Home > Emerson R. W., Philosophy > Defense against symbols

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.

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  1. Lee
    2014/07/16 at 16:21

    Hi Dyssebeia,

    Thanks for a thought-provoking piece.

    As a lifelong student of Swedenborg, I can say that Emerson sold Swedenborg short on this point. It makes me wonder how carefully Emerson read Swedenborg’s theological works. I have heard that Emerson was more interested in Swedenborg’s earlier, scientific and philosophical works than in his later theological works. If so, this might be why on this point, Emerson shows a somewhat superficial understanding of Swedenborg’s system of “correspondences,” or symbolism in the Bible and in nature expressing and depicting spiritual realities.

    Unfortunately, Emerson is not alone in this one-dimensional view of Swedenborg’s many-dimensional approach to symbolism. Many of Swedenborg’s followers also think of Swedenborg’s correspondences as something like a magic code ring in which you substitute “truth” for “blood” and “good” for “flesh” and everything slips neatly into place.

    However, Swedenborg is not, in fact, guilty of such a simplistic view of symbolism. Yes, it is easy to get that impression from a partial or superficial reading of his theological writings, or by hobnobbing with some of his followers. However, a more careful and extensive reading of his interpretive works reveals that although there are certain common themes that run through particular symbols, or correspondences, in the Bible and in nature, the meaning of a particular person, place, or thing can vary widely depending on the context in which it appears.

    At the most basic level, Swedenborg says that every symbol can have either a positive or a negative meaning. A lion, for example, could be a symbol of powerful truth fighting against falsity, or it could be a symbol of powerful falsity fighting against truth, depending on whether it is used with positive or negative connotations.

    Even if we stick with positive meanings of a particular symbol, there can be great variation depending on the context in which it is used. Blood, for example, is first interpreted in Swedenborg’s Arcana Coelestia (Secrets of Heaven) as referring to “charity, or love of the neighbor,” and as various other forms of love. But later in Arcana Coelestia, when the context in the Bible narrative is different, blood is interpreted as a symbol of truth in various forms, or of truth falsified. (I am here using the old, traditional language that was commonly used to translate Swedenborg’s works in earlier centuries.)

    Along the way, Swedenborg states explicitly in many places that the meaning of a particular person, word, or phrase in the Bible varies depending on the context in which it appears. Sometimes he gets quite precise in explaining how even subtle variations in wording can cause major changes in the meaning of a particular element of the narrative. In fact, he has actually been accused of inconsistency due to the many variations in how he interprets the same words in different contexts. But those who perceive the rich complexity of life will appreciate that symbolism and spiritual meaning exhibits an equally rich complexity.

    About a dictionary of symbolism, at least two have been published by followers of Swedenborg. One is commonly titled Dictionary of Correspondences, by George Nicholson. It was originally published in the year 1800, and has been revised and reprinted numerous times right up to the present. Another is A Dictionary of Bible Imagery, by Alice Speirs Sechrist, first published in 1973. These are both based on Swedenborg’s system of correspondences. They consist largely of brief quotes from Swedenborg’s works specifying the meaning of various words, which are listed in alphabetical order as in a regular dictionary. A close reading of some of the longer entries will show some of the variations in meaning that I spoke of above. However, many of the finer contextual points are lost due to the dictionary format.

    It is ironic both that Emerson desired a dictionary of symbolism even while decrying the fixity of meaning that such a dictionary implies, and that one was, in fact, in print–apparently unbeknownst to him–when he wrote those lines.

    Though it is possible to use Swedenborg’s correspondences as a simple, mechanical, one-on-one system of decoding spiritual meanings, the results are rather narrow and poor compared to the great richness, depth, and variety of Swedenborg’s own mode of interpreting Scripture.

    Emerson should have read Swedenborg’s Arcana Coelestia a little more carefully before lodging his complaint!

    Thanks again for raising a great issue.

    • 2014/07/16 at 17:47

      Thanks for clarifying what Swedenborg actually thought. You wonder how carefully Emerson read Swedenborg, and I suspect it’s easily answered: not very. Or, at least, he might have read him carefully, but when it came time to write about him, Emerson used his work very cavalierly. That’s very common with him. He’s never an interpreter. He’s never interested in figuring out just what a person meant. He uses other people’s work to say what he wants to say. I don’t think this is disingenuous on his part – I think it’s part and parcel of his philosophy. He has many passages where he more or less explains that this is what he does.

      The entire method of Representative Men is built around doing this. Pretty much every essay starts in an adoring mode, then ends by turning sour. The Montaigne essay is a bit weird because Emerson basically reaches a point where he can’t turn against Montaigne (his reaction against skepticism in that essay is a reaction against something very different from what he described when discussing Montaigne), and the Swedenborg essay is also an outlier, because in that essay Emerson turns sour really quickly, and more of the essay is negative than positive. But fundamentally the pattern is the same, and the reason is that Emerson is really concerned to follow these figures only insofar as they represent his own thought. But no one can represent his own thought to him fully, so there’s always the turn.

      That said, it’s quite likely that Emerson did just misunderstand Swedenborg on the points you mention. It wouldn’t surprise me.

      One last, miscellaneous comment: I don’t think Emerson really desired a dictionary of symbols of the sort you mentioned. (I think he interpreted, perhaps wrongly, Swedenborg as providing that sort of dictionary.) Any actual, written dictionary of symbols would be fixed. But for Emerson, symbols need to be suited to whatever the state of mind of the individual is at the time, and since moods are fluid, symbols must be too. So the imagined dictionary of symbols that is yet to be written is, in fact, an impossibility by Emerson’s own lights. I haven’t fully thought through Emerson’s “idealism” yet, but his “dictionary of symbols” is this sort of ideal entity – it can’t be realized.

      Thanks for the insightful comment. I’m off to read your next one now.

    • Lee
      2014/07/16 at 19:14

      Hi Dyssebeia,

      Thanks for the further thoughts and understanding of Emerson’s modus operandi. Helpful and enlightening. I did read his essay on Swedenborg many years ago, but it made so little impression on me that I have no recollection of anything he said in it.

    • 2014/07/16 at 20:12

      I’m not all that surprised the essay on Swedenborg made little impression. It is really not one of Emerson’s better essays. To me it feels like he’s just going through the motions. Certainly it’s the worst essay in Representative Men (I’d rate the Montaigne and Shakespeare essays highest).

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