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Common Knowledge 12.3 (2006) 443-459

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Emily Dickinson:

Reclusion Against Itself

Renunciation—is the Choosing Against Itself
—(J 745)

Emily Dickinson's reclusion, the riveting central counterevent of her life, is so obtrusive as to block even itself from view. Her reclusion verges on occlusion, both with regard to its causes in her life and, more problematically, to its meaning in Dickinson's work. Early accounts assume some romantic crash, for which there has however been essentially no evidence. Nor would mere brokenheartedness, whether hetero- or homosexual, go very far in accounting for the literature Dickinson wrote. Her reclusion, as represented in her work, should instead be seen in terms of traditions of withdrawal from the world and of her resistance to them. In many ways, her reclusion represents a quite original stance, in critical relation to (rather than containment within) the meanings of reclusion that come before her. Dickinson's reclusion marks a shift, subtle and yet extreme, in the history of reclusion and its significance—a shift extending past her own retreat retrospectively to the tradition itself. The particularities of her reclusion suggest [End Page 443] how any act or event and its terms may mean differently within different historical distributions.

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Figure 1
Emily Dickinson, c. 1850. Collection of Philip and Leslie Guara

Dickinson's poetry provides a record of her responses to a world she found at times alluring but of which she ultimately disapproved as deeply flawed and indeed alarming. It is not, however, disapproval of reality that makes Dickinson's reclusion thoroughly original. Disapproval had been, after all, the motive for withdrawal from the world since the earliest eremitic and monastic regimens. But hers is not a reclusion attesting to interiority as a superior resource of meaning. Rather, Dickinson in reclusion protests the lack of design in the external world of phenomena and events, where she holds that intelligibility should (but does not) reside.

Born in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, Dickinson seems to have passed an ordinary girlhood in a prominent town family. At around the age of twenty-eight in the year 1858, however, she began to display distinctive behavior: declining to go out; dressing in white; speaking to visitors from behind screens and stairwells or from other rooms; refusing to address the envelopes of her correspondence, from letters and myriad condolence notes to messages for her sister-in-law next door. And of course Dickinson began to write intensively, and also to not publish, poems which she only circulated in private letters or sewed into small fascicle booklets (found by her sister Lavinia on Dickinson's death in 1886). That [End Page 444] this retreat coincided with hostilities leading to the American Civil War—as did her great outburst of poetic production—I have discussed elsewhere.1 The war's relevance here is not only, or is perhaps (in a special sense) precisely, historical. Dickinson's reclusion was born in reaction against a world manifesting itself as unpredictable, violent, and terrifying. She had suspected that the world was defective for some time. Her early letters track her irreconcilable anguish over schoolfriends' deaths. But the war, one should imagine, seemed a final and overwhelming evidence that the world was indeed a badly conducted place.

In the history of thought, this conclusion was hardly news. St. Augustine, for example, surveying the fall of Rome, had long since provided ample terms for suspecting the City of Man. The human world displayed itself as at best a scene of trial, at worst a punishment that, if properly regarded, could act also as purgation. Plato (in his worst moods) and Neoplatonists, notably Plotinus, understood the cosmos itself as an ascending ladder of introspection; and the Desert Fathers of Christendom followed their lead. Augustine, along roughly the same path, turned inward and upward (inward as upward) toward the City of God. As he wrote of God in the Confessions: "You were more inward than the most inward place of my heart and loftier than the highest above me."2 The metaphysical realm was no longer to be...


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