Emerson Society

Emerson’s Copula: Transcendental Theopoetics

Bill Scalia, St. Mary’s

Describing the landscape of theopoetics today is difficult because it’s hard to delineate the territory to which the term lays claim. Scott Holland wrote in 1997 that “theology in our postmodern condition must be understood as a poetics, not a metaphysics . . . an inventive, imaginative act of composition performed by authors” (319). L.B.C. Keefe-Perry wrote in 2009 that “a useful working definition of the term would be the study and practice of making God known through text” (579). John Caputo has defined theopoetics as “a constellation of non-discursive discourses, of parables and paradoxes, of metaphors and metonyms, of narratives and prayers, all assembled in order to evoke a sense of the events that occur in and under the name (of) God” (509). But for Emerson, God is not a subject, nor can God be predicated.

The critics above assert a theopoetic from a distinctly apophatic stance engendered by postmodern theory. In short, we ourselves must name God. These writers orient relation with God in human language, on human terms; Anne Carpenter refers to this style of criticism as “agnostic theopoetics.” Keefe-Perry writes that “theopoetics is a means of making God, of shaping experience of the divine, and the study of ways in which people come to know the Spirit” (579-80). And, David Miller notes that “theopoetics [after the ‘death of God’] will have to refer to strategies of human signification in the absence of fixed and ultimate meanings accessible to knowledge or faith” (8).

Theopoetics is largely concerned with signification and identification of the divine.  So, in Emerson’s theopoetics, what is the significance of the role of the copula? God reveals his name to Moses (“I am that I am,” Ex. 3:14) and reveals himself in the incarnate Word, the divine logos (“In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” John 1:1). Note the function of the copula in these statements. In fact, after the transcendent process of the “transparent eyeball” passage from Nature is delineated, the mere copula – AM – is left standing as a marker of the content of the experience. Emerson dissolves the frames of linguistic category, in particular concerning the copula, which allows for the emergence from categorical limitation of subject and object – which, by the end of the complex, have fused into a single transcendent entity. He does this by first predicating a transcendent object, then using this predication to figure the subject (the “I”) of the succeeding sentences. At the end of this complex of statements all that remains linguistically is the simple copula AM: not the “I AM” revelation of God’s name, but only the AM – being itself.

Emerson introduces the complex with this qualification: “Standing on the bare ground, – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, – all mean egotism vanishes” (10). Not only does the sentence set the frame in time, space, and attitude, it also makes the concise predication – “all mean egotism vanishes” – that the “I” statement complex will demonstrate. The verb in the first I statement is “become”; we will see that the ‘vanishing of mean egotism’ here makes possible the ‘becoming’ of the opening statement.

Statement I: I become a transparent eye-ball.

The subject, the “I,” points to a real person situated in time and space. The copula here indicates transformation to a transparent eyeball. This is not a metaphor, but a mystery: the concept exists in imaginative reality but is out of the reach of logical language. A transparent eyeball – in actuality, a blind eye – lacks the structure of a functional eye and is thus a different kind of eye: a conceptual “eye” that receives input from every direction. The first statement in the complex moves a physical subject to a conceptual object, and combines the two: the “I” is now an “eye-ball.” The play on words is not accidental; Emerson’s conflation of “I” / “eye-ball” generates the subject of the second statement.

Statement II.  I am nothing.

In the second statement, the subject “I” is the conflated object I / eye-ball of the previous statement; thus the subject is no longer situated in space time, but is located conceptually in the category of “subject.” The statement predicates not nonexistence, but an evacuation of the physical subject, and in this way recapitulates the predicative action of the first statement.  Statement II formalizes the predication of statement I. The empty subject (predicated by the conceptual “I” / “eye-ball”) conveys evacuation (again, the vanishing affects the becoming); as well, the subject might be said to be evacuated by its conflation with the object: no / thing. This is how we are able to make sense of the next statement.

Statement III. I see all.

The subject in statement III may be said to be a metaphysical subject. Wittgenstein, in the Tractatus, asserts that a metaphysical subject is impossible, but I would argue that the non-existence of a subject located in time and space is exactly Emerson’s point. Wittgenstein’s illustration of the metaphysical subject helps make this clear:

5.633 Where in the world is a metaphysical subject to be noted?

You say that this case is altogether like that of the eye and the field of sight. But                                you do not really see the eye.

And from nothing in the field of sight can it be concluded that it is seen from an                                   eye. (38)

In keeping with the terms of Wittgenstein’s analogy, Emerson does not change the field of vison; rather, he moves the eye to a position wholly within the visual / perceptive field. We might say that, in the statement, Emerson has changed the transitive verb “see” to a linking verb, followed by the predicate adjective “all” – as the eye is now part of the “all.” But, for this condition to take exist, the “eye” must be completely permeable (i.e., “transparent”), as the opening statement asserts. This permeability is affirmed by the next statement in the complex.

Statement IV.  The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me;

The “me” identified here is, by the terms of the predication, necessarily permeable. “Me / I” is situated within an unlimited field, that of the “Universal Being.” Only a metaphysical subject can be situated in this way; thus, Emerson posits in this minor statement a corresponding metaphysical object. The metaphysical subject + metaphysical object yields the final statement of the complex.

Statement V. I am part or particle of God.

The mode of the copula is transcendent. The metaphysical subject is wholly present in the metaphysical object (“part or particle”); the prepositional phrase deflects the object into dissolution. Note Emerson’s description in “The Over-Soul:” “We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related: the eternal One” (160). The “part or particle” of this last statement in the complex is related to the metaphysical whole. The subject I has merged via the transcendent copula into the object, leaving behind only the language artifact AM – which is simultaneously the source and destination for divine identity and revelation.

Works Cited

Carpenter, Anne M. Theo-Poetics: Hans Urs Von Balthasar and the Risk of Art and Being. University of Notre Dame Press, 2015.

Caputo, John D. “Theopoetics as Heretical Hegalianism.” Cross Currents, December 2014, pp. 509 – 534.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume I: Nature, Addresses, and Lectures, edited Alfred R. Ferguson, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Over-Soul.” The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume II: Essays: First Series, edited Alfred R. Ferguson and Jean Ferguson Carr, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979.

Holland, Scott. “Theology is a Kind of Writing: The Emergence of Theopoetics.” Cross Currents, Fall 1997, pp. 317 – 331.

Keefe-Perry, L. Callid. “Theopoetics: Process and Perspective.” Christianity and Literature, vol. 58, no. 4, 2009, pp. 579 – 601.

Miller, David L. “Theopoetry or Theopoetics?” Cross Currents, March 2010. pp. 6 – 23.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Translated by Daniel Kolak. Mayfield, 1998.

How to cite this post

MLA 8th Edition:

Bill Scalia. “Emerson’s Copula: Transcendental Theopoetics.” The Transparent Eyeball, Fifth Series, The Ralph Waldo Emerson Society, September 23, 2022, https://emersonsociety.org/the-transparent-eyeball/emersons-copula-transcendental-theopoetics/. Accessed [date of access; ex. 5 Dec. 2021].

APA 7th Edition:

Scalia, Bill. (2022, September 23). Emerson’s Copula: Transcendental Theopoetics. The Transparent Eyeball. https://emersonsociety.org/the-transparent-eyeball/emersons-copula-transcendental-theopoetics/.

Chicago 17th Edition:

Dumont, Leslie. “Emerson’s Copula: Transcendental Theopoetics,” The Ralph Waldo Emerson Society. The Transparent Eyeball, September 23, 2022 https://emersonsociety.org/the-transparent-eyeball/emersons-copula-transcendental-theopoetics/.