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Emerson, Melville, And Whitman Essay, Research Paper

The way I view the world has been greatly affected by my reading this semester. Thought I had read Emerson and Melville before, I never before was able to sound the depths of their work and fully appreciate it. This semester was my first real exposure to Whitman, as well. The best analogy for my new outlook is an image of the universe as a yin-yang; it is a complete, unbroken whole within which two polar opposites are constantly in conflict. But more significantly I have taken to heart the doctrine of “Self-Reliance,” which is one shared by all three authors.

Emerson presents a different system of learning than I had ever encountered. Throughout my previous education, I was taught to learn whatever was in the book. The only place original thought was accepted was in occasional creative writing assignments, and even then a stylistic formula was required. The sentence from “Self-Reliance,” “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.” (263) was a completely new idea to me. My mind originally dismissed the concept from his journals that “The dead sleep in their moonless night; my business is with the living. . . .” (40). But on further reflection, it made sense. Self-reliance is an intimidating concept. Students are taught to externally justify any position we take. If we make a thesis statement we must find support for it in the crumbling stacks of the library. Yet in the end I have found that self-reliance is the most satisfying way to grapple with life.

Melville frequently supports these ideas in his writing. When Ishmael encounters the whale skeleton that a tribe of islanders have elevated to the status of a god, he demonstrates the gravity one should grant to others’ ideas of religion:

“Cutting me a green measuring-rod, I once more dived within the skeleton. From their arrow-slit in the skull, the priests perceived me taking the altitude of the final rib. ‘How now!’ they shouted; ‘Dar’st thou measure this our god! That’s for us.’ ‘Aye, priests?well, how long do ye make him, then?’ But hereupon a fierce contest rose among them, concerning feet and inches; they cracked each other’s sconces with their yard-sticks?the great skull echoed?and seizing that lucky chance, I quickly concluded my own admeasurements.” (375)

Melville also asserts his own metaphor for self-reliance, embodied in the form of a whale. “Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. . . retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.” (261)

In view of trying to balance conflicting philosophies in one’s head, he declares that “some minds forever keep trimming boat. Oh, ye foolish! throw all these thunderheads overboard, and then you will float light and right.” (277) In regard to the idea of expanding one’s mind, Melville remarks:

“Is it not curious, that so vast a being as the whale should see the world through so small an eye, and hear the thunder through an ear which is smaller than a hare’s? but if his eyes were broad as the lens of Herschel’s great telescope; and his ears capacious as the porches of cathedrals; would that make him any longer of sight, or sharper of hearing? Not at all.?Why then do you try to “enlarge” your mind? Subtilize it.” (280)

This passage directly relates to Ahab’s directive to “Hark ye the little lower layer,” rather than take everything at face value.

Whitman also favored a philosophy of self-reliance. In “Song of Myself” he claims:

“I know I am august.,

I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood,

. . .

I exist as I am, that is enough,

If no other in the world be aware I sit content,

And if each and all be aware I sit content.” (48)

Ergo, he declares a doctrine of internal direction. He requires no external validation; Whitman is a complete being in and of himself, with no need for outside support.

The second impression Emerson imparted to me was the vision of the universe as a single entity, stemming largely from his idea of the “Oversoul.” According to this concept, all life, indeed all physical reality, possesses only one, all-encompassing, collective soul. This Oversoul is shared by all people, all animals, all plants, and all objects, including even God. In Emerson’s journals, he mentions that, “Blessed is the day when the youth discovers that Within and Above are synonyms.” (53) He also states: “Don’t you see you are the Universe to yourself. You carry your fortunes in your own hand. . .” (44) The phrase, “Universe to yourself,” embodies the Oversoul concept, since if one’s soul encompasses all reality, then the entire universe is contained within oneself.

Emerson even put this concept in to practice as much as he could. Gilman says in his forward that one of Emerson’s essential writing techniques was to “eliminate the personal or transform the personal into the universal, Emerson the person into Emerson the speaker for all men.” (xx) This idea appeals to me through its inclusiveness, and also because it conveniently dovetails with my occasional, personal episodes of solipsism.

Whitman reinforces this idea of unity in his poetry. His catalogs in “Song of Myself” especially impart a sense of inclusiveness. The images they deliver seem to form in concert a single picture, one that encompasses all of America.

“The pure contralto sings in the organ loft,

The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild

ascending lisp,

The married and unmarried children ride home to their Thanksgiving dinner,

The pilot seizes the king-pin, he heaves down with a strong arm,

The mate stands braced in the whale-boat, lance and harpoon are ready,

The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches,

The deacons are ordain’d with cross’d hands at the altar,

The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big wheel,

The farmer stops by the bars as he walks on a First-day loafe ad looks at the oats

and rye,

The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirm’d case,” (41)

This passage exemplifies the feeling of unity. A section of “Passage to India” also supports the idea of the world as a single entity:

“Passage to India!

Lo, soul, seest thou not God’s purpose from the first?

The earth to be spann’d, connected by network,

The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,

The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,

The lands to be welded together.” (412)

Another of Emerson’s images that affected me is the “transparent eyeball.” This concept is an extension of the value he placed on the present, and the importance of one’s immediate perception of the present. In his essay Nature Emerson stated that when standing in the woods, contemplating nature, “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” (193) The focus of this passage is on the way sensory impulses flow into one’s consciousness. Emerson eliminated boundaries between his soul and the physical world. A clear line can be drawn to the passage from this section of his journals: “as there is no screen or ceiling between our heads & the infinity of space, so is there no bar or wall in the Soul where man the effect ceases & God the cause begins.” (65) In another journal entry Emerson wrote, “The conduct of intellect must respect nothing so much as preserving the sensibility. The mind is best which is most impressionable.” (180) This idea of intellectual impressionism had occurred to me in spirit (usually when canoeing or otherwise passively observing some aspect of nature), but I had never found the words to describe my feelings until reading Emerson’s Nature.

While I identified with Emerson’s ideas, I didn’t find them completely satisfying. There was no room in his philosophy for a true concept of Evil. But in order to exist, Good must have a force to actively oppose, or else all definitions fail. Reading Melville brought a balance to Emerson’s ideas without denying them.

In a few instances Melville supports the idea of the world as a single whole. In his story “I and My Chimney,” he decries the practice of placing chimneys on the outside walls of a house, for then the occupants find themselves “fairly sitting back to back. Is this well? Be it put to any man who has a proper fraternal feeling. Has it not a sort of sulky appearance?” (328) Melville would rather arrange the chimney in the center, so that “when, in their various chambers, my family and guests are warming themselves. . . all their faces mutually look toward each other, yea, all their feet point to one centre;” (334) His version of the karmic wheel is presented early in Moby Dick:

“Well, then, however the old sea-captains may order me about?however they may thump and punch me about, I have the satisfaction of knowing that it is all right; that everybody else is one way or another served in the same way?either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other’s shoulderblades, and be content.” (15)

But beyond the idea of the “universal thump,” Moby Dick more often rebukes Emerson’s ideas than encourages them.

Melville blatantly refutes the utility of the “transparent eyeball” in everyday life. He draws a picture of a young sailor on top-watch “lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature.” (140) While this a pleasurable reverie, the man on watch will see no whales, which, after all, is the purpose of his ascent. Thus Melville feels compelled to remark, “And let me in this place movingly admonish you, ye shipowners of Nantucket! Beware of enlisting in your vigilant fisheries any lad. . . given to an unseasonable meditativeness.” (139) This meditativeness makes the lad no friends among the rest of the crew, as “Very often do the captains of such ships take those absent-minded young philosophers to task, upbraiding them with not feeling sufficient ‘interest’ in the voyage. . . But all in vain; those young Platonists have a notion that their vision is imperfect; they are short-sighted; what use, then, to strain the visual nerve?” (139) Well aware of the allure stemming contemplating nature overlong, he also admonishes “Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! Never dream with thy hand on the helm!” (354) For while dreaming has its place, it can handicap when one has business to attend to in reality.

Melville also denies that Emerson or any man can truly view the infinite. In order to illustrate this point, he first defines a whale as a symbol of the transition between the real and the spiritual (or as Emerson would put it, the Not Me and the Me, respectively). The underwater realm in Moby Dick is clearly identified with the supernatural, typified in the passage, “the mystic ocean. . . [seems to be] the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature.” (140) A whale inhabits both the worlds above and below the surface of the water, since it has “lungs and warm blood; whereas, all other fish are lungless and cold blooded.” (119) And as a symbol of the crossing between these planes, “the living whale, in his full majesty and significance, is only to be seen at sea in unfathomable waters; and afloat the vast bulk of him is out of sight, like a launched line-of-battle ship; and out of that element it is a thing eternally impossible for mortal man to hoist him bodily in the air, so as to preserve all his mighty swells and undulations.” (227-228) The whale remains symbolic to Melville even when not literally present.

“Then, again, in mountainous countries where the traveler is continually girdled by amphitheatrical heights; here and there from some lucky point of view you will catch passing glimpses of whales defined along the undulating ridges. But you must be a thorough whaleman, to see these sights; and not only that, but if you wish to return to such a sight again, you must be sure and take the exact intersecting latitude and longitude of your first stand-point, else?so chance-like are such observations of the hills?your precise, previous standpoint would require a laborious re-discovery;” (233)

This passage reiterates the idea that a long stare at the nature of the supernatural is restricted from man, and even passing glimpses are difficult to acquire.

One of the most significant things impressed on my mind by Melville is the duality of the universe. This is the stem of the yin-yang metaphor. Good forces are balanced by Evil forces that are just as real. More than once does Ishmael clearly speak for the existence of Evil, especially as embodied in sharks, saying “If you have never seen that sight [of sharks tearing at a dead sperm whale], then suspend your decision about the propriety of devil-worship, and the expediency of conciliating with the devil.” (250) The cook Fleece even refers to Satan as “old Massa Shark hisself” (254) As the try-pots boil blubber down to oil (in what could easily be construed as a whale’s Hell) they are heated by the immolation of the remains of blubber from the very same whale. The smoke is apparently objectionable to men, as Ishmael relates: “[The smoke of burning whale fritters] has an unspeakable, wild, Hindoo odor about it, such as may lurk in the vicinity of funeral pyres. It smells like the left wing of the day of judgement; it is an argument for the pit.” (353) These passages directly addresses Emerson’s and Whitman’s concept of Evil as merely a lack of Good at a given point. Their idea of all-encompassing Goodness is encapsulated in this passage by Whitman: “And peruse manifold objects, no two alike and every one good,/The earth good and the stars good, and all their adjuncts good.” (35)

The idea of a binary world is apparent in the characters of Moby Dick as well. In the first chapters lines are clearly drawn between “Christians” and “savages;” these two descriptions define exclusive states of being. However, unlike the boundary between natural/supernatural, it is possible to cross the line dividing Christian from heathen. Queequeg straddles the latter just as whales traverse the former.

“But Queequeg, do you see, was a creature in a transition state?neither caterpillar nor butterfly. He was just civilized enough to show off his outlandishness in the strangest possible manner. . . If he had not been a small degree civilized, he very probably would not have troubled himself with boots at all; but then, if he had not been still a savage, he never would have dreamt of getting under the bed to put them on.” (34)

Ishmael also begins to creep across the boundary himself, both by smoking from Queequeg’s tomahawk and by worshipping Yojo.

White men and “savage” races are paired throughout the novel, even beyond Ishmael’s bond with Queequeg. Each white Mate is partnered with a dark-skinned harpooneer. Especially striking is the situation of the six-foot-five-inch-tall, black harpooneer Daggoo and the short Third Mate Flask: “Curious to tell, this imperial negro, Ahasuerus Daggoo, was the Squire of little Flask, who looked like a chess-man beside him.” (108) Another example of this occurs when the addled Pip latches onto Ahab. Not only are they black and white, but the duality is extended to their stature and their temperaments; Pip is a coward while Ahab is foolishly brave. The bond they share is that of madness. The Manx sailor describes the pair as, “One daft with strength, the other with weakness.” (428)

Ahab himself is an example of binary symbolism. Melville describes his aspect: “And had you watched Ahab’s face that night, you would have thought that in him also two different things were warring. While his one live leg made lively echoes on the deck, every stroke of his dead limb sounded like a coffin-tap. On life and death this old man walked.” (200) Life and death are directly opposed other places in the novel, if not in conflict per se. On the above-mentioned whale skeleton, vines grow. “Life folded Death; Death trellised Life; the grim god wived with youthful Life, and begat him curly-headed glories.” (375) Even the lovely water is representative of death. If a sailor’s attention wavers while at the mast-head, “perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise forever.” (140) Thus Melville reinforces the opposition between the worlds above and below the surface of the sea.

The duality of sex is also addressed in Moby Dick. At the Try Pots Inn, Mrs. Hussey forces Ishmael and Queequeg to choose between “Clam or Cod,”(64) which is to say, a vaginal or phallic symbol. The realms on either side of the horizon are again used to present a binary picture in this passage: “the pensive air was transparently pure and soft, with a woman’s look, and the robust and man-like sea heaved with long, strong, lingering swells, as Samson’s chest in his sleep.” (442)

Regarding duality, Whitman falls between Melville and Emerson. As his lines from” Song of Myself” illustrate “Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex,/Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life,” (31) he acknowledged the binary nature of the universe while still maintaining it as a unified whole. His merging of the two ideas is seen again in these lines, in which he is telling of all the opposing forces which compose him as an individual:

“I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,

Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,

Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,

Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff that is fine,” (44)

Thus he supports the analogy I favor, that of the world as a yin-yang; a construction complete of itself, yet still composed of internally conflicted elements.

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