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Emily Dickinson wrote, “My business is circumference.” What a wonderful image and phrase, and so Dickinsonian in its simple but powerful directness. (And what a master of the small she was. She described herself as “New Englandly”—her language pared down to essentials, her verses modest in size. As Barbara Novak points out, “Modesty and understatement are not necessarily incompatible with vastness. As Gaston Bachelard has suggested, ‘The cleverer I am at miniaturizing the world, the better I possess it.'”)

For Dickinson, being the circumference is to circumambulate around the mystery at the core of life, to be an ambient witness to what we may not understand completely. Dickinson—and many of the Transcendentalists who lived in nearby Concord—is drawn to an “urge towards empowerment through dematerialization” (Novak’s great phrase).

More from Novak’s book, Voyages of the Self:

She was, it seems to me, quote often precisely that blend of Puritan and Transcendental so frequently found in the American self. When she writes “There is no first, or last, in Forever,—It is Centre, there, all the time”—she is very close to Emerson’s soul that “circumscribes all things” and to his idea of the mind which “with each divine impulse…rends the thin rinds of the visible and infinite, and comes out into eternity.”

This tendency towards dematerialization is a common trope in Western thought, not just among Transcendentalists. It’s an old problem, that mind/body split, and it stands in high contrast to the concept of the Dark Feminine as embodied by the Black Madonna. While the Emersonian model is achieving wisdom and transformation through a lifting up and out of the body, the Dark Feminine achieves its brand of transformation by going down deep into the experience of the flesh. The Dark Feminine (in any of her many manifestations including Kali, Lilith and Crow Mother, for example) is both creative and destructive at the same time. This is not a tame or well behaved woman.

From an interview with Andrew Harvey in The Moonlit Path:

The birth in Her was simultaneously the destruction of all fantasies and an initiation into the divinity of the body, and the divine secrets that consecrated, Tantric love reveals about the body and physical life when transfigured by spiritual passion…I have experienced how She is the birthing force of authentic divine humanity. What She does to birth it is to destroy all the fantasies that block the transcendent as well as destroy all of the fears, loathing, self-hatreds, and all of the terrors of the body that block the glory of the flaming out of the body’s own most sacred truth…

If you are addicted to transcendence, you may have a certain kind of realization of divine Being, but you can never have the realization of divine becoming that belongs to the Mother and is the Mother’s supreme gift…the Black Madonna requires the most searing imaginable abandon and the most extreme imaginable plunging into the total embrace of Her conditions.

The fierce and fleshy presence of the Black Madonna is in complete opposition of our timid Belle of Amherst, trussed into her famous white frock and living in self-imposed isolation. The paradox is that I am drawn to both. Deeply. My passion for Dickinson is life long. Twenty years ago I became fascinated with the Black Madonna and made pilgrimages to her sacred sites in France, Switzerland and Spain. Once touched by that wildness, if only peripherally, you just can’t go back to living small.

The pull between these two transformative energies is something I feel constantly in the studio. From the out of body ascent upward to the deep dive into the dark contours of the flesh, paintings emerge for me by toggling back and forth between these two poles.

Brace’s Rock, by Fitz Henry Lane (1863)

Barbara Novak begins her book, Voyages of the Self: Pairs, Parallels and Patterns in American Art and Literature, with an exploration of the problematic concept of self:

The idea of self is…an artificial construct…Yet the word is common enough even in everyday usage for a cultural community to agree, to some extent, on a kind of consensus. There is something within every human being that we commonly call a “self.” Loss of that self is generally considered a grievous wound. Its willing surrender, on the other hand, can be considered in religious and philosophical terms, a blessed arrival at another state of being. In some instances the self is conflated with the idea of soul.

With that as her starting point, Novak then charters an unexpected journey. An art historian by training, she has paired writers and artists who share particular similarities. The couplings are in some ways surprising: Copley and Edwards, Emerson and Lane, Whitman and Church, Homer and James, Pollock and Olson, among others. But insights emerge from these partnerings that are fresh, provocative, meaningful.

Novak locks in on a few salient themes that are rooted in the early American experience:

This book came into being out of my initial interest in what I have called the “erasure of self” so prized by the early American Puritan culture and in its visual manifestation in some images from the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. I then discovered that the ostensible erasure of self was not so much a loss as a transfer, at times a transfer into matter or object, into “things,” and through erasure of the artist’s signature, “stroke,”to an ostensible larger self referred to by Emerson as the Over-Soul. So one subtext here might be the role of “things” as they relate to self in American culture.

That’s a compelling theme to me, and one that has a long lineage. Novak rides it out thoughtfully and thoroughly, from Edwards to Emerson, from Dickinson to Olson. A good read for writers, readers and artists.