The Abyss Gazes Back

Madness, Blindness, and Armageddon in King Lear

…nothing himself, [he] beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
— Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man”

The 20th century finally invited King Lear in off the heath. Its post-industrial bleakness found him apt company, bid him come out of long exile to rest his weary bones next to his spiritual brethren: “The Snow Man,” Endgame, Beyond Good and Evil, and all the other nihilistic works of existentialism, deconstruction, and Eastern ideas of “nothing” as a desirable state—much of the work to spring from the late Victorian era to the present. It took long enough. Early modern audiences found the play’s godless rejection of Christian eschatology unbearable; Nahum Tate produced a grotesque comedy out of it (which was what people read and produced for centuries); Samuel Johnson could stand to read it only once, after which he quickly edited it; even A. C. Bradley, who admired the play, called it “Shakespeare’s greatest work, but not… the best of his plays” (248). In “King Lear or Endgame,” Jan Kott remarks of Lear that “All that remains at the end of this gigantic pantomime is the earth—empty and bleeding” (112), and that, like the listener in “The Snow Man,” fits just fine in the 20th century. We can take it. God is dead, after, all; the world is brutal and uncaring and ruled by competition for survival; and we all know that, in Beckett’s words, “We give birth astride the grave.” The very fact that the word “nothing” appears 34 times in the play makes it a great fit within the worldview of late-stage capitalist meaning-making, where we watch the procession of simulacra with horror, but without recourse. In King Lear, Shakespeare presents an abyss that, when we gaze into it, truly gazes back into us.

One of the most powerful scenes in the play, for its raw, crazed energy, is Lear in his initial stages of madness on the heath, provoking the storm to do its worst:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. Rage, blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned our cocks.
You sulph’rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head. And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Crack Nature’s molds, all germains spill at once
That makes ingrateful man. (III.ii.1-9).


Lear’s rage at the storm is pointless… and admirable. Lear, abandoned by his children, fallen, in less than a month, from king to pauper, makes believe that he is controlling the weather, in a heartbreaking negotiation with the pathetic fallacy. He is at once child-like and god-like. On the one hand, he exercises a child’s omnipotence fantasy, imagining he has control of forces out of his control; on the other, the audience wonders if he is indeed controlling the weather—if the tempest in his own mind has actually been expressed outside himself. It is an act that inspired awe in the Romantic poets. This is a roiling I suspect we all feel at times: faced with the void, what are we to do but imagine we can control it? In King Lear in Our Own Time, Maynard Mack comments on the universal appeal, to 20th century man, of Lear: the “…abysses of the play,” he says, “are in fact wrapped in the enigma of our own ignorance of the meaning of existence, its peals echo with cries of triumph and despair so equivocal that we are never sure they are not ours” (84). One can see why the suggested meaninglessness in the cosmology of the play would have distressed early modern audiences (and Restoration audiences even more), leading to its exile. After all, the Medieval and Renaissance worldview was one of an ordered universe with a just and comprehensible God. Lear offers no such comfort. Mack goes on to opine that the play has no true hero in the traditional tragic sense. Moreover, the lack of a hero, he says, sits “…more easily with our present sensibility (which is pathologically mistrustful of heroism) than the heroic resonances of the usual Shakespearean close” (Mack 84). We don’t believe in heroes, and, as in Waiting for Godot, the play gives us none, just the all-too-human struggle of a man stripped bare and forced to confront the often-malign indifference of the universe.

Blindness, too, like frenzied madness, is a current that runs through the play, this time exemplified literally by the story’s secondary plotline. Blindness and madness seem to be the only clear paths to a rarified kind of sight: self-knowledge, true love of others, and freedom from the fear of death. They, metaphorically or literally (the play does not make it entirely clear), prepare the old for a peaceful—at least a resigned—death. Lear’s ally Gloucester, blinded and, like Lear, abandoned by his child, somehow finds the mad Lear on the heath, and there begins a journey of the blind truly leading the blind. The culmination of Gloucester’s plot is his “suicide” off the cliffs of Dover. Gloucester is with his disguised son, Edgar, but does not recognize him. Edgar describes the terror of the void below them:

Come on, sir; here’s the place: stand still. How fearful
And dizzy ‘tis to cast one’s eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles. Half way down
Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!
…The murmuring surge
That on the unnumb’red idle pebble chafes
Cannot be heard so high. I’ll look no more,
Lest my brain turn and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong (

The problem? He is lying. They are not at the cliffs of Dover, but on a small rise near the cliffs, and he is not describing what is actually below them: he is describing a seascape to a blind man, in order that he might jump, and survive, and be metaphorically reborn. Gloucester does jump, and does survive, and is reborn in what Edgar (now pretending to be a fisherman down on the beach) labels a marvel: “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again,” he says ( This prepares Gloucester for a loving reunion with the former king, and finally, his own actual death. A cold comfort, perhaps, but the only one afforded the old man, even though the audience feels more ambivalent about his ordeal. In our contemporary world, within the Weltanschauung of existentialism/deconstruction, we can hope for little more than a brief access to grace before we die. The play understands us—clearly more than it understood our antecedents.

Along with human disaster—blindness and madness—the entire world of the play seems to be careening toward eminent catastrophe, and the ending does not correct that trajectory. Everywhere are allusions to Armageddon. As Mack says, “Intimations of World’s End run through [the play] like a yeast. In the scenes on the heath, elements are at war as if it were indeed Armageddon” (85). Armageddon has agency and energy, unlike the passive depression of, say Hamlet, which presents a foul, stilted world in need of resurrection. The characters in Lear, in contrast to Hamlet, (and at times the weather and the environment are characters), all seem to be heading toward a precipice of non-being, but it is a place of creative action, not stasis. Says Mack:

Under [the play] run tides of doomsday passion that seem to use up and wear away people, codes, expectations, all stable points of reference, till only a profound sense remains that an epoch, in fact a whole dispensation, has forever closed… To this kind of situation, we of the mid-twentieth century are… sensitively attuned (86).

This apocalyptic rhetoric also includes, in Mack’s words, a “strong undertow of victory” (87). In Gloucester’s case this victory arrives with his rebirth on the false cliffs; for Lear in his erroneous belief that his daughter, after their heartrending reunion, has been resurrected. For both, the victory is illusory, but no less poignant—and no less real a triumph—for not being true. When he is reunited with Cordelia, Lear finally abandons his power and releases himself into the care of family, and to true grace:

…Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies (V.iii.8-13).

When Cordelia perishes, and Lear holds her in his arms, he says, “Do you see this? Look, her lips, / Look there, look there” (V.iii.312-13). He then expires. In all the “nothings,” this small hint of a “something” must suffice… a hint at redemption, or resurrection (though perhaps not in a Christian sense). Lear dies, perhaps, thinking that his child lives, and as such he dies happy. The world, at the end of Lear, is not restored to rights by a tragic death (for Mack is right: there is no hero here to sacrifice himself for the restoration of equilibrium). Rather, we are in a world still heading we know not where—a world of teleological uncertainty—that eerily resembles the world that we now know ourselves to inhabit. After revolutions in science, after World Wars and cosmological upheaval, after the invention of massive weapons of destruction, and the knowledge that we are the tiniest speck in an immense universe, after the knowledge that the universe will likely end with a whimper and we will not even be a footnote—in this world, the barren heath of Lear finally makes sense to us.

King Lear confronts the abyss, is chewed up by it, and finds a way to make meaning anyway. It finds a way to live with it. Finding a way to live with it is something we are all of us trying to do: existence is, by definition, uncertainty. We have left the garden of blissful ignorance, and no system of beliefs feels complete any longer: religion, once comprehensive and far-reaching, has been sufficiently contradicted by science for reasonable doubt to creep in (except in our most stalwart adherents to faith—and maybe even in them). If we need to deceive ourselves into surviving in all this uncertainty—whether through the pathetic fallacy, through intentional blindness, through madness, through (ideally) love and kindness, or through self-delusion—so be it. Welcome home, Lear.

Cited Sources

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth.
2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1905.

Kott, Jan. “King Lear or Endgame.” Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Methuan, 1963, pp. 100-33.

Mack, Maynard. King Lear in Our Time. Routledge, 2005.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Tr. Helen Zimmern. Millennium Publications, 2014. 41.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Signet Classic, Published by New American Library, Penguin Group, 1972.

Our Small Forever

Code Confusion as Female Trope in Louise Erdrich's The Round House

“Gynocide… is known by the colonized peoples of yesterday… the nations… off whose backs the history of men has made its gold.”
           — Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa”

Our guide through Louise Erdrich’s novel The Round House is a young man. But Joe Coutts—real, tangible, effervescent teenager that he is—is birthed, definitively, from a female mind. Erdrich, in a move of great virtuosity, creates a tale that exists in both cyclo-mythical time and in linear time; in which the language and alternative reality of the spirit world coexist and intermingle with the language of the law; through which Christian crosscurrents traverse and mingle with shamanistic codes; and in which characters are both their corporeal, temporal selves, and universal archetypes who must repeat ancient patterns. Cultural stories radiate from the main narrative like ripples in a pond. And at its center—the round house. It’s no coincidence that the pivotal object is circular in shape: it is the novel’s many-chambered heart, and the story, in a sense, “orbits” around this richly symbolic monument to good and evil.

 We might call Erdrich’s inclusive, circular narratives characteristic of “feminine” writing, a genre Hélène Cixous defines in her essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa.” The feminine writer’s speech, she asserts, “…even when ‘theoretical’ or political, is never simple or linear or ‘objectified,’ generalized: she draws her story into history” (Cixous 881). In Erdrich’s world, we aren’t allowed to make phallocentric hierarchies of information or codes: varying systems coexist and compete, resisting synthesis. Neither Erdrich nor her characters are subordinate to western/patriarchal history’s “truth,” but by collaborating with it they manage to achieve a deeper truth. Years after his mother is brutally raped on a reservation and he enacts lethal revenge, Joe retells the story in complex layers, weaving folklore and supernatural intervention into a text also brimming with legal realities that we—Erdrich and her readers—must objectively measure and judge in our “real” world. According to Sarah Deer’s article, “Sovereignty of the Soul: Exploring the Intersection of Rape Law Reform and Federal Indian Law,” the Justice Department has in fact under-reported the statistic that one in three native women will be raped in her lifetime (almost always by non-native men): “…the rates of sexual assault” she says, “…are actually much higher… [and] elders in Indian country [say]… that they do not know any women in their community who have not experienced sexual violence [emphasis mine]” (456). The matter is real. The matter is urgent. But Erdrich makes us feel this “gynocide” all the more acutely for not letting it fall merely into the “simple or linear… history” of legal or journalistic language. We feel it, as Cixous might say, in the body.

How does Erdrich accomplish this distinctly female corporeality in her writing? In “Reading Between Worlds: Narrativity in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich,” Catherine Rainwater explores Erdrich’s ability to create an almost physical sense of “temporary marginality” in her readers. Erdrich’s texts, she says, contain structural features that “frustrate narrativity,” and that, “This frustration amounts to a textually induced or encoded experience of marginality as the foremost component of the reader’s response." Erdrich achieves this effect, Rainwater contends, chiefly through her use of “code confusion” (Rainwater 406). For instance, in the novel time works both cyclically, in what Rainwater refers to as “ceremonial time,” and linearly, in what readers understand as chronological time. Joe’s story begins with him uprooting the saplings “attacking” the foundation of his parent’s house, and ends with him, innocence lost, family shattered, driving out of town after the time-stopping rape and murder, and into a paradox: “…in a sweep of sorrow that would persist into our small forever” (Erdrich 317). In between, we hear an account of events in the order in which they occurred. But bits of family lore, dream sequences, tribal memories and ghosts—vestiges of “ceremonial time”—festoon the narrative, enriching it, complicating it, radiating from its center, or floating above it, in ghostly parallel. Early in the novel, when Joe and his father realize that his mother is missing, Joe remarks that, “…her absence stopped time” (Erdrich 3). In a sense, from the moment her absence is registered to the moment the family drives off the reservation, time is both suspended and sequential: the narrative alerts us early to time’s malleability. We are told at the outset that Mooshum, Joe’s eccentric grandfather and teller of a parallel legend of filial love and revenge, lives “…in a timeless fog” (Erdrich, 4), and that is the vantage from which he dispenses his crucial wisdom. Rainwater notes that Erdrich’s temporal idiosyncrasies hint at the narrative limitations of chronological time: “…linearity,” she says, “is often disrupted by many flashbacks, lateral narrational pursuits, flights of free association, and other indications of the failure of chronology to contain the story” (414). This kind of time confusion—combined with these pyrotechnics of craft—reminds us of Cixous’s theory about feminine writing: “Woman,” she says, “un-thinks the unifying, regulating history that homogenizes and channels forces, herding contradictions into a single battlefield” (882). Ceremonial time set against linear time may disorient readers, but it’s this temporal vertigo that makes us feel these events—these conflicts—in our very bones.

Through marginality we come to understand the intersection of tribal, spiritual and legal justice. Each of these legal systems is incomplete: none alone manages to achieve perfect justice, but by forcing us to examine them all together, Erdrich creates a patchwork that approaches justice, however asymptotically. In a seminal scene, Joe’s father spends a few pages educating Joe, and the readers, on the history of Native American jurisprudence since European settlement, the slow, unsatisfying climb to tribal sovereignty. He informs us of Oliphant v. Suquamish, which “Took from us the right to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes on our land” (Erdrich 229). In “Sovereignty of the Soul,” Deer remarks that since Columbus landed, rape has been used as a “tool of colonization and a tool of war against Native peoples and… as a weapon of conquest” (458). Fighting back against what Deer refers to as “…attack[s] on the human soul” is no easy task for Joe and his father, or for real indigenous peoples armed with limited legal tools. But the book proposes an alternative route to justice for Joe: what his grandfather refers to as “wiindigoo justice.” Wiindigoog, explains Mooshum, are “people who lost all human compunctions in hungry times and craved the flesh of others” (Erdrich 213-14). A wiindigoo must be killed by tribal consensus, and when Joe kills his mother’s rapist, his father, the judge, argues that there is a “traditional,” rather than a legal, precedent for the murder: “It could be argued,” says Joe’s father, “That [the rapist] met the definition of a wiindigoo, and that with no other recourse, his killing fulfilled the requirements of a very old law” (Erdrich 306). We have here another example of Rainwater’s “code confusion.” The simultaneous presence of cultural codes—legal and traditional—that are “…epistemologically, experientially and teleologically different,” contends Rainwater, “…vexes the reader’s effort to decide upon an unambiguous, epistemologically consistent interpretive framework. Encoded ‘undecidability’ leads to the marginalization of the reader by the text” (407). Erdrich unsettles her readers by refusing to place tribal justice on a higher moral plane than legal justice (or vice versa). Even Mooshum warns that wiindigoo justice is often undertaken rashly or unjustly when tribal elders aren’t consulted, and in a queasy scene toward the end of the book, Joe realizes that with a bit more investigation the rapist would have been caught, and that western law might have garnered Joe’s family sufficient justice without recourse to murder. In this way, Erdrich’s narrative resists code hierarchy. “Narrativity usually includes an impulse to resolve… textual tensions through privileging of one code or through synthesis,” says Rainwater, “but Erdrich’s texts preclude both options for dealing with these conflicting… paradigms” (409). This resistance to pat resolution falls in line with Cixous’ analysis of the “woman militant”, who splits struggle open, “…so as to prevent… struggle for the liberation of a class or people from operating as a form of repression” (882). Arguably, the privileging of one system of justice over the other would operate as a form of phallocentric repression in that it reduces the importance of one code, implying the necessity of creating code hierarchy. Here neither traditional nor western law takes primacy. But nor do they synthesize: they remain discrete, incompatible codes, and the refusal to choose one over the other causes discomfort in characters and readers both. It causes, in Rainwater’s words, a “…permanent state of irresolution” (409).

Another set of conflicting codes Erdrich explores is the intersection between Christianity and indigenous shamanism. “Competing with the syntagmatic chain of references to Christianity,” says Rainwater, “is another chain of references to Native American beliefs about material and spiritual life, which… are not as distinctly separate as they are according to Christianity” (408). Nowhere is this juxtaposition of faiths felt more strongly than in the round house itself, a space devoted to native worship which, pre-1978, when traditional religions were outlawed on the reservation, could be hastily converted into an ersatz church. The space is a liminal crossroads between creeds, between good and evil, and between legal jurisdictions. Mooshum, talking in his sleep, explains its origins: a raffish figure of legend, Nanapush (a figure the reader is often urged to compare to Joe himself), was communing with a female spirit of the disappeared buffalo, who sacrificed herself that Nanapush might have meat to eat and the shelter of her body in a storm. “Your people were brought together by us buffalo once…” she says. “Now we are gone, but as you have once sheltered in my body, so now you understand. The round house will be my body, the poles my ribs, the fire my heart” (Erdrich 214). The round house is a sacred cadaver: loss and memory inspired its creation. Ceremonies conducted at the round house still heal Joe and his Ojibwe people. But in this novel, what heals also harms, and what kills also saves, and we the readers must live with these contradictions. The rapist selects the round house as the scene of his crime because by doing so he will almost surely avoid prosecution: the land on which it sits is a tangled boundary of state, federal and tribal jurisdiction. When Joe visits the scene of the crime, we hear the round house “speak:” “There was a moment of intense quiet,” Joe remarks, “Then a low moan of air passed through the cracks in the silvery logs of the round house. I started with emotion. The grieving cry seemed emitted by the structure itself” (Erdrich 59). The house, a living character in its own right, speaks to the novel’s protagonist from a tortured Native American past, both ancient and recent, spiritual and legal. Later, Joe gets direction from Father Travis, the reservation’s Catholic priest, about “Sins Crying Out to Heaven for Vengeance” (Erdrich 250). Both traditional and Christian codes cry out with voices that are almost human, pulling our hero in different directions, neither one louder or more persuasive than the other. Joe makes his fatal decision within the clamor of this chorus of voices. Rainwater notes that, “With several avenues of meaning remaining open, the text does not overdetermine one avenue of interpretation and thus endorse one theological view over the other” (410). Not even the novel’s characters definitively favor a single dogma: many reservation inhabitants, in response to Christian pressures to convert, “…decided to hedge their bets by adding the saints to their love of the sacred pipe." (Erdrich 250).

Time, religion, the law, exist on multiple planes, dipping, circling, weaving, intermingling with alternative codes in what Cixous considers a distinctly feminine manner. The woman writer, she contends, discovers a new history through the “…process of becoming in which several histories intersect with one another… woman always occurs simultaneously in several places” (882). Paula Gunn Allen, author of The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions, comments on the inherent femaleness of Native American life and storytelling: “Traditional tribal lifestyles [and literature],” she argues, “are more often gynocratic than not, and they are never patriarchal… American Indians [base] their social systems, however diverse, on ritual, spirit-centered, woman-focused worldviews” (2). This is a good thing, because the specter of male-dominated colonial tyranny and coercion hangs ominously over the world of Erdrich’s novel—over the round house, over Joe and his mother, over the Ojibwe people, over Erdrich herself—and Erdrich, as a warrior in Cixous’ feminine army, refuses to fight this enemy with the enemy’s weapons alone. In “American Histories, Native American Narratives,” ethnographer Arnold Krupat outlines the difficulty of squaring Native American history—which includes magic, circular narratives and ceremonial time—with western ideas of “legitimate” history:

Is it possible, then, to write history ethnocritically, somehow reconciling competing narratives and values? The question is of acute importance both to native people and to postcolonial historians who do not wish their work to be part of an ongoing record of might establishing right. For there is little doubt that the rationalist-secularist paradigm for writing history in the West has unfailingly trivialized native, indigenous, and traditional ways of doing and living knowledge, presenting to Native people the impossible choice, “be yourself or choose knowledge”(Kraput 168-9).

Erdrich proves that it is possible to write an ethnocritical novel. To tell Joe’s story in linear time alone, to subordinate traditional justice to American law, to give up native religious tropes for the tropes of Christianity, or to privilege any code over another in an effort to avoid code confusion—all of these would be examples of might establishing right: of subordination to the phallocentrism of the male western narrative. It is Joe who negotiates this razor’s edge of history, carves a semblance of justice into his “small forever.” but it is Erdrich herself who wears Cixous’ righteous armor, fighting her good fight, placing at the center of her novel—at the center of all these great, rippling narrative ellipses—an object that beats with a female heart: the round house, container and creator of stories, time and history.


Cited Sources

Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Beacon Press. Boston. 1986. Print.

Cixous, Hélène. "The Laugh of the Medusa." Trans. Keith and Paula Cohen. Signs. Vol. 1, No. 4. Summer 1976. Print.

Deer, Sarah. “Sovereignty of the Soul: Exploring the Intersection of Rape Law Reform and Federal Indian Law.” Suffolk County Law Review. Vol 38. 2005. Print.

Erdrich, Louise. The Round House. Harper Collins. New York. 2012. Print.

Krupat, Arnold. “American Histories, Native American Narratives.” Early American Literature. Vol. 30, No. 2. 1995. Print.

Rainwater, Catherine. “Reading Between Worlds: Narrativity in the Fiction of Louise Erdrich.” American Literature. Sep 90, Vol. 62 Issue 3. Print.

Die to Live

Tragic heroes have death to purify them. Death sets all to rights. Comedies have no such recourse: whatever transgressions have upset the social balance must be restored to rights by a wedding, a trope of the comic genre. But some comedies delve into waters too murky to fix with marriage alone. While no one can speak to authorial intent, it’s tempting to imagine Shakespeare’s interweaving of the two narratives into Much Ado About Nothing as an exploration of such murky waters, deliberately contrasting two different philosophies of love. In our sympathies, the text critiques one and exalts the other. One constellation of characters represents a Medieval template of chivalric love, wherein men of solid virtue (galvanized by war and homosocial bonds) woo women of blemishless honor—women who deign to step down from their pedestals only in acceptance of a decorous marriage proposal. Reputation weighs more, in this lofty love-trope, than human trust and respect. Don Pedro, Claudio, and Hero are of this category, and they are doomed to failure within the worldview of the play. In fact, their decisions go so terribly awry that a simple marriage isn’t enough to redeem them. A tragic death is necessary. Hero doesn’t really die, but her faked death, like the real death in a tragedy, restores the play’s moral equilibrium, and with it the play makes its main point: that the false ideal of courtly love should—indeed must—“die” to give room to more human-scale notions of sympathy, parity, and understanding in conjugal relationships.

To help us to this valuable lesson, we get the play’s other love prototype, Benedick and Beatrice. These lovers woo on equal footing to one another, and are well-matched in intelligence, agency, individuation, and humor. They are people, not abstractions. Their relationship is based not on any template of love, but on the true meeting of minds. The audience relishes their courtship, and the stilted relationship between Claudio and Hero becomes a low-fidelity shadow in comparison, moving to the back of the viewer’s mind. It is almost as if Beatrice and Benedick have been imported into Much Ado from a different play. To sweep out the cobwebs, perhaps?—to shine light into the dark corners of convention? They do to the language of the play what they do to its ethos—queer the pitch; lend their all-too-human wit and vitality to the tired rhetoric of courtship; fuel the drama with their inexhaustible, bawdy joy—and they do it with such panache that they are, for many viewers, the only memorable part of the play. See how, when Benedick is in the room, the language of the others changes. In Act I, when Claudio and Don Pedro speak, they follow the script of chivalric codes: Claudio asks of Hero, “Can the world buy such a jewel?” To which Benedick quips, “Yea, and a case to put it in” (I.i.175-6). Don Pedro attests to her “worthiness” as well, in a lordly dialect that matches Claudio’s (I.i.220). But within a few pages Benedick has them all talking with low-brow humor of sexual appetites, women’s infidelity, brothels and “horn-mad” husbands, making the mannered jargon of the previous pages feel stilted and out-of-date (I.i.250-60): he cannot help but replace ideals with life, real life, and this makes the audience his ally. This happens virtually any time Benedick is in the scene, and when he isn’t, the characters fall joylessly to their practiced scripts. Likewise, Beatrice runs circles around her dullard cousin with her wit until she fluffs Hero up into the same kind of boisterousness that keeps her real and lovable—and too large and human to fit into the two-dimensional “virginal maiden” schema.

It is unsurprising that masks and masquerades thread through this play, for the conflict between role-playing and authenticity lies at the crux of the drama. The scales fall from the eyes of our beloved hero and heroine when they trade in their sharp tongues—tongues that have insulated them from vulnerability—for self-knowledge and the authentic love of and for one another. For the characters still beholden to the Platonic shadows of the Romance genre, the transformation comes at a greater cost. The audience watches in horror as Claudio publicly shames Hero. We don’t cringe because he is wrong (though he is—on virtually every level), but because, the play suggests, this outcome is the inevitable result of holding a lover to unrealistic standards. The chivalric code forces us to be perfect, and to expect perfection from our potential spouse. That, Shakespeare suggests, isn’t tenable. We fall hard when we have that far to fall. Claudio becomes nearly irredeemable at his public humiliation of Hero, but Hero, for agreeing to play the part of the slandered maiden, is culpable as well. After all, if you play in a world where masks are more important than reality, a seeming betrayal, hid by the “sign and semblance of… honor” (IV.i.41) makes you as guilty as a real one: the seeming is everything. So she must be punished (it’s rather a shame that Claudio isn’t punished more, for his cruelty to a grieving father if not his unnecessary cruelty to a lover). She, like the de casibus hero (Hero?), must die. But her death is a kind of purgation, releasing the play from the stranglehold of the past, allowing her and her lover to be “re-born” into the more winsome world of Beatrice and Benedick.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. Signet Classics, 1998.

The Nothing That Is

Nihilism and Its Discontents on Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man”

The dandy is nothing if not conspicuous, even in the wilderness.
— R. P. Blackmur, “The Substance That Prevails”
It can never be satisfied, the mind. Never.
— Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems

One must have a certain kind of mind—of winter perhaps—to allow Wallace Stevens' famous little double-helix of a poem to do its work. To the receptive mind, “The Snow Man” winds its self-contradictory way around the byzantine conduit of the brain, implanting little rhetorical, linguistic, and grammatical inconsistencies along the way, and bringing the reader, finally, to the paradox—the something, or nothing, or something-and-nothing, or nothing-as-something—nestled unsettlingly at its center. One need only read the critics to see how consternating this twelve-line Imagist classic is: they spill prodigious ink disagreeing about its meaning, realigning the grammar to propose alternate readings, restructuring the syntax, redefining the words, applying various philosophical frameworks to decode its deceptively simple, crystalline word-play. Each critic has a reasonable but, I would hazard, incomplete interpretation. Stevens (that dandy—the only bit of color in his stark winter landscape) has written a poem that works on so many levels at once—intellectual, emotional, Romantic, Buddhist, existential, Cartesian, Jamesian, neo-Platonic—that to encompass them all might not be possible, or even desirable. The true mind of winter embraces (“be-holds”) the contradictions, the multiple readings, allowing them to stand in for all the irreconcilable realities that plague our human lives on this earth: lives for which we must struggle to find meaning with the abyss yawning ever beneath us.

Many critics see Stevens’ “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” as a nihilistic battle royale between an individual and the void. Samuel Jay Keyser puts it beautifully when, in a segment for All Things Considered he suggests that when parsed, the poem becomes a “…perfectly balanced mobile,” and this mobile, spinning, forces “…readers to reanalyze what they have just read again and again,” until one reaches reality: the emptiness at the core of things (NPR). In “Wallace Stevens: Form and Meaning in Four Poems,” Keyser delves further into how the poem’s structure informs its meaning:

The poem is in its structure precisely what it talks about in its content. It demands of readers that they reanalyze in order to see the truth of its syntax and this is what Stevens claims one must do with respect to one’s perception of the world in order to perceive the truth of the world’s reality (“Form and Meaning” 597).

Stevens’ Platonic aim, Keyser suggests, is to shed the “pathetic fallacy” and see the world as it is, bare of human emotional projection. There is no “misery” in Nothing, because there is nothing in nothing. John P. Wargacki agrees that Stevens wants to strip away the human to reach the nothing beneath. In “Reduction and Negation in Emily Dickinson’s ‘There’s a Certain Slant of Light’ and Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Snow Man,’” he likens the poem to a palimpsest (as resonant a metaphor as the mobile): “[Stevens’] process of reduction has been… likened to the removal of a surface painting upon which another painting beneath the first is revealed” (Wargacki 91). What is revealed, he goes on to say, through constant reduction and negation—constant “unnaming”—is the “universal blank of nothingness,” (Wargacki 94), and that “…what is and what is not ultimately reduces itself into the same nothingness, blank or void [emphasis mine]” (Wargacki 95). Stevens himself reinforces Wargacki’s metaphor (though not the void) when he talks about the “first idea.” In The Letters of Wallace Stevens, he says, “If you take the varnish and dirt of generations off a picture, you see it in its first idea. If you think about the world without its varnish and dirt, you are a thinker of the first idea” (Letters, 426-427). Harold Bloom writes about the connection between the “first idea” and the pathetic fallacy in “Wallace Stevens: Reduction to the First Idea:” one needs the mind of winter, he argues, “…in order to avoid indulgence in the fallacy of imputing human ‘misery’ to the wind and leaves” (54). He disagrees with Keyser and Wargacki, however, on the definition of “Nothing:” the poem’s “nothing,” he posits, “…is the most minimal and abstracted of fictions, yet it is still a fiction” (Bloom 55). It isn’t the void: It’s an alteration of the first idea to get as close to the void as a human being can get without being destroyed by it. So why approach the void at all, if we can hardly survive it? In “Grammar and Rhetoric in Criticism,” Robert Browne reinforces Plato’s contention that “knowledge, even of the void, is preferable to ignorance” (153). Stevens, then, is doing the brave, the necessary, with his imperative that we “must” develop a wintry mind, one that can withstand the Awful Truth.

Other critics argue that Stevens, rather than trying to expose the Platonic void (or the just-bearable minimal fiction of that “Nothing”), is trying to gain mastery over it. In “Wallace Stevens and the Symbolist Imagination,” Michel Benamou sees transcendence in Stevens’ “lexical opulence” (36): “The poetry of the beautiful surface with the dark terror beneath,” he remarks, “does not… escape the facts of death and suffering. It is a means of overcoming [the] terror [of them]” (Benamou 36). So, unlike Keyser, Wargacki, and Bloom, Benamou argues that our imaginations safeguard us, however provisionally, against the void: “The imagination,” he says, “is man’s best protection against the vast spaces ready to engulf him” (37). But the darkness is real, is ever near. Stevens, Benamou suggests, denudes this winter scene as an act of “linguistic askesis,” creating an aesthetic, “…similar to a glacier both transparent and denying transparence to the poet it will eventually paralyze” (55). We can overcome terror through imagination, but we cannot overcome the reality of the terror’s cause. In similar vein, Helen Vendler argues for Stevens’ mastery of the void in “Wallace Stevens: Hypotheses and Contradictions:”

…in spite of his frequent thematic bleakness, Stevens was above all a poet of fertility of verbal invention. His swerves, hypotheses… accretive elaborations, and asymptotic progressions establish… a mental landscape anything but bleak, one that matches the distributed richness of the material world with its own unfailing wealth of emotional, intellectual, and linguistic forms (117).

Thus, Vendler argues, there is an inherent contrast between the richness of Stevens’ landscapes and the painful subject matter with which he contends, and in fact, by creating the contrast, he “…attempts to contest his nihilistic deadness even as he voices it” (108). He is R. P. Blackmur’s dandy, a conspicuous creator within the wintry wilderness of the human condition (Blackmur 107). Both Benamou and Vendler celebrate the almost feminine fecundity of Stevens’ images.

Robert Randolph takes it a step further in “‘The Snow Man:’ Nausea or Numin?” He attributes a sort of divinity to the triumph of the human over the nihilistic. At the end of the poem, “Rather than Nothing… one is left with the ‘new transcendent fact’ that paradox does not necessarily destroy being… One can [survive paradox] through the use of symbol, or, as Stevens has it, image. Moreover, this sort of transcendence… carries with it a numinosity” (Randolph 121). Even Robert Browne, more firmly in the nihilist camp, admits that, “It is a paradox… that none of the misery signified by the sounds is in any way altered; but it is brought under control of the mind” (155). Art controls—or at least temporarily tames—the terror of the void.

Much of the debate between those who argue nihilism and those who argue transcendence comes down to one small question: whether the viewer (the “one” in the poem who “regards” and “beholds”) is the same as the listener “who listens in the snow,” and whether these are the same as the speaker. To Keyser, Wargacki, and Bloom, these three are all the same character, a character who must shed his human limitations in perception one by one in order to give himself a mind of winter, capable of apprehending stark reality and emptiness; the Nothing that is. The poem, to these critics, is a treatise on how to get ourselves out of Plato’s cave—to steel ourselves against revelations of the void. But others see important distinctions between speaker, observer, and listener. Browne sees the characters as discrete, inferring a lesser intellectual/perceptual capacity to the viewer than to the listener: “…the imperceptive viewer and the perceptive listener are much alike; both stand in the snow, both ‘see nothing:’ the viewer through lack of insight, the listener precisely because he has insight” (153). This “Capital-N Nothing” is more Buddhist than nihilistic, and provides the listener, who embodies enlightened patience (after all, says Browne, he is not “…born with a mind of winter but acquires it through long exposure” [147]) with a kind of connection to the world to which a regular human hasn’t access. In this interpretation the mind of winter is both achievable and desirable. To Ronald Hoag, by contrast, in “Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Snow Man:’ An Important Title Pun,” the listener is an actual man made out of snow, “This No-Man” (a homophonic reassembly of the title syllables), who is only divorced from the scene’s misery because he isn’t human: “…the snow man himself, mindless and devoid of imagination, beholds (embraces) both ‘Nothing that is not there (no-thing but the scene) and ‘the nothing [no-thing] that is’ (himself as a part of that scene)” (Hoag 91). Thus, Hoag suggests, we shouldn’t feel bad about being miserable in such a scene: the aesthetic beauty of this wintry bareness can only be enjoyed by an entity “created from the landscape” (91).

Like Hoag, David Hesla argues for the inescapability of human emotion in “Singing in Chaos: Wallace Stevens and Three or Four Ideas,” this time from a philosophical standpoint. He vehemently disagrees that the persona of the poem is, in tone, “…that of a steely-eyed positivist calling upon us to distinguish facts from feelings; nor is it that of a dialectical ontologist courageously facing the abyss of nothingness” (Hesla 251). Hesla argues for a Jamesian, rather than Platonic/Cartesian, reading. He notes that the mind does not exist in a vacuum, as Descartes would have it—it exists on a continuum of its own created reality and the world that informs it (Hesla 257). “James,” says Hesla, “eliminated the abstract dualism of mind and body, thought and things, and replaced it with the single, vital, complex concept of ‘pure experience…’ so the experience of a winter landscape may include the emotion of misery” (248). He concludes that the poem’s speaker, unlike the listener, the reader and, perhaps, the poet, is “…bemused, even appalled, by the fact that there can be people who have so far forgotten their humanity as to be unmoved by a winter landscape” (Hesla 251). Stevens is, Hesla suggests, condemning the Keysers, the Wargackis, the Blooms of this world, who have “forgotten their humanity” enough to think the void exists, is knowable, and—worse—is worth dashing ourselves against.

Glauco Cambon, too, fundamentally disagrees with the nihilists about the nature of the Nothing. In “Nothingness as Catalyst: An Analysis of Three Poems,” he identifies two extremities with opposite emotional valences in Stevens’ work. “Winter as deathly purity,” he says, “summer as exuberant fulfillment, constitute for Stevens the two poles of the terrestrial condition, beyond which there is no other… [thus] the absolute perceptual blankness Stevens’ observer [in ‘The Snow Man’] reaches by hypnotism is an end unto itself” (Cambon 97). So, like Browne’s Buddhist “Nothing,” the nothing at the end of Cambon’s reading is a goal worth achieving, a state of mind that cleanses, bringing “purity” and peace, and that one must “hypnotize” the self to attain. One imagines intense prayer, fasting, Sufi dance (or perhaps Benamou’s “linguistic askesis”), and the way these are used to stimulate a spiritual condition of non-being (the “No-Thing” the listener enjoys in the poem). Moreover, this state exists as but one of two necessary polar states. Cambon’s “deathly purity” is not a terminal, absolute “Truth,” the final stasis of the Romantic/Platonic/Cartesian search. Rather, it’s part of a duality of contingent truths represented by the fertile, procreative summer and the purgative winter. Benamou, too, finds “poles” in Stevens’ work, both equally necessary, and in this case gendered: his “constellating images of the South, the Moon-Woman, vegetation, summer, nature, music…,” which give way to “the masculine constellation of the Day, North, men… winter” (Benamou 37). These poles, Cambon and Benamou argue, are the extremes in the orbit of Stevens’ poetry, which is essentially center-seeking: “The centripetal imagination of Stevens,” says Benamou, “moves toward a pure center where it will find peace” (60). But does the reader—can the reader—ever get there?

Richard Blessing is the critic with perhaps the most humanist approach to the blank Stevens leaves us to decode in “The Snow Man.” In “Wallace Stevens and the Necessary Reader: A Technique of Dynamism,” Blessing argues that “The Snow Man” is indecipherable without its final indispensable ingredient—the dynamic engagement of the reader:

Stevens… is able to force the reader into participation in the poem—a participation which mirrors that of the scientist who discovers that, try as he will, his human act of observation has altered whatever it was that he was trying to observe without alteration. Even more disconcerting, the reader may find that in the process of reading he has discovered a poem which means something quite different from what it says that it means” (252).

So Blessing contends that the paradoxes Stevens leaves us with are there to stimulate, to make us search for our own meanings. The void, while it entices us with its simplicity, exists as a red herring, for, “While Stevens pretends to be directing us toward ‘Nothing’ with one hand,” Blessing reminds us, “he is making sure we don’t get there with the other” (252). Stevens does this verbally and syntactically as well as conceptually:

…our reactions to the world destroy our neutrality as surely as the poet’s choice of words adds meaning and value to the landscape he describes. The words “shagged,” “rough,” and “glitter” agitate the mind, force judgments upon us, cause us to add the colors of the emotions to the event which we are trying to see without emotion (Blessing 253).

So, Blessing argues, we can never achieve a mind of winter. We are human, after all, and while human beings can imagine the void, to imagine the void without a sensation of misery—that is going too far. We cannot and should not expect it of ourselves. We have a human’s perceptual apparatus and a human’s perceptual limitations. We are not snow men, and we haven’t “minds of winter.” Blessing and Hesla see the poem as a celebration of our humanity, not a turning away from it.

Who among this cacophony of criticism is correct? To this reader, they all present viable but incomplete readings: their mobiles, palimpsests, polar dualities and philosophical applications are useful, representing the full engagement of human endeavor. Perhaps that is Stevens’ intention. At the end of the day, only one thing is certain: “The Snow Man” resists easy decryption. It is, I suspect, built that way. In Hesla’s words:

For every position there is a negation, for every assertion a denial, for every denial a denial. Stevens’ poetry is a poetry of ideas and the men who thought them, but it is not a dignified debate among gentlemen. It is a wrestling match, it is a combat zone” (261).

And reading the critics’ vociferous disagreements is indeed mentally challenging—and mentally exhausting. But I like to think of Stevens as the dandy who incites the fight, who throws the wrench into the works of his own machine, in order to make us think. The paradox, to me—the nothing that is—is the constant, unwinnable battle between ourselves and the void; the byzantine complexity of our world and our human experience as the merest fragment of that world; and the jostling we must do between the things we need to know and our inability to know them.

Stevens said it best: “It can never be satisfied, the mind. Never.”

The Snow Man
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
— Wallace Stevens, "The Snow Man"

Cited Sources

Benamou, Michel. “Wallace Stevens and the Symbolist Imagination.ELH Vol. 31, No. 1. (Mar 1964). 35-63. Print.

Blackmur, R. P. “The Substance That Prevails.” Kenyon Review XVII. (1957). 107. Print.

Blessing, Richard. “Wallace Stevens and the Necessary Reader: A Technique of Dynamism.Twentieth Century Literature Vol. 18, No. 4. (Oct 1972). 251-258. Print.

Bloom, Harold. “Wallace Stevens: Reduction to the First Idea.Diacritics Vol. 6, No. 3. (Autumn 1976). 48-57. Print.

Browne, Robert M. “Grammar and Rhetoric in Criticism.Texas Studies in Literature and Language Vol. 3, No. 1. (Spring 1961). 144-157. Print.

Cambon, Glauco. “Nothingness as Catalyst: An Analysis of Three Poems.”  Comparative Literature Studies Special Advance Number. (1963). 91-99. Print.

Hesla, David H. “Singing in Chaos: Wallace Stevens and Three or Four Ideas.” American Literature Vol. 57, No. 2 (May 1985). 240-262. Print.

Hoag, Ronald Wesley. “Wallace Stevens ‘The Snow Man:’ An Important Title Pun.” American Notes and Queries Vol. 17, Issue 6. (Feb 1979). 91. Print.

Keyser, Samuel Jay. “In Praise of Wallace Stevens.All Things Considered: National Public Radio. 29 Nov. 2005. Radio.

Keyser, Samuel Jay. “Wallace Stevens: Form and Meaning in Four Poems.” College English No. 37 (1976): 578-98. Print.

Randolph, Robert. “’The Snow Man:’ Nausea or Numin?” ANQ Vol. 3 Issue 5. (1990). 119-121. Print.

Vendler, Helen. “Wallace Stevens: Hypotheses and Contradictions.Representations Vol. 81, No. 1 (Winter 2003). 99-117. Print.

Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems. New York: Knopf. 1954. Print.

Stevens, Wallace. The Letters of Wallace Stevens. Ed. Holly Stevens. New York: Knopf. 1966. Print.

Wargacki, John P. “Reduction and Negation in Emily Dickinson’s ‘There’s a Certain Slant of Light’ and Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Snow Man.’” The Explicator Vol. 69. No. 2 (2011). 90-99. Print.

Never Quite Disclosed

Epistemological Hijinks in the Poems of Emily Dickinson

Literature is not religion, and it doesn’t address itself to belief. But if we shut the vision of it completely out of our minds… something goes dead inside us, perhaps the one thing that it is really important to keep alive.
— Northrup Frye, The Educated Imagination

Emily Dickinson wrote during a revolution in epistemology. Scientific inquiry, from the time of Francis Bacon, had endeavored to uncover the stable, static, unchanging design behind God’s universe. But what was becoming increasingly clear, from Charles Darwin onward, was that the scientific method uncovered, despite itself, not nature’s divine stability but its chaotic stochasticity. Scientists and theologians of the time scrambled to reevaluate knowledge itself: why we gather it and to what purpose to put it. Enter Emily Dickinson, educated in both theology and the sciences, and highly observant of the way the inner (spiritual) life interacts with the natural world. She joins the debate on the one hand as a Victorian scholar, representing 19th century religious ideas of an unchanging, stable, and discoverable Truth with a celestial creator, and on the other as a naturalist who doesn’t just accept but celebrates contingency, chance, and change. She places the two worldviews in tension by employing metaphors that destabilize rather than coordinate the world—emphasizing, rather than reducing, difference—in an attempt to suggest that it’s process, not product, that gets us closest to the divine.

In her article “The Apparatus of the Dark: Emily Dickinson and the Epistemology of Metaphor,” Michelle Kohler notes that the scientific method had “…long held the promise of gradually revealing a fixed, divine order to the material world” (61). But, she goes on to say, these methods were dismantling the very ideas of permanence and fixity they were meant to reinforce. In response, she notes, “Dickinson seeks a new way of thinking about revelation that embraces process and provisionality” (Kohler 61). Let us examine poem 1140 as an exemplar of this phenomenon. The poem starts without surprise: “The Lightning is a yellow fork” (Dickinson 457). Forks and lightening are an oft-paired metaphor, and represent the way lightening branches into frightening and destructive “tines.” But the poem veers dramatically from the expected in the next few lines: “From tables in the sky / By inadvertent fingers dropt / The awful Cutlery.” This lightening fork, far from being a representation of God’s terrible power (a cliché the reader is primed to expect), is actually a domestic, almost womanly metaphor of mislaid flatware. This fork is dropped by accident from a heavenly table during, we have no choice but to presume, a heavenly meal. Even in God’s “mansion,” accidents happen. Randomness reigns supreme. Note what Dickinson chooses to capitalize. The Fork, the Table, and the Cutlery, are given proper noun status, while the “fingers” and the “mansions” of God are generic. The poem employs the passive voice: the Fork is dropped. God is undermined as the agent. It is the mistake, the movement, the downward motion, as well as, to a certain extent, the end viewer’s ability to see the metaphor, that Dickinson emphasizes. Further, the reader is asked to imagine this accident as revealing a spiritual truth. But it is the falling object’s accidental disclosure, not the object itself—the God-made lightening, table, mansion, or observer—that delivers this spiritual truth.  The cutlery is dropped from “…mansions never quite disclosed / And never quite concealed,” and the moment of observation causes “The Apparatus of the Dark” to be, for a brief, accidental moment, exposed to those who otherwise have no access to the mysteries of the divine. Through destabilized metaphor, our poet approximates revelation.

Dickinson places herself in competition with God by offering up this exposé. As Claudia Schwarz notes in her article “Dickinson’s Journeys Beyond Time,” “Whereas God has the power to give and to take away, the poet’s imagination transcends the boundaries he has set up and even turns his concepts upside down” (94). Just as science was challenging—albeit queasily—God’s hegemony, Dickinson, too, shifts the focus from God’s power to nature’s mutability and contingency. To an almost blasphemous degree she places herself in the role of its record-keeper and even, at times, as its creator. We see this in poem 787, in which she claims that had she the seed, her own “bloom” would surpass the bloom of sunset (Dickinson 351). Humble, in a way, because she admires the “Efflorescence” of sunset while admitting she isn’t equipped with the right material to enact her one-upmanship. But it takes nerve to suggest that with the right tools she could out-create God. In The Rhetoric of American Romance: Dialectic and Identity in Emerson, Dickinson, Poe, and Hawthorne, Evan Carton notes how paradoxically Dickinson makes herself powerful: Dickinson’s language, he contends, “…exercises its power as it seems to announce its impotence; and… intricately involves itself with its object while ostensibly opposing itself to it” (83). Sure, the mountain, “Indicating by no Muscle / The Experience,” doesn’t expend effort to create so gorgeous a sunset. But, insists the poem’s speaker, with the right “seed,” her “…Purple Sowing / Should endow the Day / Not—a Tropic of a Twilight— / Show itself away—.” Though it might take effort, her sunset wouldn’t be something that died in twilight, but would be an efflorescence worthy of the day. Like Carton, Kohler notes that, “…it is precisely in the act of laboring for and against itself, of claiming success and incapacity, that Dickinson’s metaphor locates meaning” (82). Cynthia Griffin Wolff, in Emily Dickinson, agrees with Schwarz that Dickinson’s poetry turns God’s concepts “upside down,” and even invites her readers to share the power: her verse, Wolff says, though the poet herself is mortal, can, “…confound death and transcend time by springing to life anew for every reader. Her poetry, then, stands as rival creation to God’s” (185). It is this brazenness that, despite her reclusive life, makes Dickinson one of the world’s most beloved iconoclasts.

Dickinson throws her gauntlet not just before God, but before all prevailing 19th century notions of the very purpose of knowledge-gathering. Previously, scientists assumed that, sans a priori assumptions, close observation would reveal the “intelligent design” behind the world’s outward variability. Instead, scientific observation was again and again undermining its theological end. Literature, Dickinson suggests, can mend this rift. She seeks, in Kohler’s words, a way to “…redress the growing rupture between empirical methods and spiritual truth” (61). Dickinson uses what, in “Emily Dickinson: Metaphorical Spaces and the Divided Self,” Simon du Plock calls her “paradoxical pronouns—often grammatically or generically unstable” (275) to celebrate the dual (and often multiform) nature of all things; metaphorical, rhetorical, and literal (and these become quite tangled: a sunset is at once real, the signified, and a metaphor of a bloom; her written bloom is a facsimile of that metaphorical bloom, but also, in the subjunctive, outblooms the real sunset’s bloom, etc.) Her poems breathe life into the inanimate while exposing the mechanisms behind the omnipotent. Kohler contends that an unstable Dickinson metaphor can, “…accommodate the incongruity that erupts amid her repeated efforts to make words adhere to their referents” (77), which goes a long way to explaining Dickinson’s obsession with the limits of knowing: with half-obscuring and half-revealing (like her shadowy diner with His—Her?—effulgent cutlery). Literature can bridge the split in epistemology, but only imperfectly—in the way an asymptote approaches its axis.

In Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Stairway of Surprise, Charles R. Anderson comments upon her keen sense of the bounds of human perception:

What seem like objects to the limited mortal view are really aspects of nature as process, nature going down to the “death” of eternity. And conversely, what man sees as process and change are the illusory pictures cast by the immutable on his time-trapped senses (134-5).

Nature—God—shows us only a bit at a time, and shows it to us provisionally. And art, because it self-consciously creates an incomplete replica of its referent, is more suited than science or religion to approach “the immutables:” Truth, Revelation, etc. Perhaps that is why Northrup Frye, in The Educated Imagination, cautions us that without literature “…something goes dead inside us” (48), because the formal mechanisms by which we find truth—science and religion—speak in absolutes, whereas our minds apprehend only fragmentarily. Dickinson describes the artistic process best in poem 1263, when she urges us to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant— / Success in Circuit lies” (Dickinson 495). We must approach truth asymptotically, she tells us, else “every man be blind.” Dickinson embraces the paradox syntactically as well as rhetorically by creating an infinite loop within the reader’s mind. We have “truth” in the middle of the first line, equated with the Circuit that “lies”—the terminal word of the second line. Of course the denotation of the word “lies” in this context is “rests,” but the reader must also confront “lies” as truth’s opposite. Similarly, the word “slant” recalls a number line on a Cartesian coordinate system, elegant, infinite, while “circuit” evokes an ellipse… a known, limited, closed system. Du Plock comments that Dickinson seeks to “…satisfy our increasing need to have our intelligence resisted” (279), and this poem, with its paradoxes, does just that. It suggests we use our own limitations to glimpse the infinite; and lie to tell the truth. What better metaphor is there for art in general—for literature?

There is mischief in Dickinson’s metaphors. They’re pranks on the whole epistemological paradigm shift and its polarizing effects. And through her metaphorical roguery, her poetry synthesizes two prevailing worldviews—the randomness and chance that science reveals, and the spiritual Truth that religion espouses—and does so with pathos, humor, and humility. She understands something that neither side alone does: that divine truth can be found in nature’s very unpredictability, so that even as we lose truth as an unchanging entity, we gain something richer and truer to the human sensual and spiritual experience; we gain, in Kohler’s words, a truth that “…is true only insofar as it is of use to a person and… because usefulness is determined by constantly changing methods, needs, and environments, truth is always in the process of being made and remade” (84). Dickinson spent her life writing and rewriting, hardly considering the fruit of her labors. She, almost more than any other poet, privileged process over product. It was the labor itself that sustained her—and that continues to sustain us in a world that, despite our best efforts, can never be quite disclosed.

Cited Sources

Anderson, Charles R. Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Stairway of Surprise. New York: Rinehart and Winston. 1960. Print.

Carton, Evan. The Rhetoric of American Romance: Dialectic and Identity in Emerson, Dickinson, Poe, and Hawthorne. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press. 1985. Print.

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. Ed. R. W. Franklin. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press. 1999. Print.

Du Plock, Simon. “Emily Dickinson: Metaphorical Spaces and the Divided Self.” The International Conference of Psychology and the Arts. Univ. of Porto. 26-28 July 2013. Presentation.

Frye, Northrup. The Educated Imagination. Concord: Anansi Press. 1997. Print.

Kohler, Michelle. “The Apparatus of the Dark: Emily Dickinson and the Epistemology of Metaphor.” Nineteenth Century Literature Vol. 67, No. 1 (June 2012): pp 58-86. Print.

Schwarz, Claudia. “Dickinson’s Journeys Beyond Time.” Arbeitenaus Anglistik und Amerikanistik Vol. 32, No. 1 (2007): pp 83-99. Print.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Emily Dickinson. Boston: Addison-Wesley. 1988. Print.

A Small Island Is Not a Country

History and Landscape in Jamaica Kincaid's "Song of Roland"

Jamaica Kincaid foregrounds a love story in “Song of Roland." But the love story quickly becomes a backdrop for the story’s true preoccupation: the highly charged power asymmetries roiling beneath its surface. Political and gender struggles leave traces in the flesh and behaviors of the characters, so that the struggles become larger, more elemental than the characters, who are often only partially aware of them. Even the island setting—its topographical features and its moody weather—becomes a character of sorts, with agency and motives, almost more real than the unnamed protagonist and her lover. Despite the story’s surface, its undercurrents concern power: power’s uses and power’s limits, and the way power is exercised by the powerless.

Most of the story is told in iterative time. The narrator and her lover meet again and again in an ongoing tryst, lending the romance a sense of the timeless, the mythological. Three exceptions, each including pages of sensual detail, anchor the narrative specifically in time and place: first, when the lovers meet during a rainstorm (indeed, the rainstorm seems partially responsible for their meeting). The narrator’s dress is plastered alluringly against her body; she must take shelter beneath a gallery. Her mood—which we eventually recognize as one of her chief coping strategies—is one of sublime desolation: “I was standing under the gallery,” she says, “enjoying completely the despair I felt at being myself” (147). She is receptive, in such a mood, to the aesthetic pleasures of romance. It seems as though Roland is as well, for she manages to communicate with him over a din of sadness: the people around them, speaking loudly of “…their disappointments… for joy is so short-lived there isn’t time to dwell on its occurrence” (148). The narrator derives her power from her ability to turn sadness and squalor into transcendent beauty so as not to be subsumed by it—she possesses the power of the artist.

The second instance of specific time occurs when the narrator has a confrontation with Roland’s wife. While the older woman hurls exaggerated invective at her—“…[she] called me a whore, a slut, a pig, a snake, a viper, a rat, a low-life, a parasite, and an evil woman” (151)—she keeps herself emotionally distant from the insults and blows, safe within another source of her power: her youth, beauty and indifference. “I was then a young woman in my early twenties,” she confides, “my skin was supple, smooth, the pores invisible to the naked eye” (151). While Roland’s wife, enraged, rips the narrator’s dress from her body, listing the names of his other lovers, the narrator coolly observes that “The impulse to possess is alive in every heart, and some people choose vast plains, some people choose high mountains, some people choose wide seas, and some people choose husbands;” adding, significantly, “I chose to possess myself” (152-3). The narrator is assured victory over her body and mind—unlike the other battlegrounds over which the characters fight and exhaust themselves.

The story’s ultimate scene sets the narrator and Roland facing the sea that can’t free them, with their backs to the island that traps them, the “…small world we were from, the world of… steep mountains… covered in a green so humble no one had ever longed for them, of three hundred and sixty-five small streams that would never meet up to form a majestic roar… of people who had never been regarded as people at all” (155). The narrator looks in the direction of the horizon. She can’t see it but knows it’s there, and she likens this unseen limit to the limit on her love for Roland. It will end, she’s foreseen, like the island’s three hundred and sixty-five streams: “[it would]… spill out of me and run all the way down a long, long road and then the road would come to an end and I would feel empty and sad…” (149). The island’s geography serves as an extended metaphor for the emotional limits it imposes on its inhabitants.

These three specific scenes, set within skeins of recursive time, do little to make the romance more concrete. Instead, what they highlight is the story’s preoccupation with themes of power and powerlessness. From their first meeting, the narrator asserts that Roland, “…was not a hero,” and unlike the emblem of chivalry to which the story’s title alludes (Childress), “…he was a small event in someone else’s history” (148). In her tenderest explorations of love, the narrator employs the language of war and conquest: “When our eyes met,” she says, “we laughed, because we were happy, but it was frightening, for that gaze asked everything: who would betray whom, who would be captive, who would be captor…” (148); Roland’s mouth, she asserts, was “…like a chain around me” (148); when he kisses her breasts, she can’t decide “…which sensation I wanted to take dominance over the other” (152); and when Roland’s wife confronts her, she tells the younger woman, “…[Roland’s] history; it was not a long one, it was not a sad one, no one had died in it, no land had been laid waste, no birthright had been stolen; she had a list, and it was full of names, but they were not the names of countries” (152). In this story, a romance is a conquering, with a victor and a loser. The lovers have been robbed of country, history, birthright and even personhood (a people “…who had never been regarded as people at all,”) and their attempts to reclaim are enacted on one another’s bodies. In this way the subtle shadow of colonial slave heritage stretches over the story, as inevitable as the weather (which, as the narrator asserts, is, “by now beyond comment” [148]). If the story’s landscape circumscribes, its history binds with an even tighter chain.


The narrator triumphs because she refuses Roland’s “silent offering” (154). She remains in control of her fertility, which Roland wants—without understanding his want—to plunder, like he plunders the wombs of the ships whose lading he steals. She is so confident in her victory, she can empathize with her would-be possessor: for “…no mountains were named for him,” she says, “no valleys, no nothing… no history yet written had embraced him” (154). She can see that his need to conquer women is a proxy to remedy the shame of these losses, and that he can’t fully understand the “small uprisings” within him that urge him to all this small-scale conquering. Roland, like the narrator, wants a story of his own. But once again, as in times past, he has been hijacked by history. He has only the narrator—the artist—to sing his small and humble song.

Cited Sources

Childress, Diana. “The Song of Roland.” Calliope. March, 1999. Vol. 9 Issue 7. Web.

Kincaid, Jamaica. “Song of Roland.” More Stories We Tell: The Best Contemporary Short Stories by North American Women. Ed. Wendy Martin. New York. Pantheon Books. 2004. 146-55. Print.