3. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” (1836)

by breavman99


In my Group Studio review, one other critique was that walking and taking photographs is a version of Emerson’s “transparent eye-ball.” I couldn’t answer that critique, because I hadn’t read Emerson’s essay “Nature,” where he briefly discusses this notion. Now that I’ve read that essay, though, I can respond. This is a long post, partly because Emerson’s essay is long and I wanted to present an immanent reading of it, and partly because I’ve tried to take that critique seriously by thinking my way through the ways that walking and taking photographs might, or might not, be totalizing (and colonizing) attempts at seeing everything while denying the connection between human beings and the natural world. That seems to be the import of the critique, and after reading Emerson’s essay, I’m not sure that critique has any validity. 

Early in Emerson’s essay, he describes his response to walking in Massachusetts in the 1830s as the “perfect exhilaration” he has experienced through walking in nature—or at least in the mixture of forests and fields Emerson would have encountered:

In the woods, we return to reason we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life—no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed in the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. (3)

The “transparent eye-ball” that Emerson becomes sees everything. That, I think, is the root of the critique of walking I received: for a settler descendant to become a “transparent eye-ball,” to see everything, is a colonialist position. But it seems to me that there is more in Emerson’s description of this moment of self-effacement, this moment of connection to “the Universal Being,” than such a critique would admit. For one thing, the powerful experience Emerson describes is a spiritual one, beyond history: a “return to reason and faith” that unites him with God. Moreover, in this moment, nature acknowledges Emerson, and the emotional effect of that acknowledgement is similar to what he feels when he decides he “was thinking justly or doing right” (4). At the same time, he acknowledges that such emotions are a projection by the viewer. 

I would never claim that my own walking allows me to see everything; while there are times I feel momentarily lifted out of myself, I would never claim to be able to “see all.” For one thing, as scientists have recently discovered, there are creatures living beneath the soil, out of reach of our vision, that constitute a fifth kingdom of life. The claim that an experience of nature would lead one to “see all” is, with apologies to Emerson, absurd. We can never see everything: it is simply not within our power.

Besides, in this account Emerson is clearly out for a walk. “The charming landscape which I saw this morning, is indubitably made up of some twenty or thirty farms,” Emerson writes. “Miller owns this field, Locke that, and Manning the woodland beyond. But none of them owns the landscape” (3). How would Emerson encounter this landscape except by walking (or perhaps riding a horse)? And walking—or riding—is an embodied experience: one is not simply a “transparent eye-ball” if one is out for a walk. No: one is a body struggling up and down hills, slipping on the muddy ground, a body that breathes, keeps its balance, exerts itself, closes its eyes for a short rest. I’m not convinced that Emerson’s account of the “transparent eye-ball” adequately conveys his own embodied experience of moving through the land.

That landscape presents to a sensitive observer much more than the 20 or 30 farms Emerson says he encountered. “There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet,” Emerson writes. “This is the best part of these men’s farms, yet to this their land-deeds give no title” (3). The visual perception of the land—and perhaps the phenomenological experience of it as well—is something that goes beyond ownership, and that perception or experience is, for Emerson, located in the horizon. The photographs I presented at the review were all photographs of the horizon, which perhaps opened up the door to this particular line of thinking, but photography itself isn’t evidence that the photographer has become a “transparent eye-ball.” Photography is, by its very nature, optical; light enters a lens and strikes a light-sensitive surface, but that doesn’t mean that the photographer is only an eye and nothing else. After all, since I don’t use a tripod when I’m walking, the camera is held in my hands, and what I photograph is evidence of where my body was at a particular moment.

So I don’t agree with the suggestion that walking and taking photographs necessarily means one is engaged in the totalizing visual ambition Emerson is describing—and I’m not sure his description fits the experience of walking, either.  Nevertheless, vision and eyes are central to Emerson’s argument in “Nature.” He begins by calling for Americans to respond to nature’s “floods of life” and “the powers they supply” rather than groping among “the dry bones of the past” (1). “Let us demand our own works and laws and worship,” he writes, and his essay is an attempt at making those demands (1). Moreover, Emerson’s intention is to find “a true theory” that will “be its own evidence” and “explain all phenomena” (2). He then explores four classes that make up “the final cause of the world”: commodity, beauty, language, and discipline. Commodity has to do with things that are useful, including “the useful arts” of technology. Beauty, in contrast, serves a “nobler want of man”: the “primary forms” of nature, Emerson writes, “give us delight in and for themselves; a pleasure arising from outline, color, motion, and grouping” (5). That delight is at least partly the creation of our eye, “the best of artists” (5), but also partly due to light itself: “There is no object so foul that intense light will not make beautiful” (6). This “medicinal” (6) visual experience, however, is the least important aspect of beauty. More important are the presence of “the spiritual element” in natural beauty (7), which leads to a contemplation of virtue, and the way beauty “becomes an object of the intellect” with “a relation to thought” (9). By thought, Emerson is referring to the way that an experience of natural beauty enables the intellect to search out “the absolute order of things as they stand in the mind of God” (9). Like a good Romantic, Emerson claims that “[t]ruth, and goodness, and beauty, are but different faces of the same,” and our access to the first two seems to come through our apprehension of the third.

Like the beauty of nature, language is important because words, as signs of particular natural facts, become symbols of particular spiritual facts. For Emerson, everything stands in for something else, and that chain of signification eventually arrives at the spiritual level, which is what interests him the most. Such analogies between the physical and the spiritual “are constant, and pervade nature” (11), and therefore all natural facts are only important as they create analogies for human life, particularly our relation to the spiritual level. Finally, because “[t]he world is emblematic,” “the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind” (13). “A life in harmony with nature, the love of truth and of virtue” Emerson writes, “will purge the eyes to understand her text. By degrees we may come to know the primitive sense of the permanent objects of nature, so that the world shall be to us an open book, and every form significant of its hidden life and final cause” (14). As with the “transparent eye-ball,” language leads to an understanding of all of nature, but in a spiritual rather than a physical sense—that’s the point of his reference to “its hidden life and final cause.” 

Discipline, for Emerson, has to do with the way that nature teaches lessons to human beings. It’s clear that he sees our species as the centre of the world, rather than just one species among others. “Space, time, society, labor, climate, food, locomotion, the animals, the mechanical forces, give us sincerest lessons, day by day, whose meaning is unlimited,” he writes:

They educate both the Understanding and the Reason. Every property of matter is a school for the understanding—its solidity or resistance, its inertia, its extension, its figure, its divisibility. The understanding adds, divides, combines, measures, and finds everlasting nutriment and room for its activity in this worthy scene. Meantime, Reason transfers all these lessons into its own world of thought, by perceiving the analogy that marries Matter and Mind. (15)

Nature teaches us “intellectual truths” (15), and even though it is unlikely that our search for the laws of nature will be “soon exhausted” (16), we may eventually come to understand those laws. The function of nature, Emerson writes, is “to serve”:

It receives the dominion of man as meekly as the ass on which the Saviour rode. It offers all its kingdoms to man as the raw material which he may mould into what is useful. Man is never weary of working it up. He forges the subtile and delicate air into wise and melodious words, and gives them wing as angels of persuasion and command. More and more, with every thought, does his kingdom stretch over things, until the world becomes, at least, only a realized will—the double of man. (16)

Perhaps this totalizing ambition and sense of human centrality are the logical extension of the “transparent eye-ball” and its drive to see everything. Nevertheless, when I walked to Wood Mountain, I was not placing myself—or any human being—in a position of dominion over nature. Rather, I was subject to it: to its scale, to its weather, to a wearying plod through it. I would never claim to be at its centre; that claim might have made sense to Emerson, but it makes no sense to me.

The second point Emerson makes about discipline is that the objects in the world “conform to the premonitions of Reason and reflect the conscience” (16). In other words, “All things are moral; and in their boundless changes have an unceasing reference to spiritual nature,” and all aspects of nature “shall hint or thunder to man the laws of right and wrong, and echo the Ten Commandments,” making nature “always the ally of Religion” (16-17). Everything, for Emerson, has a spiritual pedagogy built into it, including the classes of the uses of nature he has been discussing—commodity, beauty, language, and discipline itself. Everything in nature teaches us moral truths.That is why Emerson believes it is so important to comprehend “the Unity of Nature”:

a rule of one art, or a law of one organization, holds true throughout nature. So intimate is this Unity, that, it is easily seen, it lies under the undermost garment of nature, and betrays its source in universal Spirit. For, it pervades Thought also. Every universal truth which we express in words, implies or supposes every other truth. (18)

Because of this unity, “A right action seems to fill the eye, and to be related to all nature” (19). At this point, Emerson makes a surprising statement: the eye itself is the mind, or at least its equivalent. The “transparent eye-ball” isn’t just an ambitious (or totalizing) kind of seeing the world, then; it is also an ambitious (or totalizing) way of understanding it as well.

This discussion of unity leads to Emerson’s chapter on Idealism. Because of the unity inherent in all parts of nature, Emerson wonders “whether nature outwardly exists,” because “that Appearance we call the world” is used by God to 

teach a human mind, and so makes use of a certain number of congruent sensations, which we call sun and moon, man and woman, house and trade. In my utter impotence to test the authenticity of the report of my senses, to know whether the impressions they make on me correspond with outlying objects, what difference does it make, whether Orion is up there in heaven, or some god paints the image in the firmament of the soul? The relations of parts and the end of the whole remaining the same, what is the difference, whether land and sea interact, and the world revolve and intermingle without number or end—deep yawning under deep, and galaxy balancing galaxy, throughout absolute space, or, whether, without relations of time and space, the same appearances are inscribed in the constant faith of man. Whether nature enjoy a substantial existence without, or is only in the apocalypse of the mind, it is alike useful and alike venerable to me. Be it what it may, it is ideal to me, so long as I cannot try the accuracy of my senses. (19-20)

Because Emerson cannot test whether the sensory information he receives is correct or not—and vision is again the sense he privileges here—then it doesn’t matter whether nature has a concrete reality or whether it is merely an ideal apprehended in an intellectual or spiritual way. 

It’s clear that Emerson prefers to think of nature as an ideal, rather than a concrete reality experienced through the senses. He writes of “this despotism of the senses,” which is relaxed by “[t]he first effort of thought”: 

Until this higher agency intervened, the animal eye sees, with wonderful accuracy, sharp outlines and colored surfaces. When the eye of Reason opens, to outline and surface are at once added, grace and expression. These proceed from imagination and affection, and abate somewhat of the angular distinctness of objects. If the Reason be stimulated to more earnest vision, outlines and surfaces become transparent, and are no longer seen; causes and spirits are seen through them. The best, the happiest moments in life, are these delicious awakenings of the higher powers, and the reverential withdrawing of nature before its God. (20-21)

The actual physical or “animal” eye is less important than the internal “eye of Reason,” which enables the viewer—or thinker—to see through natural objects to their “causes and spirits.” Moreover, perceptions of the ideal are actually perceptions of the real, because the ideal is the only reality: “The perception of real affinities between events, (that is to say, of ideal affinities, for those only are real,) enables the poet thus to make free with the most imposing forms and phenomena of the world, and to assert the predominance of the soul” (23). That is the function of the poet—and possibly, by extension, the artist: to communicate the ideal, rather than the actual. It is also the work of the scientist, who eschews observation in favour of a spiritual form of analysis: “even in physics, the material is degraded before the spiritual. The astronomer, the geometer, rely on their irrefragable analysis, and disdain the results of observation,” so that nature is transferred from the world into the mind, and matter is left “like an outcast corpse” (23-24). (It would be interesting to explore Emerson’s use of the figure of the corpse.) By discovering scientific laws, we come to know “that these are the thoughts of the Supreme Being” (24), and “no man touches these divine natures, without becoming, in some degree, himself divine” (24). The ideal, clearly, is of far more importance to Emerson than the actual—compare the “outcast corpse” of matter to “the thoughts of the Supreme Being.” Moreover, both religion and ethics, because of their participation in the ideal, show how nature is dependent on spirit, and “put nature under foot” (24)—an image of total domination.

At this point, Emerson recognizes that his version of the ideal is a theory, but that theory has an advantage over “the popular faith” in the reality of matter and nature: “it presents the world in precisely that view which is most desirable to the mind” (25):

Idealism sees the world in God. It beholds the whole circle of persons and things, of actions and events, of country and religion, not as painfully accumulated, atom after atom, act after act, in an aged creeping Past, but as one vast picture, which God paints on the instant eternity, for the contemplation of the soul. Therefore the soul holds itself off from a too trivial and microscopic study of the universal tablet. It respects the end too much, to immerse itself in the means. (25)

Idealism escapes from history and sees everything as designed by God for the soul’s contemplation, and for that reason it is far more important than studying the “trivial” details of nature. Again, this might be the ultimate outcome of the “transparent eye-ball”: a shift from the actual to the ideal. How else can the ability of the “transparent eye-ball” to see everything be understood?

The last section of “Nature” explores spirit: “all the uses of nature admit of being summed in one, which yields the activity of man an infinite scope. . . . It always speaks of Spirit. It suggests the absolute. It is a perpetual effect” (26). The only way to answer the questions Emerson sees as essential—what is matter? where does it come from? and what is its purpose?—can ironically be through the spirit. The idealist hypothesis denies the existence of matter, by doing so, it “makes nature foreign to me, and does not account for that cosanguinity which we acknowledge to it” (27). It is better, Emerson continues, to focus on the spirit:

We learn that the highest is present to the soul of man, that the dread universal essence, which is not wisdom, or love, or beauty, or power, but all in one, and each entirely, is that for which all things exist, and that by which they are; that spirit creates; that behind nature, throughout nature, spirit is present, that spirit is one and not compound; that spirit does not act upon us from without, that is, in space and time, but spiritually, or through ourselves. (27)

That spirit is “the Supreme Being,” and it “does not build up nature around us, but puts it forth through us, as the life of the tree puts forth new branches and leaves through the pores of the old” (27). That simile might seem to suggest that we are part of nature, but that interpretation would be a misreading: 

As a plant upon the earth, so a man rests upon the bosom of God: he is nourished by unfailing fountains, and draws, at his need, inexhaustible power. Who can set bounds to the possibilities of man? Once inspire the infinite, by being admitted to behold the absolute natures of justice and truth, and we learn that man has access to the entire mind of the Creator, is himself the creator in the finite. (27)

Again, this assertion of the power humans derive from their spiritual relationship to God might be the logical outcome of the “transparent eye-ball.” To suggest that walking in the land, or photographing it, is a way of “being admitted to behold the absolute natures of justice and truth” would be to make a claim that, while it was clearly possible in Emerson’s day, is impossible in our own. What, after all, is the absolute nature of justice or truth? Do any of us know? Aren’t those terms hotly debated? In any case, I would never suggest that walking and photographing can yield that kind of result—and I didn’t make such a claim in any way about walking to Wood Mountain, in any of the ways I responded to that experience. Frankly, I am not interested in Emerson’s elevation of the spiritual, or in his suggestion that we “are as much strangers in nature, as we are aliens from God” (28)—in the separation of human beings from the natural world. I’ve never made that kind of claim, and I can’t imagine being the kind of person who would make it. We are part of the natural world, I would argue; we are not separate from it. So I am left speechless by the suggestion that my work somehow makes the kinds of claims Emerson puts forward in this essay. I just don’t see how Emerson’s belief that we are spiritual rather than material beings could be squared with the activity of walking, or with the photographs I presented at my review.

Emerson’s final chapter is titled “Prospects.” In this chapter, the focus on the spiritual continues to be developed, and he returns to the figure of himself looking at a landscape:

When I behold a rich landscape, it is less to my purpose to recite correctly the order and superposition of the strata, than to know why all thought of multitude is lost in a tranquil sense of unity. I cannot greatly honor minuteness in details, so long as there is no hint to explain the relation between things and thoughts; no ray upon the metaphysics of conchology, of botany, of the arts, to show the relation of the forms of flowers, shells, animals, architecture, to the mind, and build science upon ideas. (28)

Knowing what one is looking at is not important for Emerson; perceiving the “tranquil sense of unity,” “the relation between things and thoughts,” is what he believes to be central to the experience of looking at a landscape. The “wonderful congruity which subsists between man and the world” is what one must apprehend (29). But that congruity does not suggest that humans are part of the natural world, one species among others: no, “man . . . is lord, not because he is the most subtile inhabitant, but because he is its head and heart, and finds something of himself in every great and small thing” (29). We are the centre of the world, in other words, and the point of the natural world is to reflect our characteristics back to ourselves. And yet, “The foundations of man are not in matter, but in spirit” (30), and it’s important for us to understand that essential feature of what we are, according to Emerson; otherwise, we apply only half our force to nature by working on the world with our understanding alone, attempting to master it “by a penny-wisdom” that leaves us little more than “a selfish savage” (31). It would be much better, Emerson continues, to act upon nature with our entire force, “with reason as well as understanding”—in other words, with an apprehension of both the spiritual and the material (31). Emerson’s examples of the “gleams of a better light” that acting upon nature in this way produce include miracles, the life of Jesus, political and religious revolutions, prayer, eloquence, the wisdom of children, and “Animal Magnetism” (31). For Emerson, “These are examples of Reason’s momentary grasp of the sceptre; the exertions of a power which exists not in time or space, but an instantaneous in-streaming causing power” (31). 

As Emerson’s essay reaches its conclusion, he suddenly suggests that the world needs to be restored to its “original and eternal beauty,” and that this can only happen through “the redemption of the soul” (31):

The ruin or the blank, that we see when we look at nature, is in our own eye. The axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things, and so they appear not transparent but opake. The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because man is disunited with himself. He cannot be a naturalist, until he satisfies all the demands of the spirit. Love is as much its demand, as perception. (31-32)

This is another surprise, after the earlier evocation of the “transparent eye-ball,” but it’s clear that Emerson believes that what is required is a bringing together of the spiritual and the material. A focus on the material—the focus characteristic of the naturalist—is not enough: 

when a faithful thinker, resolute to detach every object from personal relations, and see it in the light of thought, shall, at the same time, kindle science with the fire of the holiest affections, then will God go forth anew into the creation. (32)

“The inevitable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common,” Emerson claims. There is something powerful in this argument; the suggestion that an appreciation of nature other than a focus on details suggests the need to see the whole as well as the parts simultaneously. However, I can’t accept the notion that by doing so, the material world becomes transparent and reveals its true beauty. For me, nature is already perfect. There is nothing better hiding behind it. The world is not a ruin, except where human activity—the ecological exploitation characteristic of capitalism and colonialism—has destroyed. The “disagreeable appearances, swine, spiders, snakes, pests, mad-houses, prisons, enemies” which Emerson claims will “vanish” along with the “sordor and filths of nature” after the revolution caused by the  “influx of the spirit” into our apprehension are neither sordid or filthy—at least, not the things that are part of the natural world. Spiders, snakes, and “pests” are necessary parts of the ecosystems in which they can be found. They are very different from the mad-houses, prisons, and conflict between people that are characteristic of human activity. Emerson’s eschatological vision—the perfection of the world when material and spiritual apprehensions unite—confuses these very different things. Perhaps more attention to the workings of the natural world—the attention Emerson dismisses as the province of the naturalist—would help untangle that confusion. For me, spiritual apprehension of the world—that powerful, emotional response to the land one sometimes experiences—is one thing; but just as important is understanding the details of how things work and how everything, even spiders and snakes, are part of the whole. In this, I suppose I agree with Emerson, although I do think less spiritual apprehension would help him understand that everything has its place.

Emerson’s final sentence brings us back to vision—or its absence: “The kingdom of man over nature, which cometh not with observation—a dominion such as now is beyond his dream of God—he shall enter without more perfect wonder than the blind man who is gradually restored to perfect sight” (33). Again, the notion of human dominion over nature bothers me; we are part of the natural world, rather than lords over it, and the possibility of further domination over nature is not something to celebrate. I also wonder whether the “transparent eye-ball” is related in any way to the “perfect sight” which will be restored through spiritual understanding or apprehension of the world. Is the “transparent eye-ball” that spiritual apprehension in miniature? Is that why that “transparent eye-ball” enables the viewer to see everything? I don’t know. After reading the essay, and thinking and writing about it, I’m left wondering about that connection. One thing I am sure of, though: I never set out to try to see everything, or to claim to be the “transparent eye-ball” in action, by walking through the land and taking photographs of what I saw. I had no such ambitions. That comment, or critique, makes me wonder whether any response to the land by a settler-descendant would be described in a similar way—whether any landscape painter or photographer or writer would be accused of trying to see or know everything, or whether there is something particular to my project which generates this objection. My attempt at understanding Emerson’s essay hasn’t helped me come up with an answer to that question.

Work Cited

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature (1836),” Nature and Other Essays, edited by Lisa Perniciaro, Dover, 2009, pp. 1-33.