Get 20M+ Full-Text Papers For Less Than $1.50/day. Start a 14-Day Trial for You and Your Team.

Learn More →

EMILY DICKINSON: RECLUSION AGAINST ITSELF

EMILY DICKINSON: RECLUSION AGAINST ITSELF S y m p o s i u m : Uns o c ia l T ho u g ht , Unc o m mo n L i v e s, Pa r t 2 Shira Wolosky Renunciation — is the Choosing Against Itself — (J 745) Emily Dickinson’s reclusion, the riveting central counterevent of her life, is so  obtrusive as to block even itself from view. Her reclusion verges on occlusion,  both with regard to its causes in her life and, more problematically, to its meaning in Dickinson’s work. Early accounts assume some romantic crash, for which  there has however been essentially no evidence. Nor would mere brokenheartedness, whether hetero- or homosexual, go very far in accounting for the literature  Dickinson wrote. Her reclusion, as represented in her work, should instead be  seen in terms of traditions of withdrawal from the world and of her resistance to  them. In many ways, her reclusion represents a quite original stance, in critical  relation to (rather than containment within) the meanings of reclusion that come  before her. Dickinson’s reclusion marks a shift, subtle and yet extreme, in the  history of reclusion and its significance — a shift extending past her own retreat  retrospectively to the tradition itself. The particularities of her reclusion suggest  12:3 DOI 10.1215/0961754X-2006-007 © 2006 by Duke University Press emily Dickinson, c. 1850. Collection of Philip and Leslie guara how any act or event and its terms may mean differently within different historical distributions. Dickinson’s poetry provides a record of her responses to a world she found  at times alluring but of which she ultimately disapproved as deeply flawed and  indeed alarming. It is not, however, disapproval of reality that makes Dickinson’s  reclusion thoroughly original. Disapproval had been, after all, the motive for  withdrawal from the world since the earliest eremitic and monastic regimens. But  hers is not a reclusion attesting to interiority as a superior resource of meaning.  Rather, Dickinson in reclusion protests the lack of design in the external world  of phenomena and events, where she holds that intelligibility should (but does  not) reside. Born in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, Dickinson seems to have passed  an ordinary girlhood in a prominent town family. At around the age of twentyeight in the year 1858, however, she began to display distinctive behavior: declining to go out; dressing in white; speaking to visitors from behind screens and  stairwells or from other rooms; refusing to address the envelopes of her correspondence, from letters and myriad condolence notes to messages for her sisterin-law next door. And of course Dickinson began to write intensively, and also to  not publish, poems which she only circulated in private letters or sewed into small  fascicle booklets (found by her sister Lavinia on Dickinson’s death in 1886). That  this retreat coincided with hostilities leading to the American Civil War — as  did her great outburst of poetic production — I have discussed elsewhere.1 The  war’s relevance here is not only, or is perhaps (in a special sense) precisely, historical. Dickinson’s reclusion was born in reaction against a world manifesting itself  as unpredictable, violent, and terrifying. She had suspected that the world was  defective for some time. Her early letters track her irreconcilable anguish over  schoolfriends’ deaths. But the war, one should imagine, seemed a final and overwhelming evidence that the world was indeed a badly conducted place. In the history of thought, this conclusion was hardly news. St. Augustine,  for example, surveying the fall of Rome, had long since provided ample terms for  suspecting the City of Man. The human world displayed itself as at best a scene  of trial, at worst a punishment that, if properly regarded, could act also as purgation. Plato (in his worst moods) and Neoplatonists, notably Plotinus, understood  the cosmos itself as an ascending ladder of introspection; and the Desert Fathers  of Christendom followed their lead. Augustine, along roughly the same path,  turned inward and upward (inward as upward) toward the City of God. As he  wrote of God in the Confessions: “You were more inward than the most inward  place of my heart and loftier than the highest above me.”2 The metaphysical  realm was no longer to be reached by the philosophical route, since Augustine  believed in redemption through unearned grace.3 But Augustine still required  detachment from the world of flesh in favor of an inward realm metaphorically  “above” it. Conducted with greater or lesser distaste, greater or lesser suspicion,  greater or lesser regret, detachment pledges itself to a spirituality facing inward  and heavenward. The motives of detachment may be more or less orthodox (unification and deification being major portals into heresy for, among others, Meister  Eckhart and Jacob Boehme); but the goal is always a better world than that of  matter, time, multiplicity, and change. This is a tradition Dickinson breaks with and breaks open. Interior spiritual ascents and exits are not the directions, claims, or maps of Dickinson’s reclusion (despite efforts to read her in such terms and despite specific poems that  lend themselves to such readings). Hers is not withdrawal from the world to an  interiority detached from it as an antidote, substitute, or consolation. In continu- 1.  Shira Wolosky, Emily Dickinson: A Voice of War (New  Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984); “Poetry and  Public Discourse, 1820 – 1910,” in Nineteenth-Century Poetry 1800 – 1910, vol. 4 of The Cambridge History of American Literature, ed. Sacvan Bercovitch (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004). The question of Dickinson’s not-publishing has of course attracted much notice.  It seems clear to me that she could have published easily  if she had so chosen. Among her close acquaintance were  prominent publishers such as Samuel Bowles, editor of the  Springfield Republican; and Helen Hunt Jackson asked her  repeatedly to allow publication of her poems, even anonymously. 2.  See, for example, Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition from Plato to Denys (Oxford:  Clarendon, 1981), 37 – 41. 3.  For the role of grace in Augustinian philosophy, see  Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Augustine,  trans. L. E. M. Lynch (London: Gollancz, 1961). ity with the Platonist and Christian traditions of reclusion, Dickinson too sees  the phenomenal world as wanting. Yet her reaction is not the traditional one. She  does not accept, or seek, an interior realm as resolution or sign or path or promise  of redemption. Indeed she is critical of the dualist representation of the world  as a temporal materiality separated, in an unbridgeable and shrill manner, from  unchanging, incorporeal essence, spirit, and truth. Her retreat does not fulfill  but, rather, condemns this division; she condemns also the consequent abandonment of the temporal world for any dimension removed from it, facing away from  time toward an escapist eternity. Certainly she sees the flaws of the world, which  appears to her as a scene with promise, though frighteningly ill managed. She is  not moved, however, to substitute for the experience of this defective world an  experience renouncing external events and terms. Instead she is filled with rage  at having to retreat from a world so compromised. Her stance is one of frustration and blame, directed not least at a divine power who could have established  creation, she is sure, in a more just, more harmonious, less violent and lethal manner. She has no desire to split the world apart into a quicksand phenomenal realm  and a stable mountain of eternity. Rather she wishes an integrated experience in  the reality she knows: an experience of both fact and meaning, body and spirit,  phenomena and (phenomena as) intelligibility. Nor does her retreat signify renunciation of a lesser realm for a higher  aesthetic one. Art is not for Dickinson separate and self-constituting, redemptive within its own terms. Writing does not, on the whole, provide for her a  secure enclosure, nor represent one. Her poems become the setting for Dickinson’s anguished and angry recognition that human reality is chaotic and that,  as Nietzsche was shortly to proclaim, no intelligible principle can be detected in  it. Yet the failure of intelligibility does not lead her, as it does him, to dismiss its  possibility and seek some immanent force, such as the will to power, to replace  it. Nor is her position like his straight condemnation of the category of eternity  itself. Dickinson’s central problem is not the notion of immortality and divine  values as such, but rather their location. What infuriates, terrifies, and frustrates  her is the lack of stability and security, justice, and redemptive love within the  world she knows. Dickinson recluses herself not in hope of a redemption experienced as an inner state transcending the external world. Her reclusion is closer  to despair — or better, to defiance of the world that makes her retreat necessary.  There is defiant defense: to protect herself as much as possible from the grave  disorder that surrounds her. And there is defiant attack: to protest, to pummel, to  punish nature and nature’s God for the seductive yet ultimately undesirable reality for which he is responsible. God remains a central figure in Dickinson’s verse,  as both protagonist and antagonist, infuriatingly unwilling or unable fully to take  his proper role. Dickinson addresses God — repeatedly — in longing and yearning that he prove to be who and what is always said of him. She addresses him in  disappointment and distress that his praises seem mere rumor, contradicted by  the chaos that does, yes, attest a cause. Hers is an argument from design where,  however, the design defaults, leaving her furious at the designer. In terms of the  tradition, Dickinson does not experience the dark night of the soul, doubting its  own worthiness, as St. John of the Cross described it. Nor does she experience    T. S. Eliot’s dark night, doubting the reality of God until vision is renewed and  healing granted. Dickinson does not doubt God’s existence. She instead questions his ways, which seem to her unjustifiable. She examines the wedded plight  between theodicy and mysticism, where retreat into spirit is offered as a remedy to the world’s suffering, and rejects it. She will not accept any solution to  http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Common Knowledge Duke University Press

EMILY DICKINSON: RECLUSION AGAINST ITSELF

Common Knowledge , Volume 12 (3) – Oct 1, 2006

Loading next page...
 
/lp/duke-university-press/emily-dickinson-reclusion-against-itself-8pDtt6HNI0
Publisher
Duke University Press
Copyright
© 2006 by Duke University Press
ISSN
0961-754X
eISSN
0961-754X
DOI
10.1215/0961754X-2006-007
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

S y m p o s i u m : Uns o c ia l T ho u g ht , Unc o m mo n L i v e s, Pa r t 2 Shira Wolosky Renunciation — is the Choosing Against Itself — (J 745) Emily Dickinson’s reclusion, the riveting central counterevent of her life, is so  obtrusive as to block even itself from view. Her reclusion verges on occlusion,  both with regard to its causes in her life and, more problematically, to its meaning in Dickinson’s work. Early accounts assume some romantic crash, for which  there has however been essentially no evidence. Nor would mere brokenheartedness, whether hetero- or homosexual, go very far in accounting for the literature  Dickinson wrote. Her reclusion, as represented in her work, should instead be  seen in terms of traditions of withdrawal from the world and of her resistance to  them. In many ways, her reclusion represents a quite original stance, in critical  relation to (rather than containment within) the meanings of reclusion that come  before her. Dickinson’s reclusion marks a shift, subtle and yet extreme, in the  history of reclusion and its significance — a shift extending past her own retreat  retrospectively to the tradition itself. The particularities of her reclusion suggest  12:3 DOI 10.1215/0961754X-2006-007 © 2006 by Duke University Press emily Dickinson, c. 1850. Collection of Philip and Leslie guara how any act or event and its terms may mean differently within different historical distributions. Dickinson’s poetry provides a record of her responses to a world she found  at times alluring but of which she ultimately disapproved as deeply flawed and  indeed alarming. It is not, however, disapproval of reality that makes Dickinson’s  reclusion thoroughly original. Disapproval had been, after all, the motive for  withdrawal from the world since the earliest eremitic and monastic regimens. But  hers is not a reclusion attesting to interiority as a superior resource of meaning.  Rather, Dickinson in reclusion protests the lack of design in the external world  of phenomena and events, where she holds that intelligibility should (but does  not) reside. Born in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, Dickinson seems to have passed  an ordinary girlhood in a prominent town family. At around the age of twentyeight in the year 1858, however, she began to display distinctive behavior: declining to go out; dressing in white; speaking to visitors from behind screens and  stairwells or from other rooms; refusing to address the envelopes of her correspondence, from letters and myriad condolence notes to messages for her sisterin-law next door. And of course Dickinson began to write intensively, and also to  not publish, poems which she only circulated in private letters or sewed into small  fascicle booklets (found by her sister Lavinia on Dickinson’s death in 1886). That  this retreat coincided with hostilities leading to the American Civil War — as  did her great outburst of poetic production — I have discussed elsewhere.1 The  war’s relevance here is not only, or is perhaps (in a special sense) precisely, historical. Dickinson’s reclusion was born in reaction against a world manifesting itself  as unpredictable, violent, and terrifying. She had suspected that the world was  defective for some time. Her early letters track her irreconcilable anguish over  schoolfriends’ deaths. But the war, one should imagine, seemed a final and overwhelming evidence that the world was indeed a badly conducted place. In the history of thought, this conclusion was hardly news. St. Augustine,  for example, surveying the fall of Rome, had long since provided ample terms for  suspecting the City of Man. The human world displayed itself as at best a scene  of trial, at worst a punishment that, if properly regarded, could act also as purgation. Plato (in his worst moods) and Neoplatonists, notably Plotinus, understood  the cosmos itself as an ascending ladder of introspection; and the Desert Fathers  of Christendom followed their lead. Augustine, along roughly the same path,  turned inward and upward (inward as upward) toward the City of God. As he  wrote of God in the Confessions: “You were more inward than the most inward  place of my heart and loftier than the highest above me.”2 The metaphysical  realm was no longer to be reached by the philosophical route, since Augustine  believed in redemption through unearned grace.3 But Augustine still required  detachment from the world of flesh in favor of an inward realm metaphorically  “above” it. Conducted with greater or lesser distaste, greater or lesser suspicion,  greater or lesser regret, detachment pledges itself to a spirituality facing inward  and heavenward. The motives of detachment may be more or less orthodox (unification and deification being major portals into heresy for, among others, Meister  Eckhart and Jacob Boehme); but the goal is always a better world than that of  matter, time, multiplicity, and change. This is a tradition Dickinson breaks with and breaks open. Interior spiritual ascents and exits are not the directions, claims, or maps of Dickinson’s reclusion (despite efforts to read her in such terms and despite specific poems that  lend themselves to such readings). Hers is not withdrawal from the world to an  interiority detached from it as an antidote, substitute, or consolation. In continu- 1.  Shira Wolosky, Emily Dickinson: A Voice of War (New  Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984); “Poetry and  Public Discourse, 1820 – 1910,” in Nineteenth-Century Poetry 1800 – 1910, vol. 4 of The Cambridge History of American Literature, ed. Sacvan Bercovitch (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004). The question of Dickinson’s not-publishing has of course attracted much notice.  It seems clear to me that she could have published easily  if she had so chosen. Among her close acquaintance were  prominent publishers such as Samuel Bowles, editor of the  Springfield Republican; and Helen Hunt Jackson asked her  repeatedly to allow publication of her poems, even anonymously. 2.  See, for example, Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition from Plato to Denys (Oxford:  Clarendon, 1981), 37 – 41. 3.  For the role of grace in Augustinian philosophy, see  Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Augustine,  trans. L. E. M. Lynch (London: Gollancz, 1961). ity with the Platonist and Christian traditions of reclusion, Dickinson too sees  the phenomenal world as wanting. Yet her reaction is not the traditional one. She  does not accept, or seek, an interior realm as resolution or sign or path or promise  of redemption. Indeed she is critical of the dualist representation of the world  as a temporal materiality separated, in an unbridgeable and shrill manner, from  unchanging, incorporeal essence, spirit, and truth. Her retreat does not fulfill  but, rather, condemns this division; she condemns also the consequent abandonment of the temporal world for any dimension removed from it, facing away from  time toward an escapist eternity. Certainly she sees the flaws of the world, which  appears to her as a scene with promise, though frighteningly ill managed. She is  not moved, however, to substitute for the experience of this defective world an  experience renouncing external events and terms. Instead she is filled with rage  at having to retreat from a world so compromised. Her stance is one of frustration and blame, directed not least at a divine power who could have established  creation, she is sure, in a more just, more harmonious, less violent and lethal manner. She has no desire to split the world apart into a quicksand phenomenal realm  and a stable mountain of eternity. Rather she wishes an integrated experience in  the reality she knows: an experience of both fact and meaning, body and spirit,  phenomena and (phenomena as) intelligibility. Nor does her retreat signify renunciation of a lesser realm for a higher  aesthetic one. Art is not for Dickinson separate and self-constituting, redemptive within its own terms. Writing does not, on the whole, provide for her a  secure enclosure, nor represent one. Her poems become the setting for Dickinson’s anguished and angry recognition that human reality is chaotic and that,  as Nietzsche was shortly to proclaim, no intelligible principle can be detected in  it. Yet the failure of intelligibility does not lead her, as it does him, to dismiss its  possibility and seek some immanent force, such as the will to power, to replace  it. Nor is her position like his straight condemnation of the category of eternity  itself. Dickinson’s central problem is not the notion of immortality and divine  values as such, but rather their location. What infuriates, terrifies, and frustrates  her is the lack of stability and security, justice, and redemptive love within the  world she knows. Dickinson recluses herself not in hope of a redemption experienced as an inner state transcending the external world. Her reclusion is closer  to despair — or better, to defiance of the world that makes her retreat necessary.  There is defiant defense: to protect herself as much as possible from the grave  disorder that surrounds her. And there is defiant attack: to protest, to pummel, to  punish nature and nature’s God for the seductive yet ultimately undesirable reality for which he is responsible. God remains a central figure in Dickinson’s verse,  as both protagonist and antagonist, infuriatingly unwilling or unable fully to take  his proper role. Dickinson addresses God — repeatedly — in longing and yearning that he prove to be who and what is always said of him. She addresses him in  disappointment and distress that his praises seem mere rumor, contradicted by  the chaos that does, yes, attest a cause. Hers is an argument from design where,  however, the design defaults, leaving her furious at the designer. In terms of the  tradition, Dickinson does not experience the dark night of the soul, doubting its  own worthiness, as St. John of the Cross described it. Nor does she experience    T. S. Eliot’s dark night, doubting the reality of God until vision is renewed and  healing granted. Dickinson does not doubt God’s existence. She instead questions his ways, which seem to her unjustifiable. She examines the wedded plight  between theodicy and mysticism, where retreat into spirit is offered as a remedy to the world’s suffering, and rejects it. She will not accept any solution to 

Journal

Common KnowledgeDuke University Press

Published: Oct 1, 2006

There are no references for this article.

You’re reading a free preview. Subscribe to read the entire article.


DeepDyve is your
personal research library

It’s your single place to instantly
discover and read the research
that matters to you.

Enjoy affordable access to
over 18 million articles from more than
15,000 peer-reviewed journals.

All for just $49/month

Explore the DeepDyve Library

Search

Query the DeepDyve database, plus search all of PubMed and Google Scholar seamlessly

Organize

Save any article or search result from DeepDyve, PubMed, and Google Scholar... all in one place.

Access

Get unlimited, online access to over 18 million full-text articles from more than 15,000 scientific journals.

Your journals are on DeepDyve

Read from thousands of the leading scholarly journals from SpringerNature, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford University Press and more.

All the latest content is available, no embargo periods.

See the journals in your area

DeepDyve

Freelancer

DeepDyve

Pro

Price

FREE

$49/month
$499/year

Save searches from
Google Scholar,
PubMed

Create folders to
organize your research

Export folders, citations

Read DeepDyve articles

Abstract access only

Unlimited access to over
18 million full-text articles

Print

20 pages / month