The Benefits of Oppression

For obvious reasons the story of the Emily Dickinson literary brand has become of increasing interest to me. Dickinson’s life is a great example of the possible benefits of oppression. A system that holds you down can build you up. We can be simple-minded in our understanding of these abstract concepts. Academic trends of liberal moral responsibility prohibit any consideration or notice of the benefits any oppressed group might gain from their oppressors. There is a prohibition against looking into the individual minds, the mechanisms involved at a biological level. Survival psychology counters all oppression with privilege returns. Thus slaves can feel lucky, and in some cases rightfully so. Dickinson scholar Cynthia Griffin Wolff, a broad-minded and thorough analyst, is still blinded to the full range of possibilities by her underlying feminist dogma. Throughout her detailed literary analysis of Dickinson, Wolff cannot help but apply an ordinary modern understanding of gender politics to the extraordinary Dickinson. This is Dickinson as a modern feminist sees her—primarily aware of herself as a woman, as an oppressed political entity. But a study of this odd gnome is the perfect opportunity to see both sides of the 19th Century patriarchy, and ask the question—was its oppression not liberating to some? I recall a feminist professor of mine in Graduate school explaining in an aside that the only reason Emily Dickinson is admitted to the male-dominated "Canon" is because she is "weird." (Hm, I wondered, isn't that the reason anyone is admitted?) It's true, Dickinson is quite weird, confidently weird (my definition of 'eccentric'), and any scholar must be mindful of that weirdness beause it means we must question whether she would follow the conventions of political self-awareness assumed by feministic literary criticism. Part of this weirdness is the unusual breadth of her perception. To illustrate I would draw attention to Dickinson's relationship to flowers. Many of her letters are also riddles and could be broken up and presented effectively as poetry. In one letter she writes: "The career of flowers differs from ours only in audibleness." Such is Dickinson's imaginative animation of these plants she can find only one difference between humans and flowers -- sound. Forget free movement, nutrition, consciousness, the real difference is that flowers lack speech. This is a broad vision, looking at life across species lines, not gender lines. In the letters we trace Dickinson's philosophical admiration of the flower as artist, an artist of silence. She comes to so esteem the silence of the flower she begins to question the worth of speech. Maybe she should be more like the flower, and zip it up! We have heard of Beethoven's self-induced deafness. Should we now consider Dickinson's self-imposed muteness? Follow the flower?

I feel more reverence as I grow for these mute creatures whose suspense or transport may surpass my own...

Dickinson demonstrates her transformative imagination. Flowers are "creatures" walking around, and they have the romantic allure of a mime -- voiceless, all gesture. We are now behind the looking glass. The flowers, with their own "suspense," "transport," are rival poets making Dickinson anxious. She needs words to write poetry, but flowers do not. They need only pose, lean, spread. Dickinson admires her literary voice, but her beloved flowers convict her for having no gesture, no public life. In an earlier letter we find she has already crystallized (and decontextualized) this psychodrama into a cryptic axiom: "The landscape of the spirit requires a lung, but no tongue." Flowers don't talk.

It is as if Dickinson is living on another planet, an "out there" effect also seen in Higginson's account of his visit to her in Amherst. We can question the validity of Wolff's subtle (and surely subconscious) imposition of the implicit victim psychology of feminism onto Dickinson's personality. We would not be wise to assume Dickinson's normality. What if Dickinson liked being shut out of politics and business? What if (tied to her reclusiveness) Dickinson's weirdness means she is not significantly aware of herself as a woman at all? Maybe (as I will show) she is actually most aware of herself as a God. We have reason to believe Dickinson felt nothing but gratitude to be born female. Born male, a comfortable life of anonymous solitude and secret poetry-writing would not have been open to her. As an heir in the name-obsessed Dickinson line, she would have to marry, procreate. Is not Austin Dickinson, her brother, the true victim of this patriarchal system, forced to carry on the name of Dickinson? Are not the pressures and responsibilities of lineage not also the cruel impositions of society? And as a literary example, look at the miserable life of Poe. As a man in a man’s world Poe is a free agent, but he is miserable. A study of gender always reveals the bigger questions. Wolff is an intelligent apologist for a misunderstood and difficult poet, but her conventional understanding of sex and psychology holds her back. She builds Dickinson's early life to a climax when Dickinson makes the difficult decision to become a poet. But Dickinson is in such a position of luxury, she does not really have to make that decision. She can decide to be only a private poet, skipping the potential humiliation and stress of being a public poet. 'Serious private poet' is a profession available only to those lucky enough to have everything provided for them. Wolff fails to see how class can compensate for the systematic gender disenfranchisements so emphasized by academic feminism. In fact Dickinson was lucky, and as a woman in a wealthy family lived a privileged life.  Leisurely bread-baking, gardening, and solitary thinking were her lot. She never had to grow up. She had the privilege of spending her adulthood locked in her room, thinking, writing, luxuriating in comfortable solitude.

Reclusion is the luxury of the rich. One’s room becomes a self-confirming, self-flattering, self-exonerating mini-universe. One enters a psychological zone of sovereignty, where person becomes god, a stance as enabling as it is dangerous. From her room, where the world is recreated, Dickinson can challenge the Puritan God to a battle of wits. With an understanding of this recluse dynamic Wolff would not be again and again so astonished by Dickinson’s terse poetic face-offs with a God she fully believes in. A lock on the door can mean everything to a brain that thrives in secret. I cite Dickinson’s beautiful recluse manifesto:

I never saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.

How is it possible? How could she know what she has never seen? Imagination transport—a supernatural sensory power? She is where she is not. She does not need to see to know. Perhaps she does not even want to see. I think of Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, who explains humorously when urged to call a spade a spade, “I, for my part, have never seen a spade.” She is proud to have never seen such a base implement. Dickinson likewise seems proud to say “I never saw a moor.” To have seen such a thing would mean debasement to a common level of perception. Like Wilde she is disappointed with the Atlantic. The implied deep thought is familiar but restatable—you do not have to see to see. There is literal sight and there is imaginative sight. Dickinson, along with fellow anti-traveler Emerson, will leave the literal sight-seeing to the masses of wandering busybodies who follow the prescribed trails. In contrast, life has taught Dickinson to credit the imaginative over the literal eye. Why? The literal eye is passive, a mere receptor of color frequencies. The internal eye however is an active creative force, a god-like force, shaping and expanding life’s scenes into stylized form; reality is re-oriented by an individual psychology, philosophy, pathology. Dickinson defends her recluse inertia. Brainy visionaries, alive in their imaginations, do not need to go out. Dickinson proves the maxim that the life of a genius is not worth studying, because life is what they must sacrifice. Though always literally in, she is always imaginatively out, venturing even beyond the atmosphere into religious outer space to cast judgment there:

I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in Heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.

Heaven is a mere spot on a chart, a chart somewhere in some neglected paper pile. There’s a God, but he’s not worth speaking to; there’s a heaven, but it’s not worth going to. Dickinson in her locked room—an empress at one with her empire—she has her own visions. Heaven is not a palace land somewhere out in space. Heaven is earth minus one death—hers. A recluse visiting her own planet, Dickinson maintains an alien’s fascination with earth, which is a major factor in her refusal to accept Christianity. Because she loves earth she rejects heaven. In Christianity, after the Fall the earth became Satan’s domain. Earth thus is not to be worshipped or exalted. Christian life is a looking forward to a future reality purified of death and evil. Through ritual solitude comes theoretical elevation. Dickinson looks God in the face. Earth is her home, which she has perfected through imagination. Earth is heaven, and death is Hell. The secret is not to believe in Christ, but to live forever.

Poetry at Dickinson's level is the creation of voices that do not have to die. They are ever-potent. Cryptic, inaccessible, Dickinson poems are assaults, puzzles with incomplete solution rules. Poem as dictionary scavenger hunt. Wolff's classification of the voices -- the child, the wife, the proleptic -- is a helpful guide when approaching this difficult work, but still she struggles against Dickinsons removals--of context, of meaning. Bloom calls it "unnaming," Dickinson's holy work. Unnaming is unnaturally complete rethinking, repositioning -- mental moves that trace back to the philosophically elemental, difficult descents. Bloom calls her "the best mind to appear among Western poets in nearly four centuries" -- which would include Milton. Though he sees through so much, Bloom cannot see through Dickinson's mask. He understands the poems but the originality is nearly ungraspable. For Dickinson, as for all, writing was a process. But Dickinson is unique in how obsessively she erases all sign of process, all potentially clarifying context. Why no titles? Titles provide context. In this literature, reading time is reduced to nothing. But thinking time may go on forever.

Dickinson's poetry required the sovereignty of room. But to an extent such a sovereign room must be purchased. And who purchased it for her? Her father, Edward Dickinson, a kind of local representative of the overall Patriarchy, acting not as an oppressor but as a hidden benefactor. Though he probably indirectly sought to discourage his daughter's literary efforts, in fact he is a benevolent Patriarch, who with his financial stability provided the utmost encouragement to his extraordinary daughter.

Copyright 2006, by Christopher Duckett