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The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

The sacred or falling sickness was always unnameable when it struck a female.

(Lives like Loaded Guns– page 138)

So far in the sequence we have seen authors attribute Emily Dickinson’s withdrawal from society as an agoraphobic reaction to patriarchy (The Mad Woman in the Attic) or as a response to the intense pain of forbidden love (The Passion of Emily Dickinson).

Even the more recent book, published in 2004, A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson, is still backing the agoraphobic horse after quoting from Amy Lowell’s 1918 speculation (page 26): ‘There is a high probability that she suffered from agoraphobia. At the very least, she suffered from extreme social shyness.’

Is there an elephant in the room here that no one thought to mention until Lyndall Gordon came along in 2010 with her explosive potential myth-shaker, Lives like Loaded Guns.

Lives like Loaded Guns

Lyndall Gordon begins to build her case for a different explanation by reminding us (page 116) that Emily Dickinson always liked ‘to tell it slant.’

She asks us what explanation can we plausibly suggest for Emily Dickinson’s use of expressions such as ‘Throe’ and ‘a Cleaving in my Mind’? Is there a better fit than epilepsy? She adds other quotations into the mix (page 117): ‘it’s as though the body is a house haunted by an Assassin of the Brain, who prowls its corridors until the tormented Body “borrows a Revolver“ and prepares for a secret shoot-out behind a bolted door.’

There are, on page 125, six quotes including the word ‘fit.’ She feels that (page 126) ‘she never got over her fear of ‘it’ and in time her constant apprehension of “a fitting” turns out to be “terribler” than when it’s on – when she’s “wearing it.” The full text here is:

While we were fearing it, it came—
But came with less of fear
Because that fearing it so long
Had almost made it fair—

There is a Fitting—a Dismay—
A Fitting—a Despair
’Tis harder knowing it is Due
Than knowing it is Here.

The Trying on the Utmost
The Morning it is new
Is Terribler than wearing it
A whole existence through.

She spells out the implications (page 117):

If this, at least in part, is what was secret, the conditions of Dickinson‘s life make sense: sickness is a more sensible reason for seclusion than disappointed love. A seizure can happen with little warning: about a minute. Too short a time to take cover. This is why those who keep the condition secret would fear to go out, even to join callers in the parlour.… What seemed eccentric was simply dread.

Where else does she look for evidence to support this theory?

She agrees that anything conclusive is hard to come by because (page 119) ‘females especially provoked genteel aversion as they broke the rules of ladylike control. Families therefore colluded to keep the condition a lifelong secret. Dickinson’s poetry speaks of a “reticent“ volcano.’ And adds (page 123) ‘Because the diagnosis was rarely uttered, still less put on paper, there is little chance of explicit evidence.’

She refers to Emily Dickinson’s visit to Dr James Jackson in September 1851 (page121). Gordon argues that ‘it could have been Dr Jackson who persuaded Emily Dickinson to accept the prospect of seclusion and singleness in the hope of doing something with the intellectual and creative creative gifts that this doctor had the capacity to discern…’ She feels also that:

Dr Jackson’s authority would have weighed with Mr Dickinson, who agreed to relieve his daughter of the household tasks and empty social gatherings she loathed. . . He indulged the priority she wished to give to poetry and promoted mild exertion in the fresh air: daily walks with her dog Carlo… and her taste for gardening.

There is only one piece of tangible piece of evidence within her grasp (page 121) and it concerns the prescription he made out which has almost miraculously survived. Gordon feels this piece of paper ‘is a crucial clue to Dr Jackson‘s diagnosis. What he prescribed was half an ounce of glycerine diluted with two and a half ounces of water.’ She accepts that glycerine had many uses. However, one of the medical uses in Dickinson’s day was indeed for epilepsy, even though in today’s terms its past efficacy is seen (page 122) basically as a placebo. Apparently, Emily Dickinson used the prescription until 1853 with diminishing confidence.

What reasons do we have apart from the indirect hints in the poems and the possibly reputation-protecting seclusion, to justify thinking that glycerine was not being prescribed for something else other than epilepsy?

Gordon quotes Dr Hirschhorn as asking an extremely pertinent question (ibid.): ‘why did Dickinson persist in asking Austin to send her this medication from Boston even though there was an adequate drugstore at home in Amherst?’ She accepts that the ‘question of secrecy about her medication is… still open’ but adds that ‘the undeniable stigma of epilepsy could be the answer, given its shaming associations at that time…’

She finds at least one compensation for Dickinson’s not having been born when more powerful medications were used (page 123) ‘Since poetry was all important to Dickinson, it was in a sense fortunate that she lived before barbiturates came into use in 1912 for, in sedating the brain, the drugs dulled it.’

Gordon then turns to a more familiar theme, though still linking it with her diagnosis of epilepsy rather than agoraphobia (page 124):

‘I like the look of agony,’ [Dickinson] said, because agony opened up what lies beyond the limits of language: visionary states of mind she would not otherwise have comprehended and which became prime material for poems. We might guess that during the four years when she produced so much of her greatest work, her sickness was at its height. In later years it was less active, as was her poetic output. By her fifties, the ‘Torrid Noons’ [dates from 1884] of her early thirties had ‘lain there Missles by — .’

This explanation differs from Farr’s view that it was the putting to bed of the pain of her two unfulfilled romantic attachments, one to Sue, her sister-in-law, and the other to the Master, that led to the decline in her creativity. It also discounts the correlation we will be discussing between her peak creativity and the American Civil War described in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson. However, the three possible explanations may be complementary rather than contradictory. All the factors could well have played a part.

Gordon has one more card up her sleeve. This relates to Dickinson’s well-documented supposed eye problem for which she went for treatment in 1864 and 1865. Gordon plausibly questions (page 127) whether her eye treatment alone could ‘necessitate such prolonged stays in Boston, when the distance from Amherst was not so great as to prevent her father is coming and going? Commonsense suggests a major disability, and a concerted attempt at a cure.’

Gordon finds plausible evidence for supposing this treatment might have ended her most creative period (page 130). Her lack of progress was attributed to her own lack of motivation and cooperation. ‘In the end Dr Williams’s cure was so ineffectual that he fell back on a standard defence: blame the victim,’ and ‘further subscribed to the current medical view that too much thinking could damage a woman.’ He forbad her to read! ‘His prohibitions put an end to the booklets,’ those mini-compilations of her poems, , knows as fascicles,that she stitched together. ‘She never resumed this alternative to publication, and though she did continue to write poems, the great surge of the early 1860s came to an end.’

She goes on to adduce evidence for their being two other members of the Dickinson family with epilepsy (page 132-138). As epilepsy has a ‘genetic component’ this perhaps strengthens her case.

I have come away persuaded that Gordon is right to raise the possibility of epilepsy, though conclusive proof will probably remain indefinitely elusive. Some are already hotly contesting the theory. For example, Hirschhorn et al. in Perspect Biol Med.(2013) consider they have refuted Gordon’s claims on ‘scientific, clinical, and biographical grounds.’ Time will tell.

Another Isolating Factor

Either way, the theory does not diminish the relevance of patriarchy, thwarted romance and the Civil War as other factors contributing to Dickinson’s power as a poet and her pain as an isolated human being. Rather it may enrich our understanding both of the possible source of the spiritually loaded poems, given, for example, the possibility of quasi-mystical states being induced by an epileptic fit, and of those particular poems that might have inspired directly by her more disturbing experiences of the fits themselves. I think this is one of those cases where biographical details can remove rather than create a veil between the reader and a full understanding of a poem.

There is one other possible factor contributing to her isolation and her suffering which needs to be added in here: her relationship with her father. Pollak and Moore draw into their account of her life some quotations from her letters, which, even allowing for her obvious ironic exaggeration at times, have potentially disturbing implications. For example (page 28):

Fathers (sic) real life and mine sometimes come into collision, but as yet, escape unhurt!

And more unsettling still (page 29):

[A]fter tea I went to see Sue – had a nice little visit with her – then went to see Emily Fowler, and arrived home at 9 – found Father in great agitation at my protracted stay – and mother and Vinny [her sister] in tears, for fear that he would kill me.

In the end, in terms of the basic tenor of this sequence of posts, notwithstanding the likely contribution made to her isolation and pain by patriarchy, cultural and personal, and by a possible anxiety problem, for me the epilepsy theory added a layer of richness to my understanding of her poetry. I’ll quote one poem that illustrates this to finish this post with, and before we move on next time to one last candidate waiting in the queue to explain her Everest of productivity in the Civil War years.

I have already referred to this poem once in this sequence. It is a favourite of mine. As a brilliant rendering of her inscape it is hard to match, so whatever facilitated the isolation that fostered it and which she shared with other writers – a repressive environment for women, agoraphobia, epilepsy, thwarted passion or war – the pain of it all engendered many poems like this. At times she celebrated that.

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –

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The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

[I]n turning inward, Dickinson gained unique insights into the human psyche.

(Pollak and Noble in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson,page 45)

The Passion of Emily Dickinson 

As I indicated at the end of the last post, I am looking at another book this time. Unlike Gilbert and Gubar, with their focus on patriarchy in The Mad Woman in the Attic, Judith Farr, in her book The Passion of Emily Dickinson,spends most of her time in the first two thirds of her book unpicking delicate strands of evidence to help us guestimate to whom some of Emily Dickinson’s poems were addressed.

Though fascinating from a biographical point of view, whether Emily Dickinson was writing a poem to Sue or to the Master doesn’t really matter to most of us as aficionados of her work. For us, what counts is to be able to allow the poem to impact as strongly as possible on our consciousness through the lens of our current understanding. Admittedly sometimes biographical details can shed light upon the meaning of poem: but all too often they constitute a veil between it and us. A great poem almost always transcends even the writer’s conscious intentions and understanding. That’s what makes it great. If anyone can capture all its meaning in words it might as well have been written in prose.

For these reasons, I am skipping over the whole of the first part of her book and homing in on where I feel most at home, with what Farr has to say about Emily Dickinson as poet of the interior in relation to time, nature and eternity.

The beginning of this exploration comes at page 247 when Farr writes:

She did have a poetic ‘project,’ and throughout her oeuvre it is perceptible. This was to depict ‘Eternity in Time.’

She continues (pages 247-48):

[H]er feelings result in a radiant conception of immortal life. . . . There is nothing morbid about this dream vision. … It is love, and the painful longing issuing from it, that gave Dickinson her vision of eternity. . . If Dickinson’s poetic productivity largely ceased after 1868, the reason had to do with the assimilation of her two great passions for Sue and for Master.

I will come on later in more details as to why I think this is yet another over-simplification of why she may have fallen away from her peak after the mid-1860s.[1]I’m not denying though that love and loss were part of the grit that helped form the pearls of her poetry. I concur with Farr when she writes (page 251):

[S]he had to grieve before she could continue to develop (and the grief was itself a means of developing).

Pollak refers (page 6) to ‘Dickinson’s incremental knowledge of the house of pain.’

Her love of poetry and her perception of its links with love, as we have already noted contrasted with her loathing of domestic chores (page 255):

Her prevailing conception of love inspiring art enables Dickinson to write her final sentences. There eternity is felt in time, and its sea is linked to her work.… Her vision was of the next world next to her as she did her housework, all that baking, canning, cleaning, and sewing so balefully recorded in her letters.

Nature was crucial to her, as it had been to the Brontës and to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, because for her (page 294) ‘nature offers clues about infinity.’ This was even to the extent that (page 302):

The horizon was a point of order for landscape painters like Church. For poets like Dickinson, it was the point of fusion of this world and the next.

Which finally brings me to two specific poems.

This is the first, an intensely powerful poem of sacrificial separation.

There came a Day at Summer’s full,
Entirely for me—
I thought that such were for the Saints,
Where Resurrections—be—

The Sun, as common, went abroad,
The flowers, accustomed, blew,
As if no soul the solstice passed
That maketh all things new

The time was scarce profaned, by speech—
The symbol of a word
Was needless, as at Sacrament,
The Wardrobe—of our Lord—

Each was to each The Sealed Church,
Permitted to commune this—time—
Lest we too awkward show
At Supper of the Lamb.

The Hours slid fast—as Hours will,
Clutched tight, by greedy hands—
So faces on two Decks, look back,
Bound to opposing lands—

And so when all the time had leaked,
Without external sound
Each bound the Other’s Crucifix—
We gave no other Bond—

Sufficient troth, that we shall rise—
Deposed—at length, the Grave—
To that new Marriage,
Justified—through Calvaries of Love—

Farr writes (pages 305-06) that, while being on the one hand plighting ‘troth on earth,’ it also records a quasi-religious ‘ceremony or compact of renunciation.’ She summarises it by saying:

This may have looked like an ‘accustomed’ sunny day when her flowers bloomed as usual, but it has marked her own movement from spring to summer: from girlhood to womanhood, from the old life to the sacred new one.

Nature is here contrasted with the spiritual by its ignorance of the day’s significance, its beauty notwithstanding. While her hope for her love’s fulfillment in the afterlife is its main theme, there is the implication that this separation is at least part of the crucible for her future poetry.

Before moving onto the next poem I want to quote in full, I need to refer briefly to two others: ‘I cannot live without You’ and ‘Behind Me – dips Eternity.’ As Farr explains (page 308) the first poem is important because it is describing ‘the surrender of a love that is morally forbidden.’ This is one of the sources of the grief referred to earlier. The second is important for present purposes because the opening stanza captures vividly her fusion of nature and eternity:

Behind Me– dips Eternity –
Before Me – Immortality –
Myself – the Term between –
Death but the Drift of Eastern Gray,
Dissolving into Dawn away,
Before the West begin –

Farr goes into much detail about how the Luminist paintings of Frederick Edwin Church and Thomas Cole, with which Emily Dickinson was deeply familiar, play on these tropes. I will shortly be coming onto how nature and women were similarly seen, and in my view still continue to be seen, as objects of exploitation during this period and beyond.

It’s probably also worth including here Eberwein’s view, expressed in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson (page 79), that ‘For Emily Dickinson, then, the essence of religious experience remained in that haunting question, “Is immortality true?”’

Capturing the Inscape

I now need to illustrate the other powerful capacity her poems have: to capture inner states. It will also serve as a useful pointer towards the next book I’ll be considering: Lives like Loaded Guns.

A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things gives a powerful account, similar to the one in John Fitzgerald Medina’s Faith, Physics & Psychology, of the so-called Enlightenment’s rapacious attitude to nature, expressed all too often in sexual terms. Patel and Moore write (page 53):

The second law of capitalist ecology, domination over nature, owed much to Francis Bacon (1561–1626)… He argued that “science should as it were torture nature’s secrets out of her.’ Further, the ‘empire of man’ should penetrate and dominate the “womb of nature.“

For them, ‘The binaries of Man and Woman, Nature and Society, drank from the same cup.’ I think their meaning would have been more faithfully represented if they had written ‘Society and Nature’ in that order. Even so their point is reasonably clear.

They share Medina’s distrust for our Cartesian legacy (page 54):

[H]ere was an intellectual movement that shaped not only ways of thinking but also ways of conquering, commodifying and living. This Cartesian revolution accomplished four major transformations, each shaping our view of Nature and Society to this day. First, either–or binary thinking displaced both–and alternatives. Second, it privileged thinking about substances, things, before thinking about the relationships between those substances. Third, it installed the domination of nature through science as a social good.

Finally, the Cartesian revolution made thinkable, and doable, the colonial project of mapping and domination.

This maps onto McGilchrist’s thinking about left-brain and right-brain differences and how the holistic, intuitive and empathic processes of our minds, which were in the past sometimes dismissively referred to as ‘feminine,’ and which tune into the ambiguous subtlety of reality, have been misguidedly subordinated to those arrogantly over-confident, logical, serial and linguistic processes, which hopelessly oversimplify reality and are sometimes complacently referred to as ‘masculine.’

I agree that Emily Dickinson, though she ultimately transcended them, was shaped by these crude ideological forces within a capitalist nonegalitarian culture that sees nature and humanity (women and ‘natives’ particularly) instrumentally, as thingsto be exploited for some kind of purely material advantage, rather than as beings to be valued for their own sake and nurtured with love and respect. As the Universal House of Justice has pointed out in The Promise of World Peace, capitalism is as flawed as communism, because both are equally materialistic ideologies:

The time has come when those who preach the dogmas of materialism, whether of the east or the west, whether of capitalism or socialism, must give account of the moral stewardship they have presumed to exercise.

That Dickinson was able to retreat from these repressive pressures into Vesuvial creativity is both a blessing to her, that helped compensate for her pain, and a gift to us now as we confront our generation’s variants of a toxic culture. She can inspire us to also strive to turn our pain in the face of abuses into creativity.

Her social isolation, a characteristic that fascinates me as my Solitarios sequence testifies, may have brought at least one other crucial benefit, beyond giving her creativity space to flourish in a general sense. It may have made her more sensitively attuned to her inscape than most of us will ever be.

I heard a Fly buzz– when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

Not only is this one of my favourite Emily Dickinson poems, but it is a significant one as we begin to transition to Lives like Loaded Guns. Farr pins down its crucial characteristic (page 310): ‘In such poems Emily Dickinson investigates the nature of consciousness by analysing its recession.’ As many people know it’s not the only one. Most famously there is also ‘I felt a funeral in my brain.’ More of that later.

Why she should be so interested in recessions of consciousness, Farr does not explain except in terms of her interest in death. She apparently called her poems (page 328) ‘bulletins from immortality.’

In the next post we will begin to close in on where all these ideas are leading.

Footnote

[1]. Between 1861, the year the American Civil War started, and 1865, the year it ended, she wrote something in the region of 936 of her 1789 poems, ie 52%. She was writing at an approximate rate of 187 poems per year. After the war was over, her average rate was 32 poems per year. That may not, though, have been the only factor.

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Cotton Merchants in New Orleans – Degas (For source of image see link)

The bees of my reflection had been busy gathering insights from the flowers of other writers’ gardens and I was poised to begin pulling them all together into a blog sequence about Emily Dickinson – a close follow up to my ramblings about the value of the feminine perspective, when I was derailed. Nothing unusual there, then, I know.

This wasn’t just a penny on my line of thought, though – more like a tree. And that’s a carefully chosen word, as you will see. No rhyme intended.

When you read something that confirms you in your struggles, the exhilaration you feel is amazing. A few days ago, thumbing through a magazine I receive in hard copy, before recycling it I had one such moment when I read Victoria James’s words:

Psychology writer and Guardian journalist Oliver Burkeman . . . recently spent three hours standing in front of a painting, Edgar Degas’s Cotton Merchants in New Orleans. “I spent the first 45 minutes regretting the choice. It’s just three men in a room. There’s not enough going on. It’s claustrophobic. You feel jumpy at first. You feel like you’ve got to be doing something more productive. It gets harder and harder – and then, after a while, it’s not so difficult any more. The second hour is much harder than the third.”

Burkeman is not a masochist of a peculiarly artistic stripe. He was intrigued by the practise of a Harvard art history professor, Jennifer Roberts, who sends her students to stand in front of an artwork of their choosing – just one – for three hours. The goal, he explains, is to discover “whether, at the end of it, you’ve achieved insights that you wouldn’t in a shorter period of time”.

What Burkeman found was that he was discovering details in the painting that a cursory glance simply didn’t reveal: “Deliberate ambiguities. Shapes that echo other shapes. Aspects that seem almost like an optical illusion, when you give it your full attention.”

Fascinating in itself, the experience also furnishes an excellent metaphor for what we can do, when we stop trying to do everything. “The reason that patience and stillness are so important right now,” says Burkeman, who is working on a new book about time, “is that the whole direction of culture is the opposite. You’d think we should be able to relax – we’ve got technology to do things and do them faster. But that is exactly nobody’s experience. The faster that technology drives us, the more impatient we are.”

In a moment I will try and explain why I reacted in the way did, what it was exactly that derailed me.

It certainly had nothing to do with my Jackson Pollock moment sometime in the 60s in the Tate (there was no Tate Modern in those days). An art teacher colleague of mine was dismayed that I did not like Pollock’s technicolour holographic snail trails. He took me to a gallery and stood me in front of a painting more than twice my size and insisted that I stand there looking at it for at least half-an-hour, which I dutifully did. Sadly, its beauty continued to elude me.

I’m sharing that to show that I was not primed by prior experience to enthuse at the idea of standing in front of a picture for three hours, watching dry paint. A lot of related water has passed under my bridge since the Pollock disappointment, though. And that’s where some of my more recent experiences come into the mix.

Pond near Adhisthana Buddhist Centre

Recently, I was asked to run a workshop for an interfaith day at the Adhisthana Buddhist Centre near Ledbury. I used a method of engaging as a group with spiritual texts, pioneered by the Bahá’í community of Colombia, that I heard about more than twenty years ago. I call it something like consultative reflection.

This is the method we used. The topic was Emptiness and Silence.

Instructions

In turn each person reads a quotation out loud. The one who first reads the quote acts as a group leader for the consultation on that quote.

First, people ask for or offer clarification of any words that are difficult to understand.

Then each person re-reads the quote before sharing one response (s)he has to the quote. Every one in turn expresses their responses to the quote in this same way, whether as thoughts, feelings, intuitions or whatever. All group members should at least read part if not all of the quotation even if they feel they will have nothing to share after doing so.

This goes on until all the members feel they have said all that they wish to say or time has run out. There are no right or wrong answers during this process. It is an opportunity to reflect deeply and share the result.

Efforts should be made not to respond to what others have said but simply to focus on one’s reaction at the time one reads the quote again. Attention should be paid to what implications the quote has for our own lives and to suggestions as to how we might apply what we have learned.

The group leader’s only job is to see that everyone follows these rules, i.e. reads the quote or at least part of it prayerfully and shares one (and only one) response without referring to what others have said!

And this is the quote we focused on:

The essence of true safety is to observe silence, to look at the end of things and to renounce the world.

It’s from theTablets of Bahá’u’lláh  – page 158.

The time was too short for each group to work on more than this one quote.

The reaction was intriguing but not unexpected as I’d used this approach before. People to begin with were somewhat incredulous, even impatient with the whole idea. Why would you keep reading and re-reading the same words over and over again in this way? The words were simple and the text was short. Surely we’d all got the drift the first time round.

I had explained the need for patience so this diverse group of people persisted for more than half an hour. At the end, the majority sat there stunned.

‘Wow!’ is a one word summary of their reaction.

‘That was amazing! I never realised that there was so much to understand in that short quotation,’ was one person’s view. ‘I’m going to do this again with my friends.’

‘Can you do it by yourself?’ another asked.

‘You can,’ I responded, ‘but it’s harder to keep going without the combined energy of a group. It has the same effect though if you do.’

I did the same exercise a fortnight later in Wales at a weekend school using the title Gardening the Heart. Same results though again there were one or two people for whom it never clicked. But, as I am not a believer in the dogma that one size fits all, that didn’t surprise me either. What was perhaps more surprising was that by far the greater majority once more loved it and got the point big time.

It’s important to remember though that it only works if the group sticks by all the rules for the whole time.

Where this took me next I’m saving till next time.

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The only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. (For source of image see link)

[Emily Dickinson] conceived of herself as a martyr poet.

(Pollak and Noble in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson page 55)

At the end of my sequence on the value of the feminine perspective I indicated that I would be returning to that theme. It was already clear to me by that point that I could not leave the topic behind until I had done justice to the unique and compelling voice of Emily Dickinson. As will become conspicuously apparent, Dickinson also had a fascinating quality that links her with Los Solitarios.

I intend to do this by taking, mostly in sequence, the perspectives of four very different books about the poet (their publication dates will prove significant later): The Mad Woman in the Attic (1994 first edition: also 2000 edition), The Passion of Emily Dickinson  (1994), Lives like Loaded Guns (2010) and A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson (2004).  

The Mad Woman in the Attic

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in the last chapter of their uneven but compelling analysis of Victorian patriarchy and its impact upon women, pin their colours firmly to the mast early on in terms of how they see Emily Dickinson (page 583):

Emily Dickinson herself became a mad woman – became, as we shall see, both ironically a mad woman (a deliberate impersonation of a mad woman) and truly a mad woman (a helpless agoraphobic, trapped in a room in her father’s house).

As we shall see later, when we look at Lives like Loaded Guns,this may be simplifying the situation in at least one crucial respect.

Their feminist take on the matter is summarized when they write (page 384):

. . . the verse-drama into which she transformed her life enabled her to transcend… the ‘double bind’ of the woman poet: on the one hand, the impossibility of self-assertion for a woman, on the other hand, the necessity of self assertion for a poet.

But there were significant costs to what they see as a strategy which Dickinson was forced to choose.

The persona she adopted became a prison (page 591):

. . . while freeing her from the terrors of marriage and allowing her to ‘play’ with the toys of Amplitude, the child mask. . . eventually threatened to become a crippling self.

Also, there was a painful irony at work (page 595):

As a girl, Dickinson had begged to be kept from ‘what they call households,’ but ironically, as she grew older, she discovered that the price of her salvation was her agoraphobic imprisonment in her father’s household, along with a concomitant exclusion from the passionate drama of adult sexuality.

She was painfully aware of the effects upon her of patriarchy (page 606):

She went on to analyse with terrible clarity not only her imprisonment in romantic plots but the patriarchal structures she knew those plots reflected. . . “Is it because, as a woman, I am bound by a physical law, which prevents the soul from manifesting itself?“

She celebrated pain as leading to art (page 612):

From the centre of this cave of flame the poet speaks with a priestess’s oracular voice, … describing the smithy in which her art and her soul are purified: ‘Dare you see a Soul at the white heat?/Then crouch within the door – …’

They spell out an important insight into the creative process exemplified by Dickinson (pages 612-13):

. . . she is a prophet of Imagination whose brain is a furnace in which the gross materials of life are transformed into the products (the refined ore) and the powers (the designated light) of art.

They deal at some length with the paradoxes connected with white (pages 615-23). It frequently represents both creative energy and the loneliness ‘Romantic creativity may demand.’ It’s ‘a two-edged blade of light associated with . . . both triumph and martyrdom.’ It’s ‘not just a sign of her purity but the emblem of her death.’

A key passage lists a collection of powerful associations (pages 621-23):

Impersonating simultaneously a “little maid“ in white, a fierce virgin in white, a nun in white, a bride in white, a mad woman in white, a dead woman in white, and a ghost in the white, Dickinson seems to have split herself into a series of incubae, haunting not just her father’s house but her own mind.

They then shift into an intriguing way of describing this, which resonates both with the work of Pessoa, and his heteronyms, a focus of interest for me, and of course my own relatively light-hearted exploration of my own sub-personalities, My Parliament of Selves. They state:

The ambiguities and discontinuities implicit in her white dress became, therefore, as much signs of her own psychic fragmentation as of society’s multiple (and conflicting) demands upon women. . . . In addition, and perhaps most frighteningly, they dramatised an ongoing quarrel within that enigmatic self which became the subject of much of Dickinson’s most pained and painful poetry.

They quote a famous poem in support, after first quoting Harriet Beecher Stowe (page 624):

‘ what a fool is he, who locks his door to keep out spirits, who has in his own bosom a spirit he dare not meet alone.’ And here is Dickinson, on an equally terrible haunting:

One need not to be a Chamber – to be Haunted –
One need not be a House –
the Brain has Corridors – surpassing
Material Place –

They grimly summarise their conclusion (page 631):

It is in her own body, her own self, that her many selves are imprisoned or buried; she is their grave, tomb, and prison.

This gels with Vivian Pollak’s description of Emily Dickinson as ‘[a] poet of the inner civil war.’ (From A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson – page 3).

Before I move on to look at The Passion of Emily Dickinson,I think it will be useful to check out briefly some ideas expressed by Raj Patel and Jason Moore in A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things.

Emily Dickinson looked across the Atlantic to the work of the Brontës, George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Pollak – page 5), and resonated to their struggle with the English version of patriarchy (Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar: Chapters 15 and 16). Coverture is one example, whose persisting impact I had until now failed to recognize as such (page 125):

New traditions of control put bourgeois women in a bind, particularly in England. The law there enshrined coverture – the status of a married woman, including the placing of her person and property under her husband’s authority. . . . Coverture persisted from the Middle Ages into the nineteenth century. So great was its power to rob women of rights and identity, campaigners against it called it ‘civil death.’ It is from this institution that a wife’s taking of her husband‘s name originates.

The control women surrendered made marriage uninviting. Marry they none the less did (page 127):

Yet even as the economic imperatives for women to choose marriage increased, so did the covering philosophy describing this choice as uncoerced. This . . . mirrors the relations of workers under capitalism, who needed to appear free agents at least in theory, even if their freedom boiled down to the choice of working for a pittance, starving to death, or serving in a debtors’ prison.

Housework, something against which Emily Dickinson rebelled, was (page 129): ‘considered precisely beyond the domain of wage work, a favour that women did for men, akin to the free gift that nature offered enterprise.’

We will be coming back to nature as well.

In the next post I will take a look at The Passion of Emily Dickinson.

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Dear Miss Dickinson v3

(The picture is of Morning, a painting by Frederic E. Church photographed from the front cover of The Passion of Emily Dickinson by Judith Farr)

We’re now at the end of the summer break. In September I will be posting a sequence on Emily Dickinson – this poem was triggered by my revisiting her poetry.

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As usual I’m going to take a break for most of this month. The footfall on this blog is light over summer so I’ll pick up again at the end of August with some thoughts about Emily Dickinson.

Happy holidays to every one!

 

 

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[A] fact of equal importance in bringing about international peace is woman’s suffrage. That is to say, when perfect equality shall be established between men and women, peace may be realized for the simple reason that womankind in general will never favor warfare. Women will not be willing to allow those whom they have so tenderly cared for to go to the battlefield. When they shall have a vote, they will oppose any cause of warfare.

(From The Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks Delivered by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912, p. 167)

tenant-of-wildfell-hallLos Solitarios in the end led me to the idea that the feminine perspective may create a more balanced result in the novel.

Three novels immediately sprang to mind at the time as having combined darkness with light in a more balanced way.

First of all was The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The journal of the heroine is a disturbing description of an abusive marriage. Helen mistakenly marries the vulpine and narcissistic Huntington, and laments (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Penguin Edition Chapter 29 – page 243):

I have need of consolation in my son, for (to this silent paper I may confess it) I have but little in my husband. I love him still; and he loves me, in his own way — but oh, how different from the love I could have given, and once had hoped to receive! how little real sympathy there exists between us; how many of my thoughts and feelings are gloomily cloistered within my own mind; how much of my higher and better self is indeed unmarried — doomed either to harden and sour in the sunless shade of solitude, or to quite degenerate and fall away for lack of nutriment in this unwholesome soil!

And although she trusts things will get no worse, she is sadly mistaken.

What interested me particularly was the way that Emily Brontë blends her faith with her art. It’s signposted there with Helen’s use of the expression ‘higher and better self.’

Her novel integrates her faith with her art in way that adds depth, a depth upon which too much of modern art and writing has turned its back. I accept that many will find Helen’s piety disquieting in that it initially seems to influence her to suffer in silence. Even during that period though it gives her strength to cope with her husband’s oppressive vagaries, while also enabling her to hold onto the necessary critical perspective that means she never succumbs to the temptation to tolerate them as in some way acceptable. This gels with Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s analysis (more of them in a moment – page 80):

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) is generally considered conservative in its espousal of Christian values, but it tells what is in fact a story of woman’s liberation.

So, even more impressively, in the end we see Helen demonstrating that such piety is not incompatible with constructive self-assertion when the occasion demands it. The prime activating consideration here for Helen was the welfare of her son, whom she wished to rescue from the corrupting influence of his father (pages 352-53):

My child must not be abandoned to this corruption: better far that he should live in poverty and obscurity with a fugitive mother, than in luxury and affluence was such a father. . . I could endure it for myself, but for my son it must be borne no longer.

I concluded that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall blends art and spirituality superbly well: another book that comes close is Bahiyyih Nakhjavani’s masterpiece The Woman Who Read Too Mucha brilliant evocation of the life and times of the woman given the name Táhirih (‘The Pure One’), who famously stated at her point of death at the hands of a group of assassins: ‘You can kill me as soon as you like, but you cannot stop the emancipation of women!’

I felt it necessary to also include Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. To quote the Goodread’s review: ‘Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows ‘even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order’ (Slate).’

I concluded that the blending of art and spirituality clearly can be done, and, if those three books are anything to go by, a strong focus on the consciousness of the characters depicted does not require a reductionist approach.

In addition, for me at least, they combined the capturing of consciousness with some form of interest-sustaining narrative, and it’s the echoes of the story and its implications that linger longest in my memory. If an author strays too far from some form of narrative it is possible he might diminish the long-term impact of his book on the reader.

Interestingly, I noted, all three books were by women authors.

The key point was that art, in my view, should create an experience that deepens our understanding of reality without unduly distorting it. Paradoxically, feminine writers are more effective in that respect than masculine ones, it seems. (It may be that ultimately I mean writers of a female cast of mind regardless of ostensible gender.)

I felt that I needed to digest this insight and test its validity against a re-reading of several authors before I leapt to a firm conclusion that those with a feminine cast of mind seem to hold the balance between spirit and matter, plot and consciousness, better on the whole than those whose orientation is more macho.

The Mad Woman in the AtticThe Mad Woman in the Attic 

It may be synchronicity, or simply coincidence, depending on your outlook, but it wasn’t long before the world pressed that button again. I couldn’t resist watching yet another adaptation, on the BBC this time, of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. Because I soon realised they had made some tweaks to the text with which I was not comfortable (for example knocking at least 20 years off Count Fosco’s age), I dug out my copy and set to reading it again. I was even more enthralled with the book than with the adaptation. This was no more than I expected. There were at least two reasons for this. First, there was the sensitive portrayal of a strong female character, which broke the 19thCentury stereotype, and secondly the narrative was captured only through the eyes of the various characters – there was no omniscient narrator. In addition, there was at least one strong statement reinforcing the oppressed woman’s point of view. Marion Halcombe bursts out in frustration at one point:

Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace — they drag us away from our parents’ love and our sisters’ friendship — they take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel. And what does the best of them give us in return? Let me go, Laura — I’m mad when I think of it!”

It perhaps not surprising then that reading this led me to revisit Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Mad Woman in the Attic. At first I simply checked what they had to say about The Woman in White (pages 619-20):

Anne Catherick’s white dress, which gives Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White its title, suggests the pathos of the Victorian child-woman who clings to infancy because adulthood has never become a viable possibility. Even more than her half-sister and double, Laura Fairlie, Anne is completely dependent and naïve, so much so that she falls victim to the machinations of that impostor-patriarch Sir Percival Glide, who imprisons her . . . in a madhouse.

They contend, in their review of the literature of the period, that ‘Anne’s white dress tells a realistic story of female powerlessness.’ They ask whether Emily Dickinson’s anxiety about madness – expressed in poems like I felt a Funeral in my Brain – [could] owe anything to the madness of fictional characters like Anne Catherick, Miss Havisham, and the Lady of Shalott. They ask, ‘Was her white dress in any sense modelled on the white costumes nineteenth century novelists and poets assigned to such women?’ Their final touch is to say, that ‘white is the colour of the dead.’

This proved to be an irresistible cocktail of elements. I had to read the book again from the beginning, wondering as I did so why I had never finished it at the first attempt.

I won’t be attempting to convey even a distillation of all that they say in their 650 pages. I planned originally to cherry-pick quotes from what they write about two of my favourite novelists: Jane Austen and George Eliot. There was though a surprise in store, as you will see, that derailed that plan. However, for now I will simply capture one of their basic theses in a handful of quotes.

In their introduction, as an example of the constricting disservice paid to women writers in the 19thcentury, they pick up on the sanitised image of Emily Dickinson purveyed by John Crowe Ransom (page xxi) who described her as a ‘prim little home-keeping person.’ Their view is very different:

On the contrary, hers was ‘a Soul at the white heat,’ her ‘Tomes of solid Witchcraft’ produced by an imagination that had, as she herself admitted, the Vesuvian ferocity of a loaded gun.

The skewed tradition of authorship was noted even as early as Chaucer, in the words of the Wife of Bath (page 11):

By God, if women hadde writen stories,
As clerkes han withinne hir oratories,
They wolde han writen of men more wikednesse
Than all the mark of Adam may redresse.

They punningly point out the extent of female incarceration in literary stereotypes (page 13):

As a creation ‘penned’ by man, moreover, woman has been ‘penned up’ or ‘penned in.’ As a sort of ‘sentence’ man has spoken, she was herself being sentenced . . .

This disempowered version of femininity had not just been internalised, to the detriment of woman’s thought and writing: it had been destructively acted out in many ways in the social sphere, not least in terms of the self-harming image women felt compelled to express (page 25):

The aesthetic cult of ladylike fragility and delicate beauty –- no doubt associated with the moral cult of the angel-woman —  obliged ‘genteel’ women to ‘kill’ themselves… into art objects: slim, pale, passive beings whose ‘charms’ eerily recalled the snowy, porcelain immobility of the dead. Tight-lacing, fasting, vinegar-drinking, and similar cosmetic or dietary excesses were all parts of a physical regimen that helped women either to feign morbid weakness or actually to ‘decline’ into real illness.

Hopefully, that is enough to get the main point across.

This posed a double challenge to women writers. First, how were they to shake off their internalised distortions of their true nature to find a voice of their own, and, secondly, how were they then to use that voice to convey something beyond the prevailing caricatures of femininity that (quoted on page 25) Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh summarised as the ‘ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch and sprite.’

I’m not going to attempt to convey the full complexity of their approach overall. I’ll use a very abbreviated summary of their take on two books to illustrate why that would be impossible in a short sequence of blog posts. They examine what they see as the roots of two nineteenth century classics, Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights, along with a detailed explanation of how Mary Shelley and Emily Brontë each used their novel to assert their own take on the matter.

Frank & Wuther provenance v3

They borrow Gertrude Stein’s expression ‘patriarchal poetry’ to capture the zeitgeist of the 19th Century and earlier. In this early literary tradition women are portrayed as either angelic or satanic, the authors suggest. They feel the latter derives from the role of Eve in the fall of man and the former is the role on offer to women to ensure that no one can mistake them for the latter. In the perpetuation of this simplistic and constricting take on femininity, Milton played a key role, in their view, principally through the influence of Paradise Lost. Shakespeare does not escape unscathed. King Lear portrays both aspects with nothing in-between: on the one hand Goneril and Reagan are on the Satanic side of the equation, whereas Cordelia represents the angelic possibility. This tree of descending influences represents the genealogy of Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights.

It would distract from my main purpose here to go into more detail. I simply wanted to convey something of the full range and complexity of their scholarly and feminist perspective on the literature of the 19thcentury before homing in, in the next post, on at least two writers that concern me more at this point.

As an interesting post script, I came across a recent reminder that the symbolism of white is by no means dead. A friend gave me the heads up that she was exhibiting at the Hereford College of Art Graduation celebration. My head was ringing with many bells in the light of my recent reading when I saw her piece. It’s called The Shape of Absence (see below for a picture of part of it) and, I think, attempts to capture that elusive sense of a hidden presence behind ordinary objects.

The Shape of Absence (for source of image see link)

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