American Metempsychosis: Emerson, Whitman, and the New Poetry

American Metempsychosis: Emerson, Whitman, and the New Poetry

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 254
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  • Book Info
    American Metempsychosis: Emerson, Whitman, and the New Poetry
    Book Description:

    "The transmigration of souls is no fable. I would it were, but men and women are only half human." With these words, Ralph Waldo Emerson confronts a dilemma that illuminates the formation of American individualism: to evolve and become fully human requires a heightened engagement with history. Americans, Emerson argues, must realize history's chronology in themselves--because their own minds and bodies are its evolving record. Whereas scholarship has tended to minimize the mystical underpinnings of Emerson's notion of the self, his depictions of "the metempsychosis of nature" reveal deep roots in mystical traditions from Hinduism and Buddhism to Platonism and Christian esotericism. In essay after essay, Emerson uses metempsychosis as an open-ended template to understand human development. In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman transforms Emerson's conception of metempsychotic selfhood into an expressly poetic event. His vision of transmigration viscerally celebrates the poet's ability to assume and live in other bodies; his American poet seeks to incorporate the entire nation into his own person so that he can speak for every man and woman.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-4662-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VI)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    In the paintingJacob’s Ladder(1800), William Blake illustrates the nature of the Romantic reconception of human consciousness. At the bottom of the canvas, Jacob lies sleeping, his head resting by the foot of a spiral stair that circles upward through the star-filled sky and finally into the sun itself. Upon the stairway, the souls of angels and human beings pass each other, either descending to earth or ascending to heaven. In the Book of Genesis (28: 11–22), Jacob’s dream is a divine revelation: “And, behold, the LORD stood above [the ladder], and said, I am the LORD God...

  5. 1 The Metempsychotic Mind
    (pp. 11-38)

    In the last three decades, the widespread understanding of Ralph Waldo Emerson as a philosopher of metaphysical unity has given way to a more postmodern appraisal. Scholars have come to view Emerson’s thought as a contemplative progression where no determination can be final, since the process itself is perpetually ongoing and open-ended.¹ These recent efforts at de-transcendentalizing and revitalizing Emerson counter the long-established tendencies of criticism to portray him as a cheerful mystic who is but an echo—however powerful and influential—of traditional metaphysics.² Instead, scholars characterize Emerson as a post-Idealist, a pragmatist, an evolutionist, or a political radical....

  6. 2 The Double Consciousness
    (pp. 39-72)

    According to many contemporary scholars, Emerson does not accept any preestablished philosophical position, but exercises a type of radical, individualistic freedom by taking various views in hand and escaping them. He is consistent only in one venture: he takes “the risk of exalting transition for its own sake.”¹ Indeed, Emerson does not offer an absolutist portrait of either consciousness or cosmos with his conception of the metempsychotic mind. On the contrary, “the metempsychosis of nature” or the spirit in “transition” from being to being thwarts our desire for order. As Emerson writes in “Circles” (1841), “The soul looketh steadily forwards,...

  7. 3 Reading the Metempsychotic Text
    (pp. 73-103)

    In the last three decades, scholars have come to appreciate some of the complexity of perception in Emerson’s thought, questioning the earlier consensus that his notion of sight expresses primarily a desire for unity. Indeed, Emerson’s very first published pronouncement of the eye’s transcendent power evokes critical uncertainty because of its contradictory evocations: “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” (W1: 10). As the “currents of the Universal being circulate through” it, the eye fluctuates between nothingness and fullness,...

  8. 4 Writing the Metempsychotic Text
    (pp. 104-134)

    While there is a propensity to interpret Whitman’s poetry in the poetically secular terms of the twentieth century, a number of critics have come to emphasize the mystical and religious tenor of Whitman’s writing. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, scholars sought to uncover the Hindu influences in Whitman’s poetry;¹ in recent decades, critics, like David Kuebrich and Arthur Versluis, have understood it in terms of a “new American religion.”² Versluis touches upon a major obstacle in assessing the spiritual, mystical, or esoteric underpinnings of Whitman’s writing. Such influences, he argues, “were utterly subordinated in Whitman’s poetry to Whitman...

  9. 5 The New Poetry
    (pp. 135-166)

    In “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman portrays his own poetic evolution with the image of a stairway. Standing on the top rung of a flight of steps, the poet has earned, after “trillions of winters and summers,” a new power to “launch all men and women forward with [him] into the Unknown.”¹ In mounting the staircase and assimilating all the knowledge that each step or age provides, Whitman declares his emergent power to be the culmination of the soul’s experience of a vast temporal sequence: “All forces have been steadily employ’d to complete and delight me,/ Now on this spot...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 167-176)

    In the ancient world, the various types of metempsychosis that we see in Hinduism, Buddhism, Pythagoreanism, Platonism, and Neoplatonism are part of a cosmological scheme in which the soul or the self undergoes successive incarnations or transformations. The ultimate goal of the transmigrations that the soul undertakes is either escape from the wheel of rebirth through a recovery of its larger memory, as in Buddhism or Hinduism, oranamnesisin Platonism, or the achievement of a transformative likeness to the divine by a conversion of consciousness, as in Neoplatonism. In Emerson, these traditions assume a distinctively modern figure, tinged with...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 177-224)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 225-236)
  13. Index
    (pp. 237-248)