Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Eye-Ball and the Butterfly: Beauty and the Individual Soul in Emerson and Hawthorne

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

The Eye-Ball and the Butterfly: Beauty and the Individual Soul in Emerson and Hawthorne

Article excerpt

DESPITE THE FOLK LOGIC that binds the emergence of America to the rise of individualism, Raymond Williams indicates this connection was inscribed in retrospect. He points out that the contemporary sense of the "individual" did not rise to popular attention until the publication of an 1835 translation of Tocqueville's Democracy in America. "Individual originally meant indivisible. That now sounds like a paradox. 'Individual' stresses a distinction from others; 'indivisible' a necessary connection. The development of the modern meaning from the original meaning is a record in language of an extraordinary social and political history." (1) Doubtless, it would have taken time for our widely held notion of the meaning of individualism as wholly antonymic to "indivisible" to gain widespread purchase: so are we right to bring this nascent sense of the term to bear in our considerations of preeminent texts of the period? How might reevaluating such a prominent concept refigure our understanding of the writings that are often considered the moment of America's rise to prominence in the history of English letters--particularly in the prose of Emerson and Hawthorne?

This essay proposes a perhaps surprising route to each writer's concept of selfhood: it will examine Emerson and Hawthorne's competing definitions of beauty. Each relies upon markedly different ideas of human subjectivity. Issuing forth from unlikely disciples of the beautiful, New England's radical Reformed Christians (popularly labeled "the Puritans"), Emerson and Hawthorne attempt to reconstruct ideas of selfhood in the ruins of the recently collapsed New Jerusalem--and though both seize upon beauty as a point of departure, their journeys take them on divergent trajectories to destinations if not antithetical, at least far remote from one another. For while Emerson is frequently credited with helping forge our modern sense of the individual, his notions regarding interiority appear quite different when considered in the light of his Protestant-inflected education. (2) His work demonstrates an affinity with the classical idealists that he held in the highest regard more than a dramatic break from the past. Hawthornes beautiful, on the other hand, indicates the emerging selfhood that marks the era of industrial capitalism, an idea of the individual that resonates more closely with contemporary notions of subjectivity than does Emerson's: it may be this idea of innate personhood that set him at such self-reflexive odds with his own time. (3)

Each writers concept of self is best located in characteristic images. Emerson offers the infamous "transparent eye-ball," a nature lover so fully a part of his environment as to momentarily transcend corporeality, dissolved "in moments of joy in which our usual state of alienation from nature is revealed as an aberration"; (4) it is a-subjective, a lens capable of focusing rays of light from all angles. (5) Hawthorne's self, however, takes the form of a mechanical butterfly turned vital, come aglow with life only to meet its end, crushed in the outstretched fist of an unnamed infant. These images speak to the disparate "truths" of the notion of private selfhood presented in their works, providing visually based clues to understanding concepts so difficult to capture in words.

Examining the eye-ball and the butterfly illuminates substantial distinctions between Emerson's and Hawthorne's idea of a self's fullest realization. For, as I hope to contribute to ongoing conversations, the former is suffused with a kind of conservatism that is deemphasized when privileging his European influences over his American roots, while the latter advocates a more radical concept of private selfhood regnant today. In this way, we can see that Emerson seems to mask his "New English" influences (whether intentionally or not)--and thus can understand his engagement with the American Calvinist intellectual tradition as a preservation of their notion of soul, which he would resolve into, rather than define against, his idea of the self. …

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