David Morse
American Romanticism

In his classic analysis of Emerson's thought George Santayana writes, 'His constant refrain is the omnipotence of imaginative thought; its power first to make the world, then to understand it, and finally to rise above it.' With Emerson it is always morning. In an endless unfolding of prospects, yesterday always pales into insignificance in the dawn of today, just as tomorrow will be immeasurably greater still. What is most characteristic of American Trancendentalism, what marks it as a bundle of attitudes rather than as a system of ideas is the indignant rejection of any kind of restraint. The idea of a limit is unthinkable and unacceptable. In the act of unthinking it, the limit itself disappears. Indeed, thought itself is a work of demolition, a mighty hammer taken to all the edifices and obstacles that shackle the human spirit. Transcendentalism is always implicitly beyond good and evil, since it reverences an interior psychic energy that must simply be unleashed upon the world in the conviction that this can only be for the best.

In 'Circles' Emerson writes, 'Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk. It is as when a conflagration breaks out in a great city, and no man knows what is safe, or where it will end,' (ECWII, 183). The world cannot presume to judge genius, since it is genius itself that values and transvalues the world. For the Superman that Emerson sketches, the soul is the only conceivable authority or court of appeal and before it all notions of the hierarchical, the institutional, the conventional or the exemplary dissolve. Even the perception of Jesus as the 'divine man', as representing a potentiality available to all men, which once had seemed so shocking, was soon left behind by Emerson. Soon after delivering the Divinity School Address at Harvard College, an event that traumatised New England for a long time afterward, Emerson noted in his journal,
The best experience is beggarly when compared with the immense possibilities of man. Divine as the life of Jesus is, what an outrage to represent it as tantamount to the Universe! To seize one accidental good man that happened to exist somewhere at some time and say to the new born soul Behold thy pattern, aim no longer to possess entire Nature, to fill the horizon; to fill the infinite amplitude of being with great life, to be in sympathy & relation with all creatures, to lose all privateness by sharing all natural action, shining with the day, undulating with the sea, growing with the tree, instinctive with the animals, entranced in beatific with the human reason. Renounce a life so broad and deep as a pretty dream & go in the harness of that past individual, assume his manners, speak his speech,-this is the madness of christendom. The little bigots of each town and neighbourhood seek thus to subdue the manly and freeborn. But for this poor dependent fraction of life they breave me of that magnificent destiny which the young soul has embraced with auguries of immeasurable hope. I turn my back on these insane usurpers. The soul always believes in itself.
The traditional and exalted aspiration of the imitation of Christ, as outlined by Thomas a Kempis, suddenly seems unworthy. For there can be nothing that is already given in the world of experience that can correspond to or match the potentiality that lies within, and which is all the more powerful for being unarticulated and unformulated. To propose a pattern is to violate the principle of creativity and to strike at the very root of identity itself. When Christianity is rewritten in accordance with Romantic aesthetics the recognition of individual uniqueness must be paramount. Not even Christ can serve as a model for own inner being: 'The Instinct is resistless & and knows the way, & is melodious, & at all points a god.' Emerson's Transcendentalism is a theory of the demonic.

For Emerson the appeal of such a doctrine lies in its bipolarity. For it permits an incredible emphasis on the cascading potentiality of the individual soul yet can also represent this as no more than a particular manifestation of omnipresent divine pulsations. It can endow the most radical and anarchic gestures with a curious humility, since, although they are expressive of the person who makes them, they nevertheless are born of an act of submission to mysterious inner powers whose ultimate trajectory lies beyond rational and immediate comprehension. The individual is most potent when he can open himself up to become a human volcano for the release of stupendous cosmic forces, so that at such moments all personal specificity is eclipsed: 'Beside his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power, on which he can draw, by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors, and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him.' Control is a vain and unworthy ambition since it represents not merely the suppression and dissipation of vital energy but a false presumption that the shallow socialised self knows better than the god within. The highest wisdom is simply to accept the dictates and instinctive promptings of the soul as the manifestation of an inescapable necessity, in the belief that this will always be for the best: 'As the traveller who has lost his way, throws his reins on his horse's neck, and trusts to the instinct of the animal to find his road, so must we do with the divine animal who carries us through the world.'

Yet even the Romantics had feared the consequences of submitting to such an inner nemesis. In Gothic fiction especially there is the ever-present risk of liberating malign and unpredictable forces, which in some sense are malign precisely because they are unpredictable. But Emerson is without anxiety. It is the self that will be judge over good and evil rather than submit to their imposition as moral criteria. In 'Self-Reliance' Emerson relates how he was unmoved by the nervous suggestion of a conservative friend that his rejection of Church tradition might be inspired by the Devil:
I replied, 'They do not seem to me to be such; but if I am the Devil's child, I will live then from the Devil.' No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature. Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it. (ECW, II, 30)

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.