If reverse causality obtains anywhere in the universe, if the arrow of time ever points, however briefly, upstream, it surely makes its exceptions for letters. Who has not watched as meanings cavort across centuries? They are such acrobats. A reader cannot read without leaving some mark on his material.
Tonight I feel the aftereffects of a passage in Kafka. It seems to reach out and alter the possibilities of reading a poem of Dickinson’s, my favorite poem of hers. Let us begin with the poem:
I breathed enough to take the Trick –
And now, removed from Air –
I simulate the Breath, so well –
That One, to be quite sure –
The Lungs are stirless – must descend
Among the Cunning Cells –
And touch the Pantomime – Himself,
How numb, the Bellows feels!
The poem tells of desperate subterfuge. A person, abandoned by God, “removed from Air,” must coax Him back by pretending still to breath, by the machinal simulation of Breath. So thorough, so convincing is this pretend inspiration, that One (to be quite sure the lungs are stirless) must touch the Bellows himself, and feel its numbness. But He is the Breath: He cannot carry out this procedure without the poet regaining the Air so longed for.
There is one layer of meaning, so far as I can tell the primordial layer. But now I recall the passage of Kafka:
“Well,” he thought, “if I could tell her the whole story, she would cease to be astonished. One works so feverishly at the office that afterwards one is too tired even to enjoy one’s holidays properly. But even all that work does not give one a claim to be treated lovingly by everyone; on the contrary, one is alone, a total stranger and only an object of curiosity. And so long as you say ‘one’ instead of ‘I,’ there’s nothing in it and one can easily tell the story; but as soon as you admit to yourself that it is you, yourself, you feel as though transfixed and are horrified.”
Everything speaks against reading Dickinson in light of Kafka. I hardly need to run through the arguments. But this passage has marked me: only with difficulty can I read “one” otherwise than as a defense mechanism, an attempt to distance oneself from events concerning oneself. Do you not feel it already, in the previous sentence?
What, then, of Dickinson? Clearly, “One” is a name for God, a glorious name that draws attention to His unity, wholeness, His lack of all imperfections. And yet… perhaps it also suggests that the poet is distant from herself, but shudders to confront this fact. Perhaps she seeks distance from the horrible cold that she feels upon encountering herself. God, after all, is more resistant to such pain, and at any rate God’s pain is not our pain. Perhaps “One” is mere externalization, disburdening.
On such a reading, the poem becomes doubly awful, once for its surface, and once for what that surface evades.