- Emily Dickinson and Philosophy ed. by Jed Deppman, Marianne Noble, Gary Lee Stonum
This is a carefully thought through and wrought collection of pieces on its eponymous theme that is far more than its individual parts. Its collective authorship, whether arriving at its task as Dickinson specialists or from the philosophical side of the aisle, reads Dickinson with flair, meticulousness, and authority; and it has delved seriously into Dickinson’s philosophical “others” or counter-texts. The result is a volume that in a single read can update specialists and non-specialists alike not only on Dickinson’s polymorphous literary contribution, but on a long-standing and well-established palette of conceptual paradigms available as supplements in her generative reading. The volume gains a good deal in the way of compression and consistency from the individual authors’ relative familiarity with a common library of primary texts and secondary literature.
It is not entirely surprising that a lyrical artist recognized over the long haul as an indispensable node of compressed, iconic articulation in her age should resonate with a broad range of philosophical approaches, both by her contemporaries and by future thinkers. The volume is not limited to the echoes of Romanticism and German idealism in Dickinson’s poems and letters (Hegel, Schlegel, Kierkegaard, and Darwin, the latter’s theories in the field of natural history being an extension of Hegelian dialectics). It attends carefully to the highly poetically nuanced voice of Nietzsche as well, and it hears in Dickinson’s language prefiguration of concerns that will occupy William James and the pragmatists, Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Emmanuel Levinas, and Martin Heidegger. Dickinson, like her contemporary on the other side of the pond, Charles Baudelaire, stood [End Page 105] atop a railroad turntable of interests in, among other topoi, cognition, language, aesthetics, psychology, the states of knowledge, temporality, and ethics that kept philosophers both far afield from her and from one another busy and out of trouble.
As opposed to Baudelaire, Dickinson’s poetic utterance and other articulations were constantly running aground on the shoals of the pervasive religiosity of her milieu (a religiosity indeed in common with the meditations of Hegel, Schlegel, Kierkegaard, and James). One wishes in several domains that the individual authors, having crafted their contributions, could have conferred on and merged some of their shared concerns and observations. Dickinson’s gravitation to ontotheological constructions is duly noted in several of the contributions, yet there is no broader account rendered of her compulsive turn to religious imagery. The contributions on James and Merleau-Ponty explain the relevance of the respective philosophers to Dickinson’s long-term project in terms of the poet’s pitched revolt against systematicity. Yet owing to the architecture of the conventional anthology of critical essays, the potential dialogue between pragmatism and twentieth-century phenomenology remains unspoken.
Particularly in reading Dickinson’s poetry, the authors demonstrates consistent flair in extracting exegetical power from the philosophical texts and approaches that they deem germane. The pieces typically begin with an appeal to the relevance of this philosopher or that in the reception of Dickinson’s corpus, and with uncanny consistency, the “read-outs” of poems gain from the application at hand. This configuration casts the poet in the role of star performer; the philosophers as the straight men who experienced parallel thoughts. The proof is in the Dickinson poems; the philosophers have hammered together the platform for the literary-philosophical (and interpretative) dance. Again, down the line, from Hume and Hegel to Levinas, the results are, theoretically as well as literarily, informative, illuminating, and surprising. Some of the treasures in a collection of remarkably consistent high quality are situated farthest from Dickinson’s home base, in the Mental Philosophy, Common Sense, and Higher Criticism of nineteenth-century New England. The contributions on Hegel/Schlegel, James, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, and Heidegger are notable in this respect.
Having graduated to a prevailing cultural operating system based in cybernetics, however, we might rather think of the interaction between Dickinson and philosophy less as a coupling...