Thoreau, crystallography, and the science of the transparent.
Henry Thoreau is an experienced skater, and was figuring Dithyrambic dances and Bacchic leaps on the ice--very remarkable, but very ugly, methought. Next him followed Mr. Hawthorne who, wrapped in his cloak, moved like a self-impelled Greek statue, stately, and grave. Mr. Emerson closed the line, evidently too weary to hold himself erect, pitching headforemost, half lying on the air. (2)
One wonders what possessed Emerson and Thoreau to accompany Hawthorne to the ice. While Hawthorne deports himself with classical decorum (playing the straight man), the formerly dignified Emerson flails against gravity, each instant threatening to thud on the grains, and Thoreau turns rambunctious adolescent, struggling to recover a grace he perhaps never enjoyed.
But then we recall: Emerson and Thoreau, despite their skaterly forms, had long been interested in ice. Six years before, Emerson while walking over a frozen Concord common had turned transparent eyeball--becoming nothing, to see all. This crystal vision later shimmered in "The SnowStorm," a poem on the vitality of ice. Likewise, Thoreau had already spent hours recording frozen phenomena: the rime on his morning window, the blue-gray bubbles in a cake of Walden ice.
Why would Thoreau, hungry for life, be concerned with frozen wastes? One answer: he was aware of a particular science that emerged in the late eighteenth century: crystallography, the study of the qualities of crystals, especially their structure and growth. Beginning to understand with unprecedented precision the laws of crystal formation, scientists of the age, such as Emanuel Swedenborg and Rene-Just Hauy, recognized in the crystal not only an intrinsically interesting specimen but also a special revelation of the secret virtues of matter. Staring into the transparent corridors of these minute prisms--frozen or otherwise these eighteenth-century observers were indeed searching for nothing less than the portal to the monads of the universe and the powers by which these primal patterns combine.
Thoreau was interested in ice crystals for precisely this reason--the hoar frost on the morning window could constitute a numinous disclosure of the laws of life. Envisioning the currents of life in the crystal, Thoreau further embraced the bit of ice as a poetic model--a transparent prism troping unseen light into dazzling spectrums. Accordingly, I shall study Thoreau's representations of ice not only to shed fresh light on his general theories of seeing, nature, and language but also to illuminate his particular obsessions in Walden: "transparency," "formation," and "extravagance."
In 1842, in his first published essay, Thoreau wonders why "[v]egetation has been made the type of all growth" since "in crystals the law is more obvious." [W]ould it not be as philosophical as convenient to consider all growth," he continues, "but a crystallization more or less rapid?" (3) This remarkable suggestion--that ice is the primary form of organic development--could well be only the clever trope of a budding poet. However, when we are reading a writer who spent his days recording facts, we should always first take him literally. No doubt, his own close studies of the homologies between crystals and leaves inspired him to make such an assertion. Moreover, he knew that he was reinforcing with his own eyes what had already been conjectured by several European natural philosophers during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Before he became the visionary who would profoundly influence New England transcendentalism, Swedenborg was a metallurgist, chemist, and mining engineer who possibly originated the science of crystallography. (4) Remarkably, the young Swedenborg discovered in crystals what he would later find in everything after his conversations with angels in 1745: the invisible world revealed. Indeed, even in his early scientific works, Swedenborg advanced the insight that Emerson and Thoreau would later admire--the finite, visible world corresponds to an infinite, unseen one. In Emerson's words, Swedenborg throughout his life found that "[e]ach law of nature has the like universality; eating, sleep or hybernation, rotation, generation, metamorphosis, vortical motion, which is seen in eggs as in planets." "These grand rhymes," Emerson continues, "delighted the prophetic eye of Swedenborg." (5)
Sedenborg's crystallography is at the core of this analogical vision. In his first book, the Principles of Chemistry (1721), he notes that the hexagonal shapes of ice combine and spread in the same way that vegetables bud and branch. Just as botanical seeds under the influence of heat and water press outward into leafy encrustations, so aqueous globules in freezing temperatures solidify into transparent stars. Swedenborg discovers a similar process when he studies how water produces crystals of salt. For Swedenborg, both crystallizations are remarkable, for they illustrate the transformation of amorphous spheres into cubes. (6)
In the context of Swedenborg's cosmogony, these same crystals become windows to the secret mechanisms of life. According to Swedenborg in his Principles of Chemistry as well as in his 1722 Miscellaneous Observations on Natural Things and his 1734 Philosophical and Mineralogical Works, the process by which infinite spirit originates and sustains the finite universe is essentially crystallization, the transformation of shapeless energy into regular structures, called "crustals." For Swedenborg, the universe began when infinite spirit condensed its force into a single, transparent, spiraling point. (Think of a single eddy in an immense ocean.) Overwhelmed by the boundless energy it contains, this point--a portal between infinity and the finite whirls eventually into the first crustal: a vortex comprised of inner motion and a highly tenuous, transparent crust. (Now picture a tornado and call its outer shape a crust.) The force of this powerful motion eventually explodes the outer crust into fragments that likewise churn into translucent spherules of energy, or crustallized eddies. These spheres are primary particles. They in turn combine to form elements--gravity, magnetism, ether, and air--that organize the particles into a vast solar vortex. Eventually, this solar rotation, like the first point of infinity, flies apart at its edges, and the resulting fragments constitute the chaos described at the beginning of Genesis. The abyss--yet another huge vortex--at some point divides into planets, among which is the earth, a more stable and opaque crustillization that frequently freezes into crystals--nebulous spheres transformed into cubes and hexagons. (7)
At least five salient points emerge from this theory. One, Swedenborg rejects Newton's atoms moving mechanically in a void and instead believes that the universe is comprised of motion organized in geometrical forms. Two, particles and elements, though organized by crusts of varying degrees of plasticity, are transparent in their pristine forms. They become opaque only when combined into irregular patterns. Three, events are polarized--distributed motion and discrete pattern, centripetal and centrifugal forces. Four, the universe is analogical. The original infinity cohering into a primal point is homologous to the solar vortex condensing into a sun, the first chaos organizing into planets, mushy seeds pressing into leaves, and globes of water stiffening into crystals. Five, each part, properly seen, is a window to and a mirror of infinity: as geometrical patterns of spirit, both beholder and beheld refract and reflect the first light.
The crystal, then, is no different in kind from any other being in Swedenborg's universe: everything is a geometrical form of infinite motion. The crystal is, however, distinct in degree, for it reveals in the clearest of lights the cosmic processes that remain hidden in more opaque, lubricious events. In other words, the crystal is capable of revealing hidden correspondences between visible and invisible forms, and thus constitutes an early instance of Swedenborg's theory of correspondence: the visible world as glassy template of an invisible one. Indeed, in these scientific treatises, Swedenborg laid foundations for his later effort, to use Emerson's words, "to put science and the soul, long estranged from one another, at one again" (Representative Men 63).
Composing his 1850 essay on Swedenborg, Emerson likely recalled an 1839 article in The New Jerusalem Magazine, "Swedenborg's Scientific Merit," in which he would have found that Swedenborg originated the science of crystallography (see note 4). But Emerson did not need to go to this periodical to learn about the science of crystal. By the turn of the nineteenth century, several natural philosophers of whom he was aware were developing Swedenborg's dynamical crystallography in three directions: the "molecular," the "electromagnetic," and the "organic." (8)
(7.) Swedenborg, The Principia, trans. Augustus Clissold (London: William Newbery, 1846) 45-54.
(8.) In designating these three "schools" of crystallography, I am largely following John G. Burke's Origins of the Science of Crystals (Berkeley and London: U of California P, 1966) 11-51. I should here note that it is likely that the crystallographers comprising these three schools had not been exposed, as Emerson had, to Swedenborg's scientific work.
As Emerson learned from John Herschel's 1830 Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, crystallography was emerging as a method for ascertaining the atomic nature of matter (9) According to Herschel, in the late eighteenth century Hauy theorized that crystals are comprised of "integral molecules" that aggregate into larger crystalline shapes according to mathematical rules, (10) Forwarding this theory, Hauy betrayed a Newtonian heritage--he assumes that matter is made of atoms that combine mechanically--that Eilhardt Mitscherlich would later attempt to correct through a more intense attention to chemistry. Mitscherlich in the early nineteenth century suggested that crystals are distinct from uncrystallized bodies not through their integral molecules but by way of their chemical compositions. For Mitscherlich, crystals are best studied as a collection of spherical atoms held together by electrical affinity. Still, though this theory improves on Hauy's by being more sensitive to chemical complexity, it nonetheless, as Herschel notes, relies on the notion that matter is comprised of minute particles that aggregate through "mutual attractions and repulsions," otherwise called "molecular forces." Seen this way, crystals are "little machines" geometrically embodying the blind forces of the cosmos. (11)
While Emerson was learning of this mechanical model of the crystal, which recalls Swedenborg's geometries of the crystal, he was also becoming aware of a more dynamical theory of crystalline matter based on the emerging science of electromagnetism. By 1807, Humphry Davy had discovered that chemical relations are electromagnetic: charged elements combine or separate through agreement or disagreement in galvanic charges. This finding--of which Emerson learned in Davy's Elements of Chemical Philosophy (1812) (12)--inspired the British scientist to conjecture that matter might be comprised of "physical points endowed with attraction and repulsion" and therefore capable of being "measured by their electrical relations." (13) Like Swedenborg before him, Davy embraced the crystal as a rich revelation of nature's polarized powers, wondering if the "laws of crystallization" and the "electrical polarities of bodies" are "intimately related." (14) Some years later--as Emerson was well aware (15)--Davy's student Faraday likewise turned to the crystal in order to substantiate his own theories of electromagnetism. In 1831, Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction, a finding that did away with Newton's (and Hauy's) notion of matter by revealing material as a field of electromagnetic waves. (16) Throughout the rest of his days, Faraday labored in his Experimental Researches in Electricity (1831-1852) to understand the implications of this finding--which Emerson himself hailed in 1834 as the disclosure of the "secret mechanism" of "life" and "sensation." (17) In the course of these efforts, Faraday frequently turned to the crystal, for he found in its transparent lattices "beautiful" manifestations of the "electrical condition" (Experimental Researches [paragraph] 1689).
While Davy and Faraday approached crystals from the angles of chemistry and physics, Goethe and Schelling studied crystallization from a more biological point of view. In botanical and zoological studies later perused by Emerson, (18) Goethe laid out his primary scientific idea: nature develops through the agency of archetypal forms that metamorphose into diverse phenomena. As Goethe claimed in his 1790 The Metamorphosis of Plants, the primal plant form is the leaf. (19) Four years earlier, in an article on the intermaxillary bone, he proposed that the archetypal zoological phenomenon is the vertebra. (20) Even earlier, observing geological phenomena in an 1784 essay, Goethe concluded that granite is the primal rock form, a first crystallization of an original liquid fire. (21) Just as one leaf develops into all plants, and a single bone emanates into every animal, so a granite crystal is the seed of the earth's rocks. Appropriately, Emerson draws on these studies in his essay on Swedenborg, using Goethe's analogical theory to illustrate Swedenborg's homologies (Representative Men 60-61). Emerson also no doubt had in mind a key passage in Goethe's 1820 On Morphology: "Nature has no system; she has--she is--life and development from an unknown center toward an unknowable periphery." Yet, Goethe immediately adds that a centripetal power counters nature's boundless, centrifugal forces. (22) This centripetal balance is another way of conceiving the archetype, the formative principle of formless energy. In Goethe's cosmos, unbounded life organizes itself into polarized eddies, variously accelerated: round bone, eye of leaf, and quartz spheroid.
As Emerson knew from his philosophical studies, (23) Schelling, like Goethe, rebelled against mechanism by endorsing a theory of a single field of energy that is not merely blind electricity but rather a living, developing, conscious power. As Schelling argues in Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1797), an abysmal "Absolute" realizes itself by manifesting itself to itself in dynamic, evolving polarized processes between antinomies such as ideal and real, infinite and finite, subject and object, irritation and satisfaction, attraction and repulsion. Each polarized form is not only a visible pattern of the invisible principle of life but also a marker of this principle's consciousness of itself. Galvanized stones are ciphers of spirit at a low level of awareness. Breathing plants reveal spirit at a higher level of consciousness. Animals, who negotiate between pain and pleasure, show spirit to be capable of rudimentary thought. Humans, comprised of finite body and infinite mind, perfect the spirit by self-consciously reflecting the spirit back to itself. (24) Given this cosmology, in which an amorphous vitality manifests itself in solid forms, it is not surprising that Schelling especially emphasized the process of crystallization. In On the World Soul (1798), he argues that nature tends toward crystallization as a primary form of individuality: rock or ice crystals are primitive organizations of life that will one day evolve into more individualistic structures, such as plants, animals, and humans. Crystals are early humans; humans are evolved crystals. (25)
If Emerson through his reading became aware of theories of crystallography, Thoreau through his own observations connected to cold crystal facts. This is not to say that Thoreau was not versed in theories of the crystal. In the 1840s, he was learning of Goethe's theory of archetypal forms in the Italian Journey (1786) and of Schelling's Naturphilosophie in J. B. Stallo's General Principles of the Philosophy of Nature (1848). (26) Likewise, he was familiar with Swedenborg, favorably alluding to the Swedish seer in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. (27) Moreover, he probably learned about Davy's and Faraday's electromagnetic crystals from his conversations with Emerson. Still, Thoreau valued experience over authority. (28) Unlike Emerson, content to glean his crystallography from treatises, Thoreau went regularly to the ice, where, fascinated by the reticulated tetrahedrons, he gathered facts and ideas. Studying these lattices almost daily during the Concord winters, Thoreau in the end found them much more interesting and important than did Emerson. He not only crafted numerous descriptions of their forms and functions. He also found in them a symbol of his most persistent idea: nature is a form of turbulence, an agitated poem, a crystal whose interiors storm.
Embracing the ice as a revelation of life, Thoreau combines heterogeneous offices. He is a scryer, studying crystals to find the destiny of the cosmos, the rhythm by which everything--pond, loon, human--moves. He is an optical theorist, searching in the frozen lens for laws by which light bends into colors, by which his own eyes curve thoughts and feelings into images. He is a physicist and chemist, in the crystalline shape looking for the principles by which matter moves and combines. A biologist as well, Thoreau also sounds the ice for the laws of life--the processes by which living things function--and life itself--the original abyss beyond its concrete forms. Merging these offices, Thoreau is above all a poet--a scribbling magus, a scientist armed with tropes--transforming cosmos into logos, ice crystals into crystalline symbols.
Thoreau began his studies of crystals on December 24, 1837, only months out of Harvard and a few pages into his journal (begun at Emerson's suggestion). He notices some "curious crystallizations" in the "side of the high bank by the leaning hemlock."
Wherever the water, or other causes, had formed a hole in the bank--its throat and outer edge ... bristled with a glistening ice armor. In one place you might see minute ostrich feathers, which seemed the waving plumes of the warrior ... in another the glancing fan-shaped banners of the Liliputian host--and in another the needle-shaped particles collected into bundles resembling the plumes of the pine, might pass for a phalanx of spears. The whole hill was like an immense quartz rock--with minute crystals sparkling from innumerable crannies. I tried to fancy that there was a disposition in these Crystallizations to take the forms of the contiguous foliage. (29)
Grasping for tropes to picture these curious prisms, Thoreau strangely mixes war implements and organic forms. The crystals appear as plates of shining armor, ostrich feathers waving like plumes, fans turned miniature banners, and pine needles become spears. While the crystals seem to be static, Thoreau sees in them activity--growth and flight, the energy of soldiers before the attack. Yet, in the midst of this tension, the ice suddenly explodes. The bank turns quartz. It shimmers innumerable sparks. Warmed, Thoreau imagines the crystals as closely linked leaves.
These crystals attract Thoreau for several reasons. First, he is simply fascinated by their bristling shapes. Two, these frozen shapes inspire him to create his own forms--a series of tropes in which he likens crystals to feathers, banners, and spears. Three, as Thoreau fashions his tropes, he senses fiery energy lurking in the calm crystals. Four, he realizes that these coruscating crystals, not dead, might hold the key to the "disposition" to grow like foliage.
In addition to these salient features--which recall Goethe and Schelling--we observe two other points. Thoreau perceives the frost a highly specific way, noticing in its particular geometries, lattices, reticulations, textures, and colors analogies to other palpable, finely rendered images, like feathers and leaves. This concrete vision is not an end in itself: Thoreau's particular attention serves as a seed from which richer visions grow; or, to change the metaphor, as a pebble splashing a pond into concentric circles. From his initial descriptions of the ice, he rises to a more general metaphor--ice as plane of quartz shimmering with a pervasive fire and then to an even more general trope--the crystals as revelations and vehicles of life itself. The ice activates Thoreau's mind. It stimulates in him imaginative acts of perception that open into intuitions of holistic energies coursing not only through crystals but also stones and leaves.
Thoreau's agents of transformation in this process require further explanation. Instead of leaping from part to whole, Thoreau works his way from particular to general by way of analogies, by the power of tropes. He focuses his attention on the minute forms of the crystal. He feels a relationship between this prism and a ubiquitous energy, but he cannot think exactly what this relationship is. Inspired by the crystalline shape and his desire to grasp a whole beyond the parts, he forges correspondences. The transparent reticulations suggest the networks in the leaf, which in turn point to imbrications of the feather, and the feather opens into more complex human productions: not only elegant armor and instruments of war but also, as we shall see, musical chords and poetic rhymes. Each successive trope serves as a magnifying, lens, a crystal in its own right, through which Thoreau sees his way to the next level.
One thinks here of Emerson's 1841 "Circles," in which Emerson claims that the eye is the first circle, while the horizon it forms is the second. Each more general vista, each wider horizon, constitutes a further circle that includes and transcends those that came before it. Notably, when he views crystal, Thoreau's first horizon is comprised of inanimate elements, nonliving atoms and molecules; his second is composed of cells, plant cells, which contain atoms and molecules; his third circle is made of cells combined into organs--the bird-wing; and his fourth sphere opens into the human being, who adds self-consciousness to the atoms, cells, and organs that comprise him. Thoreau's concentric vision does not stop here but extends outward to even more universal regions.
Thoreau returns to these connections in his 1842 "A Natural History of Massachusetts." Recalling a walk on an icy morning of 1837 that was favorable for "crystalline botany," he likens crystals to foliation:
When the first rays of the sun slanted over the scene, the grasses seemed hung with innumerable jewels, which jingled merrily as they were brushed by the foot of the traveler, and reflected all the hues of the rainbow, as he moved from side to side. It struck me that these ghost leaves, and the green ones whose forms they assume, were the creatures of but one law; that in obedience to the same law the vegetable juices swell gradually into the perfect leaf, on the one hand, and the crystalline particles troop to their standard in the same order, on the other. As if the material were indifferent, but the law one and invariable, and every plant in the spring but pushed up into and filled a permanent and eternal mould, which, summer and winter forever, is waiting to be filled. This foliate structure is common to the coral and the plumage of birds, and to how large a part of animate and inanimate nature. The same independence of law on matter is observable in many other instances, as in the natural rhymes, when some animal form, color, or odor has its counterpart in some vegetable. As, indeed, all rhymes imply an eternal melody, independent of any particular sense.... Vegetation has been made the type of all growth; but as in crystals the law is more obvious, their material being more simple, and for the most part more transient and fleeting, would it not be as philosophical as convenient to consider all growth ... but a crystallization more or less rapid? (53-54)
Thoreau is initially drawn to the frost-covered blades. They shimmer like "innumerable jewels" and reflect the "hues of the rainbow." Inspired by this image of kaleidoscopic gems, he elevates to a new trope: he envisions the blades as phantom adumbrations of leaves. He generalizes further. He conjectures that these frosty revelations and the more sappy ones in summer pattern one law. Rising to increasingly holistic insights, he wonders if all material forms are manifestations of this law. If so, the favored form of this principle is the crystal, an archetypal structure common to all nature. The crystalline form is the "rhyme" scheme of nature. It gathers into poetic harmony not only vegetable forms (leaves) and animal shapes (feathers) but also colors and odors. These crystal assonances and alliterations point to an "eternal melody," the music of the spheres humming beyond fleshy ears. Crystals, not leaves, should be "the type of all growth," for in crystals being is more brightly revealed.
Crystal shapes again captivate Thoreau. Their anatomies once more inspire him to create increasingly general tropes. These tropes empower him to intuit the primal form of life. Yet, Thoreau here recognizes new potencies. In likening the illuminated frost to jewels reflecting the rainbow, Thoreau shows that ice is a prism refracting white light into the diverse colors of the spectrum. The morning ice is a mediator between undifferentiated brightness and the different hues of the world, and thus a threshold between the one and the many (Ishmael's "colorless all color" and Hopkins' pied beauty). The crystal as prism bends, or turns, white light into diverse colors that hide and reveal the transparent brightness immanent in their opaque hues. This troping of colorless beams into kaleidoscopic fulgurations is "characterized by a translucence ... of the eternal in the particular. It always partakes of the reality which it renders intelligible; and while it annunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part of that unity of which it is representative." (30) These last words come from Coleridge's definition of the symbol in Statesman's Manual (1816) and suggest that the ice crystal as prism is a symbol of the symbol, an organic exemplification of what literary symbols sometimes achieve--"a living momentary revelation of the Inscrutable" (31)--to use Goethe's words in Maxims and Reflections. Smitten by the poetics of nature (gazing at the crystal turn unsullied light into dazzling spectrums), Thoreau aptly creates his own tropes, turns of transparent feelings into words.
The crystal's colors point to a ubiquitous brightness. Its "foliate structure" suggests a form repeated throughout the universe. "Rhyming" with other structures--leaves and feathers--the crystal opens into a cosmic poem or symphony that expresses the eternal law through which vital energy becomes cogent form. Though this law is beyond observation and description ("independent of any particular sense"), it nonetheless partially reveals its virtues in a recurring "foliate structure" common to frost (stable crystals), leaves (crystals that flutter), feathers (jewels that fly), and even humans (with minds like diamonds). Like Goethe's archetypes and Schelling's primary polarities, this crystalline form organizes--differentiates--the infinite, undifferentiated energy of life. Precipitations of holistic power, Thoreau's crystals are thus prototypical patterns of all growth--mergings of centrifugal vitality and centripetal cohesion, unity and diversity, mystery and solution.
These two remarkable sequences on frost--from 1837 and 1842--are not exceptional but reveal virtues of ice that persistently fascinated Thoreau. For instance, in February of 1851, Thoreau fixates on "fleets of ice flakes" that reflect the sun like "mirrors" and embody nature's "art." Likewise, in January of 1852, Thoreau likens ice to "foliage" as well as "the characters of some oriental language." Later that month, the snow inspires him to conclude that there is "a vegetable life as well as a spiritual and animal life in us." In January of 1853, Thoreau marvels over a frozen waterfall spangled with "egg shaped diamonds" and "branch fungus icicle[s]." Snow crystals in January of 1856 motivate this insight: "the same law that shapes the earth-star shapes the snow star ... [E]ach of these countless snow-stars comes whirling to earth, pronouncing ... Order, kosmos." (32)
Thoreau's early and abiding studies of crystals yield to him particular insights on vision, nature, and language. Beholding the morning frost, he sees through the shimmering lattices to the primal crystalline form organizing the amorphous force of life. He realizes: the crystal is not only in the ice but also in trees, birds, and men. Hence, everything, properly viewed, is a crystal--a transparent portal through which one might discern invisible powers cross-crossing the cosmos. Viewing the world through a crystal lens, Thoreau penetrates the hidden law by which the one becomes the many, energy turns to form. He understands that holistic life functions in polarized patterns, gatherings of centrifugal power and centripetal stability, turbulence and geometry. Organic forms, Thoreau further realizes, resemble poetic forms. Crystal structures--whether they thrive in ice, leaves, wings, or brains--are tropes, turning invisible energy (white light) into visible images (pied spectrums). Specifically, they are synecdoches, parts partaking of and revealing the whole, opaquely transparent windows partially disclosing the mysterious power of which they--and everything else--are made.
Thoreau's crystallography, then, not only offers an intrinsically interesting interpretation of frozen shapes. It also provides potent hermeneutical tools for illuminating three of Thoreau's most persistent concerns in Walden: "transparency," "formation," "extravagance," registers, respectively, for "optics," "organicism," and "poetics." Even though Thoreau in Walden is more interested in leaves than crystals, he nonetheless is drawn to the pond because it is a "great crystal" on the "surface of the earth." (33) The crystalline virtues of Walden water--thawed or frozen--constitute some of the primary goals of Thoreau's Walden quest.
As Thoreau announces throughout "The Ponds," he values Walden water for its "crystalline purity," its especial pellucidity. "The water," he observes, "is so transparent that the bottom can be easily discerned at the depth of twenty-five or thirty feet." Sailing over the unfrozen pond, he can see many feet beneath the surface the schools of perch and shiners, perhaps only an inch long." From the pond's frozen surface, he can discern and retrieve a lost axe, even though it rests some twenty-five feet below (177-78). Likewise, he finds that "such transparent and seemingly bottomless water" not only reveals its depths below but also reflects the clouds above. Hence, to float on this translucent surface is also to fly in the air, and to watch fish become birds (189-90). Disclosing the deeps and marrying opposites, the pond moreover comprises a standard of beauty. It--along with White Pond--is "much more beautiful than our lives," "much more transparent than our characters" (199). Hyaline like "precious stones," these liquid surfaces are better able to reflect and thus to intensify light than are more opaque bodies. They are "Lakes of Light," fiery concentrations of the ubiquitous luminosity often unnoticed in the loose atmosphere. Frozen, Walden water features similar virtues. As Thoreau claims in "House-Warming," the pond's first ice--"being hard, dark, and transparent"--"affords the best opportunity that ever offers for examining the bottom where it is shallow" (246). In "Pond in Winter," the transparency of the blue ice inspires him to consider "ice" as "an interesting subject for contemplation," for frozen water seems to remain "sweet forever" while thawed "soon becomes putrid" (297).
Like the morning ice Thoreau earlier observed, the crystalline water--frozen or thawed--constitutes a special means of vision as well as the ideal end of vision. First of all, the transparent surface which Thoreau actually calls "earth's eye" (186)--allows him to view depths, interpenetrations, brightnesses, and durations that he would not normally perceive. Looking through the sheet of thawed water, using it for his eyes, he apprehends the pond's "bottomless water"; notices marriages between muck and clouds, bounded form and boundless space; discerns the sun's rays more intensely revealed; and apprehends mergings of time (blue ice) and eternity (eternal sweetness). Sounding from the frozen surface, he recovers things otherwise lost, such as his axe and the pond's deepest bottom--which, though measurable, inspires thoughts of abyssal depths.
If the pond's transparency facilitates such visions, it also symbolizes the ideal ends of these acts of seeing. As Thoreau intones in "Pond in Winter," soon after he has measured the bottom, he is "thankful that this pond was made deep and pure for a symbol" (287). Though he does not say exactly what the pond symbolizes, he suggests that it points to crystalline qualities that all beings secretly possess. To see forms not merely as self-contained units of opaque matter but also as transparent patterns of holistic energies--this is one of Thoreau's primary quests at Walden Pond. He attempts to translate his activities--ranging from digging to bathing to fishing to planting--as well as the phenomena he studies--such as loons and owls and leaves that blow--into windows through which he can see constant laws and mirrors in which he can view his own essential nature. In essaying to discover covert crystals in opaque elements, Thoreau tries to find in everything what he perceived in the pond: interpenetrations between surface and depth, finite and infinite, time and eternity, darkness and light.
Thoreau's mode of seeing--he turns his crystal glass to the world in hopes of turning the world to glassy crystal--is richly instanced in the thawing-bank sequence in "Spring," a revelation of the process by which distributed life flows into discrete form--by which energy crystallizes into pattern. Standing before the melting mud, Thoreau fixates, again, on foliated shapes, leaf-crystals.
Innumerable little streams overlap and interlace one with another, exhibiting a sort of hybrid product, which obeys halfway the law of currents, and halfway that of vegetation. As it flows it takes the forms of sappy leaves or vines, making heaps of pulpy sprays a foot or more in depth, and resembling ... the laciniated lobed and imbricated thalluses of some lichens; or you are reminded of coral, of leopards' paws or birds' feet, of brains or lungs or bowels, and excrements.... When I see ... this luxuriant foliage, the creation of an hour, I am affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me,--had come to where he was still at work, sporting on this bank, and with excess of energy strewing his fresh designs about. I feel as if I were nearer to the vitals of the globe, for this sandy overflow is something such a foliaceous mass as the vitals of the animal body. You find thus in the very sands an anticipation of the vegetable leaf.... The feathers and wings of birds are still drier and thinner leaves.... The very globe continually transcends and translates itself, and becomes winged in its orbit. Even the ice begins with delicate crystal leaves, as if it had flowed into moulds which the fronds of water plants have impressed on the watery mirror. (305-6)
Thoreau studies the mud through his "crystal" eye, discerning in it depths, interpenetrations, brightnesses, and durations that he might not normally discern. Under this gaze, the sliding much becomes more than mere dirt. It opens into the "vitals of the globe," the chthonic surge of ubiquitous being. It reveals interdependencies between bounded (earthy globes) and unbounded (birds unfettered), flux ("sandy overflow") and structure ("vegetable leaf"), chance (the Ur-Artist "sporting") and law (nature's recurring forms). Generally opaque, this muck now shimmers with invisible laws. Creeping in time, finite, it discloses organic processes transcending temporality, infinite--not confined to this or that but present in everything.
Thoreau in this passage senses in the flowing mud what he earlier perceived in the crystal dawn: the law of natural formation. Amid the burgeoning blooms of spring, he aptly apprehends in the leaf, not the crystal, the primal cosmic form. However, the leaves now coalescing the mud are strikingly analogous to the crystals that before organized the water. In both cases--walking on a winter morning or standing, stunned, before the spring thaw--Thoreau witnesses what Goethe saw in plants, bones, and rocks, what Schelling intuited in the universe's polarized rhythms: not simple order, cosmos, nor mere disorder, chaos, but rather a mutual arising of abyss and pattern--chaosmos. (34) Envisioning the Artist of the universe metamorphosing much into lobes and globes, Thoreau realizes that this creator is no Yahweh, separating chaos and order, and no Platonic maker, mimicking the static forms of eternity. This demiurge is playful. He sports in the ooze. He strews fresh designs. Yet, he persistently concocts the same basic form: the leaf. In the bloody mire is the incipient leaf. The hawk's flick: leaf ratified. The brain is bulbous lichen. The heart photosynthesizes blood. Everything is ubiquitous sap cohered into a frond. But what is a leaf but a "foliate structure," a verdurous crystal?
Watching chaos turn into form (unseen vitality refract into pied beauty), Thoreau thinks of tropes--of how each reticulated pattern is a symbol of the whole, a word of the abyss. Leaf crystal is logos, word frond, water made flesh. Internally, this archetypal pattern is liquid potential (the unformed abyss, a centrifugal energy). It is a "lobe," a word embodying in sound its properties. "[L]obe" is "especially applicable to the liver and lungs and the leaves of fat, ([lambda][epsilon]i[beta][omega], labor, lapsus, to flow or slip downward, a lapsing; [lambda]o[beta]o[??], globus, lobe, globe; also lap, flap, and many other words)." This sap presses into a more stable material form (a balance of centrifugal and centripetal forces), rendered linguistically by the liquid "B" stiffening into the more solid "F" or "V." Externally, the lobe forms "a dry thin leaf, even as the f and v are a pressed and dried b ... with a liquid I behind it pressing it forward" (306).
The natural process by which water takes the shape of the crystalline leaf is enacted by the word "leaf." The word "leaf," like a biological leaf, is nature's "constant cypher." It bears the sense and sound of universe. Fluid, figured by "l" pushing into "b," and form, "f" and "v," "leaf" reveals the cosmic polarity between turbulence and pattern. Liquid "l," alveolar sonorant, flowing into bilabial voiced stop "b," and forming eventually into labiodental voiceless spirant "f," the word sounds the rhythm by which the world ceaselessly hums. All events, ceaselessly metamorphosing imbrications of liquid energy and solid organization, are thus "translations" of lobes into crystals or crystals into lobes. Some of these "translations" are moments of "transcendence," transmutation from simple to complex, conscious to intelligent. The ice crystal contains and transcends the water; the leaf includes and surpasses the crystal; the feather subsumes and outreaches the green serrations.
Moved by nature's tropes--leafy crystals and crystalline botany--Thoreau desires to participate in organic process by creating his own transparent leaves: the pages of Walden. For Thoreau, studied in winter's convoluted crystals and spring's intricate leaves, linguistic transparency is not discursive pellucidity, not Bacon's plain style or Locke's clear communication. On the contrary, for Thoreau a lucid style should reveal the manifold paradoxes and powers coursing through the gracefully turbid universe. To understand Thoreauvian transparency is to feel the force of a seeming contradiction troubling the pages of Walden: the book's persistent call for simplicity in a bewilderingly complex style. Though Thoreau spends most of "Where I Lived, What I Lived For" urging "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity," he concludes his book by fearing, "chiefly lest [his] expression may not be extra-vagant enough, may not wander far enough beyond the narrows limits of my daily experience" (91, 324). Yet, this ostensible clash is in fact perfectly logical. The "simplicity" of nature is not its accessibility or clarity but rather its strangeness, its sublimity. Recall: "simple" emerges from the Indo-European root sm-, which means "same-fold," and from the Latin simplus, signifying "single." Hence, to be simple is literally to be undifferentiated and thus beyond diversity--abyssal, ungraspable, sublime. The simplicity of nature, then, is not only its elegant laws--its harmonious geometries--but also its "mysterious," "unexplorable" powers--its infinite wildness (317-18).
Ice crystals and spring leaves alike reveal nature's simplicity, nature's extravagance--order and wildness, mystery and solution. Their transparency is luminous darkness. Mimicking the muddy demiurge, Thoreau creates his own transparent crystals, his own extravagant leaves. For instance, in the melting-bank passage quoted above, his diction yields a series of disorienting polarities. The "Artist who made the world" inhabits a "laboratory"--a site of disciplined labor--but spends his "work" time by "sporting"--frolicking with random glee. Yet, this "excess of energy"--overflowing the tubes of his lab--is nonetheless ruled by "law," a principle that admits no superfluity. How can this artist be both scientist and jester? How can his creations be orderly and chaotic? Moreover, we wonder how the "atoms" produced by this artist "learn" his laws? How can an element consciously accrue knowledge? Certain individual words likewise disconcert. When Thoreau stares at the melting bank, he is "affected as if in a peculiar sense" he stood before the primal artist. "Peculiar" here clearly means "unique" or "special" but also suggests "odd" or "eccentric" as well as "possessive" ("peculiar" derives from French and Latin roots concerned with the ownership of private property). Hence, standing before the mud, Thoreau is both "proper"--at home, as it were, on his property, self-possessed on his possession--and "strange"--displaced from the norm, not-at-home in the familiar world. Double, he watches the "Artist who made the world" "still at work." As in Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "still" as adverb connotes both "without movement" and "up until this time"--tranquility and perpetual motion. Agitated yet calm, this Artist strews about fresh "designs." A "design" is of course a composed pattern, a planned artifice, but also, etymologically, a movement from meaning--a motion from (de) the stable sign (signum). On the one hand, these various tensions are paradoxes, surface contradictions that are nonetheless true--Thoreau's extravagantly simple cosmos in an interplay between chance and law, spontaneity and structure, comfort and weirdness, perpetual motion and unmoving calm, meaning and meaninglessness. Yet, on the other hand, these semantic gaps remain unclosed, irreducible contradictions: laws cannot be random, atoms are not able to study, well-adjusted men are not strange to themselves, an artist cannot be still and also moving, and designs are not both present and absent at the same time.
Thoreau's passage instances the linguistic extravagance strewn throughout Walden. Though many parts of the book--like "Economy"--are "philosophical" in style, logical and lucid, and though other parts of the text--"like "Winter Animals"--are "scientific" in form, concrete and journalistic, some sequences are wildly "poetic," complex, dense, strange, almost surreal. These latter sites, curiously, are more transparent than the former--more capable of revealing nature's complex simplicity.
To read Walden is to walk in the woods. For much of the walk--peregrinating through a disquisition on "grossest groceries" or a description of a squirrel--one is on familiar ground, treading without much strain or surprise. Yet, at certain turns--at the melting-bank passage, the final paragraph of the book, or the occasional sentence fraught with puns and paradoxes--the walker unexpectedly encounters fiery quartz, a leaf on fire. In the transparent lattices, he sees strange distortions, kaleidoscopic flickerings, ubiquitous light bent into diverse hues. He returns to the brown earth and finds that all is different. What seemed ordinary is now weird, a bright confusion.
This is the virtue of crystal, be it ice or quartz, foliated leaf or transparent prose. It is a special revelation of what is always already true of everything else but hidden, lurking under opaque surfaces. While all beings are in some way crystals--polarized geometries of unbounded energy some are more limpid than others, and thus more capable of revealing the processes by which they are animated. Figuring this cosmic poetics, Thoreau alternates between relatively untroubled, discursive sequences and sudden eruptions of semantic turbulence. The discursive sections are opaque crystals--ordinary, stable facts. The unexpected sparks and fires are crystals of extreme transparency: shocking apocalypses of the abyss on which we all float.
For Thoreau, to be transparent is also to be trans-parent--beyond the father, through the mother. Though he was studied in Emerson's numerous meditations on transparency, he in the end broke from his intellectual patriarch by going to the ice to see for himself, in his own peculiar fashion. Beholding the dawn frost, staring long at frozen opacities, he discovered directly, in the open air, what Emerson gleaned from books: to gaze through the crystal is to pass through to the origin, the matrix, the obscure womb that is nonetheless muse to all leaves, and jewels.
Wake Forest University
(1.) This essay is related to the section on crystals in my book, The Spiritual History of Ice: Romanticism, Science, and the Imagination (New York and London: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2003). While in the book I focus on how Thoreau marries hermetic scrying and scientific crystallography-the occult and the factual--in his various descriptions of ice, here I attend to Thoreau's scientific senses of crystal and how they relate specifically to Walden.
(2.) Sophia Hawthorne, qtd in Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, Memories of Hawthorne (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1897) 53.
(3.) Thoreau, "Natural History of Massachusetts," The Portable Thoreau, ed. and intro. Carl Bode (New York: Viking/Penguin, 1962) 53-54.
(4.) In an anonymous article in the New Jerusalem Magazine 8 (Nov. 1839): 118--19, entitled "Swedenborg's Scientific Merit," it is reported that John-Baptiste Andre Dumas, a famous nineteenth-century French chemist, praised Swedenborg as the originator of crystallography. Most historians of science, however, claim this honor for Hauy.
(5.) Ralph Waldo Emerson, Representative Men, The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 4, eds. Robert Spiller, Joseph Slater, et al. (Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1971-) 62.
(6.) Emanuel Swedenborg, Some Spedmens of a Work on the Principles of Chemistry, with Other Treatises, trans. Charles Edward Strut (London: William Newbery, 1847) 26, 37-38.
(7.) Swerdenborg, The Principia, trans. Augustus Clissold (London: William Newbery, 1846) 45-54.
(8.) In designating these three "schools" of crystallography, I am largely following John G. Origins of the Science of Crystals (Berkeley and London: U of California P, 1966)1151. had not been exposed, as Emerson Had, to Swedenborg's scientific work.
(9.) As we know from Emerson's sermons, Emerson had read Herschel's book by 1831, when he compared it favorably to Milton's Paradise Lost (The Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 4 vols, eds. Albert J. von Frank, et al. [Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1989-92] 4: 157).
(10.) John F. W. Herschel, A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, foreword Arthur Fine (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1987) 240-45.
(11.) Herschel 240-45. For an excellent discussion of Mitscherlich and Hauy, see also Burke 78-79, 120-25.
(12.) Emerson read Davy's work assiduously throughout the late 1820s and early 1830s, and praises the scientist often in his journal and early lectures. For instance, in an 1836 lecture, he lauds Davy's "sublime conjecture" that there is "hut one matter in different states of electricity" that might yield a vision of a "central unity" (The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 3 vols, eds. Stephen E. Whicher, Robert E. Spiller, and Wallace E. Williams [Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1959-72] 2: 29). For a detailed discussion of Emerson's relationship to Davy in particular and the science of electricity in general, see Eric Wilson, Emerson's Sublime Science (London and New York: Macmillan/St. Martin's, 1999) 76-97.
(13.) Sir Humphry Davy, Elements of Chemical Philosophy, vol. 4, The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy, ed. John Davy (London: Smith, 1839-40) 39-40.
(14.) Davy 40. See also Burke 150-51.
(15.) As I have argued in Emerson's Sublime Science, Emerson followed Faraday's discoveries closely throughout his career, and showed particular enthusiasm for his electromagnetic theories in the early 1830s (76-97).
(16.) Michael Faraday, Experimental Researches in Electricity, Great Books of the Western World, eds. Robert Maynard Hutchins, et al. (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952) [paragraph] 27.
(17.) Emerson, The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 16 vols, eds. William H. Gilman and Ralph H. Orth, et al. (Cambridge, MA and London: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1960-82) 4: 94.
(18.) Emerson was reading Goethe's scientific works closely in the 1830s. He mentions them often in his early lectures, showing special enthusiasm for Goethe's view that "[t]he whole force of the Creation is concentrated upon every point"; thus, massive "agencies of electricity, gravity, light, [and] affinity combine to make every plant what it is" (Early Lectures 1: 72). For a discussion of Emerson's relationship to Goethe's science, see Emerson's Sublime Science 61-67.
(19.) Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Metamorphosis of Plants, Goethe: The Collected Works: Scientific Studies, vol. 12, ed. and trans. Douglas Miller (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1988) 76-97.
(20.) Goethe. "An Intermaxillary Bone Is Present in the Upper Jaw of Man As Well As in Animals," The Collected Works: Scientific Studies 12: 111-16.
(21.) Goethe, "On Granite," The Collected Works: Scientific Studies 12: 131-35.
(22.) Goethe, "Problems," The Collected Works: Scientific Studies 12:43-44.
(23.) An 1835 journal entry suggests that Emerson knew of either Schelling's Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1797) or his System of Transcendental Idealism (1800)--or perhaps both--for he accurately summarizes Schelling's main tenets in an extended journal entry (Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks 5: 30).
(24.) F. W. J. Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, trans. Errol E. Harris and Peter Heath, intro. Robert Stern (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988) 17-18, 44-49, 83.
(25.) Schelling, Von der Weltseele (Hamburg, 1798) 189, 219. See Burke for this discussion of Schelling's crystallography 149-51.
(26.) Robert Sattelmeyer, Thoreau's Reading: A Study in Intellectual History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1988) 26-27.
(27.) Thoreau praises Swedenborg in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers for being able to see, empirically, spiritual powers (The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, ed. J. Lyndon Shanley [Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1981- ] 325). However, as Walter Harding and Michael Meyer note in The New Thoreau Handbook (New York: New York UP, 1980), Thoreau once said that he had little "practical" use for the Swedish mystic (98).
(28.) Laura Dassow Walls in Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1995) provides an excellent discussion of the contrasts between Emerson's "rational holism," a mode of observation ground on theory, and Thoreau's "empirical holism," a concrete way of seeing (53-93).
(29.) Thoreau, The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 5 vols., eds. John C. Broderick, et al. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1981-) 1: 22.
(30.) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, gen. ed. Kathleen Coburn, 14 vols. to date (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969-) 6: 30.
(31.) Goethe, Maxims and Reflections, qtd. in Max L. Baeumer, "The Criteria of Modern Criticism on Goethe as Critic," Goethe as a Critic of Literature, ed. Karl J. Fink and Max L. Baeumer (New York and London: UP of America, 1984) 10.
(32.) Thoreau, The Journal of Henry David Thoreau 3: 190; 4: 238-39; 4: 279; 5: 456; Journal, vol. 8, The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, ed. Bradford Torrey (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906) 88.
(33.) Thoreau, Walden, The Writings of Henry David Thoreau 199. All additional citations from Walden will come from this edition and be designated by a page number in parentheses.
(34.) Walls beautifully describes Thoreau's primary vision in Walden: Thoreau "opened his eyes and saw, in the streets, fields, and forests, chaos: not the ancient void out of which man created pristine order, but a new insight into the imbrication of all order with disorder, disorder with the emergence of order, the self-organizing power of a chaotic nature quite apart from human desire or even presence" (238).
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|Author:||Wilson, Eric G.|
|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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