Emerson’s Transparent Eyeball: 10 Movements
At the risk of missing the point entirely, I would like to begin by quoting Emerson out of context:
Quotation confesses inferiority. In opening a new book we often discover, from the unguarded devotion with which the writer gives his motto or text, all we have to expect from him. If Lord Bacon appears already in the preface, I go and read the “Instauration” instead of the new book. (Here)
Emerson, as it happens, is in fact one of the most eminently quotable of writers, or so he seems. I want to explore the dangers of quotation specifically in the context of Emerson’s essay “Nature” (the first, longer one), in order to give some sense of just how much is lost when Emerson’s words are pulled from their original context. I take as my subject his image of the transparent eyeball, surely one of his most famous and widely quoted passages. I want to follow it through ten movements it undergoes in the text. [I will be using the version found in the Library of America volume of Emerson’s Essays and Lectures, pp. 5-49.]
First movement: “Nature” consists of eight chapters and a brief introduction. In the first chapter, we get the first movement: the initial introduction of the transparent eyeball and the passage that is quoted to the point of nausea.
Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,—and all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. (10)
The sense given by the passage is that of vanishing into nature, being so thoroughly in harmony with it that an external observer could not tell where your boundaries end and nature’s boundaries begin. Moreover, the predominant activity is that of seeing. Action is not part of the picture. These two aspects both point to a loss of self. Instead of myself work (acting), nature/God works through me, and “all mean egotism vanishes.”
The immediate temptation, reinforced when the passage is quoted out of context, is to take this as a static description of Emerson’s vision of life. While the three elements I listed above are all elements of Emerson’s vision, I want to suggest, first, that they are qualified in ways not hinted at in the quote taken by itself and, second, that to treat the image of the transparent eyeball as a static reference point is to miss what Emerson is doing altogether. To see both of these, we need to look at nine further movements the image undergoes in the text.
Second movement: The phrase “transparent eye-ball” never recurs in “Nature”. Nevertheless, I think it’s clear that Emerson qualifies the image at several points. The second movement occurs in the third chapter, titled “Beauty”:
In private places, among sordid objects, an act of truth or heroism seems at once to draw to itself the sky as its temple, the sun as its candle. Nature stretcheth out her arms to embrace man, only let his thoughts be of equal greatness. […] Only let his thoughts be of equal scope, and the frame will suit the picture. (17)
One feature of the transparent eye-ball image was that any sense of action was lost: an eye sees; it does not act. But here, on the contrary, we see that it is precisely an “act of truth or heroism” that brings the sky to be one’s temple, the sun one’s candle. Notice also that here nature seems to be subordinated to the truthful/heroic person, serving her. So we seem to have a conflict. The transparent eyeball image emphasizes seeing over action and vanishing into nature over dominating nature. Acts of truth or heroism seem to be just the opposite. Since the very description “an act of truth or heroism” is inarguably positive, the transparent eyeball image is placed into question. The conflict between the two means that neither can be straightforwardly accepted.
Another interesting thing in this passage is that while Emerson begins with an act, he ends by talking about thoughts: only let his thoughts be of equal scope/greatness. So even within this passage there is something interesting going on between thoughts and action, in addition to the conflict brewing between action and vision.
Third movement: This tension is resolved quickly. On the next page, still in the chapter on beauty, Emerson writes:
The intellectual and the active powers seem to succeed each other, and the exclusive activity of the one, generates the exclusive activity of the other. There is something unfriendly in each to the other, but they are like the alternate periods of feeding and working in animals; each prepares and will be followed by the other. Therefore does beauty, which, in relation to actions, as we have seen, comes unsought, and comes because it is unsought, remain for apprehension and pursuit of the intellect; and then again, in its turn, of the active power. Nothing divine dies. All good is eternally reproductive. The beauty of nature reforms itself in the mind, and not for barren contemplation, but for new creation. (18)
We have already seen the “something unfriendly” between the intellectual and the active in the tension between the first two movements. What Emerson does in this passage is reconcile that tension without effacing it. Intellectual apprehension of beauty (seeing) feeds into new creation (acts of truth or heroism). Despite their antagonism, the two prepare and follow one another in a cyclic fashion.
This might seem sufficient for us to understand the original image: its act of seeing has been reconciled with the importance of action. But, in fact, several more modifications are still to come.
Fourth movement: In the next chapter, on language, Emerson follows a tripartite progression: (a) words as signs of natural facts, (b) particular natural facts as signs of particular spiritual facts, (c) nature as the symbol of spirit. In the discussion of the third of these, the fourth and fifth movements occur. In the original transparent eyeball image, it is the eye alone that is transparent: nature is seen through it, behind it. Here, however, “the universe becomes transparent, and the light of higher laws than its own, shines through it.” (25) Not only do we vanish, but nature herself vanishes, and behind her we see spirit.
Fifth movement: As the chapter ends, the image undergoes another transition. Emerson writes:
A life in harmony with nature, the love of truth and of virtue, will purge the eyes to understand her text. By degrees we may come to know the primitive sense of the permanent objects of nature, so that the world shall be to us an open book, and every form significant of its hidden life and final cause. […] That which was unconscious truth, becomes, when interpreted and defined in an object, a part of the domain of knowledge,—a new weapon in the magazine of power. (25)
Here we have the image of nature as a book that we read and interpret. Here the activity of seeing is qualified: seeing is not just looking but interpreting. That is, seeing is a lot less passive than it seemed at first. Indeed, it is the act of seeing-as-interpreting that, when done correctly, makes nature transparent in the way seen in the fourth movement. So the previous conflict between seeing and acting has now become a conflict between two types of action. Interestingly, the chapter ends with a Baconian invocation of knowledge as power: seeing-as-interpreting is subordinated to the power of acting. What in the third movement became cyclic seems again to have a privileged dimension.
Sixth movement: We now skip over a chapter (on discipline) to reach the sixth movement, found in chapter six, on idealism. Emerson discusses the “eye of Reason”, which drives idealism. Where nature seems sharply defined and angular, Reason “abate[s] somewhat the angular distinctness of objects.” Emerson continues:
If the Reason be stimulated to more earnest vision, outlines and surfaces become transparent, and are no longer seen; causes and spirits are seen through them. The best moments of life are these delicious awakenings of the higher powers, and the reverential withdrawing of nature before its God. (33)
Here again we see the transparency of nature, and here Emerson makes it explicit that it is the act of seeing (by the “eye of Reason”) that makes nature transparent in this way. The fourth movement is thus deepened. The emphasis is again on vision, which we again see as active and having its own power. Only now it is not vision of the eye itself, but of the faculty of Reason, a “higher power” within ourselves.
Seventh movement: At the very end of the chapter, after Emerson has detailed how “motion, poetry, physical and intellectual science, and religion, all tend to affect our convictions of the reality of the external world” (38), Emerson mitigates his idealism: “I have no hostility to nature, but a child’s love to it.” What is the purpose of the chapter, then? Emerson does thing that an idealist view will change how we relate to the world. Of our soul, he writes:
It is not hot and passionate at the appearance of what it calls its own good or bad fortune, at the union or opposition of other persons. No man is its enemy. It accepts whatsoever befalls, as part of its lesson. It is a watcher more than a doer, and it is a doer, only that it may the better watch. (39)
Emerson reverses his prior emphasis on watching/seeing as a sort of activity, instead emphasizing its distinctness from doing. Idealism makes possible a sort of stoicism, a refusal to be affected by what befalls it, except to understand it as a lesson. Action, insofar as it is necessary, is action in the service of such lessons. The world, seen as “phenomenal” is “subordinate[d …] to the mind.” Thought prevails. Recall that in the second movement, thought and action were nearly equivocated. Here, however, thought sides with watching against doing. So the second movement is partially reversed as well.
Eighth movement: But when we move to the chapter on spirit, we are immediately treated to another movement. Emerson writes:
Who can set bounds to the possibilities of man? Once inhale the upper air, being admitted to behold the absolute natures of justice and truth, and we learn that man has access to the entire mind of the Creator, is himself the creator in the finite. This view, which admonishes me where the sources of wisdom and power lie, and points to virtue as to
“The golden key
Which opes the palace of eternity,”
carries upon its face the highest certificate of truth, because it animates me to create my own world through the purification of my soul. (41-42)
In a turn that would make Nelson Goodman proud, Emerson has started to speak of world-making. Through purification of the soul, we come to create the world. Emerson, in the seventh movement, separated watching from doing, it seems, precisely in order to free up room for us to see how watching (here, beholding the absolute natures of justice and truth) is inextricably a form of doing, of creation.
Emerson goes on to distinguish the world from the body: though they both proceed from the same spirit, the world, unlike the body, is “inviolable,” not subject to the human will. “It is a fixed point whereby we may measure our departure.” This leads him to discuss how we are “strangers in nature,” which recasts the original image. Losing ourselves into nature becomes part of the world-creating activity of purifying our souls.
Why the insistence both that the world is inviolable and created? Navigating this tightrope allows Emerson to preserve the poetic freedom of creation without the slovenly freedom of “anything goes.” It is a creative freedom held to the highest of standards. This notion is further elucidated in the ninth movement, to which I turn.
Ninth movement: If nature is inviolable, and it is beholding nature, a form of watching, that lies beneath all creative activity, then it can seem that there is an inviolable, universal standard of watching, and thus the good life becomes homogenized, perhaps even capturable by one or another religious text. By linking such watching to world-creation, Emerson avoids this homogenizing effect. Emerson already emphasized, in a passage near the seventh movement, that idealism allows us to focus on the ends of nature without being too narrowly focused on ever more detailed specifications of its means (i.e. on natural science for its own sake). Emerson revisits that theme in the ninth movement, which comes at the start of the final chapter, titled “Prospects”:
But the best read naturalist who lends an entire and devout attention to truth, will see that there remains much to learn of his relation to the world, or other comparison of known quantities, but is arrived at by untaught sallies of the spirit, by a continual self-recovery, and by entire humility. He will perceive that there are far more excellent qualities in the student than preciseness and infallibility; that a guess is often more fruitful than an indisputable affirmation, and that a dream may let us deeper into the secret of nature than a hundred concerted experiments. (43)
What Emerson here emphasizes is that this world-creating function is served more by experimentation, “untaught sallies of the spirit” than by anything that can be taught. It is something personal and cannot be shared. A venture in a new direction is better than a completion of an old movement initiated by someone else.
Emerson characterizes this as “a continual self-recovery.” In the initial transparent eyeball passage, the overwhelming sense was of self-loss. Emerson has thus here brought self-loss, vanishing into nature, becoming a part of it, into close contact with self-recovery, with untaught sallies that could only result from a very particular soul. Man “finds something of himself in every great and small thing.” (44) While the end goal may be unity with the infinite creative spirit that lies behind all things, the means is inherently personal and requires self-recovery. One must not lose oneself too soon. Moreover, this self-recovery is continual: the world is always in jeopardy.
Tenth movement: Even the inviolability of nature is not inviolable. For Emerson, in the essay’s final pages, goes on to say:
Nature is not fixed but fluid. Spirit alters, moulds, makes it. The immobility or bruteness of nature, is the absence of spirit; to pure spirit, it is fluid, it is volatile, it is obedient. (48)
Materially speaking, the world is indeed inviolable. But Emerson sees in poetic creativity the possibility of rearranging its relations, changing it and us in it. It becomes an open-ended whole, rather than a closed system. “Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions.” Again, the individual nature of such world-creation is evident. It cannot happen if you simply follow another’s movement; that lacks spirit, and nature is inviolable.
Fascinatingly, Emerson ends the essay very appropriately. Having set out this view of poetic dominion over nature, Emerson compares the achievement of such dominion to the wonder felt by “the blind man […] who is gradually restored to perfect sight.” (49) Here, in the final words of the essay, is the capstone on all the movements undergone by the transparent eyeball. Only after it has experienced all of these changes can we understand what it is to be a transparent eyeball, to be restored to perfect sight.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
In these ten movements, we are treated to a dizzying array of reversals, expansions, contradictions, resolutions, and reconceptions. What is the purpose of this? Emerson’s essay at times looks like he is laying out a metaphysical view, and deriving his view of the good life from that. If this were truly what he is doing, then logical consistency would be paramount, and expansions would be the primary technique used. Reversals and contradictions would be abhorred, and reconceptions would be frowned upon as detracting from clarity. What this undercurrent that I have traced reveals is that this view of the essay as a sort of treatise fails. Understanding and reacting to these reversals requires a different way of reading than that of reading a metaphysical or even an ethical treatise. It requires not being bound to a fixed conception, for such conceptions are, in the essay, rendered fluid. (The transparent eyeball current that I followed is only one of many in the essay.) The movement of the text exemplifies the sort of world-creation of the eighth movement, achieved by Emerson’s own poetic movement.
I admit that in saying these things I am reading Emerson’s essay with a fair amount of hindsight, considering “Nature” in the light of later essays such as “Circles” and “The Poet”. The movements I have traced are precisely the sort of drawing of ever-expansive circles discussed in the essay of that name. It is possible Emerson did not fully realize he was doing that. Perhaps he genuinely saw himself as writing a sort of treatise outlining a coherent worldview. Nevertheless, in the style of his rhetoric, in the way he consistently modifies his images (and not in a straightforwardly progressive way), he is already pointing toward his later development.
Quotation confesses inferiority: it isolates a static block of a fluid work, and so loses the thought. Emerson’s thoughts are characterized more by their movements than by their isolated content. To quote them is to strip them of this movement, and the suggestion lurking just below the surface is that the perpetrator has no movement of his own…