Unselfing into Oneness with the All: Transcendentalist Queen Margaret Fuller on Transcendence
“How is it that I seem to be this Margaret Fuller? What does it mean? What shall I do about it?”
By Maria Popova
This essay is adapted from the sixth chapter of Figuring.
“I am determined on distinction,” Margaret Fuller (May 23, 1810–July 19, 1850) writes to her former teacher. She is fifteen. The year is 1825 and she is ineligible for any formal education, so she has taken the reins of her character into her own hands, with resolute guidance from her father — a man who has tempered his disappointment that his firstborn child was not a son with the choice to treat his eldest daughter like a creature with a mind. When the first ringlets were snipped from her hair, he composed an ode to her head as a temple of divine intellect. At six, Margaret was reading in Latin. At twelve, she was conversing with her father in philosophy and pure mathematics. She would come to describe herself as “the much that calls for more.” At fifteen, this is her daily routine:
I rise a little before five, walk an hour, and then practise on the piano till seven, when we breakfast. Next, I read French — Sismondi’s Literature of the South of Europe — till eight; then two or three lectures in Brown’s Philosophy. About half past nine I go to Mr. Perkins’s school, and study Greek till twelve, when, the school being dismissed, I recite, go home, and practise again till dinner, at two. Then, when I can, I read two hours in Italian.
Many years later, she would write in response to the frequent criticism of her uncommon drive, often mistaken for arrogance, as women’s confident resolve tends to be:
In an environment like mine, what may have seemed too lofty or ambitious in my character was absolutely needed to keep the heart from breaking and enthusiasm from extinction.
From the platform of her precocious girlhood, Margaret undertakes an inquiry into the building blocks of character. “Nothing more widely distinguishes man from man than energy of will,” she writes in a six-page essay, positing that a conquering will is composed of imagination, perseverance, and “enthusiastic confidence in the future.” But these elements are not weighted equally — she prizes above all perseverance, which fuels the “unwearied climbing and scrambling” toward achievement. “The truly strong of will,” she writes, having lived just over a decade, “returns invigorated by the contest, calmed, not saddened by failure and wiser from its nature.”
Over the next twenty-five years, this teenager animated by what she calls “the all-powerful motive of ambition” would persevere to write the foundational treatise of the women’s emancipation movement, author the most trusted literary and art criticism in the nation, work as the first female editor for a major New York newspaper and the only woman in the newsroom, advocate for prison reform and Negro voting rights, and become America’s first foreign war correspondent. All of this she would accomplish while bedeviled by debilitating chronic pain at the base of her neck — the result of a congenital spinal deformity that made it difficult to tilt her head down in order to write and was often accompanied by acute depression.
Again and again, she would rise to reach for “incessant acts of vigorous beauty,” signing her influential editorials not with her name but with a single star — at first a symbol imbued with deliberate anonymity, designed to disguise the author’s gender and thus avoid any bias as to the article’s credibility, but soon the widely recognized seal of Fuller’s authoritative voice. Literature would be her weapon of choice — “a medium for viewing all humanity, a core around which all knowledge, all experience, all science, all the ideal as well as all the practical in our nature could gather.”
Behind the public face of unprecedented distinction, Fuller would sorrow and struggle for private contentment — the same cerebral tidal force that swept away the barriers of prejudice and convention would end up drowning out her heart. Over and over, she would entangle herself in intellectual infatuations and half-requited loves that fell short of what she most fervently desired: “fulness of being” — the sublime integration of emotion, the intellect, and, as she would come to realize only at the end of her short life, the body. And yet she was as intent on having an examined inner life as she was on engaging with the life of the world, of the earth, of cosmic existence. “I cannot live without mine own particular star,” Fuller wrote when she was the age at which her contemporary Maria Michell discovered the comet that made her America’s first professional female astronomer — “but my foot is on the earth and I wish to walk over it until my wings be grown. I will use my microscope as well as my telescope.”
At twenty-one, Margaret Fuller arrived at her “own particular star” through a transcendent experience she later described as one of eclipsing “the extreme of passionate sorrow” — a revelation that stripped all sense of self and, in that nakedness of being, made her all the more herself.
A revelation akin to how psychedelics uncork consciousness, but unassisted by any outside substance.
A revelation the account of which defies, with Fuller’s virtuosity of language, the first of the four features of transcendent experiences — ineffability — that William James formulated a generation later.
In her journal, Fuller recounts being forced to go to church on Thanksgiving Day while feeling “wearied out by mental conflicts, and in a mood of most childish, child-like sadness” — the sorrow of her symphonic potential muted by those tasked with directing her life. She would later recall:
I felt within myself great power, and generosity, and tenderness, but it seemed to me as if they were all unrecognized, and as if it was impossible that they should be used in life. I was only one-and-twenty; the past was worthless, the future hopeless; yet… my aspiration seemed very high.
Looking around the pews, this young woman who would later describe herself as having had “no natural childhood” now finds herself envying all the little children. Once liberated from the service, she heads into the fields and walks — almost runs — for hours, under “slow processions of sad clouds… passing over a cold blue sky.” She is unable to contain the thoughts that have seethed for years and have now erupted to the surface:
It seemed I could never return to a world in which I had no place… I could not act a part, nor seem to live any longer.
So she ceases to think and instead observes nature in its irrepressible aliveness — the trees “dark and silent”; the little stream “shrunken, voiceless, choked with withered leaves,” and yet “it did not quite lose itself in the earth.”
Suddenly the sun shone out with that transparent sweetness, like the last smile of a dying lover, which it will use when it has been unkind all a cold autumn day. And, even then, passed into my thought a beam from its true sun, from its native sphere, which has never since departed me.
The beam illuminates her memory of herself as a little girl, stopping midstep on the stairs to wonder how she came into being:
How is it that I seem to be this Margaret Fuller? What does it mean? What shall I do about it? I remembered all the times and ways in which the same thought had returned. I saw how long it must be before the soul can learn to act under these limitations of time and space, and human nature; but I saw, also, that it must do it, — that it must make all this false true… I saw there was no self; that selfishness was all folly, and the result of circumstance; that it was only because I thought self real that I suffered; that I had only to live in the idea of the all, and all was mine.
A generation after her, the Canadian psychiatrist and outdoorsman Maurice Bucke would fall under Whitman’s spell and give this type of experience a name in his pioneering model of cosmic consciousness.
Complement with Fuller’s contemporary Coleridge on transcendence in nature and human nature after glimpsing the all in a storm, then leap two centuries forward with Nick Cave on music, feeling, and transcendence.
For other excerpts from Figuring, see Elizabeth Peabody (who was the first to recognize Fuller’s genius and stewarded her entry into the Transcendentalist universe) on middle age and the art of self-renewal, Rachel Carson on the ocean and the meaning of life, Charles Darwin on love, loss, and the beautiful banality of survival, Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to the love of her life, and the striking story of how Kepler invented science fiction and revolutionized our understanding of the universe while defending his mother in a witchcraft trial.
Published December 26, 2021