Transcendentalism versus Anti-Transcendentalism

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Transcendentalism versus Anti-Transcendentalism

Post  Steph C on Wed May 13, 2009 12:08 am

In Moby Dick, Melville's transcendentalist side is evident thorugh the character of Ahab in his frenzy to find and kill Moby Dick. When we really think about it, such a feat is impossible. A whale is easily a hundred times larger and stronger than a single man (or even a boatful, really) no matter how driven. However, Ahab has every faith in himself that he will succeed in his mission. He basically believe that the purpose for the remainder of his life is to seek vengeance from Moby Dick and he transcends the boundaries he needs to get it.
It is hotly debated whether or not Hawthorne believes people are innately evil or if he is optimistic towards human potential. The Scarlet Letter often gives an anti-transcendentalist taste through Chillingsworth and Dimmesdale. However, the opposite side of the spectrum is also portrayed. Transcendentalism is most clearly depicted in The Scarlet Letter in the character of Hester. She is branded with the scarlet letter in her early adulthood and spends the rest of her life in attempts to transcend the reputation she recklessly created for herself. Also, the society that dwells so much on punishment of shame and guilt ultimately somewhat transcends its previous outlook and sees Hester as a able, honorable woman by the time of her death. Change is indeed possible.

Emerson and Thoreau are central players in the field of transcendentalism. They choose not to dwell on the glum side of human nature and wrote optimistically about the potential to transcend. "Who can set boundaries to the possibilities of man?" Essays like Self Reliance are like pep talks that tell the reader YES YOU CAN. Being part of the magnificent, universal whole makes you invincible. There is nothing that can bind you. The intuition, this built in reservoir of unlimited knowledge is in every single one of us. There is a such thing as fate, but even that cannot stop you if you do not allow it to. Thoreau was slightly different from Emerson in that he actually applied Emerson's much-written about way of life to his life. Through his stay at Waldon, he experienced firsthand the inner life of nature and how it is possible to transcend circumstances and to truly feel the individual being as a part of the collective human essence. He's been there.
In Moby Dick, the climax is extra significant because it is the point where Melville "switches gears" from transcendentalism to anti-transcendentalism. Up to this point, Ahab is extremely passionate to his cause and has no doubts in his success. He began his journey saying something along the lines of truth can not be confined, indicating his absolute belief that his truth is revenge from Moby Dick, and that he has will go to the end of the earth to get it. However, anti-transcendentalism kicks in when Ahab hears the prophecy of his death and overall beings to lose hope. His initial spirit to transcend diminshes.

The anti-transcendentalists clearly diverge from the transcendentalists. For one, Emerson and Thoreau are a whole lot more optimistic than Hawthorne and Melville. The transcendentalists got a lot of criticism for just that--not acknowledging the darker side of human nature. An anti-transcendentalist might have argued that Thoreau, dispite having experienced all that he did, simply chose not to react to the negative things that were going on around him. I mean, he kind of just left Harvard to live in the woods. Hawthorne and Melville are not pessimists, however. Several of the anti-transcendentalists did not straightout disagree with transcendentalist belief, rather, they felt even with this enormous human potential, at the end of the day we have to be realistic. Their writing thus reflects the more "real" human tendency, though they do not completely reject the possibility to transcend (Hester and Ahab).
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Re: Transcendentalism versus Anti-Transcendentalism

Post  Angela on Wed May 13, 2009 12:50 am

Heyyyyy steph! Very Happy

The distinction that you made about the “A” ultimately representing “able” was something that I didn’t recall while synthesizing the transcendentalist ideas from Hawthorne. I’m really glad that you made that distinction and pointed it out! Our analysis of the transcendentalist ideas versus the anti-transcendentalist ideas are very similar! High-five! Razz
You pointed out that “He basically believe that the purpose for the remainder of his life is to seek vengeance from Moby Dick and he transcends the boundaries he needs to get it.” This is a strong point that supports Melville holding transcendentalist beliefs up to the climax and then later diverging into anti-transcendentalist beliefs. Indeed, Emerson and Thoreau choose to focus on the unlimited potential within each individual with great optimism that sharply contrasts with the views that Melville and Hawthorne hold. So in conclusion, we see that Melville and Hawthorne do not reject the transcendentalist beliefs hard-headedly, but rather that they are aware of the “real” human tendency, which, as you pointed out, may contain some “evil.”

Cool
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Re: Transcendentalism versus Anti-Transcendentalism

Post  Fermin Liu on Wed May 13, 2009 2:09 am

Wow, so insightful! I think that you central message of believing in oneself and having the right, optimistic mindset fully synthesizes all the key points of Transcendentalism and what is ultimately the difference between Transcendentalism and Anti-Transcendentalism. Your post clearly illustrates why the Transcendentalists focus primarily on the good of human beings (because they want to encourage people to have faith and thus, be able to access infinite potential), and why the Anti-Transcendentalists choose to focus on the good AND dark side of human nature (not because they disagreed with the Transcendentalists about whether or not people can actually transcend, but because they were simply acknowledging what they observed was going on in the world and the people in it). And I really liked how you ended up sort of saying that a major factor in Transcendentalism is choice and an individual's will. What I have questions about is the Ahab part of your post:

However, Ahab has every faith in himself that he will succeed in his mission. He basically believe that the purpose for the remainder of his life is to seek vengeance from Moby Dick and he transcends the boundaries he needs to get it.

I think that this part of Melville's Moby Dick reflects both Transcendentalist and Anti-Transcendentalist beliefs in that Ahab had the correct, positive mindset of "I can do anything" and thus, he transcended the physical domain and its odds and the impossible feat that Ahab's mission seemed to be. At the same time, however, doesn't Ahab's decision of going after the whale which is partly, if not completely, based on vengeance for something that happened in the past (the dismasting issue), give the story an Anti-Transcendentalist tone? The vengeance eventually consumes Ahab like it consumed Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter and even though it keeps Ahab going, isn't vengeance a path of self-destruction and at the same time one of restriction? I mean vengeance is like competition, and if Ahab is motivated by it, then isn't he restricted in his viewing of the bigger picture to only seeing himself having the potential to defeat Moby Dick and that's it? Yet in the Commentary, it says that Ahab "will sacrifice life itself his search for truth," so maybe he is going after Moby Dick for more reasons that just plain, simply revenge. But I still think that even if there is a part of him that is hunting Moby Dick because of a want for revenge, which there is as observed in his mad, stubborn actions and the commands he gives, then Ahab has not connected fully with the collective unconsciousness but is rather still very much in touch and being dominated by his ego-mind which is what led to his fall. And this cynical attitude toward the inner world of human nature is what makes Melville the Anti-Transcendentalist that he is. Very Happy
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Re: Transcendentalism versus Anti-Transcendentalism

Post  Steph C on Wed May 13, 2009 7:53 pm

Thanks for pointing that out, Fermin. You saw the whole picture; I didn't. WHen I was writing my response to the question, I felt a bit queasy about declaring Ahab a transcendentalist especially because of his lust for revenge. Seeing as we were to find the transcendentalist elements of Melville, I did not delve into that intuitional thought. Now that you bring it to my attention and I have thought more deeply about it, I so agree. A person with his sole motivation stemming from vengeance is not transcending for the right reasons, he is actually transcending downwards. The transcendentalists were optimistic in that they believed that even a bad situation/environment could be transcended if the person has the willpower to set things straight (Hester), "transcending" for the sake of holding a grudge seems to lean more towards the darker, "evil" aspect of human nature.
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Re: Transcendentalism versus Anti-Transcendentalism

Post  Ajk on Wed May 13, 2009 8:39 pm

Steph C wrote:In Moby Dick, Melville's transcendentalist side is evident thorugh the character of Ahab in his frenzy to find and kill Moby Dick. Exactly.

When we really think about it, such a feat is impossible. A whale is easily a hundred times larger and stronger than a single man (or even a boatful, really) no matter how driven. However, Ahab has every faith in himself that he will succeed in his mission. Right

He basically believe that the purpose for the remainder of his life is to seek vengeance from Moby Dick and he transcends the boundaries he needs to get it. Once the vengance enters in, this "frenzy" that he gets into no longer is Transcendentalism.

It is hotly debated whether or not Hawthorne believes people are innately evil or if he is optimistic towards human potential. The Scarlet Letter often gives an anti-transcendentalist taste through Chillingsworth and Dimmesdale. However, the opposite side of the spectrum is also portrayed. Transcendentalism is most clearly depicted in The Scarlet Letter in the character of Hester. She is branded with the scarlet letter in her early adulthood and spends the rest of her life in attempts to transcend the reputation she recklessly created for herself. Also, the society that dwells so much on punishment of shame and guilt ultimately somewhat transcends its previous outlook and sees Hester as a able, honorable woman by the time of her death. Change is indeed possible. And it is in this change, you are suggesting Steph, that there is the Transcendentalism? So that Transcendentalism does not have to be some hugely powerful, spiritual thing but it can be something as "low-key" as change? (Many people say so. In fact I was just having a discussion this morning with that healer I spoke of out of Palo Alto about how he believes this very thing, but that even moreso, it's not that people change, it's that behavior changes. Whew! Now that's kind of hair splitting for me, but perhaps some want to distinguish this. Change = Transcendence is what it seems like you're saying.

In Moby Dick, the climax is extra significant because it is the point where Melville "switches gears" from transcendentalism to anti-transcendentalism. Up to this point, Ahab is extremely passionate to his cause and has no doubts in his success. He began his journey saying something along the lines of truth can not be confined, indicating his absolute belief that his truth is revenge from Moby Dick, and that he has will go to the end of the earth to get it. However, anti-transcendentalism kicks in when Ahab hears the prophecy of his death and overall beings to lose hope. His initial spirit to transcend diminshes. Steph, you've identified a key line there, as well, where Ahab's search for the truth and belief in the truth is Transcendentalist in and of itself.

The anti-transcendentalists clearly diverge from the transcendentalists. For one, Emerson and Thoreau are a whole lot more optimistic than Hawthorne and Melville. The transcendentalists got a lot of criticism for just that--not acknowledging the darker side of human nature. An anti-transcendentalist might have argued that Thoreau, dispite having experienced all that he did, simply chose not to react to the negative things that were going on around him. I mean, he kind of just left Harvard to live in the woods. Hawthorne and Melville are not pessimists, however. Several of the anti-transcendentalists did not straightout disagree with transcendentalist belief, rather, they felt even with this enormous human potential, at the end of the day we have to be realistic. Their writing thus reflects the more "real" human tendency, though they do not completely reject the possibility to transcend (Hester and Ahab).

Ok Steph interesting end result here; that you say anti is the more real human tendency.Hmm.
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