Transcendentalism VS. Anti-Transcendentalism

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Transcendentalism VS. Anti-Transcendentalism

Post  anita on Wed May 13, 2009 1:59 am

Emerson really focuses on the ability of humans to transcend themselves, therefore he does not really convey negativity. "The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried." - Self-Reliance. The unlimited potential of humans has been highlighted over and over again by Emerson. Thoreau talks about the power and unlimited potential of nature, with his work being titled "The Pond in Water" "Spring" and more. "Nature puts no question and answers none which we mortals ask." According to Thoreau, nature does not ask questions because she already had the answer long ago, as the greatest truths lie within nature.

From the first glance, Emerson and Thoreau’s works might differ a lot from Melville and Hawthorne’s work, but in fact, just like the message of Transcendentalism, they are all part of a greater whole and they still share some similarities. There are still some transcendentalism factors underlying the seemingly “anti-transcendentalism” works.

Melville
In the beginning of Moby Dick, Captain Ahab is enthusiastic and possesses both the passion and curiosity to find the whale. Ahab reflects hope, which is a point that transcendentalism emphasizes. He is on a quest for absolute truth, eager to find spiritual reality. Life is like a journey in the vast ocean, which reflects the unlimited potential and possibilities. When Ahab is described by the narrator Ishmael, he is described as “a man cut away from the fire or forged from bronze” This verifies the transcendentalism idea that we all have unlimited potential, since it is not common for one to encounter someone who is forged from bronze. One may even dismiss that as impossible! But in here Melville displays that we should not impose artificial boundaries around ourselves just because science deems that not possible with human capabilities. Man could accomplish much more. Ahab is exploring experience in search of meaning to the deepest truths.

Melville begins to go downhill and diverge from the transcendentalism ideas after the climax. When Ahab tries to seek for the greatest truth, he realizes that what awaits him was not a generous and forgiving world, but more like a world that is unfriendly. During the process of seeking the truth, he has hurt himself along the way. With Ishmael, one understands that Ahab’s journey for truth has caused the outcome of suicide and death. Unlike the transcendentalists, Melville acknowledges that there are human limitations. “If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?” With this line, one can notice how Ahab views each human as a prisoner, and the whale representing a wall, or an obstacle. In addition, Ahab becomes so sucked in by his obsession of killing Moby-Dick that he views nature as the enemy, since it is preventing him from finding Moby-Dick. In the end, Melville shows how in the greatness of the universe, one can expand, but there is a limited time and space before one arrives to the point where negativity would hold him back. Melville shows the mortality of humans as the prophecy tells Ahab he would die and in the end, that does come true. Unlike the anti-transcendentalists, Melville emphasizes the importance of knowing one’s limits and not diving directly into something and become so absorbed in it that one forgets and surpasses what humans are capable of.

Hawthorne
In The Scarlet Letter of Hawthorne, many elements of Transcendentalism can also be noted. For example, the forest, which plays a significant role in the story, substantiates the power of nature to enable people to do things they would not normally do in public in fear of criticism, since Hester and Dimmesdale met secretly in the forest. Nature was almighty in that it acted as a layer of protection for the two characters. The forest proved how we were one and interconnected with everything, and how the greatest truths can be found in nature. The forest was the location where Hester and Dimmesdale could really put down their guards and masks and be true to themselves. It is in nature where the characters could push off and release their pressure temporarily. It is in nature where they could act their true selves and get in touch with their essence and intuition. Emerson stated in “Self Reliance,” “do not conform to society.” Hester is self-reliant in that she stood for her perspective and did not need Dimmesdale’s aid in surviving under the condemnation of the public and the burden of her own guilt and shame. Hester is a rebel who refuses to conforms to society’s standards, to the point where she became an outcast whom everybody avoided to be associated with. In the story, Pearl is an observant child who somehow understands that Dimmesdale was her father, even without the direct confirmation from either Hester or Dimmesdale. Doesn’t this show that we are all connected, as Pearl is able to feel and understand what is going on around her? Pearl does not appear to be like a normal child, she seems more mature. Does not this show the unlimited potential? In addition, Hester was also able to transcend herself, surprise those around her, and change the A from "able" to "adultery." Does this not show the hope for human potential and change?

On the other hand, even though I think The Scarlet Letter is more optimistic than pessimistic, there are still anti-transcendentalist elements in the book. There is a lot of “evil” elements in the story, including the part where Chillingworth would torture Dimmesdale in order to force him to tell the truth. From the transcendentalist point of view, Dimmesdale would be able to not view that as a difficulty and transcend that challenge. Actually, Chillingworth would not even do that in the transcendentalist point of view since e would be seeking the greatest truths within himself an nature instead of from Dimmesdale. Hawthorne shows how there is a gap between what human can achieve and what humans want to achieve. Dimmesdale wants to confess about his adultery with Hester, but he just could not, keeping in mind of his status and the guilt and shame he would have to suffer. Unike the optimism transcentalism conveys, there is a sense of negativity as there is an unbalanced equilibrium between human possibilities and human capapbility.
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Re: Transcendentalism VS. Anti-Transcendentalism

Post  ivy on Wed May 13, 2009 8:08 pm

“Life is like a journey in the vast ocean, which reflects the unlimited potential and possibilities.” I agree with what you say about life is like a journey in the ocean, because I think that defines what Transcendentalism, especially when transcending the norm is to become a part of the unknown. The line is also evident in Moby Dick, because they are, after all, out in the ocean trying to hunt down a whale.
However, I think Melville not only emphasizes the importance of knowing one’s limits, but also states there are consequences. When we had gone over the line that bounds us to our limited potential because of a foolish consistency, then we may face despair, death, and et cetera.
Speaking of foolish consistency, does this not seem that there is a part of transcendentalism when Ahab is trying to track Moby Dick? Melville is saying we have to understand the difference between foolish consistency and persistence, because one is being done out of vengeance, while the other is being done out of determination. So, I suppose Melville is also saying we should break away from our foolish consistency and only follow what is meant for us as Emerson has said.
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Re: Transcendentalism VS. Anti-Transcendentalism

Post  Ajk on Wed May 13, 2009 8:28 pm

[quote="anita"]Melville
In the beginning of Moby Dick, Captain Ahab is enthusiastic and possesses both the passion and curiosity to find the whale. Ahab reflects hope, which is a point that transcendentalism emphasizes. He is on a quest for absolute truth, eager to find spiritual reality. Life is like a journey in the vast ocean, which reflects the unlimited potential and possibilities.

But in here Melville displays that we should not impose artificial boundaries around ourselves just because science deems that not possible with human capabilities. Man could accomplish much more. Ahab is exploring experience in search of meaning to the deepest truths. This element of experience is from both Emerson in "Experience" and throughout Thoreau's works.

Melville begins to go downhill and diverge from the transcendentalism ideas after the climax. When Ahab tries to seek for the greatest truth, he realizes that what awaits him was not a generous and forgiving world, but more like a world that is unfriendly. During the process of seeking the truth, he has hurt himself along the way. With Ishmael, one understands that Ahab’s journey for truth has caused the outcome of suicide and death. Unlike the transcendentalists, Melville acknowledges that there are human limitations. “If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?” With this line, one can notice how Ahab views each human as a prisoner, and the whale representing a wall, or an obstacle. It's like he's saying why can't he break through? This is the exact point of where Melville reflects Anti-Transcendentalism.
In addition, Ahab becomes so sucked in by his obsession of killing Moby-Dick that he views nature as the enemy, since it is preventing him from finding Moby-Dick. In the end, Melville shows how in the greatness of the universe, one can expand, but there is a limited time and space before one arrives to the point where negativity would hold him back. Melville shows the mortality of humans as the prophecy tells Ahab he would die and in the end, that does come true. Unlike the anti-transcendentalists, Melville emphasizes the importance of knowing one’s limits and not diving directly into something and become so absorbed in it that one forgets and surpasses what humans are capable of.

Anita - you really did an excellent job with understanding Melville's Transcendentalist and Anti-Transcendentalist ideas. Clearly, with your discussion, save for the one point that I've cut, you knew precisely where Melville showed his Transcendentalist ideas, and how. It's as if you could teach this, you pinpointed the exact parts of the excerpt from Moby Dick that contained the Transcendentalist items. Also, you chose the single most apt quote for this discussion. Strong interpretation, girl. You should be proud of yourself. Ms. Kay

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