Trying to Think with Emily Dickinson

Trying to Think with Emily Dickinson

Jed Deppman
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 272
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    Trying to Think with Emily Dickinson
    Book Description:

    This book presents Emily Dickinson as one of America’s great thinkers and argues that she has even more to say to the twentyfirst century than she did to the nineteenth. Jed Deppman weaves together many strands in Dickinson’s intellectual culture—philosophy, lexicography, religion, experimental science, the female Bildungsroman—and shows how she developed a lyricized, conversational hermeneutics uniquely suited to rethinking the authoritative discourses of her time. Through Deppman’s original analysis, readers come to see how Dickinson’s mind and poetry were informed by two strong but opposing philosophical vocabularies: on the one hand, the Lockean materialism and Scottish Common Sense that dominated her schoolbooks in logic and mental philosophy—Reid, Hedge, Watts, Stewart, Brown, and Upham—and on the other, the neoKantian modes of apprehending the supersensible that circulated throughout German idealism and Transcendentalism. Blending close readings with philosophical and historical approaches, Deppman affirms Dickinson’s place in the history of ideas and brings her to the center of postmodern conversations initiated by JeanFrançois Lyotard, JeanLuc Nancy, Jacques Derrida, Richard Rorty, and Gianni Vattimo. Trying her out in various postmodern roles—the Nietzschean accomplished nihilist, the Nancian finite thinker, the Vattimian weak thinker, and the Rortian liberal ironist—Deppman adds to the traditional expressive functions of her poetry a valuable, timely, and interpretable layer of philosophical inquiry. Dickinson, it turns out, is an ideal companion for anybody trying to think in the contemporary conditions that Vattimo characterizes as the “weakened experience of truth.”

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-081-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    Why is it, Ralph Waldo Emerson asked in “The American Scholar,” that we sometimes feel a “most modern joy,” and even an “awe mixed with the joy of our surprise” when we read poets from ages past? (58). He suggested that the answer lies in the way we “abstract” them from their time and bring them into ours: when we receive them as live voices, we enable ourselves to respond with strong thought and emotion. Sometimes we even find those old poets saying “that which lies close to our soul,” just what we ourselves “had well-nigh thought and said” (58)....

  6. 1 Dickinson and the Hermeneutics of Conversation
    (pp. 21-48)

    “Sermons on unbelief ever did attract me,” wrote Emily Dickinson in 1854, and this iconoclastic inclination, combined with her hermeneutic humility and awareness of the embeddedness of thought in and among vocabularies, broadly aligns her with twentieth-century anti-foundationalist thought (L176). Because she so often experienced “presence denied” not only as deprivation but also as opportunity, we can consider her a member of the nineteenth-century avant-garde of “accomplished” nihilists in the sense Gianni Vattimo derives from Nietzsche: thinkers who understand, first, that when God dies—becomes an unnecessary hypothesis—the possibility of foundational truth dies too, and second, that the resulting...

  7. 2 Trying to Think with Emily Dickinson
    (pp. 49-74)

    In 1870, during their first meeting, Emily Dickinson told Thomas Wentworth Higginson that “if I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I knowthatis poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I knowthatis poetry. These are the only way I know it” (L342a). A few such memorable remarks about how poetry makes one feel, along with hundreds of lyrics celebrating ecstasy, awe, and exhilaration, have led many readers to privilege emotional and physical responses to her poems as...

  8. 3 Dickinson and Philosophy
    (pp. 75-108)

    A great many of Emily Dickinson’s nearly two thousand poems and one thousand letters can be interpreted as philosophical fragments in the early-nineteenth-century Athenaeum tradition of German Romanticism. That was a time, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy remind us inThe Literary Absolute, when the very idea and destiny of literature was linked to that of the short philosophical text, when “the union of poetry and philosophy” that had been “postulated and called for” since Plato and Aristotle was realized with new intensity (13). Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe are mainly concerned with figures such as the Schlegels, Novalis, and Schelling, but...

  9. 4 Amherst’s Other Lexicographer
    (pp. 109-149)

    Dictionaries have long been America’s most prestigious linguistic authorities. Valued for their erudition and utility, they are ubiquitous, trusted, and marketed in all sizes, shapes, languages, and media. But familiarity has bred indifference. The art/science of lexicography now produces such expected cultural furniture that it provokes nothing like the impassioned public debate and partisanship it did 150 years ago, when Noah Webster, Joseph Worcester, and their publishers waged an intense “War of the Dictionaries.”¹ At that point the nation was itself in an acute and violent phase of self-definition, and arguments large and small coalesced around such topics as spelling,...

  10. 5 Through the Dark Sod: Trying to Read with Emily Dickinson
    (pp. 150-183)

    Early in this book we looked at how Emily Dickinson used the lyric form in ways that might help post-metaphysical thinkers recognize and redescribe their own contingency. We saw how she adopted a conversational hermeneutics and Eco-style open poetics that underpinned theoretical stances similar to Rorty’s liberal ironist, Nietzsche’s accomplished nihilist, and Vattimo’s interpretive adapter and “weak” thinker. Her many poems on conversation showed an expansive awareness of how reading can shape the self, and her correspondence with T. W. Higginson revealed even more about the relationships she established between thinking and poetry. All this helped explain why, as we...

  11. 6 With Bolder Playmates Straying: Dickinson Thinking of Death
    (pp. 184-204)

    In this book we have seen Dickinson in many postmodern roles: an accomplished nihilist, a liberal ironist, a poet of weak thought, and more. We have seen some of the major discourses in and against which she developed an open, conversational hermeneutics, and looked at how she used lyric poetry experimentally and therapeutically to pursue difficult projects of thought. Can all of this now be more closely connected to her existential poetry, to her frequent tries at thinking the limits of being? Is it possible that her signature poetics and philosophical orientation, the products of lifelong hermeneutic encounters with her...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 205-240)
  13. Works Cited
    (pp. 241-258)
  14. Index of Poems and Letters
    (pp. 259-264)
  15. General Index
    (pp. 265-278)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 279-279)