Death, Desire, and Shame in Emily Dickinson's Poetry

Ashley Etter, The College of St. Scholastica

Description

Emily Dickinson's poetry engages, above all, with questions about selfhood and identity, anticipating the postmodern notion that the self emerges in response to the other. Dickinson individuates the other as Death, a male suitor at once alluring and repulsive, who stands in relationship with the self as the “enigmatic, inscrutable” other, to use Judith Butler's terms. Death's representations, then, are multitudinous: he presents himself alternately as a lover, a friend, and a foe, never the same, yet always demanding a response. Confronted with this overwhelming ethical responsibility, Dickinson's (often ungendered) speakers suffer deeply—psychologically and physically—from shame, which is both the blushing “tint divine” and the “shawl of Pink” that protects the soul (J 1412). Paradoxically, the self must embrace shame, simultaneously destructive and protective as it is, in order to attain paradise. Similarly, encounters with the other, often figured as Death, are necessary for self-formation even as they demand a suppression of the will in a Butlerian “recurring impingement.” Instead of a negative emotion, shame in Dickinson's work is recognized and affirmed as necessary for ontological fullness.

 
Apr 30th, 12:00 AM

Death, Desire, and Shame in Emily Dickinson's Poetry

Emily Dickinson's poetry engages, above all, with questions about selfhood and identity, anticipating the postmodern notion that the self emerges in response to the other. Dickinson individuates the other as Death, a male suitor at once alluring and repulsive, who stands in relationship with the self as the “enigmatic, inscrutable” other, to use Judith Butler's terms. Death's representations, then, are multitudinous: he presents himself alternately as a lover, a friend, and a foe, never the same, yet always demanding a response. Confronted with this overwhelming ethical responsibility, Dickinson's (often ungendered) speakers suffer deeply—psychologically and physically—from shame, which is both the blushing “tint divine” and the “shawl of Pink” that protects the soul (J 1412). Paradoxically, the self must embrace shame, simultaneously destructive and protective as it is, in order to attain paradise. Similarly, encounters with the other, often figured as Death, are necessary for self-formation even as they demand a suppression of the will in a Butlerian “recurring impingement.” Instead of a negative emotion, shame in Dickinson's work is recognized and affirmed as necessary for ontological fullness.