Consciousness and Culture: Emerson and Thoreau Reviewed

Consciousness and Culture: Emerson and Thoreau Reviewed

by Joel Porte
Consciousness and Culture: Emerson and Thoreau Reviewed

Consciousness and Culture: Emerson and Thoreau Reviewed

by Joel Porte

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This book relates how, between 1954 and 1961, the biologist Seymour Benzer mapped the fine structure of the rII region of the genome of the bacterial virus known as phage T4. Benzer's accomplishments are widely recognized as a tipping point in mid-twentieth-century molecular biology when the nature of the gene was recast in molecular terms. More often than any other individual, he is considered to have led geneticists from the classical gene into the molecular age.
Drawing on Benzer's remarkably complete record of his experiments, his correspondence, and published sources, this book reconstructs how the former physicist initiated his work in phage biology and achieved his landmark investigation. The account of Benzer's creativity as a researcher is a fascinating story that also reveals intriguing aspects common to the scientific enterprise.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300104462
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 07/11/2004
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Joel Porte is Ernest I. White Professor of American Studies and Humane Letters, Cornell University. He has written extensively on American Renaissance figures and is the author of Emerson and Thoreau: Transcendentalists in Conflict and Representative Man: Ralph Waldo Emerson in His Time, among other books.

Read an Excerpt

Consciousness and Culture

By Joel Porte


Copyright © 2004 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10446-2

Chapter One

Emerson, Thoreau, and the Double Consciousness

It was Thomas Carlyle who in 1834 advised his readers to close their Byron and open their Goethe, thereby suggesting that Goethe-"the keenest star in a new constellation," to use Margaret Fuller's phrase-was pre-eminently the man of his age. By 1850 Emerson was only summarizing cultivated opinion when he called Goethe, in Representative Men, "the soul of his century."

But to many outraged critics that soul was irreparably corrupt. As early as 1817, somewhat distressed by much "which needs must be called stuff" in Faust, Edward Everett pronounced it a masterpiece only "with some hesitation." And Emerson himself, reviewing with distaste what he considered to be the skepticism and lack of affirmation of modern thought, noted in 1863 that "the great poem of the age is the disagreeable poem of 'Faust.'" The post-Civil War generation, determined, perhaps desperately, to look on the positive side of things, might, like Henry James's Olive Chancellor, read Goethe's message as being unequivocally in praise of renunciation and discipline. But Emerson could notoverlook what was "painful" and "destructive" in Goethe's poem. He believed it stood "unhappily related to the whole modern world."

Like Carlyle, Arnold, Clough, and many others, Emerson unhesitatingly identified the dangerous symptoms of modernity: subjectiveness and inner division. Looking back with a cool eye on the Transcendental movement in "Historic Notes of Life and Letters in New England," Emerson remarked repeatedly that it was a time of potentially destructive reflectiveness and self-consciousness. It was "the age of severance, of dissociation" and tended to solitude. "The young men," he wrote in a famous sentence, "were born with knives in their brain, a tendency to introversion, self-dissection, anatomizing of motives."

In this context, Emerson's brief comment on Faust in "Historic Notes" is particularly suggestive: "The most remarkable literary work of the age has for its hero and subject precisely this introversion." Painful as he might find it (and late in life he would astonish his friends Norton and Lewes by remarking, "I hate 'Faust'; it is a bad book"), Emerson was forced to admit that in drawing the portrait of a radically divided soul, Goethe had created the central imaginative document of his time. Thus, if we wish to cite the lines from Goethe's poem that Emerson would undoubtedly have considered most relevant, it is Faust's celebrated anatomy of his problem that comes to mind:

Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust, Die eine will sich von der andern trennen; Die eine hält, in derber Liebeslust, Sich an die Welt mit klammernden Organen; Die andre hebt gewaltsam sich vom Dust Zu den Gefilden hoher Ahnen.

[Two souls, alas! reside within my breast, and each withdraws from, and repels, its brother: one to the world is bound in clinging lust, the other soars, all earthly ties unheeded, to join ancestral gods, far from this dust.

If justification is needed for assuming that Faust's description of the inner conflict between his sensual and spiritual selves embodied one of the major meanings of the poem for Emerson, we have only to look at "The Transcendentalist," Emerson's earlier, less detached and somewhat apologetic description of the vital movement that he helped to start. There, he began by dividing mankind into Materialists and Idealists-those who believe in the senses and those who trust to consciousness-and unhesitatingly awarded the palm to the latter. But as he progressed, Emerson had to admit that there were no pure idealists, that even the best of the Transcendentalists were forced to recognize their dual natures, divided between Reason and Understanding. "These two states of thought," he conceded, "diverge every moment, and stand in wild contrast." Then Emerson restated the Faustian problem of the "zwei Seelen" in terms more suited to his own mild discourse than were the wild ravings of a Romantic hero: "The worst feature of this double consciousness is, that the two lives, of the understanding and of the soul, which we lead, really show very little relation to each other, never meet and measure each other: one prevails now, all buzz and din; and the other prevails then, all infinitude and paradise; and, with the progress of life, the two discover no greater disposition to reconcile themselves."

Insofar as the young Transcendentalists suffered from this "double consciousness" (and they mostly did), they were all New England Fausts, with Nature, as Perry Miller aptly suggests, their Gretchen-the pure maiden whom they wished to possess. For it was precisely the problem of reconciling the Soul with Nature, the "Not Me" (which, as Emerson was at pains to point out in Nature, includes "both nature ... and my own body"), that plagued the Transcendentalists. Like Faust, torn between his earthly lusts and his spiritual strivings, they were dualists; yet they yearned for unity. Man should own "the dignity of the life which throbs around him," Emerson insisted, "in chemistry, and tree, and animal, and in the involuntary functions of his own body; yet he is balked when he tries to fling himself into this enchanted circle, where all is done without degradation." Man's self-consciousness, at once his glory and his anguish, keeps him from accepting wholeheartedly his animal body and the spontaneous life of nature. As the more chastened Emerson of "Experience" would say, "the discovery we have made, that we exist ... is called the Fall of Man." And in such a mood, Emerson would want to "relax this despotism of the senses, which binds us to nature as if we were a part of it," even though becoming an innocent part of nature was possibly one way of attempting to solve the problem of the double consciousness.

But perhaps it was not so much a solution as a clear awareness of the difficulty that was wanted. Most Transcendentalists believed that the true hero of the age was less the person capable of healing the division in human nature than the one who could manage to live nobly in a kind of sublime Faustian tension between hell and paradise. Reporting to his countrymen in 1834 on the life of Schiller, Frederic Henry Hedge suggested that the secret glory of Schiller's career lay in his "double nature." And Hedge unhesitatingly sketched the portrait of a great man: "He who is called to be a prophet in his generation,-whose office it is to unfold new forms of truth and beauty,-enjoys, among other prerogatives peculiar to his calling, the privilege of a two-fold life. He is at once a dweller in the dust, and a denizen of that land where all truth and beauty spring."

Emerson's view was the same. He concluded his essay on Goethe, the last of his Representative Men, by suggesting that all should follow the example of the great poetic genius of the age: "We too must write Bibles, to unite again the heavenly and the earthly world." Goethe's weary Doctor Faust yearned for such a new revelation: "Wir sehnen uns nach Offenbarung"; and Melville's anguished dualist, Pierre, caught between his sexual appetites and his spiritual strivings, would respond: "I will gospelize the world anew, and show them deeper secrets than the Apocalypse!"

If Henry Thoreau was impressed by Faust, he unfortunately left no record of his enthusiasm. The work of Goethe's that he mentions most frequently is the Italiänische Reise. But the Faustian problem of doubleness that we have been reviewing, whether suggested by Goethe or not, was of central-almost obsessive-concern to Thoreau. His "different selves," as Sherman Paul has remarked, "genius and talent ... head and feet ... soul and body, had to be harmonized; the tension of his life was in their resolution." Thoreau's "battle for unity ... was the chronicle of his spiritual life."

As we might expect, Thoreau's first impulse is to dissipate the problem in a pun. His linguistic joke in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers advised anyone who fears he is lost to "conclude that after all he is not lost, he is not beside himself, but standing in his own old shoes on the very spot where he is." A man, Thoreau insists, certainly has no business being "beside" himself if he is integer vitae-a unified soul. Furthermore, even the fear of spiritual division can be turned into a strength, if only through a play on words: "I am not alone if I stand by myself." The duplex soul can keep himself company, thereby proving doubly self-reliant.

But Thoreau was clearly not satisfied with his own humorous treatment of the difficulty and returned to the subject in Walden. The chapter on "Solitude" is the proper place for such meditation, and Thoreau admits there, perhaps surprisingly, that he was once oppressed by the sense of being alone. He was also, to be sure, "conscious of a slight insanity" in his mood and knew that it would pass, but the very admission of such an "insanity"-the awareness of an unhealthy "other" contained within and potentially threatening the integrity of the soul-suggests a problem to be solved. Thoreau's initial attempt at a solution is similar to what we have seen in A Week, a kind of therapeutic schizophrenia: "With thinking we may be beside ourselves in a sane sense. By a conscious effort of the mind we can stand aloof from actions and their consequences." Once again, duplexity becomes a virtue: Thoreau can dissociate his sane self from the unhealthy self that is affected by loneliness and thus maintain his equanimity.

But in the rest of this key passage Thoreau went beyond merely attempting to work out a cure for the evils of solitude and allowed himself to give full expression to the problem of the age, an awareness of the double consciousness:

We are not wholly involved in Nature. I may be either the drift-wood in the stream, or Indra in the sky looking down on it.... I only know myself as a human entity; the scene, so to speak, of thoughts and affections; and am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it; and that is no more I than it is you. When the play, it may be the tragedy, of life is over, the spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction, a work of the imagination only, so far as he was concerned.

Thoreau's admission here of a sense of Faustian doubleness, of a split between experiencing body and judging spirit, carries with it, especially in the searching tentativeness of its rhetoric, a deep note of personal concern, as if what he is saying were cause not only for congratulation but also for alarm. It was all very well for Thoreau to insist that "we are not wholly involved in Nature"; but a major reason for his experiment at Walden was specifically to seek total involvement in the natural world, to "have intelligence with the earth," so that he might come fully to terms with the part of himself that was "leaves and vegetable mould." Of course, to be no more than "the driftwood in the stream" would hardly have been more satisfactory than to be totally "Indra in the sky." Both consciousness and the animal body were there to be dealt with; and Walden is largely an attempt to come to clarity about the relationship between the two-or rather, to achieve a dramatic resolution of the problem.

Thoreau ingeniously embodied the problem of the "zwei Seelen" in his crucial confrontation with the "Paphlagonian man," Alek Therien. He is Thoreau's Doppelgänger (or perhaps Thoreau is his), the animal self whom Thoreau must come to terms with before he can hope to be a unified soul. That Therien is meant to represent the animal in man is made abundantly clear throughout Thoreau's description of him: he is "a great consumer of meat" (woodchucks) and characterized by "animal spirits"; he is coarse and sluggish, and "the intellectual and what is called spiritual man in him were slumbering"; his thinking is "primitive and immersed in his animal life," and, as Thoreau says flatly, "in him the animal man chiefly was developed." But Thoreau had somewhat reconditely embodied this notion at the beginning of the episode, where he tells us that Therien (whose name was of course omitted from the final version of Walden) "had so suitable and poetic a name that I am sorry that I cannot print it here." Thoreau's point is clearly that this "Homeric" man has a name that signifies, in Greek, exactly what his character is-[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], a beast.

But Thoreau not only establishes Therien's animal nature; he also makes it plain that the woodchopper and he are, oddly enough, doubles. Though now English-speaking, they are both of French extraction and their names sound alike. Each is twenty-eight years old. Both have blue eyes (though Therien's, significantly, are dull and sleepy). Thoreau, although now largely vegetarian, is occasionally also a devourer of woodchucks (as we are told in "Higher Laws"!). Both men are solitary and both are "writers" (Therien writes "a remarkably good hand," employing it mainly to inscribe the name of his native parish in the snow). Both men are garrulous ("I dearly love to talk," Thoreau admits in "Where I Lived"; "How I love to talk! By George, I could talk all day!" exclaims Therien); and neither man has any love for reformers. Finally, when Thoreau meets Therien after many months and asks the Canadian if he has got a new idea, Therien replies that a man who has work to do, such as hoeing, must "think of weeds"-a lesson that Thoreau takes to heart in the next chapter, "The Bean-Field," where he learns to think extensively of beans.

Many of these parallels are, of course, humorous; but Thoreau's jokes are always serious. It was indeed funny for him to find that he had so much in common with the animal-like woodchopper. Therien was a puzzle to Thoreau, who did not know "whether to suspect him of a fine poetic consciousness or of stupidity." Thoreau, it would seem, had still to come to terms with the ultimate value and meaning of the animal self. Or had he already decided how to do so? Thoreau's next sentence suggests a striking solution to the problem of relating soul and body: "A townsman told me that when he met him [Therien] sauntering through the village in his small close-fitting cap, and whistling to himself, he reminded him of a prince in disguise."

Thoreau surely intends us at this point to remember, and connect Therien with, a "parable" (very likely of Thoreau's own invention) previously presented in the book:

... "there was a king's son, who, being expelled in infancy from his native city, was brought up by a forester, and, growing up to maturity in that state, imagined himself to belong to the barbarous race with which he lived. One of his father's ministers having discovered him, revealed to him what he was, and the misconception of his character was removed, and he knew him- self to be a prince. So soul ... from the circumstances in which it is placed, mistakes its own character, until the truth is revealed to it by some holy teacher, and then it knows itself to be Brahme."

Therien, of course, is the "king's son" ("a prince in disguise") who has been raised in the forest and appears to be little more than an animal. But the "holy teacher," Thoreau, has set himself the task of demonstrating that the body is only the soul in disguise. "I perceive," Thoreau continues, "that we inhabitants of New England live this mean life that we do because our vision does not penetrate the surface of things."


Excerpted from Consciousness and Culture by Joel Porte Copyright © 2004 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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