An Emily Dickinson poem, No.443, has the cloistered poet speaking elliptically, mysteriously about her duty to her small labors and benign daily obligations in the wake of a personal catastrophe; her resolve to stick to her routine with an even greater conviction is an extraordinary will to power. Rather than surrender to grief and a long, tedious death knell, she confirms her existence by tending to the world that is left to her. It’s less than she is chained to her routine that she is liberated by them, elevated even. It’s a way to be engaged with things not related to matters of personal misfortune; through the tasks, small and inconsequential as they seem, are a boon to her. There are sound echoes of Samuel Beckett in this arresting poem, the similarities between a shared theme that we are creatures of habit, routine and appetite, that the motions we go through are the irreducible fact of our human condition. A Beckett reader from years back was called I Can’t Go On, I Go On, and bitter-sweetly so, as it is a phrase that summarizes the dry, splintered core of the Irish writer’s worldview. Without the compelling vision, let us say delusion of an overriding ideology, whether religion, political, economic, aesthetic, life is really little else but an eternal return to repetitive functionality. Even in disillusion, Beckett’s characters do not transcend, they do not change, they go back to what disgusts them and lose themselves in reveries of a past that seems to be only something they’ve read; the redundant tasking is the only anchor in the present time. Dickinson, though, was aware of the sheer repetition of her daily tasks and took them to be the things that make this life purposeful and with a shred of meaning, small and banal her small chores might be. It is the doing of the tasks, the chores, the run of things it takes to keep her household in order, that creates purpose — the well-worn existentialist notion that one accepts the consequences of one’s action through a form of creative commitment to the results — and it is in those moments, giving oneself over to a string of small matters that require daily attention, that she is engaged and for a moment outside herself, in service to something greater than herself.
The time ‘twill be till six o’clockI have so much to do —And yet — Existence — some way back —Stopped — struck — my ticking — through —We cannot put Ourself awayAs a completed ManOr Woman — When the Errand’s doneWe came to Flesh — upon —There may be — Miles on Miles of Nought —Of Action — sicker far —To simulate — is stinging work —To cover what we areFrom Science — and from Surgery —Too Telescopic EyesTo bear on us unshaded —For their — sake — not for Ours —
It is at that moment when matters are concluded for the day that our psychic bearing ebbs and we are returned again to the trembling , merely mortal flesh that trembles from the ceaseless self-awareness that one is alone and not the recipient of glory or attending serenity from on high; the mind chatters to itself, contemplating the stark uselessness of things; the more we find out about ourselves from the sciences, the lesser we seem in the grand scheme of an unknown god’s cosmos. Dickinson, the philosopher of the closed space, the metaphysician of precision, refuses to think of herself as lesser in comparison with the vast and unnervingly incomprehensible existence that lay far outside the walls of her Amherst home — this life of hers, these things in that life, were no less consequential as the rage for big ideas and larger, more complex constructions; her life was a matter of fact, of record, and it was for her to tend her minuscule bit of the world and finds with her dutiful attendance elements that link her with the larger chain of American endeavor, a culture and economy that’s locked itself in the present tense, defining itself with the tasks they undertake, the ones they finish, the new ones they begin. There is the question if Dickinson is speaking of herself alone or instead turns the person into a general worldview, as in the way she skillfully switches from the first person to plural in her narration. I think that Dickinson’s subject is herself alone and that the I and we of her poems — when both occur — are interchangeable; it’s not an uncommon trait that those who prefer their own counsel and company would refer to themselves in the third person. Caesar did it with powerful effect in his De Bello Gallico, Henry Adams revived the technique in his Education of Henry Adams, and Norman Mailer exploited the style wonderfully until he wore it out in an intriguing series of autobiographical testaments. It’s a wonderful device, as it allows one the distance to address speak of themselves with more intimacy and less modesty than a first-person narration might. It can also be a convenient way to ease the reader into a writer’s point of view by treating oneself as if he or she were a fictional character; it eases the sting of obnoxiousness, provided there’s an attractive style. Dickinson, though, wasn’t concerned with an audience and seemed, in my reading, to switch to a Victorian plural to dig a little deeper, prod her memory a little harder. It was a technique with which she could crystalize her contradictory responses to her still universe. Nothing went unnoticed, everything was framed in the narrative distance, amazing things from the minute domain were revealed.
Where Beckett offers us a body of literature that informs us that the condition of humankind is a prison house of rote tasks performed without variation by a species that’s been harassed and hazed to a devitalized race of doddering amnesiacs, Dickinson is of heartier stock, a chronically depressed Irish cynic contrasted against a Yankee that will not lay down and die and which embraces Life however insignificant it might seem. Some junior high school existentialism creeps into this cursory discussion: The central issue comes down to the essential existential paradox, from either the spiritual or atheistic; one is never not free, regardless of circumstances or forces that one finds themselves subject to. There is always a choice that can be made in even confined and restricted circumstance that cannot be taken away. Sartre, from whom I first gleaned the idea, exaggerated in his emphasis in his attempt to undercut determinist currents thought to rule human behavior — religion, economics, biology — and insist that man is ethically bound to make his creative choices and accept responsibility for the results and consequences. He sounds a bit like the lunk-headed Ayn Rand represented this simply, and there are far subtler aspects of his thought as you know, but the point here might be that Dickinson saw her closed in circumstances in the aftermath of her catastrophe but instead as the time to reconsider and reclaim a life that is hers and which has only the meaning and purpose she brings to it. It was her way, I read, of refusing to languish on a past she might be chained to, and to free her, as well, from the anxiety of a shadow future. She frees herself by giving herself over to her present circumstances, attentive, aware, alive, small as that life might be. Small, yes, but her life, uniquely Emily Dickinson’s. Hers was the examined the life, and it was worth living.