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That, says an eminent American critic, is the heart of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s message to us in our own troubled time
February 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 2
But if the theory of Beasts, that is, man’s linkages with all organic nature, was important, this was tied up in Emerson’s mind with that other mystery still to be penetrated, the mystery of Dreams; and in taking dreams seriously, not least his own, Emerson was well in advance of the thinkers of his own day who had, since the time of Descartes, regarded the inner life as the special province of religion. In this matter, Emerson was a better naturalist than most of his scientific contemporaries: he accepted dreams as a natural phenomenon which had some significance for man’s own development. The fact that Emerson regarded sex, too, as one of the mysteries that needed further investigation—though he confined this recognition to his Journals—only shows how central, and in a sense how faithful to natural revelation, his essential thought was.
Emerson’s attaching importance to beasts, dreams, and sex was an example of his devotion to the truths available to him through self-revelations rather than books, and this was connected with an even more central faith in the reality of God’s presence and influence, disclosed in every manifestation of life. He would have nothing of the doctrine that supposed that revelation was something that happened long ago, was “given and gone, as if God were dead.” God was tremendously alive for Emerson, as were the soul and the oversoul, the first immediate and individual, the second general and universal. This god was not the god of the churches; and it is only now, perhaps, that we can begin to see what Emerson was really talking about when he used the orthodox term “God” to express his new perception.
A collector recently bought at public auction, in London, for one hundred and fifty-seven guineas, an autograph of Shakspeare; but for nothing a schoolboy can read Hamlet and can detect secrets of highest concernment yet unpublished therein. —“Experience”
“There is a power above and behind us,” wrote Emerson, “and we are the channel of its communication.” If I am not deceived, Emerson had realized that a direct access to the unconscious was as important in opening one’s eyes to reality as the pageant of the outer world—or even more important, since the unconscious bore within it the whole experience of the race, from the time before consciousness itself had emerged.
Emerson himself linked the experience of God with the operation of the unconscious, sometimes in so many words, as when he observed: “Blessed is the child; the unconscious is ever the act of God himself. Nobody can reflect upon his unconscious period; or any particular word or act in it, with regret or contempt.” Or again, “The central fact is the super-human intelligence, pouring into us from the unknown foun tain, to be received with religious awe and defended from any mixture of our will.” When Emerson says, “Dare to love God without mediator or veil,” he is saying, “Dare to respect and embrace and live openly with your unconscious.”
Fear is an instructor of great sagacity and the herald of all revolutions. One thing he teaches, that there is rottenness where he appears. He is a carrion crow, and though you see not well what he hovers for, there is death somewhere. Our property is timid, our laws are timid, our cultivated classes are timid. Fear for ages has boded and mowed and gibbered over government and property. That obscene bird is not there for nothing. He indicates great wrongs which must be revised. —“Compensation”
In this poetic discovery of the role of the unconscious Emerson was not alone: the same discovery was made by Hawthorne and Melville, and this served as a secret link between those two souls, though as yet there was no name for the unconscious except the ancient one that Emerson loyally clung to: God. But as more than one religion had testified, this God has an almost equal counterpart and antagonist, Satan, whose exalted energies Milton and Blake had contemplated even before Melville had baptized Moby Dick in the name of the Devil. Through the exploration of dreams, fantasies, and psychal disorders that has gone on for the last half century and more, we now realize that both versions of the unconscious are true: this polarity plays an essential role in human creativity. Emerson’s unconscious is mainly the luminous one, out of which love and brotherhood and justice and truth are born; while Melville’s is the dark one, from which come forth murderous hate, satanic pride, insensate destruction—or demonic revelation. Neither version is to be trusted as an expression of cosmic and human potentialities without the other: but only when the luminous god gains the upper hand can life prosper.
Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. —“Self-Reliance”