The Throwaway Comment 2


Some time ago I did a post on throwaway lines–short quotes in the middle of a work that carried a significance that far outweighed their number of words.  There are of course many more that could be added, and may be, but I wanted to consider one more; this from the opening of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1842 address delivered at the Masonic Temple in Boston called The Transcendentalist. 

The first thing we have to say respecting what are called “new views” here in New England, at the present time, is, that they are not new, but the very oldest of thoughts cast into the mould of these new times. The light is always identical in its composition, but it falls on a great variety of objects, and by so falling is first revealed to us, not in its own form, for it is formless, but in theirs; in like manner, thought only appears in the objects it classifies. What is popularly called Transcendentalism among us, is Idealism; Idealism as it appears in 1842.

In particular the second sentence should jump out.  At a point in an address when most speakers are clearing their throats and waiters are clearing the plates, Emerson delivers one of the most succinct and accurate descriptions I know of the Ideal.  Its manifestation in the physical world is light; a formless mixture of frequencies, invisible in itself, taken for granted, not seen until it strikes some object and reflects it back to our eyes.  Likewise, the Ideal, or consciousness “is always identical in its composition,” itself taken for granted, never noticed until it illuminates a thought.  Then we think the thought is the thing, not the consciousness that allows us to see it in the first place.

Indeed, what can be conscious of consciousness?  This is the fatal paradox in all the “scientific” considerations of it.  It is not just another specimen to put under a microscope; I think it was Meister Eckhart who said, “People expect to see God with the same eyes with which they would see, say, a cow.”  Anything that can be observed is necessarily less than that which is observing it, and is changed by the act of being observed.  Everything material is in a constant state of change; only that which observes remains the same, “identical in its composition.”  This observer, this Consciousness is what you are, what I am.  Emerson knew this (in 1842!), and in another throwaway line states, “I feel like other men my relation to that Fact which cannot be spoken, or defined, nor even thought, but which exists, and will exist.”

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