American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

a Whip lash / Unbraiding in the Sun

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(From an essay in three parts written out of sequence. This picks up where part one left off and leads directly into part three.)

Indian Whips-Snake

Frederick William Frohawk, Indian Whip-Snake (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911)

I began with one model of historical knowledge and ended with another. To conceive of events as holes in time makes language a kind of residue or debris: the sand piled up around an ant hole, the rust around the drain of a sink. However intrinsic the relationship between the two ― between language and event ― the former can never be an explanation of the latter, only a witness to the fact that it occurred. Other language is needed to make sense of this “witness.” Historical knowledge requires a metalanguage.

To conceive of texts as misrecognized or misattributed events ― as whips that turn out to be encounters with snakes ― is not so very different in effect:  since knowledge of the “event” can only be had when the misrecognition or misattribution is grasped, metalanguage is still required. This metalanguage, however, is not simply an explanation of the text, but its first moment of authentic regard.

The two models are different but compatible ― the differences are matters of emphasis and perspective. In the first case, the event is what matters, albeit for the attention it draws and for what that attention brings into view. View and not consciousness because consciousness requires an act of interpretation. That act is precisely what matters in the second case, but the faultiness of the view that precedes it is the necessary precondition for the act to yield its desired result: consciousness can only be corrective when error precedes it. Error in this context is the event; history, its meaning, which can only be known in retrospect. (Knowledge, of course, is also an event. But then events are ceaselessly unfolding ― this is why consciousness is not static.)

Error is not intrinsic to the first model. If Tel el-Kebir is the moment of recognition, the event that drew Dickinson’s attention, then the meaning of that event (its transformation into historical knowledge) need not require repudiation of the “whip” in order to be grasped, at least not if the “snake” is colonialism. Quite the contrary: Tel el-Kebir is colonialism grasped. In the absence of error, recognition puts us squarely on the path to knowledge. That path may begin in ignorance, but ignorance is already an advance beyond error.

But what of those cases where error does occur? What would it mean if the “Tel el-Kebir” of Dickinson’s note was not colonialism grasped but misrecognized? If her joke on Arabi was not aimed at the defeated Arab nationalist, but somebody else? If her joke was more than a residue or debris of history? If it was also an allegory in which history provided the text? For allegories are by definition textual events in which the meaning is misattributed by design. Coming to terms with that design, we see the text for what it is and so transform error into something true.

With that last word I mean to recall Dickinson’s first letter to Higginson, which included the cryptic sentence, “I enclose my name ― asking you, if you please ― Sir ― to tell me what is true?” Dickinson enclosed a calling card with that letter, but in asking for truth she was not concerned with the name “Dickinson” but “poet.” What she wanted, in other words, was a reading of her poems, also enclosed with the letter; she wanted a hermeneutic metalanguage. Or better: a moment of recognition; a judgment of her work as absolute and as authentic in its labeling as a name.

Part three of this essay considers the particular nature of Dickinson’s allegorical designs in the curious case of her Khedive note.


Written by Ben Friedlander

May 23, 2009 at 11:20 am

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