Poetry as Ethical Evasion? Dickinson, Levinas, and Beyond the Dip of Bell
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Nietzsche, F. 1977. « Fragments posthumes », dans Œuvres philosophiques complètes. Paris, Gallimard.
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Mitchell Gauvin, PhD Candidate (York University)
Shortly before she died, Emily Dickinson wrote her last letter, a short message addressed to her two cousins Frances and Louisa Norcross (Letter 1046) (1971, 300): Little Cousins,
Initial readings might infer inflections of a religious transcendence (being “called back” to a higher region). That Dickinson might have sensed her impending death would not have been unusual given her poor health well before 1886, the year she did finally succumb to her sickness. The accruing losses of family and friends between 1882 and her passing would attach some weight to the speculation that Dickinson had death on the mind and was aware her own was imminent, hence this final cryptic message to her cousins speaking of an ascension she anticipated. Yet Thomas Johnson also notes Dickinson’s admiration for Frederick John Fargus’s
1883 novella Called Back (1971, 330), which she had discussed previously in letters to her cousins, such as the following from January 1885 (Letter 962):
Loo [i.e.: Louise Norcross] asked “what books” we were wooing now – watching like a vulture for Walter Cross’s life of his wife. A friend sent me Called Back. It is a haunting story, and as loved Mr. Bowles used to say, “greatly impressive to me.” Do you remember the little picture with his deep face in the centre, and Governor Bross on one side and Colfax on the other? The third of the group died yesterday, so somewhere they are again together (1971, 314).
Speculation on the meaning of the phrase “called back” can thus waver between her readerly appetite and her religious observance. The intended meaning matters less in the context of what these interpretations signal: Dickinson as reader and Dickinson as philosopher, her final letter an act of philosophy or that of readerly community with Fanny and Loo (a last communiqué with cousins curious about books). We can easily read Dickinson’s poetry as an attempt to transcend the reach of rationality —“Beyond the Dip of Bell,” as Dickinson wrote—to some other region where a vision of an afterlife seemed to be placed. Her January 1885 letter does mention that Colfax, having died, is “somewhere together” with Bross and Bowles. Her poetry on death similarly speaks of another place beyond our everyday lived experience that invites religious or spiritual connotations, a notion that there is an “after” we may orient ourselves to. The transcendent nature of her poetic practice I intend neither to deny nor subvert, but instead wish to explore as one and the same with an ethics that is entwined with writing and readerly community. Reading Dickinson in a philosophical way is by no means a novel approach (see Kimpel 1981) but I suggest that through reading Emmanuel Levinas we can recognize the features of a radical ethical project in Dickinson’s poetry—a project irreducible to concise, proscriptive commands and instead places ethics in traces of the divine or the infinite. Levinas might strike some as an odd source for reading Dickinson. Levinasian ethics is esoteric and couched in distinct jargon difficult to translate into English and to extricate from its philosophical context. Moreover, Levinas explicitly condemns the artwork (mostly modern art but also poetry) for obscuring our ethical relations, which he grounds in the immediate, surprising, spontaneous, face-to-face encounter with the “Other.” Though Levinas did later somewhat relax his condemnation of the artwork, which opened up the possibility of a vocabulary that is both poetical and ethical, most art remains a form of ethical evasion. My 30 Gnosis | 19.1 (2021)
suggestion that Dickinson is not only an exception to Levinas’s condemnation of the artwork but a precursor to his ethical project rests on reading Dickinson as engaged simultaneously with the Puritanical culture of her era and the capacity of language to speak traces of transcendence or the infinite. Dickinson employs unique compositional techniques to forge a poetic language that avoids the religious dogmatism of traditional hymn culture while simultaneously attempting to provide witness to her relationship with the divine. A dissatisfaction with an inherited theological discourse girds a worthy portion of her poetry, along with a concerted effort to use writing as a way of enduring a sense of sorrow wrought by the event of mortality, as well as the seeming injustice of God’s cosmic direction. Saddled with the unhelpful and seemingly adverse features of words, Dickinson’s poetry exhibits a dynamic attempt to resist language’s inclination towards stagnant, propositional expression. At the heart of Dickinson’s poetic practice we thus find a struggle against the scope of language’s signification. Within this struggle, I argue, are the traces of an ethical project. In arguing parallels between Dickinson’s poetry and Levinas’s philosophy, I narrow my focus on poetic language, namely the kinship between their individual struggle for expression that resists what they viewed as the muddling discourse of Western ontology and theology and instead calls forth the imperative of response to the presence of the “Other” that grounds ethics as first philosophy. Dickinson’s attempt to endure a seemingly unjust God and to persevere in the face of inevitable suffering can be intertwined with a poetic practice that demands we appreciate the proximity between ourselves and our neighbors, our own inevitable deaths, and God. However, while language for Levinas might offer a route for speaking traces of what lies “beyond ontology” (Levinas posits ethics as “otherwise than being” or transverse to being), art and poetic language likewise involve the threat of movement in the opposite direction, towards an impersonal, anonymous, and horrible “hither side of time.” Dickinson’s dissatisfaction with her contemporary hymn culture mirrors in crucial respects Levinas’s “ambivalence toward poetic language,” as Gabriel Reira frames it, which is “visible not only at the level of evaluation or judgement (critique), but also at the level of the most basic determination of the ethical relation” (Reira, 15). To unravel my suggestion that Dickinson’s poetry is an exception to Levinas’s view of the artwork as a form of ethical evasion, I’ll begin by offering a brief introduction on Dickinson’s poetic practice followed by an elaboration of Levinasian ethics and his opposition to the artwork.
I’ll conclude with a few close readings of Dickinson’s poetry, examples of which I argue are emblematic of her radical ethical project.
§1 – A Brief Overview of Dickinson’s Poetry
Scattered across the catalogue of her work, Dickinson displays a struggle with language as she attempts to bend and slant the very mechanics of signification. The issue of mortality motivated her curiosity with how people attuned themselves to the presence of suffering and the inevitability of death. In regard to a dying friend, Dickinson asked about his “composure” and wondered “if he was willing to die” (Lundin, 78). A Puritanical obsession with a proper orientation towards heaven is informative of her thought, but not the end of the story. In attempting to hone her poetic proficiency, Dickinson engaged an already well-established practice that failed to capture what she viewed as her unique relationship with God. Dickinson aimed to traverse the suffocating schema for expression imposed by an omnipresent religious order. Victoria Morgan suggests, for example, that Dickinson’s poetry is rooted in an attempt to open a new hymnic space from which she could shape her religious values, which at times contrasted with established doctrine. The larger apparatus of church orthodoxy was pervasive enough that Dickinson sought a type of writing that dispensed with the implicit “patriarchal discourse on the divine” (Morgan 4) and instead expressed her personal speaker-God relation, as well as her belief and obsession with the close proximity between everyday life and higher spiritual realms. In poem #378 (1960, 180), for example, we see this rather explicitly:
I saw no Way – The Heavens were stitched –I felt the Columns close –The Earth reversed her Hemispheres –I touched the Universe –
And back it slid – and I alone –A speck opon a Ball –Went out opon Circumference –Beyond the Dip of Bell -
The word “circumference” being a favourite word of Dickinson’s is perhaps no surprise given her near obsession with the boundary that separated herself from the divine (Lundin, 84). The sense of enclosure is acute and the movement towards transcendence clear yet still ambiguous. Dispensing with the usual place description found in many romantic poems, Dickinson instead resorts to indistinct references to borders or geographies, unsettling any sort of physical subject position with which we can get a sense of orientation. The poem has the effect of being discombobulating, perhaps even inviting a crisis in subjectivity. In poem #670 (1960, 333), we see this crisis reaffirmed: One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted –One need not be a House –The Brain has Corridors – surpassing Material Place –
Ourself behind ourself, concealed –Should startle most –Assassin hid in our Apartment Be Horror’s least.
The Body – borrows a Revolver –He bolts the Door –O’erlooking a superior spectre –Or More –
Several recurrent themes of Dickinson’s poetic practice converge in these few lines, including a distinction between an interior or “concealed” self and an exterior self, an attentiveness to enclosure or embodiment (particularly as a form of imprisonment), the notion of a haunting or spectral presence, the spectre of mortality (“Revolver,” “Assassin”), and a disruption of anticipated poetic rhyming. Dickinson, moreover, ends the poem on a shortened line that concludes with a dash and a mystifying suggestion of “Or More”—but what “More” could there
be, and is “The Body” that same “He” that “bolts the Door”? This quality of being disorienting is precisely why I suggest we look to Dickinson’s poetry as an exception to Levinas’s largely distrusting view of the artwork. From these few selections, we can read Dickinson’s attempt to employ poetry as its own unique practice for bridging the divide between our world and a seemingly unavailable higher region, traces of which can be found in everyday life. In turning to Levinas, we find a cogent way of reframing Dickinson’s concern for transcendence that retains the essence of what she was resisting: the larger theological apparatus that inflicted both a stifling morality and a constraining style of religious writing. The result is a poetry not as revelation but as the very means for existential movement, as a means for witnessing the traces of the infinite, as Levinas terms it, which are located in the face of the “Other.” Levinas is appropriate precisely because he expresses a similar dissatisfaction with a larger tradition that stifles attempts to respond to the call of the infinite that arrives “prior" to ontology and is implicated in our ethical performance before the face or vision of the Other. Levinas’s views on aesthetics seem to disqualify his thought from providing a worthy avenue for unravelling Dickinson’s work. However, Levinas leaves open a narrow space for poetic practice to avoid the cumbersome features of art that make art the paradigmatic gesture of ethical evasion. Dickinson’s poetry is one example of a poetic practice that occupies this narrow space.
§2 – Levinasian Ethics
Levinas’s subordination of aesthetics is part of his broader establishment of the “primacy of the ethical […] primacy of an irreducible structure upon which all the other structures rest (and in particular all those which seem to put us primordially in contact with an impersonal sublimity, aesthetic or ontological)” (1969, 79). Here we find two key points: aesthetics as a transcendental-like access to the il y a (the impersonal and anonymous “being-in-general” which forces a crisis in subjectivity) and aesthetics (along with ontology) as subordinate to ethics. This relegation of aesthetics seems somewhat harmless, but elsewhere Levinas is far more disdainful. In “Reality and its Shadow,” for example—and in marked opposition to aesthetic criticism which venerates art—Levinas frames the artwork as a “descent into the night” and an “invasion of shadow,” as a movement away from what is most fundamental: an ethics responsive to the presence of the Other (1987, 3). The images that constitute artworks do not represent things or
objects or concepts as intelligible, graspable entities, but instead offers up substitutions for the things themselves, resulting in a doubling or a shadow of the object. In other words, art does not point to an object in reality but instead to its mere resemblance, resulting in a double removal from the reality that is supposedly meant to be depicted. Art thus belongs to an “ontological dimension that does not extend between us and a reality to be captured” but instead to an object’s “reflection, its shadow” (1987, 5). It’s no surprise then why George L. Bruns characterizes Levinas’s view on art as an “aesthetics of darkness” (214), a phrasing which is meant to reflect the “dark light” (Levinas 1987, 4) that we find ourselves shrouded in when encountering the art object. In turn, Levinas “derives no positive determination from poetic language” (Reira, 24) and indeed positions the work of art entirely at odds with his philosophical project. Why is poetry lumped together with the work of art? The rhythm and rhetoric of poetry are mere simulacra which efface the visage or face of the Other, and as such only by rejecting these damaging aspects of artistry can we accomplish a host of fundamental objectives related to the establishment of justice and the ethical recognition of other people. Additionally problematic, the face of the Other is also where Levinas locates the trace of the infinite. As Levinas states in Totality and Infinity, our perception of the Other is not only the disembodied demand of ethical responsibility but a “gleam of exteriority or of transcendence in the face of the Other” (23). The face is, in other words, the canvas upon which the trace of transcendence is written, which art bathes in dark light and blocks from view. In summary then, art involves arresting attention away from the potential presence of the Other, blocking out the face of the Other, and does not have, as Aaron Rosen puts it, the “quality of a living instant which is open to the salvation of becoming” (367). This encounter with the enduring “meanwhile” of an artwork, much like with the il y a, depersonalizes or de-subjectifies the subject through an encounter with the brute material condition of things which, stripped of their real-world content and dressed in an aesthetic façade, lack expression and utility; in other words, art obscures the original purposes of the objects or materials that compose it. As such, there is a dangerous sense of inevitability rooted in art’s temporal fixity. Yet the artwork itself still exists in a world qualified by human relations, dynamism, initiative, and moral obligation, and as such the artwork and the enduring “meanwhile” it depicts stand as a form of ethical evasion. Art depicts for us a docile, uncritical approach for how to live our lives. “Being pronounced complete,” Rosen writes, and subsequently displayed in specifically purposed
institutions and museums, “art encourages us to think of ourselves in the same way, as finished products” (367). Levinas’s disdain for the artwork exhibits his concern for the movement of transcendence, namely a movement in the opposite direction of where ethics resides (in recognition of the Other). As Michael Purcell elaborates, “transcendence is a transcendence towards the other person (a movement which does not take its origin in the self)” (95). Here, Purcell captures the primacy of the ethical relation and, while his definition may seem banal, if responding to the disruptive presence of the Other entails recognition of the trace of the infinite in the face of the Other, then every ethical gesture is simultaneously a form of transcendence, specifically an “excendence” (as Purcell terms it) from being, from oneself. Hence the rather mystifying phrase “otherwise than being” that Levinas attaches to the ethical relation—the phrasing subtly gestures to the form of transcendence that underwrites our ethical relations. Importantly, the Levinasian form of transcendence can only be initiated through the disruptive presence of the Other, rather than emerging from a concerted, contemplated or introspective effort on the part of the individual. In other words, a rational, self-legislating will can still proscribe a set of moral maxims, but it cannot alone initiate the essence of the ethical relation. One must in a sense be interpolated by the Other in order for the transcendence of the ethical relation to be incited. As Bettina Bergo summarizes, transcendence “must be understood as one’s being pulled out of oneself by a radical exteriority, rather than as transcendence by the self out of itself” (41), and this radical exteriority cannot be reduced or appropriated into sameness, cannot be wholly internalized by an individual. A concern for transcendence to the “otherwise than being” is thus indiscernible from a concern for the ethical that resides prior to ontology or, put another way, from a concern for the call of ethical responsibility that originates from beyond being (beyond ontology)—although this language of “prior-ness” only ignites further confusion because relations of the infinite aren’t so much temporally ahead of ontology as they are on a different temporal plain from the synchronicity that is our consciousness (Bergo, 43). The artwork, by effacing the approach of the Other, is a movement towards a “hither side of time,” away from responsibility and towards the horror and derangement of the il y a.
§3 – Levinas’s Evolving Views on Art and Ethics
Levinas’s views on art do not stagnate after “Reality and its Shadow” or Totality and Infinity. In “Truth of Disclosure and Truth of Testimony,” Levinas appears to begin relaxing his condemnation, suggesting that art can “testify to the truth”—the caveat, however, is that it’s a truth circumscribed by the “schematization of the abstract concept of being in the concreteness of the subject” (1996, 100). In other words, art can only communicate what being already discloses in ontology—it can only testify to knowledge available from our limited scope, which doesn’t make art that much different from many other kinds of testimony. This highlights a central hurdle for poetic practice. Note that, in Levinas’s view, Western philosophy “tends to maintain an aversion to alterity” (Purcell, 104) through its self-contained emphasis on ontological issues. This latent refusal to engage with otherness is exaggerated with the artwork, which, through its premium on opaqueness and materiality, grounds the subject in the dense materiality of existence. Purcell elaborates the opposition Levinas is implicitly articulating here as one between “the ontological tendency towards being, and the imprisonment it offers from which there is no escape,” and “the ethical tendency towards the good which is beyond and otherwise than being,” which can be summed up as a movement towards “totality” on the one hand and towards “infinity” on the other (99). Levinas’s originally stricter view of the artwork positioned it as entirely in the direction of totality, which is fundamentally contrary to the movement towards infinity that qualifies ethical responsibility. One strategy for trying to reconcile this seemingly irreconcilable opposition between art and ethics is not simply to abandon Levinas all together but to acknowledge an observable shift in his later thought regarding the role of language. This shift is best articulated in the question of whether poetry is a kind of Saying (le Dire), where the call of the ethical may be heard, or a form of the Said (le Dit), where everyday language becomes saddled with cumbersome ontological and propositional content—what Reira calls “being’s verbality” (26). The distinction Levinas makes between Saying and Said reinvigorates the possibility that poetry can work as a modality for writing the traces of the ethical, rather than a form of evasion from the ethical like most other artworks, by opening up a space for an encounter with the Other. Even more radically, as Levinas himself alludes to in Proper Names, poetry may potentially operate as an “unheard-of modality of the otherwise than being” (46), operating, as Bruns frames it, “alongside the ethical, if not in advance of it” (207). Rather than the artwork remaining in the muddling discourse of Western ontology, stuck in the impasse of the Said, there are suggestions by Levinas that poetic language
can be a form of Saying, and thus provide a degree of access (even if it remains just a trace) to a hither side of being that is not the same horrific, strange, exotic realm that the artwork, as an image qua idol, delivers us to. This is poetry as a form of Saying that can “unsay” the muddling discourse of the Said (where a great deal of moral propositionality resides) and speak of the trace of the infinite that is reflected in being. Simon Critchley elaborates Levinas’s distinction between Saying and Said as between the “possibility of an ethical form of language” on the one hand and the familiar ontological language “in which all entities are disclosed and comprehended in the light of Being” on the other (7). In essence, the Saying is a form of sensible “exposure” before the Other, an exposure that is likewise involuntary and as such cannot be refused or denied (Critchley, 7). This exposure is where every day ethical performance is found, whether verbal or non-verbal, and importantly is not reducible to the sort of constative descriptions that compose normative statements or imperatives. The construction of a systemized ethical project by which we may stress and assess our maxims and formulate moral commands is no less essential, but it should not be confused with a “primordial ethical experience” (Critchley, 3) from which that system is derived. At the risk of oversimplifying the distinction, Levinas does not take “morality” and “ethics” to be synonymous, but instead implies an important distinction between the two: ethics refers to the irreducible encounter with the Other whose approach I cannot deny nor escape, while morality refers to the constative, propositional system of normative command and duty. In “Essence and Disinterestedness,” Levinas hints at language’s capacity to breach ontological discourse by suggesting that language “permits us to utter, be it by betrayal, this outside of being, this ex-ception to being,” (1996, 113). This “betrayal” is the result of the Saying’s reduction to the propositional content of the Said, a sort of act of translation inherent to ontological discourse. This “subordination of the Saying to the Said, to the linguistic system and to ontology,” Levinas suggests, “is the price that manifestation demands” (1996, 112). If reduction to the Said is the price required by manifestation, which is also simultaneously a betrayal, then speaking the otherwise than being requires “unsaying” the Said. This “enigmatic way of speaking,” as Levinas calls it, is helped along by the fact that “signification signifies beyond synchrony, beyond essence” (1996, 114). Could this “enigmatic way of speaking” actually be a writing as well? Could poetry be a way of preserving the unsaying of the Said? Problematically, the pervasiveness of the Said
extends to the categorical ideals that gird Western ontology. As such, art may at times have the appearance of otherness or seem close to providing witness to beyond being, but such appearances are merely façades easily reducible to the simple propositional utterances of the art critic or museum goer. These utterances remain constitutive elements of the Said, only speaking of being and never of the true alterity that contours our ethical relations. Reaching the possibility of a “poetic Saying” thus begins by finding an avenue for how language itself can avoid the ontological entrapments of the worst parts of aesthetics, and instead constitute the proximity and contact that is fundamental to an ethical relation. In “Language and Proximity,” Levinas lays out the parameters of language’s role within a larger apparatus of signification. In everyday lived experience, the temporal ordering of events to consciousness is seamless and imperceptible as they unfold synchronically, acquiring meaning and sense that ground them in linguistics signs. This broad phenomenon of receiving and signifying events is disclosed to us as an “undephasable simultaneity” (1987, 109) unified in a continuously unfolding narrative or story. Importantly, however, there remains an undertone of invention to the way events manifest to us in consciousness—an undertone of intentionality in the way meanings, acts, affairs, even being itself, are temporally ordered in synchronicity and then thematized in language. As such, language can be “interpreted as the manifestation of truth, as the way being takes to show itself,” such that communication “is simply derivative of the logos which animates or bears thought” (1987, 109). The true disruptive force of alterity is clear in this context when we consider that the Other signifies outside the “theme of speech” (1987, 115)—or, in other words, outside the established discourse. If otherness is simply reducible to a form of thematized speech act, then it would merely be a feature of sameness. As such, true otherness is disruptive even at the level of the temporal plain of consciousness, escaping both the subject’s inclination towards reducing all meanings and events to thematized speech as well as the very synchronicity of narration. Still, Reira argues, the Other “must nevertheless be written” if alterity is to be preserved, suggesting that “writing has to abandon a series of guarantees and pass tangentially through the scene of knowledge and the order of representation” (16). The result will be a writing that’s a form of prophecy or witnessing of the Other’s trace, which already haunts language and signification—a writing that will undoubtedly be unfamiliar and strange to the world of ontology. This is writing that “resist[s] being fully reabsorbed by discourse” (Reira, 26). How can this be so? Returning
again to “Language and Proximity,” Levinas positions poetic language as prophecy or witnessing through the ethically integral notion of proximity. Proximity is “by itself signification” (1987, 116), but not a signification that operates through a standardized knowledge practice or epistemology. Proximity does not come to us as a simple spatial arrangement or the distance between two co-existent people—i.e.: it’s not simply face-to-face contact—but by the restless and immediate call of responsibility prior to any intentional ascription of a meaning or theme to the Other (1987, 119). It’s through this call of the ethical that disrupts the self from itself and exposes the self to the otherness that surrounds, to the otherness that cannot be internalized and reduced to sameness. Proximity has all the elements of signification’s diachronic temporality, and consequently, so does Saying. Indeed, as Reira points out, “[b]eing without origin, Saying constitutes the immemorial spacing of the intrigue of the-other-in-the-same and, as such, it is a type of writing whose response is not the reciprocal exchange of the Socratic dialogue” (26). As promising as Reira’s suggestion is—that Saying can be a type of writing—it is still only exceptionally the case that a written Saying, in the form of a poetic language, can speak of the proximity that lies beneath all manifestation and ontology. The poetic Saying must somehow avoid assembly into the synchronic unfolding of the Said, the logical arrangement of philosophical argumentation, and the propositional makeup of ontological discourse. In other words, the poetic Saying must avoid telling stories. It must be “prophetic” of the ethical Saying, extending along language’s reach from the hither side of manifestation and ontology (away from reduction to the Said) towards a writing that bears witness to proximity’s diachronic signification.
§4 – Reading the Ethical and the Infinite in Dickinson’s Poetry
In practice then, what might a poetic Saying look like? Or, in other words, if I’m suggesting that Dickinson’s poetry is an example of a poetic Saying, what precisely makes it so? Compositionally, Dickinson’s poetry defies the poetic convention of her era, openly resisting established methods of poetic practice found in romanticism or the traditional religious hymn. In poem #1129 (1960, 506), for example, we see Dickinson explicitly offer a methodology for writing or speaking of the beyond being, Tell all the truth but tell it slant –Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight The Truth’s superb surprise As Lightning to the Children eased With explanation kind The Truth must dazzle gradually Or every man be blind –
The speaker’s exhortation to “tell all the truth but tell it slant” suggests that the contents of this truth cannot be directly communicated (it must “dazzle gradually”), otherwise its reception will have the opposite effect of enlightenment—it will simply be blinding. Even though this truth is readily available, our “infirm Delight” makes us incapable of entirely appreciating it. The poem is at once a reflection on the corporeal existence that renders us unfit subjects for truths that originate beyond manifestation. At the same time, Dickinson offers an implicit attack on traditional religious and theological discourse that rely on direct sermon and standardized orthodoxy in order to communicate divine truth. If this is so, we may wonder what precisely counts as telling the truth at a “slant.” This could allude to a style of writing or speaking that lacks the propositional or logical arrangement of theological discourse, or the narrative arc of a sermon, or the simplistic musicality and lyric of a hymn. In other words, Dickinson would be appealing to the metaphorical and artistic extent of language in order to manoeuvre the truth in a way that’s not blinding—to shed language of its cumbersome, propositional inclination. This reading aligns with that of Anthony Hecht, who suggests that Dickinson’s suggestion to tell the truth at a slant is not a reference to a personal truth, but instead contains a “good deal of religious significance” (18). The truth that must be told circuitously thus concerns our relationship with God, and Hecht as such reads the poem in light of parables and riddles that dot the Old and New Testament—other forms of circuitous writing that seeks to ease the “blinding effect of direct access to the Godhead, which is to say the Truth” (19). B. J. Rogers similarly notes that Dickinson’s “Puritan background offered her equally discouraging conclusions about direct human knowledge of God” (335). These “discouraging conclusions” underwrote the circuitous nature of her poetry, characterized by movement “around a mysterious center,” as Rogers puts it, a wholeness or nucleus that she “refuses to identify or define” (329). Instead of any definitional
quality, Dickinson offers an erratic vision or wandering eye that darts between parts of the whole without ever revealing the full image. In a crucial respect, this “slanted” truth telling mirrors the performative element of Levinas’s work, wherein the traditional essay format is often breached by metaphor, allusion, and imagistic writing, hence why his writing is so enigmatic and difficult to parse. Reira, for example, points out that in Otherwise Than Being, Levinas’s allusions to a poetic language align with a series of motifs related to threads, knots, and weavings (33). Use of textual motif is meant to highlight the multiple functions of language and the way in which language can bear multiple meanings simultaneously. Language is “haunted” by signification that is not confined or reducible to the Said—or, in other words, language bears the call of the Other that originates prior to the Saying of the Said. Thread and stitching also signal enclosure, as we’ve seen already in Dickinson’s poem #378 (“I saw no Way - The Heavens were stitched”), which is imagery that aligns with both Dickinson’s and Levinas’s emphasis on the circumference of being and the attempt to recognize traces of what lies beyond it. The disharmony or disruption that “slanted” testimony or truth telling entails is mirrored in the very syntax that Dickinson employs, including the use of slant rhymes, also known as imperfect rhymes. By comparison to her romantic contemporaries, her poetry can seem chaotic and random. Take for example poem #1236 (1960, 543): Like Time’s insidious wrinkle On a beloved Face –We clutch the Grace tighter Though we resent the Crease The Frost himself so comely Dishevels every prime Asserting from his Prism That none can punish him
This seemingly typical even-lined poem appears ripe for an alternating rhyming scheme, and indeed the first two lines seem to suggest such an arrangement. However, on the third-line Dickinson rhymes on the second-to-last word, ending on “tighter” instead of the expected “Grace.” This disrupted rhyming pattern is galvanized even further by “Crease” on the fourth
line, which the reader anticipates will rhyme with “wrinkle” from the first line, which it doesn’t. Thrown into syntactical confusion, we perhaps expect the poem to reorient us in the right direction, but Dickinson offers no salvation. Indeed, the final lines invite a rhyme with “prime,” “Prism,” and “him,” but the rhyme is slanted or imperfect. Not only is the vowel sound not identical across all three, but the syllable count isn’t identical either. Typical of her poetry, Dickinson has deployed words that seem to rhyme, or very nearly have the same audible harmony, but which lack some crucial aspect of syntax to make it perfect. The reader is enticed to bend or slant words in order to make them sound in harmony, which in turn reveals our motivation to eliminate the disruptive presence of Dickinson’s poetry—or, as Levinas might put it, render it into sameness. Instead of soothing the reader’s ego, her poetry unseats subjectivity. The slanted or imperfect rhyming scheme is paired with a poem that addresses our exposure to the face of a beloved which bears the mark of aging and reveals our exposure before an unceasing cosmic procedure. The clutching of “the Grace” is one such performance Dickinson recognizes in our exposure to time, a sign of worry that our proximity to death (and potentially God) continues to grow. When paralleled with the act of witnessing that pervades a great deal of her poetry, we begin to see how Dickinson’s poetics aligns with a continual attempt to interrupt the Saying of the Said (using Levinasian terms), to try and “unsay” the propositional content of language and expose the reader to the discomforting disharmony which girds it. This act of witnessing is, for example, present in poem #547 (1960, 266), wherein the speaker mentions “a Dying Eye” which searches “round and round a Room” until obscured and took a sight of something “blessed”— exposure before the vision of another’s gaze is a key ingredient in the Levinasian ethical relation. The poem is a stark reminder of the sense of sorrow that underlies a great deal of Dickinson’s poetic practice. A dying friend is a moment of both optimism at the sight of something “blessed” and sorrowful due to the spectre of death. An underlying tone of sorrow or suffering we see again in #1551 (1960, 646): Those – dying then, Knew where they went –They went to God’s Right Hand –That Hand is amputated now And God cannot be found –
The abdication of Belief Makes the Behaviour small –Better an ignis fatuus Than no illume at all –
The image of God’s “amputated” right hand reflects a combined sense of injustice and desertion, with the metaphorical conduit for God’s touch and caress gone. Dickinson appears challenged in her faith by the event of mortality and must find solace in the notion that belief remains the better option, and yet death also spells the purest way in which to traverse the boundary of being that she attempts to speak of. Part of the answer to this quandary seems to arrive in the second stanza with the suggestion that “Better an ignis fatuus / Than no illume at all –.” Dickinson plays on the double meaning of “ignis fatuus,” which refers both to the natural phenomenon of a floating light above marshy ground and a deceptive goal or hope. Lundin argues that the prospect of grief and suffering shaped by the death of family and friends, as well as the inevitability of her own death, led Dickinson to fashion “a manner of living that would enable her to endure the pain of dying,” which she did “largely by sharpening, and deepening, her use of language” (Lundin, 80). Caught between the sorrowful and divine qualities of death, Dickinson looked to poetry as a means of enduring the persecutory element of God’s divine grace and the loss of others.
An obsessive, disruptive voice colours Dickinson’s poetry, a voice which breaches the traditional narrative arc of religious hymn and discourse—not unlike how Levinas refers to the work of Maurice Blanchot as a voice that “comes from the other shore” (Reira, 26). There’s something arresting about being hailed from across an unnegotiable expanse, a quality often found in Dickinson’s poetry as she seemingly bears witness from astride the circumference of being—bears witness to the non-spatial proximity that qualifies the ethical relation with the Other. Eschewing conventional allegory, a sorrowful and persecuted tone girds her work, which finds resonance with the persecutory element of the ethical in Levinas’s philosophy. Dickinson perhaps had no intention of providing a poetry that caused readers to confront the precariousness of their own subject positions, yet her odd rhyming and syntax echoes in the ear of a reader in
active search of poetic harmony. Through her compositional technique, Dickinson interrupts expected avenues of coherence and refuses to offer normative platitudes. In suggesting that this poetic practice is a prime candidate for the elusive poetic Saying, we likewise reveal the performative elements of Levinas’s own style. His active use of metaphor and textual motifs, which regularly breach the essayist prose of his writing, align with a commitment to language which has stronger kinship with the poetic practice of Dickinson then it does other prose writers or the philosophic treatise. Perhaps then in re-reading Levinas, we're more obliged to consider the role a sense of sorrowful persecution plays in motivating these moments of artistic flare in a thinker who seemed always suspicious of the poet and artist. Perhaps in turn, in re-reading Dickinson, we’re more obliged to consider the ethical traces latent within her poetry.
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