Posts Tagged ‘literary criticism’

The Vaster Economy of Desire: Richard Wilbur on the Sumptuous Destitution of Emily Dickinson

November 16, 2012


Philosophers are bound to paradigms and past pronouncements. But no paradigm comes close to capturing our multifarious world. That’s why my favorite philosophers are mostly poets. Poets are less likely to get boxed in by theory or even worry too much about what they were saying a week ago.

Richard Wilbur notes that Emily Dickinson (“not a philosopher”) was “consistent in her concerns but inconsistent in her attitudes” (10; 5). One of Miss Dickinson’s major concerns is the limited capacity of human beings to absorb even a fraction of what we crave. Our gargantuan appetites are ill-fitted to our frail, finite, and terminable bodies. But instead of lamenting this unsuitable arrangement, Emily Dickinson celebrates privation for its own sake:

Heaven is what I cannot reach!

In his 1959 article “Sumptuous Destitution,” Wilbur explores Dickinson’s “huge world of delectable distances,” where desire trumps actual possession (11). As Wilbur explains Dickinson (“Linnaeus to the phenomena of her own consciousness”) the poetess finds anticipation far more enticing than actual possession because “once an object has been magnified by desire, it cannot be wholly possessed by appetite” (4; 8). Employing physical hunger as a metaphor for all human desire, Dickinson explains in “I had been Hungry All the Years” how she “found”

That hunger was a way
Of persons outside windows,
The entering takes away.

Frustration is the inevitable consequence in Dickinson’s world of perpetual want where itching vanquishes scratching. The vigor of Dickinson’s yearnings are “magnified” by elusive wants:

[N]ot only are the objects of her desire distant; they are also very often moving away, their sweetness increasing in proportion to their remoteness. “To disappear enhances” one of the poems begins (11-12).

When Dickinson asserts that

Success is counted sweetest
By those that ne’er succeed

she is “arguing the superiority of defeat to victory, of frustration to satisfaction, and of anguished comprehension to mere possession” (9). Wilbur posits convincingly that, for Dickinson, the dead soldier in “Success is Counted Sweetest” made “the better bargain” than his compatriots who survived the victorious battle because his “defeat and death are attended by an increase of awareness, and material loss has led to a spiritual gain” (10).

Emily Dickinson chose her seclusion, and “At times it seems that there is nothing in her world but her own soul, with its attendant abstractions, and, at a vast remove, the inscrutable Heaven” (12). The God of Emily Dickinson’s capacious consciousness is immense and mysterious. We can spend our lives contemplating Him, but He can only be ingested in small bites.

The creature of appetite (whether insect or human) pursues satisfaction, and strives to possess the object in itself; it cannot imagine the vaster economy of desire, in which the pain of abstinence is justified by moments of infinite joy, and the object is spiritually possessed, not merely for itself, but more truly as an index of the All (11).

In his poem “Hamlen Brook,” Richard Wilbur discovers sumptuous destitution when he is nonplussed by overwhelming natural beauty.

How shall I drink all this?

Joy’s trick is to supply
Dry lips with what can cool and slake,
Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache
Nothing can satisfy.

by Richard W. Bray

For All They Care

June 30, 2012

W. H. Auden

Which is more significant, a person or a star?

People could not exist without stars. Not only does our sun provide us with essential warmth, light, and sustenance, but astronomers believe that all solid matter, ourselves included, is made up of the debris from former stars.

Compared to a person, our abiding sun is surely great and grand. But as far as we can tell, a star is neither sentient nor alert to its own existence. So unlike a human being or even a shih-poo who responds to the name of Max, a star will never want for anything.

W. H. Auden ponders his unreciprocated affection for stars and correctly concludes that despite a star’s magnificence, between the two, the poet himself is ultimately “the more loving one.”

Thus human beings gaze at stars with a longing that the stars themselves could never “return.”

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,

And although the breadth of a star’s life is incomprehensible to a human being, a star is nonetheless ephemeral like everything else in our universe. (When the dividend is eternity, all quotients are miniscule.) Some day every star will “disappear or die.”

Getting back to my original question, is a star’s immense, blazing endurance a match for a human being’s cognizance and sensitivity? It’s a rhetorical question, of course. Even if it weren’t a false alternative, the answer would still lie beyond the scope of human imagination. We could not survive in a universe without stars, and as Richard Wilbur inquires,

How shall we dream of this place without us?–

For his part, Thomas Hardy maintains that the “disease of feeling” is overrated, and “all went well” prior to “the birth of consciousness,”

None suffered sickness, love, or loss,
None knew regret, starved hope, or heart-burnings;
None cared whatever crash or cross
Brought wrack to things.

If something ceased, no tongue bewailed,
If something winced and waned, no heart was wrung;
If brightness dimmed, and dark prevailed,
No sense was stung.

Auden is similarly cynical about the ultimate value of human sentimentality:

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total darkness sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

by Richard W. Bray

Application #2

April 27, 2012


Here’s something I wrote a few years ago in graduate school for Professor Kaplan:

Application #2

Langston Hughes’s poem Harlem complies with Cleanth Brooks’s assessment of modern poetic technique as “full commitment to metaphor.” The poem consists of six cogent metaphors steeped together to create an elixir incomparable to the flavor of any one of these images standing alone. A raisin, an oozing sore, rancid meat, a sugary crust, a sagging load and an explosion are, by themselves, images which either assault or delight the senses. Hughes’s alchemy blends the first four contradictory metaphors, then offers a lull in the image of a sagging load before suggesting the possibility of an explosion.

The splattering of metaphors in Harlem qualifies as irony according to Brooks’s loose definition: “The obvious warping of a statement by context.”

The tension, or “pressure of context,” resulting from the incongruity of the metaphors in Harlem is resolved through the prospect of obliteration (explosion) of the entire batch of metaphors. This final loud, bright, apocalyptic eruption, so inconsistent with the lazy, passive images which precede it, relieves tension by hinting at annihilation.

The liquid quality of the poem’s first four metaphors reveal the fluid quality of human emotions. They also contain three food images and two carnal references, suggesting that the fulfillment of our dreams is a need just as basic and primal as the appetite for food.

by Richard W. Bray

Take it Decently

March 17, 2012

Nadine Gordimer

The remark that did most harm at the club was a silly aside to the effect that the so-called white races are really pinko-grey. He only said this to be cheery, he did not realize that “white” has no more to do with a colour than “God save the King” with a god, and that it is the height of impropriety to consider what it does connote.

—from A Passage to India by E.M. Forster (62)

I stand astonished at my own moderation.

Robert Clive’s response to a Parliamentary Inquiry on the plunder of India

Take it Decently

The obvious difference in pigmentation between the Europeans and Africans is the original point of reference for countless imaginary polarities: black and white, pure and impure, tame and wild, civilized and barbaric, rational and emotional, good and evil, decent and indecent. And in a culture built upon the systematic, racist murder and subjugation of tens of millions of Africans and Asians, members of the dominant class risk much pain and psychic confusion if they are unable to reconcile this tissue of false dichotomies at the core of imperialism.

The barter between the boy and the elderly native in “The Train from Rhodesia” is a microcosm of the imperial enterprise because it amuses the boy to toy with an old man who is attempting to eke out a meager livelihood. Oblivious to his own depravity, the boy represents all those who reveled in the plunder of Southern Africa.

“He laughed. ‘I was arguing with him for fun.’”

When the girl berates the boy for the callousness of his actions, he is “shocked by the dismay in her face.” Because the boy has internalized the imperialist denial of the old man’s humanity, the native is merely a thing to be trifled with for sport.

Unlike her boorish companion, the girl in “The Train from Rhodesia” has empathy for the old man, but as a member of the ruling race, she too is steeped in the toxic juices of Apartheid. Thus, her blindness to the inherent malevolence of imperialism is exposed by her protest that the boy should have found a way to “take it decently.”

The “shame that mounted through her legs and body and sounded in her ears like the sound of sand pouring” is merely the genesis of an appropriate response to a monstrous crime committed against entire populations for centuries.

The indecent mass murder, rape, and pillage of so much of the planet perpetrated by the Europeans over five centuries was carried out in direct contradiction to their notions of civility. When the Europeans commit such atrocities in the name of civilization who then are the real barbarians?

Richard W. Bray

The Steaming Complaint of the Resting Beast

March 11, 2012


The Steaming Complaint of the Resting Beast

The anthropomorphic train in Nadine Gordimer’s “The Train from Rhodesia” is not a single, neat, easily-envisioned metaphor
. But by utilizing contradictory symbols and images, Gordimer gives birth to a beast like none that ever lived, a creature which embodies human frailties and longings through the collision of beastly, anthropomorphic, and inanimate qualities.

Gordimer’s beast has many human attributes: It is ambulatory, vocal, sighted, blind, lonely, animated, rebellious, respiratory, contentious, melancholy and tragic. Ironically, the totality of these images forge a humanity which by far surpasses that of all but one of the white characters in the story.

Despite its numerous human qualities, Gordimer’s train can also be viewed as a beast of burden. The image of its “blind end pulled helplessly” would be familiar to any farmer who has led an oxen and plough. Also typical of a beast of burden, the train is not a silent, complacent victim. It “grunts”, “jerks” and brays out “the steaming complaint of the resting beast”. As the metaphor becomes less coherent, the train transforms into something at once animal, mechanical, and human.

Both men and beasts cry out when they feel pain, but only humans are capable of comprehending their fate. A train’s whistle is an eerie sound evocative of a howling wolf. And like our Hunting Fathers, the wolf is a carnivore which lives and hunts in small packs. So it is natural for people to associate the wolf’s cry with feelings of existential angst. But whatever the howling wolf may be feeling, its howl is not an existential lament because a wolf is not cognizant of its own mortality. When the train calls out “I’m coming” Gordimer’s metaphor is expanding into something exceeding the images of a train, a beast, or a person.

The train cries out “and again there was no answer” because its whistle echoes the inherent loneliness of self awareness. Just as humans have been calling out to the cosmos through prayers and radio antennae for millennia, the train’s cry is a prayer. Thus the man-made device mocks our craving for an omnipotent creator.

Like the trajectory of a human life, Gordimer’s train travels in one direction “over the single straight track” of time.” And the manner in which human existence is connected to an inescapable fate is captured by the complexity of the metaphor.

Ultimately, we must accept the messiness of the metaphor in order to appreciate its multiple meanings.

Richard W. Bray