Academic journal article Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry

Emily Dickinson: What Is Called Thinking at the Edge of Chaos?

Academic journal article Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry

Emily Dickinson: What Is Called Thinking at the Edge of Chaos?

Article excerpt

Reading Emily Dickinson has always been something of a (hopefully exciting) challenge. We all know of plenty of interpretive traditions have been brought to bear on her poetry. The question one is tempted to ask; which one will yield the best results, that is which is the most illuminating, the one that will account for the highest number of elements from this or that text, and that consequently possesses the most far-reaching implications? We've all come across, to limit the list to one example, Christian readings of her poems. It hard not to ask oneself where God is; in the obsessions of the critic, in the text, or in what is known of the mind in 1862 of the former Mount Holyoke student who refused to stand up during assembly? Are we honestly allowed to say that she finally discovered that our human certainties are to be found at a transcendental level? In this essay, I'd like to address another tradition; the venerable English empiricist approach. My starting point is that it seems that, very often, Emily Dickinson looked upon her poems as as many problems. A problem is a question. It does not refer to something you know, but to something you do not know, and that possibly you may never know. In many instances, what she wrote on these odd pieces of paper had to do with issues that are too big for one to understand; life, death, trauma, and more generally things that are beyond what our culture enables us to perceive. Dickinson obviously wrote about objects and about the world. In so doing, she kept trying to define what her self was, or more precisely what passes for self or personal identity. What she found was that these notions were empty notions. What did then she discover at the edge of chaos? Is there something to discover?

Dickinson always alternates between experience and experiment. For her, writing generally proceeds from an experience that remains unnamed. What matters is not the experience itself, that is to say something that violently affected her body or her mind, or probably both. It would seem that she received a sort of wound, or shock, or that she suffered a loss, which resulted in a trauma. That is all readers will know and all there is to know. Then comes the experiment. She experiments with words, as a wound has no meaning in itself. Each poem is a construction. It is an adventure that maybe will help her discover the meaning of her traumatic experience. Experience and experiment as a matter of fact share the same etymology. Both words refer to a trial, and Dickinson was certainly aware of the fact that they usually possess two complementary meanings. Experience especially concerns something violent that happens to you. (The word "peril" interestingly shares the same Latin origin ex-periri with experience/experiment as it derives from a Greek term meaning "passing through.") The words also signify trying to achieve a goal. In her most compelling poems, Emily Dickinson tries.

Partly because there are very few detailed interpretations of it, I chose "It was not Death, for I stood up" (510) (1). Most of the readings devoted to the poem are on the whole circumstantial, with the exception of one which is unabashedly religious. (2) "It was not Death" is one of her darkest poems. Other poems on the same topic are a little more optimistic in that their endings are written in the past tense. That is for instance the case of "After great pain, a formal feeling comes--" (341), also dating from 1862, in itself her most horrid (and most prolific) year. Using the past implies that there is someone in the present remembering the past. The idea is clearly expressed at the end of 341: "Freezing [that is in the present] people recollect the Snow-/First--Chill--then Stupor--then the letting go--" If they can recollect a near-death experience, the implication is that they are still alive, which is borne out by the two lines (in the past tense) that precede: "This is the Hour of Lead-Remembered, if outlived. …

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