Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Doctrine of Correspondence

After recently reading Barbara Packer's new paperback version of her 1995 The Transcendentalists, and after reading even more recently Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay on Emmanuel Swedenborg (or, "The Mystic"), I find myself very interested in the doctrine of correspondence and the questions raised in seriously considering its consequences. The concept will be familiar to most people with a liberal arts degree, though the terminology varies very much depending on who is presenting the idea. In short, correspondence, as defined by Swedenborg and interpreted by Emerson, describes the relationship between physical data and "higher" truths.

The flower that blooms again every spring, for example, may correspond to the soul that is born again and again into the world after death, or the father who son has a son who has a son. Or, the psychological wound opened with the loss of a loved one may heal with time, like the scrape on your knee that heals slowly and then leaves a subtle scar. Even the most secular and unimaginative among us have participated in this kind of thinking: "That cloud looks like a crocodile!" Etc., etc.

In the case of the mystic, these correspondences may be understood as manifestations of the divine mind. The secrets of the universe may be discovered by studying the structure of an apple intensely, and vice versa--each thing contains all.

My question is: can this cognitive process go too far? I think first of Captain Ahab, who insisted on reading all things under the sign of himself (see chapter 99, "The Doubloon"). For Emerson, Swedenborg's genius was in suggesting the overall scheme of things; Swedenborg's failure was only in clinging too closely to the manifestations of the eternal truths that Swedenborg (almost) recognized. Emerson says in Representative Men:

Swedenborg and Behmen both failed by attaching themselves to the Christian symbol, instead of to the moral sentiment, which carries innumerable christianities, humanities, divinities, in its bosom.

Emerson understands easily what has been so difficult for me to understand at different times in my life: "These books should be used with caution. It is dangerous to sculpture these evanescing images of thought. True in transition, they become false if fixed." In other words, the correspondence between a passing cloud and a crocodile is true only as long as the cloud retains its shape.

But back to my question: assuming a person understands that the forms are always changing, that everything is "on fire," as the Buddha said, is there no limit to the power of correspondence? I think there is no danger in someone taking a shooting star to be a sign of good luck, and there could be little harm in avoiding the cracks in the sidewalk, and perhaps the popping out of a light bulb in your living room while you're in deep contemplation may be taken as a friendly hint from the universe to give it a rest--.

I believe in this doctrine of correspondence, as Plato did, as Plotinus did, as Swedenborg did, as Emerson did. There does seem to be some easy relation between those eternal things such as beauty and goodness and the temporary physical forms that we deal with every day. But when does gratefulness slide into superstitiousness, and when does that slide into mania, and when does mania become dangerously single-minded religious fervor?

In short: when does a thing correspond; when is a thing meaningless?


Anonymous said...

I'm getting rid of my blog...

You gotta read "The Sleepers" again in this Whitman book...

And I now think your advice yesterday, to use the section divisions on the later versions, is really ridiculous. I mean, I like the sudden turns/leaps.

Farewell Truth Cave!

Casey said...

Well you're right about the ridiculousness of the divisions in later editions of "Leaves of Grass," at least in terms of aesthetics/poetics... I mean, obviously. But it is a big poem to think about without those breaks--I just thought those might give you a sense of where you are. I should've realized that that's totally against the point.

Farewell Tr-th Cave, huh?

Hmmm... I'm undecided.

Anonymous said...

It's nothing personal against the Truth, it's just that Walt Whitman told me to start taking poetry seriously.

Anonymous said...

PS Bob Lamb blew my freaking mind today with his lecture on the first page of Song of Myself. The You/I thing is awesome...that it's hard for young kids to learn when to use "You" and "I" in conversations...and also the thing about "Are these words referring to Nature or Whitman's Penis?" was AWESOME because it's obviously referring to both.

I'm sold on Whitman, but I still like Whitman as a Dumb Guy's metaphor for the Truth.

Anonymous said...

Revise that: I'm sold on Whitman, but I still like Milton as a Dumb Guy's metaphor for the Truth.

Wishydig said...

uhhh...Now by correspondence do you mean that one of these things occurs in response to--because of--the another? And is one a necessary initiator? Nothing else could elicit the response?

Those who answer yes are the ones that I don't trust. Those are the ones whose faith is set to strongly. Their faith becomes not just an answer but the answer.

And those who believe the correspondence cannot exist--that none can exist--are the ones whose skepticism I find suspect.

Daniel said...

I agree with Michael and really like how you paraphrased the -nswer.

Stop corresponding with the cloud when it isn't a crocodile anymore. Or maybe you should be loose enough with the cloud that you can appreciate when it turns from a crocodile to an airplane and then a goat's head and then a hare and then nothing.

Casey said...

Maybe I should've posed this whole post as a question, like this:

"Even if you do not personally find this a troubling issue, what is your best guess as to why I continue struggling with the problem of shifting correspondence and 'authority?' "

I mean, it doesn't sound like we have any suspiciously skeptical folks in this comments section -- but it seems to easy to me, on the other hand, to just driftingly associate the cloud with a crocodile, then with a goat, then with me murdering all of my closest friends.

See the problem? We're not just talking about random correspondence: X looks like Y. We're talking about the appearance of divine order in the world... I have heard people say things like, "We went on a drive looking for a house and when we found this one that happened to be on a street named the same thing as the street I grew up on, we wondered if were supposed to live there."

That kind of interpretation seems to me very faithful--if G-d does show himself in the world, I think he might do it that way. But what happens if what G-d shows seems disagreeable? Ultimately, the question is, when do you trust your judgment above what you think might be G-d's?

Or something.

Wishydig said...

This is one of the morals I find in the Abraham and Isaac story.

Abraham thought "G-d told me to kill my son" so he to Isaac to the top of the mountain and raised the knife. And G-d stepped in and said "Are you serious? Stop it!"

That's not a story of G-d giving a bad order it's a story of Abraham believing that a loving G-d could ask for human sacrifice.

It's part of a larger story of Israel having an all too human image of G-d.

And that's what led to correspondences being self-serving and inhumane.

I know it's pop psychology--but I believe the correspondences reveal mostly what we hope to defend of our own desires.

How often is that perfect house a shack?

The danger is that people rely on an image of G-d that will support them in their selfish and arrogant agenda. Then they can see everything corresponding to an argument of acquisition and destruction.

Casey said...

Michael, right. And Abraham is the most frightening possibility here...