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2008 Emerson begins The Over-Soul with the denial of the comprehensiveness of our attempts at systematic and exhaustive accounts of reality, in favor of an original reality which remains ineffable and holy. “The philosophy of six thousand years has not searched the chambers and magazines of the soul. In its experiments there has always remained, in the last analysis, a residuum it could not resolve. Man is a stream whose source is hidden. … I am constrained every moment to acknowledge a higher origin for events than the will I call mine.”1 Emerson wastes no time and immediately we follow his acknowledgement of this higher and ultimate reality which we intuit to be our spiritual source, however ineffable, more than familiar, (and often overlooked by the grossly-attuned society) which he calls the Over-Soul, that Unity, sole prophet, and ‘great nature,’ “the eternal ONE.”2 And furthermore, this eternal ONE operates at every level, akin to the dependent origination of Buddhism, but only in the omnipresence of the principle (we mustn’t confuse a principle of emptiness with a principle of oneness), at every level of reality; from the phenomena and the seer, to the subject and the object, and everything else too. Given a duality, you are given a level (by having two poles, you have a segment), and here you find a ONE, in the case of levels, a line, or a plane. His point is that subject and object are one, two sides of the same coin. “I dare not speak for it. My words do not carry its august [venerable]sense; they fall short and cold. Only itself can inspire whom it will, and behold! their
The Portable Emerson, pp. 210 Ibidem, pp. 211
speech shall be lyrical, and sweet, and universal as the rising of the wind.” Here Emerson speaks of the unspeakable, which is called apophasis, the way of alluding to the transcendental. The transcendental, ultimate truth or reality cannot be expressed in the same way conventional meanings are conveyed by virtue of its position outside words and their meanings. When It chooses to manifest, It will do so only in a sublime way, as in the highest poetry. Emerson continues to describe the traces of the Immortal in our experience. He calls them hints and he calls it “the secret of nature.” The Over-Soul is behind the masquerade, behind the scenes, backstage, and It is the omnivident audience, “the background of our being,”3 but it is also the actor, the agent, oneself, but to be clear, not the gross subjective form, such as the ego, but the ONE. He goes into such distinctions then, regarding the Soul’s distinction from the body, intellect, will and organ. He tells us its location, within or behind: “…a light shines through us upon things and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.”4 And furthermore, man misrepresents himself, does not respect himself, insofar as he does not know his true identity [the OverSoul], but can manifest the spirit, and when that happens, and word gets out, it is called Genius and Virtue and Love. This can happen when we obey the Soul, and let it have its way. We are in the way, we are in our way, and have to let. “It is undefinable, unmeasurable; but we know that it pervades and contains us. We know that all spiritual being is in man. A wise old proverb says, “God comes to see us without bell;” that is, as there is no screen or ceiling between our heads and the infinite heavens, so is there no bar or wall in the soul, where man, the
effect, ceases, and God, the cause, begins. The walls are taken away.”5 The semantic explosion of the connotative language of the poetic genius in Emerson here tells us that we are one with God, and illustrates it with a metaphor that is also a literal scene: the walls are taken away. We are cosmic, not just from our origins, but presently we are as profound as any other star in the night sky, but we take ourselves for granted, more than anything else. Ultimate reality is outer-most and inner-most, and even the boundary is taken away. “The soul circumscribes all things. As I have said, it contradicts all experience. In like manner it abolishes space and time. The influence of the senses has in most men overpowered mind to that degree that the walls of space and time have come to look real and insurmountable; and to speak with levity of these limits is, in the world, the sign of insanity. Yet space and time are but inverse measures of the force of the soul….”6 This could very well have been a quote from Schopenhauer. The Kantian influence is clear. We know that Emerson was familiar with Kant, but these revelations regarding the nature of space and time were obviously the products of the genius of the spirit we find in Emerson. Kant’s Transcendental Aesthetic was an exposition of the nature of space and time, reasoning from first principles of extension and necessary conditions for mathematical and physical possibilities. But Emerson wasn’t reasoning from setups, but from let-ups. He allowed the poetic genius to speak through his undefiled mind about the nature of space and time. In contrast to Kant, Emerson here got to the same metaphysical insights from the nature of limitation and of the soul. This is close to Schopenhauer’s route to the nature of space and time, but in Emerson we
Ibid., pp. 212 Ibid., pp. 213
also receive a new principle of inverse relation. There is a more obscure transcendental philosopher named Franklin Merrell-Wolffwhose 1936 awakening yielded a very similar principle inspired by Kant: “Ponderability is in inverse relation to substantiality” (Pathways Through To Space.) Emerson let the Over-Soul onto the page, to explain the nature of the metaphysical forces of dimension. “The things we now esteem fixed shall, one by one, detach themselves like ripe fruit from our experience, and fall. The wind shall blow them none knows whither.”7 The stars, so permanent to us, are flowers, flowing with fruition or production from the same process, and these fruits rot, die, and are forgotten, but not before they are dispersed, or consumed by God-knows-what form of the same. All false fronts fall. Beauty is but a flower, which wrinkles will devour. “With each divine impulse the mind rends the thin rinds of the visible and finite and comes out into eternity, and inspires and expires its air.”8 The poet is a conduit through which flows the spirit of the inspiration, leaving its traces, leaving letters, magic spells, hints of that source. The young who have not learned proper spelling, and cannot letters trace, so are freer to trace truer marks, experiencing the presence face-to-face. I have always known this, so tried to recall, where I stand before I fall, stood I where I now stand, as I now scrawl, to understand, bugger all. You’re smarter than you think and more ignorant than you’ll ever know. “The soul requires purity, but purity is not it… To the well-born child all virtues are natural and not painfully acquired. Speak to his heart and the man becomes suddenly virtuous.”9 “They all become wiser than they were.”10 “We know
Ibid. Ibid., pp. 214 Ibid., pp. 214 Ibid., pp. 215
better than we do. … I feel the same truth how often in my trivial conversation with my neighbors, that somewhat higher in each of us overlooks this by-play, and Jove nods to Jove from behind each of us.”11 By Jove we are all one! There is only one one, this one. The purest are our connection and subtile correction. “As it is present in all persons, so it is in every period of life. It is adult already in the infant man. In my dealings with my child, my Latin and Greek, my accomplishments and my money stead me nothing; but as much soul as I have avails. If I am willful, he sets his will against mine, one for one, and leaves me, if I please, the degradation of beating him by my superiority of strength. But if I renounce my will and act for the soul, setting that up as umpire between us two, out of his young eyes looks the same soul: he reveres and loves with me.”12 Emerson continues along these lines, “We know truth when we see it…. We are wiser than we know.” “The nature of these revelations is the same; they are perceptions of the absolute law. They are solutions of the soul’s own questions. They do not answer the questions which the understanding asks. The soul answers never by words, but by the thing itself which s inquired after.”13 Emerson learned from Coolridge a distinction from Kant between Reason or Intuition on the one side, and Understanding or Tuition on the other. The Over-Soul is nearest to pure reason, pure intuition, and deals not with the later forms of understanding nor tuitional investments in the world or word. The Over-Soul cannot be systematized, cannot be pinned down, cannot be penned down, for the words which express it are poetic, not like ordinary language, “An answer in words is delusive; it is really no answer to the
Ibid. Ibid., pp. 217 Ibid., pp.219
questions you ask.” You can’t put it in words, it can only be indicated through ostentation, never directly defined. “These questions which we lust to ask about the future are a confession of sin. God has no answer for them.”14 It’s no wonder the American Transcendentalists took The Over-Soulas the Bible of their movement. Emerson tells us that the transmission of the highest teaching happens everywhere among characters without words, a tonic communication. Being “on the wavelength” is a certain disposition and perspective, a certain tone. He tells us that talent is a disease, and genius is religious. Such bold declarative sentences must be true! But of course they are. “The simplest utterances are worthiest to be written.”15 Emerson’s utterances are utterly simple, and yet prophetic. “Ineffable is the union of man and God in every act of the soul”16 And his metaphors are incredible! “…not a valve, not a wall, not an intersection is there anywhere in nature, but one blood rolls uninterruptedly an endless circulation through all men, as the water of this globe is all one sea, and, truly seen, its tide is one.” This blood flows through one heart, and Emerson lets his readers get in touch with that. Emerson’s vision is so high that it seems at times he speaks for the Divine to humanity about a world there could be if we all become conduits for the Divine. “The soul gives itself, alone, original and pure, to the Lonely, Original and Pure, who, on that condition, gladly inhabits, leads and speaks through it. Then it is glad, young and nimble. It is not wise, but it sees through all things. It is not called religious, but it is called innocent. It calls the light its own, and feels that the grass grows and the stone falls by a law inferior to, and dependent upon, its nature.
Ibid. Ibid, pp. 223 Ibid., pp. 224
Behold, it saith, I am born into the great, the universal mind. I, the imperfect, adore my own Perfect. I am somehow receptive of the great soul, and thereby I do overlook the sun and the stars and feel them to be the fair accidents and effects which change and pass. More and more the surges of everlasting nature enter into me, and I become public and human in my regards and actions. So come I to live in thoughts and act with energies which are immortal…. He will weave no longer a spotted life of shreds and patches, but he will live with a divine unity. He will cease from what is base and frivolous in his life and be content with all places and any services he can render. He will calmly confront the morrow in the negligency of that trust which carries God with it and so hath already the whole future in the bottom of the heart.”17 Thus concludes The Over-Soul, with so much left unsaid, as it began so beautifully abruptly, as we find ourselves in the midst of the world, and yet having left us with a greater sense, not a determinate word of thought, but a tone of the Divine.
Ibid., pp. 227
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