Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Dickinson 689

It was too late for Man –
But early, yet, for God –
Creation – impotent to help –
But Prayer – remained – Our side –

How excellent the Heaven –
When Earth – cannot be had –
How hospitable – then – the face
Of Our Old Neighbor – God –

In this poem, Dickinson seems to me to be sketching out a spatio-temporal spiritual freedom - spatio-temporal because such freedom is as much a matter of being on 'side' or achieving contiguity to a divine 'face', as it is of living a present time - which is comparable to the ecstatic temporality proposed by Heidegger. I want to read the poem alongside two passages from Michael Inwood’s Heidegger: A Very Short Introduction. In the first, Inwood presents the spatial language behind the idea of ecstatic temporality:

‘Resolute Dasein, then, has a future that ends with its death, a past that extends back to its birth and perhaps beyond, and a present. Heidegger calls these “ecstases”, from a Greek word meaning literally “standing outside, forth”, hence “removal, displacement”, and, later, “being beside oneself, or out of one’s mind, in an ecstatic mental state”. (“Ecstasis” is related to “existence” and has the same root meaning.) Temporality, Heidegger argues, essentially involves these ecstases.’

It is just such a state of removal that the speaker seems to occupy in the first of Dickinson’s stanzas. In particular, when the speaker is ‘too late for Man - / But early, yet, for God’, she inhabits a condition suggestively similar to what Heidegger in Being and Time calls ‘the ecstatical unity of the making-present which awaits and retains’. When Dickinson writes of our being nonetheless still early for God, and open for a practice of ‘Prayer’, she emphasizes the future; just as Heidegger does, according to this second quotation from Inwood:

‘The future is the primary ecstasis, certainly for resolute Dasein, but also, with “modification”, for irresolute Dasein. Time is essentially and primarily time for doing something, time to do something, and this involves the future more immediately than the past or the present. The German for “future” is Zukunft, literally “to-coming, coming to(wards)”; the root idea is that events come to us, or approach, out of the future. Heidegger gives a different interpretation: Dasein runs ahead to its own death and then “comes towards itself” out of the future. It does not return simply to the present. It recoils from the future, from its own death, back into the past. The ordinary German for the “past” is Vergangenheit. But this suggests to Heidegger the past as dead and gone. The past to which Dasein rebounds is the past that lives on in the present, the past that informs its present situation and the possibilities inherent in it. For this he uses Gewesenheit, “having-been-ness”. Dasein’s past is not something dead and gone that it has left behind. The relevant past, the past that bears on its present situation, emerges from the future. Dasein then rebounds from the past into the present and it is there that it decides on action. The ordinary German for the “present” is Gegenwart, literally “waiting towards”, but Heidegger gives it an active flavour by associating it with a verb, gegenwärtigen, to “make present”: “Only as the Present in the sense of making present, can resoluteness be what it is: namely, letting itself be encountered undisguisedly by that which it seizes upon in taking action” (BT, 326). “Making present” is to the present what “retaining” is to the past and “waiting” or expecting is to the future; Heidegger avoids anything so specific and detached as “perceiving”. Irresolute, as well as resolute, Dasein has a Gegenwart. Only resolute Dasein has an Augenblick, a moment of vision.’

Dickinson’s second stanza echoes the idea that the ‘relevant past, the past that bears on its present situation, emerges from the future’: Heaven must be an ‘excellent’ beacon-future, when we occupy the state of removal (the Augenblick) when ‘Earth – cannot be had’, before we can witness the familiar God. All in all, it is this poem’s project to suspend, describe and also then to put back into motion ‘the Present in the sense of making present’; Dickinson seeks to seduce us to fulfill the ‘time to do something’. But rather than a ‘specific and detached’ act of ‘Creation’, the action which we are being encouraged to take, in a general yet implicated way, is ‘Prayer’.

When we are suddenly tipped by her out of these eight accelerating lines, we are already in that freedom. 

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