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  • Writing Life: Suffering as a Poetic Strategy of Emily Dickinson
  • Marianne Noble (bio)
Smith, Jadwiga and Anna Kapusta. Writing Life: Suffering as a Poetic Strategy of Emily Dickinson. Cracow: Jagiellonian University Press, 2011.

In Writing Life: Suffering as a Poetic Strategy of Emily Dickinson, Jadwiga Smith and Anna Kapusta analyze Emily Dickinson's poetic uses of suffering. Dickinson records the dispiriting and depressive effects of suffering with particular intensity and vividness, they claim, and she also uses it as a catalyst for spiritual insight and creative production. Drawing upon the feminist psychoanalytic theories of Julia Kristeva, they argue that Dickinson's suffering, at its core, derives from the trauma of separation from maternal plenitude. As Kristeva notes in Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, such a separation is the central moment of every person's acquisition of subjectivity. Most people manage it with relative ease, stepping into the subjectivity available through identification with the individuality associated with the realm of the father. Some, however, feel that loss with particular intensity and cannot let it go. Dickinson is one of these: "A loss of something ever felt I - ," she says, adding, "Bereft I was - of what I knew not" (Fr1072). Loss, mourning, and grief are the central and uncontrollable emotions in Dickinson's experience. According to Kristeva, this is typical of depressive people. Unable to let themselves experience eros, which is to say an attachment within the symbolic order, depressive people cling to the regressive fantasy of wholeness with their lost love object. Smith and Kapusta note that Dickinson frequently writes of an intense longing for love, but she also consistently makes it off-limits, unavailable, and even threatening if actually achieved. Symptomatically, in "I Years had been from Home" in which consummation seems possible, she imagines that she "Fled gasping from the House - " (Fr440). Dickinson simply cannot allow herself to experience the joy of attachment with something other than the maternal all.

However, all of this suffering had for Dickinson the marvelously compensatory gratification of artistry. She conceives of creativity as "the gift [End Page 106] of Screws" and uses her suffering in enabling ways ("Essential Oils - are wrung - " [Fr772]). As the authors detail, focusing upon suffering enables Dickinson to appreciate joy; it provides a vantage point for a feminist critique of a patriarchal society; it functions as an impassioning internal volcano; and it stimulates an innovative conception of spirituality. Lack and desire are therefore enormously generative subjects for her.

In this study, Dickinson's depressive state is of a piece with her womanhood. The authors cite Kristeva's claim that many women find it difficult to enter the symbolic order because in order to do so they must negate their maternal attachment, or their maternal identification. They cannot do so because it seems like either matricide or self-abjection to them, and they thus remain anxiously and depressively hovering around the edges of the symbolic. We see this in Dickinson, Smith and Kapusta claim. Her feminine inability to fully enter the symbolic order underlies the chaotic and broken nature of her writing, which expresses her alienation from the symbolic. It also underlies the particularly corporeal dimension of her verse. As Kristeva has famously claimed, women retain a strong commitment to the semiotic order, which is to say those pre-symbolic aspects of communication that are always present in symbolic communication but are other than it. Smith and Kapusta claim that Dickinson's rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, intonation, and word-play are signs of her anti-symbolic engagement with the semiotic. They also note other ways that Dickinson's writing evades the impossible pressures of the symbolic: her minimalism, irony, elisions, realism, and emphasis upon solitude. These are all strategies that Kristeva shows to be important means by which a depressive, abjected personality expresses and asserts itself.

As I read this book, I found myself uncomfortable with all of the ways that the authors make Dickinson's writing sound like the surprising and fortuitous output of a dysfunctional person. Much recent scholarship on Dickinson has described her tropes and styles differently, as deliberate and controlled expressions of artistry and resistance rather than capitulations to emotions she could not control. The...


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