Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Emily Dickinson, the Infinite Unfinished Possibilitarian

My friend Kenneth Harrison sent me a fascinating article about Dickinson's working methods, which is strikingly reminiscent of Musil, the unfinished and unfinishable.  Brenda Wineapple, in her essay, "On Emily Dickinson" in Salmagundi: Spring 2011. 170-171, writes:

"To her, literature was improvisation, much like her concoctions on the piano, remembered by all who heard them, and her poems were always in progress, meant to be revised, reevaluated, and reconceived, especially when dispatched to different readers, as her first editors would discover.(Poet Richard Howard points out that completing poems may not have interested her: 'Her true Flaubert was Penelope, to invert a famous allusion, forever unraveling what she figured on the loom the day before') She saved all variants and appears to have not chosen among them, sometimes toying with as many as eight possibilities for words, line arrangement, rhyme, enjambment; nor did she choose among alternative endings. Frequently she composed on scraps of paper--newspaper clippings, envelopes, brown paper sacks--or around the edges of thin sheets, the writing almost illegible...From an editorial point of view, the situation was a mess. It is a mess. Recently, Max Rudin, the publisher of the Library of America, spoke with  me about the deep difficulty of placing Dickinson between those hard, shiny black covers, not just because Harvard owns the copyright, which it does, but because myriad versions of her poems make it tough to choose among them. Selecting one manuscript version of a poem over another seems to preclude the rest and deny the mercurial fluidity of  her work. ('It is finished can never be said of us,' she said with typical finish.)".

It strikes me that it is no accident that these two seemingly distant writers shared a resistance to final versions and completion. Both were of the school of possibility and of telling the truth but telling it slant, the school of continual striving, the school of timeless momentariness and its awareness of mortality; both were transcendentalists who yet knew well about gravity and the sluggish persistence of matter; both were really unprepared to share their work with the world outside, while they both craved resonance, response, an admiring public--if only that public would not pry too much or ask them to hurry, to pander, to lie ( a practically impossible thing to expect of a public); both were bound to the beautiful treacherous practice of the sort of perfection which first manifests itself as messiness (like when one's room is initially much messier when one first begins to clean it up); and this devotion to the infinite facets, the myriad words and arrangements, could only be indulged by those who were somehow not quite bound to any one  finite world, but rather by those who had to create infinite, unfinished portals into multiple universes of words. Dickinson might have been referring, with her royal We, to herself and Musil then, when she said, "It is finished can never be said of us". Or perhaps she meant that none of us, not one of us mortal humans, is ever really finished. . . .

8 comments:

  1. Sweet! You just helped me with my Emily Dickinson project! Thanks, dude! :)

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  2. You'll never finish that project. Just saying.

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  3. This is a little odd--but I just have to send a comment to say how thrilled I am to have found your blog. I am studying Musil for the first time this year, and have been looking for good and interesting commentary on the internet. This is most excellent. Thank you!
    I am still a student, but am very much in love with German literature and music, and looking forward to continuing on in the field post-undergrad.
    I also see that you are in Vermont--I grew up there, and, though I am now far away at school, I will always consider it home.
    Alles Gute!
    Emily
    https://thoughtenchanted.wordpress.com/

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  4. Dear Emily, If it were odd, it would be the best sort of odd, or the odd for which we all long. In my own Attempts to Find Other Human Beings I send out these little transmissions, hoping they might mean something to someone somewhere. I loved your musings on Musil on your blog. Thank you so much for sharing them with me and with the world. You wrote of Musil's subjunctive case..Do you know of Schöne's wonderful essay "Zum Gerbrauch des Konjunktivs" usw.? It was very important for my understanding of Musil's use of language and its utopian potentials. I am not sure I agree with your provisional conclusions about Musil and silence/worldlessness for reasons related to Schöne's essay. I believe (as I have written in different ways in this blog and certainly in my book) that Musil had a faith in the abilities of words to express ineffable experience, but the words had to be re-animated, made new. He lived in words, endless words. Endless attempts. Versions. Proliferations. Words had magical significance for him. Words had powers to alter reality. While he was dealing with the same "Sprachkrise" of his generation (Hofmanstahl, Wittgenstein, etc.), he did not despair of language, I don't think. Rather, like Wittgenstein, he hoped that poetic language would be able to express what didactic or philosophical language could not. Strangely, he thought of himself as rather unmusical! But I personally find your comparison with Mahler fascinating and certainly worth exploring further. Perhaps you will have more to say on this as you move through the Man without Qualities, and I would love to hear/read more. And yes, again in ten years (it has taken me 17 to write my book). Yours with Fellow Vermontian Feeling, Genese

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  5. Dear Genese, finally a moment to respond properly to your very kind comments! I know the feeling well, of sending out transmissions and hoping they will mean something. Making that connection, when it does happen, is really wonderful. No, I do not know the essay you mention--I will certainly have to look it up. The Classics/Linguistics side of me is perpetually fascinated by such things.
    Hm. I think I confused the failure-of-words of Musil's *characters* with that of Musil himself. Perhaps it is only his characters (at least in what I have read) that seem to have the problems with bringing to words--Musil himself, as author and narrator, is able to make the bridge with words where they cannot. Like on the second page of Die Versuchuung der Stillen Veronika, when Johannes tries to talk about God: "Aber wie er es auusprach, war es ein entwerteter Begriff and sagte nichts von dem, was er meinte" (the Törless motto again!!). So there was the character's attempt--but then Musil steps in with "Was er meinte aber, war damals....", and goes on to give words to the whole thing, in one long paragraph full of Vielleicht and Subjunktiv and Vergleiche.
    Anyway, it is all very provisional, as you say. I don't suppose I have any right to air such comments, really, with my few semesters of German and six weeks of Musil. Ha. But if one can't try things out(the root of *essay* after all!), what is the fun in that? In any event, I thank you sincerely for taking the time to read and write back. All the best!
    Emily

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  6. Emily! I love your idea about the distinction between the failure the characters to find words and Musil's ability to use words. Fine reading! You certainly have a right to comment! We can continue, if you like, our Musil conversations through email. You can write me at genesegrill1@gmail.com. More soon! -GG

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