Emily Dickinson on the Addictive Process
Awareness of Emily Dickinson has grown and deepened over the course of the twentieth century such that the "delightful" andplatitude-laden verses, as they were initially viewed, have provento be rich, often ironic, highly complex explorations of one poet'ssubjectivity. Dickinson's poetry today challenges us to confrontaspects of our own inner processes in relation to psychologicalpain, death, the world and possible -- though not undoubted --transcendence of it, and frustrated desire, to name just a few ofthe themes. The emergence of discourse on addictions, both tosubstances and to modes of behavior, gives us a framework in whichwe can newly assess one of Dickinson's poems, and even though thepoet's particular life circumstances -- involving the influence ofPuritanism, which would also affect Dickinson's contemporariesHerman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, the limitations placed onwomen in nineteenth-century America in general, and EmilyDickinson's own self-limiting reclusive existence -- differ fromour late-twentieth-century circumstances, nonetheless Dickinson'spoetry presents the overall shape of the subjective process underlying addiction in such an abstract form, that the work inquestion speaks to us directly over a century later.
The circumstances alluded to above brought the poet into a situation in which she was caught between the desire to communicate her reflections on life -- she sent poems as both letters and aesthetic objects with illustrations of a collage character to friends -- and the distrust of worldly success and fame proceeding from the Puritanical tradition embodied in the writings of the eighteenth-century preacher Jonathan Edwards. Whereas a later --and male -- author, H.G.Wells, would see no need to limit his sexual drives to conform to a monogamous marriage, and would find willing partners with whom he could express his sexuality, EmilyDickinson would feel desires for worldly pleasures and restrict herexplorations of these desires. Her poetry, in many instances,chronicles the tension between desire and frustration -- bothwilled and externally imposed -- in the context of her cloisteredconsciousness. Again, although Wells's self indulgence has becomeincreasingly normative for our society, Dickinson's fine-tunedawareness of the inevitable frustrations of such a pursuit has muchto say to us in relation to our experience.
Emily Dickinson's two-quatrain poem "The Heart asks Pleasure --first --" from fascicle 25, H 89 in the Houghton Librarynumeration, and 536 in Thomas H. Johnson's edition of theComplete Poems -- presents the reader with a brief yetcomplete outline of a subjective process that has inspired manyinterpretations as to how that process applies to either EmilyDickinson's life experience or the subjective evolution of people'sindividual consciousnesses in general. I would like to add onemore model to this interpretive repertory, suggesting that theconcision...