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Posts Tagged ‘Emily Dickinson’

Susan Cain

The two posts so far, dealing mainly with Free Trait Theory and conflict management within a marriage, have given a flavour of how useful and intriguing Susan Cain’s exploration of introversion is. There are other issues of interest she deals with though that seemed worth a mention, albeit briefly in this last post.

Not the Extravert Ideal

She is well aware that society, particularly in the States, has a ‘value system’ that she calls the ‘Extravert Ideal’[1], and that ‘Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.’ This ‘bias against quiet can cause deep psychic pain’[2] to the introvert.

She fills out the introvert profile that points up its strengths and weaknesses:[3]

They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.

I can definitely sign up to the last three points in this list. I know for sure that my blog in many places captures my perspective far better than my conversation, and if I have to interact with someone at a distance I prefer to text and email rather than phone.

In terms of conflict, though I’m sure my wife would testify as a witness to my trait of conflict avoidance, probably the best brief example would be via the comment a colleague made once, after we had been dealing with a difficult situation involving a family from her culture. She made it clear that, in her view, my approach had fallen short of being effective with the family in question because ‘People like that don’t do subtle.’ She had intervened with a blunt directness that had made me feel quite uncomfortable, but I can’t argue with the basic validity of her criticism, anymore than I have ever been able to consistently correct my tendency to soft-pedal ineffectively in such situations.

And during conversations focused entirely on topics such as shopping, sport, fashion and food, I feel myself sinking into a deep pit of boredom mixed with a powerful desire to find a way out that does not cause offence – there’s where my conflict avoidance kicks in again to my extreme disadvantage.

She also pinpoints another of my characteristics – an aversion to big social occasions and a delight in reading instead. Big events[4]

don’t give me the sense of oneness others seem to enjoy; it’s always been private occasions that make me feel connected to the joys and sorrows of the world, often in the form of communion with writers . . . . I’ll never meet in person. Proust called these moments of unity between writer and reader “that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.”

In my poem to Emily Dickinson, copied in full in the first post of this sequence, I wrote:

books are my mind’s air – gasping
for breath between empty shelves
it would shut down – a gaping
void envelop all my selves –

I’ve described the roots of that in more detail in the same post.

She goes on to cast doubt on the universal value of teamwork and group settings. She argues for ‘solitude’ as ‘an important key to creativity.’[5] She reminds us that[6] ‘Open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory,’ and that[7] ‘the simple act of being interrupted is one of the biggest barriers to productivity.’ She concludes that[8] ‘one can never be alone enough when one writes,’ and ‘there can never be enough silence around one when one writes.’

Sensitivity

There are many other themes I could share from her book but I will just flag up one more before closing this sequence of posts. I have touched on the work of Elaine Aron already on this blog. According to Susan Cain she has relabelled certain key aspects of introversion as ‘sensitivity.’[9]

She explains its relevance here by saying that[10] ‘According to Aron’s research, the majority, though not all, of sensitive people are introverts. She highlights a pattern here that is painfully true for me:[11] ‘They have difficulty when being observed (at work, say, or performing at a music recital).’

My best example of this is drawn from many years ago. I have always felt pathetic about my performance anxiety. I can remember once I was playing really well and comfortably winning a game of squash. Then I noticed that someone was watching the game from the glass window overhead and staying there, not just moving on as most people did. My game crashed and I went to a humiliating defeat. That it has stuck in my mind so long says something about that incident’s importance.

On a more positive note, to parts of which I resonate, Cain states:[12]

The highly sensitive tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic. They dislike small talk. They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive (just as Aron’s husband had described her). They dream vividly, and can often recall their dreams the next day. They love music, nature, art, physical beauty.

And there is a possible explanation for my dislike of small talk:[13]

sensitive types think in an unusually complex fashion. It may also help explain why they’re so bored by small talk. “If you’re thinking in more complicated ways,” she told me, “then talking about the weather or where you went for the holidays is not quite as interesting as talking about values or morality.”

I’d like to think that is true of me: it feels as though it is. Only my close friends could confirm or refute its validity in my case. A story from my past may shed some light on this. When I was starting to work in Mental Health, after 10 years teaching English Language and Literature, a colleague, in a quiet exchange over coffee, said, ‘I need to tell you something.’

‘What‘s that?’ I asked, sensing that some unpleasant feedback was on the way.’

‘You talk like a book.’

I can’t remember my reply, but it should have been along the lines of ‘I know exactly what you mean,’ but probably wasn’t.

Aron’s model may, though, also explain why I took so enthusiastically to working first as a care assistant and later at different levels of the Mental Health system. She feels that ‘sensitive people’, to use her terminology, are ‘highly empathic.’[14] I’m not sure about the ‘highly’ bit, but I certainly think I can sign up to having relatively thin boundaries ‘separating [me] from other people’s emotions.’

An example from my diaries, and quoted in more detail in a previous post, will serve as a brief example here. The progress of a client I’d been seeing had got stuck so we agreed a change of approach. This is what happened.

Laura and I consulted carefully and jointly agreed that I would allow her to sink right into the “heart of darkness” in order to explore it more fully and understand it more clearly.

This extract from my diary at the time describes what happened after a long period of painful silence, the terror of the nightmare she was experiencing plainly visible on her face.

I sat in the same room with her, sensing her horror like a cold mist in the blood crossing into her brain, fearing that I am no Virgil to her Dante in that hell, feeling helpless, fraudulent but somehow amazingly undeterred, with only my clipboard to cling to!

‘My mother threw me away as soon as I was born,’ she repeated, over and over, as though realising a long familiar truth for the very first time.

Whether I also have the strong conscience[15] Aron also attributes to ‘sensitive types’ is best for others to judge, but I think my wife would agree that ‘in environments that nurture [my] authenticity’ I am able to ‘laugh and chitchat just as much as anyone else.’[16]

I’m not so sure about being ‘very disciplined’[17] and being good at making and sticking to a plan. I have butterfly tendencies, especially when it comes to deciding which topic I feel most like researching at any given time. It doesn’t take much to derail me from immersing myself in the lives of poets to reading about near death experiences or vice versa, before veering rapidly off into implicit racial biases or economic inequalities. My blog should be enough to testify to that.

And finally one of the strategies I’ve tried to learn to stick to comes a bit later in her book:[18]

If you like to do things in a slow and steady way, don’t let others make you feel as if you have to race. If you enjoy depth, don’t force yourself to seek breadth. If you prefer single-tasking to multi tasking, stick to your guns.

Perhaps because I grew up in the shadow of a brother who was 14 years older than me with whom I was always struggling to keep up, somewhere deep down I came to believe that slow is stupid. This has meant, that in TA terms, I have to constantly fight a strongly established ‘Hurry Up’ driver. Also I have always tended to keep several balls in the air, which makes distraction hard to avoid. The depth I want to probe into with any topic is impossible to achieve when I’m in racing butterfly mode. I think, since I retired, I may have been slowly winning this battle, but I still lapse into shallow frenzy at the slightest provocation. I think I can catch myself sooner now and slow down again till the next trigger.

Anyhow, even though I am not able to implement all her insights to a satisfactory extent, I have found revisiting Susan Cain’s book a valuable exercise. At the very least her book, from the very first time I read it, has helped alleviate to a considerable extent my sense of guilt about my irreducible need for significant periods of silence and solitude, usually immersed in a book. I’d recommend it without hesitation to anyone struggling to be true to their introversion in a basically extravert social or professional context.

References:

[1]. Quiet – Page 4. Unless otherwise stated all references are to this book.
[2]. Page 6.
[3]. Page 11.
[4]. Pages 68-69.
[5]. Page 75.
[6]. Page 84.
[7]. Page 85.
[8]. Page 86.
[9]. Page 133.
[10]. Page 134.
[11]. Page 136.
[12]. Ibid.
[13]. Page 137.
[14]. Ibid.
[15]. Ibid.
[16]. Page 152.
[17]. Page 158.
[18]. Page 173.

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Given the current sequence taking another look at trauma, it seemed worthwhile republishing this sequence.

The previous post looked at the Grof’s account of Karen’s experience of a spiritual emergency and how it was dealt with. Now we need to look at some of the implications as well as other aspects of their approach.

The Context

I want to open this section with that part of Bahá’u’lláh’s Seven Valleys that has formed the focus of my morning meditations for the last few weeks. I have persisted so long in the hope that I will eventually understand it more fully. I believe that Shoghi Effendi, the great-grandson of Bahá’u’lláh and the one whom ‘Abdu’l-Bahá appointed as His successor, was of the opinion that one needed to read at least ten books by writers who were not Bahá’ís in order to have any hope of understanding a Bahá’í text fully. I may have conveniently chosen to believe that factoid in order to justify my own bookaholic tendencies.

Setting that aside for now, what matters at the moment are the resonances between the words of Bahá’u’lláh and the topic I am exploring more deeply here.

I have touched on how materialistic assumptions about reality will dismiss as rubbish or even pathologise phenomena their paradigm excludes from possibility.

Bahá’u’lláh directly addresses this point (page 33):

God, the Exalted, hath placed these signs in men, to the end that philosophers may not deny the mysteries of the life beyond nor belittle that which hath been promised them. For some hold to reason and deny whatever the reason comprehendeth not, and yet weak minds can never grasp the matters which we have related, but only the Supreme, Divine Intelligence can comprehend them:

How can feeble reason encompass the Qur’án,
Or the spider snare a phoenix in his web?

Our deification of reason has stripped the world we believe in of God and made it difficult, even impossible, in some cases for some people, to entertain the possibility that God in some form does exist, though that would not be as some white-bearded chariot-riding figure in the sky.

This is the Grofs take on this issue (page 247):

A system of thinking that deliberately discards everything that cannot be weighed and measured does not leave any opening for the recognition of creative cosmic intelligence, spiritual realities, or such entities as transpersonal experiences or the collective unconscious. . . . . . While they are clearly incompatible with traditional Newtonian-Cartesian thinking, they are actually in basic resonance with the revolutionary developments in various disciplines of modern science that are often referred to as the new paradigm.

This world-view seriously demeans us (page 248):

Human beings are described as material objects with Newtonian properties, more specifically as highly developed animals and thinking biological machines. . .

We have taken this model or simulation as the truth (ibid.):

In addition, the above description of the nature of reality and of human beings has in the past been generally seen not for what it is – a useful model organising the observations and knowledge available at a certain time in the history of science – but as a definitive and accurate description of reality itself. From a logical point of view, this would be considered a serious confusion of the ‘map’ with the ‘territory.’

This reductionist dogmatism has serious implications for psychosis (page 249):

Since the concept of objective reality and accurate reality testing are the key factors in determining whether the individual is mentally healthy, the scientific understanding of the nature of reality is absolutely critical in this regard. Therefore, any fundamental change in the scientific world-view has to have far-reaching consequences for the definition of psychosis.

A Holographic Approach

They contend that the paradigm is shifting (ibid.:)

. . . The physical universe has come to be viewed as a unified web of paradoxical, statistically determined events in which consciousness and creative intelligence play a critical role. . . This approach has become known as holographic because some of its remarkable features can be demonstrated with use of optical holograms as conceptual tools.

Their explanation of the holographic model is clear and straightforward (page 250):

The information in holographic systems is distributed in such a way that all of it is contained and available in each of its parts. . . .

It’s implications are profound:

If the individual and the brain are not isolated entities but integral parts of a universe with holographic properties – if they are in some way microcosms of a much larger system – then it is conceivable that they can have direct and immediate access to information outside themselves.

This resonates with what Bahá’u’lláh writes in the same section of the Seven Valleys:

Likewise, reflect upon the perfection of man’s creation, and that all these planes and states are folded up and hidden away within him.

Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
When within thee the universe is folded?

Then we must labor to destroy the animal condition, till the meaning of humanity shall come to light.

It is crucial for us all as well as for those labelled psychotic that we cease to reduce the mind to a machine. The Grofs spell out the implications for psychosis when we refuse to take the more transcendent perspective (page 252):

The discoveries of the last few decades strongly suggest that the psyche is not limited to postnatal biography and to the Freudian individual unconscious and confirm the perennial truth, found in many mystical traditions, that human beings might be commensurate with all there is. Transpersonal experiences and their extraordinary potential certainly attest to this fact.

. . . In traditional psychiatry, all holotropic experiences have been interpreted as pathological phenomena, in spite of the fact that the alleged disease process has never been identified; this reflects the fact that the old paradigm did not have an adequate explanation for these experiences and was not able to account for them in any other way.

Assuming that we do accept that possibility of a spiritual reality, what follows? They spell it out:

. . . . two important and frequently asked questions are how one can diagnose spiritual emergency and how it is possible to differentiate transformational crises from spiritual emergence and from mental illness.

This is only possible up to a point (page 253):

The psychological symptoms of… organic psychoses are clearly distinguishable from functional psychoses by means of psychiatric examination and psychological tests.

. . . . When the appropriate examinations and tests have excluded the possibility that the problem we are dealing with is organic in nature, the next task is to find out whether the client fits into the category of spiritual emergency – in other words, differentiate this state from functional psychoses. There is no way of establishing absolutely clear criteria for differentiation between spiritual emergency and psychosis or mental disease, since such terms themselves lack objective scientific validity. One should not confuse categories of this kind with such precisely defined disease entities as diabetes mellitus or pernicious anaemia. Functional psychoses are not diseases in a strictly medical sense and cannot be identified with the degree of accuracy that is required in medicine when establishing a differential diagnosis.

What they say next blends nicely with the points made in my recent posts about where the dubious basis of diagnosis takes us (page 256):

Since traditional psychiatry makes no distinction between psychotic reactions and mystical states, not the only crises of spiritual opening but also uncomplicated transpersonal experiences often receive a pathological label.

This has paved the way to dealing with their approach to intervention and their criteria for distinguishing spiritual emergencies that can be helped from other states.

Holotropic Breathwork

Before we look briefly at their attempt to create criteria by which we might distinguish spiritual from purely functional phenomena I want to look at their recommended method for helping people work through inner crises. This method applies what the non-organic origin. This technique they call Holotropic Breathwork.

First they define what they mean by holotropic (page 258):

We use the term holotropic in two different ways – the therapeutic technique we have developed and for the mode of consciousness it induces. The use of the word holotropic in relation to therapy suggests that the goal is to overcome inner fragmentation as well as the sense of separation between the individual and the environment. The relationship between wholeness and healing is reflected in the English language, since both words have the same root.

They then look at its components and their effects (page 259):

The reaction to [a] combination of accelerated reading, music, and introspective focus of attention varies from person to person. After a period of about fifteen minutes to half an hour, most of the participants show strong active response. Some experience a buildup of intense emotions, such as sadness, joy, anger, fear, or sexual arousal.

They feel that this approach unlocks blocks between our awareness and the contents of the unconscious:

. . . .  It seems that the nonordinary state of consciousness induced by holotropic breathing is associated with biochemical changes in the brain that make it possible for the contents of the unconscious to surface, to be consciously experienced, and – if necessary – to be physically expressed. In our bodies and in our psyches we carry imprints of various traumatic events that we have not fully digested and assimilated psychologically. Holographic breathing makes them available, so that we can fully experience them and release the emotions that are associated with them.

As Fontana makes clear in his book Is there an Afterlife?, experience is the most compelling way to confirm the validity of a paradigm of reality, so my experience of continuous conscious breathing in the 70s and 80s gives me a strong sense that what the Grofs are saying about Holotropic Breathwork had validity. My experience in the mid-70s confirms the dramatic power of some of the possible effects: my experience in the mid-80s confirms their sense that the body stores memories to which breathwork can give access. I will not repeat these accounts in full as I have explored them elsewhere. I’ve consigned brief accounts to the footnotes.[1]

They go on to explain the possible advantages of Holotropic Breathwork over alternative therapies (pages 261-263):

The technique of Holotropic Breathwork is extremely simple in comparison with traditional forms of verbal psychotherapy, which emphasise the therapist’s understanding of the process, correct and properly timed interpretations, and work with transference . . . . It has a much less technical emphasis than many of the new experiential methods, such as Gestalt therapy, Rolfing, and bioenergetics. . . . . .

In the holotropic model, the client is seen as the real source of healing and is encouraged to realise that and to develop a sense of mastery and independence.

. . . . . In a certain sense, he or she is ultimately the only real expert because of his or her immediate access to the experiential process that provides all the clues.

Distinguishing Criteria

Below is the table they devised to differentiate between the two categories of spiritual emergence and what they term psychiatric disorder. They explain the purpose of the criteria (page 253):

The task of deciding whether we are dealing with a spiritual emergency in a particular case means in practical terms that we must assess whether the client could benefit from the strategies described in this book or should be treated in traditional ways. This is their table of criteria.

They are certainly not claiming that they have an unerring way of distinguishing between these states, nor that some of those who are placed in the ‘psychiatric’ have no aspects of spiritual emergency in the phenomena they are experiencing. Readers will also know by now that I am a strong advocate of more enlightened ways of managing any such problems than those which are implied in the term ‘traditional.’

Coda

This last post turned out to  be much longer than I planned. I hope it conveys my sense of the value of their approach and of the validity of their concept of a spiritual emergency.

My feeling that their approach is a good one derives largely from my own dramatic experience of what was an almost identical method involving breathwork. In a previous sequence I have dealt with the way the breakthrough I experienced in the 70s had lasting beneficial effects on my my life, first of all in terms of opening my mind so I was able to take advantage of other therapeutic interventions. Perhaps most importantly though in the first instance was the way that the first breakthrough loosened the grip of my previous pattern of anaesthetising myself against earlier grief and pain mostly by cigarettes, gambling and heavy social drinking, so that I could realise that I needed to undertake more mindwork.

I also find it reinforcing of my trust in the basic validity of their perspective that it has led them to draw much the same conclusions as I have about the dangers of materialism and its negative impact upon the way we deal with mental health problems

It doesn’t end my quest though for more evidence to support my sense that psychosis can and often does have a spiritual dimension. Hopefully you will be hearing more on this.

Footnote:

[1] Rebirthing provided the experience that gave me my last major break-through in self-understanding by means of some form of psychotherapy. I heard first about it from a talk I attended on the subject at an alternative therapies fair in Malvern in early 1985. I then bought a book on the subject. The key was breathing:

Jim Leonard saw what the key elements were and refined them into the five elements theory.

The five elements are (1) breathing mechanics, (2) awareness in detail, (3) intentional relaxation, (4) embracing whatever arises, and (5) trusting intuition.  These elements have been defined a little differently in several versions, but are similar in meaning.  Jim Leonard found that if a person persists in the breathing mechanics, then he or she eventually integrates the suppressed emotion.

It was as though what is known as body scanning were linked to a continuous conscious breathing form of meditation. All the subsequent steps (2-5) took place in the context of the breathing.

After three hours I was trembling all over. I was resisting letting go and ‘embracing’ the experience. When I eventually did the quaking literally dissolved in an instant into a dazzling warmth that pervaded my whole body. I knew that I was in the hospital as a child of four, my parents nowhere to be seen, being held down by several adults and chloroformed for the second time in my short life, unable to prevent it – terrified and furious at the same time. I had always known that something like it happened. What was new was that I had vividly re-experienced the critical moment itself, the few seconds before I went unconscious. I remembered also what I had never got close to before, my feelings at the time, and even more than that I knew exactly what I had thought at the time as well.

I knew instantly that I had lost my faith in Christ, and therefore God – where was He right then? Nowhere. And they’d told me He would always look after me. I lost my faith in my family, especially my parents. Where were they? Nowhere to be seen. I obviously couldn’t rely on them. Then like a blaze of light from behind a cloud came the idea: ‘You’ve only yourself to rely on.’

The earlier experience had been more confusing, with no specific experience to explain it by.

Saturday was the day I dynamited my way into my basement. Suddenly, without any warning that I can remember, I was catapulted from my cushioned platform of bored breathing into the underground river of my tears – tears that I had never known existed.

It was an Emily Dickinson moment:

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

I’m just not as capable of conveying my experience in words as vividly as she did hers.

Drowning is probably the best word to describe how it felt. Yes, of course I could breath, but every breath plunged me deeper into the pain. Somehow I felt safe enough in that room full of unorthodox fellow travellers, pillow pounders and stretched out deep breathers alike, to continue exploring this bizarre dam-breaking flood of feeling, searching for what it meant.

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“I’ll bet,” she mused, ‘that if the shaking that often occurs after surgery were allowed rather than suppressed, recovery would be quicker and maybe even postoperative pain would be reduced.”

“That’s right,” I say, smiling in agreement.

Peter Levine – In an Unspoken Voice: how the body releases trauma and restores goodness (page 8)

Is it possible that I have at last solved a mystery that has been haunting me for 46 years?

It is extremely tempting to believe I have, but my inner sceptic is urging caution.

So, what on earth am I talking about?

Drowning in Pain

The basic problem dates from 1974. I’ve blogged at length about this already so I’ll deal with it briefly here.

I attended an Encounter Group weekend in the summer of that year. It was a fusion of Reichian Breathwork and Janov’s Primal Therapy. Both of them use controlled breathing to gain access, in their different ways, to deeper levels of what I will call here somatic memory. The encounter weekend’s aim was to reconnect attenders with ‘primal’ pain by focused breathing. My earlier account reads like this:

Saturday was the day I dynamited my way into my basement. Suddenly, without any warning that I can remember, I was catapulted from my cushioned platform of bored breathing into the underground river of my tears – tears that I had never known existed.

It was an Emily Dickinson moment:

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

I’m just not as capable of conveying my experience in words as vividly as she did hers.

Drowning is probably the best word to describe how it felt. Yes, of course I could breath, but every breath plunged me deeper into the pain. Somehow I felt safe enough in that room full of unorthodox fellow travellers, pillow pounders and stretched out deep breathers alike, to continue exploring this bizarre dam-breaking flood of feeling, searching for what it meant.

This process went on for what seemed hours. The theory was that the more deeply you went into the experience, the more likely your were to connect with its cause. Many years later I did have a successful integration of this kind with a different set of feelings (see link). That didn’t happen this first time, nor was I ever able to connect this pool of tears with any specific event or determine its meaning. When I discovered it, I realised it had always been there. Decades later it seems that it always will be, as long as I live in this body at least.

I puzzled over where this sense of loss and pain stemmed from. Was it from my being carried in the womb of a woman grieving for her dead daughter, from my being born into a house steeped in an atmosphere of grief from which my arrival did nothing to rescue it, from my being born at a time of war and experiencing trauma I couldn’t even remember, and/or from having a father re-experiencing war for the second time in civil defence after serving for the first time at the front line?

Rebirthing

A key sentence for present purposes from the account of my 1974 encounter experience is this one: ‘Many years later I did have a successful integration of this kind with a different set of feelings.’

This was when, on 11 July 1985, I went to see a therapist in Shropshire who used a similar breathing model to the previous one called Rebirthing. It was my last session with her.

The breathing had gone well as usual but this time, after less than half and hour, I began to tremble, then shiver, then shake uncontrollably. This was not a result of hyperventilation: I’d got past that trap long ago. She quietly reminded me that I simply needed to watch the experience and let go. Watching was no problem. Letting go was quite another matter. I couldn’t do it. I knew that it must be fear by now, but the fear remained nameless, purely physical. And this was the case for more than two hours of breathing. Eventually, we agreed that, in terms that made sense for me, Bahá’u’lláh was with me at this moment and no harm could befall me. There could be no damage to my soul and almost certainly no damage to my body.

And at that moment I let go.

First, the quaking literally dissolved in an instant – the instant I let go – into a dazzling warmth that pervaded my whole body. My experience of the energy had been completely transformed.

Secondly, I knew that I was in the hospital as a child of four, my parents nowhere to be seen, being held down by several adults and chloroformed for the second time in my short life, unable to prevent it – terrified and furious at the same time.

This all came as a tightly wrapped bundle falling into my mind, as though someone had thrown it down from some window in my heart. It didn’t come in sequence, as I’m telling it, but all at once. It was a complete integrated realisation – the warm energy, the situation, the feelings and the thoughts.

I knew instantly that I had lost my faith in Christ, and therefore God – where was He right then? Nowhere. And they’d told me He would always look after me. I lost my faith in my family, especially my parents. Where were they? Nowhere to be seen. I obviously couldn’t rely on them. Then like a blaze of light from behind a cloud came the idea: ‘You’ve only yourself to rely on.’

This was more like a preverbal injunction to myself for which my adult mind seemed to find words instantly. For the child I was at the time, it had been a white-hot blend of intolerable pain and unshakable determination. It shaped a creed that had been branded on my heart at that traumatic moment, and its continuing but invisible hold on me till the explosion of insight was why it had taken me so long to let go.

Two such different experiences, eleven years apart, using the same technique, the first I had no explanation for and the meaning of the second was all to plain to see.

Only now, 35 years later, have I come to see a possible explanation for the first inexplicable encounter with my well of pain. And that is thanks to a completely unpredictable piece of synchronicity.

A close friend in Australia had stumbled across a book in her local library and, knowing my interest in trauma, thought it worth bringing it to my attention. I read a positive review on The Psychologist website (you’ll need to scan down to find it), and decided it was worth a look. It’s synchronicity, not because of the close correspondence of the patterns I’m about to describe, which would apply regardless of the time at which I encountered the book, but because I came across it just after I finished revisiting Donaldson and particularly Covey, something which had prepared my mind to be especially receptive to absorbing its significance.

And that’s what brings us to In an Unspoken Voice: how the body releases trauma and restores goodness.

Nancy

The case example of Nancy, which Levine uses in this book,[1] rang so many powerful bells for me. During his session with her she had reported seeing ‘nightmarish images of herself as a four-year-old child struggling, to escape the grasp of the doctors who held her down in order to administer ether anaesthesia for a ‘routine’ tonsillectomy.’ He goes onto to explain that ‘[t]he shaking and trembling, occurring in the warm and reassuring presence of a reliable other person, and allowed to continue to completion, helped [her] to restore equilibrium and wholeness, and to be freed from trauma’s grip.’

A key sentence that seems to me to mirror my own transition from terror to warmth comes on page 23: ‘She was overpowered and held down against her will by all-powerful masked and gowned giants. In our hour together Nancy’s body contradicted her panicky feelings of being overwhelmed and trapped.’

More of this next time, to unpack how this helped solve the mystery of my pool of pain.

Reference:

[1]. Pages 20-25.

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

‘A poet of the inner civil war.’

(A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson  – page 3)

For present purposes we are now on the brink of the last disclosure. For UK readers of Emily Dickinson the American Civil War can easily become the mastodon hidden in the attic. I think it did for me. This is no longer true for me at least, thanks to Shira Wolosky, one of the writers in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson .

As we will see, for Dickinson the Civil War had an additional stress. She wasn’t sure whether the objectives of the war were worth all the consequent loss of life. Along with all the other possibilities we have explored, this tested various dimensions of her faith – in life, in love and in immortality. And she was not alone. Dickinson crystallised the prevalent atmosphere of doubt into her poems, capturing her state of mind many times with uncanny and haunting precision.

Shira Wolosky

I’ve already mentioned the startling fact of her poetic productivity during the war years, but I’ll repeat it again here in Wolosky’s words in A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson (page 107):

[M]ore than half of her poetic production coincides with years of the Civil War, 1861 to 1865. The years immediately preceding the war… were also the years which Thomas Johnson identifies with “the rising flood of her talent,“ as well as with the beginning of her reclusive practices.

There was an amazing peak in 1863 alone. Betsy Erkkila describes it as follows, in a later chapter (page 158):

[O]f the 1789 poems in Franklin’s variorum edition, over half were written during the years of the Civil War between 1861 and 1865; and of these, almost 300 were written in 1863, a year of crisis and turning point in the war, when even Union victories such as Gettysburg had become scenes of horrific bloodletting and mass death on both sides.

It is not surprising that one of the main concerns of these poems is ‘theodicy’ (page 111):

Dickinson’s war poems generally attempt to make out “the anguish in this world“ and to decipher whether it has “a loving side.“ This would mean its fitting into some wider schema, some purpose that would justify suffering…

This was a testing struggle as in war death is (page 112) ‘arbitrary and recalcitrant.’ In fact (page 125):

The Civil War reached levels of carnage before unknown, made possible both by new technology and new strategies of total warfare, in combination with a profound ideological challenge to American national claims and self identity, political and religious.

There is an intriguing consequence of this (page 114), ‘it is, oddly, just where poems are most personal in terms of Dickinson’s suffering, but they are also most culturally engaged.’ The intense resonance of the poet’s mind to the climate of the times is captured in poem after poem.

Religion was a lifelong issue for Dickinson. In many ways it ‘fails her’ (page 116) and her work ‘repeatedly rehearses her reasons for both asserting and denying a divine order, in constant countertension.’ She also raises questions about (page 117) the extent to which’ art can indeed serve as figure for faith’ and ‘in text after text, she returns again to religious premises and promises; again finding them wanting; again finding them necessary.’

At exactly this point a bluebottle landed on the page at the exact paragraph I was dictating into my phone. It rubbed it forelegs together in typical fly fashion. Just as I got out of Notes on my phone and into my camera, a plane flew growling overhead and the breeze flipped my page, and the fly was gone. It felt like a typical Emily Dickinson joke.

One of the challenges war poses (page 119) is that ‘the self is called upon to place life second to, or in service of, community, in the name of a greater purpose.’ Wolosky feels that Dickinson is crushed between these pressure points (page 124):

Dickinson here situates herself at the very clash of contending impulses. Her self, on the one hand, remains independent, even defiant, of society’s claims, with a courage of judgement that is unwavering. On the other hand, she is also sceptical of selves that are invested only in themselves, without reference, or devotion, to anything beyond the self. She is critical, that is, of both social authority and also absolute selfhood.

Her poems are again often masterpieces of inner ambivalence, products of a mind torn between two opposing forces within the individual and within society.

A key passage in the Bahá’í International Community’s document The Prosperity of Humankind examines this same problem, the individual versus society, from the perspective of consultation and its correlate, justice (Section II):

At the group level, a concern for justice is the indispensable compass in collective decision making, because it is the only means by which unity of thought and action can be achieved. Far from encouraging the punitive spirit that has often masqueraded under its name in past ages, justice is the practical expression of awareness that, in the achievement of human progress, the interests of the individual and those of society are inextricably linked. To the extent that justice becomes a guiding concern of human interaction, a consultative climate is encouraged that permits options to be examined dispassionately and appropriate courses of action selected. In such a climate the perennial tendencies toward manipulation and partisanship are far less likely to deflect the decision-making process.

It is not a problem that is going to be easily solved: it requires a fundamental collective shift in consciousness.

Poetry often captures the priceless values of both a human life and its sacrifice. As Wolosky puts it, referring to The Martyr Poets (page 125): ‘As in many war poems, self is at once granted enormous value, and yet a value that emerges in self-effacement – indeed, in martyrdom, as witness to others at the cost of self.’

Dickinson’s brief poem reads:

The Martyr Poets — did not tell —
But wrought their Pang in syllable —
That when their mortal name be numb —
Their mortal fate — encourage Some —

The Martyr Painters — never spoke —
Bequeathing — rather — to their Work —
That when their conscious fingers cease —
Some seek in Art — the Art of Peace —

It is perhaps not entirely surprising either that in addition to theodicy as a theme, her poems should also manifest disruptions to the 19thCentury standard verse forms (page 126):

Many have been struck by Dickinson’s apparent modernity; by how her strained and difficult forms – at once contained within and yet strenuously recasting hymnal metres and modes – seem to foreshadow the radical experimentation of twentieth century poetics.

She goes onto explain exactly why this might be the case (my emphases):

[This seems] rooted in the ways Dickinson’s work represents an intersection between historical, metaphysical, and aesthetic forces when these are under extraordinary pressure, and specifically, when long-standing, traditional assumptions regarding the basic frameworks for interpreting the world are challenged to the point of breakage. Dickinson‘s work is among the first directly to register the effects on poetic language of such breakdown. Articulate language depends on, even as it expresses and projects, the ability to conceive reality as coherent and meaningful. . . Such “splitting apart of the communion“ between paradigm and world, metaphysics and history, marks modern experience.

Wolosky points out the parallels with Europe’s experience of the Second World War, quoting Theodor Adorno’s words (page 127) which describe how ‘Our metaphysical faculty is paralysed because actual events have shattered the basis on which speculative metaphysical thought could be reconciled with experience.’ She feels Dickinson’s work ‘reveals and dramatises . . . the consequences of such paralysis and assault on the very structure and language of poetry,’ and describes her texts as ‘battlefields between contesting claims of self and community, private and public interest, event and design, metaphysics and history, with each asserted, often against the other.’

This is another challenge Dickinson rises to in expressing her inscape: how to wrench her poetic forms into expressions of dislocated anguish without losing hold completely on its opposite.

As someone old enough to have lived through the traumatised aftermath of the Second World War, while too young to have consciously responded to the war itself, such poems resonate strongly with me. Why I respond more positively to her poems as against, for example, Randall Jarrell’s The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, is I think because she holds both memories of harmony in balance with the terrifying disjunctive present through her fractured hymnal verse forms. Jarrell, and other modernists, seem to have given up the struggle to capture some hope of balance or redress. Jarrell’s poem reads:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from the dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Wolosky concludes that (ibid):

Emily Dickinson’s texts are battlefields between contesting claims of self and community, private and public interest, event and design, metaphysics and history, with each asserted, often against the other.

Bodies lie in front of the Dunker Church on the Antietam Battlefield.LIBRARY OF CONGRESS. For source of image see link.

Three Other Points of View

There are three other authors in this book whose insights I need to draw on now before concluding this sequence of posts – Betsy Erkkila, Cheryl Walker and Cristanne Miller.

Erkkila subscribes to the idea that these were traumatic times and seeking definitively to label any one aspect as key may well prove impossible (page 150):

‘I have a Terror…’ Dickinson wrote to Higginson in April 1862, ‘and so I sing as the Boy does by the Burying Ground — because I am afraid –.’ Whatever the sources of Dickinson’s ‘terror’ – a personal love crisis, a failure of religious belief, the advent of the Civil War, the collapse of an older New England social order, the horrifying prospect of everlasting ‘Death,’ metaphysical angst, or all these together – her poems powerfully register the disintegrative psychic, emotional, and bodily effects of social transformation and political crisis that marked Dickinson’s years of greatest productivity during and after the Civil War.

She agrees that Dickinson’s religious faith was severely tested and in conventional terms was broken, but also without her having anything with which to replace it (pages 153-54:

[S]he expresses the pain of living in an era of unbelief… As someone who could not believe in either the saving Christian orthodoxy of the past or the progressive demographic ideology of the future, Dickinson gives voice in her poems to the spooked interiors of ante- and postbellum America, the spectres of unmeaning, abjection and death that stalked the American landscape during the Civil War . . .

In consequence, Erkkila believes, she (page 156) ‘turned to writing as a kind of aesthetic substitution, a means of suffering the inner emotional life of the war through writing.’

A complicating factor to her experience of the war concerns her attitude to the question of slavery (page 170):

[I]n a public letter about the 4th of July celebration in Belchertown in 1855, Edward Dickinson [her father] expressed hope that “by the help of Almighty God, not another inch of our soil heretoforeconsecratedto freedom, shall hereafterbe polluted by the advancing tread of slavery“… Although Dickinson opposed the expansion of slavery into the territories, he also opposed the abolitionist goal of immediate emancipation of Southern slaves. For him as for many in the NT Balham area, including Lincoln, antislavery zeal was under written by fear that the white American Republic would be ‘polluted’ by the ‘advancing tread’ of blacknessinto the new states. Emily Dickinson appears to have shared her father’s anxiety about the pollution of the American republic.

In a note at the end of her chapter Erkkila spells out some implications of this for her attitude to the war, in the context of the seven out of 10 poems she published during the Civil War. Her reasons for publication are unclear and may not have been to support the Union cause, as some have argued (page 172- my emphasis):

If she did contribute these poems voluntarily, and there is no evidence for this, they were more likely sent to support the sick, wounded, and dying, who were sacrificing their lives in support of a cause that was – in Dickinson’s view — at best questionable.

I think we must accept that this would have had the effect of making the war more traumatic for her, not less, even if we cannot share her alleged ambivalence about abolition in the form she saw unfolding.

Interestingly (page 163), she stopped making the fascicles in 1864, before the War closed. Erkkila feels that ‘her letters and poems served – especially during and after the war – as prayer, medicine, consolation, gift, and cure,’ and (page 164) ‘she was looking to art – to poetry writing – as a means of overcoming not only “Death” but also the lack of higher meaning, order, and value in the world.’

Cheryl Walker flags up three points of interest here.

First there is (page 178) ‘Dickinson’s infatuation with Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh.’ My earlier sequence explains why this would be of interest to me at least.

The second takes us back to Gubar and Gilbert’s The Mad Woman in the Attic (page 179):

Women poets were largely inhibited by two tenets of bourgeois ideology; one, that women violated the ‘cult of true womanhood’ . . .  by writing for a public audience; and two, that, when they did write, women poets must avoid transgressing the boundaries of their allotted sphere.

This may go some way towards explaining Dickinson’s reluctance to publish, but cannot be the whole story as her poem suggests:

Publication – is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man –
Poverty – be justifying
For so foul a thing

Possibly – but We – would rather
From Our Garret go
White – unto the White Creator –
Than invest – Our Snow –

And finally, and perhaps  most importantly of all, she in her turn concludes, quoting Camille Paglia (page 181): ‘without her struggle with God and father, there would have been no poetry…’

Cristanne Miller reinforces Dickinson’s anticipations of modernism (page 205):

[M]any critics have argued that Dickinson participated in the modernising climate of her times by creating a protomodernist lyric, a poetry that rebels against ‘patriarchal’ metres, conventions of punctuation, grammar, rhyme, or even print to construct a new kind of poem. . . . The extreme compression of Dickinson’s language and its multiple forms of disjunction – grammatical, syntactic, tonal, and logical – strikingly anticipate features of modernist verse.

And about her feminism she writes (page 225):

Dickinson’s feminism was as complex and contradictory as other aspects of her art: while the poet’s life and poetry are feminist in some respects, she was in other ways more conservative socially and politically than many of her female contemporaries, who chose to publish poems of explicit cultural and political critique – albeit in less interesting verse forms.

Her poetry does not so openly rebel either (page 227):

[S]he wrote largely in ballad form or using other fundamentally regular rhythmic and rhyming patterns, which she disrupted continuously, in sly ways. . . . Fox-like, she appeared to conform while rebelling indirectly, through omission, dissonant or slant-rhymes, irony, and wit.

So?

Where does all this leave me?

Yes, it’s clear that there could be at least four major factors influencing Dickinson’s themes and forms: the repression of women, disappointed passion, epilepsy as a stigmatising illness and the American Civil War. It is safe to conclude also, on the basis of the timing of her output, that the Civil War had perhaps the greatest impact. The following diagram attempts to capture them.

It is perhaps worth spelling out some assumptions linked to the factors. It is the timing of the Civil War and the episodes of disappointed love that are often adduced to help interpret a poem. The restrictive conventions imposed upon women are quoted as relevant to some of her references to ‘white’ as of course is faith, death and immortality. Whether her apparently chosen seclusion is to be explained by her epilepsy or by agoraphobia is still an open question. Seclusion, a quality she shares to some degree with other major writers, is generally accepted as the key to her power as a poet of the interior. The exact impact of the slave question is also  not entirely resolved in terms of the Civil War and its meaning for her.

So, I must ask, is her elliptical and slanting style the result of thwarted and socially unacceptable passion – a love ‘that dared not speak its name’ in both the case of Sue and a probably married man? Could she not speak more directly about almost anything because she was a woman, because she was epileptic or because she knows she is being ‘heretical’? Or was it the result of unbearable anguish in the face of the Civil War’s inescapable acting out of man’s inhumanity to man?

Whatever the answers to any of these questions turn out to be, I feel that it is beyond reasonable doubt that among her poems are unquestionable masterpieces that remain as relevant to us now in our age of war, uncertain faith and questionable ideologies, as they were when she wrote them. They pull me into her passionate intense interior with a power that would be hard to resist, even if I wanted to.

I am setting myself the task of re-reading the 294 poems that are labelled in my R. W. Franklin edition as having been written in 1863, to see what I now make of them in the light of all this recent reading about her.

It’s high time I let her speak to me herself.

Unexpected Coda

As a Bahá’í though, I can’t resist mentioning, before I close, that 1863 was the very year Bahá’u’lláh declared his Mission, His divinely ordained responsibility to convey to humanity a vision of the future that held out hope of resolving the major war-engendering and repressive tendencies of our times. This all-too-obvious connection with the peak of Dickinson’s productivity did not occur to me until after I had made my plan, probably because I was not expecting any such thing as I pursued this investigation.

Just when she, a possibly self-incarcerated prisoner in her own home in Amherst, was grappling, through her most prolific period of creativity, with the titanic and traumatic challenges her country was facing, a prisoner in exile in Baghdad, shortly to begin a deportation that would eventually consign Him and all His closest family to the disease-ridden prison city of Akka, was openly proclaiming for the first time His world-embracing, world-healing Message, one that she was never in a position to hear, even though (op. cit.: page 85) ‘Many of her contemporaries (notably Shakers, Millerites, and Adventists) awaited imminent fulfilment of revelation with Christ’s second coming.’ She was only 14 when their very public disappointment of 1844 occurred.

The essence of His message can perhaps be best summarised briefly here by quoting from The Hidden Words (Arabic No. 68 – there is more at this link):

O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.

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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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