«A Dissertation by SARAH ELIZABETH HART Submitted to the Office of Graduate Studies of Texas A&M University in partial fulfillment of the requirements ...»
The injustice of my death follows from this injustice of the other's death because my death renders me incapable of responding to the other, unable to maintain a just, "personal relationship" with the other (Levinas, "Time" 47). Levinas claims, "Vanquishing death is to maintain, with the alterity of the event, a relationship that must still be personal" ("Time" 47). Levinas recognizes this kind of enduring "personal relationship" in a verse from II Samuel that describes how "Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided..." ("Time" 47; II Sam. 1:23 qtd. in "Dying For..." 215). In their acts of "dying for the other," this father and son portray "the very meaning of love in its responsibility for one's fellow man," "as if... in death all relationship to the other person were not undone" ("Dying For..." 216, 215). Spargo explains, "Saul and Jonathan live only in the meaning of their dedication to each other," which "gives meaning to their humanity precisely in this 'worry over the death of the other... before care for self'" (Vigilant Memory 47; Levinas qtd. in Spargo, Vigilant Memory 47). In dying for each other, Saul and Jonathan express their responsibility for each other even in the event of death, which renders us incapable of acting on this responsibility. Through their mutual self-sacrifice, Saul and Jonathan sustain their relationship beyond the incapacities that death invokes.
When one loses oneself in responsibility for the other, the loss justifies one's presence and thereby invokes one's humanity. To give oneself over to the other in this way, however, is an act predicated on our human ability "to be able" (Levinas, "Time" 42). Sacrifice turns the loss of this agency into an expression of that agency itself. In Dickinson's "After great pain" and in Frost's "Desert Places," both speakers express fears that their human agency is in peril if not already lost. Through writing poetry, they aim to actualize their fading agency in ways that sustain "personal relationship[s]" with readers and with themselves (Levinas, "Time" 47). Together Levinas, Dickinson, and Frost help us recognize how death haunts presence, which is always already constituted in part by inevitable absence and loss ("Time" 41). When we understand experience in terms of loss, we may more readily recognize ambiguity—and vulnerability—at the heart of human presence.
Absences of Affect Although neither Robert Frost nor Emily Dickinson directly address death in these two poems, the presence of absence does overwhelm both "Desert Places" and "After great pain." Frost's speaker shares a haunting memory of a dark, snowy "field" he once "looked into going past" ("Desert Places" 2). He seems to project his own overwhelming loneliness onto this snowy landscape, claiming he is "too absent-spirited to count" (Frost, "Desert Places" 7). The speaker is thus absent from the landscape, which, itself a mere memory, is also in a sense absent. In addition, the speaker is absent to himself, apparently only recognizing his own fear in the final stanza as he admits that he is terrified of the blank, empty "desert places" within himself (Frost, "Desert Places" 16). Emily Dickinson's speaker is similarly absent in her lyric as she focuses on a liminal, "formal feeling" that follows "great pain" and precedes "the letting go" ("After" 1, 13). Dickinson's depersonalized "formal feeling" that could belong to "everyone," as Mordecai Marcus notes, or "to no one" as Francis Manley claims, or to anyone (Dickinson 1; Marcus 16; Manley 261).8 This stone-like "Quartz contentment" seems,
8. With no account of the causes of the speaker's pain, and with the impersonal terminology of "[t]he Nerves," [t]he Heart," and "[t]he Feet, the speaker's "individuality" thus "counts for little" (Marcus 16-17).
paradoxically, to be a weighty emptiness, an intense emotion that lacks substance— much like the "blanker whiteness of" the increasing loneliness that Frost's speaker recognizes in nature, but barely acknowledges in himself (Dickinson 9). Both Dickinson's and Frost's speakers express an absence of connection with other people and their surroundings, an absence of emotion itself, and an absence of connection with themselves.
These absences are conveyed and indeed constituted in part by each poet's rhetorical uses of personification. Although both authors use rhetorical devices to diminish their speakers' presences in the poems, Dickinson and Frost differ in the values they place on emotion in these poems. Dickinson's speaker conveys fear of losing emotion itself, while Frost's speaker emphasizes fear of losing the ability to express himself, an ability that seems to depend in part on one's emotions, on the presence of affect. These speakers both demonstrate attitudes toward loss and absence that make elegiac appeals to readers, inviting mournful responses from them. The speakers' own absences of emotion and of connection with themselves invite emotional responses in the reader, which in turn become a common ground of connection between speaker and implied reader, between author and historical reader. The presence of these rhetorical connections not only offers an opportunity for mourning, but also seems to deflect, at least momentarily, each speaker's fears of an ultimate loss of meaningful relations— which, for Levinas, is the essential horror of death.
Levinas's Ethical Affect Mourning itself has an inherently ethical nature, according to Spargo's account of Levinasian ethics. Spargo explains "the basic ethical structure of grief" as the "[desire] to preserve what it cannot possibly preserve" (Vigilant Memory 52). This definition positions grief as the emotional effect of resistance to our desire to preserve. Grief mirrors the fundamental, ethical relationship of my responsibility for the other's death— an "impossible responsibility" to preserve her presence in the face of the reality at which I will ultimately fail, for the other's death, like my own, is inevitable whether I am present or not (Spargo, Vigilant Memory 36). What matters is that, in my proximity to the other, I always risk invoking her inevitable death, and thus I am ethically responsible for preserving her presence against the threat I pose. Mourning implicitly affirms this ethical relationship in that "the mourner... remains a witness to an absence entirely predicated upon, yet also interpreting, the priority of relationship" itself, which, for Levinas, is always under girded by our ethical responsibility (Spargo, Vigilant Memory 52). This ethical mourning functions as the ground of affective experience because "the death of the other prompts an affective movement in the self underlying all responsiveness" (Spargo, Vigilant Memory 58). The mournful dimension of our responsible relationship to the other may thus underlie not only the mournful responses that Dickinson and Frost evoke in their readers, but also the absences of affect in their speakers' responses to loss. I suggest that all of our emotional responses to others that we consciously experience are inflected by this emphasis on relation in ethical mourning.
Spargo concludes that "the death of the other prompts an affective movement in the self underlying all responsiveness" (Vigilant Memory 58). Dickinson and Frost show us that such "responsiveness" can in fact include even the absence of affect. This "affective movement" evoked by "the death of the other" precedes the self's motives, intentions, and conscious emotions related to "experiential existence;" as Spargo explains, "our emotional relation to the death of the other describes a state of receptivity far surpassing the self's capability in the world" (Vigilant Memory 58). Indeed this emotional relation may well be non-affective in and of itself. Spargo explains that "the affect inspired by the other's death prompts a movement in self," a "movement within identity [that] is structured according to a crucial rupture in identity... dislocating the coherence of identity" itself (Vigilant Memory 57). This emotional response is not characterized by some affective content or expression of grief (i.e. weeping), but rather by its "ruptur[ing]" effect on the subject herself (Spargo, Vigilant Memory 57). We may view Dickinson's and Frost's speaker's imperiled, incoherent identities as signifying this kind of ethically ruptured, fragmented subjectivity. Such incoherence seems to define human subjectivity for Levinas, who associates "an emotional relation toe the death of the other" with the ethical "responsibility for him in the unknown" (Levinas qtd. in Spargo, Vigilant Memory 57). Spargo infers that, by "dislocating the coherence of identity, the emotional response articulates the subject as that which has been questioned by the event of death" (Vigilant Memory 57). Spargo's Levinas portrays human subjectivity precisely as a mode of presence that has been affected—ruptured, dislocated, scarred—by the other's death.
Human subjectivity is thus effected by a relation to the other that disrupts the self, as if subjectivity is fundamentally fragmented, at least at some deep level. This ruptured nature of subjectivity, however, continues to affirm subjectivity's relational essence. Levinas's theory allows us to see Frost's and Dickinson's implications about the affective, relational aspect of subjectivity more explicitly. In light of Levinas's emphasis on the ethical contours of grief, Frost's and Dickinson's mournful effects on readers are essentially ethical. By affirming the priority of relationship," mourning mirrors the relational essence of Levinasian responsibility (Spargo, Vigilant Memory 52). To the extent that mourning constitutes the affective form of subjectivity's nature, Frost and Dickinson evoke a humanizing response in their readers, inviting them to experience on a conscious level the attitude toward loss implicit in our being. And even if their readers have different affective responses to their poems, Dickinson and Frost still succeed in evoking a response from—and "personal" relations with—others that affirm their speakers' human presences.
The Ambiguity of Personal Presence In his comparison of Emily Dickinson's lyric 341 with Frost's poem "Acquainted with the Night," Mordecai Marcus suggests that both authors depersonalize emotions by describing them in "universal terms"—terms that undermine the "individuality" and presence of the poems' respective speakers (17). According to Marcus, Dickinson specifically emphasizes "universal experiences" of "Great pain" by describing this emotion as an impersonal "Hour of Lead" (16). She also depersonalizes specific body parts like "Nerves" and "Feet" by referring to them only categorically as "The Nerves" and "The Feet," not personally as would be signified in "my feet" or even "her feet" (Marcus 16; emphasis mine).9 This depersonalization of body parts, however, allows Dickinson to grant these "Nerves" and this "Heart" an unexpected kind of personhood.
Through personification, "The Nerves" assume personalities akin to mourners, as Francis Manley observes, "sitt[ing] ceremonious[ly]" around "the body or 'the stiff Heart'" (Dickinson 2-3). In this personification, the "Nerves" and the "Heart" that "questions" represent synecdochally the speaker herself, while simultaneously insinuating a community of mourners (Dickinson, "After" 2-3). Insofar as the speaker represents herself through synecdoche and personification, she conveys distance and disconnection from herself—from her own body and emotions. Her fragmented sense of self suggests that she lacks a unifying subjectivity. Such fragmentation, though, may be a fundamental effect of the other's death that gives rise to the self's ethical subjectivity.
The speaker never acknowledges her own feelings of emptiness, but rather apparently feels so alienated, even from herself, that she can only convey her emotional absence by describing it indirectly through her personification of depersonalized body parts. This paradox signifies the speaker's absence by representing a fragmented body where there should instead be a coherent self. This self-less body underscores the speaker's utter isolation both from others and from herself, conveying a sense of despair
9. For Marcus, these terms convey the speaker's "defensive... detachment from a world and people who could inflict such suffering" and also diminish the speaker's "individuality" (16-17). He reads Dickinson's "splitting of the self" as a means of affirming her own "self-reliance" and "proud detachment from those who did not care to keep her company" (Marcus 19). By pluralizing the self, Dickinson makes potentially dangerous others unnecessary. That may well be an accurate psychological account of Dickinson's rhetoric, but such meaning is not in concert with Levinas's ethics and therefore conflicts with the additional ethical meanings I find in her poem.
that she may never be whole again. This fragmentation thus points toward a kind of death, and may evoke mourning in Dickinson's reader, who sympathetically recognizes the speaker's loss of self in her ambiguous presence. Dickinson describes a feeling that brings a person to the brink of death, a feeling that haunts the borders of subjectivity itself. Such a death-like feeling may not only parallel our fundamental, ethical relationship with the other on an experiential level, but may also constitute a kind of affective "dying for" the other. This loss of self as a response to "great pain" or an event of loss seems to imply the self's radical reliance on the other, without whom the self's very meaning is lost.
In "Desert Places," Frost's rhetoric emphasizes absence as the speaker seems to see only emptiness and death around him. In the fast-falling night, "the ground" is "almost covered smooth in snow," and he imagines the "animals" as being "smothered in their lairs," as if they are suffocated forever by winter instead of cozily hibernating in their homes until spring (Frost, "Desert Places" 3, 6). Yet even these seemingly lifeless creatures apparently have a greater presence than the speaker himself, who is "too absent-spirited to count" and thus falls victim to the personified "loneliness" that merely "includes" him "unawares" (Frost, "Desert Places" 7-8). The speaker is thus barely present both to the snowy scene and to himself. It is "[t]he woods" that "have," as Frank Lentricchia recognizes, not only the snow and the night, but also the emotion of "loneliness"—but not the speaker himself (Lentricchia 97; Frost, "Desert Places" 5, 8).