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Albena Bakratcheva, Visibility Beyond...

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Albena Bakratcheva, Visibility Beyond the Visible: The Artistic Discourse of American Transcendentalism, Sofia: The New Bulgarian University Press, 2006, 372 pp., in Bulgarian

- Alexander Gungov
Sofia University

Albena Bakratcheva has produced a passionate and erudite account of the formation and development of American Transcendentalism from an artistic, but also to a great extent philosophical, perspective. She has interwoven in a lucid text the intellectual, spiritual, and emotional sources that gave rise to this unique syncretic movement. This book is a brilliant example of how a scholar, belonging to a “neutral” European culture, (1) can successfully practice a method of interpretation, both rational and intuitive, in order to penetrate into the depths of a seemingly remote tradition.
In her writing, Bakratcheva outlines the original source of the term “transcendental,” shedding light on its transformation in mid-nineteenth-century American usage. She situates this notion in the nexus of Puritanism, Enlightenment Rationalism, and the specific New England view of life, emphasizing the impact made on the Transcendentalist movement by Unitarianism. Special attention is paid to the overcoming of the fashionable mood of British Romanticism, proving, in the result, the intellectual maturity and practical adequacy of the Transcendentalist approach. The author views inspiration and piety as the kernel of the creative endeavor of the Transcendentalist group members, leading to the emblematic concepts of “the poet-priest” and “the American scholar”– a synthetic unity of artistic and intellectual zeal, religious devotion, and unorthodox life style.
Summarizing the essence of Transcendentalism, Bakratcheva observes that “within the New England context, bearing the apparent tendency of being personified by and bound up, to the maximum degree, with the Puritan tradition of the American East, [this notion] unfolds its irrationalism in relatively clear opposition to already insufficient philosophical and religious statements …” (2) Nevertheless, Enlightenment Rationalism leaves its mark on American life at that epoch in a number of outstanding achievements, the most significant of which is the Declaration of Independence. But its negative impact is no less important, in the form of a reaction on the part of Puritan spirituality against Rationalism, a reaction that led to religious enthusiasm, which in turn facilitated the appearance of Transcendentalism. (3) So it is not surprising that Ralph Waldo Emerson sees an affinity between poetry and religion and even believes in the presence of the sacred within the act of poetic creation. (4) In such a way, the poet-priest, a perfect combination of talent and missionary vocation, gains direct personal access to God. (5) Evidently, the poet-priest is an embodiment of the identity of the divine, artistic, and moral that serves as foundation for the Transcendentalist world out-look. (6)
The poet-priest is regarded by Emerson as “The American Scholar” or as “The Transcendentalist,” whose credo is “Protestantism without church, spiritual leadership without pulpit, and democracy of and for the spirit.” (7) The free creative intellectual maintains a direct link between transcendental spirituality and the spirit of the place, always meaning by place New England. (8) This is the reason why Emerson, as Bakratcheva aptly points out, is self-confident enough to sing in his Nature a hymn to “new lands, new people, and new thoughts.” (9) According to Bakratcheva, Emerson, following this direction, accepted, in a productive mode, the ideas of Coleridge and Carlyle, developing them with an eye to their relevance for America. He succeeds in doing so “either by putting a stronger accent on the poet-priest’s prophetic vision, charging it with the dimensions of American spatiality; or by enthusiastically connecting his conviction of the native dignity of man with the intellectual climate of the America of his day, inspired by the belief of Jackson’s democracy in the unlimited potential of humanity; or by concentrating on nature as the symbol of the spirit, which he sees as a sheer immense ‘Poem.’” (10)
Bakratcheva seems to be fascinated by the most radical transcendentalist, Margaret Fuller, to whom she pays long tribute, dedicating sixteen pages full of respect and admiration. But the core of Bakratcheva’s book is focused on the life and works of Henry David Thoreau. The author stresses Thoreau’s achievement in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers to realize a unity made up of a theory of creativity, artistic practice, and life style – the daydream of all transcendentalists (11) – as well as to find the most adequate artistic expression for the identity of Me and not-Me. Against this background, a total transformation of time-perception takes place: time be-comes an intellectual and spiritual value, leading to the substitution of value characteristics for temporal ones. (12) The same tendency, however, on a more mature level, is developed in Walden, which “offers not an escape, but the greatest and most elating revelation: an open Universe, always new, vivid, and giving life.” (13) Bakratcheva records how Thoreau’s pre-Socratic perception detects the fragmented and perishable character of everything visible. In a Kantian fashion, Thoreau’s transcendentalism introduces aesthetic wholeness into the disorganized space of perception in order to reach the state of firm intellectual health and the poetic heights of “consensus, harmony, and love.” Nature, for the transcendentalists, is inseparable from humanity and the notion of the common good. That is why Thoreau criticizes the industrial revolution, not from a disinterested ecological position, but as a moral being deeply involved in the human-nature relationship. Bearing this in mind, Bakratcheva reasonably argues that “Thoreau praises the wilderness, but this is not the wilderness of the moose or the Indian – this is the wilderness, elevated into a cult (‘cultivated’) by the cultivated new-comer.” (14)
Visibility Beyond the Visible proves to be an astute and profound narrative about one of the most thrilling and inspiring periods of American artistic, intellectual, and moral life. Bakratcheva succeeds in unfolding the main aspects of the Transcendentalist movement from a unique perspective, which profitably combines literary and philosophical approaches, making a significant contribution to Bulgarian and world American studies.

1 Albena Bakratcheva, Visibility Beyond the Visible: The Artistic Discourse of American Transcendentalism, 339.
2 Ibid., 17.
3 Ibid., 30.
4 Ibid., 49.
5 Ibid., 64.
6 Ibid., 90.
7 Ibid., 115.
8 Ibid., 122.
9 Ibid., 124.
10 Ibid., 132-133.
11 Ibid., 248.
12 Ibid., 253.
13 Ibid., 268.
14 Ibid., 336.