68. Emerson’s “Circles” and the Secrets of the World

Wassily Kadinsky, Several Circles (1926)

In his essay The Poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us that “we stand before the secret of the world, there where Being passes into Appearance, and Unity into Variety”. For a deeper insight into this secret we can turn to one of his 1855 journal entries:

“For flowing is the secret of things & and no wonder the children love masks, & and to trick themselves in endless costumes, & be a horse, a soldier, a parson, or a bear; and, older, delight in theatricals; as, in nature, the egg is passing to a grub, the grub to a fly, and the vegetable eye to a bud, the bud to a leaf, a stem, a flower, a fruit; the children have only the instinct of their race, the instinct of the Universe, in which, Becoming somewhat else is the whole game of nature, & death the penalty for standing still. ‘Tis not less in thought. I cannot conceive of any good in a thought which confines & stagnates. Liberty means the power to flow. To continue is to flow. Life is unceasing parturition.”

This flowing of the Universe is the secret of things. Things are not the stable things they seem to be. They are in motion, developing, and alive. They are the rippling, expanding, diverse circles of the One that are in sympathetic resonance with all the others. To be sure, change often occurs slowly and imperceptibly. But we must not forget that change is there. In The Poet, Emerson reminds us that “the etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry”. The poet, too, sees in things not their fixed deadness but their “divine aura which breathes through forms”. And we can learn to see more in accordance with this secret. In a 1839 journal entry, Emerson tells us to “Treat things poetically. Everything should be treated poetically – law, politics, housekeeping, money. A judge and a banker must drive their craft poetically as well as a dancer or a scribe. That is, they must exert that higher vision which causes the object to become fluid & plastic. Then they are inventive, they detect its capabilities”.

In The Poet we learn that this higher vision is imagination: “This insight which expresses itself by what is called Imagination, is a very high sort of seeing, which does not come by study, but by the intellect being where and what it sees, by sharing the path or circuit of things through forms, and so making them translucid to others.” When we see imaginatively we transform apparent necessities into possibilities; we make what is into something other than it is. We reveal things as processes rather than things. In doing so, we experience the secret of the world: of the One as it unfolds into the Many. Indeed, the imagination seems to be this very unfolding taking place in us.

This unfolding can help us truly understand others rather than superficially judging them in accordance with what we want them to be. It can help us see how physical and social environments might be therefore giving us the kind of long term insight we need to intelligently relate to them. And it can help us consider the grounds and implications of ideas rather than foster rigid obedience to them. All these capacities enable us to see that “the quality of the imagination is to flow, and not to freeze.” Thus liberty (“the power to flow”), far from being only a function of one’s isolated will or self-reliance, is made possible because one is imaginatively aligned with the “circuit of things” which includes other people and nature at large.

Emerson  in 1857

Naturally we find it difficult to enter into these energizing streams of the Universe. We look around us and see things that are not us. In most cases things seem opaque, impenetrable, and irrelevant. Perhaps it is the good fortune of the poet to see in accordance with the secret of things on a regular basis. But imagination is “not inactive in other men”. Indeed, in the presence of the poet’s words a “metamorphosis excites in the beholder an emotion of joy” and we seem “touched by a wand, which makes us dance and run about happily, like children.” So with the help of poetry we can learn to see more poetically.

Now this romantic vision of liberty-as-flow certainly raises some questions. For example, wouldn’t unceasing flux threaten our ability to know the good? Knowledge of the good implies truth and truth itself, unlike our estimations of the truth, doesn’t change. So if everything is in flux there can be no truth. In Circles, Emerson writes: “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.” And he notes that 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.” These passages strongly suggest there is indeed no place for the abiding truth. But Emerson goes on to assure us that his vision doesn’t entail moral relativism or skepticism since “this incessant movement and progression which all things partake could never become sensible to us but by contrast to some principle of fixture or stability in the soul”.  This fixture is an “eternal generator” which contains within it all potential ideas, actions, and facts and “abides”. The effects of this “energizing spirit” are bound to be imperfect, transitory, and ultimately superseded insofar as “every action admits of being outdone” and “everything looks permanent until its secret is known.” But the generator and its forms offers us stability within the changes of the ever-expanding circles of innovation, creation, and destruction.

Of course this form of stability may be of little consolation to those who have lost cherished things and people to the flow. Emerson himself suffered the transience of life first hand with the deaths of his first wife, his two brothers, and his first son Waldo who died at six. But it appears that the stability of the energizing spirit can help us bear and even overcome this suffering. For in treating things poetically we may realize, as Emerson apparently did, what I would call the secret of the secret of the world, namely, the secret that within the flow “indwelling necessity plants the rose of beauty on the brow of chaos, and discloses the central intention of Nature to be harmony and joy” (see his essay Fate).

Emerson was a noble soul to be sure. Yet this optimism strikes many, including myself, as unfounded given the harsh facts of the world. But I think it is worth taking seriously for two reasons: first, it is out of fashion and, well, we should think against the fashions; and, second, perhaps the difficulty involved in accepting this secret of the secret of the world is part of what makes it a secret in the first place. We shouldn’t expect the vision of indwelling necessity, beauty, and joy to be disclosed too easily. Could it be we need to follow Emerson’s lead and be a bit more…imaginative? To do so would be to draw a new circle and experience, rather than analyze and dissect, the wonder of life that can only come from abandonment: “The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment.”

Wassily Kadinsky, Circles in a Circle (1923)

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