Defense against symbols
I was unable to write this immediately after reading Emerson’s essay on Swedenborg—thus I am writing it with the benefit of a couple weeks’ forgetting. As such, for better or for worse, this post shall be somewhat cursory.
Emerson, to a great extent, learned from Swedenborg his idealism. Swedenborg saw the natural world as of secondary reality, as symbolically indicating the theological world. Thus “a horse signifies carnal understanding; a tree, perception; the moon, faith; a cat means this; an ostrich, that; an artichoke, the other…” (676) Emerson, too, adopts an idealistic view in which natural facts are symbolic for spiritual truths—I’ve discussed Emerson’s idealism here and here. However, while he has learned from Swedenborg on this point, he offers a major criticism: “The slippery Proteus is not so easily caught.” (676)
In other words, Swedenborg was wrong to affix to each symbol a single meaning. “In nature, each individual symbol plays innumerable parts, as each particle of matter circulates in turn through every system.” (676) Symbols are not so fixed as Swedenborg believed. Nature opposes every attempt to be so limited. To borrow a familiar Emersonian term, any particular use of a symbol is partial. None exhausts a symbol’s richness.
This critique I see as having two facets. The critique itself serves a defensive function, but in so doing it raises a problem that requires a countermovement. First, the defensive function. Emerson uses this criticism as a defense against conformity. A symbol seen as fixed demands conformity: it is right; therefore it must be followed. Emerson is constantly on alert for the threat of such conformity, and urges, “these books should be used with caution.” (682) Caution is required because we are apt to misplace their truth, to see it in the particular symbol used. Rather, we should look for the truth in the particular movement of the symbol—arrest this movement and the value is lost. “True in transition, they become false if fixed.” (682) Emerson makes a striking recommendation for using “these books” safely: “Any other symbol would be as good: then this is safely seen.” (682)
This advice is stated as an extreme: the particular symbol used is totally arbitrary, any other may be used, would be just as good. There is good reason for this: it shuts off all possibility of conformity. At the same time, however, it introduces a danger. This danger is not hidden: it is the danger that everything symbolic is arbitrary, that Emerson’s idealism amounts to aimless spinning, the haphazard substitution of haphazard symbols, an empty game. I confess that Emerson does not raise this problem explicitly, and hence does not respond to it explicitly—nonetheless I see the hint of a response in the essay. I make no pledge of faithfulness, of not overreading.
In the midst of his critique of Swedenborg, Emerson makes a curious claim: “the dictionary of symbols is yet to be written.” (676) The choice of image, a dictionary, is what interests me, for a dictionary is perhaps the least arbitrary book there is, a book where, at every point, not just any word would do, where the utmost of precision and fixity is required. It is clear from Emerson’s critique that any actual book claiming to be this dictionary will end up like Swedenborg’s: fixed and dead. The dictionary will always be “yet to be written.” Nonetheless, Emerson sets it up as an ideal, and that I find telling.
A dictionary—I mean an actual—is a fixed point in the flux of language use, capturing the use at a particular time. Eventually, so long as a language remains alive, every dictionary becomes obsolete. Nonetheless, in capturing a particular moment, it is held to the highest standards of rigor and accuracy. Emerson is more interested in the flux of symbol use than in its dictionary, but the very idea of a dictionary of symbols—however hazardous to that flux—indicates that, within that flux, the appearance of particular symbols at particular places is not arbitrary. It will then be a process of discovery more than of invention to deploy a symbol, to find the right symbol.
That thought, that there is something more like discovery than invention at play in creative genius, seems to me a key to Emerson’s thought. But I have gone as far as I can go with my memory of the essay that brought me to this thought, and so I end.