Emerson and Antaeus, the Broken Giant

Christina Katopodis, CUNY

(all images via Wikimedia)

Heracles and Antaeus by Euphronios (via Wikimedia)

Emerson advocates, across his oeuvre but especially in his 1833 lecture on “The Uses of Natural History,” and again in 1841 in the essay “History,” communing with nature as a habit of both mind and body. He writes, “Man is the broken giant, and in all his weakness he is invigorated by touching his mother earth, that is, by habits of conversation with nature” (251) [emphasis added]. The reference is to the Greek god Antaeus, who drew his strength from his mother, Gaia. Antaeus was a champion wrestler, always rejuvenated by touching the earth below his feet, until he was defeated by Hercules, who successfully prevented Antaeus from touching his feet to the ground during their match.

Emerson’s depiction, that he was “suffocated by the gripe [sic] of Hercules,” is more like the representation of Heracles and Antaeus on the ancient Greek vase above than in the painting below by Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán. The interlocking heads and necks (above) as well as the circling and reaching arms convey an equal match of strength and the homoerotic essence of wrestling. Emerson’s evocation of wrestling really brings to the foreground that habits of conversation with nature are made possible through bodily attention, intimacy, and struggle.

Hercules Fighting Antaeus (1634) by Francisco de Zurbarán (via Wikimedia)

To bring embodiment into further focus, I emphasize the touch in Antaeus’s “conversation” with nature. Scholars often give so much attention to the visual in Emerson (his transparent eyeball, his fear of losing his vision are low-hanging fruit for literary analysis) that we neglect the other senses, particularly that of touch. Emerson’s famous line that conversation is “a game of circles” is often interpreted as a metaphor for the cerebral back-and-forth volley of interpersonal dialogue, but his mention of the broken giant—twice—adds a physical register to the score. Conversation’s tête-à-tête is physically realized in the circling movements of wrestlers rotating. To converse means to turn (Latin, vertere, versare) with (Latin, con-), so we might consider Emerson to be advocating not simply conversing but also turning with Earth, synchronizing our movements with and drawing our strength from the forces of Gaia.

It is interesting to think of this in parallel with his assertion that humans are themselves like globes, and the implications this has for engaging in conversations amongst ourselves (particularly if we—Man—are all broken giants). As he writes in “Experience:” “Two human beings are like globes, which can touch only in a point, and, whilst they remain in contact, all other points of each of the spheres are inert; their turn must also come, and the longer a particular union lasts, the more energy of appetency the parts not in union acquire” (488). We might imagine, then, that if we are Antaeus, there is the point of intimate connection with our like selves—humankind, represented by Hercules—and the appetency, the appetite and longing for our connection to the nonhuman and our nonhuman origins, represented by Gaia. (There is room for a Freudian interpretation of Antaeus’ longing for his mother, Gaia, but that is not what this post is about.)

Emerson searches for a much deeper resonance with the nonhuman than a simple chat: for a physical absorption of vibrating sound waves (he continues, “The power of music, the power of poetry, to unfix and as it were clap wings to solid nature, interprets the riddle of Orpheus”), for touching, interpreting, and being touched by nature. If touch is the act that invigorates, then it is a tactile dialogue that transpires materially, physically bringing life—vigor—back to the “broken giant” in his “weakness.” The body is, in this passage, both the seat and the vehicle of liveliness. This is a vital point to keep in mind when reading his essay “Experience,” which Emerson writes as a kind of “broken giant” in his own right following the death of his son, Waldo.

“Experience” is frequently read as an essay about grief, and even about feeling disconnected from feeling itself. I am, of course, thinking of Sharon Cameron’s American Impersonal and the wealth of literary criticism that followed. If a central problem in the essay is Emerson’s inability to touch or to feel his grief, as Cameron suggests, then movement—reaching or tilting to touch—offers a potential solution. If he, like the broken giant Antaeus, cannot touch Gaia to regain his strength, he must converse or turn with nature in tandem, in parallel, in harmony, moving together. Our bodies are constantly moving, vibrating, beating, pulsing, with music essential to our basic biological functions. Emerson, in his closing to “Experience” refers to the essential pulse of the heart and wills it “up again, old heart!” This miracle that gives us life—the heart’s circulation—is, indeed, a deeper, more intimate, affective, bodily exchange or conversation with nature, and it recalls the idealism of Emerson in his youth, writing in Nature (1836) about feeling the circulation of Universal Being within.

I offer one last image of Antaeus, one of three giants in Dante’s Inferno, who gently lifts Virgil and Dante in his palm and sets them down in the next and last layer of hell. The watercolor is by William Blake. To me, the arm reaching downward and hand releasing the two travelers mimic the same motion of longing to touch Gaia so deeply associated with Antaeus. Unlike the other giants in hell, he is not chained (he is there for his sins, for committing murder but he did not join the giants against the gods and is allowed more freedom than the rest). Both in Dante’s telling and in Blake’s artwork, he is gentle. Blake’s watercolor, to me, captures the essence of Emerson’s broken giant.

Antaeus setting down Dante and Virgil in the Last Circle of Hell by William Blake (via Wikimedia)


Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy (The Inferno, The Purgatorio, and the Paradiso), trans. John Ciardi, New American Library, 2003, pp. 245.

Arsić, Branka, ed., American Impersonal: Essays with Sharon Cameron, Bloomsbury, 2014

Arsić, Branka, and Cary Wolf, eds. The Other Emerson, U. of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Cameron, Sharon. “Representing Grief: Emerson’s ‘Experience,’” Impersonality: Seven Essays. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2007, pp. 53-78.

Emerson, Ralph W. “Experience,” Emerson: Essays & Poems, edited by Joel L. Porte, Harold Bloom, and Paul Kane, Library of America, 1996, pp. 488, 492.

–. “History,” Emerson: Essays & Poems, edited by Joel L. Porte, Harold Bloom, and Paul Kane, Library of America, 1996, pp. 251.

–. Nature, Emerson: Essays & Poems, edited by Joel L. Porte, Harold Bloom, and Paul Kane, Library of America, 1996, pp. 10.

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How to cite this post

MLA 8th Edition:

Christina Katopodis. “Emerson and Antaeus, the Broken Giant.” The Transparent Eyeball, Third Series, The Ralph Waldo Emerson Society, May 25, 2021, emersonsociety.org/the-transparent-eyeball/emerson-and-antaeus-the-broken-giant/. Accessed [date of access; ex. 5 Aug. 2021].

APA 7th Edition:

Katopodis, C. (2021, May 25). Emerson and Antaeus, the Broken Giant. The Transparent Eyeball. https://emersonsociety.org/the-transparent-eyeball/emerson-and-antaeus-the-broken-giant/.

Chicago 17th Edition:

Katopodis, Christina. “Emerson and Antaeus, the Broken Giant,” The Ralph Waldo Emerson Society. The Transparent Eyeball, May 25, 2021, https://emersonsociety.org/the-transparent-eyeball/emerson-and-antaeus-the-broken-giant/.