Spirit/Matter: Transcendental Beauty

“Within the soul is the whole; the wise silence, the universal beauty to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal one.”

This definition of beauty is found in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 essay, Nature.  It is a concept of beauty with many strands including “purposiveness” and superiority. The overarching idea of this particular definition is the recognition of various factors related to spirit and nature, and their connections with one another. This “holistic” form of beauty allowed the spirit, or as Emerson phrases it, the soul, to recognise and appreciate every feature of the natural and transcendental form. In abiding to this method, American Transcendental thinkers claimed original insights of the world become likely and a form of enlightenment occurs.

However Emerson restricts this notion of holistic, transcendental beauty to be intangible and metaphysical; his focus is purely on spirit and matter is overlooked. A major part of Emerson’s transcendental ideology was the rejection of the physical body, for, he believed, it was “incompatible” with the soul. This mind-set may have originated from Emerson’s battle with Tuberculosis, a disease which also took the lives of many of his family members. Consumed by physical decline, restriction and the memories of demise, it is likely that Emerson became interested and then mesmerised by the transcendental attitudes of nature in order to overcome or distract his thoughts of physical ailment.

Margaret Fuller, a prominent American Transcendental thinker and close friend of Emerson, depicts a similar idea of the holistic spirit throughout her ground breaking 1840 text, Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Fuller is successful in applying the transcendental concept of beauty to a perspective of health. Fuller suffered her entire life with effects of spinal curvature and migraines, yet redefined her ailment as a spiritual awakening, an example of beauty which crafted her transcendental ideology.

“When the intellect and the affections are in harmony; when the electrical consciousness is calm and deep, inspiration will not be confounded with fancy.”

This idea of beauty, a collaboration of understanding and the emotions associated with illness, allowed the agency of spirit to transcend the confounding nature of medical perceptions of female ailments. Fuller’s insight was enabled by the use of Mesmerism, a popular hypnotic practise which was also plagued with claims of quackery and failure. While Fuller was not cured from her physical ailments, she utilised the Mesmeric methods as a way of unlocking and understanding intrinsic beauty of woman; illness was nothing more than an “overcharged” female genius.

Fuller was successful in extending Holistic Transcendental Beauty to the physical form and proved that the spirit and body were a powerful and compatible force. The context of her work may be a nineteenth century account of personal experiences and opinions, yet her transcendental ideology of health and beauty can be extracted. Ultimately every human, their mind and body collectively, is powerful, beautiful and equal.

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