- The Anatomy of Truth: Emerson’s Poetic Science
The relationship of science and literature in nineteenth-century America cannot be articulated without considering Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose life as a minister, poet, lecturer, and essayist was motivated by his desire to remake the American public mind. Emerson sought to integrate poetry, culture, religion, society, and science into one grand and coherent whole, and in so doing he offered to America a new faith: science. After resigning the ministry and touring Europe in 1832–1833, he launched his new career as a public intellectual with a series of lectures on science, and his lifelong vision of poetic science never ceased to brace and unify his many themes. Emerson thus folded science deep into the heart of American culture, as the norm of sacred truth, of naturalized moral law, of ethical social practice. Moreover, his particular ideal celebrated science as the creative achievement of human beings, even as it foreclosed all elements of human contingency. Emerson’s science was simultaneously a consensual social practice and the ecstatic surrender to divine law. It thus powered tremendous technological change, while rationalizing that change as part of natural progress, the unfolding of God’s design.
This double unity, while it successfully merged science with poetry and religion as the dynamic engine of American ideology, did not come without cost: its maintenance necessitated sustaining a precarious balance between the provoking seductions of the actual world, whose objects were meant to embody the law, and the austerity of the law that gave those objects their meaning. In a typical trope of [End Page 425] dynamic balance, Emerson wrote that “Truth and Beauty”—Law and Body, Spirit and Matter—“always face each other and each tends to become the other.” 1 This dynamic is meant to lure us in: Beauty pleads with us to follow her, for she leads us to Truth—but in the face of Truth she vanishes, a body burned away by the fire of meaning. Once the entire world has burned away, only Truth will remain, infinite, absolute, weightless, and objective.
In other words, while the beauty of nature evidenced the law, which would otherwise be invisible and unknowable, obedience to the law meant resisting her seductions. Here Emerson’s model was science, for science knew how to submit without loss of control. As he proclaimed in an 1841 lecture:
Every star in heaven is discontented and insatiable. Gravitation and chemistry cannot content them. Ever they woo and court the eye of every beholder. Every man who comes into the world they seek to fascinate and possess, to pass into his mind, for they desire to republish themselves in a more delicate world than that they occupy.
Who has attended to the siren song of the stars? Not poets, but men of science: “Newton, Herschel and Laplace”—here not just men of science after all, but “poets,” whose writings fill the finer world of rational souls with their fame (CW 1: 131). 2 But take care: objects of nature are “beautiful basilisks” who “set their brute, glorious eyes” on us, willing us, seducing us to take them up into mind; and so man must be “on his guard” (CW 1: 131). The promise of science is attended with peril. The genius of science must capture the object, take it into mind, without being captured by it. The challenge is unremitting, for the stars though always present are ever “inaccessible,” as are all natural objects “when the mind is open to their influence” (CW 1: 9).
How, then, can these beautiful, tantalizing objects be safely captured and possessed? Man must stand apart from nature, look on her with “a supernatural eye. By piety alone, by conversing with the cause of nature, is he safe and commands it?” (CW 1:131). This demands a practice of surrender, less self-command than a kind of disciplined release: “And because all knowledge is assimilation to the [End Page 426] object of knowledge, as the power or genius of nature is ecstatic so must its science or the description of it be” (CW 1: 131–132; emphasis added). Such out-of-body practices are the...