him out of the pulpit (Allen, 192-193). The endurance and
continued development of Emerson's stance on Christ's divinity are significant here,
because they help to explain how the beginning concerns of Emerson and the
Transcendentalists, of whom many had ties to the ministry of the Unitarian Church, were
primarily religious and theological and not directly or consciously political.
The direction of Transcendentalist thought might be said to move from the
consciously religious in such works as William Ellery Channing's 1838 lecture, "Self-
Culture," enormously influential on Emerson's own "Self-Reliance," and Emerson's
Nature (1836) to the more overtly political through Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience"
(1849) and "A Plea for Captain John Brown" (1860) and Emerson's own later abolitionist
stance. The direction of the British Romanticism, specifically of Wordsworth and
Coleridge, through whom Emerson came to know Kant, moved in the opposite direction.
As Keane explains in discussing "that movement of Wordsworth and Coleridge away
from radical politics,"
their move to quietism [came] in consequence of a genuine
revulsion (also motivated, at first and in part, by fear of a domestic
repression) from the bloody course of the French Revolution and
its Napoleonic aftermath. (40)
What signifies most strongly for my purposes here are the particular points in the
different religious and political trajectories of these writers in England and in America
where their respective concerns with opposition converge.
Emerson and the early American Transcendentalists take up their concerns with
the relationships between opposition not directly from German Idealism, but through
Wordsworth and especially Coleridge, at a point when these British Romantic poets had
moved from a radical politics to quietism and when the American Transcendentalists had
not yet moved from primarily religious concerns to a more radical politics. We will not
see the full political import of these oppositional relationships until we look into
Whitman in later chapters. Though from this historical distance, one might at first guess
that the issue of slavery pushed the American Transcendentalists to think dialectically the
way the French Revolution spurred German Romantics, their initial concern with
opposition was religious and theological and was taken over from Coleridge's use of
Kant at a point when Coleridge had left any thought of radical politics behind.1
Standing Kant on His Head
Emerson avidly read Plato and neoplatonists such as Plotinus, but the German
philosopher most directly associated with the dialectic before Marx apparently never
made much of an impression on Emerson. In 1867, Emerson wrote William Torrey
Harris, the foremost American authority on Hegel, that he was trying to be patient, but
not having much luck with reading Hegel, who was not "engaging nor at second sight
satisfying. But his immense fame can not [sic] be mistaken, and I shall read and wait." As
Allen says, "he would never be able to read Hegel with satisfaction. [Bronson] Alcott had
complained that Hegel made his head ache, and Emerson understood" (631). The largest
German Romantic influence on Emerson came indirectly, through what may have been
1 Thoreau's later political consciousness surely stands out in contrast to Emerson's sometimes maddeningly
apolitical stance, though even Emerson once provided lodging for John Brown. The story of Emerson's
asking Thoreau, "What are you doing in there?" when the latter was injail for non-payment of taxes, and
Thoreau's reply, "What are you doing out there?" is probably apocryphal, but it nicely illustrates the
common perception of a major difference between the two men in regards to activism. However, Thoreau
seems to have gained his political consciousness almost in spite of his Idealist or Transcendentalist views.
The same Transcendentalism employed in "Civil Disobedience" to appeal to "higher law" also allows him
to see nature as a higher state than the State. Thus, released fromjail, he can immediately join a
"huckleberry party," where "the State was nowhere to be seen." For both Emerson and Thoreau, the view
that the real reality lies outside or above the one we experience will always qualify any political efficacy in
third-party misapprehension, though Keane prefers to think of it as "creative misprision"
If, as Keane suggests, Kant meant to "salvage a new non-traditional metaphysics
by limiting its range,"2 rejecting, in The Critique of Pure Reason, the idea that "reason
can arrive at ultimate truths," (54) Coleridge misrepresented that Kantian idea in his
presentation of German Idealism to England and America. Keane calls that
misrepresentation a creative form of misreading, whereas others have considered it
bungling, and though this thesis might intrigue us, it's not my concern to prove
Coleridge's presence or lack of intention here. More certain is that "the denial of
metaphysical knowledge, even if it was a provisional preclusion in the effort to save
philosophy, was intolerable to Coleridge" (57). What Coleridge does with Kant proves
crucial to Emerson's thinking and the beginnings of American Transcendentalism.
Though Kant restricts the possibilities of knowledge to the phenomenal realm,
rejecting any possibility for knowledge of the noumenal, Coleridge stands Kant on his
head by interpreting "Reason" solely as "intuition." According to Keane, "It is not too
much to say that Coleridge maintained a lifelong obsession with the lines Milton placed
in the breathless mouth of his archangel" (51). Those lines, spoken by Raphael in
Paradise Lost distinguish two kinds of reason:
Fancy and understanding, whence the soul
Reason receives, and reason is her being,
Discursive or intuitive. (italics mine)
(Book V, 11. 486-488)
In the final book of The Prelude, Wordsworth, strongly influenced by Coleridge's
definitions of reason, writes,
2 As Kant says in the "Preface to the Second Edition," "I have therefore found it necessary to deny
knowledge, in order to make room forfaith" (29).
Through every image, and through every thought
And all affections, by communion raised
From earth to heaven, from human to divine;
Hence endless occupation for the Soul,
Whether discursive or intuitive. (italics mine)
"Reason," in both cases, is the "being" of the "soul," and reason has two facets, the
discursive, primarily used by humans, according to Milton's Raphael, and the intuitive,
the most commonly used form of reason for the angels. Coleridge interprets Kant's use of
reason as "intuitive," even though Kant says, "Without sensibility no object would be
given to us, without understanding no object would be thought. Thoughts without content
are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind" (Critique of Pure Reason, 93).
The paradox, as expressed by Keane, is that
what for Kant (intuition without understanding) is "blind" [...] became,
for the British Romantics and American Transcendentalists, precisely
Coleridge's "seeing light," Wordsworth's "master light of all [their]
seeing": the faculty divine that in effect usurped what Kant meant by
pure Reason. (59)
In a letter to his brother Edward, Emerson calls "Reason" "the soul itself' (Keane, 59), as
if in apposition to Milton's and Wordsworth's lines quoted above.
This alignment of "Reason" with the soul brings us to the Harvard Divinity
School Address, in which Emerson ties Intuition to the divinity of Christ, which all have
inside them. If intuition, for Milton, brings human beings closer to the celestial, since it is
the angelic side, as it were, of reason, for Emerson, intuition brings the soul into contact
with its own divinity. Since "Reason" equates to "the soul itself," and reason is
interpreted as intuitive, "The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of [sic] the
perfection of the laws of the soul" (59). In other words, intuition leads one to his spiritual
nature, whereas mere understanding would only concern the physical. Furthermore, while
"the doors of the Temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of
this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition: this, namely; it is an intuition"
(66). For Emerson, intuition, or intuitive reason, as opposed to discursive reason, leads us
to the truth. Finally,
Historical Christianity [...] has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious
exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons.
It invites every man to expand to the full circle of the universe, and
will have no preferences but those of spontaneous love. (68)
If intuition, or intuitive reason, leads us to our spiritual nature and thus to the truth, then
the soul, to which intuitive reason equates, leads us to truth in the "full circle of the
universe." Jesus realized and attained this possibility, and any individual can be Jesus, for
all have equal access to divinity through intuitive reason.
Primary opposition have been established for American Transcendentalism
through the Coleridgean misreading or "creative misprision" of Kant's thinking about
intuition and reason. "Coleridgean Reason, always intuitive rather than discursive, is a
transcendental progenitor occupying an obviously higher status than the sense-limited
understanding" (Keane, 61). Indeed intuitive reason resides at the very core of Emerson's
idea of idealism, as the privileging of the ideal realm over the actual. Though for the most
part Keane doesn't raise the question of whether Emerson was aware of Coleridge's
reinterpretations of Kant's ideas, he does ask if possibly "Emerson [was] aware that his
mentor had not only revised but also reversed Kant on the elevation of Intuition over
Understanding" (33f). In either case, the prioritizing of intuition over understanding, in
Coleridgean terms, or of intuitive reason over discursive reason, in Miltonian terms,
results in a privileging of the spiritual over the material and the ideal over the actual.
In Miltonian terms, the discursive represents the side of reason most used by
human beings, and in Coleridgean terms, mere understanding, "that Faculty of the Soul
which apprehends and retains the mere notices of Experience," is a faculty that humans
share with animals (Keane, 58). In both cases, intuitive reason, or intuition, must be
aligned with the higher part of human nature, that which touches upon the angelic (in
Milton's Great Chain of Being), or the noumenal, in Coleridge's revising of Kant. For
Emerson, this means that the highest attainment of the human occurs through the
spiritual, even the divine. Christ must be considered the most human of human beings for
pointing the way for all humans, through intuitive reason as the soul itself, to the divine
within each individual.
Christ and the Poet
Emerson's privileging of the spiritual over the material and the divine over the
merely human, as represented in Christ, strikingly parallels his privileging of the whole
man over the partial man, as represented in that most representative of men, the poet. In
"The Poet," Emerson says, "The breadth of the problem is great, for the poet is
representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man." So Christ and the
poet are two different types of the complete and representative man. The one can be
called most human because he realizes his divinity; the other can be called most human
because he figures as a kind of universal everyman. In the case of poets, theyhy receive
of the soul as he [the partial man] also receives, but they more." Since we have seen that
the soul equates with intuitive reason, or intuition, which brings human beings closer to
the spiritual realm, or even the divine, we could paraphrase Emerson to say that the poet
is a more complete man for more fully realizing his own soul, or even his own divinity.
Either Christ was a poet, then, or the poet becomes a kind of Christ.
In fact, in looking from the Harvard Divinity School Address to "The Poet," we
can see that Emerson began searching for the poet before he even realized it. In the
former, Emerson mentions a "preacher," "a formalist," who preached while a snowstorm
encompassed the church. "The snow-storm was real, the preacher merely spectral," he
says, and because of this contrast, the preacher "had lived in vain." It seems almost as
though the church is Plato's Cave from Book VII of The Republic, and against the
formalism of the preacher, even the snowstorm outside seems a more real reality.
The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into
truth, he had not learned. Not one fact from all his experience had
he yet imported into his doctrine. This man had ploughed and planted
and talked and bought and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and
drunken; his head aches, his heart throbs; he smiles and suffers; yet
was there not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse, that he had ever
lived at all. Not a line did he draw out of real history. The true preacher
can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life-life
passed through the fire of thought. (72)
If Emerson seeks a level of completeness in the preacher, but the poet and Christ are both
different kinds of complete and representative everyman, perhaps he never wanted a
preacher so much as he did a poet. Indeed, he soon tells us that thereee is poetic truth
concealed in all the commonplaces of prayer and of sermons, and though foolishly
spoken, they may be wisely heard" (72). The difference between such a preacher and the
poet seems to be that the poet must seize upon poetic truth through intuitive reason and
speak it wisely, rather than foolishly.
What kind of comment upon Emerson's own confidence in himself as poet was
his focusing on an issue that resulted in his being voted out of the ministry? Could this
move, coupled with the predominance of his writing in essay form, rather than poetry,
reflect a failure to see himself as the poet that Allen says he always wanted to be (Allen,
34-35)? Or could his move away from the ministry be seen as a necessary step from the
"foolish" preacher to the poet? In a journal entry for June 2, 1832, he writes, "I have
sometimes thought that in order to be a good minister it was necessary to leave the
ministry" (Allen, 187). Was leaving the ministry also necessary in order to be a poet? In
any case, in "The Poet," he famously declares, "I look in vain for the poet whom I
In light of this connection of preacher and poet, Emerson's direction for how to
identify "[t]he true preacher" fits in between Wordsworth and Ginsberg in a long
tradition of defining the poet. Compare Emerson's statement that the true preacher "deals
out to the people his life-life passed through the fire of thought" to Wordsworth's
comments about the poet in the famous 1802 preface to the Lyrical Ballads. First, "Poets
do not write for Poets alone, but for men" (608). Then, more famously, "Poetry is the
spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings [taking] its origin from emotion recollected in
tranquillity" (611). The terms differ, but the parallels between the preacher's dealt-out
life and the poet's "spontaneous overflow" on one hand, and the preacher's passing his
life "through the fire of thought" and the poet's recollection of emotion "in tranquility,"
seem striking. At the other end of the aforementioned long tradition, in "Howl," Ginsberg
famously calls the distillation of experience into poetry "the absolute heart of the poem of
life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years."3 In Ginsberg, the
life passed "to the people" "through the fire of thought" has become physical, a "heart,"
"butchered" and "good to eat." Poetry has gone from the substanceless substance of a
3 See Chapter 8 for a discussion of Ginsberg's Whitmanic lineage.
rarefied realm to an act of cannibalism. To anticipate later chapters, it might be said that
Emerson aligns with Coleridge's idealism and "misprision" of Kant, whereas Ginsberg
aligns with Whitman's anti-Transcendentalist Transcendentalism.
We might also briefly contrast Wordsworth's opposition of "Poets" to "men" with
Emerson's opposition of the poet as "complete man" to "partial men." Both of these
opposition rely on Coleridge's reversal of Kant's ranking Reason above Intuition. When
Wordsworth says, "Poets do not write for Poets alone, but for men," he seems to imply
that capital-P "Poets" are not only other than, but above "men," thus undermining his
own attempt at democratic sentiment. Poets have obligations to represent "men," and
ordinary people somehow require this poetic representation.4 For Emerson, the poet
stands as the "complete man" for all the ordinary "partial men," and thus, through his
powers of intuition, represents the universal for ordinary people. In doing so, he becomes
likewise representative of ordinary people themselves. Like Wordsworth, Emerson
strains toward egalitarian sensibilities, but undermines himself before he can get there.
Emerson's poet is his preacher, and as such, always stands as the figure at the head of the
congregation, someone at least a little above the rest, more whole, and in closer contact
with the ideal realm.
Emerson's self-undermining strains toward egalitarianism may be based directly
in the Coleridgean reversal of Kant. According to Keane, Coleridge's reversal of Kant's
ranking of reason over intuition is in line with the Miltonian hierarchy of intuitive reason
over discursive reason, the former used more by the angels and the latter more by
humans. Therefore, Emerson's depiction of the poet as representative and complete by
4 The politics of poetic representation brings to mind Shelley's famous statement from Defence of Poetry
that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."
way of his intuitive capacities actually orients the poet away from human life and toward
the ideal and universal, if not the angelic.
Yet Emerson wants to have things both ways. Four months before delivering the
Harvard Divinity School Address, he wrote in his journals, "The belief in Christianity
that now prevails is the Unbelief of men. They will have Christ for a lord & not for a
brother. Christ preaches the greatness of Man but we hear only the greatness of Christ"
(Keane, 343). To believe in Christ should not be to disbelieve (or to unbelieve) in human
beings. To believe in Christ, Emerson thinks, should be to believe in the full potential of
being human. It should be to believe in the completion of being human. To believe in
Christ should be to believe in the poet. Yet, paradoxically, as Christ and the poet are
figured above ordinary people, to believe in the full potential and completion of one's
humanity must be, in fact, to believe in becoming something more than human. In other
words, to believe that the realization of one's full potential as human is divinity, as
exemplified in Christ and the poet, is to slight the humanity of ordinary people. The
paradox in a nutshell is this: Christ and the poet are most fully human by realizing they
are divine, so divinity is still required to redeem ordinary people from their mere
If Emerson has come far enough in his thinking to lose his pulpit and scandalize
the audience with his Divinity School Address, his Coleridgean Romanticism has not
brought him all that far from Unitarian prioritizations of the spiritual over the material,
and as the way to access the spiritual, the intuitive over the discursive. Keane writes, "It
is an old joke, unfair but telling, that the favorite prayer of Unitarians begins,
'Paradoxical though it may seem, O Lord...'" (348). Indeed, the paradoxes evolve, but
the same sides of oppositional relationships remain privileged. Not only is the spiritual
privileged over the material and the ideal over the actual, but the Kantian critique has
been inverted to the extent that "Reason," "paradoxical as it may seem," now means its
opposite. The way to become most fully human obtains through Reason, but "most fully
human" really means "divine," and "Reason" really means "Intuition."
"Oh That Beautiful Boy!"
The third figure of completion in Emerson, following Christ and the poet, can
only be Emerson's son, Waldo. Contradictorily, Emerson remains famous both for his
supposed inability to grieve following the death of his young son in 1842 and for his own
last words four decades later, before dying of tuberculosis: "Oh that beautiful boy!"
(Allen, 662). Certainly, Emerson's comments, in the essay "Experience," about how little
Waldo's death affected him continue to be shocking in their apparent coldness. "The only
thing grief has taught me is to know how shallow it is," he says. And then, "In the death
of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate-no more.
I cannot get it nearer to me." But most troubling of all,
[I]t does not touch me; something which I fancied was a part
of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me nor
enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me and leaves no
scar. It was caducous. (309)
It's difficult to believe him, and the existence of the essay itself is part of the reason it's
difficult, though we will primarily consider his poem, "Threnody," rather than the essay
"Experience," for the final part of this chapter.
If Emerson did not admit to grieving for his son, Margaret Fuller did. We will see
in further detail in the next chapter how Fuller opposed her prioritizations of opposition
to Emerson's, but her response to his Essays: Second Series, which contained
"Experience," is telling here.
Conceding the "great gifts" he had given the world, she still
thought her idealist and erect friend, whose "only aim is the
discernment and interpretation of the spiritual law by which we
live," had "raised himself too early to the perpendicular and did
not lie along the ground long enough to hear the secret whispers
of our parent life. We could wish he might be thrown by conflicts
on the lap of mother earth, to see if he would not rise again with
added powers." (Keane, 478)
Fuller's response sounds characteristic of so many of her reactions to Emerson. She often
points out his prioritizations of the spiritual, the heavens, the ideal, and in this case the
perpendicular against her own prioritizations of the material, the earth, the actual, and in
this case the horizontal as emblematic of a connection to the materiality of life in the
Yet if Emerson feels disconnected from the death of his son, it may be because
the death of such a small child connects to the "Godhead," to use Emerson's word from
"Threnody," in a bizarre corollary to Christ's and the poet's connecting of humanity to
God through intuition. For Emerson, the dead small child, Christ, and the poet are all
figures that exist more fully in connection with the ideal, the universal, and the spiritual
realm than they do in connection with the actual day-to-day world. Certainly, this is not
so on the face of things. Ostensibly, as Christ becomes most human by realizing his
divinity, as the poet is representative of ordinary people by realizing his universal
humanity, and as Waldo has gone on to the "Godhead" by physically dying, it would
seem that each of these three figures must be attached most directly to the world. Christ
and the poet must be most directly attached to their humanity, and Waldo's union with
the "Godhead" must depend on his own mortality. Yet, as we have seen, the Emersonian
status of Christ and the poet privileges the divine, the spiritual, the ideal, and Waldo's
unity with God must similarly be seen as a higher thing than his death, or than Emerson's
loss. All three figures become articulations with the spiritual, the "Godhead." All three
achieve what mere Understanding cannot.
The (Not) Fichte and the Not-Fichte
An understanding of how the departed young Waldo serves as Emerson's final
figure of completion must do three things. First, it must take into account Emerson's
exposure to another German Idealist thinker, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, whose ideas were
misinterpreted by Unitarian minister and American Transcendentalist Frederic Henry
Hedge to his American audience in much the same way, though to a much lesser extent,
that Kant's ideas were misrepresented by Coleridge. Secondly, our understanding must
apply this misunderstanding to a reading of Emerson's "Threnody." And finally, our
understanding must compare Emerson's account of his son's being "Lost in God, in
Godhead found" to the famous image of Emerson as "transparent eyeball" in Nature.
Whereas Emerson's understanding of Kant came through Coleridge, and his
understanding of Hegel was virtually nonexistent, his familiarity with Fichte's ideas
existed in between-not quite nonexistent, but at an even further remove than was the
case with Kant. Frederic Henry Hedge, the Unitarian minister most known now for being
an originating member of the Transcendental Club in 1836, translated small portions of
Fichte and wrote (very) briefly of Fichte's ideas in a review of Coleridge in 1833. Indeed,
Hedge's article-length review formede] the principal source of Emerson's knowledge of
Fichte" for some time (Chai, 336), and "there is not, in the published record, conclusive
assurance that Emerson read Fichte either in the original or in translation," other than the
small segments of The Destination ofMan published in 1847 in Hedge's Prose Writers of
Germany (Pochmann, 195-196).
In The Romantic Foundations of the American Renaissance, Leon Chai asserts
that Hedge's principal misreading of Fichte is to "equat[e] the 'I' and 'not-I' with
existence and nonexistence," by which "Hedge implies in effect that the only possible
form of being must be one contained i/ i/hi/ consciousness" (339).5 At this point, I depart
from Chai's reading of the influence on Emerson of Hedge's misprision. Chai sees the
influence as directly leading to Emerson's definition of "Nature" as "the NOT ME" in
Nature, even though Chai quotes Pochmann in a footnote that the "commonplaces" of
"me" and "not-me" "need not be referred to any specific source." Chai further states that
"Hedge's misprision of Fichte" can be seen "in his whole mode of developing the relation
between Nature and self based upon the nature of consciousness" (337f). Chai argues that
Nature, for Emerson, exists only "within consciousness," though "Emerson differs
somewhat from Hedge, since the 'presencing' of Nature in the mind is governed by an
external force rather than the mind itself" (339). I don't wish to take the time here to
5 In parallel with Keane seeing Coleridge's misreading of Kant as "creative misprision," Chai says of
Hedge's misreading of Fichte:
[T]he radical innovation embodied in Fichte's identification of being
with self-assertion and hence with consciousness is obscured and
even reduced to the level of epistemology. In the history of Emerson's
development, such a lacuna or misprision must be judged significant.
He goes on to say that Hedge's misinterpretation "is not creative but merely regressive," but does allow for
Emerson's creative use of this misinterpretation. Hedge's equating "the 'I' and 'not-I' with existence and
from Fichte's identification of consciousness with being, in which
the self-assertion of consciousness is equivalent to the being of the
"I." Hedge's summary opens up the possibility of Emerson's creative
misinterpretation of idealism in Nature by positing consciousness
as the element that contains being, such that all things have being
only by becoming objects of such a consciousness. Being is then
equivalent to the formation of the object within consciousness, rather
than the self-assertion of consciousness itself. (339)
argue extensively with Chai over this conception. Instead, let us look to the "Threnody,"
where the loss of little Waldo from his father equates with the loss of the child from
Nature, but unto the Godhead.
The falling away of his son as caducouss" in "Experience" appears in "Threnody"
as something more tragic and less cold. The falling away of the son from the speaker
obtains as the son's falling away from the speaker's experience of Nature.
Returned this day, the South-wind searches,
And finds young pines and budding birches;
But finds not the budding man;
Nature, who lost, cannot remake him;
Nature, Fate, men, him seek in vain.
The speaker's loss of his son is figured as Nature's loss. Indeed, the speaker seems to
understand that all experience of nature is subjective experience of nature, so that the
inverse seems to him to be true: a subjective experience of nature becomes the experience
of nature per se. "Night came, and Nature had not thee; / I said, 'We are mates in
But this relation of the "I" to the "not-I," the soul to Nature, can no more be
proven to be influenced by Fichte than it can be proven to be the lineage of Hedge's
misprision. Though the "I" of the speaker experiences the "not-I" of Nature as a part of
itself, Chai's interpretation of Emerson's understanding of Nature as existing within the
consciousness does not hold here. Chai seeks to prove his assertion by quoting Nature:
"When we speak of nature in this manner, we have a distinct but most poetical sense in
the mind. We mean the integrity of impression made by manifold natural objects." Chai
takes Emerson to mean that "nature" is the "integrity of impression" within "the mind,"
rather than that the "poetical sense" of speakingn] of nature in this manner" is that
"integrity of impression" (339). In other words, Emerson (contra Chai) speaks of the
"poetical sense" of "nature" in one's mind, not of Nature itself as existing within the
consciousness. In "Threnody," the little boy is indeed lost to Nature, inasmuch as he no
longer lives in it, but Nature's mourning Waldo is clearly a representation of how the
subjective experience of mourning seems to infuse the objective entirely and is not
intended for an actual representation of objective nature.
Whereas Emerson claims in "Experience" that his son was caducous, and that the
loss of his son was like the loss of property and "does not touch me," in "Threnody" he
says that Waldo never belonged to his father in the first place. In fact, he belonged to
Nature, the not-Emerson, all along.
Not mine-I never called thee mine,
But Nature's heir-if I repine,
And seeing rashly torn and moved
Not what I made, but what I loved,
Grow early old with grief that thou
Must to the wastes of Nature go-
'T is because a general hope
Was quenched, and all must doubt and grope.
For flattering planets seemed to say
This child should ills of ages stay,
By wondrous tongue, and guided pen,
Bring the flown Muses back to men.
Perchance not he but Nature ailed,
The world and not the infant failed.
Little Waldo was never so much a part of his father as he was a part of Nature. The
speaker, the father, only loved him. In this way, all human beings belong to Nature and
not to one another; they cannot own, but only love each other. Certainly, this all-
possessing Nature exists outside of the speaker's consciousness, although in the next
breath, the speaker speaks for Nature. Indeed, Nature seems to have willed Waldo to
restore the Muses to the world, a hope more in line with the hopes Emerson placed in
Christ and in the poet than anything Nature could will.
If Nature, with its seizure of such potential, is spoken of as "wastes," here, the
speaker soon comes to understand that nothing is wasted in Nature. Nature is a circular
process of opposition, and it's only we who wish to arrest the process in the points to
which we attach ourselves.
Wilt thou freeze love's tidal flow,
Whose streams through Nature circling go?
Nail the wild star to its track
On the half-climbed zodiac?
Light is light which radiates,
Blood is blood which circulates,
Life is life which generates,
And many-seeming life is one-
Wilt thou transfix and make it none?
Its onward force too starkly pent
In figure, bone and lineament?
The descriptions of this circular process prefigure Whitman's understandings of the
relationships of oppositions6 yet unlike Whitman, Emerson sees a positive harmony as
the end of the process, as expressed in the "many-seeming" becoming "one."
Though he says that Nature exists as a "circling" process of opposition, the lines
directly preceding these show that he still privileges one side of these oppositional
When frail Nature can no more,
Then the Spirit strikes the hour:
My servant Death, with solving rite,
Pours finite into infinite.
6 See Chapters 5 through 7 for my central argument of what I call Whitman's ouroboric understanding of
7 See Chapter 3 for Fuller's jocular ridicule of Emerson's mystical "All is One" stance.
Now all the Fichtean or not-Fichtean categories are even further confused. Rather than
merely opposing the soul to Nature, now something called "the Spirit" steps in to take
over from Nature. And rather than merely opposing the "I" to the "not-I," someone or
something called "Death" steps in. We would assume Death to be the ultimate "NOT
ME," and we would assume Death, as the taker of the child, to receive the speaker's fury.
But he calls Death "My servant." If we were to take this title literally, this line would be
more disturbing than Emerson's statements in "Experience" about Waldo's death not
touching him. In what capacity is Death, the taker of the speaker's child, the speaker's
servant? In the same capacity that Death can be called little Waldo's servant. Death is an
alchemist, and his "rite" is one of solvency, the dissolution of the "finite into [the]
infinite," the individual into the all, the many into the one. Emerson's neoplatonism
waxes cold again.
Oddly, "Threnody" ends with highly material metaphors to express the triumph of
the ideal and the universal. He sounds almost Whitmanic when he says,
Not of adamant and gold
Built he heaven stark and cold;
No, but a nest of bending reeds,
Flowering grass and scented weeds[.]
Because Nature endlessly circulates, it must be endlessly restorative. Here, Emerson
seems to approach the Whitman of poems like "This Compost." Yet the Spirit remains
Silent rushes the swift Lord
Through mined systems still restored,
Broadsowing, bleak and void to bless,
Plants with worlds the wilderness;
Waters with tears of ancient sorrow
Apples of Eden ripe to-morrow.
It is still the Spirit which constantly reanimates the material world, so that the poem may
end with the oppositional crescendo: "House and tenant go to ground, / Lost in God, in
Godhead found." The return to the earth of the "house and tenant," of the flesh and blood,
results in the exit from Nature the speaker expresses at the beginning of the poem, an exit
which exists as a return to universal Nature (in its circulatory process), then expressed at
the end of the poem. Says Keane,
In one sense, the whole paradoxical, even pleonastic, dialectic
is epitomized in the final line of"Threnody." "Lost in God, in
Godhead found!" rhetorically restores the boy repeatedly lamented
as "lost" in the first part of the elegy, but, philosophically or
"Transcendentally," Emerson could finish the poem, after long delay,
only by imagining his son's finite individuality somehow caught up
in and merged with an infinite Godhead. (348)
The punctuating chiasmus, "Lost in God, in Godhead found," compares to
Emerson's own experience of himself as "transparent eyeball" in Nature.
Standing on the bare ground-my head bathed by the blithe air
and uplifted into infinite 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 parcel of God.
The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental:
to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a
trifle and a disturbance. (6)
The self exists most fully when fully lost in the "NOT MWE," "transparent" and without
"egotism." How else can one truly see, but by losing the self, the center from which to
see? How else can Emerson's son really exist, but by losing himself in God through the
dissolution of the self? If the son is "lost in God," then the father can find him again in
God. The son is to be worshipped in his solvency. Indeed, most disturbingly, "to be
brothers, to be acquaintances," even to be a father or a son, "is then a trifle and a
What I'm calling Emerson's figures of completion, his "complete" human beings,
come to their fullness, their wholeness, by losing themselves in their opposites. Little
Waldo comes to full and universal existence through the death of his individual self. The
poet stands in as "complete" and universal representative for all the "partial" and
ordinary people. Christ obtains as most fully and completely human through the
realization of his divinity. In each of these figures, fullness and completion come about
through the raising of one's lower self (one's humanity, one's individuality, one's
materiality) up to one's higher self (one's divinity, one's universality, one's spirituality).
This raising implies an attainment of the higher self at the expense of the lower self. In
Emerson's Idealist hierarchies, the lower self must always fall away as caducous.
That ideas developed by German Idealists played an enormous role in Emerson's
own thinking and the beginnings of American Transcendentalism cannot be doubted, yet
they did so indirectly and after much alteration. In particular, Fichte's dialectics of the "I"
and the "not-I" may indeed foreshadow Emerson's opposition of the soul and Nature,
the self and the "NOT ME," but Fichte's systematic thinking cannot be made to match up
with Emerson's distrust of and purposeful avoidance of systematic thinking. As might
initially be expected, Kant has greater stature with the American Transcendentalists than
does any other German Idealist, but it is Coleridge's thinking, not Kant's, that most
directly influences Emerson. Furthermore, in reverse order from European Romanticism,
American Transcendentalism was born in theology and only became more directly
political later, in what I've called the "death and flowering of Transcendentalism in Walt
Whitman." And finally, in Coleridge's reversal of Kant's ranking reason above intuition,
Emerson finds Reason to be Intuition itself, synonymous with the soul, toward which the
"complete" figures of Christ, the poet, and Emerson's deceased child point his readers.
MARGARET FULLER'S UNSYSTEMATIC ARCHITECTURE
Margaret Fuller's Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 is a travelogue and is not a
travelogue. Certainly it bears the non-systematic imprint of Transcendentalist thinking,
bears it to the extent that the book has been far more overlooked, and was overlooked for
longer, than Woman in the Nineteenth Century. In short, it rambles. Chapter Five begins
with the promise of telling the reader about Milwaukee, but quickly dispenses with
Milwaukee to discuss The Seeress ofPrevorst, by Justinus Andreas Christian Kemer.
Fuller uses the seeress, Frederica Hauffe, to gloss her ideas of the opposition of female
and male and soul and body, and Milwaukee seems to serve her purpose far less.
Though Summer of the Lakes has so often been dismissed for its lack of focus,
Fuller explains that this lack is a large part of her design.
I have not been particularly anxious to give the geography of
the scene, inasmuch as it seemed to me no route, nor series of
stations, but a garden interspersed with cottages, groves and
flowery lawns, through which a stately river ran. I had no guide-
book, kept no diary, do not know how many miles we traveled
each day; nor how many in all. What I got from the journey was
the poetic impression of the country at large; it is all I have
aimed to communicate. (41-42)
The record of her journey, that is, cannot serve as a guidebook to the land, but must
necessarily include physical descriptions, reflections, and even thoughts on books read.
Nevertheless, as purpose obtains through this lack of purpose, so an architecture appears
even within Fuller's unsystematic ramble.
This architecture has everything to do with Fuller's handling of opposition. The
figure of Emerson, sometimes less veiled than other times, appears in many places
through the book, and occasions a series of opposition between the ideal and the
material or the heavens and the earth. Likewise, a tension between text and nature as
object-of-text recurs frequently, in many ways similar to such instances in Walden or
"Song of Myself." In Fuller, these opposition all relate to that tension so central to her
writing, the one between men and women. Meanwhile, even as she calls for a fairer
representation (perhaps itself a contradiction in terms) of the Indian, the American Indian
becomes the site wherein these opposition are, at the very least, brought into contact
with each other. In its apparent ramble, then, Fuller's Summer on the Lakes is comprised
of an architecture built of opposition centering on the central polarity of male and
female. Essential to this architecture will be Fuller's critique that Emerson fuses
opposites within the realm of the ideal or spiritual, while she seeks largely, though not
entirely, to fuse opposites within the realm of the physical or earthly.
The need to pursue opposition leads to a frequent swinging from one polarity to
the other, a frequent sketchiness, for which the form of travelogue makes sense.1 Travel
writing in the mid-nineteenth century inhabited very loose forms. They were often casual,
even conversational, taking the reader along with the traveler in the latter's thoughts and
impressions, more than in the geography.
Travel books were more casual than novels, with no necessary
form other than that of the journey they purported to describe
and no necessary single purpose more important than the various
purposes of their various parts and voices. (Stowe, 243)
Travel writing might combine "anecdotes, quotations, and guide-book copy with personal
observations' (Stowe, 244).2 But Fuller doesn't limit this "polyvocality" to travel writing.
1 Thoreau's Cape Cod, discussed in Chapter 4, might also be said to fit this description.
2 Though Stowe acknowledges the gender concerns in Summer on the Lakes, he sees no general shape to
the book. He calls it "conventionally eclectic," full of travel details, "Transcendental musings,
Wordsworthian ambitions," etc. (251). He sees no central goal or design, only what he calls "a number of
alternative modes available to Fuller as a writer of travel narratives" (255), a "polyvocality" (254).
The journey at the source of Summer on the Lakes occurred right after Fuller finished
"The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men. Woman versus Women," the essay that would
become the polyvocal Woman in the Niiieeiii/h Century. In fact, it might be argued that
Fuller's travel writing doesn't differ all that much in kind from her other writing, itself
Jeffrey Steele goes so far as to say that Woman in the Nineteenth Century and
Fuller's later essays were extensions of travel writing, themselves "excursions"
(introduction, xxiii). The excursionary form is an "encyclopedic" one, tending "to focus
on the changing responses of a narrator as (s)he confronts a wide range of events, both
external and internal" (Transfiguring, 136). This excursional form of writing also directly
relates to Fuller's interest in gendered opposition.
While white male American writers were able to boast of the ways
in which they felt "at home," Fuller was learning to see those
people who were prevented from achieving such an entitlement.
Gender becomes linked directly with an ability to "see" those who had moved out to the
frontier, as well as the American Indian. We will see later just how troubled and troubling
such seeing can be. Susan Rosowski argues that Summer on the Lakes is a kind of anti-
response to Emerson's call for an American poet to truly birth the American nation. In
her travels, Fuller finds "the West is forever closed to her," and increasingly
understanding "the role gender was playing in her journey to the West," Fuller speaks
more and more "as a woman to other women" (23).
Because Fuller's excursion leads through a host of opposition, and because
gender issues are her central concern, the opposition that proliferate throughout her work
are usually gendered. As Stephanie Smith notes in Conceived by Liberty: Maternal
Figures and Nineteenth-Century American Literature, Fuller's writing is
replete with gendered polarities. Her work is shaped by the very
traditional metaphysical categories with which she (and Emerson)
struggled: soul/flesh, idea/form, art/nature-which enact a split
between masculinizedd) conceptions of abstracted spirit and
(feminized) conceptions of material form. (71)
To infer from this emphasis on binaries that Fuller takes one side of an opposition and
Emerson the other would be too simplistic. A look into how Fuller opposes the heavens
to the earth in Summer on the Lakes, followed with a couple of Fuller parodies of
Emerson, should help the distinction between her representations of them become more
Fuller's idea of a "double vibration" illustrates her concept of how to reconcile
the spiritual and the physical, or the ideal and the real. Chapter One begins with Fuller at
Niagara. Listening to the falls, she describes what she calls "a secondary music": "The
cataract seems to seize its own rhythm and sing it over again, so that the ear and the soul
are roused by a double vibration." The effect is not one of the physical reality alone, but
that of the soul's reaction to the physical reality. Nevertheless, the effect seems to
emanate entirely from the falls themselves, as it is they who "sing" their "own rhythm
[...] over again." Fuller describes the effect as "sublime, giving the effect of a spiritual
repetition through all the spheres" (4). Yet the physical reality cannot achieve the effect
of the "sublime" of Burke or Kant.
But in the place of such aesthetic empowerment, Fuller's conflicted
responses to Niagara Falls remind us that the aesthetic of sublimity
was culturally conflicted for the woman writer. (Transfiguring, 141)
We might view this as the failure to achieve a kind of Burkean sublimity, but we might
also see the embodied experience of the sublime as Fuller's particular achievement. The
"double vibration" then is that of the spiritual reverberating through the physical.
This "double vibration" occurs in several other places among her travels as well.
Aboard ship, about to leave Buffalo, Fuller has a discussion with fellow travelers about
how water, earth, and the "spirit of man" relate to each other. One co-traveler describes
Fuller's viewpoint as one of "Bacchic energy," when she says, "The earth is spirit made
fruitful,-life" (11). Fuller hints at these particular terms for the reconciliation between
earth and spirit in other places. The "sensation of vastness" is "sought in vain among high
mountains," whereas she has "always had an attachment for a plain" (50). Elsewhere,
there is a particular danger when "the trees [are] grown [...] up into heaven [...] Let not
the tree forget its root" (80). The earth and spirit, then, should not exist in isolation from
each other. They will remain opposition, earth and spirit, but there is a particular close
relationship they should inhabit in the "double vibration."
If the idealist forgets the root in favor of the tree, and the realist does the inverse
in forgetting the tree in favor of the root, then neither will do. What is needed is the
individual who will understand and act upon the "double vibration" of the spirit made
fruitful in the earth.
When will this country have such a man? It is what she needs;
no thin Idealist, no coarse Realist, but a man whose eye reads the
heavens while his feet step firmly upon the ground, and his hands
are strong and dexterous for the use of human implements. A
man religious, virtuous and sagacious; a man of universal
sympathies, but self-possessed; a man who knows the region of
emotion, though he is not its slave; a man to whom this world is
no mere spectacle, or fleeting shadow, but a great solemn game
to be played with good heed, for its stakes are of eternal value
The heavens should be read while the foot steps upon the ground, and "universal
sympathies" must obtain through the possession of the self. To attempt to seek a
universality without recognition of one's own particularities can mean nothing.
These tensions can easily be read in light of Fuller's relationship with Emerson,
and of a comparison of her ideas of these opposition with his. For Emerson, the body
"caricatured and satirized" the mind, so that "Emerson defines embodiment as mere
encumbrance" (Davis, 33). Meanwhile, Fuller wishes some trouble might throw him at
"the lap of mother earth," from which he would attain less ethereal abilities (Davis, 37).
As Smith says, speaking particularly of Woman in the Nineteenth Century, but also
pertaining to Fuller's writing in general, "The mother's electric gaze may universalize,
fusing difference into sameness, and yet for Fuller it also particularizes. The desired
fusion that both Emerson and Fuller celebrate is always, in Fuller's writings, an
incomplete Unity [...]"
Oppositions never entirely fuse, "never become entirely one, as they do in
Emerson's writings" (Smith, 83). Whereas Smith talks directly of the relationship
between mother and child here, that opposition can be extrapolated to the relationship
between opposites in general. So it is that Poe can lambaste Fuller by saying the three
types of people are "'men, women, and Margaret Fuller" (Davis, 37). This refusal to fuse
opposites means that Fuller's ideal woman in Woman in the Nineteenth Century is "not
actually 'woman,' man's binary opposite, but 'soul,' man's essential equal" (Davis, 38).
Yet they don't become merely "soul," either, but soul with its "feet on the ground"
Here Fuller sees an innate contradiction, which her parodies of Emerson can help
illustrate. In Fuller's critiques of Emerson, opposites are fused, but in so doing, their
fusion becomes a universal and spiritual thing, the contradiction being that the particular
and material still exist in opposition to the universal and spiritual realms wherein the
fusion can be said to have happened. Contradictorily, Emerson's fusion of opposition
into an ideal realm leaves the heavens split from the earth, the spirit from the body, the
trees from their roots. Fuller was not afraid to challenge Emerson on this contradiction. In
a letter she wrote him concerning the completion of his Second Series, she included a
poem that parodied him outright.
Earth and Fire, hell and heaven,
Hate and love, black and white,
Life and death, dark and bright,
All are One
All else is seeming
I who think am nought
But the One a-dreaming
To and fro its thought:
All is well,
For all is one;
The fluid spell
is the cold stone;
All life is soluble
Into my thought;
All that is nought,
Of the One
One Alone. (Zwarg, 138)
The fusion of all opposition, thereafter contained in the idealist, universalist realm,
cancels all conflict and cancels all agency. Everything's okay, because all things are one.
We can look at Emerson's own words to see how on the mark Fuller was and how
problematic such an attitude might be. In his journals, Emerson wrote that the problems
of "earthly marriage" matter less to "a strong mind," with its "resource of the all-creating,
all obliterating spirit; retreating on its grand essence the nearest persons become pictures
merely. The Universe is his bride" (Zwarg, 140). The great contradiction is that on one
hand, all tensions and opposition have been resolved into the universal, whereas this
fusion enables the opposing category of everything not ideal, everything not universal. In
a marriage, one of Fuller's central themes, a wife herself comes to constitute an opposing
An early example of woman as opposing category comes at the end of the story of
Mariana. After Mariana is mocked by the other schoolgirls, who mimic her by wearing
similar theatrical makeup at the "mealtime ceremonial" (53), she endures a "sense of
universal perfidy," and "born for love, [she] now hated all the world" (54). Whereas
Emerson's universal bride isolates him from the opposite sex, Mariana's melodrama in
isolation from the opposite sex is experienced as a "universal perfidy." Her escape from
this situation arrives in the form of Sylvain, with whom she falls in love, and Mariana
becomes an occasion for Fuller's call for celibacy.
But, oh! It is a curse to woman to love first, or most. In so doing
she reverses the natural relations, and her heart can never, never
be satisfied with what ensues. (58)
What ensues is the male partner steadily abiding by "the natural relations." After only
"[a] few months of domestic life," Sylvain wants "business and the world."
He wanted in her the head of his house; she to make her heart his
home. No compromise was possible between natures of such
unequal poise, and which had met only on one or two points. (59)
Mariana falls sick and dies, of what we aren't told, but her sickness presages that of
Frederica Hauffe later in the book. Ironically, Fuller says that had Mariana "known more
of God and the universe," she would perhaps have survived (61). Recalling Emerson's
universal bride, the statement indicates that in an unequal marriage, isolation with the
universe, away from the opposite sex, may be the best option for a woman, though it is
because men so often take this option that women should ever have to choose "celibacy."
Something like the first third of Summer on the Lakes is scattered with
opposition of physicality to spirit, and though these opposition don't cease, a major
shift in the text begins with a discussion carried on by allegorical characters, and will
continue in a second stage centered on the seeress. Through each shift, Fuller continues to
ground the spiritual in the physical. The allegorical characters are named "Good Sense,"
"Free Hope," "Old Church," and "Self-Poise," with Fuller's position best expressed by
"Free Hope" and Emerson's position often almost parodically expressed by "Self-Poise."
Here, "Self-Poise" speaks lines quite similar to those Fuller parodied Emerson with in
Far-sought is dear-bought. When we know that all is in each,
and that the ordinary contains the extraordinary, why should we
play the baby, and insist upon having the moon for a toy when a
tin dish will do as well [...] [T]he commonest rubbish will help
us as well as shred silk. (81)
The urge to content oneself with any grief when the "Universe" is one's "bride" can
distinctly be heard here. The response of "Free Hope" takes direct aim. To bring
physicality to the realm of thought is to bring in the "double vibration," the spiritual
within the earth(l)y. Thus she (if we may so gender "Free Hope") says, "Every fact is
impure, but every fact contains in it the juices of life. Every fact is a clod, from which
may grow an amaranth or a palm" (81). The fact must bear some kind of fruit, as the
physical embodying (impregnated with?) the spiritual.
Likewise, "Free Hope"'s response brings in the polarities of heaven and earth and
bears with it an experiential dimension entirely lacking in the idealized realm of "Self-
Do you climb the snowy peaks from whence come the streams,
where the atmosphere is rare, where you can see the sky nearer,
from which you can get a commanding view of the landscape. I see
great disadvantages as well as advantages in this dignified position.
I had rather walk myself through all kinds of places, even at the risk
of being robbed in the forest, half drowned at the ford, and covered
with dust in the street. (81-82)
The ideal realm is one of rarefied air, one of a view from afar. The physical realm is
dangerous, where everything may not always be safe in the arms of a universal bride.
Here something strange happens with the gendering between these two. The male
view, the apparently Emersonian view, moves through the world with a security that
Fuller's female view cannot quite afford. Whereas the male voice might typically set
itself up as protector of the female, it is the female who is willing to be "robbed," "half
drowned" and "covered with dust" for the freedom of walking through the earth, rather
than hovering above it. The male voice has bought its security through the comfort of its
If, then, Fuller has critiqued Emerson as fusing opposites within the realm of the
ideal or spiritual, Fuller seeks largely to fuse opposites within the realm of the physical or
earthly. That is, "Free Hope," in Fulleresque response to the Emersonian voice of "Self-
Poise," seeks to incorporate the spiritual and the universal within the realm of the
material and particular, or, we might say, the experiential. She seeks to "beat with the
living heart of the world," and includes within that very physical image the desire to
"understand all the moods, even the fancies or fantasies, of nature." Furthermore, it is the
incorporation of the spirit in the physical that brings her through to "truth": "I dare to
trust to the interpreting spirit to bring me out all right at last-to establish truth through
error" (82). The job of the spirit in the physical here is one of interpretation, and if "truth"
can indeed be found, that can apparently happen only through interpretation. This idea of
interpretive truth culminates in a statement almost Emersonian, but more than
Emersonian. "Whatever is, is right," "Free Hope" tells us in tone. If she stops here, she
may as well agree with Emerson in his statement about his universal bride (or Candide 's
Pangloss: "All is for the best in this, the best of all possible words."). But she qualifies
this statement with the dynamic of agency, adding, "if only men are steadily bent to make
it so, by comprehending and fulfilling its design" (82).
There are obviously contradictions in these handling of gendered opposition.
Not least obvious among them is that she uses the proper term "men" as metonym for
"people," in such passages as the foregoing and in asking when the feminized country
("she") will have the "man" she needs (the one who reads the heavens while his feet are
on the ground). Some of these contradictions may be Fuller's way of exploiting the
inherent contradictions that already obtain in traditional gendered polarities. For one, the
male is rhetorically identified with the spirit, the female with the body, yet the public
sphere was thought to be the place of action, and in such a sphere women had limited
access. Woman's sphere was supposed to be the private, the home, just as the body was a
thing to hide. The inherent contradiction here occurs in not having seen the body as the
means to action. Therefore, if Fuller can legitimize the body, she can tilt the power
balance toward women, and at the same time give them agency. What appear to be
contradictions in Fuller's handling of gendered opposition are, in fact, matters of her
own agency in manipulating already-existing contradictions in gendered polarities.
These manipulations of inherent contradictions can be represented as gender
reversals. According to Zwarg, "[Emerson] frustrates [Fuller] with his passive or
percipient stance toward the world, and with her intuitive and spontaneous powers, she
taunts him for his failure to achieve an active realization of his thought in the text of the
world" (34). Indeed, the male role becoming passive and the female active certainly
seems to constitute a role reversal, but the possibility for the reversal lies in the separation
of masculine and feminine into the realms of spirit and body. A fully idealized or
spiritualized stance hovers sublimated above action, and a fully materialized or
chthonicized stance carries the possibility of agency in the physical world.
Fuller's understanding of truth as interpretive also serves as a particular balance
of gendered opposition throughout the text. Fuller does not seem to see truth as some
absolute that exists outside human understanding, an ontology standing outside
epistemology. Nor can truth, then, have any kind of empirical certainty, since one
interpretation can always be trumped by another. An outside, absolute truth might be
entirely physical, a thing that could never be known, because it stands outside the reach
of the human mind. Instead, Fuller sees the world as knowable and therefore interpretive
and, in fact, textual, something that can be read. The idea of the textual world or textual
nature is not rare in Transcendentalist writing. Thoreau talks about "making the earth say
beans instead of grass" (Walden, 130-140), and Whitman subsumes the ideas in his words
to the elements of nature as "The sound of the belch'd words of my voice loos'd to the
eddies of the wind" ("Song of Myself," Sec. 2). Fuller says, "All woods suggest pictures"
(73). The woods suggest texts to be read and interpreted. This statement differs from
saying either that you will make the earth say something, or that whatever you say is
automatically subsumed in the earth.
In fact, Fuller often writes of how nature or the Indian could be or should be
textually represented, how they should be presented for reading and interpretation.
Strangely, some of the dullest writing in Summer on the Lakes occurs where Fuller keeps
on topic, prosaically describing prairies, trees, plains, etc., as in the early pages of chapter
four (46-47). What kind of comment on the polarity of nature and text does any nature
writer make by creating prosaic textual representations of nature, since the actual cannot
be had within a book? Though Fuller often wanders away from representations of nature,
she offers us several. The only place where she represents nature as representing itself as
text may give us clues to her thinking:
In the little waterfall beyond, nature seems, as she often does, to
have made a study for some larger design. She delights in this,-
a sketch within a sketch, a dream within a dream. Wherever we see
it, the lines of the great buttress in the fragment of stone, the hues
of the waterfall, copied in the flowers that star its bordering mosses,
we are delighted; for all the lineaments become fluent, and we
mould the scene in congenial thought with its genius. (5)
If nature speaks as text here, it speaks as a Transcendentalist text, not itself fixed, but
"fluent," rambling. The problem of how to represent nature becomes one of how nature
represents itself to the human mind, and expands into the larger question of how to
represent truth in writing. If nature cannot be represented outside the human mind, then
empirical truth is a falsehood. Truth rambles and is "fluent." It should, therefore, be
written that way, always as "the poetic impression of the country at large," rather than a
guidebook through empirical or absolute truth.
With this understanding of truth as interpretive, and thus more likely to ramble in
conversational form than to be fixed, it makes sense that Fuller's writing might swerve
out of focus as extensively as it does. Excursionary writing need not be limited to the
topic of geographical excursion itself, and anything taken within Fuller's excursionary
range offers itself for discussion of gender polarities. In fact, where Fuller goes most
directly at her central subject, the relationship between male and female, she departs most
entirely from the ostensible purpose of her book. Chapter Five is headed "Wisconsin,"
but the greatest part of the chapter is given to a discussion of a book by a German author,
Justinus Andreas Christian Kerner, called The Seeress ofPrevorst. We may have taken
warning of such a swerve from early on in the chapter. Fuller says, "The town
[Milwaukee] promises to be, some time, a fine one," and goes on to talk about "the
thickets of oak and wild roses." The roses, she says, are red, and the thought of this color
launches her into talking about the rosebushes which caught Venus to keep her in the
proximity of Adonis. Suddenly she is describing Titian's painting of Venus and Adonis.
Before we know it, Fuller has thrown us into another case for celibacy.
Why must women always try to detain and restrain what they
love? Foolish beauty; let him go; it is thy tenderness that has
spoiled him. Be less lovely-less feminine; abandon thy fancy
for giving thyself wholly; cease to love so well, and any Hercules
will spin among thy maids, if thou wilt. But let him go this time;
thou canst not keep him. Sit there, by thyself, on that bank, and,
instead of thinking how soon he will come back, think how thou
may'st love him no better than he does thee, for the time has
This situation is a familiar theme in Fuller's writing. The woman who will not be "less
feminine" will remain passive in love relationships. She will seize no agency for herself,
although as we have seen in Mariana's case, such agency can be dangerous if the man
proves less willing to move out of traditional gender roles. In Woman in the Nineteenth
Century, Fuller says that a marriage must be a fair marriage, that "Union is only possible
to those who are units" (71). When that is not possible, women must choose celibacy.
The strange story of the seeress, Frederica Hauffe, dramatizes a woman whose
spiritual powers developed out of normal proportion due to a kind of atrophy of material
possibilities. So we are brought to see through a gendered lens another distortion of the
polarities of spiritual and material, in many ways a fuller development of these issues
foreshadowed in the story of Mariana. She quotes the author to the effect that Hauffe's
"'solemn, unhappy gift [...] was probably a sign of the development of the spiritual in the
fleshly eye'" (84). Hauffe becomes sick, bedridden, but this physical suffering increases
the power of "her inward life." In fact, Hauffe often speaks and prophesies from a
"somnambulic state" (85). Furthermore, her sickness and her powers directly relate to
mountains and valleys. Her move with her husband from the hills precipitates her worst
sickness. "Later, it appeared, that the lower she came down from the hills, the more she
suffered from spasms, but on the heights her tendency to the magnetic state was the
greatest" (85). This scenario demands a difficult tracing, but it appears that in the hills,
her spiritual powers first manifest themselves. The lower altitudes help bring on sickness,
and as she retreats inwardly from her sickness, her spiritual powers, also called electric
and magnetic, become a matter of compensation. The hills clearly parallel Emersonian
idealized heights, and the depths Fuller's dangerous being-in-the-world. The further
difficulty comes in seeing the result of Fulleresque experiential depths as a sickness,
which directly aids in increasing spiritual powers. But in Fuller's continuing the story,
she shows us another parallel to better explain this one: the story of Hauffe's servitude to
Hauffe's sickness exactly coincides with the physical demands of servitude to
men to push her inward, away from the sickness, but also away from serving men, and
toward increased electric and magnetic powers.
Already withdrawn from the outward life, she was placed, where,
as consort and housekeeper to a laboring man, the calls on her care
and attention were incessant. She was obliged hourly to forsake her
inner home, to provide for an outer, which did not correspond
with it. (86)
The denial of the inner life, the electric or magnetic, comes through serving the outer life
of a male stranger. The result will be a kind of implosion of the body upon the spirit.
After seven months of this servitude, "it was not possible to conceal the inward verity by
an outward action, 'the body sank beneath the attempt, and the spirit took refuge in the
inner circle."' This inward turn begins a seven-year period of "bodily suffering and
mental exhaustion," and also of somnambulic prophesying. The ultimate nadir of her
exhaustion, Fuller says, had her "so devoid of power in herself, that her life seemed
entirely dependent on artificial means and the influence of other men" (86). If the
metonymic use of "man" for "people" seems strange at other times in Fuller's text, it
seems perhaps strangest here. Though this phrase "other men" likely means other doctors,
men other than her husband, its vagueness leaves open the possibility that it could imply
Hauffe herself as the "less feminine" Fuller earlier tells women to be, even while Hauffe
depends entirely on men. Does her ultimate paranormal strength in lieu of any physical
strength whatsoever make her perversely or inversely masculine?
Hauffe's paranormal powers become "electric" and "magnetic," instead of merely
spiritual, the former connoting material or earth(l)y rather than spiritual powers. Fuller
has also written of the physical properties of electricity and magnetism in Woman in the
Nineteenth Century, of woman having an "electrical, inspired, lyrical nature" (76). In
part, seeing electricity as the fluid, physical property of woman aligns itself with Fuller's
call for celibacy, desexualizing the fluids of the body into a kind of earth(l)y ichor. Yet it
Fuller's image of electricity to displace muck and mire does more
than simply displace the "disagreeable appearances" of a female
reproductive cycle. It also begins to reanimate the corpse that the
mother had become in the tradition reworked and popularized in
Emerson. (Smith, 78)
The electricity of woman reanimates the denied physicality. Furthermore, its channeling
becomes a further instance of danger. Smith says, "Now the electric fluid does more than
simply magnetize Woman. Now, it threatens" (82). For Hauffe became "more in the
magnetic and clairvoyant than in the natural human state," and indeed she lived "an
almost disembodied life" (Fuller, 89).
The two possibilities for woman as electrified corpse here seem to be a kind of
Frankenstein's monster and a sylph. Kerner says that Hauffe was "never rightly awake,
even when she seemed to be" (90). He says, "From her eyes flowed a peculiar spiritual
light" and that she was "more spirit than human" (91). If these strange descriptions seem
to signify someone living in a kind of epileptic or constant trance state, Hauffe
nevertheless describes something further in one of the poems she is said to have
apparently composed while in a somnambulic state:
Dead lies my bodily frame,
But in the inmost mind a light burns up,
Such as none knows in the waking life.
Is it a light? no! but a sun of grace! (92)
Her own supposed description of herself is as a corpse with a light burning in its mind. If
this image seems closer to a saintly version of Frankenstein's monster, Fuller quotes
Kerner as describing Hauffe's as "the life of a sylph" (89). The word has a strange double
meaning, denoting either "a graceful woman or girl," or, in the company of other
alchemical beings such as gnomes, salamanders, lemurs, and nymphs, "One of a race of
beings or spirits supposed to inhabit the air (orig. in the system of Paracelsus)" (OED).
The word then describes either a woman or a being of the air, such as Fuller might have
used to parody Emerson. This double meaning begs the question: is Hauffe symbolic of
woman disembodied by marriage, or the prototype for Fuller's electric woman?
Strangely, the answer to this question and the solution to Fuller's other problems
of polarity come closest to fulfillment in her representation of the American Indian.
Fuller desires a kind of justice to the positions of Indians that has been lacking, to say the
very least, in American culture. But representing the Indian differs entirely from hearing
the Indian speak. At one moment she expresses the sincere desire that Indians be thought
of "fairly," that is, neither as "noble savages," nor "savage" peoples. The next moment,
she wishes Sir Walter Scott were with her to see and thus represent the Indians himself
(108). She seems to think the Indians deserve Euro-American cultural representation, and
that it won't happen any other way.
I have no hope of liberalizing the missionary, or humanizing the
sharks of trade, of infusing the conscientious drop into the flinty
bosom of policy, of saving the Indian from immediate degradation,
and speedy death [...] Yet, ere they depart, I wish there might be some
masterly attempt to reproduce, in art or literature, what is proper to
them, a kind of beauty and grandeur, which few of the every-day crowd
have hearts to feel. (121)
Fuller's idea of fairness is certainly disturbing. She doesn't think she can hope for Indian
survival, so representation is the next best thing. In seeking to give a fair illustration of
the American Indian, Fuller does not humanize the Indian so much as make the Indian the
site of her own problems with polarities. She uses the otherness of the American Indian
as the site to work out her own otherings.
Having earlier said that nature speaking as text in Summer on the Lakes speaks as
a Transcendentalist text, not fixed, but interpretive and "fluent," we can now see how
Fuller uses the American Indian as the site where nature and text meet. When Fuller sees
an Indian at a Wisconsin encampment, "looking up to the heavens" in the rain, she calls
him "[a]n old theatrical looking Indian" (74). A page later, she says, "I like the effect of
the paint on them; it reminds of the gay fantasies of nature" (75). What in the first
mention makes the old Indian look theatrical? Is he indeed striving for stage presence, or
does Fuller ascribe the theatricality? Contradictorily, this theatricality serves as a part of
white America's idea of Indian authenticity.3
The second citation ascribes this theatricality to nature's own fantasies. Fuller has
made herself transparent. The old Indian man is theatrical in and of himself, but this
theatricality is akin somehow to nature's own textual imagination. There is a kind of
double inscription here that takes us back to the waterfall that "seems to seize its own
3 In The Predicament of Culture, James Clifford writes, "Indians were lovingly remembered in Edward
Curtis' sepia photographs as proud, beautiful, and 'vanishing.' But Curtis, we now know, carried props,
costumes, and wigs, frequently dressing up his models. The image he recorded was carefully staged" (284).
rhythm and sing it over again" in a double vibration rousing both "the ear and the soul"
(4). The Indian seems to exist at a romantic nexus of human and nature, himself the
human text of nature. Of course, it is to Fuller, or the white American, that the double
vibration or double inscription of the Indian speaks. Inhabiting the borderland of human
and nature, the Indian serves as reconciliation of those polarities. By seeing the Indian as
humanized text of nature, Fuller frees herself to make him the interpretive site of the
balancing of other opposition as well.
This use of the Indian as a kind of trope was far from uncommon in nineteenth
century American writing. Lora Romero refers to the "cult of the vanishing American" as
having a kind of "ethnographic and pedagogic overlap" (387). Whereas some desire for a
kind of ethnography, though the term here is anachronistic, can be credited to writers
such as James Fenimore Cooper, the focus on the American Indian usually has a
pedagogic, if not downright didactic, intent. In Cooper, the pedagogic occurs through
such Romanticizing of the Indian as natural "prodigy," whereas Fuller abhors the
inclination to see the Indian as "noble savage." Nevertheless, Fuller employs her own
"ethnographic and pedagogic overlap" in writing about Indians.
Fuller uses the American Indian as a site to work out her program for righting
gender discrepancies. The society of the American Indian serves as a parallel universe in
which to imagine fairer relations between the sexes. Steele points out that "Fuller was
able to detach herself from destructive stereotypes far enough to allow her feminist
analysis to be shaped by American Indian culture" (Transfiguring, 159). To imagine
Indian society as more just, she must ask for more just representation. Even as she asks,
"Why will people look only on one side? They either exalt the Red man into a Demigod
or degrade him into a beast," (109) she proceeds to use the Indian as trope for her own
purposes as well. To imagine Indian society as entirely egalitarian would be perhaps to
"exalt the Red man into a Demigod." Indian women still occupy an "inferior position,"
but their position obtains more by social function and allots them more respect. She
accuses the Indian's accusers of saying that the husband "compels his wife to do all the
drudgery, while he does nothing but hunt and amuse himself." She says these accusers
ignore the fact that the family's survival depends on his hunting, and as the family is
supported by his role, they further domestically support his role. Older women achieve
higher station, though only as mother of a son old enough to become a warrior. "From
that date she held a superior rank in society; was allowed to live at ease, and even called
to consultations on national affairs" (109).
If Fuller could not call Indian society egalitarian, she does see the Indian husband
and wife as achieving a kind of "union" of "units" (Woman in the Nineeieith Century,
71). She moves from discussing marriage in this Indian parallel universe to discussing it
in the abstract. Her representation is contradictory.
Wherever man is a mere hunter, woman is a mere slave. It is domestic
intercourse that softens man, and elevates woman; and of that there
can be but little, where the employment or amusements are not
in common. (110)
Mirroring Melville's use of Polynesian natives to comment on Western society in Typee
(1846), or any number of later anthropological texts that do much the same thing, Fuller's
representation of Indians has served as a different lens to imagine Western society, and
marriage in particular.
Finally, Fuller sees in the Indian a site where, through a matrilineal social
structure, spirit and body establish a fuller conciliation. Fuller quotes another text on the
naming of Indian children:
The children of the Indians are always distinguished by the name
of the mother, and, if a woman marries several husbands, and has
issue by each of them, they are called after her. The reason they
give for this is, that, 'as their offspring are indebted to the father
for the soul, the invisible part of their essence, and to the mother
for their corporeal and apparent part, it is most rational that they
should be distinguished by the name of the latter, from whom they
indubitably derive their present being' (source not given). (135)
Does Fuller's earlier wondering when "this country" might "have such a man" presage
this representation of what was then thought to be a dying race? The Indian, seen as
imminently passing away and mostly inhabiting a mythic past, can become the site of an
imagined future ideal-the "double vibration" of spirit reverberating through the
physical. The physical, as that which bears the spirit forth, remains privileged. "[M]an,"
she says, again with the ironic metonym, "has two natures." The first of these is "like that
of the plants and animals, adapted to the uses and enjoyments of this planet," and the
other "presages and demands a higher sphere" (135). As "man" proceeds mentally, "he
loses in harmony what he gains in height and extension." Therefore, "the civilized man is
a larger mind, but a more imperfect nature than the savage" (136). The American Indian,
then, is none other than he (gender intended, to keep with Fuller's metonym) "whose eye
reads the heavens while his feet step firmly upon the ground" (64).
In Summer on the Lakes, Fuller offers us a confusing read. It rambles through the
countryside with no attempt at cartography. Near the end, she says, "I wish I had a thread
long enough to string on it all these beads that take my fancy," but tells us she doesn't,
and refers us instead to certain books in "the library of Harvard College" (148). It's a
strange recommendation to end a book that advocates feet on the ground, spirit fulfilled
in body, and harmony of "mind" with "planet." Similarly strange, however, seems the
apparent incompatibility of a travel book that stakes its claim for a focus on the earth(l)y
and corporeal, while it quotes numerous poems and speeches and concerns itself
disproportionately with glossing aprimafacie irrelevant German occult biography. But
perhaps by now, we should be used to apparent incompatibilities in Fuller's writing, so
that we can see this one as a further relationship of opposition.
These incompatibilities, these relations of polarities, become the architecture of
her text, as odd as it may seem to describe strings of beads as architectural. The
relationships of heights to depths, of ideal to real, of spirit to body come about through
the agency of the body. The relationship of nature to its own reading as text allows for
any other text to be freely interpretative, a ramble through a countryside. The American
Indian becomes the humanized text of nature, an other in which to explore Fuller's
othered-ness, a trope in which to interpret the relationships of polarities Fuller concerns
herself with the most. And all of these relationships exist through the principal polarity of
gender. Fuller builds the architecture of her strings of beads as a meandering through a
series of gendered opposition, throughout asking for the "double vibration" of the
spiritual in the physical, "[t]he earth [as] spirit made fruitful,-life" (11).
THOREAU'S PROJECT OF RECOVERING THE IRRECOVERABLE:
THE THING-IN-ITSELF AND THE THING-AGAINST-ITS-OPPOSITE
Knowing the Unknowable through the Ocean as Metaphor
Henry David Thoreau stands at odds with himself. The contradictory sense of
much of his writing frequently seems to stem as much from the sheer contrariness of his
personality as from any oscillations in his own thinking. Thoreau the cabin-maker and
wanderer distances himself from society that he may more loudly criticize it. At the heart
of his paradoxes we find two seemingly opposed ways of viewing the world, a tension at
the heart of Transcendentalism itself. On the one hand, we find Thoreau the naturalist,
seeking to chronicle backwoods experience, mapping the flora and fauna, surveying and
taking measurements. On the other hand, there's Thoreau the neoplatonic doubter of the
thing before him, noting the visible as only the less real form of the invisible.
David Robinson sees the naturalist as the figure who unifies the different
polarities of Thoreau's approaches. "The naturalist is a figure of reconciliation who can
bring together superficially opposed modes of intellectual endeavor and satisfy Thoreau's
conflicting inner demands" (74). The naturalist must be some kind of bridge between the
scientist and the moralist, according to Robinson's positioning of the term. Nevertheless,
the tension remains between Thoreau as the measure, relying on the senses, and Thoreau
as the idealist, paradoxically using the senses only to see beyond them. Robinson writes,
This is a call to a kind of nature study that emphasizes close
personal observation of phenomena in the field and a general
disposition to search for the underlying patterns and natural
Yet Thoreau's law and higher law, nature and higher nature can never quite be
reconciled, due to the limits of the senses.
Though this dichotomy obtains in i/hin his individual works, it nevertheless
obtains just as noticeably between works. Walden and A Week on the Concord and
Merrimack Rivers both seem more self-consciously philosophical, more
Transcendentalist, than other works not intended for direct publication, such as The
Maine Woods and Cape Cod. The latter works bear much more in common with
Thoreau's journals, bearing record in greater proportion to reflection than in the two
former. As a result, fewer scholars have analyzed The Maine Woods and Cape Cod.
Though I will refer to each of these works, I focus here primarily on Cape Cod.
This small and frequently overlooked book captures Thoreau's-and
Transcendentalism's-central tensions much more directly and less self-consciously than
most of his other writings. Thoreau's writing often appeals least at its sniffiest, and most
when it comes across as a sincere form of seeking. His is largely an epistemological
seeking, the writer wandering somewhere between what can be known and what cannot.
Paradoxically, when he recovers a thing for itself, he comes to know it in its
unknowableness. In this effort, through these works, he shows the artifice of our human
measures-what we measure with the senses, language as symbol, language as claim for
possession, language as law, the constructs of time, of commerce, and of history in order
to catch a glimpse of what lies beyond them. These opposition between a
constructedness and an unknowable, because unreachable, truth extend from Thoreau's
driving opposition of knowing and not being able to know. His use of the senses in
opposition to the ideal brings him close what I will later call Whitman's ouroboric
understanding of the ideal and material both existing through their interrelation with each
other, but Thoreau stops short of such an understanding by maintaining his prioritization
of the ideal over the material. Finally, we will see how Cape Cod offers us a moment
when Thoreau forgets to be self-conscious, and tries to give us a Cape Cod that he cannot
give us, the Cape Cod-in-itself.
Yet even as he illustrates the constructedness of all sense-based measures, he does
not disdain using them; indeed, he depends on them. Thoreau seeks throughout The
Maine Woods to lose himself, wandering further away from settlement and from mapped
territory, yet even as he does so he performs his own cartography in the constant journal
entries of the scientific names of plants he finds along the way. Meanwhile, in A Week on
the Concord andMerrimack Rivers, we find our thesis for his posthumously published
I have but few companions on the shore,
They scorn the strand who sail upon the sea,
Yet oft I think the ocean they've sailed o'er
Is deeper known upon the strand to me. (194)
Cape Cod resolves its central paradox with a new paradox. If, as Thoreau believes, true
reality cannot be directly experienced, since he sees the ideal as the real essence of a
thing, he nonetheless constantly experiments, attempting to indicate the contours, if not
the essence, of what can never be directly experienced. The resolution of this paradox
arrives in his experiential knowing of the primordial and protean, the oceanic, through his
not knowing it categorically and factually. In Cape Cod, the ocean becomes the ultimate
Transcendentalist metaphor for unknowability, and he will come to know the unknowable
ocean from its opposite, the shore.
Relying on the Unreliable: Thoreau's Senses
Thoreau's sense of Transcendentalist opposition differs from Emerson's, not in
the favoring of the ideal as the real, but in his faith in the necessity of experimentation,
despite the impossibility of direct experience with the true real-that is, the ideal-
behind the real. In "The Transcendentalist," Emerson writes,
What is popularly called Transcendentalism among us, is
Idealism; Idealism as it appears in 1842. As thinkers, mankind
have ever divided into two sects, Materialists and Idealists; the
first class founding on experience, the second on consciousness;
the first class beginning to think from the data of the senses, the
second class perceive that the senses are not final, and say, The
senses give us representations of things, but what are the things
themselves, they cannot tell. The materialist insists on facts, on
history, on the force of circumstances and the animal wants of
man; the idealist on the power of Thought and of Will, on inspiration,
on miracle, on individual culture. These two modes of thinking are
both natural, but the idealist contends that his way of thinking is in
higher nature. (81)
Emerson gives us several of Transcendentalism's oppositional tensions: experience and
consciousness, representations and "the things themselves," circumstance and self-
reliance, visible nature and higher nature. In the same lecture, Emerson calls
Transcendentalism a "double consciousness," and says that we lead "two lives," the
"understanding" and "the soul." The two "never meet and measure each other," and
"discover no greater disposition to reconcile themselves" (93). Despite Thoreau's own
Transcendentalist sense of these dichotomies, he bases his thinking on his experience of
the senses, with the goal of glimpsing the ideal, even if only in outline. Thoreau measures
avidly, gives us the measurement, shows the practicality of his measurement, and then
tells us the truer part of the thing measured can never be measured.
According to Stanley Cavell, Thoreau bears more in common with Kantian
thinking than does Emerson. Emerson's move against Kant determines "that the senses
are the scene of illusions." The Critique of Pure Reason, however, is anything but
solipsistic. Cavell argues that in Kant, "things (as we know them) are as the senses
represent them; that nature, the world opened to the senses, is objective" (95). Cavell's
parenthetical statement puts his assertion in danger of its own tautology. How could
things as we know them be other than how our senses represent them to us? Nevertheless,
he makes a crucial point in next differentiating Thoreau from Emerson. "[Thoreau's]
difference from Kant on this point is that these apriori conditions are not themselves
knowable apriori, but are to be discovered experimentally; historically, Hegel had said."
About Walden, Cavell then says, "Epistemologically, its motive is the recovery of the
object [...] a recovery of the thing-in-itself" (95). Yes, but the tension remains. Cavell's
parenthetical statement haunts all of this thinking. "As we know them" implies that things
might be otherwise, and discovering conditions experimentally, for Thoreau, still leaves
the unexaminable truer truth behind the conditions.
In fact, this remaining tension, the fundamental incompatibility of the thing-in-
itself and what can be experienced, measured, can be seen as the engine that propels
Thoreau. His contradictory status as idealist and empiricist ends up, as we will see near
the end of this chapter, with two entirely different ways to interpret the phrase "thing-in-
itself." The gap between these two ways helps explain this central tension in Thoreau. If
Kant's idea of the thing-in-itself can be described as the unconditioned object of our
inquiry that we automatically condition by inquiry itself, Thoreau's idea of the thing-in-
itself seems to be less indivisibly metaphysical. For Thoreau, the thing-in-itself itself
seems to exist in a state of opposition. It is both "thing" and "self," by definition, then,
opposed to itself. So what it might mean for Thoreau to seek to recover the thing-in-itself
becomes less clear. The tension of ideal and actual, or maybe noumenal and phenomenal,
' In some sense, Cavell's use of the phrase, "a priori conditions," seems odd. Kant says, "we thus find that
the unconditioned is not to be met with in things, so far as we know them" and that "so far as they are
things in themselves" "we do not know them" (24).
remains, and Thoreau always seeks to catch some glimpse of the ideal through the
measurement or mapping or observation of the actual. Thoreau relies on the senses to
trace what the senses cannot tell.
The interpretation of the primary difference between Emerson and Thoreau as
having to do with the senses dates at least as far back as F.O. Matthiessen's seminal 1941
study, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age ofEmerson and Whitman.
What separates Thoreau most from Emerson is his interest in the
varied play of all his senses, not merely of the eye, a rare enough
attribute in New England and important to dwell on since it is the
crucial factor in accounting for the greater density of Thoreau's
Yet even in pointing out a greater reliance on the senses in Thoreau, Matthiessen
indicates that the engagement with the senses led Thoreau to the constant attempt to get
further into them or get more from them.
He became ecstatic when he talked about touch...He knew, like
Anteus, that his strength derived from ever renewed contact with
the earth. But he wanted more than contact with nature, he wanted
the deepest immersion. (88)
Thoreau sees part of the invisibility of things as having to do with the short range
of the senses and the distortion of distance, but he also finds the senses themselves
incapable of experiencing "higher" nature. In A Week, Thoreau says that "knowledge is to
be acquired only by a corresponding experience" (294), but that the true real may be
mostly unknowable, a "nature behind the common, unexplored by science or by
literature" (46). Consequently and contradictorily,
in our dreams, [...] we have a more liberal and juster
apprehension of things, unconstrained by habit, which is then
in some measure put off, and divested of memory, which we
call history. (47)
Still, the unexplored ideal may be glimpsed through a kind of phenomenological
approach; Thoreau says, "so are there manifold visions in the direction of every object,
and even the most opaque reflect the heavens from their surface" (39). If the truer truth,
the more real real that is the ideal, can never be experienced directly, it can be witnessed
in pieces, in reflections, in shadows, and partially, if not wholly, puzzled together.
For every oak and birch too growing on the hill-top, as well as
for these elms and willows, we knew that there was a graceful
ethereal and ideal tree making down from the roots, and sometimes
Nature in high tides brings her mirror to its foot and makes it
If Thoreau can see the thing-in-itself as recoverable at all, we cannot recover it in and of
itself in its entirety.
Near the end of A Week, Thoreau jams together the tensions of his reliance on the
senses and his belief in their unreliability in a way that seems at first to swing wildly
from Whitmanic to neoplatonic assertions. At first, Thoreau says, "We need pray for no
higher heaven than the pure senses can furnish, apurely sensuous life," a rather un-
Transcendentalist sounding statement. As Whitman trades in the "churches, bibles, and
all the creeds" for "the flesh and the appetites / Seeing, hearing, feeling" and the "aroma"
of his own "arm-pits" ("Song of Myself, Sec. 24), so Thoreau would give up "heaven"
for earth, for the "purely sensuous" (307). The italics are his, however, not mine, the
implication being that the senses remain impure, imperfect. In fact, his next statement
sounds more futuristically Darwinist than metaphysical. "Our present senses are but the
rudiments of what they are destined to become. We are comparatively deaf and dumb and
blind, and without smell or taste or feeling." Where Whitman will later find the body and
the senses bearing their own kind of perfection, Thoreau finds them primitive.
He calls the senses "divine germs" of what they can become.
The eyes were not made for such groveling uses as they are now
put to and worn out by, but to behold beauty now invisible. May
we not see God? Are we to be put off and amused in this life, as it
were with a mere allegory? Is not Nature, rightly read, that of which
she is commonly taken to be the symbol merely? (307)
We have the awkward image of groveling eyes, which should be able to see the invisible
itself. But how? If our senses can only give us allegories for the ideal, as though we are
the inhabitants of Plato's Cave, he instructs us nevertheless to read. We are to see God by
reading God, and this seeing, as Robinson says, "is Thoreau's language for a reawakened
life in the world" (76). Contradictorily, then, our awakening comes through the mediation
of reading; in effect, we awake to find ourselves still dreaming. Still, if we "read" Nature
and "read" it "rightly," we will find that what we take as allegory, as "the symbol
merely," may in fact reveal the true Nature behind Nature.
Reading the Unreadable: Language as Mediation
But Thoreau never teaches us exactly how to read, and our own reading of his
reading nature leaves us little more literate than before. In fact, we don't know precisely
what he reads there either, what he sees of the invisible. In The Maine Woods, he has two
apparent goals: to go into that part of the wilderness whose representation cannot yet be
read on a map and to map out the flora and fauna. He tells us that "we had had enough of
houses for the present, and had come here partly to avoid them," then that "I had found
growing on this broad rocky and gravelly shore the Salix rostrata, discolor, and lucida,
Ranunculus recurvatus," and on and on. In this paragraph, he lists more than twenty
species of plant, followed by the explanation, "I give these names because it was my
furthest northern point" (234-235). Something seems absent in his explanation. He gives
fewer lengthy Transcendentalist musings in this book, but a plethora of names of trees,
shrubs, flowers, and birds. In The Maine Woods, naming becomes mapping, and this kind
of mapping not only records the geography, but allows Thoreau to read the landscape
back to himself, to represent it. Yet this project hardly gets him past "mere allegory,"
since the landscape has been written mostly in Latin, not in any kind of primordial
But this question of what language nature and the wilderness speak brings us back
to Thoreau's central tension once again. It really doesn't matter what language nature or
the wilderness speaks or writes, because language must always be a mediation. Nothing
can be directly experienced through language. Thus, Thoreau's very question, "Is not
Nature, rightly read, that of which she is commonly taken to be the symbol merely?" is a
paradox. He may as well ask us to recover the thing-in-itself by the means of a symbol
for the thing-in-itself The symbol will remain a symbol; it will never be its object.
The same paradox obtains in Thoreau's earth-literacy of the bean field in Walden,
where he writes into nature rather than reading it. The beans, he tells us, "attached me to
the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus" (138). If the beans are his tether to the earth,
his hoe is his tether to the beans-as-earth, and his hoe is his pen. "[M]aking the earth say
beans instead of grass,-this was my daily work" (139-140). But he does more than
decide what the earth will say when it's his page on which to write. In the wilderness of
Maine, his reading of the landscape becomes his mapping the flora and fauna. Reading
acts as writing. Here, rather than "making the earth say beans," he makes it say
"Chiogene hispidula" and "Chimaphila umbellate" (274).
Inasmuch as any true reading must be interpretation, reading Nature rightly must
always include speaking for it as well. Whereas Thoreau insists that "the ideal tree"
behind every "oak and birch" can be seen in glimpses, reflections, and shadows, and that
nature can be read somehow, he also believes that the existence of nature is its own
purpose, that it does not exist for us. Nature's "resolution" is existence itself. As Thoreau
writes in Walden,
After a still winter night I awoke with the impression that some
question had been put to me, which I had been endeavoring in
vain to answer in my sleep, as what-how-when-where? But
there was dawning Nature, in whom all creatures live, looking in
at my broad windows with serene and satisfied face, and no question
on her lips. I awoke to an answered question, to Nature and daylight.
According to Thoreau, nature asks no question, because she is her own answer. She has
no dialogue with herself, and has no need of language, being unmediated. Nature implies
presence then, and this eternal presence must be the ideal. If we cannot experience
nature's presence without mediation, and without language in particular, we cannot attain
wholly to the ideal.
Though Thoreau insists on trying to read nature, while paradoxically believing we
cannot experience nature directly, his belief in the invisibility of the true real-the
ideal-behind the real brings about his cynicism toward ownership. "How fortunate were
we who did not own an acre of these shores, who had not renounced our title to the
whole," he says in A Week. Ownership of a deed of land or property can only be artifice.
True ownership occurs exclusively of a title deed, and consists of however much of the
earth we can sensuously experience. "The poor rich man! all he has is what he has
bought. What I see is mine" (282). Of all Thoreau's ideas, this one perhaps seems to
carry the most of his contrary personality with it. Does the law state such and such a
condition? Then Thoreau deems the law an artifice, a mere human and temporal
institution, and states its inverse, his own law, his "higher" law, as he calls it in Walden
and "Civil Disobedience."
"Speaking For" the Irrepresentable: Language as Claim for Possession
Yet in Cape Cod, Thoreau seizes on the direct relationship between mediation and
law, between language and ownership. Though he elsewhere makes the earth say what he
wants it to say and then, in turn, reads it, in Cape Cod, he criticizes what he calls
"'speaking for' a place."
When the committee from Plymouth had purchased the territory
of Eastham of the Indians, "it was demanded, who laid claim to
Billingsgate?" which was understood to be all that part of the Cape
north of what they had purchased. "The answer was, there was not
any who owned it. 'Then, said the committee, 'that land is ours.'
The Indians answered that it was." This was a remarkable assertion
and admission. The Pilgrims appear to have regarded themselves
as Not Any's representatives. (49)
In quoting Massachusetts history, Thoreau undoes history, by pointing out the logical
fallacies of its actors. His sarcasm wears barbs. Rather than being the representatives of
God, the Pilgrims, in their words, claim to represent an atheistic non-entity, "Not Any,"
who has held the land for them in a kind of anti-existent escrow. "Not Any seems to have
been the sole proprietor of all America before the Yankees" (49). His sarcasm also points
up the falsity of language, since it can so easily be used for the opposite of its original
intention, not to mention its working as the enormous colonial blind spot behind which
stood the native peoples.2 The Pilgrims' ownership of the land remains vested in the
letter of the law, and the instability of language illustrates the artifice of their ownership.
Yet their "'speaking for' a place" also indicates that language itself is a claim for
possession. Just as Thoreau could map Maine by speaking the names of its plant life, the
Pilgrims could take possession of the supposed New World by "speaking" for it. A name
acts as a handle by which we hold onto the thing named. By naming, by speaking for a
thing, we know the thing, but we know it on our terms and by our means. Possession of
land or property, then, remains as problematic as the knowledge of a thing. A
complicated chain of mediation results. Nature can only be known by its reading, reading
implies its own active stance of writing or making nature speak, and speaking for nature
lays claim to it. By none of which has the thing-in-itself been truly recovered, because
nature cannot be truly read, spoken for, or possessed.
Cape Cod the Shape Shifter as Metaphor for Unknowability
In Cape Cod, Thoreau's constant paradoxical experimentation with nature and the
awareness of its unknowability, his central driving tension between knowing and not
being able to know, can be seen in his incessant pointing out how much on Cape Cod
goes unseen. Nothing on Cape Cod, Thoreau tells us throughout the book, is ever what it
seems. If on the Concord River, the tree cannot be said to be what it seems, since the
ideal tree stands back of the seen tree, Cape Cod epitomizes the Transcendentalist idea of
the unreliability of the senses. On Cape Cod, Thoreau constantly reminds us of the
2 He goes on: "But history says that, when the Pilgrims had held the lands of Billingsgate many years, at
length 'appeared an Indian, who styled himself Lieutenant Anthony,' who laid claim to them, and of him
they bought them. Who knows but a Lieutenant Anthony may be knocking at the door of the White House
some day? At any rate, I know that if you hold a thing unjustly, there will surely be the devil to pay at last"
(49-50). Thoreau seems to say simultaneously that the land still belongs by rights to the Indians and to call
them the devil. His statement brings to mind the takeovers by the radical American Indian Movement in
1972 and 1973 of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Building in Washington D.C. and Wounded Knee, South
constant presence of the unseen, and, as indeed is the case everywhere, that includes the
constant presence of the unseen dead.
This continual presence acts as a kind of memento mori even though apparently in
absentia. In other words, by pointing so often to the presence of the unseen dead, we
come to think of everything as being comprised of their presence. Perhaps only in Poe's
short stories, where the dead are buried beneath floors and hidden behind walls, do we so
often find the unseen dead. The book begins with a shipwreck.
I asked if the bodies which I saw were all that were drowned.
"Not a quarter of them," said he.
"Where are the rest?"
"Most of them right underneath that piece [of boat] you see." (8-9)
Meanwhile, "the bones of many a shipwrecked man were buried in the pure sand" (20).
The sand shifts perpetually, as unreliable a place marker as the senses are markers of
truth, so there can be no possibility of truly establishing place; a body buried in the sand
will surely move with it.
This gentle Ocean will toss and tear the rag of a man's body
like the father of mad bulls, and his relatives may be seen
seeking the remnants for weeks along the strand. From some
quiet inland hamlet they have rushed weeping to the unheard-
of shore, and now stand uncertain where a sailor has recently
been buried amid the sandhills. (144-145).
The sand occupies a nebulous border between ocean and land, and to lose the corpse of a
loved one in this border would mean losing him entirely.
But the sand, itself consistently inconsistent, bears no comparison in sheer protean
vastness to the ocean it borders. Many of the unseen dead remain in the waves. The
people who live nearby "would watch there many days and nights for the sea to give up
its dead," and the ocean doesn't always oblige (13). As a grave, the ocean truly reassigns
one's corpse to all the elements. "The Gulf Stream may return some to their native
shores, or drop them in some out-of-the-way cave of Ocean, where time and the elements
will write new riddles with their bones" (190). The true loss of one's body to the ocean
must be even greater, since the ocean serves as the perfect metaphor for nature's ultimate
and eternal presence, a presence the idea of which implies existence outside mediation
through language. Time and the elements will not write with the bones, but will
impersonally disperse them amongst their own vastness.
We thought it would be worth the while to read the epitaphs
where so many were lost at sea; however, as not only their
lives, but commonly their bodies also, were lost or not
identified, there were fewer epitaphs of this sort than we
expected, though there were not a few. Their graveyard is
the ocean. (171-172)
In fact, the grave marker serves as an attempt to contain and name and own the dead
body, to keep it nearby through the acts of mapping it and naming it. The epitaph "speaks
for" the property that is one's relative's grave. When the grave marker cannot mark the
body, the body is most truly lost and gone back to the world.
The overall effect in Cape Cod of these memento mori even apparently in
absentia is the permeation of the living world with the dead. Death and the dead become
part of the great Transcendental unseen, the all-pervading, the unknowable. Similarly,
Whitman will let himself "depart as air" and claim to "bequeath myself to the dirt to grow
from the grass I love" ("Song of Myself," Sec. 52), so that in death, his molecules
pervade the whole world. Thoreau says,
I saw that corpses might be multiplied, as on the field of battle,
till they no longer affected us in any degree, as exceptions to the
common lot of humanity. Take all the graveyards together, they
are always the majority. (13)
Death and the unseen dead, like the ocean itself, become the unknowability behind
Furthermore, death and the unseen dead can only be known at all through their
opposite, the living individual. "It is the individual and private that demands our
sympathy," he says, and the individual lives over and against the unindividuated dead. "A
man can attend but one funeral in the course of his life, can behold but one corpse" (13).
The individual can claim his own existence, with a name attached, and mediated through
language. But the corpse has become nobody, despite what any grave marker says to the
contrary, and all corpses are the same corpse, having been returned to the elemental and
Partly through the background of the unseen dead, then, the ocean becomes
Thoreau's metaphor for the Transcendentalist ideal, the protean and primordial
unknowable, which he insistently and contrarily seeks somehow to know. Here we can
see the ideal in its full danger of killing individualities. In terms of their ubiquity,
Thoreau even begins to associate the unseen dead with the ocean.
But as I stood there [the bones] grew more and more imposing.
They were alone with the beach and the sea, whose hollow roar
seemed addressed to them, and I was impressed as if there was
an understanding between them and the ocean which necessarily left
me out, with my sniveling sympathies. (124)
His own aloneness at the beach and sea deepens when he feels excluded from the
company the ocean keeps with the dead. The ocean and the dead infuse one another, the
dead their own ocean, and the ocean as vast and impersonal and unknowable as death.
Thoreau has come to see the dead as themselves oceanic and elemental, and this
focus strangely returns us to ownership. Though we may partially glimpse the true truth
3 See my discussion of Emerson's "Threnody" in the chapter 2.
and the tree behind the tree through a phenomenological gathering of traces, our
comprehension of the thing-in-itself fails with our inability to grasp, to possess, the thing.
Possession of the thing, as we have seen, depends on naming, titling, and mapping it; it
depends on recording, on language, which, as a mediation, precludes the possession of
the thing-in-itself. The great irony here is that Thoreau keeps recording faithfully, while
he indicates that, as long as our senses remain limited, only they who cannot know can
most truly possess. "That dead body had taken possession of the shore, and reigned over
it as no living one could, in the name of a certain majesty which belonged to it" (124).
The dead reign as the elements do. The living individual looks out at the rest of existence,
from which he separates himself, a conscious synecdoche who speaks for the whole
without seeing itself as part of the whole. In fact, standing on the beach helps Thoreau see
humankind as protean, oceanic, and intermingled forever with the ocean itself.
But as I poured it slowly out on to the sand, it seemed to me
that man himself was like a half-emptied bottle of pale ale,
which Time had drunk so far, yet stopped tight for a while, and
drifting about in the ocean of circumstances; but destined erelong
to mingle with the surrounding waves, or be spilled amid the
sands of a distant shore. (135)
The dead mingle with the waves, but the living individual is but "a half-emptied bottle of
pale ale." If any ownership exists here, it's the ownership of the individual by the
elemental and oceanic unknowable, not the other way around.
Consistently, the unknowable resists the senses, resisting measurement as much as
ownership. Just as the elementally dispersed dead permeate the measurable elements, the
immeasurable ocean itself permeates its opposite, the comparatively knowable dry land.
It isn't even necessary to look to the ocean to find the ocean. In the first place, Thoreau
tells us, "the dry land itself came through and out of the water," and he quotes the Swiss
geologist Pierre Jean Edouard Desor to say that "'in going back through the geological
ages, we come to an epoch when, according to all appearances, the dry land did not exist,
and when the surface of our globe was entirely covered with water."' Land itself becomes
the progeny of the ocean, and the ocean "the 'laboratory of continents"' (147). The
oceanic elements entirely infuse the dry, the very "atmosphere [...] impregnated with
saline particles" from the ocean (147-148).
Thoreau finds himself obsessed with the idea of the ocean as a vast rock-tumbler,
further dispersing what might be measured or known into the unknowable protean. The
ocean's act of smoothing objects into pebbles becomes a metaphor for sculpting as
Every material was rolled into the pebble form by the waves; not
only stones of various kinds, but the hard coal which some vessel
had dropped, bits of glass, and in one instance a mass of peat three
feet long, where there was nothing like it to be seen for many miles.
[...] I have also seen very perfect pebbles of brick, and bars of Castile
soap from a wreck rolled into perfect cylinders, and still spirally
streaked with red, like a barber's pole. (125)
Whereas in his "Auguries of Innocence," Blake speaks of seeing "a World in a grain of
sand," Thoreau seeks the evidence of the origin of the world in a piece of sea glass. The
ocean may as well have rolled the planet into being. As the ocean rounds out all things, it
also serves Thoreau as the place where all things "mingle," into and out of which all
things circulate. "All the great rivers of the world are annually, if not constantly,
discharging great quantities of lumber, which drifts to different shores" (125). The ocean
as rounder of all things, encircler of all things, also circulates all things.
The Phenomenology of Trade
Even as Thoreau's Transcendentalist metaphor for unknowability, something of
the ocean may become known in part through its own kind of commerce. Like ownership,
commerce is sense-based human artifice, from the examination of which something
might be glimpsed of the ideal realm behind it. We have seen, in Thoreau, how the
lineaments of the unexplored ideal may be glimpsed through phenomenological
approaches, so we must also see that the back and forth of oceanic trade reveals
something else beyond it. Similar to his belief in higher law behind human law, there
exists for Thoreau a truer commerce behind commerce. He sees commerce itself as an
organic activity. In Walden, Thoreau writes, "[Commerce] is very natural in its methods,
withal, far more so than many fantastic enterprises and sentimental experiments" (106).
In A Week, Thoreau reads the business section of a newspaper used to wrap his food.
"The advertisements and prices current were more closely allied to nature, and were
respectable in some measure as tide and meteorological tables are" (149). But human
commerce uses the mediations of language and currency, and "tide and meteorological
tables" can never become the tides and the weather. Human commerce must be subsumed
in the commerce of Nature.
Throughout Cape Cod, Thoreau gives us instances of the unknowable ideal,
represented by the ocean's own global trade, which can never be regulated or even
entirely anticipated. This higher commerce of the unknowable and oceanic stands against
the lower commerce of human beings just as higher law stands against human law. That
the ocean's global trade can be known only through this kind of estimation makes a
ramshackle science of the collection of such random instances. The ocean "vomits up"
giant clams, pieces "of some old pirate ship, wrecked more than a hundred years ago," a
cargo full of nutmeg. "Why, then, might not the Spice Islanders shake their nutmeg trees
into the ocean, and let all nations who stand in need of them pick them up?" Even the fish
become the purveyors of articles of trade.
You might make a curious list of articles which fishes have swallowed,
-sailors' open clasp-knives, and bright tin snuff-boxes, not knowing
what was in them,-and jugs, and jewels, and Jonah. The other day I
came across the following scrap in a newspaper. A RELIGIOUS FISH,
-A short time ago, mine host Stewart, of the Denton Hotel, purchased
a rock-fish, weighing about sixty pounds. On opening it he found in it
a certificate of membership of the M.E. Church." (133-134)
The ocean acts as global trader of fuel, as "Many get all their fuel from the [driftwood
on] the beach" (152). Elsewhere Thoreau tells us of finding eighteenth century French
coins on the cape (187). The collection of instances of oceanic trade serves as a
phenomenological enterprise that gets us as close to knowing the ocean-as-ocean as we
can get. We cannot know the ocean, but we can know the things it circulates. We are
continually dealing with Thoreau's idea of catching reflections of the ideal, here
represented by the ocean, amongst the measurable, here represented by the items the
ocean has left behind.
In some of these instances, the idea of ocean as merchant comes close to
converging with the idea of ocean as originator of life. Thoreau is surprised to find people
farming in the sand on Cape Cod, successfully raising turnips, beets, and carrots. How
could this shifting and fine-grained beach sand prove fertile ground? He surmises that
this fertility obtains through the air itself, ambient, with "an abundance of moisture in the
atmosphere." Even the air on the cape seems infused with the originating quality of the
cape's opposite, the ocean. "[W]hat little grass there was was remarkably laden with dew
in the morning." Meanwhile, the thick summer fogs last until "midday, turning one's
beard into a wet napkin about his throat" (192). The fertile ground must be none other
than the air itself. At the same time, the ocean has granted its own spoils from the other
side of the world, so that the beets and turnips, Thoreau tells us, first grew by using
seaweed as compost, having sprouted from seeds in a shipwrecked cargo.
It's hard to miss the strange sexual imagery here. The ocean has broken its waves
and spilled its shipwrecked seed upon a beach which is oddly fertile from the amount of
moisture in its atmosphere. Thoreau's notion of a higher commerce has turned out to be a
kind of sexual congress, the ocean as primordial origin bearing the "Urge and urge and
urge, / Always the procreant urge of the world" that Whitman writes about ("Song of
Myself," Sec. 3). The ocean's global trade exists through a dispersal of fertility.
This suggests how various plants may have been dispersed
over the world to distant islands and continents. Vessels, with
seeds in their cargoes, destined for particular ports, where perhaps
they were not needed, have been cast away on desolate islands,
and though their crews perished, some of their seeds have been
Having come to see oceanic global trade as sexual, we find it difficult not to read this
segment as expressive of homosexual desire.4 When destined ports have no need of the
seed (or perhaps the seed-filled vessels have no need of "particular ports"?), other places
of entry, though seemingly "desolate," may receive the cargo. The trading of primordial
desire, however, must remain unpredictable. The desirous and procreant ocean remains so
much in charge that even the individual must be lost to it. Shipwrecks may "contribute a
new vegetable to a continent's stock," or, in fact, "winds and currents might effect the
4 Certainly Michael Warner and others have argued that Thoreau's writing is full of such latent expression.
Warner writes, "The entire reflective/penetrative thematic of bottoms (or no bottoms) ostensibly serves as a
metaphor for the imagined and the real, self and other. But it also carries the displaced interest in the
bottoms or no bottoms of other men" (74).
same without the intervention of man" (193). Here the "procreant urge" seems so
autonomous as to exist as a natural force outside of human lives.
Traveling to the Eternal
Finally, Thoreau's complicated understanding of time-his paradoxical
experimentalism with the ideal, his desire, by turns naturalistic and Transcendentalist, to
experience Nature in its factual unknowability-means that he seeks paradoxical
relations with time. He contradictorily seeks a new encounter with the old and an historic
encounter with the timeless. Even in The Maine Woods, his push away from all
settlements, further into the wilderness, comes across as a push toward some new
meeting with a timeless source. Robinson says,
Such glimpses of the actual nature of a realm that we inhabit
but do not really know in detail are the hints of a new and more
perfected life [...]. The goal is to move inward toward the center
and source of the gravity that we sense but do not fully compre-
If that moving inward is true, it happens here through a further traveling outward. "[O]nly
a few axe-men have gone 'up river' into the howling wilderness which feeds it" (The
Maine Woods, 82). Then Thoreau tells us that "sixty miles above, the country is virtually
unmapped and unexplored, and there still waves the virgin forest of the New World"
(83). The aim consists of more than merely going where no (white) man has gone before.
Thoreau perpetually trudges toward the eternal and ideal, to that invisible spring
he believes feeds its opposite, the time-bound and visible. "It was as if the seasons had
revolved backward two or three months, or I had arrived at the abode of perpetual spring"
(163). Going off the map, so to speak, means going back in time, finding source and
origin, the self-perpetuation of which makes Nature timeless. Indeed, the idea of
apparently ceaseless self-perpetuation implies no end, and therefore, the search for a
beginning only ends up in the obliteration of tracks in the oceanic, the "primordial ooze,"
as we might say today. If traveling further into the unmapped means traveling further
toward the eternal and ideal, the primordial and timeless, so Thoreau suspects "that if you
should go to the end of the world5, you would find somebody there going further, as if
just starting for home at sundown, and having a last word before he drove off'6 (13).
At the end of the world, then, both in time and in geography, Thoreau looks for
the new. In "Thoreau's Cape Cod: The Unsettling Art of the Wrecker," John Lowney
argues that the book evokes the idea of "manifest destiny" with the rather perverse goal
of creating an un-settlement. That the end of the world might be seen as the beginning,
because the eternal and invisible feed the time-bound and visible, directly implicates the
idea of the frontier.
Cape Cod explicitly invokes the nationalist myth of the frontier,
the myth of manifest destiny that translates "Ne plus ultra (no
more beyond)" into "plus ultra (more beyond)," legitimating
the process of pulling up roots and leaving behind one's past [...]
Rather than asserting such freedom from a local past in order to
nationalize his identity, the shoreline frontiersman who narrates
Cape Cod instead enacts his dissent from a fallen national mission
in order to affirm the significance of the local. (240-241).
Indeed through the local, the grain of sand or piece of sea glass, Thoreau sees the
5 Similarly, in Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, narrator Ray Smith, while climbing mountains in the
Sierras, says, "The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost [...] most of all like gold
eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went
on a million years ago" (61-62). Japhy Ryder, a character based on the poet Gary Snyder, tells Smith that
"a mountain is a Buddha" (67), and that "This is the beginning and the end of the world right here. Look at
all those patient Buddhas looking [sic] at us saying nothing" (68).
6 Later in The Dharma Bums, when Smith can't climb any higher up Matterhorn, he watches Ryder head
for the top and remembers "with horror" the Zen koan, "'When you get to the top of a mountain, keep
He seeks the original, the primordial, but his ideas about what such transcendent
seeking might mean entail strange rearrangements in the opposition of old and new. The
ancient forests remain "virgin." The "primeval" in nature can yet be called new, so long
as we can say it is "untamed, and forever untameable" (69). What we might now call "old
growth forests" he calls "new country." Thoreau's opposition of new and old, in fact,
bear much in common with those oppositional definitions of new and old that would
allow anthropology to become the discipline it did in the twentieth century. "New" means
much the same as "virgin" or "untouched," in the sense of the wilderness not having been
contaminated by the touch of "civilization." Since "civilization" means urban
civilization, both the wilderness and its indigenous peoples are deemed primitive, in the
sense that they are closer to the origin.
Even here Thoreau moves closer to the eternal and ideal. The idea of visiting
primitive peoples carries with it the racial condescension of traveling backward through
evolutionary history, though this condescension also romantically implies the primitive is
more whole, true, even more real. Thus, for Thoreau, "the woods" and "the general
twilight" should have the effect on the inhabitants of towns of"mak[ing] them \,i//li/'ge'
(198). The strange spelling of "savage" seems to indicate that something is saved in the
life that has not been "civilized." Robinson says that Thoreau "divorces ['true
knowledge'] from the corruptions of civilization, arguing that the accumulation of
knowledge lacks value for those who come to it simply as fact" (75). Thoreau's sitting by
the river and listening to the singing of thrushes makes him muse that "no higher
7 This explains Claude Levi-Strauss's apparently contrarian statement that the New World is often much
older than the Old World, since it ages so much faster. "I fall into the opposite error: since these towns are
new and derive their being and their justification from their newness, I find it difficult to forgive them for
not remaining new. In the case of European towns, the passing of centuries provides an enhancement; in the
case of American towns, the passing of years brings degeneration (Tristes Tropiques, 95).
civilization could be attained," whether he means the experiential, non-factual and new
civilization of himself in nature, or that of the thrush as Nature itself (274).
In Cape Cod, the timelessness of the ocean finally and paradoxically becomes the
means for demythologizing history. History becomes myth when people come to think of
it as immutable, as indeed factual, rather than narrative. Thoreau's push to know the
unknowable, with the unknowable made metaphoric by the ocean itself, leads him to the
limits of what we can know. Just as in Kant, we cannot meet the thing in its
unconditioned state, cannot directly meet the thing-in-itself, Thoreau reminds us that
history is entirely conditioned. He explores epistemology by pointing out that what we
know can never definitively be fixed. Lowney sees Thoreau's attempts to trace the
etymology of "Cape Cod" as an "apparent linguistic playfulness" that "actually
adumbrates the unsettlement method of the book" (243). Thus Thoreau begins to question
or unsettle the historical consensus of particular Europeans having first explored
particular New England coastal areas. He tells us that New England was first New
France, accusing our history-telling of Anglicization (274). He speaks of the
mythological city of Norumbega, which early European explorers said was a vast Indian
trading center somewhere high on the Eastern coast (279). Then he travels further into the
past to the Vikings, who may or may not have sailed by Cape Cod shortly after the first
In accordance with Thoreau's experimentation with the invisible, his enterprise to
know, somehow, the unknowable, he tells us that we can only know history by un-
knowing it, demythologizing it. His considerations of recorded history necessarily take
him to the aporia of unrecorded history, history in absentia. A 1609 account says that the
French had frequentede] the Newfoundland Banks from time immemorial" (290).
Another French account claims the Gauls visited the Northeastern American coast "more
than sixteen hundred years ago." Thoreau doesn't dismiss these stories, but admits the
countless possibilities of what we do not and cannot know. "It is the old story. Bob Smith
discovered the mine, but I discovered it to the world. And now Bob Smith is putting in
his claim" (291).
Thoreau admits that history must always be a political record, and this admission
takes us back to land claims once again. History acknowledges those who first "spoke
for" the land, but this speaking for cannot occlude the possibility of unspoken-for
occurrences preceding the naming, the claim-staking of history.
If America was found and lost again once, as most of us believe,
then why not twice? especially as there were likely to be so few
records of an earlier discovery. Consider what stuff history is made
of,-that for the most part it is merely a story agreed on by posterity.
Who will tell us even how many Russians were engaged in the battle
of the Chernaya, the other day? Yet no doubt, Mr. Scriblerus, the
historian, will fix on a definite number for the schoolboys to commit
to their excellent memories. (291-292)
The historian "speaks for" history in the same way that the Pilgrims "spoke for" the land
and Thoreau himself makese] the earth say beans" or "Apocynum an111, reinjifliulm"
(The Maine Woods 310). Our reading and writing of the truth and our speaking for Nature
still fail, but for reflections and shadows, to see the tree behind the tree.
The Doubled Thing: "Thing" and "Self"
Through all Thoreau's various musings in Cape Cod, we see the consistency of
his stubborn attempt to know some reflection or refraction of the unknowable, to use the
senses to approach the ideal indirectly, although he knows this quest to be quixotic. He
shows the artifice of our measures to get to their object, whether those measures be
language, ownership, law, commerce, or even time. All of these mediations can only
remain precisely that, mediations. Nevertheless, he insists on using them to approach
some higher form of each construction. Cape Cod is a ramble, but it does have this
underlying consistency. Again, the opposition between all of these constructions and
what Thoreau believes to be the truth behind them pushes him forward, evidence of his
contradictory status as idealist and empiricist. This contradictory status brings us back to
With his drive to use measurements, always constructed and therefore faulty, to
approach the ideal, Thoreau travels further, constantly. The last isolated cabin will not be
far enough into the wilderness and the visits of the Vikings or even of Gauls before them
will not be far enough into the past. The place where the world ends, past which we can
still start off on a journey, and the place where the tree meets the ideal tree behind it are
the same placeless place, which for Thoreau must be the ocean.
If Thoreau depends on the thing measured, even though he finds the measurement
ultimately untrue, then we might say he measures the material thing to approach its ideal
self. The metaphysical realm is not saved by saying that an empirically trustworthy
scientific measurement cannot touch the metaphysical, as is the case in Kant. Instead, the
metaphysical is seen as capable of being glimpsed from the physical. The thing-in-itself
is no longer the unconditioned thing as it is in Kant. Perhaps it's the actual in the ideal,
the visible in the invisible. The thing doubled into "thing" and "self' must be the
paradoxical "original" "echo" that Thoreau also talks about in A Week, where he says,
"But to-day I like best the echo amid these cliffs and woods. It is no feeble imitation, but
rather its original" (41).
The question of how one can recover the thing-in-itself from its oppositional
status and simultaneously believe in the existence of the ideal behind the sensuous cannot
entirely be answered outside of this all-pervading tension. To whatever extent Thoreau
can seek to know the ocean in its unknowability, he can only do so from the ocean's
opposite. He can only look directly into the self-perpetuating source, the ideal, the origin,
from the beach. The stanza following his assertion in A Week that "the ocean they've
sailed o'er / Is deeper known upon the strand to me," says,
The middle sea contains no crimson dulse,
Its deeper waves cast up no pearls to view,
Along the shore my hand is on its pulse,
And I converse with many a shipwrecked crew. (195)
So Thoreau stands on the time-bound beach with his hand upon the pulse of the
timeless ocean, itself the origin of the world. According to William H. Bonner,
He viewed the sea either as a landsman from the shore or, like a
landsman turned sailor, amidst waves that roll and winds that blow
toward some mystic shore that should be eagerly sought or chosen
for a home. Either way, the shore was a point of focus and emphasis.
As the shore allows him to take the pulse of the origin, the shore allows him to witness
the permeation of the world with the unseen dead.
Strewn with crabs, horse-shoes, and razor-clams, and whatever
the sea casts up,-a vast morgue, where famished dogs may range
in packs, and crows come daily to glean the pittance which the
tide leaves them. The carcasses of men and beasts together lie
stately up upon its shelf, rotting and bleaching in the sun and waves,
and each tide turns them in their beds, and tucks fresh sand under
them. There is naked Nature, inhumanly sincere, wasting no
thought on man, nibbling at the cliffy shore where gulls wheel
amid the spray. (217-218)
On the continental shelf above the waves, at the edge of the ocean, Nature stands naked
and entirely oblivious to him.
To whatever degree the thing-in-itself in its unconditioned sense, its Kantian
sense, can be made manifest, it can only be done over and against its opposite. In seeking
to recover what he admits to be irrecoverable, in knowing the unknowable ocean from the
shore, Cape Cod-in-itself reveals itself to him.
There I had got the Cape under me, as much as if I were riding
it bare-backed. It was not as on the map, or seen from the stage-
coach; but there I found it all out of doors, huge and real, Cape
Cod! as it cannot be represented on a map, color it as you will;
the thing itself, than which there is nothing more like it, no truer
picture or account; which you cannot go further and see. (74)
This moment in this short book is about as happy as Thoreau ever shows himself to be.
Cape Cod here, against the ocean, seems not just to be real, but to be ideal and
unconditioned. And if travelers are even starting up from the end of the world to head
further, "you cannot go further" than Cape Cod.
Cape Cod-in-itself exists here in a particular Thoreauvian state of opposition to
both Concord and Walden Pond so that Cape Cod itself must have made necessary the
journey from Concord, for being what Concord could never be. In The Environmental
Imagination, Lawrence Buell writes, "Among all American places made famous by
literary associations, Concord had already long been and still remains today the most
visited and most luminous" (318). Buell goes on to call Concord sacred in the way a
place of pilgrimage creates its own hagiography. Walden Pond became its own
pilgrimage site over and against that of Concord, since Thoreau used it as a site, not for
"withdrawal," but for "confrontation" (Cavell xv). He "wake[s his] neighbors up" "as
lustily as chanticleer in the morning" (Walden 75). But Walden Pond, Buell points out,
has consistently been "over-pastoralize[d]" ("The Thoreauvian Pilgrimage" 180), itself
the anti-pilgrimage shrine mirroring Concord, which, having become "noted as the resort
of bucolic philosopher-literati, [had] its pastoral mystique redoubled" (183). Walden
becomes an overly pastoralized symbol, but the semiotics of the ocean must surely reject
such limitations. The ocean must be its own undoing of any historical "manifest destiny,"
since Thoreau uses the idea of its paradoxical deep-time timelessness to demythologize
history. And as that place from which the ocean can be known, Cape Cod becomes for
Thoreau the possibility of an enduring un-settlement. The trip to Cape Cod-in-itself has
become his un-pilgrimage.
In his excitement, Thoreau has forgotten to be self-conscious of his writing. If he
calls Cape Cod "huge and real," he refuses to take the time to realize he is "speaking for."
This one moment acts as a strange window. Thoreau seems to have seen straight through
the Cape Cod that exists in language, that his book speaks for, and that hinges on its
name, to the Cape Cod that he cannot represent for us. There can be "no truer account"
than "the thing itself," he says here, but he can do no better than give us an account of
Against the ocean, which he ends the book by calling "the spring of springs, the
waterfall of waterfalls" (319), no human mythology can sustain itself. Not history. Not
even that historical construct, itself an invention of consensus, the nation. What is
America, he asks in The Maine Woods, but a European name for a place that has no idea
it's been so called.
Seeing and hearing moose, caribou, bears, porcupines, lynxes, wolves,
and panthers. Places [within the American wilderness] where he might
live and die and never hear of the United States, which make such a
noise in the world,-never hear of America, so called from the name
of a European gentleman. (236)
Because for Thoreau in that one moment, Cape Cod existed in and of itself, outside of the
mediation of its name and of any "speaking for" it, Cape Cod opposite its representation,
Cape Cod opposite the ocean, the book could end with the sentence, "A man may stand
there and put all America behind him" (319).
AN OUROBORIC UNDERSTANDING OF OPPOSITION IN WALT WHITMAN'S
"SONG OF MYSELF"
Writing in her journal in 1844, Margaret Fuller drew a serpent swallowing its own
tail. Beneath the sketch, she wrote, "Patient serpent, circle round / Till in death thy life is
found" (195). The serpent is an ouroboros, an ancient worldwide symbol, also used in
alchemy, of a dragon or serpent devouring its tail. While the image of a snake swallowing
its tail can be found in cultures as wide-ranging as Japanese, Aztec and American Indian,
French historian and archaeologist Louis Charbonneau-Lassay traces its lineage from the
Egyptians to the Greeks. The ouroboros was used to represent a conciliation of opposites
such as part and whole or life and death. Fuller's short verse also uses the serpent to bring
together male and female, darkness and light, and time and eternity. The ouroboros can
be used as a trope for Whitman's response to the Transcendentalist goal of bringing
opposition into harmony. The times abounded in esotericism, and Fuller's Woman in the
Nineteenth Century constantly refers to a range of the occult from Swedenborg to
Theosophy. The symbiotic relationship of opposites was a leitmotiv for the
Transcendentalists and those they influenced, such as Walt Whitman.
Famously and contrarily, Whitman declares, "Do I contradict myself? / Very well
then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)" (Sec. 51). Whitman
continually jams opposites together in apparently contradictory ways. In "Song of
Myself," the claim that a thing is its opposite, or is in direct relationship with its opposite,
is ubiquitous. Like Fuller in her journal, Whitman deals with the opposition of time and
eternity, life and death, male and female, as well as self and other, body and soul, part
and whole, and so on. Though this ouroboric balance is perpetually sustained, it is not
static. The ouroboric is cyclically dynamic; it is balance in process. Whitman writes
against static form, as opposition constantly circle each other, "and ever come back
thither" (Sec. 27). The "opposite equals" always "advance" (Sec. 3). Opposites have been
one another and will be again.
Despite Whitman's ouroboric sense that opposites directly sustain each other,
critics have often seen Whitman as coming down on one side or the other of the equation.
D.H. Lawrence excoriates the "I" of "Song of Myself," as falling under a totalitarian
delusion that "Eskimos" are "minor little Walts," rather than "something that I am not"
(Maslan, 121). Meanwhile, many of those critics who praise Whitman call him a healer
and consider "division [...] an affliction for which Whitman seeks a cure" (Maslan, 135).
To seek a "cure" for division, however, or to consider the other as primarily part of the
self, is to seek not only an imbalance, but a solution that will finally halt the intercourse
of opposites. Precisely because of the balance of opposition devouring and creating one
another in "Song of Myself," Whitman can claim to "bequeath myself to the dirt to grow
from the grass I love, / If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles" (Sec.
52). The speaker's death gives life to the grass, so it is from the grass that he speaks to us.
Because the speaker's role is not to eliminate division, but to show the necessary
intercourse and sustenance between opposites, he shows us the necessity of death for life.
The division must be sustained. Both sides must depend on each other for the relationship
to hold. Whitman's "Song of Myself" preaches an ouroboric balance of opposition in
process that depends as much on the autonomy of each opposing item as on the
overarching opposition itself.
One critic after another has emphasized Whitman as healer, as arbitrator of
various tensions, or as a heroic figure resolving the antagonisms of his times.1 He fits this
role for those whose concerns are overwhelmingly political, psychoanalytic, or sexual.
Certainly Whitman himself has led us to this portrait, saying, "No two have exactly the
same language, and the great translator and joiner of the whole is the poet." Indeed Betsy
Erkkila quotes this line in Whitman, the Political Poet to show that he is "The Poet of
Slaves and the Masters of Slaves" (49).
Erkkila sees the struggles of the marketplace in Whitman. In his poetry, "the real
contradictions of the American marketplace [...] continually collide with and threaten to
explode Whitman's democratizing designs" (10). At the outset, the poems are opposed to
these tensions. "Whitman's poems are a response to and an attempt to manage the
disintegrative forces of democracy and technology in the nineteenth century" (11). For
Erkkila, the politics is primary, and "the theme of political union" is "the overarching
figure of his life and work" (23). Though she is right to point out that the poetic and the
political were not considered separate spheres before the late nineteenth century ideal of
ars gratia artis (11), to make Whitman primarily political, rather than spiritual or
1 Academic critics are not alone in this assessment. In her 1949 book, The Life ofPoetry, poet Muriel
Rukeyser writes, "Whitman's fight for reconciliation was of profound value as a symbol. The fight was the
essential process of democracy." Then,
a poet of that democracy would have to acknowledge and make that truth
emerge from the widest humanity in himself, among the horizons of his
contradicted days and nights. The reconciliation was not a passive one;
the unity was not an identification in which the range was lost. (78)
Her point that "the range was [not] lost" in Whitman's "reconciliation" may present a more complicated
argument than that Whitman was the healer of the Divided States.
She also says that Whitman's rhythms were those of the
relation of our breathing to our heatbeat, and these measured against an
ideal of water at the shore, not beginning nor ending, but endlessly drawing
in, making forever its forms of massing and falling among the breakers,
seething in the white recessions of surf, never finishing, always making
a meeting-place. (78)
Her description here is of an infinite rhythm, a neverending give-and-take, though where the poem captures
this rhythm, it constitutes Rukeyser's frequent definition of a poem: "a meeting-place."
naturalistic, is to upset the balancing act of opposition that Whitman sets up in such
poems as "Song of Myself." This focus is not to say that Whitman's poetry is apolitical,
but that the political does not constitute a primacy.
Likewise M. Wynn Thomas sees Whitman's ideas of self as a synthesis of
marketplace struggles. Whitman's strange contradiction of celebrating the self and
disdaining the trappings of selfishness reflects the shift from the artisanal market
economy to industrial capitalism. The artisanal system emphasized individualism and
pride in one's skills, yet the new system placed money and all it could buy before
everything else. Once again, Whitman's role is to heal the fissure, to arbitrate the tension,
or, as Thomas says, "Whitman turned to poetry to resolve him of his ambiguities."
In "Song of Myself" he makes contemporary capitalism, with all
the freedom and variety of existence it quite genuinely seems to
him to promise, the ostensibly simple subject of his celebrations;
while at the same time he attacks the very spirit of selfhood, which
in historical fact animates and agitates this new world-pulling
down its vanity by means of his very different pride in himself. It
is almost as if he were trying to bring the artisanal and post-
artisanal phases he had known together into a single imaginative
synthesis (The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry, 71).
Again, Whitman dissolves opposition in his role as healer or arbitrator of the times.
Though Vivian Pollak also gives him this role, she sees the danger of solely
focusing on one aspect of Whitman's balancing act of opposition. In particular, in
writing The Erotic Whitman, she risks reducing "Whitman's rich literary achievement to
the sum of his insecurities," but she does "hope to demonstrate that his insights into 'the
problems of freedom' (LG 1860, p. 349) were always conditioned by the 'chaos' that he
himself had encountered" (xv). To Pollak, the fissures Whitman fuses are between an
artistic "feminization" and his own "compensatory virilization" (xvi-xvii), and "between
sexual love and social cohesion rather than the 'destructive iconoclasms' of individual
romantic obsession" (148). Somehow, Whitman is "able to convert his fear of erotic
intimacy [...] into a poetics of national closeness" (xvii). Whitman's own self-healing
somehow leads to a national healing through his poetry.
But if to resolve a tension means to eliminate the opposing poles, or at least to
move them from their polar positions, if to unite means to bring together, and if to heal
means to stitch the sides of a wound together again, then Whitman fails to achieve these
ends. Even as many claim him to be the poet of union and healing, Whitman is also the
poet of polar opposition and division. This perspective seems to deny the most popular
ways of viewing Whitman, yet it's not hard to see his particular understanding of things
proceeding through opposition. Nor can too much emphasis be placed on the word
"proceeding," for if Whitman sees existence as a series of opposition, he doesn't see a
static series. He sees all things perpetually becoming all other things, and this perpetual
becoming is the very essence of that serpent swallowing its tail. Since all of these critical
viewpoints of Whitman as healer fail to take into account the opposition Whitman
maintains, a good place to begin looking at Whitman's ouroboric understanding is the
opposition between meaning itself and the world as it exists outside of meaning (that
extra-hermeneutic world itself being, of course, a human notion).
The speaker preaches an ouroboric balance between what things mean to us and
the opposite pole where grass or hawks cannot be said to "mean," because they exist on
their own, outside human attempts to define them. On one side of this opposition he
searches for a way to express nature for itself, and in doing so, to exclude human
interpretation of nature. On the other side of this opposition he must use language to
express nature, and language is automatically interpretive. On one hand, inasmuch as
words dissolve into the air, or a book can rot or bum in the fire, a poem always consists
of the elements, always only a part of nature. On the other hand, any expression of nature
ascribes a human meaning, and cannot be considered natural.
The speaker deals with the first side of this opposition by seeking to allow nature
to speak through the speaker, but still as nature. Hermeneutics is not allowed. He claims
to "harbor for good or bad" both and calls this "Nature without check with original
energy" (Sec. 1). The speaker's words themselves remain only so much air and vibration,
only as natural as anything else on the earth, "The sound of the belch'd words of my
voice loos'd to the eddies of the wind" (Sec. 2). Right from the beginning, then, "Song of
Myself" strikes an organicist stance, in which all the thinking or faith in meaning in the
poem continues to be only a part of nature, words no more than belches. In this view, it
becomes futile, indeed groundless, to speak of what something might mean. If the reader
has "felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems," then a "day and night," and "the good
of the earth and sun" need to be seen as "the origin of all poems" (Sec. 2). The speaker
asks his reader to stop with him to see nature not as the meaning of the poem, but as what
Whitman elsewhere calls "The real poems, (what we call poems being merely pictures)"
(Whitman, "Spontaneous Me"). No defense could suffice against such an effort to make
things "mean," against the assaults of "trippers and askers," "linguists and contenders,"
but to "witness and wait" (Sec. 4).
Positioned against such interpreters and critics, against the very chapter you now
read, the speaker comes across as the truly anti-intellectual poet. Where there is no