Foreword | October 08, 2013
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 concludes 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 forbears 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 oneself to that powerful and mysterious dominion we could “build therefore” our own world.
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 it 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 through a snowstorm to make one last dangerous jump. Alex Taylor’s “The Blood Old and Strong” is another harrowing tale. Waldreve, an aging patriarch and cattle farmer, is a bit feral and intolerant of any weakness, particularly what he sees in his sons’ suburban lives. Perceiving himself as having “blood old and strong,” he seeks one last prise de fer with a chosen enemy, a virtually supernaturally alpha male coyote that his sons have trapped but which rises above all traps.
Nick Arvin’s “City of Mary” describes Simon, a husband and father of one grown son who is doing research in Seville, while his wife, Anny, who has come along on the trip, is unhappy with the place and apparently no longer very committed to their marriage. Simon, while witnessing a celebration of the Virgin Mary, thinks about his own ideas of religion, which hover between agnosticism and atheism. Yet in the course of the story he experiences not one but three remarkable experiences, which incite his amazement at the paradox of life and death, as well as his sense that things are far less knowable and predictable than they appear.
In Jane Gillette’s remarkable story “Visiting,” Judith and Alicia have been friends since childhood. Alicia, wife of an Episcopal priest, is dying of cancer, and Judith goes, guiltily, to visit her in the hospice. She remembers hearing that “Jesus commands us to visit the sick and pray for them when they die,” and though she’s shaky in her feelings about religion, she feels a moral imperative. To make Alicia happy, she fabricates an anecdotal tale about an impromptu affair with a man who’s engaged and who she vividly and believably describes as the best lover she has ever had. Alicia is captivated, while Judith is still a bit guilty for creating such a fiction, yet the story’s conclusion takes both the incident and narrator a step beyond in suggesting the power and even exigency of creating the perfect story.
The poems in Claudia Emerson’s “Infusion Suite” also concern a person facing mortality, as they depict the dreadful but humanizing experience of chemotherapy. James Davis May’s poems speak with a candid and yet strong sense of faith in nature, love and art, weighed against what “shouldn’t fall but will.” Rose McLarney’s new poems are obsessed with the problems of representation and the institutionalized illusions of unity and mastery. McLarney is charmingly distrustful of our usual “familiar, comforting likening.” She seeks to challenge the standard division between the personal and historical, passion and intellect, by speaking just to the side of what we have been taught to say and in some way finding a more authentic voice.
Joe Miller’s essay “The Black Saint and the Best-selling Writer” describes his effort to write a book about American Pentecostalism in the wake of publishing a best-selling book of nonfiction. As his subject, he settles on a black single mother, Jackie Story, member of a Kansas City Assemblies of God congregation. Jackie, along with many of her chuch members, is trying to beat poverty and get “easy money” through a church-sanctioned sales endeavor that’s virtually a Ponzi scheme. Miller is sympathetic toward Jackie, whose belief seems real enough, but who is misguided and taken in , along with a lot of others ,by the hope for an easier life. It’s an ironic look at religion and how seeking some kind of transcendence can be co-opted by opportunists for profit. Alexander Landfair’s culturally smart and funny essay “Facebook of the Dead” points to what the author sees as a rather notable difference between virtual existence and real life: the virtual world hasn’t yet figured out how to dispose of the dead. He writes, “Death’s un-fixedness online suggests we don’t quite yet live in an Internet culture . . . and we won’t until social media accommodates the whole of human life, of which death is a fundamental part.”
In her feature “Darkroom Alchemy: The Photographic Art of Studio Manassé,” Kristine Somerville delves into the work of husband-and-wife photographic team Olga and Adorján Wlassics, a cosmopolitan Viennese couple who in the 1920s and ’30s supplied commercial magazines throughout Europe both with sublime female images and with “photographic jokes” such as diminutive naked women being fished with a silver teaspoon from a china cup, smiling sweetly from behind the bars of a mouse cage or standing alongside a neat line of cigarettes in a gold, monogramed case. The couple’s unique cinematic styling and darkroom techniques made them popular with stage and screen stars, and their photographs populated the pages of fan the magazines of the day.
In Jason Koo’s interview with Dorothea Lasky, the poet talks about her idea of self in poetry: “This self I’m talking about is very different from the self that is tied up in the identity of the everyday.” She describes it as not a “body, or identity in that particular sense” but a “self [that] pushes through time and space in a way we can’t perceive” as well as a “wildness beyond” even when times are rough.
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SEE THE ISSUE
36.3 (Fall 2013): "Transcendence"
Featuring work by Alan Rossi, Alex Taylor, Alexander Landfair, Claudia Emerson, James Davis May, Jane Gillette, Joe Miller, Nick Arvin and Rose McLarney, as well as an interview with Dorothea Lasky and a look into the work of husband-and-wife photographic team Olga and Adorján Wlassics.
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