Immanent Emerson: The Poetics of Constitution
I come in the little things,
Saith the Lord:
Not borne on morning wings
Of majesty; but I have set my feet
Amidst the delicate and bladed wheat
That springs triumphant in the furrowed sod.
There do I dwell, in weakness and in power;
Not broken or divided, said our God!
In your straight garden plot I come to flower:
About your porch my vine,
Meek, fruitful, doth entwine;
Waits, at the threshold, Love’s appointed hour.
— Evelyn Underhill1placeholder
Immanence, as a literary concept, inhabits the same abstract domain as Transcendence, with the latter being, by far, that which is most closely associated with the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Effusively poetic, frequently philosophic and occasionally polemical, the range of literary and linguistic methods Emerson employs to constitute his universe of metaphor and symbolism is, itself, nearly “transcendent.” To achieve this, Emerson places divinity in ordinary things and grants powers to the Self — as solitary and collective being — to establish a personal universe unbounded by anything other than imagination, character and strength of mind. The result is a connatural state of being with humanity, nature and the divine existing in a singular state of natura naturans.
The Nature of Immanence
In order to engage Emerson’s relationship to Immanence we must consider two key aspects of the author: his religious beliefs and his working definition of nature qua nature. Despite his extensive education and participation in formal religion, Emerson outgrew his Unitarian roots to become indifferent towards the man-made religious institutions and formal practices that existed at the heart of 19th century American society.2placeholder As a result, it remained for Emerson (who retained a deep life-long faith and spiritualism) to rationalize God in terms that he was comfortable with, as well as which served his intellectual and artistic purposes.
For Emerson, the door to Immanence was perhaps opened less by the ancient concept of divine presence, and more by the transcendental leanings of the near contemporaneous thinking of the German Idealists:
“I think the Germans have an integrity of mind which sets their science above all other…They have posed certain philosophical facts on which all is built, the doctrine of immanence, as it is called, by which everything is the cause of itself, or stands there for its own, and repeats in its own all other; ‘the ground of everything is immanent in that thing.’ Everything is organic, freedom also, not to add, but to grow and unfold.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson3placeholder
In particular, Emerson’s application of Immanence into his writings seems to mirror directly the German concept of Naturphilosophie:
“In the German tradition, Naturphilosophie (philosophy of nature) persisted into the 18th and 19th century as an attempt to achieve a speculative unity of nature and spirit. Some of the greatest names in German philosophy are associated with this movement, including Goethe, Hegel and Schelling. Naturphilosophie was associated with Romanticism and a view that regarded the natural world as a kind of giant organism, as opposed to the philosophical approach of figures such as John Locke and Isaac Newton who espoused a more mechanical view of the world, regarding it as being like a machine.”4placeholder
In the writings of Kant, Hegel, Schelling and others Emerson discovered quasi-secular intellectual underpinnings that resonated with his resistance to — and near alienation from — the historic teachings and institutions of the church. For Emerson, here was a modern, abstract, universal framework to capture his innate feelings of being “as one” with the material world around him.
“…within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one.”5placeholder
Through his explicit declaration of the connaturality at the very foundation of human existence, Emerson grounds his belief system into what is generally considered to be a form of pantheism — Nature as divinity unto itself, and transcendent being expressed through an infinite array of temporal signs readily apprehended through the mind and physical senses that each of us possesses.
The Immanence of Nature
Immanence itself can be considered as simply an intellectual construct. Like our concept of God, Immanence has no directly perceptible qualities other than those we can intuit or imagine. Immanence can logically be positioned somewhere along the continuum that arches from transcendence (in which God is above and beyond all material being) to the purely secular (in which God has no defined participation in the world at all). Idealistically, Emerson places immanent concepts into a framework he variously labels (in his essay Nature) as “divine Nature” and the “indwelling Supreme Spirit.” Elsewhere, and somewhat differently, he encapsulates all human experience into what he calls the “Over Soul” or “World Soul.”
Although Emerson may attribute much of his idealist and transcendental thinking to the German thinkers, it is in the perspectives of Spinoza that he seems to find the richest source of reasoning with which to constitute his immanent worldview. Spinoza posits that if divine substance can only be conceived as being infinite, it is only a logical matter to resolve also that, “infinite quantity is not measurable and cannot be made up of finite parts.”6placeholder Further to this,
“Having established that Nature is an indivisible, infinite, uncaused, substantial whole — in fact, the only substantial whole; that outside of Nature there is nothing; and that everything that exists is a part of Nature and is brought into being by and within Nature with a deterministic necessity through Nature’s laws, Spinoza concludes that God and Nature — the substantial, unique, unified, active, infinitely powerful, necessary cause of everything — are one and the same thing.”7placeholder
Accordingly, Emerson seldom attempts to parse the fabric of metaphysical systems. His predisposition in addressing the rendering of a connatural ordering of the world founded in the self-reliance and individuality of the spiritual self seems to be more in the vein of Goethe. One specialist in Goethe’s literary methods presents the following perspective:
“We must resolve, first of all, to treat both the words of the text and our own critical vocabulary as the expression of relations, not the establishment of positions…this perception ought to warn us against pinning our interpretative hopes on an argument concerning…solid reality. Subtle symbolic or verbal relations, echoing patterns of image or action, literary and topical allusions, all exist on a different plane, as commentary upon that basic world, as a means of universalizing it and bringing it to life poetically.”8placeholder
Emerson’s Constitution of Poetic Immanence
“For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem, — a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.”9placeholder
With these words we can see the relationship between Emerson’s engagement with upbuilding, constitutive intentions and the pro-ontological framework in which he thinks. In order to further assess this, let us consider and exemplify a few immanent themes with regard to the author.
Nature is a Language — Emerson operates with a manifesto, of sorts, to control the discourse of nature and being through language itself:
“Nature is a language and every new fact one learns is a new word; but it is not a language taken to pieces and dead in the dictionary, but the language put together into a most significant and universal sense. I wish to learn this language, not that I may know a new grammar, but that I may read the great book that is written in that tongue.”10placeholder
The written word allows Emerson to bind together both the transcendental and the immanent into a seamless whole. This is not as straightforward as it seems as an immaterial framework of Immanence must be rendered through intellect and craft to tangibly present unperceived things. It is a feat of linguistic engineering to produce reflective imagery and a sentient dialectic between God, Nature, and the Self. By default, Emerson admits the near impossibility of imposing form upon the vastness and omnipresence of the divine in nature — “The method of nature: who could ever analyze it…The wholeness we admire in the order of the world, is the result of infinite distribution…Its permanence is a perpetual inchoation.”11placeholder It is this ever-renewing and ecstatic commencement, however, that Emerson taps into so strongly to produce his immanent allusions. Emerson’s poem “The World Soul” perhaps captures best his poetic conjuring to summon Immanence into our perceptible realm of being through his focus upon the “scanty intervals” and the sharing of joy radiated upon us from universal forms such as mountains, stars and the sun; so timeless and distant yet so omnipresent.
The inevitable morning
Finds them who in cellars be;
And be sure the all-loving Nature
Will smile in a factory.
Yon ridge of purple landscape,
Yon sky between the walls,
Hold all the hidden wonders
In scanty intervals.
Still, still the secret presses;
The nearing clouds draw down;
The crimson morning flames into
The fopperies of the town.
Within, without the idle earth,
Stars weave eternal rings;
The sun himself shines heartily,
And shares the joy he brings.12placeholder
Nature as God’s Surrogate — If we remain firmly in the critical perspective that Emerson was pantheistic, how do we evaluate his definition or conception of God in a manner that neither attributes a frivolous nature to his endeavor nor understates the seriousness of his intentions? His lifelong experience in formal religion clearly anchors him as a man of piety despite his tacit rejection of formal institutions and practices. Rather, Emerson bypasses historical imagery and scripture in favor of a consanguine perspective that appears fundamentally “secular on the surface” and yet which does not jettison the existence of “God” but, rather, places the divine being within nature and the immanent temporal universe. Emerson states:
“I draw from nature the lesson of an intimate divinity. Our health and reason as men needs our respect to this fact, against the heedlessness and against the contradiction of society. The sanity of man needs the poise of this immanent force.”13placeholder
Although Emerson often speaks in a tone that seemingly replaces God with Nature, he never reaches for antinomian ends, preferring to settle in a more mediatory position by placing nature between God and human beings, thereby applying a concept he has called “transmuted divinity” and the belief that form has a dependence upon soul.14placeholder
“The poet is the sayer, the namer, and represents beauty. He is a sovereign, and stands on the centre. For the world is not painted or adorned, but is from the beginning beautiful; and God has not made some beautiful things, but Beauty is the creator of the universe. Therefore the poet is not any permissive potentate, but is emperor in his own right.”15placeholder
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Residing in close proximity to Immanence and a World Soul must be a method of recognition. If Emerson constitutes the divine within the things of our ordinary world how are we to recognize it as such? One perspective is to consider that much of what Emerson creates poetically includes some form of unveiling — and that act of discovery is accompanied by our own apperception in accordance with his imagery. For example:
My angel, — his name is Freedom, —
Choose him to be your king;
He shall cut pathways east and west
And fend you with his wing.
Lo! I uncover the land
Which I hid of old time in the West,
As the sculptor uncovers the statue
When he has wrought his best;16placeholder
Although presented in the context of the role of freedom as part of a path to pioneering discovery, the allegory of the sculptor’s highest achievement being that of uncovering the innate or intrinsic nature of the statue works well as a microcosm of Emerson’s meliorism and pro-ontology. Divine essence is realized through human effort and imagination. The near-simile of the role of the sculptor may also be read as an act of pure revelation.
Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask, I never knew:
But, in my simple ignorance, suppose
The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.17placeholder
This is revelation in the form of realizing our innate connaturality. Immanence is subtle. Further still, due to its purely conceptual basis, Immanence can be characterized as an act of abductive reasoning; we read the poet’s logical inference of divinity in nature and we respond — in line with our own religious or poetic sensibilities — through our apprehension of the immanent condition. Immanence is constitutive; it must be established as a logical construct through symbols. Nature itself can be rendered as semiotic (subject to the intellect of the writer and/or the reader). Such is Emerson’s immanent craft.
The Immanent Poet — If nature is, in effect, a grounding of the divine in the material world, Emerson’s contention appears to be that poetry itself is purely an extension of Immanence in the form of a constitutive catalyst.
“For poetry was all written before time was, and whenever we are so finely organized that we can penetrate into that region where the air is music, we hear those primal warblings and attempt to write them down…”18placeholder
This semiotic upbuilding positions poetry, and the poet as actor, into a seamless fabric of immanent being. But, Emerson does not grant the appellation of a true poet lightly. Even a good poet can be “plainly a contemporary, not an eternal man” and, as such, not be attuned to the World Soul. While this may be simply idealistic or rhetorical, the purpose is served to ground poetry itself as the basis for judgement. Words, writing and images applied to construct symbolic representation of abstract or even immaterial states of natural things become the reality itself. Precisely how the success or failure of this semiotic connaturality can be judged, however, remains mostly beyond the purview of Emerson’s critique.
Beyond Immanence in Emerson
There is a point at which Immanence, as transmitted by Emerson through his writings, takes on new definitions that clearly move beyond the philosophical and literary worldview of the writer. As presented here, Emerson’s intentions infused Immanence into a transcendental framework. His spirit is always elevated and pro-ontological in service of meliorism. It was never demonstrated in Emerson’s writings that he intended that Immanence should be “deconstructed” in any modern or post-modern sense. More appropriately, the works of Emerson are better understood as being delimited by what is, essentially, a tacit acknowledgement of Wittgenstein’s observation that “whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent.”19placeholder
Placed in historical perspective, Emerson’s position in the continuum of thinking with regard to Immanence is clarified by the knowledge that near to nothing of what was to come in the 20th century with regard to the topic (i.e., in terms of the phenomenological or “atomic” nature of Immanence) can be detected in Emerson’s views.
“…within the Schellingian ontogenetic narrative, the self-positing of the subject is first possiblized by the emergence of desire within being…In place of a smooth, determined relation to the environment wholly programmed by instincts…(a predetermined set of biological schemata that hardwire the organism into its surroundings), we get a degree of liberation from the various sense datum of perception. Desire in its Schellingian mode is thus an intermediary stage between instinct and drive within the ontogenesis of the transcendental ‘I’.”20placeholder
Although there are clearly echoes of Emerson in this more modernized approach towards Immanence, there is also a distinct differentiation that positions Emerson at a higher level of discourse with the underlying concepts. In the end, it is best to acknowledge Emerson as the pinnacle of literary Immanence, with his artistry presaging an “inward, analytic turn” that would come to characterize much of the philosophical discourse taking place in our contemporary, technological society.
“….belief in God isn’t quite the same thing in 1500 and 2000…The difference…is one of the whole background framework in which one believes or refuses to believe in God…The shift in background…comes best to light when we focus on certain distinctions we make today; for instance, that between the immanent and the transcendent, the natural and the supernatural…This hiving off of an independent, free-standing level, that of “nature”, which may or may not be in interaction with something further or beyond, is a crucial bit of modern theorizing, which in turn corresponds to a constitutive dimension of modern experience…” — Charles Taylor21placeholder
Underhill, Evelyn. Immanence: A Book of Verses, (Public Domain, 1916), Poem: “Immanence”.
Emerson resigned from his Boston Second Church pastoral appointment in 1832, never to return to a formal religious role.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson: With Annotations, Vol. 9 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909), p.31.
Wikipedia contributors, “Natural philosophy,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays and Lectures (The Library of America, 1983), “The Over Soul,” p. 386.
Spinoza, Baruch. Complete Works (Hackett Publishing, 2002), Ethics, p. 226.
Nadler, Steven. A Book Forged in Hell — Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age, (Princeton University Press, 2011), p. 56.
Bennett, Benjamin. Goethe’s Theory of Poetry (Cornell University Press, 1986), pp. 113–114. The author is focusing on Goethe’s Faust for this critical comment, but it is delivered as part of an overall assessment of Goethe’s poetic devices.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays and Lectures, “The Poet,” p. 450.
As quoted in: Richardson, Robert D., Jr. Emerson: The Mind on Fire (University of California Press, 1995), p. 155.
Emerson. Essays and Lectures, “The Method of Nature,” p. 119.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Collected Poems and Translations (The Library of America, 1994), “The World Soul,” pp. 17–20.
Emerson. Essays and Lectures, “The Method of Nature,” p. 130.
Emerson. Essays and Lectures, p. 447.
Emerson. Essays and Lectures, “p. 449.
Emerson. Collected Poems and Translations, “Boston Hymn”, p. 163.
Emerson. Collected Poems and Translations, “The Rhodora”, p. 31.
Emerson. Essays and Lectures, “The Poet” p. 449.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Phiosophicus, 1921 (closing statement).
Carew, Joseph. International Journal of Zizek Studies v. 5, no. 1, p. 9.
Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 13.