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Posts Tagged ‘Judith Farr’

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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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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