In one of my comments yesterday I mentioned that both Whitman and Dickinson unapologetically play on paradox throughout their respective work – but while Whitman’s self-contradiction seems to tend more towards relativism or universalism, Dickinson’s poetry and paradoxes exemplify something closer to absurdism.
Earlier I was asked by the precocious, ferocious, never-atrocious Jasmine Kojis (yes, I needed about a dozen more words for this) to clarify what I meant by absurd – I am referring to philosophical absurdity here rather than the actual content and imagery of Dickinson’s poems. Her realism is something I appreciate very much about her work actually, which makes her bouts of abstraction more interesting than overwhelming, and further gives weight to the way in which her verses touch on the absurd.
Historically, the 19th century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard was the first one to discuss absurdism in the way by which we understand it nowadays – quite simply that the world in which we live is very much a collection of contradictions and impossibilities. Kierkegaard went a step further with this and, as a Christian, approached absurdity from the perspective of theistic existentialism, ie. the universe contains meaning, individuals can experience this meaning through faith, the pursuit of said meaning is purposeful despite the perceived absurdity (which both requires and is conquered by faith), and ultimately there is resolution to the individual’s quest for meaning.
Kierkegaard’s work has been widely studied, accepted and adapted, and while his initial theories of absurdity have built the backbone of several branches of philosophy, his Christian perspective is certainly not found in all of them. Nowadays, the question of the absurd is found in four major branches of philosophy – atheistic existentialism (AE), theistic existentialism (TE), absurdism (AB), and nihilism (N).
This backdrop is necessary, I think, because Dickinson makes it decidedly difficult to tell which point of view she’s coming from in regards to her poetry and themes of absurdity.
The poem “Escape” (p. 1) certainly seems like the place to start, since this is often exactly our reaction when faced with the absurd.
I never hear the word “escape”
Without a quicker blood,
A sudden expectation,
A flying attitude.
I never hear of prisons broad
By soldiers battered down,
But I tug childish at my bars, -
Only to fail again!
The image is easily one of a child struggling against the bars of its crib. Is this, then a purposeful pursuit? Yes, one might say because, if the image of the child is maintained, then growing up and reaching adulthood ends the struggle and results in meaning (TE/AB), but then again no resolution is given by the poem’s end and one may as easily assume that it’s the end of the struggle as well (AB/N).
The final verses of “I felt a funeral in my brain…” (p. 8) similarly reach this point of failure or absurdity:
Then space began to toll
As all the heavens were a bell,
And Being but an ear,
And I and silence some strange race,
Wrecked, solitary, here.
First off, we’re treated to an explicit absurdity by the line, “And Being but an ear,” which Thomas Hobbes would call, “combining the name of a body with the name of an accident.” The final image also depicts a wreck, a collision between self and silence. As this wreck appears to be the resolution of the poem, we might consider it a resolution of, again, the pursuit of meaning or understanding as shown in the rest of the piece. The wreck, then, symbolizes the outcome of this pursuit for constructed meaning (AB/N).
Some call experience.
Inch by inch, and each inch could be her last – this is exactly that Kierkegaard meant by stepping out in faith in the face of absurdity (TE).
Ultimately, I think what I appreciate most about Dickinson is that her poetry reflects something that contemporary critical theory, philosophy and psychology fail to take note of: however many theories may be out there, it is very rare that a human being and the human experience consistently exemplify just one of those concepts. Dickinson’s treatment of absurdity in existence is an unavoidable mix of both atheistic/humanistic and theistic existentialism, absurdism and nihilism. She experiences each of these and shows agreement to all of them yet none of them define or explain her accurately or fully, though each might claim to.
As such, Dickinson can only be defined as “human,” and her work reflects accurate, un-compartmentalize-able human experience in the face of an uncertain universe. This, in my mind, is what makes her a real pleasure to read and study.