A Mini-Course In Rhetoric For Writers. Concept 2.10: Emerson’s “Circles”

Eye and horizon. Below are a few excerpts from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s (1803-1882) essay, “Circles” (1841). In the essay, he likens the writer’s vision and imagination to something like an onion, layer overlaying layer. Each moment the eye is overlaid with a new horizon or depth. 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.

In other words, to borrow a phrase the philosopher Daniel Dennett is fond of, “Whatever you can do, I can do meta.” That is, if you cognize (think), I can metacognize (encircle your thinking; think about your thinking—and think beyond your thinking). And you can in turn meta-metacognize about my thinking (think about my thinking about your thinking, and so on). Each moment is a fresh framing of the world—and this reframing goes on ad infinitum, and frequently 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.

So one frame overtakes the other. See it one way, then another.

Jacob wrestles the angel. In the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 32: 22-31) is the story of Jacob wrestling an angel through an entire night and into the next morning—and with this climax of words exchanged between them: “And he [the angel] said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he [Jacob] said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me” (32:26 KJV). The angel famously relented, granting Jacob a blessing. Likewise, Emerson’s is a vision of struggle between the binding and loosing of energies, but not between angel and human, but between contending visionaries. Like Seneca, there is no room for plagiarism or cliché for Emerson. Plagiarism and cliché are too easy—and contrary to new life, new thought. Emerson is not about imitation, but making it new. Each breakthrough in insight by one person becomes, for another person, a potential obstacle in the future to the apprehension of a still greater whole, or at least another aspect of the whole. So if we stand, as it were, on the shoulders of giants (those creative precursors to our own thinking, and who brought us this far), it’s also true that their powerful framing of the world can make it difficult to see differently, and to see beyond them. In this insight, Emerson thus echoes St. Paul (“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face”). For the adventurous writer, the future promises ever greater clarity of vision. You can never see too well, and there’s always more to see. For Emerson, that is life.

Agon: writer wrestles writer. In this next passage of Emerson’s, his emphasis is on one person overtaking another in creative insight (“Lo! on the other side rises also a man,…”):

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” chimes nicely with Percy Bysshe Shelley’s (1792-1822) notion that poets are the “unacknowledged Legislators of the world.” What is a poet, after all, but a generator of fresh visions, metaphors, and frames for seeing? Poets, like legislators, declare and define boundaries, and the way things shall be interpreted: This is that…. Meat is murder….This autumn leaf is my love….

New wrestles old. Like the politicians who make the newest laws, so writers make new laws for vision, crowding out the old, and judging them. Shall they stay or shall they go?

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, nearly two decades before Charles Darwin would claim in The Origin of Species (1859) that life evolves by a process of relentless struggle and selection; and three decades before Walt Whitman would say that “the greatest lessons of Nature through the universe are perhaps the lessons of variety and freedom,” (“Democratic Vistas” 1867); and four decades before Friedrich Nietzsche, in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883), would liken human life at its fullest, not to something static or imitative, but to a bridge (an “over-going” and a “down-going”), Emerson posits the human spirit, at its best and most interesting, as a wrestler; as restless:

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.

The only sin is limitation. Sophocles (c. 497/6 - 406/5 BCE), in his play Antigone (441 BCE), writes that “the only sin is pride” (being rigidly dug-in on an untenable position; not knowing your place and limitations). Emerson, in the passage immediately above, perhaps in a deliberate slight to Sophocles, has reversed this: “The only sin is limitation.” So it is that Emerson plays John the Baptist to the next wave of 19th century creative geniuses—geniuses who would be thinking about the nature of change, evolution, and variety (Darwin, Walt Whitman, and Nietzsche) in ways that would disrupt the world:

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.

Absorb what Emerson is saying here. The writer with fresh vision is a fire-starter. Once a fresh vantage is put out onto the world, “no man knows what is safe, or where it will end”—not even the author. It can change how people look at everything. Speaking one’s mind honestly to others is like striking a match, endangering the dry structures around it that many, out of hope, sentiment, or nostalgia, hold dear. Honest, creative thought and writing is inherently dangerous, both to others and to the writer. It entails exposure; a risk that might bring praise and fame, but also blame and shame. It can make people tense. It can go viral (a virus is a fire). It can mean you get hated. It can mean you’ll come above the radar of authorities, threatening their agendas and power. But a good writer, like the silent Native American—“Chief Bromden” played by Will Sampson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)—escapes the compound.

Exposure and audience. So do you still want to write something new, declaring what you really think, putting it out into the world? If you do this, are you nevertheless going to attend to you audience’s sensibilities, bringing it along gently—or are you just going to say what you have to say, and hope it finds an audience—and that the audience keeps up? Perhaps you’ve concluded that you’ll make your own audience. If you build it, they will come. But do you want to take that risk, both in terms of rhetorical strategy and personal exposure? Are you sure about that? How strong do you think you are? Will you take Emerson’s advice in “Circles” to “make the verge [edge, margin, border] of to-day the new centre”?

Writing 2.10.1. “What’s that about?” “What’s the lowdown?” “What’s the bottom line?” Write something in your notebook or journal in which you draw a circle, figuratively, around an issue, reframing it from your own fresh vantage (the way you honestly see it). Move beneath the issue—or over it. Sniff out a subtext—or point to a horizon. Risk making the reader tense. Bring us to the bigger picture—or note an ignored detail that changes everything. Go high or low; observing forest or trees—or even a leaf in one tree. Make the reader see whatever it is you point attention to. Put the reader in-the-know. What’s x about, really? “You know what x is really about? It’s about…”

Experiment 5.2.2. Read out your insight—your take on what something is really about—from Experiment 7.1 to another person or persons and discuss it with them. Submit to what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein calls “the temptation to speak.” Go in your discussion with your reader(s) wherever the reading out of your passage leads to. Hear your reader, and speak to your reader. Let the conversation go in the direction your writing seems to have prompted without any great concern for bringing it back on topic (whatever you thought that “ought” to have been in the first place). If your writing is a fire, notice what sorts of unpredictable conversations it starts, and the directions in which the fire burns.


Image result for emerson's circles

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in aesthetics, atheism, beauty, critical thinking, Darwin, education, Emerson, philosophy, reason, rhetoric, Uncategorized, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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