Emerson and the Nature of Metonymy

September 8, 2015 § 1 Comment

The marvelous and wild “transparent eyeball” passage we read and reflected on in the last class is most often cited as the model of Emerson’s “transcendental poetics” of idealism. The idealism part we began to discuss: Emerson’s vision, mediated through Kantian and Platonic philosophy, that there is a spiritual realm of Reason beyond or at least related to the material understanding, that one can be uplifted from material nature into the Nature of Mind and universal spirit, become part and particle of God. Nature is thereby a “metaphor” of the mind.

The poetics part emerges fully in the “Language” chapter. I mean by “poetics” a philosophy or theory of language that a writer uses in making (“poetics” literally means making) and crafting his/her work. Emerson’s theory of language clearly relates to his theory of nature: language mediates the relation between mind and matter. As he puts it there, “the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.”

This notion reiterates Emerson’s deep interest in “analogy,” in something he also calls (thinking of the philosopher-mystic Swedenborg) “correspondence”: all in nature is related or analogical because matter itself is the making of Mind. It is that line in particular that some critics more recently, particularly ecocritics (literary and cultural criticism  that is ecologically-oriented), take issue with. Emerson reduces nature, on their view, to mere metaphor, a figment of human imagination; Donald Worster, in Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas, contrasts Emerson with Thoreau in arguing that Emerson “tended to devalue the material world except insofar as it could be put to higher spiritual uses by the human mind” (78).

I think there is more to it than this. In a word, I think Emerson has something in mind that goes beyond mere “metaphor,” even though he uses that word here. I see him beginning to get at that–some relationship between matter and mind, between human and nature–in his vision of language and his interest in the analogical relationships that language conveys. A better word, I would argue, for the kind of figural relationship that Emerson has in mind is not metaphor but a word he uses in his later writing (for example, in “Poetry and Imagination”) to describe his poetics: metonymy. I will be exploring this with you further as we continue in Emerson. What’s the difference?

Metaphor works by way of abstraction: the comparison (or analogy) suggests relationship through similarity or resemblance, but the two items (if the metaphor is to work) must not be physically or temporally or contextually related. To borrow a wonderful metaphor from his essay “Circles”: “I am a God in nature; I am a weed by the wall.” The relation figured between the self (human) and God /weed (not human) works because the two terms are from entirely different categories or paradigms.

Metonymy works by way of condensation and compression: the comparison/analogy suggests relationship through physical or temporal connection, through shared  context. Metonymy takes a chain of related items and condenses it: rather than saying “The President of the United States who works in the Oval Office in the White House in Washington D.C” each time one wants to refer to something said or done there, we tend to compress it into this metonym, a figure of speech: the White House today said…

The transparent eyeball is conventionally viewed as a spectacular metaphor. But it seems to me–particularly if we view Emerson’s vision of transcendence to be more dynamic, to move not just from the material to the spiritual, but back and forth between the two–that the eyeball is, rather, a metonymy for the kind of vision of nature Emerson has in mind (using the eye one sees with, the eye as a representative part of the body and mind that does the seeing, the eye that mediates the relation between natural and spiritual particles). In this sense, that wild eyeball scene could be viewed not as anti-environmental (in its seem self-absorptive focus on the human mind) but as something more ecological–where mind is part and particle of God, but God is also part and particle of material nature.

“Metonymy” as a concept resonates in Emerson as part of a philosophy, a poetic, and a rhetoric. We will thus be returning to it throughout the semester. As an idea relevant to Emerson’s philosophy of nature (our initial focus), one key word and phrase that speaks to metonymy and its emphasis on contextual and associational meaning and reference can be pulled from “Self-Reliance,” the essay we turn to soon. The word is “proximities”: “I will have no covenants but proximities.” An entire world and philosophy, I would argue, globes itself around that reference–and in Emersonian fashion, could be referred back to every essay we have read thus far.

Further Reading and Thinking… 

For some more thinking on the poetics of metonymy and metaphor–a discussion we will by necessity continue as we turn to Whitman and then Dickinson–take a look at my discussion of metonymy and metaphor from my course on The Essay, or my essay “Ecology and Imagination” on Thoreau, Emerson, and metonymy in relation to ecocriticism.


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