Transparency in the Jardin des Plantes

            ALA, May 2007, Boston

            On October 14, 1832, two months before sailing for Europe, Emerson wrote in his journal,

The great difficulty is that men do not think enough of themselves, do not consider what it is that they are
sacrificing when they follow in a herd, or when they cater for their
establishment. They know not how divine is a Man. I know you say such a man thinks too
much of himself. Alas! He is wholly ignorant. He yet  wanders in the outer darkness, in the skirts
and shadows of himself, and has not seen his inner light. Would it not be a
text of a useful discourse to young men, that every man must learn in a
different way? How much is lost by imitation?1

            Here, of course, is the core
of “Self Reliance,” the cardinal essay in which Emerson deconstructs
European philosophy after John Locke. What is peculiar, however, is that only
six months later, writing from Rome in April 1833, Emerson penned a long
letter  to his Aunt Mary confessing his longing
to find a teacher, someone who could stand as a clear authority. Here is part
of that letter from Emerson’s journal:

The wise man, the true
friend, the finished character, we seek everywhere, and only find in fragments.
Yet I cannot persuade myself that all the beautiful souls are fled out of the
planet, or that always I shall be excluded from good company and yoked with
green, dull, pitiful persons… I want instructors. God’s greatest gift is a
Teacher, and when will he send me one full of truth and of boundless
benevolence and of heroic sentiments?


            Here is a man lost, without direction, having left the familiar
streets of Boston
to wander homeless with a group of dull pitiful persons in a country where his
eloquence is of no use to him. In this context he has lost confidence in the
inner light and seeks instead a teacher. If the intuition of October, 1832, is
to bear fruit, we wonder where will come the affirming experience?  We are all familiar with his meetings with
Landor, Carlyle, Coleridge and Wordsworth, to name the important literary
figures, and his rejection of all of them as the teacher he sought. What
happened in July, 1833, in Paris, however, was that among the silent fragments
of life in the Cabinets of Comparative Anatomy at the Jardin des Plantes in
Paris, he would feel that “surge of spontaneous wisdom flash across his
mind” to use his own words from that earlier journal entry.          It was through a Mr.Warden that Emerson
was given a ticket to the Natural History Museum. Here, among the cabinets of

comparative anatomy and the collection of preserved animals, Emerson
experienced both revelation and authority. Always a lover of nature in its
beauty, diversity and changing face, he had never before been so powerfully
exposed to the deeper principles of its order. In a passage similar in lyricism
to the “Transparent Eyeball” passage in Nature, Emerson
captured the mood of the moment:

Here we are impressed with
the inexhaustible riches of nature. The universe is a more amazing puzzle than
ever, as you glance along this bewildering series of animated forms… Not a
form so grotesque, so savage, nor so beautiful but is an expression of some
property inherent in man the observer,
-an occult relation between the very scorpions and man. I feel the
centipede in me, – cayman, carp, eagle, and fox. I am moved by strange
sympathies. I say continually ” I will be a naturalist.”2

            “…some property in man
the observer…” establishes Emerson’s idealist credentials, asserting, in
opposition to the realists, the need to have a mutual implication of knower and
known. But more than philosophy appears here as well. Lee Rust Brown in his
Emerson Museum
(1997) and Laura Dassow Walls in her Emerson’s Life in
(2003) have fully demonstrated that Emerson’s encounter with the
cabinets of the museum, so carefully organized and insightfully presented,
showed him how to see nature more transparently and, equally important, how to
organize his own journals (then thirteen years in the making) so as to create
an interface between mind and nature. Here was the teacher he sought, the work
of men like George Cuvier, Joseph Bonnier, and George Leclerc who possessed the
professional and visionary skills to classify the natural world in such a way,
as Walls puts it, to reveal “the reality of the idea, the complete chain,
offering in material form the keystone that locked the arch of reasoning into

Remarkably, those interested
in seeing what Emerson saw in 1833 will be surprised to discover that the
display remains much as it was, supplemented, of course, by the path of
evolution charted by Darwin
two decades later. But the cabinets Emerson saw in 1833 are still as they were,
even down to the original hand‑written labels, now brown with age. The
comparisons of skeletons and organs among the primates, including human beings,
are gathered shelf upon shelf, bone to bone, lung to lung, and brain to brain,
for us to see as Emerson saw.

The famous declaration “I will be a naturalist”
may seem at first to be a whim of the moment unrealized in practice, but as
Brown theorizes so well, Emerson meant it not as a career choice or return to
school, but rather as a principle of perception. What he had discovered in Paris was that something
deeply hidden lay behind the world of things, and he was determined to explore
that something. He had in fact found his teacher, or shall we say he found
significant guidance, as well as the authority he was seeking, and what he
called “my little book on nature” would begin to formulate the principles
of this discovery.

My intention here today is to advance the good work
of  Rust and Walls into the world through
Emerson’s use of the word ‘transparency’ and to suggest that his use of that
term is more important philosophically to Emerson studies than his troubled
relationship with the word ‘transcendental.’ I say ‘philosophically’ in the
spirit of Stanley Cavell’s plea for what he calls in Cities of Words (Belknap
Press, 2004), the refusal or denial of Emerson’s words as having philosophical
depth, resulting in “the tendency to refrain from putting much
intellectual pressure on Emerson’s words,….from accepting the invitation of
those words to get past their appearance…”4 Cavell’s plea is particularly vital in
considering the philosophical resonance of the word ‘transparent,’ approaching
what the Spanish philosopher Xavier Zubiri called “the diaphaneity of

We begin in the journal for July 13, 1833 in Paris. “I carried my
ticket from Mr. Warden to the Cabinet of Natural History in the Garden of Plants. How much finer things are in
composition than alone. ‘T is wise in man to make cabinets.” The room in
the museum of Comparative Anatomy that Emerson entered
was the size of a standard basketball court, perhaps a little longer. On every
wall and in the center of the room were row upon row of glassed cabinets, six
feet high, and organized by mounted skeletons and organs in jars. From the
smallest creature to human beings, the progression of development and
similarity lies revealed, described on those small hand‑written labels. Here
are brains, lungs, stomachs, livers, and kidneys, arranged to illustrate
identity and progression, all this, of course, pre‑Darwinian (the Evolution
displays are now on a second floor, along with dinosaurs).  Note: Show album

            Walking through the room, Emerson watched as a class of boys with
their teacher, took notes and listened to instruction. Brown, Walls and Richardson emphasize the
importance of this day of days in Emerson’s Grande Tour. Here among the cabinets
Emerson sees not only the genius of classification, which will suggest to him
the way in which he will organize his own journals and topical notebooks, but
more important, he saw into and through the opacity of nature into its laws.
When, in a month’s time, he begins Nature, he will write, “If the
Reason be stimulated to more earnest vision, outlines and surfaces become
transparent…” His capitalized use of the word ‘reason’ here reflects his
presence in Enlightenment France and his debt to Coleridge, whose reaction to
the Enlightenment elevates Reason to what Emerson would eventually call
Intellect, also capitalized.

Also early in Nature appears the famous
transparent eyeball, a revelation  which
will haunt Emerson and yet also define him. It is transparency that describes
better than any other word the position Emerson takes in the philosophical
struggle to define the truth of reality. That day in the museum he saw his way
through surfaces into the transparency of matter and the unity of nature in all
its forms and states.

Later, in a combative conversation with Sampson Reed, who
when he made reference to “the other world,” Emerson replied, with
great conviction, “”There is no other world; here or nowhere is the
whole fact.”5 This unity, based on the notion of
transparency, characterizes Emerson’s philosophical position, and his work
during the next decade explores his vision of a continuum of reality from the
opacity of matter to the transparency of spirit.

An example of that position appears in the poem
“Brahma,” the final stanza of
which reads, “The strong gods pine for my abode,/ And pine in vain
the sacred Seven;/ But thou, meek lover of the good! /Find me, and turn thy
back on heaven.”

When Emerson says, “I will be a naturalist,” he
affirms his devotion to Nature, grounding his philosophy not in matter but in
the laws that manifest nature. The connotations of transparency allow for this
unity by opening out the nature of the universe into a broad range of states
while retaining its singularity, whereas the word ‘transcendent’ suggests
otherness and duality. The problem of course is that the word transparency does
not lend itself to framing as an ‘ism.’ ‘Transparentism” will never get
off the ground.

It is in later work that Emerson makes the effort to
attach the full range of his notion of transparency to his vision of reality.
In the “Uses of Great Men,” he says, “In the moment when [the
great man] ceases to help us as a cause, he begins to help us more as an
effect. Then he appears as an exponent of a vaster mind and will. The opaque
self becomes transparent with the light of the First Cause.” And in
“Inspiration” he wonders where are these great men, men like
Franklin, who “inspire men, take them off their feet, withdraw them from
the life of trifles and gain and comfort, and make the world transparent, so
that they can read the symbols of Nature?”

And in “Education,” Emerson refers to the
naturalist von Humboldt and wonders, “What but that much revolving of
similar facts in his mind has shown him that always the mind contains in its
transparent chambers the means of classifying the most refractory
phenomena.” He might just as well be speaking here of Cuvier and the other
naturalists who assembled the wonders in the museum cabinets.

The important matter, however, in this last reference is
speaking of the human mind with “its transparent chambers.” Here is
Emerson connecting consciousness with the nature of the universe in much the
same way he did in Paris
when he wrote, “Not a form so grotesque, so savage, nor so beautiful but
is an expression of some property inherent in man the observer.”

And in the later lectures,
there appear observations such as these: In “The Rule of Life:”

“The world can be reeled
off from any one of its laws like a ball of yarn! (The mind held and found
through perfect transparency.)” And in “The Natural Method of Mental

“… in the impenetrable
mystery which hides (through absolute transparency) the mental nature, I await
the insight which our advancing knowledge of material laws shall furnish.”

It is at this point, but with ample encouragement from
the radical Emerson, that I am moved to violate all the canons of literary
scholarship by exploring Emerson’s relation to quantum field theory. Having
passed into transparency prior to Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg, Emerson only
intuited the world of subatomic reality, and yet, I would argue that he would
have reacted as he did in Paris in exactly the same way to the famous
Uncertainty Principle, the collapse of the wave function and to the even more
remarkable proof of non‑locality, or what Einstein called “spooky action
at a distance.”

I would assert that if Emerson had been born later and
lived to study Bohr and Heisenberg, he would have declared, “I will be a
physicist” and this because it is the very same laws of transparency and
relation to the observer that he found in Paris.
Here, for example are several observations by contemporary physicists that
Emerson would have relished as confirmation of his views of reality: First,
this from Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos (Knopf, 2004). Greene
is a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University
and is one of the more reflective professionals in his willingness to enter the
public arena to explore the various theories of the nature of the universe. In
the book’s final chapter, he speculates on the possibility, entertained by a
number of physicists, that space/time itself may be an illusion. He  says, “space and time may similarly
dissolve when scrutinized with the most fundamental formulation of nature’s
laws.” 6  Here, ‘dissolve’ equals transparency.

In another instance, Roger Penrose, Emeritus Professor of
Physics at Cambridge
and Stephen Hawking’s dissertation advisor, wrote in his magnum opus, The
Road To Reality

Any universe that can be
observed  must, as a logical necessity,
be capable of supporting conscious mentality, since consciousness is precisely
what plays the ultimate role of ‘observer.’ This fundamental requirement could
well provide constraints of the universe’s physical laws, or physical
parameters, in order that conscious mentality can (and will) exist.”7

            This reference to a larger
realm of observation, connected by clear inference to a broader view of
consciousness, is thoroughly Emersonian. As early as Nature, in “Prospects,”
Emerson’s Orphic poet sang this hymn to human creative power:  “The laws of his mind, the periods of
his actions externized themselves into day and night, into the year and the
seasons. But, having made for himself this huge shell, his waters retired; he
no longer fills the veins and veinlets; he is shrunk to a drop. He sees, that
the structure still fits him, but fits him colossally. Say, rather, once it
fitted him, now it corresponds to him from far and on high. He adores timidly
his own work. Now is man the follower of the sun, and woman the follower of the
moon. Yet sometimes he starts in his slumber, and wonders at himself and his
house, and muses strangely at the resemblance betwixt him and it. He perceives
that if his law is still paramount, if still he have elemental power, if his
word is sterling yet in nature, it is not conscious power, it is not inferior
but superior to his will. It is Instinct.’ Thus my Orphic poet sang.”

I ask, how are we to take this mytho‑poetic outburst? It
begs the question, how might a physicist express the same point? Consider this
from the renowned Sir Arthur Eddington, in Space, Time and Gravitation,
1920): “Where science has progressed the farthest, the mind has but
regained from nature what the mind has put into nature. We have found a strange
footprint on the shores of the unknown. We have devised profound theories one
after another to account for its origin. At last we have succeeded in
reconstructing the creature that has made the footprint, and lo, it is our

What both Emerson and Eddington posit is slowly,
tentatively, becoming addressed by the more daring minds of theoretical physics
and philosophy, like Evan Walker in his book The Physics of Consciousness,
who concludes that physical reality is connected to consciousness by means of a
single physically fundamental quantity. I suspect
Emerson, citing his Orphic poet, would add that since the Over‑soul is
pervasively present, then the universe exists and is sustained because mind
exists to support as well as observe it. As he said in “Fate:”  “This beatitude dips from on high down
on us, and we see. It is not in us so much as we are in it.”

Thank you

This essay has been expanded
from material contained in Chapter Four of Listening To Emerson, to be
published in hardcover by David R Godine in April, 2008.


  1. JMN
    v. IV, 49
  2. JMN, v. IV, 199‑200.
  3. Laura Dassow Walls, Emerson’s Life in Science, Cornell
    U. Press, 2003, p. 86
  4. Stanley Cavell, Cities of Words, Harvard
    University Press, Cambridge, 2004, p.
  5. Robert Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire, U. Of California Press,
    p. 382
  6. Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos, Knopf, New
    York, 2004, p. 472
  7. Roger Penrose, The Road to Reality, Jonathan Cape, London,
    2004, p. 1030
  8. Arthur Eddington, Space, Time and Gravitation, Cambridge, 1920, p.