Sumptuous Desire

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On the function of desire in Emily Dickinsons poetry


  • Sumptuous - Despair: The Function of Desire in Emily Dickinsons Poetry(This is a revised and substantially enlarged version of a key address delivered at the 1995 International Emily Dickinson Conference / Washington D.C.)1. The Deficient SubjectRecent criticism has focused intensely on the problematic status of the human subject, and poststructuralists like Michel Foucault, following the example of Nietzsche, Mach, Broch and others, have confidently announced its death - prematurely as it now turns out. This is hardly surprising. The subject or (disregarding terminological distinctions) the self was from the start a contested notion in Western civilization. It never had the conceptual stability that critics chose to attack. Even Descartes, commonly acknowledged as the creator of the self-dependent modern subject, felt constrained to introduce into his philosophical system some oddly inconsistent features in order to safeguard the rational selfs alleged autonomy. The Romantics in particular were intensely aware of the precarious status of the subject. It is to them that we owe in large part the creation of the modern individual self. Since Dickinson also worked within this tradition, a glance at the Romantic conception of selfhood is in order.

    Initially, the Romantics had a tremendous faith in the selfs creative potential, but (as Manfred Frank has forcefully demonstrated) they also made the disturbing discovery that the subject, having lost its transcendental origin, cannot ground itself and that its autonomy is spurious. The celebration of individual selfhood, often experienced by the Romantics in religious terms (as conversion or rebirth), is at the same time subverted by attendant feelings of self-alienation - a state of exile brought on by the fall into consciousness and the ensuing loss of Edenic unity. Creative exuberance in Romantic texts thus tends to be threatened by a dark and dizzy Abyss (an image likewise found in Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley), by a Chasm yawning beneath the apparent plenitude of life.

    With Emily Dickinson, this sense of alienation is raised to a new pitch. She pictures her coming into existence as a mighty Crack -/ To make me visible - (P891). One of her youthful letters is signed: Emily - I believe (L829). The comical role-playing in her epistolary exchanges only serves to underscore her nagging doubts. The poets early phase appears to culminate in the pressing question: What is life? . . . [I] wonder what I am and who has made me so? (L172) In the poem To be alive - is Power - (P677) existence takes on the quality of Omnipotence, and the lyrical selfs creative Will pretends to equal the creative power of God. However, as the poems final line grudgingly concedes, the human subject is not self-sufficient: Such being Finitude. In a letter addressed to her girlfriend Abiah Root, Dickinson confesses: I am sailing upon an awful precipice (L10), and her late poetry

  • still probes the life-long dilemma: A Pit - but Heaven over it -/ And Heaven beside, and Heaven abroad; / And yet a Pit -/ With Heaven over it. (P1712) Dickinsons cultural heritage - especially the paradoxical nature of Puritan selfhood along with the Transcendentalist emphasis on Self-Reliance - radicalized the problem for her, and she was forced to look for new tactics in her effort to reconstruct a viable New-England self.

    As we may gather from the poems and letters alike, a fundamental lack or want pervades much of Dickinsons oeuvre: I have an aching void in my heart, she complains, which I am convinced the world can never fill (L11). In many ways, her poetry is an expression of this void along with a bold effort to fill it. One could indeed argue that Dickinson attempts nothing less than to analyze and - if possible - to heal and reunify an alienated, a wounded and fundamentally flawed self. Hence, the central importance of the notion of desire in her work. Richard Wilburs brilliant article Sumptuous Destitution approaches her poetry through the Romantic credo in the superiority of the imagination over the limitations of reality. [O]nce an object has been magnified by desire, Wilbur (echoing Blake) points out, it cannot be wholly possessed by appetite. Desire is of course a signal feature of Romantic literature, best instanced by A.W. Schlegels famous definition of romantic literature as a literature of desire; in Goethes Mignon it has found one of its most memorable incarnations. And yet, it is a New England writer that has explored the selfs capacity for desire more deeply than any other nineteenth-century writer, and on a level of reflection nowhere paralleled in European and American Romanticism.

    Using Wilburs notion of desire as a starting point, I propose to offer a revision and a sharpening of this concept. By closely analyzing the structure of desire in Dickinsons poetry, I hope to throw additional light (1) on the nature of the lyrical selfs lack, (2) on the poets strategies in trying to fill this lack, and (3) on the reasons why Dickinsons attempt can only succeed in the realm of the fictive. My principal interest, throughout this paper, centers on desire as the driving force behind the poets oeuvre.

    What I cannot investigate in my essay is the exact place of Dickinsons use of desire within the larger development of this notion whose history ranges from Plato and Aristotle via Cicero, St. Augustin, Dante, the scholastic desiderium naturale and Nicolas of Cues to the concept of desire as treated in the works


  • of modern theologians, psychologists, sociologists, feminists, literary historians, and philosophers like Klages, Blondel, Scheler, Girard, Lacan, Livingston, Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva among others. Nor can I do full justice to the poetic strategies employed by Dickinson to express in language what is present in the mind (as the object of desire), but absent in external reality. Most regrettable of all, I am unable within the scope of this paper to appraise Dickinsons notion of desire against the socio-cultural gender conventions of mid-nineteenth-century Victorian America. Fortunately, this crucial topic has extensively been discussed in feminist criticism (in particular by Gilbert, Gubar, Homans, Juhasz, Loeffelholz, Martin, Mossberg, and Pollak).

    2. The Selfs LackIn A loss of something ever felt I - (P959), a poem indispensable to our topic, the lyrical self admits its ignorance as to the exact nature of this loss. Feeling abandoned, the child-persona hankers after the lost dominion / Itself the only Prince cast out - (Paradise lost and Adam/Eve in exile). Having grown up and being wiser, but also more skeptical, the lyrical I is still softly searching / For [its] Delinquent Palaces. What we notice here is a subject in search of a home. The original (utopian) unity, childhoods citadel, is gone once and for all, and no way leads back to it. In the poems final quatrain the lyrical self speculates why it is looking oppositely / For the site of the Kingdom of Heaven. The self fails to grasp what is missing; all it recognizes is the painful truth that the Kingdom of Heaven, conventional faith, can no longer replace this loss. John Cody has suggested that young Emily Dickinson (dominated by an overpowering father) lacked a stabilizing and nurturing mother figure, a view that Richard B. Sewall and Cynthia Griffin Wolff apparently share. The many images of thirst and hunger may usefully be interpreted against the poets biographical background (as Margaret Homans contends, the mother is actively disappeared in the androcentric Victorian culture), but they also point to a larger cultural lack whose nature is at once epistemological, religious, and socially engendered.

    As a result, Dickinsons lyrical self, sensing its lack, goes in search of what is missing. Yet how is the self to know what it should look for? Plato tackles this question in his dialogue Meno, and from The Symposium we learn that the power mediating between the two spheres of the human (finitude) and the


  • divine is called Eros. Eros driving force is poverty: want is the very cause that sets the daimon on its quest for beauty. To St. Augustine and the Christian tradition following him, it is the souls unrest (resulting from mans fallen condition) that urges it toward God. However, the soul cannot not possibly find God, if God does not call it through an act of grace. The motif of being called, reinforced by the mood of religious revivalism in Dickinsons time, plays a vital role in her poetry.

    The Song of Solomon offers an additional hint: I sought him, but I found him not. After vainly asking other people, the spouse quite unexpectedly exults: I found him whom my soul loveth. As suggested in Platos Symposium, it is the souls loving desire that sets the direction. In her poem Why do I love You, Sir? (P480), Dickinson gives the irrefutable answer: The Sunrise - Sir - compelleth Me / Because Hes Sunrise - and I see -. For Dickinson, as for Plotinus and his Neoplatonic heirs, the finite selfs desire for the divine Other is in the nature of things. The poets search for the Other thus turns out to be the selfs search for its lacking alter ego. Whereas Kierkegaard found the Other in the saviour figure of the Biblical God, Dickinson, at odds with religious orthodoxy, was thrown back on the evidence of the souls desire for the missing Other.

    At this point, the sense in which I am going to use the concept of the Other requires some clarification. Lacking space to explore the full range of alterity, I shall have to disregard the Other in terms of Nature (the [negative] sublime), of other people, and of the unconscious - a disturbing and upsetting Other for Dickinson. Nor can I elaborate on the Other in the guise of death, let alone the concomitant problem of its poetic representation (aspects I have tried