emerson’s poetics of science, part 2

September 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

One of the words from Nature I looked up and copied into the last posting is “hieroglyphic.” We find that the 1828 Webster’s defines the word as a mystical character or symbol. It relates, certainly, to the other words that focus on the emblematic nature of Nature that Emerson locates in our language: that is, language is the vehicle of nature, which is itself symbolic of spirit–thus the words we find are analogy, allegory, epitome. And we saw in our discussion that early on this view of  symbolic relation has a spiritualist (and almost mystical) connotation: the occult relation between man and the vegetable world (ie, the living world other than man). Emerson’s tree-waving, as we put it, more so than tree-hugging. (It’s 11 am, have you spoken to a tree today?)

There is a spiritual component to this that makes its way directly into Emerson’s thinking in Nature. The most prominent source that Emerson is working from is Swedenborg, whom he cites at the end of “American Scholar” and in Nature refers to in quoting (without citing him): the visible world and the relation of its parts, is the dial plate of the invisible. This figure of the dial and the idea of what Emerson also calls “radical correspondence between visible things and human thoughts” is a key to Transcendentalism (and Nature is considered by many to be the ur-text of the transcendental movement in America). But it turns out that all this spiritual-mystical-philosophical-alchemical vision of nature is not just a 19thc. version of a seance. It is also the place, in the very same ideas of relation and correspondence and emblem, where Emerson engages in the science of his day.

This science, known as natural philosophy and natural history, does not rigidly separate (as we have done) study of the natural world with imagination or poetry or philosophy. So, it makes sense to speak of a ‘poetics of science’–though the combination of poetry and science is strange to our ears. I borrow this phrase from the Emerson scholar Laura Dassow Walls who wrote the book, literally, on Emerson’s significant interest in science and the way natural philosophy of his day informs his thinking: Emerson’s Life in Science: The Culture of Truth. To pick up one piece from this exhaustive reading of Emerson’s work in relation to science: there is the figure of polarity and magnetism that appears throughout his writing; a metaphor that he borrows from his own readings and observations of experiments and discoveries in his day–but more than that (so I would argue): a metonymy that he focuses on, to the extent that his own thinking and writing is already (in his understanding of nature and writing both) related, correspondent, in a more than metaphorical sense of the word related.

We see this metonymyic (not just metaphorical) vision of nature and language in the “Language” chapter of Nature. We also see it in the lecture “Humanity of Science” where Emerson takes up a prominent theory from natural philosophy made famous by Goethe (a poet-scientist of interest to Emerson):

The order of the world has been wisely called ‘an open secret.’ And it is true that Nature’s mode of concealing a law is in its very simplicity; she hides facts by putting them next us.

The near explains the far. This idea that shows up in “American Scholar” as a vision for American learning and poetry–a poetry and philosophy of the street, of the familiar, the near, the low–is thus also related to Emerson’s understanding of science. And, as Emerson will go on in the “Humanity of Science” lecture, poetry is important to remind science of this poetic/symbolic condition of nature–the open secret, nature as hieroglyphic, emblematic. In other words, to remind us that science needs help from poets to interpret and express nature’s secrets to the public. Emerson’s humanistic scientist sounds a lot like his poet from the later essays. It is a remarkable claim–one that seems very distant to our culture that splits science and poetry, but perhaps all the more relevant because of that.

I will try to make more sense of Emerson’s metonymy as we go on. One way I will do that: a lecture at the Lit House in November.

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