Thursday, 5 January 2012

Dickinson 724

Here is poem number 724 from the Reading Edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by R. W. Franklin.

Each Life converges to some Centre –
Expressed – or still –
Exists in every Human Nature
A Goal –

Embodied scarcely to itself – it may be –
Too fair
For Credibility’s presumption
To mar –

Adored with caution – as a Brittle Heaven –
To reach
Were hopeless, as the Rainbow’s Raiment
To touch –

Yet persevered toward – surer – for the Distance –
How high –
Unto the Saints’ slow diligence –
The Sky –

Ungained – it may be – by a Life’s low Venture –
But then –
Eternity enable the endeavouring

In The Spiritual Condition of the Age, Karl Jaspers raised the question of free will: ‘the basic problem of our time is whether an independent human being in his self-comprehended destiny is still possible’. In Dickinson’s poem, the freedom to know and claim a destiny is figured as a singular human’s progress towards her ‘Goal’: that is, as a project of perseverance towards an apprehension of her own transcendent nature. Yet this project, she understands, is a ‘low Venture’; our life on this earth is everything which is distant from the transcendental freedom suggested by the ‘Brittle Heaven’ and the ‘Rainbow’s Raiment’. In My Emily Dickinson, Susan Howe discusses this poem in the context of the Puritan understanding, which Dickinson shared with her spirit-mentor Emily Brontë, that ‘Humanity must obey mechanical and supernatural necessity’. Their imaginations perpetuate ‘LEAR’s world of monstrous necessity where union with Nature means living outside comfort with the forces of destruction’. The bitter, low, ‘Life’ or nature through which we move towards understanding of our transcendent human nature, is identified with (obedience to) what Howe calls ‘the dominant social system’, or ‘a phantom and desolate world where life is a void labour, and Death, Desire’s dream’: determinism, as laid down by religious fundamentalism and work ethic capitalism alike.

Dickinson’s poem encodes the dialectic of free will and determinism that still resonates in American culture today, in the superb film based on Philip K. Dick’s ‘Adjustment Team’, The Adjustment Bureau (in which the death of the romancing protagonists’ high-flying careers turns out to be desire’s dream, vanquishing the Bureau's career planning), and which appeared in Weimar times in Jaspers’ opposition of human freedom to Weberian modern ‘worldly order’, in The Spiritual Condition of the Age.

‘The interlinking of every aspect of human life into stable organisations is rapidly increasing. The transformation of human beings into functions of a titanic apparatus compels a general levelling-down; the apparatus has no use for human beings of high grade or for exceptional individuals, but requires only average specimens endowed with particular gifts. Nothing but the relative endures. The coercion of the life-order enforces an entry into the various associations, and interferes with freedom of individual activity in every possible way. […] The movement is towards the bringing to pass of a stable and definitive condition. But this ideal of a worldly order is intolerable to those who know their being to be established upon a claim to freedom.’

A wildly exceptional individual who propounded the democratic insight that there ‘Exists in every Human Nature/ A Goal’, Dickinson – like Jaspers – experienced the rift between a claim to apprehend transcendental freedom and the structuration of deterministic order, the purposeless everyday battle of life which makes the idea of heaven itself appear merely ‘Brittle’. No doubt this lived antinomy contributed to her agoraphobia. ‘Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson, educated, reclusive, visionary women, rebels from a sin-obsessed Fundamentalist religion, felt God and Nature separating from each other’ (Howe). Perhaps precisely because it narrates her own existential condition, Dickinson’s poem is not content simply to diagnose the separation, and finally refuses to tolerate its weighting on the side of necessity – paradoxically, precisely when her writing admits that the ‘Sky’ is ‘Ungained’. In the final stanza, the grinding, everyday ‘low Venture’ through which we move towards an understanding of transcendence is flipped over, and its precedence stripped away, so that now the transcendental emerges as the enabling space within which the struggle of nature is held to be enacted. After death we can renew the Venture with faith, because ‘Eternity enable the endeavouring/ Again.’ Eternity, not the winners of the struggle, has been in control all along.
Next post: in the semantics hut with P. K. Dick

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