Academic journal article Style

"Terrible Simplicity": Emerson's Metaleptic Style

Academic journal article Style

"Terrible Simplicity": Emerson's Metaleptic Style

Article excerpt

Emerson's Nature (1836) is electric, the "transparent eyeball" its shocking core.(1) What Longinus writes of sublime oratory is true of Nature's most rhetorically charged passage. The effect of the "eyeball" passage "is not persuasion but transport," bringing "power and irresistible might to bear, and reign supreme over every hearer," "flashing forth" to scatter "everything before it like a thunderbolt" (43). Examining Emerson's rhetoric of the sublime in Nature, I demonstrate that he learned his stylistic practices from nature. Like Francis Bacon, but with the new scientific information of his period, he located revelation in the book of nature rather than scripture. I argue that metalepsis is Nature's master trope, for it describes linguistic sites that compress numerous revisionary allusions, tropes, and figures. In compressing many currents of signification, metalepsis is the eye of sublime thunderstorms, charging readers with lightning.

Emerson always wanted a highly charged writing style. Whether he was speaking from written notes gathered from his journals or writing essays for publication, he believed that strong language should be active, palpable, electric. The speech of the great orator, he writes, "is not to be distinguished from action. It is the electricity of action" (W 8:115).(2) This powerful orator is "agitated," his words revealing "electricity" charging "from the cloud" and shining "from one part of heaven to the other" (JMN 7:224-25). He wrote to Carlyle in 1838 that his sentences were like electricity, for they were comprised of "infinitely repellent particle[s]" (CEC 185). Eloquence fulfills man's "want of electricity to vitalize" his life (W 8:70); poetry emerges electromagnetically through the "magnetic tenaciousness of an image" (W 8:27), and "shall thrill and agitate mankind" (W 8:73).(3)

Indeed, Emerson desired that his words be as dynamic as nature. He wrote in 1831 that "[i]n good writing words become one with things" (JMN 3:271). Nature, he repeatedly noted, is a book, "a language and every new fact we learn is a new word" (EL 1:26). As Michael Faraday taught Emerson, "'A grain of water is known to have electric relations equivalent to a very powerful flash of lightning'" (W 10:60). So also, a book is to be written in a charged, condensed style, each word/thing a compression of force: "The whole force of the Creation is concentrated upon every point. What agencies of electricity, gravity, light, affinity, combine to make every plant what it is" (EL 1:72).

Grounding his poetics in nature, Emerson believed that the "virtue of rhetoric is compression" (W 12:290): the writer should compose "dense," contracted sentences resembling the human face, "where in a square space of a few inches is found room for every possible variety of expression" (W 12:348). In good writing, "[w]ords are also actions, and actions are a kind of words" (CW 3:6). Nature's writing inspires man, who is "born to write," to record nature in a "new and finer form of the original," in a recording that "is alive, as that [nature] which is recorded is alive" (CW 4:151-52). The live words of this writing of nature are, like nature itself, "waves" that cannot be chained by "hard pedantry" (CW 4:68), "one thing and the other thing, in the same moment," not to be "orbed" in a single thought (CW 3:139).

Emerson's tropes are the conductors. In "The Poet," he declares that "[a]n imaginative book renders us more service at first, by stimulating us through its tropes" (CW 3:18-19). "The value of a trope," he writes in "Poetry and Imagination," "is that the hearer is one: and indeed Nature itself is a vast trope, and all particular natures are tropes. As the bird alights on the bough, then plunges into the air again, so the thoughts of God pause but for a moment in any form" (W 8:15). Tropes are actions. They turn univocal words into multivalent sites. Just as nature is constantly troping as it proceeds in "perpetual inchoation" and "rapid metamorphosis" (CW 1:124), converting "every sensuous fact" into a "double," "quadruple," "centuple," or "much more manifold meaning" (CW 3:3-4), so Emerson's tropes, aspiring to be one with things, "flow" like nature and are "fluxional," "vehicular and transitive," expressions of "manifold" meanings (CW 3:20). …

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