“After Great Pain”: The Epistemology of the Grave according to Emily Dickinson
To what extent does experimenting with words make it possible to produce a richer vision of reality? Starting from an analysis of Dickinson’s “After Great Pain,” I argue that the poem can be interpreted as an interrogation of the way the subject is constituted. One first needs, however, to examine the modalities along which time and the body can be represented. I will consider interpretive traditions, then analyze the poem in conjunction with works by other artists using the same strategies. More generally, I will propose that choosing an empiricist and radically immanent approach reveals more possibilities than other approaches.
After great pain, a formal feeling comes— The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs— The stiff Heart questions “was it He, that bore,” And “Yesterday, or Centuries before”?
The Feet, mechanical, go round— A Wooden way Of Ground, or Air, or Ought— Regardless grown, A Quartz contentment, like a stone—
This is the Hour of Lead— Remembered, if outlived, As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow— First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go——Emily Dickinson, “After Great Pain” [End Page 338]
For Emily Dickinson, writing often meant experimenting. She experimented with words so as to acquire new perspectives through her representations of the self and the world. It certainly looks as if each one of her most intense poems was an attempt to see how far one could go both with language and consciousness, and she accordingly knew that the general public would find her experiments unreadable. Only since 1955, when Thomas H. Johnson published the first collected edition, have we slowly become aware of their own internal logic. Dickinson must be placed and understood in the context of other artistic experimenters such as Friedrich Hölderlin, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Cézanne, and Antonin Artaud, as well as her compatriots Nathaniel Hawthorne and Stephen Crane. Admittedly, she belonged to her time and society, but, much more important, if what she attempted to do with language makes sense to us today, that sense has very little to do with the Civil War or life in a small Massachusetts city in the 1860s, let alone with some man who may have unwittingly broken her heart. Her poetry may have been (indirectly) occasioned by something that happened to her, but she never writes about herself. It follows that a Dickinson poem must be considered as a series of abstract problems. It also follows, at least as far as her most ambitious experiments are concerned, that paraphrasing or summarizing them is absolutely impossible, though many textbooks and scholarly essays still try. What is at stake at the heart of her poems has to be unfolded and developed with all their implications and complexities.
Unquestionably, she would have concurred with Marcel Proust’s famous pronouncement, “Les beaux livres sont écrits dans une sorte de langue étrangère” [Great literature is written in a sort of foreign tongue].1 Proust means that, for a writer, the choice is between piling up clichés or being new and original, being him/herself—whatever that means—that is to say, experimenting and inventing a new language, or rather a new way of using the mother tongue. In other words, it is important to stress that what Emily Dickinson was systematically trying to achieve was cognition, never recognition.
Perhaps only after reading Proust can one begin to understand what Dickinson was after when she started writing those brief poems of hers. As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari explain, “It was Proust who said that ‘masterpieces are written in a kind of foreign language.’ That is the same as stammering, making language stammer rather than stammering in speech. To be a foreigner, but in one’s own tongue, not only when speaking a language other than one’s own. To be bilingual, multilingual, but in one and the same language, without even a dialect or patois.”2 In [End Page 339] Essays Critical and Clinical, Deleuze adds that such a way of relating to one’s language often leads writers to virtual ungrammaticality, as if he had been thinking of the second stanza of “After Great Pain”: “When a language is so strained that it starts to stutter, or to murmur or stammer . . . then language in its entirety reaches the limit that marks its outside and makes it confront silence.”3 Deleuze mentions, in this respect, Kafka, Artaud, Luca, Péguy, Céline, Beckett, and Melville. Dickinson could easily be included in that group.
This essay will endeavor to expound what might be called the poet’s epistemology and, in order to eschew vagueness, I will build upon a close reading of a single poem, “After Great Pain.”4 To talk of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, one must go into details, especially if one wishes to analyze the way she experiments with the possibilities of language. This poem about absolute pain and death provides a good example of her desire to go as far as she could go. Rather than relating some personal anecdote, it illustrates what she calls “the science of the grave.” In her poem “The Province of the Saved” (CP, p. 539; PED, p. 659), she explains, “The Science of the Grave / No Man can understand / But He that hath endured / The Dissolution—in Himself”—by which she meant, to put it bluntly, that dead people don’t write and that one cannot write for dead people. Dickinson’s epistemological enterprise concerns only those of us who are still alive: what can death possibly represent for a person who is not dead? I will argue in conclusion that, paradoxically, this particular poem suggests possibilities not of death but of life. One first has to focus on the problems raised by representing our bodies and then redefining what time fundamentally consists in. Then, and only then, can one begin to apprehend what being a subject (or, shall we say, being endowed with of a sense of self) really means and how it is always bound up with life.5
The real Emily Dickinson—that is, the writer (revolutionary poet and/or abstract thinker) whose poems still represent a challenge for our minds—was born with a wound.6 Maybe wound is not the right word, but we need a term to refer to that mysterious “Great Pain” that starts the experiment at the core of her poem. Was that pain physical or mental? Was it a loss? We will never know. All we need to know is that it apparently was a shock, a trauma, something too big for her to continue living as she had been living before. In other words, after the wound, she had to invent a new sense of self. [End Page 340]
Interestingly for us, her biographers tell us that she had read a novel published in 1850 that relates the life of a woman who also suffers from a sudden, traumatic experience: The Scarlet Letter. The cause of the trauma—being seduced by a clergyman who ignores her after getting her pregnant?—is not what matters. The seduction apparently takes place in the forest, that is, in the wilderness, a place devoid of meaning, meaning being by definition social. The woman’s life begins anew when she leaves Boston prison, and henceforth her whole existence becomes synonymous with writing. Hester Prynne writes and thinks in an unconventional way. With gold thread, she embroiders the letter she is forced to wear on her chest. In this manner, she embarks upon the construction of a new identity and, at the same time, she constructs her own personal vision of time and space, as she chooses to live on a peninsula halfway between the city and the forest, that is to say, at the edge of absolute horror.
Like the speaker in Dickinson’s poem, Hester feels the temptation of chaos, of losing herself in the wilderness. She, however, resists and maintains the precarious balance she has established between meaning (always social) and meaninglessness (chaos). For her, time points to the future. She does not know what her future will consist of, but she knows that her life will not follow a predetermined model. In fact, she has no model, and Hester experiments as best as she can with her limited means. In this respect, she is a poet just like Dickinson. Is poetry then making sense of a wound? Should one say that one cannot truly write and think (in a meaningful way) without encountering chance, the wound, the accident, the experience?
The wound constitutes a tradition that is as old as the world. Dickinson may have found examples of it in the Bible. Possibly its first exponent was Jacob. It is, however, important to distinguish which aspect of Jacob’s life has to be taken into consideration. It won’t of course be the fighter who proves stronger than his opponent (another example of the Romantic poet, which Dickinson celebrates in her poem “A Little East of Jordan,” an early, pre-1862 text) but rather the individual who receives a strange wound (never satisfactorily explained by scholars: leg? groin?). With whom was he fighting? A man, an angel, God, himself, his past? Genesis 32 does not say. One thing is certain: his real life begins after that encounter. He is given a new name, Israel, and a new identity. With the faults of his past forgotten, his mission is now ahead of him. Mutatis mutandis, the same happens to a man called Saul who falls from his horse as he is on his way to Damascus. After his accident, he feels [End Page 341] compelled to develop a new ego, adopt a new name, Paul, and take an interest in language and letters as a means of constructing systems of meaning and beliefs. Jacob and Saul remain the two most famous representatives of a long list of wounded men who feel compelled to turn to language and in many cases to literature in order to construct a new identity.
At bottom, the problem revolves around the link between the experience and the experiment. The French poet Joë Bousquet should help us articulate the problem. He also underwent his own traumatic experience, which led him to experiment with words in order to make sense of that experience. He was a soldier in World War I when he received a bullet that damaged his spinal cord and left him paralyzed; he remained in his bed in Carcassonne until his death in 1950. Bousquet wrote poems in order to go beyond that wound which had destroyed his body, but which had also permitted him to start constructing his identity. He very cogently declared, “Ma blessure existait avant moi, je suis né pour l’incarner” [My wound existed before I did. I was born to embody it], adding that it was like a sign “beckoning” to him.7
Such is the context that seems to offer us the greatest leeway to make sense of Dickinson’s strategy in her momentous poems of pain and death. “To paint the scream more than the horror,” painter Francis Bacon used to say to justify his terrifying canvases.8 Dickinson also tries to represent, not some horrible event that deeply hurt her but what that accident produced in her, or, rather, how it actually produced her. In this respect, Dickinson’s “After Great Pain” is not so different from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, in which one finds perhaps one of the most famous wounds in English and American literature. The fact that the wound is physical is irrelevant, as what matters are its consequences. In the novel, it appears that the origin, the primal cause, is an accident. It is basically meaningless. Yet the characters cannot help returning to it and try building meaning around it. The quest is endless and only death will stop it. Factually, the wound is something that happened to Toby’s body and that had material causes—a shell, part of a wall at Namur, etc.—but these contingent causes are finally irrelevant when it comes to determining the importance of the wound for the uncle, as, from then on, all his efforts focused on shaping his life in terms of that wound.9
The wound can thus be seen as a concept and as an essential part of a tradition of interpretation. One is in fact tempted to say that the wound is contagious and is disseminated throughout the pages of the novel. It also contaminates the nephew’s body and mind, which explains [End Page 342] why Tristram has to write his book, adding volume to volume in an unrelenting attempt to find the resting point that will give direction to his life. The wound is not in the past. It points to the future. It is inseparable from time. Finding the final meaning of the wound would signify being granted some kind of revelation: seeing something that is stable and motionless in the inexorable flow of time. We all know that is an illusion. Tristram, however, cannot help cherishing the hope, which underpins the structure of Sterne’s novel.
Sterne shows very clearly that the wound helps shape time for us. It is also bound up with the question of personal identity, as one last example will demonstrate. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage provides us with what is probably the American equivalent of Uncle Toby’s wound. At the beginning of the novel, the (so far) nameless youth finds his existence devoid of meaning. He does not know whether he will prove to be a soldier, a hero, or even a man until, when he starts running away, another soldier suddenly hits him with the butt of his rifle. The fact that the soldier belongs to his own regiment is obviously ironical. The accidental cause has no importance in itself. The consequences that follow are what should concern us. Henry Fleming is now able to develop a sense of self. In this respect, Crane faithfully follows Hawthorne’s lesson: the self is in great part social. In this case, the self comes from the gaze of the others, i.e., the identity his comrades impose upon the wounded soldier. For them, the blood on his forehead is a “badge,” from the late Latin term bajia, a synonym of signum and insigne quoddam. The soldier welcomes the new identity foisted upon him, as Hester had to accept the letter imposed upon her by the community, but, at the same time, just like Hester, he “embroiders” it, making it something personal, and even becoming a true hero later when he picks up his regiment’s flag.10
Crane and Hawthorne have to be placed in the context of what was fundamentally at stake in nineteenth-century American literature in the wake of Jean-François Champollion’s deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics. As John T. Irwin has shown, the essential question confronting writers became twofold: how origins can be symbolized, and how the origin of this symbolization should be interrogated in a critical way.11 Dickinson’s literary experiment is profoundly similar. In her case, the wound is to be taken as a sort of hieroglyphic sign whose mystery is forced upon us. Unlike genuine Egyptian hieroglyphics, however, the wound has no fixed, predetermined meaning or signifier to be deciphered. The wound marks the onset of an endless movement, “beckoning” to the poet, to use Bousquet’s term. Dickinson then goes beyond the origin, [End Page 343] the wound, to probe its symbolic consequences upon the subject. Put differently, the wound is what produces the subject and its identity, however problematic the notion of identity proves to be.12
Identity is of course not directly observable, nor is it mentally representable. It is not an object but rather consists in what is commonly called a sense of self. We both feel and we suppose that we have a self. More specifically, identity can only be expressed indirectly through what can be represented, that is to say the representations (in the plural) we produce of our bodies.
With her own poetic means, Emily Dickinson rediscovered that fundamental truth. Readers intent on coming up with a more theoretical explanation will perhaps recall Baruch Spinoza’s celebrated question: “Quid Corpus possit? Nemo hucusque determinavit.” [What can the body do? As yet, no-one has fully ascertained it].13 Dickinson would certainly have agreed with him. Her poems ask the very same question: how far can one go in order to take into account all the virtualities of our bodies? Behind that question, as Spinoza amply shows, lies a theory of expression: our self only exists in time and it is expressed through a multiplicity of modes (modi) of existence.
Basically, there are two manners of experiencing our bodies, and consequently our sense of self. Henri Bergson was among the first to raise the question clearly: “If the surface of our organized small body (organized precisely with view to immediate action) is the seat of our actual movements, our huge inorganic body is the seat of our potential or theoretically possible actions.”14 However, Deleuze (himself a great student both of Spinoza and Bergson) was the person who, with Guattari in Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus, unfolded the possibilities of that very important pronouncement when they insisted that one need always distinguish between the “Organism” and the “Body without Organs” (BwO), to use Artaud’s phrase.15 It is the same thing (empirically, one understandably only has one “body”) and it is not the same thing. In fact, one can have several BwOs, and indeed Dickinson experiences a variety of them in her more intense poems, including “After Great Pain.”
On the one hand, the organism represents the way our society has taught us to look upon our bodies. That view is the result of habits and codifications, therefore of education as well as of morality. I know what to do and not to do with this or that organ, and the coordination of [End Page 344] my organs defines the social dimension of my identity. The organism has thus to do with recognition, not cognition. In other words, it is bound up with common sense and, consequently, I expect it to always look the same. On the other hand, it is also possible not to define our bodies in terms of instruments endowed with a specific function (such a definition is the meaning of the Latin term organum) but through an experimental assemblage of intensive parts. More accurately, the BwO is obviously not without organs but is devoid of the social modes of coordination of my organs to which I have become accustomed. It is the body at its most personal, whatever the word personal may mean. What exactly does my sense of self consist in when it is at its less social, that is, the object of Dickinson’s experiment?
The BwO is of course only a momentary vision, a new experience produced by the literary experiment. In the case of “After Great Pain,” the vision lasts the length of the poem. Then, the outcome can either be madness (a danger always threatening the speakers of Dickinson’s poems) or a return to our quotidian social universe. Dickinson will perhaps go to the kitchen to bake one of her famous black cakes, and tomorrow she will again retire to her small bedroom and confront the blank page and possibly embark upon a new, frightening experiment with words.
In the poem, the body is characterized by a mixture of horror and intensity, not by the functions commonly deemed necessary to adapt to practical reality. Simultaneously, it loses its organic unity, just as the self has lost its identity, as if unity and identity were only social conventions. The resulting multiplicity is expressed through three body parts that seem to raise three symbolic questions without being able to answer them. Dickinson can be seen here at her most philosophical as she tackles, through the parts of the body, the three main problems of Western metaphysics since Aristotle: perception, knowledge, and action (taken in their traditionally logical order). The senses (perception) are paralyzed, as if they were dead and no longer performing their vital function. As regards the heart, the poem indicates that it should not be seen in its medical role (enabling our blood to flow) or through its popular connotation (as a sentimental symbol of love). Its purpose is first and foremost to ask questions (knowledge) and its key question is that of origin: if one could discover some primal cause, one would then become aware of one’s true identity, or at least of the meaning of one’s existence. The meaning of life is presented as synonymous with the signification of the “Great Pain” that one endures. Even more interesting, [End Page 345] the meaning of both pain and life is at bottom the meaning of time. If we could understand the way time really works—in other words, not according to our usual perception of time as (socially codified) clock time,—we might be able to grasp the sense of our identity. The third part, the feet (action), move in a mechanical, circular manner and do not fulfill any real activity that would produce practical results. As she often does, Dickinson proves consistently immanent and anti-idealistic in her philosophical approach. Everything starts with the senses, then knowledge and identity are constituted, before desire and action become possible.
Dickinson’s experiment with the BwO may be said to be fundamentally similar to that of her French near contemporary, Arthur Rimbaud, who advocated “un long dérèglement raisonné de tous les sens” [a long and reasoned disordering of all the senses].16 He was questioning whether we can experience reality differently from tradesmen and all those hateful petits bourgeois so full of their illusory common sense. The experience can only be temporary. One of course has by necessity to return to daily life afterwards. Rimbaud himself finally gave up literature and became . . . a tradesman.
Dickinson’s speaker here is more daring than Hester Prynne, who lived strictly halfway between the city and the forest. The former has one foot in chaos, which certainly accounts for why, unlike Hawthorne, Dickinson has long proved unreadable. In this respect, she even looks more “modern”—that is to say more extreme in her experiment—like those great masters of absolute terror, such as the painters Edvard Munch with his famous painting Scream or Francis Bacon and his pope series. In “After Great Pain,” both subject and objects have disappeared, or, rather, those two concepts and their traditional, binary opposition have become irrelevant. Dickinson is concerned with another type of experience and another type of cognition, as the poem is unquestionably about knowledge. The poet is inventing a new science, and, like all sciences, hers has nothing to do with anecdotes or individual problems. It is no more necessary to be aware of the details of her life than is the case with Newton or Einstein in order to understand their theories. Dickinson’s domain is not that of the particular but of the general and the impersonal. The way she writes interrogates what can be transposed in order to help readers make sense of what happens or, rather, of what can happen to them.
The poem does not contain any deictic terms (apart from one “this” in the last stanza, which I will discuss later); it is linguistically cut off [End Page 346] from any original situation of enunciation based on the threefold system “I/here/now.” Dickinson writes “the Nerves, the Heart, the Feet” when normally in English one expects my Nerves, etc. Tenses are strictly of the aorist type (simple present or past) whose purpose is to offer generalizations.17 There is no modality either.18 The poem is thus entirely impersonal.
In his own way, the French novelist-cum-theoretician Maurice Blanchot sums up the problem Dickinson is trying to express in her experiment by means of his striking formula “one dies.” Contrary to Heidegger’s claim that only death gives meaning to existence, Blanchot considers that there is nothing personal about death and that I cannot say “I die.” Even if I am trying to refer to myself, death will always be more abstract. It can only be alluded to not only in the third-person singular but also with the most impersonal third-person pronoun, “on” in French, which is to say the non-person by definition:
This reversal: would it not seem to be the original experience which the work must touch, upon which it closes and which constantly threatens to close in upon art and withhold it? . . . Death, then, would not be “the possibility absolutely proper to man,” my own death, that unique event which answers Rilke’s prayer: “O Lord, grant to each his own death,” but, on the contrary, that which never happens to me, so that never do I die, but rather “one dies.” Men die always other than themselves, at the level of the neutrality and the impersonality of the eternal One.19
What is even more remarkable and unusual is that some sentences in the poem do not follow the universal canonical pattern of subject-predicate. It has no predicate, which greatly accounts for the ungrammaticality of its second stanza: “’Was it He, that bore” (bore what?) and possibly “The Feet, mechanical, go round—” (round what? “A Wooden way”?) In sum, the poem is devoid both of subject and object. It has parts (nerves, heart, feet) that simply do not connect to anything else. And just like the body, space has lost its normative hierarchization. One can now not only walk on the Ground but also on Air or on “Ought” (in that context, a word more likely to refer to “anything” as the contrary of “nought” rather than to some kind of duty as in ought to). Space is not limited to our everyday, familiar territory, but is open to the Air, the cosmos, and the infinite. In addition, what the body can do and where it can go is no longer limited to its everyday functions. Literally, in the experiment, anything is possible. There are no associations and no relationships: readers have to devise their own strategies in order to [End Page 347] produce relationships, that is to say, ultimately, meaning. In Dickinson’s experiment, connections have nothing to do with predication. They follow instead a logic of contiguity, juxtaposition, coordination.
As Deleuze forcefully reminds us, speaking about the history of Western philosophy,
This geography of relations is particularly important to the extent that philosophy, the history of philosophy, is encumbered with the problem of being (the sky is blue), and the judgment of existence (God is), which presupposes the other. But it is always the verb to be and the question of the principle. It is only the English and the Americans who have freed conjunctions and reflected on relations. . . . Substitute the AND for IS. A and B. The AND is not even a specific relation or conjunction, it is what which subtends all relations, the path of all relations, which makes relations shoot outside their terms, and outside everything that could be determined as Being, One or Whole.20
The original quotation is even more striking and unsettling as, in French, “est” (is) is pronounced exactly like “et” (and). In addition, Deleuze’s allusion to English and American writers is a reminder of his profound interest in the radically immanent and empiricist modalities according to which authors such as Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, D. H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf, among others, make sense of the self and the world. Just like Emily Dickinson, one would like to add.
It is true that Deleuze has always been a self-avowed empiricist, beginning with his very first book, Empiricism and Subjectivity,21 which explains why the tradition to which he belongs, along with Bergson, is particularly pertinent when it comes to interpreting a poem by Dickinson. Indeed, David Hume, not John Locke, first spelled out the main implications of empiricism (which at bottom is a method, not a body of knowledge). Claiming that knowledge comes from the senses, as Locke did, is unquestionably true, but also pointless as far as we are concerned. What truly matters is what happens to our ideas.22 They enter into associations, that is to say relationships, and these relationships are arranged into networks that produce not only our representations of the world but the thinking subject at the same time. Hume was very clear about one point: in an experiment, there is no a priori model that associations can imitate. It follows that the question philosophy or literary theory should ask is: what sorts of associations are implied in a given text? In the case of Dickinson’s “After Great Pain,” that question is absolutely essential. [End Page 348]
The (human, thinking) subject is a matter of associations, beginning with the relationship between an “I” and a self (or ego): I am myself. “I” is a deictic word, that is to say a signifier empty of meaning that only serves to point to the speaker using it. On the other hand, the self is a complex object, or image, in which “I” see myself and with which “I” identify myself. It forms the basis of my identity: I suppose that something indefinable and invisible will always remain identical in myself with which I identify myself. Such is the canonical conception of the subject. Dickinson’s poem, however, shows how conventional that view is. Any trauma is liable to alter it, and, then, the “I” disappears. What is left is a fragmented self, devoid of any kind of identity. Worse, it is not identical. On the contrary, it is part of time, as the poem shows, and it actually depends upon time to forge the unstable associations that constitute it. Identifications have become problematic. In this respect, “After Great Pain” can be read as an abstract, epistemological interrogation on the possibilities of representing temporality.
Just as it is important to distinguish the (conventional) organism from the (nonsocial) BwO, it is crucial to note that Dickinson’s poem implies two conceptions of time. Bergson once again should help us understand what is at stake. On the one hand, bodies and minds are affected more or less intensely by other bodies (and/or minds), and these affects can go so far as to produce traumas or death. They are part of material reality, which means that they are inscribed in outside space and chronological time, also called social time or clock time, as time is here seen as a series of strictly identical representations (seconds, minutes, or hours) on the face of a clock. In other words, time is a spatial image and one can consequently argue that it is not truly time. These affects (a wound, for instance, such as the one received by Stephen Crane’s soldier or by Dickinson’s speaker in “After Great Pain”) are meaningless in themselves in the same way that the bodies that cause or sustain them are mute.
What is important for us is the possible consequences of these affects at another level, the level of what Bergson calls duration.23 The French philosopher carefully stresses that duration is not to be seen as psychological. The same can also be said of this poem about pain and death. Duration is inscribed in memory insofar as memory detaches us from the present situation (e.g., a wound) and enables us to articulate abstract problems. In fact, the present is always something more than [End Page 349] the present. It is a heterogeneous assemblage of present perceptions and past memories, with the present calling up the memories in order to make sense of what is happening to us, and the memories telling us what to focus on in the present. These connections between symptoms, such as pain and fragmentation, and meaning require an immemorial and nonpersonal “pure past” (Bergson’s phrase)24 to pose the relevant questions and attempt to reach tentative answers—“‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?”—as well as what those who “outlived” death by freezing “recollect.” The pure past’s main function is to complicate our vision of ourselves and the world and is not limited to the apparently trite answers offered by the situation in front of us.
The present wound, or its factual cause (possibly an accident), is of far less interest than the fact that poetic experiment initiates procedures for finding questions, problems. These questions have been asked for centuries, and future readers of “After Great Pain” will probably ask them too, as chance and wounds spare no one: what is the meaning of pain and death, not in Emily Dickinson’s life but in my life? In other words, the poem provides the interrogations, not the answers. I am the one who is, for instance, supposed to finish the sentence (bore what?), connect the problem with the contexts of my life, and hopefully discover new possibilities for life. Poetry is perhaps the ideal medium to express not only vital questions about death and suffering but also interrogations about love—as John Keats knew very well when he composed his “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
Dickinson’s poem makes sense for us because we are able to read it today in conjunction with other texts raising similar questions about the possible meaning of pain and death, such as the frightening “Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías” by Federico García Lorca.25 On the face of it, the poem is an evocation of Mejías’s death after the bullfighter’s thigh is pierced by the horn of a bull. The poem is famous on account of the fact that it repeats twenty-five times the same line—“a las cinco de la tarde” [at 5 p.m.]—which, as historians have revealed, does not refer to the time when Mejías was wounded (6:12 p.m. on August 11, 1934, at Manzanares), nor to the time of his death two days later (at 9:45 a.m. in a Madrid hospital). The poem detaches itself from clock time in a most paradoxical manner, as the insistence on 5 p.m. (presumably the hour when bullfights customarily begin in Spain, after the siesta) turns into a problem for readers, including readers who have never been to Spain or seen a corrida de toros. It is the time not of the physical act but of the semantic event:26 something essential that we have discovered [End Page 350] about life. That event disseminates and indeed, it has repercussions for us today when we transpose it into the various contexts of our lives. To a large extent, Lorca’s “a las cinco de la tarde” is Shakespeare’s “The time is out of joint.”
If it is “out of joint,” time is now unable to fulfill its conventional mission: to measure our actions in a neutral, homogeneous, and successive manner. Something happened—a wound, a trauma—and as a consequence, there is now a before and an after, and the two of them are structured in irreconcilable ways. They don’t “rhyme,” as the poet Hölderlin said in his comments on Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus. One recalls that, in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Orestes is eventually forgiven and tragedy comes to an end. The cosmos still makes sense and justice is part of it. Therefore his play ends as it began. Sophocles, however, came later in a world that was different. In his tragedy, after Tiresias has spoken, Oedipus finds that he is part of a new temporality, and for him, time is now organized in a radically new manner. There can be no going back to the beginning, even though he is perhaps innocent of killing his father and marrying his mother. What matters is that Thebes needs a scapegoat. The hero then enters the realm of the irreversible: he blinds himself and his life becomes a state of endless exile.
At such moments, man forgets himself and the god and turns around like a traitor, naturally in saintly manner. —In the utmost form of suffering, namely, there exists nothing but the conditions of time and space. Inside it, man forgets himself because he exists entirely for the moment, the god [forgets himself] because he is nothing but time; and either one is unfaithful, time, because it is reversed categorically at such a moment, beginning and end absolutely incapable of rhyming; man, because, at this moment of categorical reversal, he has to follow and thus can no longer resemble the beginning in what follows.27
A more accurate description of the logic at work in Dickinson’s “After Great Pain” is hard to imagine. Following the wound, the human being is suddenly cut off from society and God. He or she is now “atheos,” as Hölderlin says of Oedipus, when God no longer guarantees man’s identity. The sky is empty and man is no longer a man, he “forgets himself” and becomes a series of fragments unable to function as they used to. The wound creates what the German poet calls a caesura: my life will no longer resemble what it was at the beginning. I need other criteria to look upon it. More specifically, time has replaced God and from now [End Page 351] on I have to produce a new conception of time in order to try to make sense of my experience.
The poem ends with the caesura. Once again, Dickinson generalizes in a quasi-scientific pronouncement: the speaker is not talking about her/himself, but about people who reach extreme states of being. What happens when one stands on the frontier between life and death? There are obviously two alternatives. Those who died have nothing to tell us and they had better be forgotten. They only belong to the world of facts, not that of sense. On the other hand, those who survived are in a position to show us how it is possible to think in a different way. They know that linking the past and the present is essential in order to start understanding the meaning, not just of death but of life and death for a person who is still alive.
Dickinson introduces us to the realm of “re”: we can re-collect. Note that the word recollect etymologically comes from the Latin legere, to read, and presumably understand, what we are reading. Clearly this anecdote about people who almost froze to death is only some sort of pretext. What matters is the possibility for readers to produce meaning in their own minds: something always went before, we all have our wounds; and thinking—becoming aware of what little self we possess—implies going back to that wound. It is then important to consider the wound as a caesura with a before and an after. It is not just that we can start imagining what death represents. First and foremost, we are in a position to ask the question of life and what we can do with ours.
“After Great Pain” culminates with an interrogation on the frontier between life and death. One cannot cross it, any more than Hester Prynne could have survived in the forest. True, a latter-day Hester did cross it. At the end of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Edna enters the ocean and starts swimming until her consciousness stops. One does not think after death.28 Dickinson’s speaker, however, only tries to figure out what is beyond the threshold, and she can only do so with means borrowed from this side of the border. She uses life to talk about death. Crucially, at the end of the poem is the seat of temptation: being dead would provide “A Quartz contentment, like a stone—”. Being part of (returning to?) the realm of the inorganic would supposedly at last grant peace, a state without desires or efforts. Sigmund Freud theorized that strange yearning in his 1920 Beyond the Pleasure Principle, in which he [End Page 352] explains that life is an inextricable mixture of life drives and death drives, that is to say, of creation and destruction, linking and unlinking, Eros and Thanatos (names Freud did not use, however).29 One can obviously only see the forms embodied by life, but death always moves silently behind them, except in some extreme cases when death suddenly starts “speaking” on its own. The poem comes extremely near such a state.
In this respect, it depicts an experience similar to that evoked by Dickinson’s fellow New Englander Robert Frost in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.”30 The temptation offered by the woods, the snow, and the frozen lake are the same. The mental operations at work are the same as in “After Great Pain.” The death drive expresses itself through repetitions (“And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep”), as if death were something mechanical, whereas life is “elastic” and adaptable, as Bergson would put it.31 At this juncture, we might remember that Dickinson is known to have enjoyed a pun. The feet are mechanical? Shouldn’t the word also be taken as part of literary terminology? The poem has become repetitive and it has stopped providing new information, as if the subject were now devoid of desire or purpose.
More specifically, the text begins with alliterations (“formal feeling,” “sit ceremonious,” “Heart”/“He”), then goes on to pile up epithets where readers might expect adverbs: “The Nerves sit ceremonious,” “The Feet, mechanical, go round,” etc. In fact, the poem is entirely devoid of adverbs. Using adverbs would imply other possibilities: saying, for instance, that the nerves sit ceremoniously leaves open the possibility that they could sit in a different way. On the contrary, adjectives forcefully indicate that the nerves have always been and will always be ceremonious, as if time and freedom had never existed. The same is true of the other adjectives (“stiff Heart,” “Wooden way,” “Quartz contentment”). The second stanza ends with a simile that is anything but a metaphor: “A Quartz contentment, like a stone—”. Metaphors typically offer new information, possibly a revelation too, as in “All the world’s (like) a stage.” If, however, we remember that quartz is by definition a stone, the logic at work in Dickinson’s poem must be construed as radically different. It is analogous to saying that “a rose is like a flower.” This mode of thinking—in terms of repetitions and tautologies—suggests that the mind has ceased to make new meaning possible.
Frost’s speaker remains ambivalent up to the last line. Maybe he will yield to (everlasting) sleep, or maybe he will listen to his little horse and its harness bells and remember the village and his own “promises to [End Page 353] keep.” Interestingly enough, Dickinson seems to be a little less ambivalent. In the last stanza, which contains the only deictic term of the poem (“This”), the speaker reenters time. Readers may ask themselves in what manner they are supposed to interpret the last words: “the letting go—”. Consciousness yields to death or, on the contrary, the ice allows people’s bodies to escape alive? It is worth noticing that the poem is unfinished. Something should remain undefined after the dash. Life? In fact, it all depends on the way one interprets “This is the Hour of Lead—” (again with a dash). On first reading, after words like “formal,” “stiff,” “mechanical,” “wooden,” “stone,” one usually considers that the speaker is becoming the gradual victim of petrification. Why specifically “Lead,” then? One may be tempted to perceive a ray of hope. It is then possible for someone to “outlive” freezing to death. Could lead be the beginning of a life-affirming process opened by the deictic “This,” if one remembers that lead was the traditional raw material of alchemy?
Admittedly, in some cases, alchemy used to refer to a materialistic activity that aimed to turn base metals like lead into gold, or produce the elixir of life. Those dreams represented a deeply debased conception of alchemy, which only reflected the greed of a small number of people when it was not a childish dream of achieving immortality. True alchemy also involves violent transformation, but basically it is spiritual. Above all, it concerns healing and purification. In other words, it means discovering possibilities of life hidden in ourselves. Genuine practitioners summed up their art as “laborare, orare” [experiment and pray]. They also used to characterize their activity as “lege, lege, relege, ora, labora et invenies” [read, read, read again, pray, work, and then you will find], to quote the venerable Mutus Liber from 1677.32 After much experimenting, it would appear that one can (will?) find—life?
Thus, we may legitimately read “After Great Pain” from a life-affirming perspective, if one considers that Dickinson’s speaker has two options: 1) breaking down: being engulfed by madness, more specifically schizophrenia (irreversible fragmentation of body and mind); 2) breaking through: that is, returning to clock time and daily life with greater clear-sightedness. As I have said, Dickinson was a poet, but also a philosopher possessed of a critical approach to problems. Heidegger’s remarks on painter Paul Cézanne could easily apply to her: “Cézanne was not a philosopher, but he understood all of philosophy. In a few words, he summed up everything I have tried to express. He said: ‘Life is terrifying.’ I have been saying just that for forty years.”33 [End Page 354]
Emily Dickinson is an artist who, like Cézanne or Bacon, chooses to express the horror at the heart of life. Deleuze is right to point out that, in Bacon’s painting, “death is judged from the point of view of life, and not the reverse, as we like to believe.”34 Like the true alchemists of old, these artists experiment (laborare) with their medium, and readers who are confronted with the experience induced by the terror in their works read and reread them (lege, relege) in order to produce new ways of looking at the world and at themselves. Hopefully, both for readers and writer, the experiment may represent a breakthrough: “The writer returns from what he has seen and heard with red eyes and pierced eardrums” (ECC, p. 3). One can return then, even though everything now looks different.
Today, Emily Dickinson’s poetry makes sense to us if we place her strategies and interrogations in the context of broadly similar experiments carried out by a number of other writers and artists. It seems fair to say that she could be called the Francis Bacon of poetry, “paint[ing] the scream more than the horror,” the consequence rather than the factual cause. In her case, her ultimate objective was literally vital. At its deepest level, it had to do with promoting life. As Deleuze very aptly put it, “When Bacon distinguishes between two violences, that of the spectacle and that of sensation, and declares that the first must be renounced to reach the second, it is a kind of declaration of faith in life” (FB, p. 61). Sensation is undoubtedly the notion that enables us to define Dickinson’s modernity. Her poems do not represent an object, a person and his or her organism, or even a horrendous spectacle. They do not convey a body of knowledge. In “After Great Pain,” she expresses the violence of dislocation and transformation, a moment when the subject is at its most impersonal, as if the poem’s sole purpose is to produce an intensity eventually compelling us to confront the mixture of life and horror in ourselves.
Modifying slightly Artaud’s phrase about the theater, we could almost say that hers is the poetry of cruelty:
At the point of deterioration which our sensibility has reached, it is certain that we need above all a theatre that wakes us up: nerves and heart. . . . Our long habit of seeking diversion has made us forget the idea of a serious theatre, which, overturning all our preconceptions, inspires us [End Page 355] with the fiery magnetism of its images and acts upon us like a spiritual therapeutics whose touch can never be forgotten. Everything that acts is a cruelty. It is upon this idea of extreme action, pushed beyond all limits, that theatre must be rebuilt.35
The problem is not just “what can our bodies do?” (as Spinoza asked) but also what can our minds do, and, therefore, what can our lives do (or become)? Can we escape the sterility of repetition? Perhaps life is at bottom a problem of “bearing” (something). Hester Prynne bore society’s imprint on her chest all her life, and yet she succeeded in developing a modicum of independence for herself. Dickinson’s speaker is aware that from time immemorial some excruciating pain has repeatedly urged our hearts to bear some unnamed consequence that nearly destroyed our identity: “Was it He, that bore, / And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?” Looking upon our nerves as tombs and interpreting the memories of those who nearly froze to death may ultimately produce what Nietzsche called new possibilities of life.
1. Marcel Proust, By Way of Sainte-Beuve, trans. Sylvia Townsend Warner (London: Chatto and Windus, 1958), p. 194.
2. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 98.
3. Gilles Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 113 (Deleuze’s emphasis); hereafter abbreviated ECC.
4. Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1955), p. 341, hereafter abbreviated CP; The Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. R. W. Franklin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), p. 372, hereafter abbreviated PED.
5. As Nietzsche said, “If only someone could rediscover ‘these possibilities of life!’” I offer that Nietzsche’s pronouncement about the function of the work of art points to a healthy (the only healthy?) way in which one should approach literary texts. “There is as much invention, reflection, boldness, despair and hope here as in the voyages of the great navigators; and to tell the truth, these are also voyages of exploration in the most distant and perilous domains of life” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, 1873, introduction, quoted by Gilles Deleuze in Nietzsche and Philosophy, trans. Hugh Tomlinson [London: Continuum, 1986], p. 101). [End Page 356]
6. Although he expresses the idea differently, that is also the theoretical point made by David Porter’s seminal study of Emily Dickinson, The Modern Idiom (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), in which he explains her poetics as an answer to something too intense for her. See chap. 1, “The Crucial Experience” (pp. 9–24). That indeed is the key question one needs to ask when interpreting a poem by Emily Dickinson. This essay will endeavor to go beyond Porter’s assertion. The problem I will develop is: what does the poet actually do with words after the wound and/or trauma?
7. Joë Bousquet, Les Capitales, ou de Jean Duns Scot à Jean Paulhan (Paris: Le Cercle du Livre, 1955), p. 103 (my translation).
8. David Sylvester, Interviews with Francis Bacon: The Brutality of Fact: 1962–1979 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987), p. 48.
9. Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, The Florida Edition of the Works of Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy, vols. 1–3 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1978–84).
10. Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895; repr., New York: W. W. Norton, 1994).
11. John T. Irwin, American Hieroglyphics: The Symbol of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics in the American Renaissance (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980).
12. The critical literature on “After Great Pain” is extremely limited, apart from passing remarks in general studies on Emily Dickinson, and these remarks are usually either biographical anecdotes or attempts at paraphrasing. The former shed no light whatsoever on the logic at work in the poem, and the latter are particularly pointless concerning a poem whose main purpose seems to resist paraphrasing. Strangely enough, the most perceptive contribution is probably the earliest. Francis Manley (“An Explication of Dickinson’s ‘After Great Pain’,” Modern Language Notes 73, no. 4 : 260–64) has seen everything there is to see (and this essay will try to offer theoretical justifications for his extremely perceptive intuitions): the poem is a highly controlled analysis of “the abstract nature of pain” only “revealed . . . in terms of its outward signs,” through a persona having lost “the sense of time and his [sic] own identity” which can only “be reconstructed from disjecta membra,” bearing in mind that all the metaphors used by the poet are highly “unsuitable” to account for this experience “suspended between life and death,” as well as for the “unresolved ambivalence” of the last stanza. Sharon Cameron (Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979], pp. 167–69) discusses virtually the same points, with an added reference to Jacques Derrida, rightly insisting on the repetitions and redundancies that characterize the poem, as well as on the time structure that governs it: the poem follows an unspecified trauma and uses death as an “analogy” to talk about extreme states of mind. Lastly, Craig Hamilton (“A Cognitive Rhetoric of Poetry and Emily Dickinson,” Language and Literature 14 : 279–94) is of more limited interest for our purpose, as he chooses to focus on language and especially on figures. His discussion, however, is mainly limited to the differences between similes and metaphors.
13. Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, trans. G. H. R. Parkinson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), part 3, scholium of proposition 2.
14. Henri Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, trans. R. Ashley Audra and Cloudesley Brereton (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963), p. 258. [End Page 357]
15. It was Artaud who coined the phrase “Body without Organs” (“Corps sans organes”) in his 1947 radio program, Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu (Œuvres complètes, vol. 13 [Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1974]), translated by Clayton Eshleman and Norman Glass as To Have Done with the Judgment of God (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1975).
16. Arthur Rimbaud, “Lettre du Voyant” to George Izambard, May 15, 1871, in Arthur Rimbaud, Complete Works, Selected Letters: A Bilingual Edition, trans. Wallace Fowlie (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005). It would of course be wrong to overlook the word “reasoned” (raisonné). The literary experiment is always closely controlled.
17. The aorist aspect indicates that the process is cut off from the situation of enunciation (I/here/now). In English, it is commonly expressed by means of the present tense (“He smokes cigars” as opposed to “He is smoking a cigar”) and by the preterit (“She lived in Boston for twenty years” as opposed to “She has lived in Boston for twenty years”).
18. Modality is actualized by means of auxiliaries or adverbs (possibly, presumably, certainly, etc.) which express the opinion of the speaker about the connection between the grammatical subject and the predicate, as in “This wall can / must / should / might” be demolished, or “I did not steal the cookies.” (Before making the latter statement, one first has to posit the statement “Someone stole the cookies,” and then and only then do I express my opinion: “I did not.”) It is interesting to note that such a negative poem as “After Great Pain” does not include a single negative term. The operations it presupposes are of a completely different nature.
19. Maurice Blanchot, Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), p. 241 (translation of “on meurt” modified).
20. Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parnet, Dialogues, trans. H. Tomlinson and B. Habberjam (London: Althone Press, 1987), pp. 42–43.
21. Gilles Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity: An Essay on Hume’s Theory of Human Nature, trans. Constantin V. Boundas (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991).
22. In the eighteenth century, the term ideas referred to anything present in our minds: perceptions, abstract ideas, etc.: “whatsoever is the object of the understanding when a man thinks, . . . whatever is meant by phantasm, notion, species, or whatever it is which the mind can be employed about in thinking” (John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, I.i.8 [Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1996], p. 6).
23. That crucial concept was first developed by Bergson in Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience (Paris: F. Alcan, 1889), translated by Frank Lubecki Pogson as Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness (London: S. Sonnenschein and Co., 1910).
24. See especially on those questions Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer (London: Macmillan, 1912).
25. Federico García Lorca, Romancero Gitano, Poema del Cante Jondo, Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías (Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada, 1938).
26. Event, from the Latin eventus, indicates that something happens in my mind, that is, that there is now a vision and an understanding where there was nothing before. The concept of event cannot be separated from that of difference. My representations are now different and most probably they will never be the same again. [End Page 358]
27. Friedrich Hölderlin, “Remarks on ‘Oedipus’” (“Anmerkungen zum Ödipus” ) in Essays and Letters on Theory, trans. Thomas Pfau (Albany: SUNY Press, 1988), p. 108 (translation of “sich schlechterdings nicht reimen läßt” modified).
28. Kate Chopin, The Awakening (1899, repr., New York: W. W. Norton, 1976).
29. Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Standard Edition, vol. 18, trans. James Strachey, Anna Freud, Alix Strachey, and Alan Tyson (London: Hogarth Press, 1930).
30. Robert Frost, New Hampshire (New York: Henry Holt, 1923), p. 87.
31. Stressing the elasticity and creativity of life was absolutely essential for Bergson, from his early Laughter up to the classic Creative Evolution.
32. Mutus Liber: L’Alchimie et son Livre muet (1677; repr., Paris: Pauvert, 1967).
33. Martin Heidegger, conversation with André Masson (1956), quoted in Alex Danchev, Cézanne: A Life (London: Profile, 2012), p. 362.
34. Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, trans. Daniel W. Smith (London: Continuum, 2003), p. 62; hereafter abbreviated FB.
35. Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958), pp. 84–85. [End Page 359]