The notion of transcendence is by definition paradoxical. The Latin transcendo means to climb above or pass over, which begs the obvious question: rise above or get beyond what? However the word is used—whether in reference to religion, philosophy or literature—it is associated with its opposite, the immanent world with all its failures and blessings.
The Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau borrowed much from German philosophy, Swedenborgian Idealism and English Romanticism. Yet on a simple and practical level it represented the first important flowering of literary emancipation in a recently formed nation. At least among a certain group, the Boston of the 1830s offered a new openness and sense of hope. “We will walk on our own feet, we will work with our own hands, we will speak our own minds,” said Emerson in “American Scholar.” He concluded the essay by calling for a revolution in human consciousness based on idealist philosophy.
The Transcendentalists were among the earliest Americans to have been born on the other side of two centuries of religious constraint, political turmoil and financial scarcity. It is no insult to say that they were the first generation to have the luxury of being as hopeful about human experience and literature as their immediate forebears had been about politics. They sought to rise from the drudgery of ordinary life through a new attunement of the human mind to all of Nature. By opening ourselves to that powerful and mysterious dominion, we could “build therefore” our own world. [End Page 5]
American Transcendentalism was both derivative of the English Romantics and German Idealists and at the same time thoroughly rooted in its own time and place. It is no accident that it was born in the place where the American Revolution had been conceived, summoning a second revolution in which the power of the mind might exceed the stifling conditions of the mundane. This is of course a very old dichotomy—older surely than recorded thought. It is part of the urge that decorated Neolithic cave walls as well as a key impetus of religion. In literature, philosophy, art and religion, the transcendental impulse suggests the mystery and power of a larger world as well as orders of meaning that we can participate in but not fully understand. It also calls for there being a gap between the known and the great unknown, which can infer a sublime sense of wonder. Yet the desire to rise above or pass beyond, in whatever form it takes, comes from and in some sense contemplates its opposite—the ensnarement, predicament and mortal quagmire of normal human existence.
The old split between the known and the unknown is reflected today in scientific discussions about the human mind. Called the last frontier because of how little is understood despite recent advances, neurological theory falls generally into two camps. One holds that it is only a matter of time before we have the brain dissected, understood and perhaps even replicated through artificial intelligence. The scientists directing the president’s new Brain Initiative hope for this, although they are quite frank about how little we know about the brain at present. The other side believes that no matter how much neural mapping we do, for reasons biological and also ontological, we will never fully comprehend the human mind. The brain contains some hundred billion neurons connected in ways that are currently little understood. Also, the brain is more flexible than it was even recently assumed to be. Regardless of which side is closer to the truth, few disagree with neurologist David Eagleman, who compares human consciousness and the full mind to “a stowaway on a transatlantic steam ship, taking credit for the journey without acknowledging the massive engineering underfoot.”
Fiction in this issue includes Alan Rossi’s story “Unmoving Like a Mighty River Stilled” about a group of men who have sought sublime experience for years through extreme climbing and parachuting. The protagonist, Kieran, feels that the group has become too addicted to talk and publicity and as a result has lost interest in the “thing itself.” Their quest for hazardous adventure reaches a scary climax as they climb [End Page 6...