In a 1998 essay, the Emily Dickinson scholar Robert Weisbuch describes receiving a letter from “[a] former and very fine student.” In the letter, the student, who has since gone on to become a psychiatrist, wonders whether Dickinson had perhaps suffered sexual abuse as a child. She bases her surmise on the startled sense of recognition some of her patients (who had themselves been abused as children) feel when she shares with them poems like this one:
There is a pain — so utter —
It swallows substance up —
Then covers the Abyss with Trance —
So Memory can step
Around — across — opon it —
As One within a Swoon —
Goes safely — where an open eye —
Would drop Him — Bone by Bone
(515) About summer 1863
Weisbuch admits that the poem can be read as an early—and, indeed, uncanny—anticipation of Freud’s repression theory of trauma, what Weisbuch calls “the automatic protections the self creates to guard against thinking the unthinkable.” And yet, in the end, his story is a cautionary tale. His student, he says, is “forgivably guilty” of what he terms the “biographical fallacy”—i.e., the idea that one can read the poems for signs of the life. One of his cardinal rules in reading Dickinson’s poetry is “Don’t pry,” which is to say “you mustn’t look for Dickinson’s life in the poems.”
Weisbuch cautions against biographical readings not just because they are futile (after all, the poems are not literal), but also because such readings are “insufficiently ambitious.” In particular, they blind the reader to what is truly distinctive about Dickinson’s poetry and the way she constructs meaning through it. Weisbuch emphasizes the “scenelessness” of Dickinson’s poems, the difficulty, indeed the impossibility, of saying with any certainty what they are “about.” For Weisbuch, this scenelessness (what, at another point, he terms the poems’ “precise imprecision”) is not simply a poetic technique, but a “metaphysic,” indeed an “epistemology”—“an alternative way of putting together the world.” Such a poetry avoids single meanings. Rather, it is an “endless quest, where any thought is open to revision or extension.” And he urges the reader to “resist pointing or pinning down a poetry which depends on expansible meaning.”
Weisbuch has a point. In the more than one hundred years of Dickinson criticism, there are many examples of reading poems like “There is a pain — so utter — ” as evidence that Dickinson’s poetry was a response, if not exactly to child abuse, then to some kind of personal psychic trauma in her life.
In particular, there is a long tradition of more-or-less reductionist psychoanalytic readings of Dickinson’s poetry and life. According to R. McClure Smith, “Dickinson has always seemed the perfect subject for the psychoanalytic method of biography and criticism.”
“Was Emily Dickinson Psychotic?” asked a 1962 article in the American Imago. “With all the evidence available it seems curious that no biographer has ever discussed the possibility of mental illness as a causative factor in her eccentricity,” the author writes. And while she gives no definitive answer, she comments that “If there is any point in literature where psychiatry and criticism meet, it would appear to be here.”
Probably the most dramatic example of this psychoanalytic version of the biographical fallacy is the psychoanalyst John Cody’s After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson, which is a maddening combination of inevitably speculative psychoanalytic detective work about the life based, in large part, on absolutely tone-deaf readings of the poems. So, yes, “don’t pry,” don’t look for the life in the poems.
And yet, I confess a fair degree of sympathy for that student-turned-psychiatrist. For once one puts aside the misreadings of the biographical fallacy, there remains the fact that many of Dickinson’s poems do seem to be engaged in a profound and complex way with something very much like trauma.
The basic argument of this essay is that in Dickinson’s poetry one finds, not a roadmap to her own personal traumas, but rather a fine-grained phenomenology of trauma — a psychologically acute description of trauma as a distinctive emotional and, indeed, cognitive state. Or perhaps we should borrow Weisbuch’s term: epistemological state.
In addition to being a persistent theme in Dickinson’s poetry, I believe the concept of trauma is also a key to understanding what the poet Adrienne Rich has termed Dickinson’s “complex sense of truth.” Put another way, among the truths that Dickinson has to tell are truths about the traumatic state and the distinctive self-experience that it engenders.
Finally, by “poetics of trauma” I mean that trauma is central to Dickinson’s conception of the purpose and the function of poetry. After all, this is the poet who is, famously, reported to have said: “If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way.”
In Dickinson, poetry becomes a privileged means for telling the truth about trauma and, therefore, for integrating traumatic experience into the self. Or to put it in the words of Wallace Stevens, poetry is “a violence from within that protects us from violence from without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality.”
In developing this view, an important reference point for me has been what for lack of a better term I am going to call the “Yale School” of trauma theory, characterized by the work of literary theorists such as Cathy Caruth, Shoshana Felman, and Geoffrey Hartman. At the risk of massive overgeneralization, I want to let one essay stand for this approach, Shoshana Felman’s “Education and Crisis, or the Vicissitudes of Teaching,” which has become something of a classic in the field.
Felman’s article poses the question: “How is the act of writing tied up with the act of bearing witness . . . ?” The piece describes a graduate course she taught at Yale in 1984 in which students studied a variety of texts that, in their different ways, were “accounts of—or testimonies to—a crisis”: fiction by Camus and Dostoevsky, poetry by Mallarmé and Paul Celan, psychoanalytic theory by Freud, and also videotapes of Holocaust survivor testimonies. Felman’s essay combines her own “reading” of these diverse “texts” with a parallel account of how the subject matter of the course—trauma and the crisis of witnessing that it engenders—was “unwittingly enacted” by the course itself.
I’d like to identify three key ideas or principles from Felman’s essay that I’ve found useful in my exploration of Dickinson.
The first is the idea that trauma invokes a crisis of truth. Trauma is an experience of such intensity that it overwhelms the boundaries of the self. It’s an experience of “too much”—or in the evocative phrase of the psychoanalyst Leonard Shengold, “too much too-muchness.”
Precisely because trauma is too much, we cannot take it in. It is so overwhelming that it escapes normal cognition. Trauma does not register and, as a result, it is not really experienced at the moment of its occurrence but only belatedly — and then, in a particular way: not as conscious memory but as action, reenacted in the present over and over again.
On the one hand, trauma’s unavailability as conscious memory introduces a fundamental doubt about its truth status. Did it really happen? If not completely repressed, it is subject to what Robert Jay Lifton calls “psychic numbing” — an experience of decreased or absent feeling that, for Lifton, reflects a disruption of the individual’s capacity to symbolize his or her experience. There is a powerful exampleof this in Felman’s essay where she quotes a Holocaust survivor who says: “For the past thirty-five years I’ve been trying to convince myself that it never happened, that . . . maybe it happened but I wasn’t affected. I walked under the rain without getting wet . . . .”
On the other hand, trauma’s continuous enactment in the present makes it seem as if it is the only thing happening, the one sure thing, the foundation of an absolute, totalizing truth (like the intrusive thoughts and literal flashbacks suffered by a victim of post-traumatic stress). The experience that eludes the self ends up defining the self.
Boston analyst Arnold Modell has recently attributed this self-sustaining quality of trauma to a degradation of the individual’s capacity to use metaphor to recontextualize memory. In trauma, writes Modell, “the metaphoric process [understood as a cognitive, not just linguistic, process] transfers meaning from the past to the present without transformation . . . . The past becomes a template for the present, creating a loss of ambiguity in the experience of the here and now . . . . In experiential terms, that means the present is conflated with the past.”
This quality of trauma as simultaneously absent but ever present provokes a crisis of truth, and this crisis explains, I think, Felman’s fascination with “testimony” as a mode of discourse. To testify, she reminds us, is “to vow to tell, to promise and produce one’s own speech as material evidence of truth.” Felman points out that the legal mode of testimony dramatizes “a contained, and culturally channeled , institutionalized crisis of truth.” And she uses legal testimony as an explicit analogy for what she calls “the larger, more profound, less definable crisis of truth” of contemporary culture.
But of course, testifying to trauma is highly problematic—and this brings me to the second key idea that I draw from Felman’s essay. For trauma’s crisis of truth is simultaneously a crisis of language. “In the testimony, language is in process and in trial, . . .” she