Posts Tagged ‘death’

Dickinson: continuation and finality

There is a sense of finality to Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes –“, but a strange sense. When, in the final line, we see a progression of events—chill, stupor, letting go—we cannot but take the last as indicating the releasing of one’s hold on life. What is the process of freezing (for that is what Dickinson describes)? First there is the feeling of cold, then a numb daze, too enervated even to feel cold, and then the letting go. But this straightforward process is introduced in a curious fashion. Thus far in the poem, Dickinson has described the period after a great pain, which she calls “the Hour of Lead”—a period that, she tells us, is “Remembered, if outlived, / As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –“ (emphasis added). That is to say, this letting go, so suggestive of finality, is but a part of how the hour of lead is remembered, and it is only remembered if it is outlived—and where, then, is the finality? Outliving entails continuation, and continuation rules out finality. So there is a sense of finality to the poem, but a finality that must contend with the reality of continuation. Whatever ending there is, it is not a total ending.

The movements of the soul, of which the above poem details one, are mirrored, for Dickinson, in the movements of nature, and so we might look to a poem Dickinson wrote detailing the vagaries of nature, that we might better understand her poem detailing the vagaries of the soul. “I know a place where Summer strives” describes the annual struggle between warmth and frost: how Summer “each year – leads her Daisies back –“, how, later, “Her Heart misgives Her”, and how, finally, “she pours soft Refrains / Into the lap of Adamant”.

That this poem is connected with the first can hardly be doubted, if we consider that two crucial words are shared between each. The transition from summer to winter is captured, in this poem, by the image of the Dew, “That stiffens quietly to Quartz.  In the first poem, in surveying the aftermath of a great pain, we see a “stiff Heart” which feels “A Quartz contentment”. How can we not take the co-occurrence of these words as critical? The stiffness indicates death, rigor mortis, while the image of quartz suggests the beauty inherent in this death, which is nonetheless death. What the second poem suggests is that this stiffness, this quartz beauty, is cyclical, for the poem begins by reminding us how summer each year leads back her daisies. There is something impermanent about death.

But we may not rest complacent, for now another poem urges that its voice must be heard, as it, too, wishes a word about stiffness. “I know that He exists” imagines a game, a game of bliss, but a game that proves too earnest, when the glee of bliss comes to “glaze – / In Death’s – stiff – stare –“—then the “jest” of bliss has “crawled too far”.  Here all turns on the notion of bliss. Is bliss not our aim? But bliss might come at a high price: stiffness, i.e. death.

Here we may, one last time, look to another Dickinson poem for enlightenment. “Is Bliss then, such Abyss” suggests, once again, finality, in this case because bliss “is sold just once”—that is, pass up the one opportunity, and it is gone forever. But what is interesting about the poem is its final line, which suggests what occurs when we have this choice between finality (bliss) and continuation (whatever our life on this earth amounts to, which is certainly not bliss): “Verdict for Boot!” I cannot convey the power of these lines in a post like this—could I, I would not blog, but be a poet myself—but I hope their meaning, if not their power, is clear: Dickinson (or her avatar) has chosen continuance over the finality of bliss.

And that, I think, is what is fundamental in these poems. There is a sense of finality, of the absolute, but only in a death that is permanent, unending, unsupplanted. Against this, there is a sense of continuance, in just that which recurs annually, which rejects absolute bliss in favor of that partial existence that—with all its ineluctable partiality—characterizes our humanity. I do not claim to have made sense of these four Dickinson poems (could I ever?), but I hope I have at least captured one or two of their themes, and in my relationship with Dickinson, I may count that as a substantial achievement.


Dickinson’s vital death

There is something wrong with reading a Dickinson poem in isolation, or so it seems to me. For every poem I am compelled to ask: but where is your brother who questions you? Where is your sister who answers your question? Your mood is contractive, withdrawn—where then is your expansive counterpart? Your mood is impeccably expansive—where does the skepticism you cannot avoid find voice, if not within your confines? Only on a few happy occasions have I located such conversations between her poems—the last gave rise to my first post about her work—but yesterday I found another, and should like to report on what I overheard.

Nature – sometimes sears a Sapling –

Nature – sometimes sears a Sapling –
Sometimes – scalps a Tree –
Her Green People recollect it
When they do not die –

Fainter Leaves – to Further Seasons –
Dumbly testify –
We – who have the Souls –
Die oftener – Not so vitally –

The poem is born in violence: the searing of a sapling, the scalping of a tree, but then nature is violent, which is precisely why it provides Dickinson such a good model for the soul. I am speaking generally, however, for here nature is no such model—indeed is set against the soul. What Dickinson shows us is the aftermath of this violence, the effect of it: it is a sort of vital death. For while the sapling or tree may die when so struck by lightning—I cannot but treat nature’s instrument here as lightning, for a reason that will be apparent once we see the second poem—it is recollected by her “Green People”.

Dickinson’s choice of the word ‘recollect’ is fascinating. It plays on two, maybe three, senses of the word. The first sense is the obvious one, the recollection that goes on in our memory all the time. Nature remembers her dead in their offspring—that is the testimony of the fainter leaves. Yet there is also a second, material sense of the word. Trees are, after all, mere collections of matter, and that collection is disrupted in the searing or scalping, but it may then be re-collected—indeed this is the mechanism of nature’s remembrance. Then there is a third sense, really a modification or enlarging of the first, if we recall Plato’s theory of recollection in this context: all knowledge is recollection of previously known truth. The new trees of further seasons are recollections of the old equally in this Platonic sense: new embodiments of an old truth, perhaps the oldest.

Through this rich notion of recollection—Dickinson condenses so much into a single word!—we get a sense of the vitality inherent in this death. Here we must make a distinction between vitality/productivity/creativity and what I will call inventiveness. Inventiveness is the production of the new, but of what is new in but a relative sense. For examples of inventiveness, in poetry for instance, encompass the inventions of new techniques. But this amounts only to rearrangements of words, and the same pattern will hold true for any example of inventiveness you care to show me. Inventiveness produces new arrangements, but hop down a level and the matter is the same. What is vital about the death of the trees, however, is not this sort of inventiveness that is fully compatible with the non-existence of anything new; rather it is the re-production of the old, its recollection. Of course this recollection does not produce identical forms—which would amount to the adherence to tradition that is the age-old opponent of inventiveness or “innovation”—and so there is room for inventiveness within it. Only now this inventiveness is not for the sake of finding the new because the old does not satisfy, is not enough, but because what exists is insufficient for the expression of the old. The vitality of the death of the trees is, as a fictitious version of Beckett might have put it, that vitality that finds the old forever untried.

In contrast to this stand the humans, those who have the souls. Dickinson carefully refers to the trees’ testimony as dumb, as silent—in short, as lacking language, that defining characteristic of we ensouled ones. Only now, instead of serving as a source of our dignity, our souls seem to be a hindrance, for we, unlike the trees, “Die oftener – Not so vitally –“. Dickinson does not expand on this, leaving only questions. Is it language that strips our death of vitality? Or if not, just what is it about our souls that strips our deaths of this vitality? And why do we die “oftener”?

Good questions all. But one question itself sears, and will sear until it is answered. Dickinson, I see you spiraling inward, see you contracting around this skeptical thought, but where is the outward movement that will redeem you?

He fumbles at your Soul

He fumbles at your Soul
As Players at the Keys
Before they drop full Music on –
He stuns you by degrees –
Prepares your brittle Nature
For the Ethereal Blow
By fainter Hammers – further heard –
Then nearer – Then so slow
Your Breath has time to straighten –
Your Brain – to bubble Cool –
Deals – One – imperial – Thunderbolt –
That scalps your naked Soul –

When Winds take Forests in their Paws –
The Universe – is still –


This poem is linked to the last by a word and an image. The word is primary: before a tree was scalped; now it is your naked soul. Before, the agent went unmentioned; now, it is lightning—and thus I cannot but read the other poem as detailing the aftermath of a lightning strike. The poem is a description of the process leading up to this strike—first stanza—as well as its aftermath—second stanza. There is someone, an unnamed “He” who is the source of the strike, and you, the recipient. The process is likened to him warming up at an instrument, of which you are the strings, fumbling before the real show starts. Tentativeness and mistakes characterize this period, but these “fainter Hammers” serve as preparation, and then—the moment arrives.


That is a clumsy description of the poem: it lacks sensitivity to how the poem operates. For while the poem describes, it also and more importantly enacts. At each point, what the poem says is happening in this process, the poem is also itself doing. Consider the first eight and a half lines, until “Then nearer –“. The poem itself is fumbling, not quite establishing a rhythm: we have two long sequences—20 and 19 syllables, respectively—in which no dashes occur to provide room for a breath, and each is followed by short gasps, first of six syllables after the first passage, then two quick gasps of three syllables each after the second. The poem itself cannot catch its breath.

But this is still preparation for what is to come, and this preparation soon takes definite form. For just as Dickinson says that the fainter hammers come “so slow / Your Breath has time to straighten –“, the poem itself evens out, first with a calm ten syllables in which our breath does indeed straighten. Then it slows even more as our brain bubbles cool, and we begin to feel what it describes. And then— — —the four, short, emphatic bursts in which the thunderbolt is dealt—and my own soul is scalped. Lastly, then, the soft rustling of the final stanza, and, between two dashes, the final island of stillness.


Perhaps it is language that, in the prior poem, cuts us off from vital death. If that is so, this poem seeks to remedy this loss, for the process it causes in the reader is just such a vital death. Why do I say this? The poem is linked to the previous by a word and an image—I cannot take that as accidental, even if the linkage really amounts only to the word. Do I have more conclusive evidence of a genuine link? I do not, except the shivers that dance up and down my spine, the bubbling that cooled and hardened and left a stillness to everything, the woods in which I read the poem, rustled by the paws of wind. This is an old truth I sense; the question is, can I give it form.


A reaction to Sokurov

I write this immediately after finishing viewing Sokurov’s The Second Circle. It was a strained encounter, mostly on account of my own faults, but I nonetheless want to comment on one thread of my reaction.

A man’s father dies. Now there is much for him to do: all the documents must be taken care of. A headstrong woman comes to bully him about this, and offers advice on how he ought to handle things. “I’m a professional, trust me.” The most chilling words in the film. I can feel his grief being constricted, choked, stifled. It cannot adopt any expression of its own, as it is being shoehorned through hoops. All of this is shown up later when he asks her a very naïve question: “what is it for?” The question is directed to her order to put slippers on the dead man’s body. Her response: “it’s the law.” Such is the response of a professional. She comments that he clearly has little funeral experience. Otherwise he would know How It Is Done. What is unfortunate is that this brilliant, naïve question yields no fruit; he remains squashed by her experience and the confidence and bullheadedness it brings. Only when she leaves, and all others, is there any release: it comes when he burns his father’s belongings. But there is something inadequate about it, which I cannot articulate. An emotion given release after it has been choked to death lies limp. I wish he had simply dug a hole in the ground and thrown his father in, the documents be damned. (Contrast with Mother and Son.)

What is amazing is how Sokurov achieves this with a minimum of facial expression—in the most constricted moments the son’s face is even hidden, and elsewhere there are only the slightest and briefest of tremors.

Dying at the right time

I possess a fairly lackluster memory, for which in my wiser moments I am thankful. One result of this is that I often find myself remembering a few striking words from some author or another, while all recollection of the context in which they occurred recedes into nothingness. Consequently, they come to take on a new meaning for me, forming attachments and connections the original author no doubt never intended. Nietzsche is a frequent victim of this.

As I was reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Young American” today, Nietzsche’s dictum, “die at the right time!” wormed its way into my head. Much in it is still worm, no doubt, but it did evolve a bit in the direction of man, taking on some new resonances in the context of Emerson’s essay. Because I had no terribly interesting thoughts about the essay (due perhaps to the foul mood I’ve been mired in all day), and because I promised myself I would write about each Emerson piece as I read it, this post will detail briefly these resonances. Page references are to the Library of America edition of Emerson’s Essays & Lectures, as usual.

Nietzsche’s relating dying to an appropriate time is nothing new. We naturally conceive death as having its time: consider the acceptance of death signified by the phrase, “my time has come.” What makes Nietzsche’s quote striking (and I do not intend to suggest that he was the first to do this) is that it takes the form of an imperative: it is a command to action. Now one is not to passively await his time, but rather is to actively ensure his time does not pass unaccompanied by his also passing.

I recalled this phrase when I arrived at Emerson’s discussion of feudalism and trade in “The Young American”.

Feudalism had been good, had broken the power of the kings, and had some good traits of its own; but it had grown mischievous, it was time for it to die, and, as they say of dying people, all its faults came out. (220)

This operates in the passive mode: Feudalism’s time had come, and so it had to die. Indeed, Emerson talks of the transition as the result of a beneficent power whose results are independent of human efforts. Trade, which replaces feudalism, is equally “but for a time” (221); it too must one day die.

But activity comes into the picture, for humans cannot help but act, and, being the pathologically reflective beings we are, we cannot help but obsess over how best to act. So Emerson says,

Our part is plainly not to throw ourselves across the track, to block improvement, and sit till we are stone, but to watch the uprise of successive mornings, and to conspire with the new works of new days. (221)

We have, then, an active role to play in bringing about the death of what needs to die. Yes, this is like watching the sun rise each morning: things will manage without our help, but nonetheless we ought to actively conspire with these new works.

There is a venerable tradition of likening the mind to a city, and I suggest that something of the sort is going on under the surface of this essay. By which I mean that really it is not going on in this essay at all (that I found, at least), but that it is a natural way of reading the essay if the rest of Emerson’s work is kept in mind. For Emerson conceives our selves as very much like institutions. The self is created in the creative act, the experimental act that expands the boundaries of what came before. But as the self congeals, as it grows mischievous, it comes time for it to die, and our task is not to throw ourselves across the track to save it, but to hasten its death and draw around ourselves a new self.

When is it time for an institution—whether social or mental—to die? What is it for such an institution to grow mischievous? I think we can extract an answer from a comment Emerson makes late in the essay.

Instead of the open future expanding here before the eye of every boy to vastness, would they like the closing in of the future to a narrow slit of sky, and that fast contracting to be no future? (228-9)

When there lies in front of us an open future expanding to vastness, all is well. But when the future contracts first to a narrow slit and then to nothing, then it is time to die. As Kafka puts it, in his “Little Fable” (my translation):

“Oh,” said the mouse, “the world is becoming narrower with every day. At first, it was so broad that I was afraid; I ran along and was happy that I finally saw walls to the right and left in the distance, but these long walls hasten toward one another so rapidly that I am already in the final chamber, and there in the corner stands the trap, into which I am running.” – “You have only to change the direction you run,” said the cat, and ate it.

Death within Life: Beckett and Montaigne

2013/09/29 1 comment

Samuel Beckett once wrote, “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new” (Murphy). The nothing new glistening in the sunlight includes, of course, Samuel Beckett’s own oeuvre, which is no more novel than anything else, despite including several. I want here to suggest a few parallels between Beckett’s Three Novels, which I discussed extensively in an earlier series of posts, and Montaigne’s essay on philosophizing as learning to die. The upshot is that we may understand Samuel Beckett’s work as pure philosophy by this criterion.

Naturally, there being nothing new under the sun, the ideas that I am attributing to Montaigne need not have originated there. The essay, number 20 in book I of his Essays, contains a long section in which Montaigne imagines personified Nature chastising her human inhabitants for their fear of death. My copy of the work (in the Everyman’s Library edition of Montaigne’s Complete Works, pp. 67-82) suggests this speech is largely a paraphrase of Seneca and Lucretius (fn5, p. 77). And certainly the notion of philosophy as preparation for death can be traced back to that venerable lineage.

A few intriguing themes arise in Montaigne’s essay. One is the impossibility of newness that we have already seen in Beckett. “And if you have lived a day, you have seen everything. One day is equal to all days.” (78) What good is it to fear death, if remaining alive will bring you only more of the same? Indeed, the tedium might even make one desire death—which occurs in Beckett’s novels.

Even more interesting than this, however, are Montaigne’s reflections on the relationship of death to life. Montaigne brings up the classic theme that death is not a harm, since after your death there is no one left to be harmed by it, and while you are alive you are not yet dead and so not harmed by death—except insofar as you fear it. “It [death] does not concern you dead or alive: alive, because you are; dead, because you are no more.” (80) And related to this is the correct remark that death cannot be experienced, for you must be alive to have experiences; death ends all experiences and so stands as the unexperienceable limit of experience. This is grounds for condemning those who condemn death: “How simple-minded it is to condemn a thing that you have not experienced yourself or through anyone else.” (80)

This impossibility of experiencing death is hugely important in Beckett’s work. In my earlier posts I discussed at great length the ways in which Beckett word and object are mixed up in his work. Retelling is reliving, so what is said to occur and what actually occur come to exist in a zone of indiscernibility (to use Deleuze’s phrase) in which it is inherently impossible to tell one from the other. And what this means is that death never actually enters into Beckett’s work. It always exists at the limit, outside of it. For if retelling is reliving, then death is the end of retelling. But the retelling itself cannot contain its own end; the end is its limit. Thus Molloy, Malone, and the unnamable narrator of The Unnamable all approach infinitesimally close to death, but their deaths never enter the text. The inexperienceability of death is thus an essential portion of the structure of Beckett’s work.

Montaigne, earlier in his reflections, bluntly states, “The goal of our career is death” (69). Life itself is no more than a long march toward death. Every step forward (in time or space) is a step forward to death. In Nature’s speech, this becomes, “The constant work of your life is to build death. You are in death while you are in life; for you are after death when you are no longer in life. Or, if you prefer it this way, you are dead after life; but during life you are dying; and death affects the dying much more roughly than the dead, and more keenly and essentially.” (78)

What I take Montaigne to suggest here is that life, at least human life, since humans are conscious of their ineluctable end, is inevitably structured by its end, death. Life is best conceived as the process of dying. And this more than anything else I have mentioned is crucial to Beckett’s Three Novels. That dying is a process is established on the first page of Molloy: “For example my mother’s death. Was she already dead when I came? Or did she only die later? I mean enough to bury.” (4) Dying here is an extended process: one may die more or less (and as the rest of the novel makes clear, Molloy is progressively dying more and more). Eventually one reaches a threshold past which one is dead “enough to bury.” Beckett’s novels are about the process of dying, as it is structured by death, which exists at their limit but is not contained within them. In short, Beckett’s novels are about life itself, in its essence.

Montaigne’s Essays are the record of a man rigorously at work on himself, diagnosing himself that he might cure himself. In so doing he prepares himself for death—that is to say, he philosophizes. On this mountainous model, such work is precisely the work of philosophy. What I hope I have compellingly defended here is that Beckett’s Three Novels constitute just this same sort of work, and that we should not let a superficial difference of genre obscure the fact that the Three Novels are, fundamentally, philosophy.