DICKINSON'S AIR/WIND: "LONESOME GLEE" AND POETICS OF EMPTINESS.
Regarding cross-cultural meaning-making, Mikhail Bakhtin encouragingly postulates that one can understand the other only from an exotopic, or "outside" position. In response to an inquiry about such "outsideness," Bakhtin critiques the "very strong, but one-sided and thus untrustworthy, idea that in order better to understand a foreign culture, one must enter into it, forgetting one's own, and view the world through the eyes of this foreign culture" ("Response" 7). He highlights the epistemic advantage of the preconception held by a cross-cultural outsider and states that our goal should be the dialogic one of "creative understanding" which "does not renounce itself, its own place in time, its own culture" (6). He even states that being an outsider is "a most powerful factor in understanding" (7). Bakhtin's notion of the outsider position jettisons the customarily negative connotations of outsided-ness, and refreshingly casts it in a positive light, whether as a state of being or as a condition of knowing. The ability to read the text from a vantage point of the outside and not as a member within it is what makes a surplus of seeing possible. Essentially, cross-cultural reading is commendable for bringing new cultural resources into critical consideration, fostering new interpretive strategies, and allowing a cross-cultural critic to keep an eye upon the new hermeneutical possibilities and to see the blind spots of previous critical discourse.
Based upon reception aesthetics' emphasis upon the function of readers for meaning production and Bakhtin's model of exotopic intercultural relation, this essay argues that for Chinese readers, Emily Dickinson's works are part of a long meditative tradition, and investigates how her poetics of emptiness is marked by a negative tendency that resonates with Daoism and Chan Buddhism. Chapter Forty-five of Laozi's eponymous text, Laozi, a classic of Daoism, considers clarity and quiescence as the spiritual ideal. (1) Zhuangzi espouses the practice of apophatic meditation and also indicates that Dao gathers in emptiness alone, and the empty room is pure white, gathering bliss (64). (2) The issue of purification lies at the center of the Platform Sutra; the sixth Chan patriarch, Hui Neng (638-713), exhorts sitting for meditation and achieves Dhyana and Samadhi, being free from attachment to external objects and attaining inner peace (90-91). (3)
Dickinson's poetics of emptiness derives from an image cluster that has the "air" and "wind" as a basis, linking with her efforts to celebrate meditation, simplify the mind, and reconfigure the idea of heaven. Her writings return repeatedly to a set of cognate images such as "air," "wind," "moon," "bird," and "skies," constellating absolute freedom, detachment, and no-trace. In particular, she invokes the happy air to typify non-desire and non-ego; the wind, the concentrated movement of the air that freely roams in the skies, in tandem with the moon and the bird, exemplifies a wandering at ease that ultimately disappears and leaves no trace. Breathing the air or listening to the wind, to the birdsongs, or to any ethereal sound indicates a stance of a restrained subjectivity and helps cultivate an empty mind and achieve peace.
The value of taking the readers' horizons into account has already been acknowledged and embraced in literary studies and Dickinson studies. Specifically, Jesse Curran examines Dickinson as "a meditating poet," exploring how she uses "the breath as a meditative tool to endure loss, pain, and suffering" (87). Curran also notes that Dickinson's non-action, as rendered in my essay, "Dickinson's Hummingbirds, Circumference and Chinese Poetics," "offers a productive point of convergence with the notion of Dickinson's breath poetics" (88). In my 2013 essay "Dickinson's 'power to die,'" I briefly discuss Dickinson's "meditation-like repose" (Kang 68). What Curran has neglected, and I have not explored sufficiently, is the role of meditation for achieving joy and the nature of such a joy. Particularly, in some of Dickinson's signature poems, such as "How still the Bells in Steeples stand" (Fr1008/1865), "It is a lonesome Glee -" (Fr873/1864), and "In many and reportless places" (Fr1404/1876) (4), Dickinson explicitly evokes meditation or breath awareness to explore a genuine joy and ultimate peace that is reminiscent of similar practices in Daoism and Chan Buddhism. (5)
Dickinson's poetics of emptiness interweaves with her doubt towards Christianity and her practice of subverting religious dogmas. A subset of poems, such as "I've known a Heaven, like a Tent -" (Fr257/1861), "My period had come for Prayer -" (FY525/1863), and "Peace is a fiction of our Faith -" (Fr971/1865), offers a site for us to understand how Dickinson uses apophatic strategies to negotiate Christian doctrines, gradually achieving a knowledge or articulation that bears resonance with Daoism and Chan Buddhism. The following questions will be addressed. How can Dickinson be read by Chinese readers steeped in the traditions of Daoism and Chan Buddhism? How can a set of interpretive strategies informed by a Chinese sensibility enlarge the cross-cultural significances of Dickinson's poetry? In conversation with other critical approaches, this discussion seeks to enrich the newly developed Chinese critical perspective of rereading Dickinson.
MEDITATION is often construed as taking place in a sitting posture. Dickinson's most explicit exploration of the meditative moment is made in "The Mountain sat upon the Plain" which figures an image noted for its tranquility and complete clarity:
The Mountain sat upon the Plain In his tremendous Chair. His observation omnifold, His inquest, everywhere - (Fr970/1865)
Judith Farr notes that Dickinson depicts the mountain as an "ancestral potentate" and such "an omniscient, ageless natural presence" echoes the visual representation upon Thomas Cole's canvas (79). In Farr's reading, this image typifies how the cultural milieu informs Dickinson's work. From a transcultural perspective, this "omniscient" image also recalls the Eastern sage who sits in a calm and contemplative demeanor and whose meditative detachment enables him to achieve an "omnifold" sight and profound "inquest." According to Chan Master Foxin Bencai, "sitting meditation" means "quiet concentration," achieving a mind that is "empty yet perceptive, silent yet aware" (Cleary 412). In addition, a sage's placid non-action suggests a perfect action, and here particularly, designates non-interference that creates a free and exuberant space, as in the second stanza the speaker says: "The Seasons played around his knees," generating "Dawn" and "Days" (Fr970).
In a less-noted quatrain "How still the Bells in Steeples stand" (Fr1008/1865), Dickinson evokes the bells standing still, a typical image with spiritual associations, illustrating a spiritual trajectory that involves non-desire, emptiness, and ecstasy:
How still the Bells in Steeples stand Till swollen with the Sky They leap upon their silver Feet In frantic Melody! (Fr1008/1865)
The "Bells in Steeples" emblematize a contemplative mind in a withdrawn and lofty situation. To "stand" "still" is a gesture of emptying the self of desires. When such a purifying process is enacted thoroughly, the mind becomes tremendously spacious, a transformation accentuated by the alliterated "still," "Steeples stand," "swollen," and "Sky." The smallness of "Bells" contrasts with and is eventually conflated with the boundlessness of the "Sky." The moment of achieving an empty mind accommodates overwhelming joy. The stillness then shifts to a spontaneous and rapturous action--dancing in "frantic Melody." This short quatrain vividly describes the primordial stillness and suddenness of meditative joy, inviting readers to listen to the ethereal bell sounds that linger in the vast space and concomitantly to achieve a calm mind.
The prominent image associated with meditation is air. The air, noted for its invisibility and ethereality, is indispensable to life. In a letter of 1862 to Samuel Bowles, Dickinson compares herself to Byron's speaker in "The Prisoner of Chillon" and pleads, "[F]orgive the Gills that ask for Air - if it is harm - to breathe!"(L249/1862). (6) Zhuangzi evokes the fish that swims in water and forgets each other, to emblematize an absolute freedom (110). (7) Dickinson's trope, however, accentuates the fish's need for air, betraying her yearning to wander at ease. For Dickinson, the self-sufficient air embodies the perfect wisdom, as evidenced in "Air has no residence, no neighbor" (Fr989/1865):
Air has no residence, no neighbor, No Ear, no Door, No Apprehension of Another Oh, Happy Air! Etherial Guest at e'en an Outcast's Pillow - Essential Host, in Life's faint, wailing Inn, Later than Light thy Consciousness accost Me Till it depart, persuading Mine - (Fr989/1865)
Linking the air with Dickinson's breath awareness, Curran rightly notes the air's "versatility, mutability, and potency" (88). Most strikingly, the air's power and happiness reside in its radical negations. The first stanza catalogues five negative expressions, with "no residence" as the most important. The absence of residence suggests a spiritual ease derived from emptiness, rather than the anxiety of having no shelter. This phrase echoes the similar Chinese expressions in the tradition of Daoism and Chan Buddhism, which often juxtapose ease with emptiness and thereby accrue similar implications. For instance, Wang Wei (699-761), a Buddhist poet of the Tang dynasty, once depicted the birds returning to the nest when the sunset withdraws the day's fervor, drawing special attention to the fact that the evening mists have no residence (41 ). (8) Wang's lines convey a tranquil mind that does not cling to a particular locus. Likewise, the air's "No residence" exemplifies wandering at ease; elsewhere, Dickinson's speakers celebrate the moon's lack of "Inn" (Fr593/1863), the butterflies' "edifices azure" (Fr1358/1875), and the bird's "transitive Estate" (Fr1285/1873). Emancipated from a physical and limited locus, these images similarly enjoy the vast and empty space as home. Having no fixed place to live enables one to be free from the intrusive "neighbor." The ear and door serve as passages towards the outside that paradoxically render one vulnerable to external incursions. Chapter Fifty-two in the Laozi exhorts us to "Block the passages" and "shut the doors" (9); shutting the doors, in the tradition of Daoism, emblematizes renouncing mundane entanglement --Wang Wei writes: "once you master quiet, what's there to do? My brambleweave gate's closed all day" (34). (10) In this context, "No Ear, no Door" suggests the air's integrity and primordial innocence that promises the air's non-concern, a spiritual impregnability.
The second stanza celebrates the air's sympathy towards the "Outcast," those ostracized and condemned souls. The alliterated "Etherial Guest" and "Essential Host" stresses that the air's emptiness and self-effacement enables it to function as a magnanimous "Host," entertaining any disconsolate exile. Plagued by a poignant displacement, the "Outcast" might be overwhelmed by darkness, seeing no glimmer of "Light." The awareness of the air during the process of the meditative breathing and especially the epiphany of the negative wisdom embodied by the air can rest the mind. Here, Dickinson espouses the wisdom of having nothing more. If the air noted for having nothing remains happy, why can human beings not enjoy life's transient estate? Chapter Thirteen of the Laozi states, "the only reason that we suffer is that we have bodies; if we had no bodies, how could we suffer?" "This rhetorical question affirms that denying the body promises freedom. Such a freedom entails an elevated unconsciousness, as Tao Yuanming (352-427), in one of his famous wine poems, associates self-forgetting with detachement towards worldly possession: "Oblivious of myself, could I attach importance to things?"(67; 204). (12) Dickinson often applauds the egoless-ness embodied by the air and its relevance for a blissful life. In "She's happy- with a new Content -" (Fr587/1863), the speaker depicts an insouciant "Content" derived from non-desire, evoking the "Air" as a role model or a great master of self-effacement--"She's busy - with an altered Care - / As just apprenticed to the Air -." The principle of staying soft pervades the following declaration that "Heaven permit so meek as her - / To such a Fate- to Minister-." Clearly, such a heavenly bliss is obtained through self-cultivation and self-discipline rather than conversion to God. In "The Soul's Superior instants" (Fr630/1861), the speaker espouses a spiritual ascension which is "too remote a Height / For lower Recognition" or "Interruption"; "This Mortal Abolition" means being "subject / To Autocratic Air -." Here, the alliterated "Autocratic Air" underscores the sovereignty of self-effacement. In addition, Dickinson's wandering at ease is often expressed by creatures sailing in the air or the sky, with the air functioning as a physical and spiritual condition, as evidenced in "A soft Sea washed around the House" (Fr1199/1871) and "A Sparrow took a Slice of Twig" (Fr1257/1872).
The wind, the movement of air, is an image closely associated with the air. The wind and the air share the ethereal features that shape their independence. For instance, describing the wind as "A Rapid - footless Guest -," the speaker states, "To offer [him] a Chair / Were as impossible as hand / A Sofa to the Air -" (Fr621/1863). In "The Wind - tapped like a tired Man -" (Fr621/1863), the wind has "No Bone" "to bind Him," indicating a freedom from physical bondage. The wind flowing in the empty skies also resembles a bird. In an early May 1866 letter to Mrs. J. G Holland, Dickinson writes, "a low wind warbled through the house like a spacious bird, making it high but lonely" (L318). Dickinson's most comprehensive portrait of the wind is made in "The duties of the Wind are few-" (Fr1160/1869), which, as Gary Lee Stonum observes, embodies "utmost freedom, one which pays no price in homelessness or detachment" (112). In "How lonesome the Wind must feel Nights -" (Fr1441B/1877), a seldom-noted poem, the speaker affirms the wind's negative wisdoms, foregrounding the wind as an archetypical image embodying emptiness:
How lonesome the Wind must feel Nights - When people have put out the Lights And everything that has an Inn Closes the shutter and goes in - How pompous the Wind must feel Noons Stepping to incorporeal Tunes Correcting errors of the sky And clarifying scenery How mighty the Wind must feel Morns Encamping on a thousand dawns - Espousing each and spurning all Then soaring to his Temple Tall - (Fr1441B/1877)
The three quatrains proceed in a way that subverts the natural order of morning-noon-evening, presenting an evening-noon-morning sequence. This unusual arrangement indicates Dickinson's musings about conditions of action and celebration of non-action, culminating in a sense of no-trace. The wind's three states emblematize the three aspects of spirituality. In the evening, the wind is "lonesome," confronted with darkness and isolation, a necessary condition for any great growth and action. The noon is the wind's "pompous" moment, performing revisionary actions mainly directed towards others, such as "Correcting errors of the sky / And clarifying scenery." Here, the wind's actions are marked by non-action in terms of a leisured and spontaneous manner as indicated by "Stepping to incorporeal Tunes." What the speaker affirms above all is the wind's "mighty" mien in the morning, which accentuates self-restraint and self-withdrawal, thereby undercutting the "pompous" display of self-importance. Echoing the air's "no residence," "Encamping" suggests a transitory residence, indicating the wind's non-clinging to any physical locus and being at home everywhere. In "Espousing each and spurning all," the wind does not cling to its feats, ready to reject all that it has been "Espousing." This radical renunciation is affirmed in the wind's "soaring" to its spiritual "Temple," becoming imperceptible and leaving no trace. Dickinson's wind image resonates with that Buddhist trope of the wind roaming in the skies which represents the sage's staying in the world, but not clinging to the world, and enjoying the untrammeled freedom, as we find in the Avatamsaka Sutra (Hong 239). (13)
To breathe the air or to listen to the wind indicates a subject that effaces the ego and entertains a receptive mind. In Chinese culture, the pine wind is a typical image of coolness; listening to the pine wind suggests a leisured and disengaged life. In a poem by Yang Sheng'an (1488-1559), a poet in Ming Dynasty, the speaker claims that not seeking outside, he enjoys inward bliss, drinking the chrysanthemum dews and listening to the pine wind (223). (14) Dickinson composes two poems about listening to the wind, exploring its spiritual significance. (15) In "By my Window have I for Scenery" (Fr849/1864), the withdrawn speaker looks out of a window to appreciate the landscape; listening to the pine melody engenders an inner abundance: "I shall meet with Conviction I somewhere met / That Immortality -." The speaker replaces the doctrine of the immortality of the soul with the immortality of nature and a cultivated mind. In "Of all the Sounds despatched abroad" (Fr334/1862), the speaker sings a paean to "that old measure in the Boughs," the wind rising above the trees, affirming a rapture that is associated with non-desire. Stating that "phraseless Melody" "Permitted Gods - and me -," the speaker indicates that the embedded divinity enables "me" to hear the tune. The second stanza further reveals how to receive such a divine "Grace": "Inheritance it is to us -". This is a spontaneous reception that forfeits the outward quest. Insisting that such a grace cannot be "earned" nor "[taken] away," since "the Gain / Is gotten not of fingers -," the speaker negates all acquisitive impulses. In Dickinson's poetry, "day" suggests desires whereas death indicates the demise of desires; thus such an ethereal music is "Hid golden, for the whole of Days- / And even in the Urn-." With an empty mind, one is able to cultivate a festive mood, and at these supreme moments, even "the merry Dust" can "arise and play." Finally, the speaker recommends "Grace of Summer Boughs" to an "Outcast," a restless soul.
This recommendation is based upon the similar logic that supports the speaker in "Air has no residence" (Fr989/1865), to celebrate the "Air" as "an Outcast's Pillow-." The "Outcast," propelled by desires, desperately seeks what is outside and loses the original inner peace. To appreciate the ethereality of "Fleshless Chant," one needs to be empty of possessive desires and thus settle the mind. Here, the wind functions as a spiritual shelter, echoing a Han Shan poem in which the speaker, following the course of nature and being free of petty cares, embraces the moon and wind as home (164-65). (16) The speaker further compares the wind in a "Summer Boughs" to "Caravan of Sound," reinforcing the refreshing cool within the heat. In addition, the boundless "desert" counteracts the summer's exuberance, indicating an alternative vastness that results from renunciation. As Dickinson writes elsewhere, "That men, must slake in Wilderness - / And in the Desert - cloy -" (Fr400/1862).
Whereas "Of all the Sounds despatched abroad" (Fr334/1862) recommends "Summer Boughs" to an "Outcast," "Talk not to me of Summer Trees" (Fr1655/1884) undercuts this strategy, propounding the primacy of the mind for achieving rest. The speaker repudiates the idea that one needs shadowy glades for achieving repose, recommending "The foliage of the mind." A mind's umbrageous "foliage" can provide a "Tabernacle" that offers a shelter for spiritual birds. The emphatic declaration that "winds do go that way at noon" affirms the inner cool despite the external noise and disturbances. According to Shira Wolosky, this poem "appeals to Romantic notions of imagination's grandeur, which will always point beyond what is there"; "the Romance of nature is both confirmed and contested through the religious language" (137). I would like to argue that Dickinson suggests a meditative stance that entails emptying oneself of possessive desires and achieving quietude. In Cai Gen Tan, a book of Dao and Chan flavors, one maxim goes, "Removing the unworthy desires in the mind, one can see the moon appear and the wind come" (Hong, Expanded 7). (17) The moon and wind correspond to and radiate from a pure mind. Likewise, for Dickinson, a "least" self suggests an effaced self, an egoless-ness that produces an inner cool. Having followed the wind's refreshing "Bugles," one will achieve spiritual ascension, restoring to "their Ethereal Homes," a realm of repose, transcendence and freedom. Clearly, the wind's "Ethereal Homes" resemble the air's "no residence," indicating an inner repose that does not rely upon any physical locus.
IT IS a lonesome Glee -" gathers ethereal images, such as wind, bird, and skies, as the conditions and features of a solitary ecstasy that derives from meditation: (18)
It is a lonesome Glee - Yet sanctifies the Mind - With fair association - Afar opon the Wind A Bird to overhear - Delight without a Cause - Arrestless as invisible - A Matter of the Skies. (Fr873/1864)
Compelled to address the concept of "a lonesome Glee," scholars often regard the "lonesome" condition as a feature of such a joy. This reading results in a fairly melancholy portrait of Dickinson or an inadequate understanding of her spiritual ideal. In her critical biography of Dickinson, Cynthia Griffin Wolff argues that without a "God-given relationship with nature," Dickinson becomes "a disenfranchised singer" and the poet-speaker's "Glee" "appears entrapped in its own isolation" (481). Judy Jo Small celebrates the "beauty of elusiveness" of this "subtle and perfect" poem, yet also detects a "paradox of painful joy" (213). Jed Deppman wonders, "why is it that when we overhear a bird singing happily, we do not feel an unmixed ecstasy or beauty in our minds but rather a 'lonesome Glee'" (106-07). Like other scholars, Deppman feels that "a lonesome Glee" is tinged with sadness. However, from a perspective of Daoism and Chan Buddhism, "a lonesome Glee" suggests a joy that derives from solitude and stillness, an ultimate state at which a Dao seeker arrives. Wang Wei concludes a poem, "I understand how stillness is itself pure joy. / Life here has idleness enough and more" (73), (19) ascribing the capacity to experience solitude as joy to an epiphany of emptiness. It is an enlightened mind that transforms otherwise desolate circumstances into a blissful realm. The "lonesome" refers to the austerity of a condition, which proves to be a spiritual sanctification; the assonance of "fair" and "Afar" links the idea of beauty with the sense of distance, enacting Dickinson's principle that "remoteness is the founder of sweetness" (L388/1873). In addition, "Afar upon the Wind" evokes the sort of wandering at ease that is celebrated by Zhuangzi, indicating detachment and freedom from mortal entanglement. When riding upon the wind to reach towards a faraway place, the mind is no longer enslaved by paltry cares or confined by any particular purposes.
The next stanza compares this joy to the situation when one "overhear[s]" a bird, experiencing a "Delight without a Cause," an ecstasy unmixed with any goal-achieved satisfaction. (20) Here, Dickinson suggests a genuine joy derived from an absolute quietude, intensified by a note of birdsong. Cai Gen Tan states, "during the quietude, one overhears a bird, awakening an infinite quietness" (Hong, Expanded 207). (21) To overhear indicates a meditative trance marked by the absence of the subject's knowledge or intention. The bird image serves to highlight the thoughtless-ness, the Samadhi of Prajna or absolute freedom, which, as Hui Neng (638-713), the sixth Chan patriarch, claims, refers to the mind free from any attachment, functioning without hindrance and free to come and go (54). (22) This purposeless casualness is intensified by stylistic features of the poem such as the overall "unpremeditated" "shape," the "utterly casual" "consonantal rhymes," and the "absence of full rhyme" (Small 213). This purposeless "Delight" is further compared to the "Arrestless" and "invisible" "Skies," emblematizing spiritual emptiness and boundlessness; "Arrestless" also suggests a mind free from any impulse to dominate or to grasp.
In accordance with Dickinson's apophatic strategizing, such idealized moments are ideal precisely because of their eventual disappearance. She affirms: "Did Our Best Moment last - / 'Twould supersede the Heaven -"; the very disappearance of such "Heavenly Moments" reveals that the condition foregrounding an empty image is
A Grant of the Divine - That Certain as it Comes - Withdraws - and leaves the dazzled Soul In her unfurnished Rooms - (Fr560/1863)
According to Jane Donahue Eberwein, "the soul dazzled by celestial radiance" is "sensitive to the inadequacy of 'unfurnished Rooms'" in terms of satisfying "longings engendered by God as a means of enticing the soul to Heaven" (262-63). It seems that Dickinson espouses Thoreau's economy, creatively rewriting his repugnance against "a furnished house" (351). Dickinson's "unfurnished Rooms" echo Zhuangzi's "empty room" (64), constituting a necessary and sufficient condition for a spiritual ideal. The "Best Moment" occurs when the mind is vacated, uncluttered by myriads of desires and aspirations. One needs to practice simplicity, to empty the mind, and keep the room of mind "unfurnished."
In "In many and reportless places," which explicitly evokes the act of breathing the air, Dickinson also focuses upon the moment of the disappearance to convey a genuine "Joy," highlighting the subject's absolute detachedment:
In many and reportless places We feel a Joy - Reportless, also, but sincere as Nature Or Deity - It comes, without a consternation - Dissolves - the same - But leaves a sumptuous Destitution - Without a Name - Profane it by a search - we cannot - It has no home - Nor we who having once inhaled it - Thereafter roam. (Fr1404/1876)
Considering "a sumptuous Destitution" as Dickinson's "signature lyric," Richard E. Brantley argues that this poem "epitomizes her hope, as well as her despair, and intimates the interpenetration, or coalescence, of these, and of such other paired stances as sorrow and joy" (28-29). "In this peaceful meditation," James Mcintosh similarly writes, "the speaker accepts her own predicament as a transient and ignorant creature.... A person made bereft of joy becomes destitute. Yet the memory of joy's temporary presence and dissolution is 'sumptuous,' compensating for joy's loss" (140). According to Daoism and Chan Buddhism, "sumptuous Destitution" describes a perfect joy, a joy that derives from an empty mind and does not engender any disturbances. This joy issues from a purified existence, unmixed with any hint of melancholy or of the oxymoronic bittersweet. Emphasizing that such a joy causes no "consternation," in either its coming or its going, the speaker both highlights its bland nature and also implies absolute detachment as the subject's very condition. To "Dissolve" describes a fading away, as something is melting into water and leaving no trace.
The last stanza indicates that such bliss cannot be achieved by an aggressive or goal-oriented "search" or pursuit. Rather, it requires gravitating toward one's inner recesses and staying still. The phrase "inhaled," in tandem with the variant of "Exhales," "Dissolves," exhibits acts of breathing and explicitly establishes the meditation as a way of achieving "Joy." The variant "waylaid," which is underlined by Dickinson, suggests both a concentrated posture of waiting in a hidden place and an unexpected encounter, a purposeless casualness echoing "A Bird to overhear -" (Fr873) or "espied Circumference" (Fr571). Insisting that it has "no home," the speaker evokes the metaphor of the "Air" and highlights joy's ethereality and freedom from any bondage. The speaker further claims that such an experience means repose, a contentment in staying at home; the assonance between "no home" and "roam" foregrounds the trope of enjoying repose anywhere.
In a letter before his passing, Li Shutong (1880-1942), also known as Dharma Master Hongyi, first celebrates the blandness of the friendship, that is yet beyond the pursuit, and then he acknowledges a placid and ineffable mind, a perfect state as abundant as the blooming spring flowers and the full moon in the sky (Li 139). (23) Even though she often characterizes a spiritual ideal with a detached blandness, which is conspicuously associated with ethereal images such as air, wind, and moon, Dickinson indicates that such quietude contains vigor and suggests plenitude. In an 1871 quatrain, the speaker evokes the contrasting colors and flowers to suggest a simultaneously soothing and exhilarating state embodied by the February hour:
White as an Indian Pipe Red as a Cardinal Flower Fabulous as a Moon at Noon February Hour - (Fr1193/1871)
The Indian pipe is a white, delicate plant growing in shady woods. In a late September 1882 letter to Mabel Loomis Todd, in appreciation for receiving a picture of these flowers, Dickinson describes the Indian flower as "the preferred flower of life" and "an unearthly booty" (L769). She later wrote to her again, "I cannot make an Indian Pipe but please accept a Humming Bird" (L770). Her hummingbird poem, "A Route of Evanescence" (Fr1489/1879), echoes the wisdom embodied by the Indian pipe. Regarding the implications of the Indian pipe, an image of which is printed on the cover of the first printed edition of Dickinson's poetry, we can also refer to Ralph Waldo Emerson. In "Spiritual Laws," Emerson celebrates the "smooth and hollow" pipe and its "willingness and self-annihilation"(192). Likewise, for Dickinson, the inner emptiness of "an Indian Pipe" symbolizes an empty mind derived from "self-annihilation," while its "white" color suggests a purity concomitant with renunciation. "Red as a Cardinal Flower" refers to a plant that produces a profusion of gorgeous scarlet flowers, implying a fiery passion and festive joy. Echoing "winds do go that way at noon" (Fr1655/1884), "Moon at Noon" further accentuates repose amidst exuberance, with its "u" sounds suggesting a flowing spontaneity. The aura of heartfelt serenity that pervades the dialectical expressions is genuine.
DICKINSON'S exploration of an empty mind intersects with her challenging Christian dogmas and reconfiguring heaven. Deeply troubled by the proliferating scientific knowledge about the origins of life that gradually erodes faith, Dickinson often describes a callous God who is indifferent to human misery. According to Cynthia Griffin Wolff, as an "artist of the age of transition," Dickinson tries "to question God's authority and to free language from the tyranny of His definitions" (429). Yet, as Beth Maclay Doriani observes, when "challenging Christian dogmas," she strategically "draws from the very rhetorical sources whose doctrines she seeks to undermine" ("Homiletics" 54). For instance, in "Of Tolling Bell I ask the cause?" (Fr933/1865), the speaker asks, "Is Heaven then a Prison?," criticizing the contradictions in Christianity's viewpoint that heaven means eternal peace. In "Faith - is the Pierless Bridge" (Fr978/1865), the speaker describes faith as an imaginative construct in terms of "Supporting what We see / Unto the Scene that We do not -"; this imaginary bridge "bears the Soul /... joins - behind the Veil." The speaker finally indicates that uncertainty about the afterlife makes one skeptical: "To what, could We presume / The Bridge would cease to be / To Our far, vacillating Feet" (Fr978).
Despite the fact that she often articulates a deep disillusionment and tormented anguish caused by the loss of faith, for Dickinson, denying a posthumous heaven does not always mean hopeless despair; rather, the final negation paradoxically offers a route that promises peace. The moment of crisis also enables her to cultivate a sustaining resource, creating a landscape or soul-scape that combines tranquility, freedom, and joy. Specifically, Dickinson replaces the afterlife heaven with an inner power, redefines heaven as the spiritual ideal, and encourages one to construct an inner heaven. In other words, the non-existence of God and a posthumous heaven pushes Dickinson to return to earthly life and further inward, gradually formulating an aesthetic of emptiness that entails an acceptance and appreciation of life's void. For instance, in "Heaven is so far of the Mind" (Fr413/1862), which is designed to unsettle the spatial notions of heaven, the speaker declares that heaven is located within, when "the Mind [is] dissolved"; moreover, this inner heaven is commensurate with one's capacity for renunciation, "To Him of adequate desire / No further 'tis, than Here -." In "I've known a Heaven, like a Tent-" (Fr257/1861), the speaker explicitly uses an aesthetic of emptiness to describe a spiritual ideal, comparing the inner heaven to a "Show's Retreat"--"No Trace- no Figment-of the Thing" when everything that "dazzled, Yesterday" [...] "Dissolved." The speaker further depicts this inner emptiness as a "Bird's far Navigation," a melting, vanishing image whose far distance and eventual disappearance fills the viewers with an ineffable joy, inviting them to gaze upon an expanse of skies: "Discloses just a Hue - / A plash of Oars, a Gaiety - / Then swallowed up, of View." This depiction enacts an aesthetic that prizes evanescence, emptiness, and infinity, practicing a principle of not allowing "the Actual" to "disentrall thy soul -" (Fr1447/1877). Deborah Shcer shows how in Walden, Henry David Thoreau widely uses the idea of evanescence as a poetic device in order to relinquish the ego. Robin Riley Fast persuasively argues that "evanescence" is "central to" Dickinson's poetry and "determines her treatment of... major themes" (209-15). If Shcer's argument is valid, this centrality of "evanescence" in the case of Dickinson also testifies to her preoccupation with formulating a poetics of emptiness and, perhaps, at least accounts for her eventual artistic achievement to some degree.
Most importantly, the air image facilitates Dickinson's articulation of the wisdom of emptiness when she wrestles with religion. In "To mend each tattered Faith" (Fr1468/1878), the speaker explicitly invokes the air and its embodied emptiness to restore the lost faith, "There is a needle fair / Though no appearance indicate -/ 'Tis threaded in the Air -." The final lines affirm its restorative function, albeit tinged with irony: "Tis very comfortable indeed / And specious as before -."Another example is "My period had come for Prayer -" (Fr525/1863), which is often cited to illustrate Dickinson's doubt about the sustaining power of faith. This poem responds to the biblical promise, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you" (Matthew 7:7). (24) In a desperate situation, the speaker turns to God for solace, initiating a quest. This pilgrimage proves to be disappointing since the speaker does not find any trace of God, but does see "Vast Prairies of Air." After a cry for the "Infinitude" that has no appearance, the last stanza registers an epiphany:
The Silence condescended - Creation stopped - for Me - But awed beyond my errand - I worshipped - did not "pray"- (Fr525/1863)
According to Roger Lundin, "Vast Prairies of Air" indicates a version of an appalling "God," rather than "the 'Person' proclaimed in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity" (149). He concludes: "The silence of awe replaces the sound of prayer, and disappointment with prayer leads to doubt about the promises of God" (Lundin 149). By contrast, Beth Maclay Doriani notes that the "Silence" upon the "Vast Prairies of Air" does not suggest "an absence of God" but "a powerful spiritual Presence" (Daughter of Prophecy 74). I would like to argue further that the speaker suggests a sustaining resource derived from the inner emptiness embodied by "Vast Prairies of Air." The air image indicates both the futility of Christianity and the alternative route towards peace. "Creation stopped - for Me -" describes an inner sovereignty and abundance when one dispenses with any external support; the variant "The Heavens paused -" explicitly indicates that such self-sufficiency constitutes another version of "Heaven." Emphasizing that such an "awed" experience is "beyond my errand," the speaker implies an elevation that is quite unexpected and differs from the support of the Christian God. "I worshipped - did not 'pray' -" emphatically affirms the new-found belonging that is independent of any external authority.
The above strand of explorations about achieving peace in a godless world is built into "Peace is a fiction of our Faith -" (Fr971), one of Dickinson's cryptic quatrains, which is dated about 1865, at the end of the American Civil War:
Peace is a fiction of our Faith - The Bells a Winter Night Bearing the Neighbor out of Sound That never did alight. (Fr971/1865)
Considering the year of its composition, Cristanne Miller notes, this poem suggests the elusiveness of peace, alluding to the continuation of the Civil War after the official end. She explains, "the Civil War officially ended with General Robert E. Lee's surrender on 9 April 1865, followed less than a week later by the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Yet federal soldiers continued to be attacked by former Confederates in many parts of the South" (770). In the autumn of 2016, the Emily Dickinson Reading Circle (EDRC) at Myrifield Institute for Cognition and the Arts coordinated by Margaret Freeman engaged a lively discussion about this poem. (25) EDRC members' discussions largely agree that this quatrain reflects Dickinson's doubt about faith and further about achieving peace that is as intangible and elusive as the bell sounds, even though they differ about whether "Bells," the crucial image, refers to church bells or sleigh bells, consequently conjuring up divergent scenes.
Among EDRC members, Greg Mattingly reads this quatrain in the context of Dickinson's early religious struggles and particularly her ambivalence about the principle that a faith in Jesus Christ can bring peace, as with "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith" (Galatians 5:22). (26) In his reading, peace coming with faith is a "false promise," resembling hearing the sleigh bells of a neighbor's approaching carriage, only to feel disappointment that this neighbor does not stop for a visit. Polly Long-sworth also identifies the irony embedded within the first line, arguing that the image of "Bells" and the flight of the "Neighbor" suggest the tolling of the bells after one's death and the bearing of the soul to heaven. She argues that the dead "can neither know nor respond as to peace" and it is the living persons who harbor the fiction that the dead already have peace. Longsworth's reading is plausible. The image of bells and the epithet "Neighbor" strongly allude to a local phenomenon of ringing funeral bells, a cultural practice in nineteenth-century Amherst. In a mid-July 1871 letter to Louise Norcross, Dickinson laments about "Cruel Paradise" and reports, "We have a chime of bells given for brave Frazer" (L362). In an 1870 letter to Louise and Frances Norcross, Dickinson refers to a newly-dead neighbor who "fledged her antique wings" (L339), and encloses a poem which evokes the bell sounds, "Great Streets of silence led away / To Neighborhoods of Pause -[...] The Bells at Distance called -" (Fr1166). In a November 1882 letter to Mrs. J. Howard Sweetser, Dickinson comments on the death of her mother, "Wondering with sorrow, how we could spare our lost Neighbors, our first Neighbor, our Mother, quietly stole away" (L782).
The crux resides in reading the first line "Peace is a fiction of our Faith -" and identifying the correspondence between the concept of peace and the images. As an interpretive community, Western critics similarly consider "fiction" as aligned with "Peace"; "Peace" is rendered false because it is a "fiction of our faith." For them, peace is symbolized by the neighbor's advent and the bells' sound, and thereby, the neighbor's departure and the gradual diminishment of the sound suggests that peace is frustratingly elusive. Such readings are plausible and are easily supported by other Dickinson poems including "I many times thought Peace had come" (Fr737/1863) and "The Heart has narrow Banks" (Fr960/1865). However, equipped with an aesthetic sensibility sharpened by reading Chinese classical poetry, I would like to argue that this poem exploits Dickinson's motif that beauty and joy reside in evanescence and absence; peace is suggested by the poem's cold and tranquil atmosphere and the eventual silence of the sound. Most importantly, "Peace is a fiction of our Faith -" subverts a widely held assumption that peace is our faith, a Biblical promise about "[finding] peace in believing" (Romans 15:13) as Dickinson rephrases in an 1886 letter (L1032); but, rather than voicing a gloomy disillusionment, the speaker wryly proposes an alternative, if unnecessarily opposite route that can achieve peace. In this reading, "fiction," rather than "peace," constitutes an inherent property of "our Faith" and peace derives from "fiction of our faith." If faith means a trust in the existence of what we cannot see or feel, "a fiction of our Faith" reveals the imaginary nature of faith, and reflects Dickinson's notion of faith that includes an inevitable component of doubt (Freedman 50-71)--entails a larger knowledge about no-thing. Dickinson's speaker highlights the fictitious nature of "our Faith," more importantly ascribing peace to a calm acceptance of its very fictitiousness. Peace can be achieved by accepting the "fiction" of "our Faith" and, by extension, the illusory nature of everything that we cling to, whether visible or invisible. Essentially, peace brought by faith nevertheless relies upon external circumstances; peace brought by "a fiction of our Faith" indicates a total self-sufficiency. In other words, the speaker articulates a principle about achieving peace, rather than giving ironic edge to it.
The suggestive metaphors and scenes combine to describe a transcendent realm and illustrate an ineffable peace. Reading in the vein of Dickinson's non-action, all these images are invested with negative wisdom. The neighbor's departure echoes "Show's Retreat" and "Bird's far Navigation," similarly leaving a vast space that suggests silence, peace, and infinity. The ethereal bells engender a cooling effect, awakening one from infatuation with mundane cares, which is further intensified by the coldness and tranquility of "a Winter Night." Winter is a cold season, forcefully quenching all feverish desires, as Dickinson's speaker states, "Winter is good -," "To Intellects inebriate / With Summer, or the World -" (Fr1374/1875). Night is also a period in a day when one becomes sedate and placid. A subset of poems illustrates that "The soul return[s] soft at night" (Fr1175/1870); the evening is associated with withdrawing ego, forsaking cares, and achieving enlightenment. Thus, "Winter Night" emblematizes a state of mind, rather than a temporal reference. In "Great Streets of silence led away" (Fr1166), a poem that is enclosed in an 1870 letter to commemorate a neighbor's death (L339), the speaker even uses the temporal dislocation to suggest the coolness, "By Clocks, 'twas Morning, and for Night / The Bells at Distance called -." "Bells" and "a Winter Night" combine to create a cold, solitary, and restful atmosphere, inspiring one to become enlightened about the emptiness of world. In a poem by Wang Ji (about 590-644), the speaker, who considers the floating cloud as home, sits in meditation, coming to realize emptiness when the sun sets and the evening covers the mountains (Jiang 3). (27) In addition, the darkness of the winter night, covering the world, facilitates a concentration upon breathing and listening to the bell sounds that fill the air. Ancient Chinese culture abounds in examples of people who realize emptiness or awakening to Dao via listening to music, especially the qin--as Bai Juyi (772-846), a poet in Tang Dynasty, writes, "One sound comes into my ears / worldly affairs flees far away" (28); according to Meng Jiao (751-814), another Tang poet, thirty years of meditating on Dao is not as effective as listening to someone playing the qin for one evening (Qing 112-113). (29) Listening to the bell sound would seem to have a similar effect.
In Dickinson's poetic language, "Neighbor" has double implications. On the one hand, it refers to any other individual who is close to the self, easily inviting empathy and identification. The self and the neighbor mirror each other in terms of feelings, actions, and states of mind. The neighbors who live near for years amount to relatives and confronting their death intensifies the pain and loss one might feel, and concomitantly the emptiness of life. On the other hand, "Neighbor" can imply a kind of intrusion, as evidenced in "Air has no residence, no neighbor" (Fr989/1865), in which "no Neighbor" contributes to the air's carefreeness. In "Four Trees - upon a solitary Acre -" (Fr778/1863), the speaker affirms that these trees have "No nearer Neighbor" but "God." In the above quatrain, on a cold and tranquil "Winter Night," the sound of "Bells" enlightens one to realize and commune with the emptiness of the world. This realization elevates one to a transcendent realm, whereby one feels a total detachment and any mundane cares and intrusion, represented by the "Neighbor," are borne away. In other words, "Bearing the Neighbor out of Sound" implies a moment of freedom from earthly entanglements. The neighbor's departure corresponds to the evanescing of the personal ego. One's solitude intensifies, heightening the vastness and emptiness of the universe. The emphatic negation embedded within "That never did alight" conveys both the inexorable movement of time and an idea of detachment and unconcern. In this way, the speaker conjures up a Chan meditator sitting on a restful winter night, falling into the eternal peace that is accentuated by the ethereal "Bells" and their gradual diminishment to a silence. The meaning, mood, and effect of this barren landscape in a wintry night are similar to Wang Wei's lines about sitting alone in an autumn night: "at night, sitting in empty forest silence, and the pine wind seems like autumn itself" (56). (30) Here is the "eternal loneliness" which is considered as the core of Chan by Japanese author D. T. Suzuki, "the solitariness of an absolute being," "when a world of particulars [moves] under the conditions of space, time and causation is left behind" (349).
The austere scene, an expanse of darkness, vastness and emptiness, coincides with many Chinese poems and paintings, as demonstrated in the following supplemental section, Chinese Calligraphy and Painting, which sometimes use space to emblematize emptiness, allowing readers or viewers ample room for imaginations or associations. The stylistic features of this quatrain also suggest Dickinson's attempt to experiment with an ambiguous aesthetic that breaks with linear and logical progression. This quatrain is mainly comprised of nouns or noun phrases, piling one image upon another, without giving a clear indication about their linkage. The image juxtaposition, in tandem with the unhurried rhythm, eases readers' anxiety to make logical connections, allowing images simultaneously to have different implications. Whether the bells refer to church bells or sleigh bells remains unclear. Also unclear is whether the neighbor's flight refers to a dead soul's flight towards heaven or an earthly journey by chariot in a winter night. What is clear is the cold and tranquil atmosphere that pervades the whole picture with the two vignettes overlapping and interacting with each other. After all, life is a journey that leads to death and all of us are transient, an idea that is fully illustrated in Dickinson's famous poem "Because I could not stop for death" (Fr479/1862). The whole picture eventually figures an expanse of space that is enveloped by silence, with the bell sounds diminishing away. For Dickinson, peace means an ability to conceive an empty mind that is awakened, articulated, and intensified by the ethereal "Bells." It involves a posture of listening, allowing the mind to commune with the bell sounds that are gradually disappearing into the far distance.
(1) [phrase omitted]
(2) [phrase omitted]
(3) [phrase omitted]
(4) In-text citations of Dickinson poems refer to the poem number and the year of composition. "Fr" refers to R.W. Franklin, the editor who assigned the numbers. Quotations of Dickinson's poetry are taken from The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition., edited by Ralph W Franklin, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright [c] 1998 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright [c] 1951, 1955 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright [c] renewed 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright [c] 1914, 1918, 1919, 1924, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1935, 1937, 1942 by Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Copyright [c] 1952, 1957, 1958, 1963, 1965 by Mary L. Hampson.
(5) Dickinson depicts an idealized life as empty, "last Day that I was a Life [...] / Twas stiller--[...] 'Twas empty -" (Fr823/1864). In "Her Losses make our Gains ashamed -" (Fr1602/1883), the speaker applauds "Life's empty Pack/As gallantly as if the East/Were swinging at her Back- " and affirms that "Life's empty Pack is heaviest." See Franklin.
(6) In-text citations of Dickinson letters refer to the letter number. Quotations of Dickinson's letters are taken from The Letters of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Associate Editor, Theodora Ward, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright [c] 1958 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright [c] renewed 1986 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright [c] 1914, 1924, 1932, 1942 by Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Copyright [c] 1952 by Alfred Leete Hampson. Copyright [c] 1960 by Mary L. Hampson.
(7) [phrase omitted]
(8) [phrase omitted]
(9) [phrase omitted]
(10) [phrase omitted]
(11) [phrase omitted]
(12) [phrase omitted]
(13) [phrase omitted]
(14) [phrase omitted]
(15) Dickinson's wind poems also include "The Wind didn't come from the Orchard - today -" (Fr494/1862), "Of Brussels - it was not -"(Fr510/1863) and "I think that the Root of the Wind is Water -" (Fr1295/1873).
(16) [phrase omitted]
(17) [phrase omitted]
(18) The similar expressions of "a lonesome Glee" include "a Withdrawn Delight -" (Fr664) , "a lone Delight," "sumptuous solitude-/ The desolations only missed" (Fr1528/1880) or "another Loneliness" (Fr1138/1867).
(19) [phrase omitted]
(20) The speaker celebrates a "joy that has no stem nor core," "By fundamental palates/Those products are preferred" (Fr1762).
(21) [phrase omitted]
(22) [phrase omitted]
(23) [phrase omitted]
(24) Dickinson writes that "Seek and ye shall find" is "the boon of faith" (L830/1883).
(25) I would like to thank all EDRC members who replied to my inquiry and participated in the discussions of "Peace is a fiction of our Faith -" (Fr971), including Barbara LeMoine, Greg Mattingly, Marguerite Lentz, Jeff Morgan, Eleonora Cavalcante Albano, Margaret Freeman, Polly Longsworth, Alice Parker and Margaret Mcbride.
(26) Dickinson also evinces an unmistakable admiration towards those converted Christian. For instance in an 1850 letter to Abiah Root, she refers to Abby's transfiguration brought by belief, "she makes a sweet, girl Christian, religion makes her face quite different, calmer, but full of radiance, holy, yet very joyful... God and Heaven are near, she is certainly very much changed" (L36).
(27) [phrase omitted]
(28) [phrase omitted]
(29) [phrase omitted]
(30) [phrase omitted]
(31) This essay is supported by the National Social Science Foundation of China under Grant Number 17BWW002.1 am greatly indebted to Charles Lock, Margaret Freeman and Tom Patterson for their constructive comments on this essay.
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|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2018|
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