Thursday, May 05, 2005

An electric light at once the immediate object and the ultimate organ of inward vision

I keep meaning to write a post framed as a Two-for-Tuesday, like on classic rock radio, but I never remember this intention on a Tuesday. I guess it would be fitting to do five on 5/5/5, but what follows is a twofer, and, like the best rock radio, it is appropriately psychedelic. (Note: Hilary and I are listening to WBLM’s nightly Zep-Set as I write this. (P.S.: Tonight they played a sequence of four: In the Evening, In the Light, Tangerine, Immigrant Song.))

June 9, 1838. Why do we seek this lurking beauty, in skies, in poems, in drawings? Ah because there we are safe, there we neither sicken nor die. I think we fly to Beauty as an asylum from the terrors of finite nature.
This evening I was looking over some Emerson journal entries I read a couple years ago for a class, and the notes I had written next to the passage quoted above caught my eye:
At first I didn’t know what I was reading, but now I remember that at the time of this note, I was being punished with a horrifying mental condition in which experiences of beauty were inseperable from experiences of mortality—I couldn’t enjoy anything without feeling that I was having the best and most important experience; that my experience was sickeningly improbable, contingent, fleeting; and that I was dying, along with everything I could call the world. Now, I don’t remember what it’s like to feel that way, but it did feel a quite particular way. And that this particular way couldn’t be held in language and revived later by reading was part of the content of the experience. For I was experiencing linguistic thought as a succession of absolutely concrete imaginitive events that perfectly embodied their sense. Sitting in class and listening to Jean Ferguson Carr characterize the form of Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative as a series of removes, I said to myself, This is the language behind language, as each incoming word formed a perfect electric outline of pure intelligibility.

It has happened to me, on various occasions, to find myself in a certain edifice, which would appear to have some of the characteristics of a public Exchange. Its interior is a spacious hall, with a pavement of white marble. Overhead is a lofty dome, supported by long rows of pillars, of fantastic architecture, the idea of which was probably taken from the Moorish ruins of the Alhambra, or perhaps from some enchanted edifice in the Arabian Tales. The windows of this hall have a breadth and grandeur of design, and an elaborateness of workmanship, that have nowhere been equalled, except in the Gothic cathedrals of the old world. Like their prototypes, too, they admit the light of heaven only through stained and pictured glass, thus filling the hall with many-colored radiance, and painting its marble floor with beautiful or grotesque designs; so that its inmates breathe, as it were, a visionary atmosphere, and tread upon the fantasies of poetic minds. These peculiarities, combining a wilder mixture of styles than even an American architect usually recognizes as allowable—Grecian, Gothic, Oriental, and nondescript—cause the whole edifice to give the impression of a dream, which might be dissipated and shattered to fragments, by merely stamping the foot upon the pavement. Yet, with such modifications and repairs as successive ages demand, the Hall of Fantasy is likely to endure longer than the most substantial structure that ever cumbered the earth.
Hawthorne’s Hall of Fantasy is psychedelic in the classical sense—in it, the soul is made visible. Not just visible—the mind is architecturalized as a space in which one can walk about freely. Hawthorne’s narrator—Hawthorne, presumably—tours the chambers of this Hall with a friend and meets different figures at each turn, each of whom has found, according to his particular mode of imagination, a different route to this concrete phantasmagoria. The narrator encounters:

—“rulers and demi-gods in the realms of imagination”—Homer, Aesop, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Swedenborg (how Concord loved Swedenborg!) and so on

—men of business, who dream “the idea of cities to be built, as if by magic, in the heart of pathless forests; and of streets to be laid out, where now the sea was tossing; and of mighty rivers to be staid in their courses, in order to turn the machinery of a cotton-mill”

—“the inventors of fantastic machines”

—“the herd of real or self-styled reformers”

—Father Miller, a doomsday-is-nigh dogmatist, whose fantasy destroys all others

—the spirits of men deep in “magnetic sleep”

The narrator’s companion describes the Hall of Fantasy like this:
You are in a spot… which occupies, in the world of fancy, the same position which the Bourse, the Rialto, and the Exchange, do in the commercial world. All who have affairs in that mystic region, which lies above, below, or beyond the Actual, may here meet, and talk over the business of their dreams.
Students of Concord transcendentalism are doubtless weary of this line of thought, but I, at least, am still surprised whenever I find the imagination pictured not as something worrisomely private but as a space one can share with others, a cosmopolitan crossroads where creators of all sorts meet and exchange thought-contents made manifest, a Stoa Poikile poetized in the idiom of commerce and open to practical men.

If the label “American Renaissance” is not just a cliché but a substantive description—as it clearly isn’t for F.O. Matthiessen, who says much of value about Emerson and Hawthorne and Melville but little to justify entitling his book on them American Renaissance—maybe its sense is this: certain American authors of the mid-19th century were spared the anxieties of the Cartesian-Kantian problematic; for them, as for the Greeks we imagine at the end of Nietzsche’s rainbow-bridge of concepts, there was no problem of other minds. Shared space was the starting point of activity, a ground taken for granted, not a vanishing point dreamed in solipcism or an aim constitutive of purported social experience but unavailable to knowledge.


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