Tag Archives: Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson and the Unconscious

Today I am following up with further thoughts on a little Emily Dickinson poem that I explored yesterday:

‘Twas such a little—little boat 
That toddled down the bay!
‘Twas such a gallant—gallant sea
That beckoned it away!

‘Twas such a greedy, greedy wave
That licked it from the Coast—
Nor ever guessed the stately sails
My little craft was lost! 

The little boat being swept out to sea is the fragile human ego, always adrift upon the unconscious wash that carries us along, individually and collectively.  The persona that our ego has crafted, i.e. “the boat,” is very fragile and susceptible to being “carried away” too far from the shore and “lost” or even being “sunk” into the abyss of despair.  Our unconscious fears tend to keep us tethered tightly to the comfortable shore which, should we never find the courage to lose sight of for a moment, Jesus posed the famous question, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?”  For if we never venture from the shore, we will remain bound to the tribal conventions in which we were born and never discover the Divine potential that was given us at birth, we will never discover the Christ child that lives within.

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Emily Dickinson and Consciousness

‘Twas such a little—little boat 
That toddled down the bay!
‘Twas such a gallant—gallant sea
That beckoned it away!

‘Twas such a greedy, greedy wave
That licked it from the Coast—
Nor ever guessed the stately sails
My little craft was lost! 

This little ditty by Emily Dickinson was one of my first imbibations of this delightful New England poet of 19th century America.  The poem reveals the vulnerability of Dickinson which in turn gave her the perspective which allowed her to offer such a wry glimpse into the human enterprise, a glimpse that is so relevant to any generation.

Dickinson was herself a “little boat” on the “gallant sea” of life and her poetry reveals that she frequently feared she was going to be swept away by the current.  And the second stanza vividly conveyed the fear that any of us have of getting “swept away,” the fear of being “lost” and having no awareness of it.

Consciousness is a perilous adventure and as Hamlet told us it does make “cowards of us all.”  To be conscious is to realize, cognitively and emotionally, that we live our life strung out on a narrow precipice above an unabiding void.  It is fear of this void, i.e. “Void,” that makes us “cling to these ills that we have, (rather) than fly to others that we know not of,” borrowing from Hamlet again.  Dickinson spent her adult life on one of these narrow precipices, ensconced in the attic of her father’s house, where she explored the vast riches of her tender heart and shared her findings with posterity.

Julian Jaynes, Consciousness, and Meaning

Julian Jaynes published a very controversial book in 1976 entitled, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Break-down of the Bicameral Mind.” I bought the book back then, delved into a mite, and then let it catch dust until I eventually discarded it.  But for some time the book title has been coming around in discussions with friends and I finally found me a cheap cast-off version of the book in a locale resale shop.

Forty-one years later, I find the book very arresting.  He argued that “consciousness” as we know it began to evolve  during the time of The Iliad and involved a newfound capacity of “self” awareness, a subtle grasp of the phenomenon modern psychology describes as the “I” vs the “not I.” Jaynes noted that this “internal difference” made possible an internal dialogue which, I think he would agree was probably related to what Shakespeare called, “the pauser reason.”  For with an internal dialogue as part of consciousness, mankind could begin to develop a moral and ethical compass in his heart and not be driven merely by unmediated impulses.  It was the event in the evolution of our consciousness that “meaning” also appeared on the scene which is relevant to the “internal difference” mentioned above.

And the subject of meaning and difference brings to my mind one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems:
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

Epistemic Closure in Poetry

The political impasse in my country with the hijacking of the Republican Party by hyper-conservative voices has brought to my focus the topic of epistemic closure.  This is the idea of an idea, or group of ideas, that so captivates a group that any disagreement is forbidden as it would threaten their unconscious need for certainty.  Carried to an extreme this phenomenon always produces a figure head, someone extremely immune from feedback from external reality like Donald Trump.

This morning I ran across a beautiful poem in the Times Literary Supplement which illustrates this phenomenon.  It then brought to my mind two other poems, all three of which I will now share:

Sleeping Dogs by Stephen Dobyns

The satisfied are always chewing something;
like eternal daybreak their smiles remain constant.
They think they travelled far to get here. In fact,
it was two or three steps. Their definitions
surround them like a kennel contains a hound.
Let’s say you rattle their gate. Let’s say you became
a flea nibbling the delicate skin of their belief.
One eye rolls up, a raised lip reveals a tooth.

Like a thrown stone imagining it will not fall
their explanations work to keep the world fixed.
And here you’ve come with your trumpet. Did you
think they would like your music? Your accusers
are blameless. They press their paws to their soft ears.
Why share their kennel if you won’t let them sleep?

And here is one of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson who uses vivid, concrete language to describe the emphatic closing of a mind against any feedback from one’s private frame of reference:

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

And finally here is an excerpt from “New Year Letter” by W. H. Auden who poignantly captures the duplicity of the social contract and the courage it takes to explore beneath its facade:

…only “despair

Can shape the hero who will dare

The desperate databases

Into the snarl of the abyss

That always lies just underneath

Our jolly picnic on the heath

Of the agreeable, where we bask,

Agreed on what we will not ask,

Bland, sunny, and adjusted by

The light of the accepted lie?

 

Emily Dickinson & “Internal Difference”

In one of my favorite Dickinson poems, quoted a few days ago, she describes a descent into the interiority of one’s soul where is found “internal difference where the meanings are.” In modern terms this descent is an openness to one’s unconscious which is given us if we start paying attention to the whims and fancies that pass through our mind…including those that are unsavory…as well as to dreams.  It also involves enough “self” awareness to begin to ask, “Why does this always happen to me” as we recognize repeated patterns of behavior in our life and find the courage to tolerate the suspicion that it is not necessarily someone else’s fault. But focus on this subterranean dimension of life is dangerous to those who have spent their life on the surface, busying themselves with the baubles that life tosses their way, “like kittens given their own tails to tease.” (Goethe)

This adventure was described by Dante at the beginning of The Inferno as a journey into “the deep forest” for in the forest conveys a childhood fear of getting lost; and, on this journey one pretty well has to “get lost” at sometime.  Here is an excerpt from a W. H. Auden poem which describes this risk:

Heroic charity is rare;
Without it, what except despair
Can shape the hero who will dare
The desperate catabasis
Into the snarl of the abyss
That always lies just underneath
Our jolly picnic on the heath
Of the agreeable, where we bask,
Agreed on what we will not ask,
Bland, sunny, and adjusted by
The light of the accepted lie.

*********************************************************************

ADDENDUM–I am about to diversify with this literary effort of mine.  In this blog I plan to focus more on poetry and prose.  Below you will see two other blogs of mine relevant to spirituality and politics which have lain dormant for most of the past five years.  I hope some of you will check them out.  However, the boundaries will not be clear as my focus is very broad and my view of life is very eclectic/inclusive/broad-based.  Yes, at times too much so!

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

 

Meaning and Meaninglessness

The subject of meaning teased me in my youth though it never was allowed to flourish until I started college and began to escape biblical literalism.  This escape was into a gradual appreciation of the metaphor which didn’t fully materialize until a prescient friend gave me a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets and W.H. Auden’s collected poetry in my mid thirties.  My life has not been the same.

Meaning involves intricate and intimate experience with difference.  Until one encounters meaning, he lives in a sterile universe of sameness usually marching lockstep with those of a similar orientation to life.  A quest for meaning inevitably leads one to a face-to-face encounter with meaninglessness for the one cannot exist without the other.  For example, there is no blue without non-blue.  Now I have been blessed as my venture into meaninglessness has been gentle for it can drive one stark raving mad.  I think I am fortunate to have what the poet John Keats described as “negative capability,” the ability to live with pronounced self-doubt, insecurity, and emotional fragility.  It is no accident that since the gift of poetry in my mid-thirties I have been immersed in poetry and literature for there I find metaphor which allows me to find an anchor in what would otherwise be an overwhelming mystery, a mystery that the linear thinking in which I was stuck for 35 years cannot abide.

One of my most beloved poets is Emily Dickinson and she wrote a poem which so beautifully captures the internal descent where this meaning is found.

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

Maria Popova on “Outsiderdom”

Decades ago I read a book entitled, “The Outsiders” by Colin Wilson, an unlettered but very erudite gentleman who spent his life “thinking outside of the box.”  At the conclusion of this post I provide a link to an essay from Brain Pickings about William Blake and Ludwig von Beethoven who spent their life in what Maria Popova described as “Outsiderdom.”  These two men made significant contributions to human history but their life story was complicated, to say the least, and existential loneliness abounded for the whole of their life. Beethoven was isolated by blindness but also by social awkwardness, so he battled the anguish of alienation as he developed his musical genius. But Blake was more of a rebel, balking at convention and then finally “turning his back to the citadel of convention.”

Standing apart from the herd is excruciatingly painful.  Some people, such as Blake and Mozart, lived with it from their youth and adjusted adequately though with great pain.  Some do not experience it in their life at all, others during times of crisis or tragedy, and others after some neurological “shock.”  This loss is extremely traumatic as one is suddenly bereft of all the trappings of his identity and suddenly starkly “alone,” like King Lear on the heath, where he stood naked and, “pelted by this pitiless storm.”

But loss, and the sting of existential solitude can be redemptive.  Jacques Lacan has noted that “nothing of any value comes into being without the experience of loss.”  Emily Dickinson suggested that is hope found in this void, writing, “Renunciation is a piercing virtue, the letting go of a presence for an expectation.”  Dickinson knew that most men and women are comforted with a cloak or “presence” of culturally provided accoutrements.  She was stating that in this profound loss she had found hope

Culture is predicated upon avoiding all existential anguish.  Loneliness is one of the most painful experiences and we have been given the comfort of contrivance to avoid it.  I call this contrivance our God-given “fig leaf” as it hides our nakedness.  And these “contrivances” are useful but not when one spends his whole life immersed in them, pulling them tightly around him to keep from being exposed.  This thought always comes to my mind in this Christmas season as I watch American culture gorge itself on “stuff”, naively assuming that this “stuff” will suffice.  If you think it works, just look at Donald Trump.

Carl Jung has been a guiding force in the past three years of my life as I’ve participated in a reading group of his work and often come across his wisdom about the importance of loneliness in the quest for individuation, aka “authenticity.”  Here are a few samples of his wisdom on the subject.

 

 
The highest and most decisive experience of all . . . is to be alone with . . . [one’s] own self, or whatever else one chooses to call the objectivity of the psyche. The patient must be alone if he is to find out what it is that supports him when he can no longer support himself. Only this experience can give him an indestructible foundation. ~Carl Jung, Psychology and Alchemy, CW 12, par. 32.

As a doctor it is my task to help the patient to cope with life. I cannot presume to pass judgment on his final decisions, because I know from experience that all coercion-be it suggestion, insinuation, or any other method of persuasion-ultimately proves to be nothing but an obstacle to the highest and most decisive experience of all, which is to be alone with his own self, or whatever else one chooses to call the objectivity of the psyche. The patient must be alone if he is to find out what it is that supports him when he can no longer support himself. Only this experience can give him an indestructible foundation. ~Carl Jung; Psychology and Alchemy; CW 12: Page 32.

As a child I felt myself to be alone, and I am still, because I know things and must hint at things which others apparently know nothing of, and for the most part do not want to know. Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible. ~Carl Jung; Memories Dreams and Reflections; Page 356.

 

(Link to Brain Pickings—https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/08/08/aldred-kazin-william-blake-beethoven/)