Like many exciting periods in literary history, the middle of the nineteenth century saw in American authors intense and often implicit debates over how to read the world; literature is often, for Emerson, for Hawthorne, for Melville, for Thoreau, not a representation of the world, but a transcription and guide to how it is to be read.
Hawthorne explored the method of typology, the logic underlying (but not always yielding) allegory; but his typology was invested by realism since it is usually, in his fiction, an accepted mode by which the characters themselves interpret the world and one another; they are historical types in their own eyes, and this traps and dooms them. Against the typologist strain in Hawthorne is something else–a Romantic freedom, something found more often in Emerson, and in Hawthorne clearest in the close to the short story, “Sights from a Steeple”:
I love not my station here aloft, in the midst of the tumult which I am powerless to direct or quell, with the blue lightning wrinkling on my brow, and the thunder muttering its first awful syllables in my ear. I will descend. Yet let me give another glance to the sea, where the foam breaks out in long white lines upon a broad expanse of blackness, or boils up in far distant points, like snowy mountain-tops in the eddies of a flood; and let me look once more at the green plain, and little hills of the country, over which the giant of the storm is striding in robes of mist, and at the town, whose obscured and desolate streets might beseem a city of the dead; and turning a single moment to the sky, now gloomy as an author’s prospects, I prepare to resume my station on lower earth. But stay! A little speck of azure has widened in the western heavens; the sunbeams find a passage, and go rejoicing through the tempest; and on yonder darkest cloud, born, like hallowed hopes, of the glory of another world, and the trouble and tears of this, brightens forth the Rainbow!
In my experience, this sense of America’s creative and imaginative fecundity is not a dominant theme in the novels or other stories. It is a dominant theme in Emerson’s lectures and essays, where the freedom of the imagination is trumpeted repeatedly.
Whereas Hawthorne explores the tragic typological reading of the world, Emerson promotes the esoteric emblematic. The world is full of emblems to decipher, each emblem reflecting and containing endless other emblems. Emblems are everywhere for Emerson; the crucial choice each person must make is whether they will recognize the fact, open themselves up to the possibilities of the world. From “The Poet”:
The inwardness, and mystery, of this attachment, drive men of every class to the use of emblems. The schools of poets, and philosophers, are not more intoxicated with their symbols, than the populace with theirs. In our political parties, compute the power of badges and emblems. See the huge wooden ball rolled by successive ardent crowds from Baltimore to Bunker hill! In the political processions, Lowell goes in a loom, and Lynn in a shoe, and Salem in a ship.’ Witness the cider-barrel, the log-cabin, the hickory-stick, the palmetto, and all the cognizances of party. See the power of national emblems. Some stars, lilies, leopards, a crescent, a lion, an eagle, or other figure, which came into credit God knows how, on an old rag of bunting, blowing in the wind, on a fort, at the ends of the earth, shall make the blood tingle under the rudest, or the most conventional exterior. The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics!
The poet, perceiving all things as emblems, perceives the unity of all of the world and existence under the general notion of “Life” and reading poetry restores our intuition of this unity; allows us to glimpse it; it is a thrilling celebration of the metaphor-making capacity of the poetic imagination and one can imagine Whitman taking the words in in the proper spirit and realizing that there is no reason to exclude any subject matter from poetry at all; he saw, that is, the democratic significance inherent (if not unalloyed) in Emerson’s suggestions:
For, as it is dislocation and detachment from the life of God, that makes things ugly, the poet, who re-attaches things to nature and the Whole,–and re-attaching even artificial things, and violations of nature, to nature, by a deeper insight,– disposes very easily of the most disagreeable facts. Readers of poetry see the factory-village, and the railway, and fancy that the poetry of the landscape is broken up by these. for these works of art are not yet consecrated in their reading; but the poet sees them fall within the great Order not less than the bee-hive, or the spider’s geometrical web. Nature adopts them very fast into her vital circles, and the gliding train of cars she loves like her own.
Such an appreciation of the world’s unity is permitted by (and only by) recognizing all as emblems and all emblems as unified. But the heady optimism of Emerson’s celebration of limitless possibilities, of free interpretation, of resemblance among differences comes to feel terrifyingly without orientation or end, not anti-foundationalist in the pragmatist or modern philosophical sense, but foundationless, so that no resting point is accessible, no reason for following one line of interpretation rather than another is available. In another essay, “Compensation,” the idea finds fairly robust expression:
These appearances indicate the fact that the universe is represented in every one of its particles. Every thing in nature contains all the powers of nature. Every thing is made of one hidden stuff; as the naturalist sees one type under every metamorphosis, and regards a horse as a running man, a fish as a swimming man, a bird as a fling man, a tree as a rooted man.
The logic of typology is exploded into emblems.
Melville, I think, saw the potential lunacy of Emerson’s words–saw at least what was missing from them, and that is: history. Melville’s admiration for Hawthorne might have been a prophylactic against the untethered temporality of Emerson’s claims; emblems are not arbitrary forms; trees are not rooted men, but descendants of other forms; the shape of an emblem is given significance by its use, its attachment to power, and it is possible to interpret it only according to a whole set of practices, embodied, technological, political, that, even if they are themselves emblematic, cannot be equated with other emblems; emblems are in tension, driving apart, towards incoherence, potentially leading to misunderstanding, abuse, isolation, rather than unity, in Melville. We might need to read the world emblematically, and doing so might be the best way to endow the world with significance, or retrieve the significance that is there; but it is also a perpetual risk. The stories and novels dramatize it, Moby-Dick most obviously, but “Benito Cereno” I think most subtly, since the scene on the ship is presented as a series of gestures that the narrator must interpret, and we, readers, are in turn asked to interpret the movement and arc of his interpretation.
The story is somewhat like a masque–which, during the Renaissance, were focuses for debate over the nature of emblems. Where authors of masks sometimes sought to overload them with symbolic complexity, the question soon arose: would the public know what to make of it? What sort of reading would prevent them from coming unmoored, feeling adrift in the wastes of emblematic interpretation; the supposedly allegorical figures featured on stage could not be deciphered typologically since their significance was determined by gestures and relations as well as by sometimes cryptic costumes and icons. The trouble for Renaissance masque-makers was that, unlike Emerson, they were not trying to celebrate the resemblance of everything to everything else, but to commemorate historical events; boundaries and pertinence to politics had to be somehow manifest.
Art historian D.J. Gordon suggests how we might prevent the trap that they worried over; the significance lay not in the emblematic possibilities, but in the density of the historical world they were attempting to renovate. He writes in his essay, “Roles and Mysteries”:
Rubens was more than a collector: he was a scholar as well, a classicist in the sense that Jonson was. Both artists had learned the great lesson of Renaissance humanist scholarship: that the ancient world existed as an entity, a separate, distanced, autonomous cultural domain–not merely a compendium from which fragments could be taken over and transmogrified, with no sense of context, of historical and cultural distance. This attitude toward the past was, in the period, relatively new. Rubens’ passionate wish to grasp and revive that past, of which, through rediscovery and effort he was a legitimate heir, is consonant with Jonson’s passionate wish to hold Rome and London together in a single image, and to re-enact in England the role of Roman poet. It is terrible difficult for us to feel the force of that re-enactment, to sense the passion and the validity of the effort. Jonson had to get the figure of Genius on his Fenchurch arch right according to all the most learned authorities, not for magical or allegorical reasons, but for historical reasons.
Differences between Melville and Jonson abound; but Melville is asking, I think, that when we read the world emblematically we read it also historically, even when he jests at the limits of anthropological and historical knowledge. That there is history, which is to say that there is a history of power, of work, of necessity, of pleasure, and a world of matter, is essential if we are to read emblems; an emblematic reading of the world needs to read also for these. If it does so, Melville’s work suggests, we will find emblems that resist one another, that refuse unity, coherence, harmony; “Benito Cereno” is a masque of misreading, and the emblems it presents are emblems of abuse, power, exploitation, and resistance, which themselves refuse the blithe unity that the narrator and the protagonist would impose on them; they are emblems that are mirrored elsewhere, but they are not emblems that are mirrored everywhere, because abuse, power, exploitation prevent it. From Melville’s perspective, Emerson is a utopian dreamer.