Week 5 & 6

I’m interested in especially first-time readers of Emerson’s Nature (1836), in hearing your comments, thoughts, initial reactions (and perhaps frustrations with a dense and dazzlingly opaque text!). What resonates with you in the 21st century in this material? Just like we asked of Swedenborg, how might Emerson be “translated” forward, and inform a progressive modern environmental ethos?

As part of this second question, I am interested in the particular critique often lobbied by ecocritics and environmentalists against Emerson — that his philosophy of nature is hopelessly anthropocentric. That’s something we might also see as a charge easily applicable to Swedenborg. In these sections from “Nature,” are there moments that seem to support this complaint? And/or work against it?

Or — to be more provocative — might Emerson and Swedenborg show how this anthropocentric critique is flawed, missing sight of some bigger picture?

Challenging questions with no clear easy answers. Before we try and tackle any of that, let’s get some thoughts flowing around Emerson’s “Nature” and moments of resonance (or dissonance) with our moment in the (quickly warming) 21st century.

17 responses to “Week 5 & 6

  1. Hey! I can’t find the video on Emerson, Devin. Where was that? Thanks!

  2. Yikes, Karen: you’re right, it completely vanished. It was supposed to be another link under the Minilecture for Weeks 5 / 6, but it looks like I hid the coding when I added my new video minilecture in. Sorry, “my bad”, as they say… will get that up on the front page of the blog pronto…

  3. Hi, everybody. I hope your Thanksgiving Day/weekend were both wonderful.

    I’m going to answer the first part of the discussion question separately. I believe this is the first time I’ve read anything of Emerson’s. The language is certainly archaic, not surprisingly, but I found myself enjoying the experience. When an author is cramming thoughts into virtually every sentence it can certainly be challenging for me to read, but this was fun. His imagery was at times breathtakingly beautiful: “We penetrate bodily this incredible beauty: we dip our hands in this painted element; our eyes are bathed in these lights and forms.” And, “Nature cannot be surprised in undress. Beauty breaks in everywhere.” One more, “Every moment instructs, and every object; for wisdom is infused into every form.” All of these statements, and many, many more, resonate so deeply within me that it’s hard to put it into words. Stan and I live in a remote area, 278 miles due north of Los Angeles and 200 miles due south of Reno, NV. People who live in “the city” often have a hard time understanding how we can live in the middle of nowhere. At this time in my life I have to have access to wilderness. It’s like a drug that I’ve become addicted to, and I HAVE to have it. A ten minute walk from our house finds us on a dirt road with nothing “man-made” within sight. Only light and color, only beauty. For me it is achingly true that, as Emerson says, “Nature is loved by what is best in us.”

  4. Thanks, Karen, for these great reflections, and I am glad that despite the indeed archaisms in the text, that beauty broke thru for a first time reader. Beauty is one of the most important operative words for Emerson’s view of nature (besides being one of the sub-chapters in the “Nature” essay). So you read well and closely. Elsewhere he writes of the creative power in nature as essentially “ecstatic” — an intense emotion often closely connected to beauty as a generative force. When I think of your ten minute daily walk into what must be spectacular western Sierra country behind your house, I think Emerson would nod in agreement with your metaphor of drugs — that you “HAVE” to have this little daily experience of beauty. It is ecstatic; it “feels” good and pleasurable at a deep level, to both body and mind (or spirit).

    And why is this so, I think we should ask ourselves. Emerson loves to play with words, and was well aware of the Greek etymology in “ecstasy” — that quite literally, it denotes an “ex-stasis”, a coming out of stillness, to “stand outside of oneself.” If the beauty of nature is ecstatic, then, it challenges or changes our sense of who we are: enlarging, broadening, making us aware of other things and beings beyond our little selves (what Swedenborg would call our limiting “proprium”).

    If this sounds kind of mystical, for Emerson it certainly was: if you read his essay on “Swedenborg; or, the Mystic,” the word “ecstasy” appears as a key trope at numerous points in the text. The ecstasy of the mystic was “an absence- a getting out of the body to think.”

    Just some thoughts for now — will wait to see if others chime in.

    • Thanks, Devin. I’m beginning to self identify as a “mystic,” and it doesn’t seem so strange to do so anymore. It’s the lens through which I see so many things, be they secular or spiritual. Smiles.

  5. I will be rereading the excerpts from Nature before our videoconference this afternoon, thinking about the questions, but in the meantime here are some thoughts from the last week or so…
    I supplemented my reading this month with several books about the Transcendentalists and their time: The Essential Transcendentalists (ed. & introduced by Richard G. Geldard), The Peabody Sisters of Salem by Louise Tharp, and The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ingnited American Romanticism by Megan Marshall.
    The Essential Transcendentalists has good summaries of the movement and its relationships, as well as selections of primary texts by Sampson Reed, Alcott, Emerson, Thoreau and Margaret Fuller. It calls Reed’s Observations on the Growth of the Mind “an answer to Locke and a refinement of the mystical teachings of Swedenborg.” It has a good explanation of the relationship between Reed and Emerson – it seems that Emerson acknowledge Reed as “one of his men” after incorporating many of Reed’s insights into his own Nature, but Reed later “would have nothing good to say in behalf of the Transcendental movement….”as Emerson rejected Reed’s/Swedenborg’s view of the spiritual vs. natural worlds. Their disagreement over this was “a vivid example of the world of duality (Reed’s) meeting a vision of greater unity (Emerson’s).
    Reading the books about the Peabody sisters (Elizabeth was a teacher, writer, publisher, bookstore-owner and close friend of Emerson, who was her first Greek tutor; Mary, an educator, married Horace Mann; and Sophia, an artist, married Nathaniel Hawthorne), I was struck with the amount of influence these women (and others less well known) had over the Transcendentalist movement and what has evolved from it. The family matriarch, Eliza Peabody, evidently was enthusiastic about Swedenborg’s writings and discussed them with her daughters, although Elizabeth (specifically) rejected his views of Heaven and Hell.
    I think that the female influence in this area has probably been undervalued, as it was much easier for men to write and publish. It seems that the women may have been just as prolific in their contributions, but in different ways, due to the societal constraints upon their involvement in the public sector (outside the home). A striking example is the “Cuba Journal” of Sophia Peabody.
    “If her ‘Cuba Journal’, as the family came to call it, had been published at the time of its writing, Sophia would have been counted among the earliest practitioners of literary Transcendentalism. ‘How beautifully nature educates the soul,’ Sophia wrote after one early-morning ride, in a formulation anticipating both Emerson and Thoreau. Like the later Thoreau, Sophia described flowering plants, trees, and wildlife in precise detail, often sketching them in the margins of her journal; but she was even more alert to what Emerson would call the ‘Spiritual Laws’ made manifest in the natural world…. Even before there was a name for it, Sophia had become an instinctive Transcendentalist.” (Marshall 2005: 278). As another interesting connection, her most notable work of sculpture was of Laura Bridgman, the first deaf-blind child to be formally educated – a forerunner of Helen Keller, one of the most famous Swedenborgians of all time.
    Sophia’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth Hawthorne, was unconventional in a way reminiscent of Thoreau – in return for bouquets of spring flowers from the Peabody sisters, she sent back “acorn caps, moss and seaweed.”
    All three sisters were active in discussion groups meeting in homes and at Elizabeth’s bookstore, which was a major meeting place of the Transcendentalists (Elizabeth published Emerson’s periodical, the Dial). Elizabeth was the person primarily responsible for the introduction of kindergartens thoughout the U.S., and Mary was the partner of Horace Mann, who founded Antioch as the first coeducational college. As active participants in conversations with the major writers and philosophers of their day, and as influences on future generations, they may have done as much (or more) to spread Swedenborgian insights about nature and spirit to future generations as those men who published and lectured.
    More later – hoping to see more people on the videoconference today!

  6. One other thing that came up this week. Reading George Dole’s “sermon” in Sunday’s “Daily Bread” (which I download online), I found him imaging the Garden of Eden and the Holy City as parentheses enclosing life/cosmos/whatever as it evolved/evolves/whatever (change of state?)… I find it interesting that things “progress” from the Garden to an urban environment (even if it does include rivers and gardens) as the ultimate or Omega state. To me, Heaven is/will be more like the Wild/Nature. In dreams, my best experiences are in Nature — the “urban” sequences are more stressful (late to work, unprepared for class, etc.). In the movie version of “What Dreams May Come,” the beautiful scenes of Heaven are like Nature, while the Hell into which the protagonist goes to try to redeem his wife is urban. This summer I did not get out as much as I liked… but fortunately even on the way to work, I can frequently see the mountains — this morning, a beautiful sunrise. Swedenborgianism owes a lot to E.S.’s study of the book of Revelation. If Luther had left it out of the Protestant canon (as I have heard he considered doing), how would it have affected ES’s works? We know a lot more now about how the canon of scripture was chosen (often with political influences), but in ES’s day the choice of which Gospels, etc. were part of the “Word” was seldom questioned.

  7. I am going to try to be on tonight’s group session, but in case I don’t make it, I do want to weigh in on the discussion questions. Boy, this is a lot of material to hold in my feeble head. But I thoroughly enjoyed the readings again and the expansive new thoughts they opened for me out here in very rural America.
    I do remember reading Emerson’s Nature once as “required reading” in a philosophy class. I remember reading it, but I do not “remember” it. This time it was transforming and exhilarating. Like Karen I was engrossed in his words and imagery and I, too, believe that religion can and must be revealed to us personally. And nothing does this more profoundly than nature. Reading Emerson now was a totally new experience because I am in a totally different place in my life than at 20. I am finally ready to read it. I hope.
    The picture of the atmosphere “made transparent…, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime” reminded me recently of camping out with our 3 YO granddaughter who lives in the city. I looked over and she was sprawled out on the ground looking up and she exclaimed, “Grandma, where did all the stars come from?” She went home and told her dad, “Grandma has more stars that we do.” It makes we wonder if part of our lack of environmental ethos is due to our physical separation from nature. Does it matter if we can only see a few of the stars because our man-made light is so strong? Do we not need the woods to discover our “perpetual youth” and appreciate the gift?
    Another thought came when I read about owning the land, but not the landscape and how our native American ancestors did not have a separate idea of nature. They would not say nature and soul are separate. When I put up my tipi recently the makers sent a copy of Chief Sealth’s (Seattle) reply to the United States Government offer in 1854 to buy Indian land in the Northwest. It is called “the most beautiful and prophetic statement on the environment ever made”. The Chief asks, “How can you buy or sell the earth? How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?” And he concludes, “So, if we sell our land, love it as we’ve loved it. Care for it as we’ve cared for it. Hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you take it. And preserve it for your children, and love it…as God loves us all. One thing we know. Our God is the same God. This earth is precious to Him. Even the white man cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We shall see….”
    And this moves into Devin’s question about anthropocentric. We are not the center of it all, but we do hold it in our hands. We must appreciate it and love it and care for it, because of all the life on earth, only we can destroy it.
    Foot note: I appreciated Helen’s insight into the role of women in the Transcendentalism. The voices behind the scene.

    • I enjoyed this so much, Helen! Have you thought of expanding it further? It’s a wonderful discussion of those early Transcendentalists and their influence on the movement. I have always thought that Urbana was the first coed college in the U.S. So Antioch and Urbana were founded in the same year! How cool is that! Possibly Antioch was founded earlier in 1850 than Urbana?

    • Jane, I loved your account of your granddaughter and the stars. Bless her heart! That’s one to file away, for sure. I was 14 before I saw a night sky without light pollution, and I’ll never, ever forget it.

      I think you may be right about our separation from nature having something to do with a lack of “environmental ethos.” It would be interesting to survey people’s attitudes toward same and compare them to the number/amount of opportunities they’d had to enjoy “nature” while growing up and after.

  8. This is me belatedly responding to the second part of the question for last week’s writing assignment. Anthropocentrism as a criticism leveled against Emerson’s “environmental” writings is supported in a number of places, and trounced in others, it seems to me. To support the former:
    “By fault of our dulness and selfishness, we are looking up to nature, but when we are convalescent, nature will look up to us.” This statement appears to support the notion that in some more evolved future state we will be superior to nature; the obvious inference is that that’s the way it’s supposed to be, and in a perfect world, would be. On the other hand, “Every moment instructs, and every object; for wisdom is infused into every form.” If we accept that, at least at this point in his career, Emerson believed in ES’s doctrine of correspondences, the wisdom is Divine, not of human origin. And as he’s quoted in the chapter of Devin’s piece (Radical Correspondence) that we were assigned, Emerson writes, ” . . . if we would trulier express our central and wide-related nature, instead of this old chronology of selfishness and pride to which we have too long lent our eyes. Already that day exists for us, shines in on us at unawares, but the path of science and of letters is not the way into nature.” And further along in “Radical Correspondence,” Devin speaks of the writing of Eric Wilson as demonstrating that the writers/thinkers of Emerson’s time saw no conflict between science and mysticism. Would that that was still true. And if true, might we not see a blurring of the lines in Emerson’s work that might seem to be mere anthropocentrism?

  9. I used to think I liked Emerson, and I think I still do. Certainly he and I would be in agreement on many things. But I could not choke down “Nature” without internally raging on these “anthropocentric” points Prof. Zuber mentions. It is so centered on his upper-class experience of nature, his maleness, and his plummy cultural superiority, that it is no wonder “Nature” was a best-seller. His youth certainly comes through.

    There is a term, “mansplaining,” that was terrible for me, as a man, to learn, because it encapsulates my own style of speech when I am being authoritative and a know-it-all. I felt Emerson’s “mansplaining” might seem quite beautiful (writing that prompts you to comment on its beauty is usually crummy), but it is almost impossible for him to say he doesn’t know something. He sees into everything, every crevasse, every mind. He can’t let a little bug crawl past without giving it motive, passion and transcendence.

    At least in Swedenborg there is an analysis that says, basically, that Celestial truths are unknowable to all but those who are in the presence of God. That is how Swedenborg’s writings might be used to counter the anthropocentric mansplaining of Emerson. But Swedenborg is the champion “mansplainer” of them all, in some ways.

    But maybe I am harshing on Emerson too much because I see my own youth in his writing. Visiting Concord 20 years ago I thrilled at the sight of his gloves, and the modest house (really a mansion!) and the books. I bought the postcards. I took the tour.

    Another probable explanation for why I didn’t like “Nature” is that I am a sourpuss. Or maybe I have heard this tune played by so many others that reading it again I am conscious of my dislike of all his imitators.

  10. Joe, I don’t think you are a sourpuss at all — these are really good observations, and to note that Emerson can’t “let a little bug crawl past without giving it motive, passion and transcendence” hits that anthropocentric nail right on the proverbial head. This is one reason why Thoreau has come to supplant Emerson in the Transcendentalist canon — that Thoreau is a very marginal / marginalized figure in the 19th century, far outshone by Emerson’s public reputation, but in the 20th and 21st centuries, Thoreau has come to be much more widely received and acknowledged, as Emerson’s star has come to somewhat fade, especially outside of academia. The man or woman on the street today is much more likely to have heard of Thoreau than Emerson, and this completely inverts the actual reception histories of their day. But certainly also in Emerson’s own life, the vatic, oratory and anthropomorphism of Nature irritated some readers: that famous section we read where Emerson “stands on the bare ground” and “becomes a transparent eyeball” is wonderfully pilloried in this satirical sketch by Emerson’s contemporary Christpher Pearce Cranch — I think this comic image is an apt metaphor for these issues of anthropomorphism we are raising in Emerson.

    I think part of the Emerson-Thoreau flip-flop might have something to do with the increased public attention to environmental concerns, and the ways Thoreau’s writing (especially after Walden) becomes much more “ecological”: explicitly concerned with a scientific approach towards nature. Thoreau’s detailed observations of biota are so thorough that scientists today are using them as records for gauging climate change in New England; we should also not forget how Thoreau punningly coins the word “ecology” in his journals even before the word appears for the first time in print, in its modern valence. Emerson’s writing never has the detailed attention to diversity and the proliferation of non-human life forms that Thoreau’s writing does; I think it’s correct to say that Thoreau was one of the best readers of Darwin in his day.

    All this becomes interesting when we look at just how little Thoreau absorbed of Swedenborg (in contrast to other texts in Emerson’s orbit, that he readily passed onto his disciple). Thoreau said in conversation that he “had no use for Swedenborg,” and yet, he does do a very close and careful reading of John James Garth Wilkinson’s Human Body and its Relation to Man –– a Swedenborgian text (like the Sampson Reed that we have much discussed) that is full of reiterations of the doctrine of correspondence.

    Emerson even comes to feel that Swedenborg’s view of nature is too narrow. He writes later in “Swedenborg; or, the Mystic” how “Swedenborg’s theological bias fatally narrowed his interpretation of nature, and the dictionary of symbols is yet to be written… the warm, many-weathered, passionate-peopled world is to him a grammar of hieroglyphics, or an emblematic freemason’s procession.” Grammers, dictionaries: these are not positive metaphors here, but seen as negative attempts to control and narrow. I think Emerson can only make this critique of Swedenborg in ignorance of something Joe partially alludes to above: the space of celestial truth that is unknowable (or impossible to squeeze into earthly human language). The longer I read Swedenborg, the more I am noticing those places where he is keen to admit the inability for words to adequately convey the depth of something spiritual or celestial he has witnessed or come to know — which is quite the opposite of a smug assumption that one can translate all of nature into a grammar or dictionary.

    Great conversation, thanks to all who contributed!

  11. and also, just lift up, I agree with Karen’s closing observations about science and mysticism, their perceived antagonism in our 21st century. Critiquing Emerson’s perceived anthropocentrism — that he wasn’t scientific enough, as Thoreau was, or whatever, when he wrote about nature — might come from a place that discredits the validity of locating an intense mystical experience in nature.

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