Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Circles” (1841): The Creative Vitalist Lost in Space?

Below are a few excerpts from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Circles” (1841). In this essay he likens the creative artist’s framing imagination to something like the growing layers of an onion building themselves over the dark inner depths of the ontological mystery. Emerson’s thesis is in his opening paragraph:

The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end. It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. . . . [E]very action admits of being outdone. Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.

Emerson says that, in agonistic wrestling with himself and others, the genius adds still more encompassing layers of insight over each fresh framing of the world. This process of reframing goes on ad infinitum, and in the face of fierce waves of resistance. But the strong spirit, says Emerson, will not be denied:

The key to every man is his thought. . . . But if the soul is quick and strong, it bursts over that boundary on all sides, and expands another orbit on the great deep, which also runs up into a high wave, with attempt again to stop and to bind. But the heart refuses to be imprisoned; in its first and narrowest pulses, it already tends outward with a vast force, and to immense and innumerable expansions.

All the previous frames become the mere fragments of a greater whole that is on its way to being discovered. In this I hear in Emerson echoes of St. Paul (“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face”). But Emerson’s mirrors extend without limit:

Every ultimate fact is only the first of a new series. Every general law only a particular fact of some more general law presently to disclose itself. There is no outside, no inclosing wall, no circumference to us. The man finishes his story, — how good! how final! how it puts a new face on all things! He fills the sky. Lo! on the other side rises also a man, and draws a circle around the circle we had just pronounced the outline of the sphere. Then already is our first speaker not man, but only a first speaker. His only redress is forthwith to draw a circle outside of his antagonist. And so men do by themselves. The result of to-day, which haunts the mind and cannot be escaped, will presently be abridged into a word, and the principle that seemed to explain nature will itself be included as one example of a bolder generalization. In the thought of to-morrow there is a power to upheave all thy creed, all the creeds, all the literatures, of the nations, and marshal thee to a heaven which no epic dream has yet depicted. Every man is not so much a workman in the world, as he is a suggestion of that he should be. Men walk as prophecies of the next age.

“Men walk as prophecies of the next age” seems to chime nicely with Shelley’s notion that poets are the “unacknowledged Legislators of the world.” But prophecies of the next age are opaque, dim. And they only hint at what is to come, and the struggles against it:

Step by step we scale this mysterious ladder: the steps are actions; the new prospect is power. Every several result is threatened and judged by that which follows. Every one seems to be contradicted by the new; it is only limited by the new. The new statement is always hated by the old, and, to those dwelling in the old, comes like an abyss of skepticism. But the eye soon gets wonted to it, for the eye and it are effects of one cause; then its innocency and benefit appear, and presently, all its energy spent, it pales and dwindles before the revelation of the new hour.

And so, before Nietzsche, Emerson posits the human spirit as an overgoing, except when it isn’t:

The continual effort to raise himself above himself, to work a pitch above his last height, betrays itself in a man’s relations. . . . Men cease to interest us when we find their limitations. The only sin is limitation. As soon as you once come up with a man’s limitations, it is all over with him. Has he talents? has he enterprise? has he knowledge? It boots not. Infinitely alluring and attractive was he to you yesterday, a great hope, a sea to swim in; now, you have found his shores, found it a pond, and you care not if you never see it again.

Sophocles, of course, in Antigone, says that “the only sin is pride.” Emerson has reversed this, and made the only sin limitation, and so plays John the Baptist to the (unbeknownst to Emerson) next wave of creative geniuses (Darwin, Walt Whitman, Nietzsche):

Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk. It is as when a conflagration has broken out in a great city, and no man knows what is safe, or where it will end. There is not a piece of science, but its flank may be turned to-morrow; there is not any literary reputation, not the so-called eternal names of fame, that may not be revised and condemned. The very hopes of man, the thoughts of his heart, the religion of nations, the manners and morals of mankind, are all at the mercy of a new generalization. Generalization is always a new influx of the divinity into the mind. Hence the thrill that attends it.

Wow. Heady stuff, huh?

You can read the whole essay here.

And though not depicting frames within frames, or circles within circles, I nevertheless think that the Dr. Seuss image below captures rather nicely the Emersonian notion of the ever shifting frames of the never settled intellect (though in a bleaker spirit). I suppose that Emerson’s notion, from a certain vantage, could be seen as an unstable chasing after a phantom (“the ultimate truth; the ultimate framing gesture; the dream of a final theory”) through a universe that, when it comes right down to it, simply consists of nothing more than atoms and the void. And so the Emersonian creative vitalist might start to feel that he or she is caught in a kind of cosmic joke—something Kafkaesque and perhaps pointless.

Is Emerson’s “Circles” putting a brave face on the nihilistic drift of a mind that is no longer anchored to a stable religious tradition?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Circles” (1841): The Creative Vitalist Lost in Space?

  1. coldcavern says:

    what is the title of the dr. seuss work you feature below?

  2. Anonymous says:

    @coldcavern
    The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss.

  3. Pingback: Teaching with Museum Objects – Parrots Ate Them All

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