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Ralph Waldo Emerson

Criticism on Nature

From Eric Wilson's Emerson's Sublime Science


[139] "Harold Bloom ambiguously hails the famous 'transparent eyeball' passage as the 'most notorious' in Emerson's work. FN Certainly this passage has drawn more attention than any other in Emerson's oeuvre, earning more frequent and disparate interpretations than any other. Whatever the passage might be, it clearly epitomizes Emerson's compressed, polysemantic style. It crowds together numerous tropes and allusions to the Bible, fully embodying the traits John Burroughs finds in Emerson's best writing: 'It is abrupt, freaky, unexpected... darts this way and that, and connects the far and the near in every line.... [I]t is a leaping thread of light.' FN

The sequence is Emerson's most visionary. He blends with the energy of God to command a full view of the processes of nature. [140]

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. Almost I fear I think how glad I am. In the woods, too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and a sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed,, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befal me in life, -- no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, -- 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.           (N 12-13) FN

B. L. Packer has rightly observed that in Nature the mind's alienation from nature is caused by 'an error in vision'. When the 'axis of vision' is 'coincident' with the 'axis of things', the world is transparent and one sees the cause, the spirit, the force, generating matter. This passage details such a moment. Emerson's speaker sees through the opacity of matter to the electric currents of universal being, becoming transparent himself. Using these same poles of opacity and transparency, Kenneth Burke has used this passage to exemplify Emerson's mode of crossing from matter to spirit, transcending the natural to the supernatural. Indeed, the passage is liminal: it crosses boundaries, moving between contradictory, polarized (positive and negative) elements, crossing form matter to the electric cause that emanates through it. FN

"Crossing a bare common' immediately alerts us to the threshold quality of the passage. 'Crossing', first of all, is a pun. Not only is the 'Visionary' (the character in the essay, as distinguished from the historical Emerson) literally moving from one place to another, but he is also at a crossroads, a crux. 'Cross', deriving from the Latin crux, means not only a physical cross but also a fateful juncture. Among Christians, 'crossing' (making a cross sign in the air) is an act of blessing. Jesus died on the cross and so bearing a cross metaphorically suggests the proper Christian life (Matt. 10: 38). Thus 'crossing' indicates an act of great import involving the sacred.

[141] The Visionary echoes and revises the Christian act of 'crossing' and 'bearing a cross', for he blesses nature in winter, not the altar of a church in spring; he is not burdened by life in an imperfect, fallen world, but enjoys instead 'perfect exhilaration. Moreover, his act of crossing does not necessarily acknowledge the Judeo-Christian God, but rather moves across a threshold toward an idea of a God who circulates through nature as Universal Being. Emerson does not deny this world to find a greater one, as Jesus teaches, but affirms this world because there is nothing else we can know.

Moreover, 'crossing' constitutes a chiasmus, a rhetorical figure that means 'placing crosswise'. The figure describes 'any structure in which elements are repeated in reverse, so giving the pattern ABBA'. FN Emerson's allusions in these sublime passages as chiasmi; he repeats the Bible in alluding to it while he reverses its meaning in revising it to fit his intuitions of nature. Likewise, his pun on 'crossing' is itself a chiasmus; it intersects a spiritual act and symbol in Christianity with the act of making way toward a vision in nature. FN Several other puns through this passage also embody this chiasmic structure. Indeed, the entire structure of Nature could be characterized as chiasmic, for Emerson through the essay crosses nature and scripture, words and things, mind and matter. This crossing, of course, instances the oscillatory polarities of electromagnetic energy, for each pun is a spherule of force, a tension of positive and negative energy.

The entire first sentence figures liminality. As he crosses the common, the universal threshold between matter and the spirit, the Visionary registers several transitional events. He walks through 'snow puddles', a synecdoche for the state of both the speaker and nature. Like the Visionary -- who is between fear and gladness, adulthood and childhood -- and like the natural environment -- which is in between day and night ('twilight') and gas and liquid ('under a clouded sky') -- the snow puddles are liminal, ice on the verge of becoming water. This synecdoche is a complex trope, for it yokes together water and ice, fluidity and stasis. It moves not only to more remote images of solidity and liquidity. It also predicts the Visionary's impending transition from solid to liquid when he is transformed from a material person to an ethereal conduit through which Being flows. 'Twilight' and 'clouded sky' are also tropes, versions of the synecdochal 'snow puddles', parts standing for an entire liminal scene. Twilight is not only the threshold point between day and night, dark and light. It also metaphorically signals [142] a move from the life of the sun to the moon's deathly flow to anticipate the Visionary's ironic annihilation into 'nothing' while he 'sees' all. Clouds are, again, both gas and liquid, moving toward liquid, but they also suggest 'gloom', reinforcing the irony of this ecstatic passage that celebrates transparency.

The first sentence, then, institutes the structure of the passage. It delineates the poles between which the Visionary moves and establishes chiasmic reversals of scripture and nature. Moreover, it sets a rhetorical precedent that will reach a vertiginous pitch at the core of the passage. Importantly, this opening sentence likewise establishes the electromagnetic constitution of the passage, it boundless semantic energy, its polarity, its mutual interaction.

Other figures charge Emerson's language. He revises the Biblical notion of innocence in comparing the return to innocence to a snake casting off its slough. 'In the woods, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life is always a child'. In Genesis 3: 1, the serpent is associated with subtlety and is the cause of the fall of man from innocence to experience, from perfection to imperfection. Emerson reverses this. The snake is part of nature and there innocent. Indeed, the sentence relates the snake, a traditional symbol of evil, and the child, often equated with innocence and knowledge of God in the Gospels (esp. Matt. 19: 13-14).

To eat from the tree of knowledge is to understand Being, not to offend God. As Emerson writes in a journal entry in 1840, 'I dreamed that I floated at will in the great Ether, and I saw this world floating also not far off, but diminished to the size of an apple. Then the angel took it in his hand & brought it to me and said "This must thou eat". And I ate the world' (JMN 7: 525). Among the many readings of this provocative dream, one is that Emerson revises Genesis in light of his celebration of nature, not scripture, as the locus for revelation. Emerson's Visionary would eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and report his findings.

Indeed, there is a parallel in Emerson between eating and prophecy. FN In Revelation 10: 8-11, John is told by a voice from heaven to take a scroll from an angel and eat it: 'And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was bitter. And I was told, "You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and tongues and kings".' This passage alludes to a similar scene in Ezekiel where that prophet must also eat the words of God. [143} Emerson transumes these prophetic moments in claiming that the prophet is the scientist whose message is not bitter but joyous, whose knowledge is perfection, power. Indeed, the world is not fallen out of grace, but the site of grace: '[n]othing' can 'befal' the speaker, no 'disgrace', that nature itself cannot 'repair', or redeem.

Emerson supports this perfection through the figure of anaphora, as two other sentences beginning with 'In the woods' emphasize nature as the sacred. In the three phrases beginning with "In the woods', he suggests that nature is a site not only of innocence, 'perpetual youth', but also of 'reason', the faculty of knowledge, and 'faith', a category of religion. For Emerson, though we have been cast from the garden of Eden into the forest, we retain our innocence, knowledge, faith. The syntactic rhymes of anaphora not only reinforce this idea, but plot a growing appreciation of nature. The second elements of the anaphora designates the woods as a region not merely of childhood, but for 'perpetual', or eternal youth. The third element improves on this, proclaiming that the woods are not only a place of eternal innocence, but also of knowledge and faith. These repeated prepositional phrases signal an increase in verbal energy that will break into a rhetorical storm in the 'transparent eye-ball' sentence, which gathers each elements of the anaphora into dynamic synthesis when the Visionary joins with God.

In the midst of this anaphora, Emerson structurally mimics his upsetting of traditional Christianity and prepares readers for the Visionary's becoming 'nothing' and seeing 'all' by employing the figure of hyperbaton, the inversion of normal syntax. In "Almost I fear to think how glad I am', Emerson transposes the normal pattern of "I almost fear...'. This reversal not only highlights the word 'almost', thus reinforcing the fact that the Visionary is at a threshold, but also corresponds to Emerson's reversals of darkness and light, imperfection and perfection, nothing and all. A second hyperbaton occurring in the phrase 'at what period soever of life', which reverses the normal order of 'at whatever period of life', further underpins these transpositions.

This great confidence in the grace of nature is questioned, however, in the ensuing parenthetical 'leaving me my eyes'. Emerson writes that '...nothing can befal me in life, -- no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair'. The Visionary feels that nature can mend any disgrace or calamity as longs as he has eyes. This aside reinforces the physical nature of vision. Unlike [144] John of Patmos, whose vision struck the inner eye of dream, this Visionary's revelation is dependent on physical sight. However, another reading of the parenthesis undercuts the necessity of physical sight. 'Leaving me my eyes' could indeed be a calamity that nature can repair. The disgrace or calamity could well be 'my eyes' 'leaving me', the loss of sight. In this case, nature could repair this problem, exhilarating even the blind man, restoring him to sight.

This parenthetical aside is another example of chiasmus, crossing both the necessity and superfluity of sight. As such, it is a proleptic version of the core of the passage in which the Visionary becomes the transparent eyeball, an electromagnetically polarized site that crosses nothing and all, full sight and the annihilation of self. This paradox points to a Blakean act of seeing, in which the Visionary sees not with the eye, but through it. Physical sight is necessary for closely observing nature, as the Visionary does, cataloging the details of the scene in minute detail, nothing the landscape, the weather, the time. This close observation leads to an insight of the invisible energy generating and animating the visible, an insight that makes sight superfluous. Insight is the goal of sight; sight, the catalyst of sight. Inductive observation leads to vision. Emerson marries Bacon and Plato, St. John and Newton.

Emerson intensifies these crossings by again editing Revelation. In nature, a 'perennial festival is dressed'. This festival revises the marriage festival for the Lamb and New Jerusalem in Revelation 19: 9: 'And he said unto me, Write, Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb'. This festival symbolizes the marriage between God and His followers in heaven after the world-ending apocalypse. FN For Emerson, the marriage festival of God and believer takes place not in heaven in the future, but in nature in the present.

The eye of the passage, its most shocking moment, begins with the participial phrase, 'Standing on the bare ground...'. The phrase conceptually and syntactically rhymes with the liminal opening phrase of the passage, 'Crossing a bare common', signaling the Visionary's move from the liminal into the world of Universal Being. Between the time the Visionary crosses the common and finds himself standing on bare ground, he, like Dante's Pilgrim, has crossed Lethe and Eunoe and entered into earthly paradise, the realm where one is prepared for a vision of the absolute. The 'bare ground' is yet another in a series of puns; it is literally the winter earth, but also the absolutely foundation, the basis underlying [145] everything. Emerson has troped the 'bare common' into the site where the universal principle of life will emerge in a sublime moment. Moreover, 'ground' is a primary term used in speaking of electricity. It is a large conducting body, like the earth, whose potential or voltage is zero as well as an electric circuit connected to the earth and thus grounded, or rendered impotent. The ground, like the Visionary, is still, empty, waiting to be filled and charged by Being. The famous transparent eye-ball passage is as much about becoming empowered by the electrical energy coursing through the cosmos as it is about becoming one with spirit. This pun, then, contained in a participial phrase, will modify its potential subject by metaphorically 'grounding' it, emptying it of voltage.

But Emerson appears to provide no subject. 'Stnding on the bare ground' should modify 'I', the Visionary, not 'egotism': 'Standing on bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean egotism vanishes.' It seems as if the Visionary has disappeared; FN the 'I' in the opening sentence of the passage is lost. Emerson uses the figure of anacoluthon, a mode of expression in which the writer or speaker changes a construction mid-sentence, thus leaving its beginning uncompleted. Quite simply, Emerson employs a dangling modifier. This suggests that the Visionary has lost his particularity to become one with the universal electric principle, fading into the 'ground', his energy merging with the earth's, both circuits empty of energy.

Alternatively, one could read that 'Standing on the bare ground' modifies 'head'. 'Standing on bare ground, --my head bathed in the blithe air..'. This would do away with anacoluthon and present a catachretic metaphor, in which a head 'stands'. In this interpretation, 'head' becomes a dense site, compressing metonymy, synecdoche, and metaphor. First, it is metonymy for 'mind'. It is also a whole substituted for the part of the eye, as the head will be metaphorized into an eye in the next sentence. Still yet, if 'head' is interpreted as the subject of the sentence, then it is metaphorized into a circuit grounded in the earth.

Emerson's grammar is in conflict with itself. The readers are caught among several possibilities, each of which is equally valid. Emerson has placed his readers in a liminal state, casting them in the same role as the Visionary.

At this juncture in the passage, both the Visionary and sympathetic readers find themselves anxious, polarized, oscillating like electricity between opposing poles, gladness and fear. The Visionary [146] is about to cross a threshold between what Angus Fletcher calls labyrinth and temple, the terms representing the dialectic between 'sacred stillness' and 'profane movement'. The transition between these antinomies is epitomized by 'Homer's Cave of the Nymphs, Vergil's twin Gates of Horn and Ivory, Dante's Limbo.' FN The Visionary is 'in between', edging toward union withe the sacred force of God. He will not, however, reach mere 'stillness' in the temple. Instead, he, as part or particle of a circulating God, will become an intersection of stillness -- the stationary pattern of the 'eye-ball' -- and motion --the currents of the God. The Visionary is a synthesis of the temple and labyrinth in his sublime moment, a chiasmus of spirit and matter, time and eternity: the labyrinth of the woods is the temple of God.

Attentive readers are likely to be tense as well. The slippages in language cause anxiety; the richness of signification is overtaxing. In the midst of Emerson's textual labyrinth, the temple seems far away. Yet, Emerson's own language, like the Visionary, is on the verge of transcendence, of joining conflicting meanings into a dynamic unity.

An echo of Jesus's baptism in Matthew 3: 16-17 in the phrase 'bathed in the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space' confirms that the Visionary and the form of the passage are on the brink of transformation. The Biblical passage describes John's baptism of Jesus.

And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightaway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: and lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

Like Jesus, Emerson's Visionary is bathed in the joyous air, which is troped into 'the currents of Universal Being' in the next sentence, suggesting water, air, and electricity. Like Jesus, the visionary looks to the heavens as he is 'uplifted into infinite space'. In the next sentences, he is 'blessed' by God, becoming 'part or particle' of Him, losing his self, seeing all. The Visionary is a new Jesus, blessed by the forces of the universe.

'Bathed in the blithe air' suggests not only baptism, but also the Pentecost. In Acts 2:1-4, on the day of the Pentecost, the Holy Ghost rushes from the heavens in the form of a mighty wind, filling the followers of Jesus with spirit, turning their tongues to fire, inspiring [147] them to speak strange languages. Their ecstatic speech is not drunkenness, Peter claims, but a consummation of God's power and glory that was forecast by the prophet Joel (2: 14-21). Emerson's Visionary undergoes his own Pentecost, being filled with the wind of the spirit, describing his vision in ecstatic speech. Indeed, Nature's sublime moments resemble the glossolalia of Jesus's early followers.

This transformation, simultaneously baptismal and Pentecostal, affecting both Visionary and readers, takes place in the next sentence, the 'transparent eye-ball': 'I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part of particle of God.'

The sentence edits several revelatory scenes in the Bible. 'Eye' is associated with the true sight of God's revelation, as it is when Job proclaims his intimate knowledge of God after he sees Him in the whirlwind: 'I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth thee' (42:5). Moreover, in Proverbs, the eye is linked to blessedness and generosity: 'He that hath a bountiful eye shall be blessed; for he giveth his bread to the poor; (22:9). Emerson's earlier revisions of Genesis are further apparent in this sentence as well. When Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, 'the eyes of them were both opened' (3:7). While in Genesis knowledge and sight are related to imperfection and despair, the sight of Emerson's Visionary is one with perfection and joy. Perhaps the passage most directly connected to Emerson's sentence occurs in Jesus' words in Matthew 6: 22: 'The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.' Emerson literalizes this passage, troping his speaker's body into a single eye so full of light that it (ironically) sees all in the twilight. Still another passage that faintly reverberates when we hear 'transparents' is Revelation 21: 21 of the King James Bible. The street of the heavenly city is 'pure gold, as it were transparent glass'. Likewise, in the sublime moment for Emerson, when the axis of vision is co-incident with the axis of things, the world is transparent, 'causes and spirits are seen through [things]' (N 62). During this revelation of nature's cause, both the beholder and nature become transparent: the Visionary sees through things because he is part of the energy generating them.

The sentence is epiphanic not only for the Visionary as it describes his move from the liminal to the sublime, but also for sympathetic readers, for it resolves semantic and syntactic indeterminacy into an aesthetic whole. The sentences is a warp onto which are woven three [148] separate threads of imagery. The liminal tropes are now sublimated, for the Visionary has ironically moved from twilight to pure light, from crossing the threshold to the shore of vision, from the world of matter to spirit. The baptismal tropes are woven into the text as well; the 'Visionary has been transformed by the spirit into a condition of perfect knowledge of and oneness with God. Further, the tropes suggesting electricity have now been transformed. The 'grounded', impotent Visionary has now become an open circuit through which the powerful charges of the universal being will flow.. Here, the Visionary, ideal seer and sayer, is truly a conduit for the force of life. For a moment, all the disparate currents of the cosmos and of words in conflict are harmonized, concentrated in the point of the Visionary's eye.

Kenneth Burke has elaborated on Emerson's word play on 'eye', 'I' and the affirmative 'ay'. FN The sentence sets off a series of paranomastic puns, where for every 'I', 'eye' or 'ay' can be substituted. 'Transparent eye-ball', like 'head' earlier, also is a dense region of three overlapping tropes. It could be a synecdoche of part for whole, if the eyeball stands for the head, the perceiving mind. Likewise, it is perhaps a metonymy, in which cause is substituted for effect, if the instrument of vision, the eye, stands for the moment of vision. Further, it is, of course, catachresis: to visualize a man as an eyeball strains the faculties. Likewise, the figures of irony, hyperbole, and oxymoron are condensed in the 'eye-ball', for it is ironic to see all at twilight, hyperbolic for a man to turn into an eye, and oxymoronic to be nothing while seeing all. Emerson again utilizes the figure of asyndeton, the omission of conjunctions between a series of clauses, appropriate for stirring emotions: FN 'I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all.' Longinus includes asyndeton in a list of figures that loosen the links that stifle the energy of language and therefore emit energy and passion at great speed. FN Longinus's language could well detail the Visionary and the passage, both ecstatic with significance.

Emerson employs paronomasia to support his semantic and syntactic meanings. The core of the passage is worth quoting again.

Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, -- 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.

[149] Appropriately the primary recurring sounds are 'b' and 'i' sounds, as the passage is about Emerson's 'I' and 'eye' becoming one with 'Being'. 'Bathed' and 'blithe' alliterate with 'bare', but also support each other's connotations. 'Bathed' connotes baptism, and is thus connected with the blitheness of conversion, of becoming one with the unifying force. 'Blithe' contains the long 'i' sounds that echoes 'eye' and 'I'. The 'I' is blithe. Moreover, it is 'uplifted' into the 'infinite'. Both of these words contain short and long 'i' sounds, reinforcing the echoes. This is the sentence in which the 'I' falls out as egotism vanishes. Emerson has spread the 'I' throughout this sentence, mixing it with the 'b'. This mixing prepares us for and reinforces the ultimate union with the 'I/eye' and 'being'. The next sentence supports this mixing with further 'b' and long 'i' sounds in 'I', 'become', and in the all important union of the two in 'eye/I-ball'. These subtle uses of paronamasia -- repeatedly joining 'I' and 'be' -- constantly whisper the grand theme of the passage: the 'I/eye' is one with 'Universal Being'.

The Visionary has crossed from matter to spirit, becoming pure energy, Faraday's grain of water containing electrical relations equivalent to a flash of lightning. This charges passage itself, like the Visionary, has crossed from material to the energy animating it; it is an atom, its tropes like electrons turning around a highly charged nucleus. The passage and the Visionary are transparent eye-balls, structures through which the energy of 'the Universal Being' is revealed. They goad readers into their own crossings: from word to energy, from reading to creating, bookworm to silkworm."

Copied by permission of author. See also the Introduction to his book and explication of a passage from "Language."

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