Transcendentalism versus Anti-Transcendentalism

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Transcendentalism versus Anti-Transcendentalism

Post  Vicky on Tue May 12, 2009 11:20 pm

In Moby Dick, one of the most compelling statements that Ahab declares is that “Truth hath no confines.” This reflects the Transcendentalist belief that there are no limitations to the human search for truth. A similar statement made by Emerson in Self-Reliance is that “who can set bounds to the possibilities of man?” This also shows the idea that on the quest for truth, there is nothing that is limiting us. The only thing that is possibly blocking our access to truth is our own mind. Therefore, in order to unleash our innate unlimited potential, the first step is to start believing in oneself. Ahab clearly demonstrated his self-reliance when he fervently expresses his conviction that he will kill the whale. He does not doubt his ability to kill Moby Dick. Melville is showing that self-reliance is an important element that should be included in our lives. In the story, when Starbuck voices his opinion that Ahab should not be seeking for vengeance just because of this instinct within himself, Ahab retorts that “But not my master, man is even that fair play. Who’s over me?” Melville is showing his belief that we are a created equals, no one should be able to tell us what to do. We have the ability to decide for ourselves what we wish to pursue in life (or in Ahab’s case, to kill Moby Dick). We are all unique entities of a Universal Being. There is, therefore, no one who is more superior to others. That is why competition with each other should not happen, because there are no “divine ideas” that are more “divine” than others. We should pursue, then, what our beings want us to pursue. Also, another Transcendentalist idea that Melville reflects through Ahab is unlimited potential. Melville displays Ahab’s wild imagination – his belief in himself that he can successfully kill Moby Dick – as a means of showing how unlimited the human’s imagination is. There is a chief difference between Emerson and Melville’s beliefs on unlimited potential, and it is that Emerson believes that we have unlimited potentially both mentally and physically, while Melville thinks that we do not possess as much potential in the physical domain than in our imaginations. Moreover, I think another transcendental idea that Melville presents is the idea that thoughts create reality – our actions are the result of our inner thoughts. In the story, Ahab’s vengeance arises from his inner bitterness towards Moby Dick. Ahab regards the whale as something evil – something that must be annihilated.

Hawthorne also expresses some Transcendentalism ideas. For instance, Hawthorne believes that people should not conform to society policies if their beings do not really agree with those rules. We should not limit our boundaries within the expectations and trends presented by our society. In the Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne shows the corruption of the Puritan paradigm to reflect that the rules set by society are not necessary moral. Governor Bellingham’s house, for example, shows such extravagance in decoration that it clearly goes against the “plainness” factor that is at the heart of the Puritan belief. Through this example, Hawthorne is asking his readers: if the authority figures who come up with the rules that they expect people to follow don’t even truly believe in the principles themselves, then why should we? Why can we not question the validity of these principles? Therefore, Hawthorne is also reflecting one of Emerson’s transcendental beliefs – “Society is a joint-stock company in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.” In addition, Hawthorne also agrees with the idea that nature provides an outlet for all the anxiety of society – “In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life – no disgrace, no calamity, which cannot be repaired.” (Nature, Emerson). In The Scarlet Letter, Hester and Pearl escape from the pressures of society by going into the woods. Pearl is peculiar in that she expresses what she believes in without any constraints. This shows that she is not yet contaminated by the societal expectations of saying “inappropriate things.” That is probably why when she and Hester go into the woods, beams of sunlight pour onto Pearl. However, the reason why the sunlight (nature) does not shine on Hester is that she has lost a lot of her “vibrant” characteristic from the beginning of the story. This shows that she has conformed to the Puritan society, after all, and is trying to fit in by sewing clothing for ceremonies.

SO, I think the one of the main differences between the transcendentalist and anti-transcendentalists is that while both believed in unlimited potential, the anti-transcendentalists only believed in the unlimited potential of our imaginations. They feel that there are still restrictions in the physical domain, or “reality.” They also seemed to believe that the unlimited “mind” potential leads to evil. In Moby Dick, Ahab lets his imagination run wild when he thinks of slaughtering the white whale. However, in reality, he does not successfully kill Moby Dick. Instead, he is killed by the whale. Moreover, I think that Melville also believed greatly in the fate. In his story, Ahab ended up experiencing everything that was told by a prophecy. Therefore, doesn’t this kind of show that Melville does not completely believe in unlimited potential. Melville seems to believe that it is a little naïve to think that all things on Earth are rainbows and cotton candy – things do not just manifest completely the way we want them to. Also, Hawthorne seems to believe that humans have the tendency stay conformed to society once we’ve enter its swamp. It is as if we are trapped in the swamp once we step into the. It is hard to break away from the confines of societal expectations. Emerson and Thoreau believed that as long as we recognize that we are all representations of divine ideas, we are able to refrain from being as attached to society as when we were ignorant. However, in the Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne shows Hester’s transformation from being a light-hearted and somewhat rebellious girl to one who is grim and functions within the parameters of her society. Hawthorne is, therefore, showing skepticism towards people’s abilities to change for the greater good. He still seems to believe that we are swayed towards the “evil” side. He thinks that once we’ve entered the “evil” side it is hard for us to ignore its lure and regain our self-trust. The fear of being made an outcast overdrives the will to follow our intuition. We have been caught too deeply in society’s web to untangle ourselves and come out unscathed.

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Re: Transcendentalism versus Anti-Transcendentalism

Post  ivy on Sat May 16, 2009 3:00 pm

Vicky wrote:Moreover, I think another transcendental idea that Melville presents is the idea that thoughts create reality – our actions are the result of our inner thoughts. In the story, Ahab’s vengeance arises from his inner bitterness towards Moby Dick. Ahab regards the whale as something evil – something that must be annihilated.

can you perhaps elaborate on the "thoughts create reality" idea that Melville has presented? I'm rather lost, because if Ahab's vengeance arises from his inner being, then isn't the idea leaning toward anti-transcendentalist?

thanks for pointing out the part where the governor being hypocritical is Hawthorne's way of presenting transcendentalism. There are so many insights in The Scarlet Letter's analysis that I haven't even thought about!

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