American Metempsychosis: Emerson, Whitman, and the New Poetry

American Metempsychosis: Emerson, Whitman, and the New Poetry

American Metempsychosis: Emerson, Whitman, and the New Poetry

American Metempsychosis: Emerson, Whitman, and the New Poetry

Synopsis

"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 usesmetempsychosis 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 ownperson so that he can speak for every man and woman.

Excerpt

In the painting Jacob’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 of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed.” Informed by centuries of mystical practice, Blake’s ladder is not only an epiphanic event; it is a figurative map of the human psyche. Indeed, Blake foregrounds Jacob’s sleeping body; in the background behind Jacob’s head, the staircase rises upward, becoming in its climb the focal point of the watercolor. Jacob reclines, moreover, in the posture of crucifixion, the horizontal plane of the material body intersecting with the vertical dimension within or behind consciousness, which the ladder is intended to represent. Here, upon the ancient architecture of ascent, Blake plunges a whole spiritual cosmology into the internal life of consciousness, powerfully demonstrating the extent to which mysticism underpins the development of the modern self.

Blake’s painting also exhibits a decisive Platonic influence, for his ladder is explicitly a ladder of love, much like the ladder of ascent from Plato’s Symposium. Midway on Blake’s staircase, two lovers meet face to face, ascent and descent, the way up and the way down, united in their mutual embrace. By placing the lovers so centrally on the ladder, Blake underscores . . .

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