American Metempsychosis: Emerson, Whitman, and the New Poetry
John Michael Corrigan
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"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 uses metempsychosis 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 own person so that he can speak for every man and woman.
Beauty,” Journal of the History of Ideas 35.3 (1974): 465–83. For a concise summary of Emerson’s immersion in Neoplatonism and Neopythagoreanism, see especially Robert Richardson, The Mind on Fire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 345–48. notes / 183 14. Compare generally Plotinus, Enneads IV, 7 (on the immortality of the soul); see Plotinus, The Enneads, 7 volumes, trans. A. H. Armstrong (Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, 1966–88). 15. Compare Heraclitus, Diels-Kranz,
(1860), Emerson is even more emphatic; the human being does not necessarily live a thousand times, but he experiences moments of vision so important to his being that he rightly understands that his body is a product of all these moments. Inasmuch as seeing is an individualistic, self-constituting activity, the opening of “the inward eye” to its own succession also represents, for Emerson, the abandonment and simultaneous recovery of the self. Where, for Goethe, the sunlight draws forth a sense
determinism in the nineteenth century. For Emerson, if one attempts to predict the future, one must consider all the variables that manifest themselves in the functioning of a system in motion.98 Unlike this law of errors, however, Emerson consistently invigorates his system with the tenuous prospect of self-direction. Certainly, the individual works himself up from his bare first-person delineations to contemplate and experience the ever-shifting system in which he is set. But if he is to
irresponsible shadow, oftener, some monied corporation, or some dangler, who hopes in the mask and robes of his paragraph, to pass for somebody. But, through every clause and part of speech of a right book, I meet the eyes of the 146 / the new poetry most determined of men: his force and terror inundate every word: the commas and dashes are alive; so that the writing is athletic and nimble, can go far and live long. (W 4: 162) Emerson’s repeated desire to inhabit all points of view becomes,
mind, or are now. (W 2: 7) The problem of the past, its discontinuity with the present and the limitations it imposes—a ll these can be overcome by means of a perceptive inquiry that enacts a metempsychotic journey, a passage of individual thought through the whole milieu of time—“along the whole line” of history’s monuments—so that the materials of the past can be revitalized in the metempsychotic mind / 17 the present. Emerson thereby invites his readers to participate in a mode of