It has taken me some time to realize there are different sorts of profundities. I suspect I am not the only one who has fallen into the trap of holding wisdom comes in only one variety. Because a particular style of speaking strikes me as profound, I unconsciously believe all the things that sound that style “wise.” However, style does not exist independent of substance, and thus it becomes easy to miss blunt, harsh truths necessary for wisdom because they lack a specific aesthetic.
In the poem below, Dickinson speaks of migration. Given the enormous amount of white nationalism in which Twitter and Facebook are soaked, I don’t doubt there are those who will actually read this poem and think that emigration is only difficult for the cryptic reasons she specifies. I’ve met people who want to believe that asylum-seekers are liars who simply want to commit crimes. I’ve met some of them in Great Books-type circles. It is not for nothing Rep. Steve King, known for explicit endorsements of neo-Nazis, continually speaks about the threat to “Western Civilization.” His sentiments are not entirely alien from what a disturbing number who claim to be educated actually believe.
It is not unwise to wonder about the tribulations or horrors faced by those who emigrate and hold that to be a separate topic from the loneliness and alienation encountered by someone who fancies herself a free thinker. Dickinson’s first stanza is playful, though the second has a much darker tone:
Away from Home are some and I (821) Emily Dickinson Away from Home are some and I — An Emigrant to be In a Metropolis of Homes Is easy, possibly — The Habit of a Foreign Sky We — difficult — acquire As Children, who remain in Face The more their Feet retire.
Away from Home are some and I, she declares. Some are away from home, she’s away from home, she’s not with them or home. Her tone does not sound harsh or embittered. She does sound lost, and definitely worried: An Emigrant to be / In a Metropolis of Homes / Is easy, possibly. Maybe one can be a successful emigrant, as there are homes everywhere, homes with mothers (metropolis: in Greek, “mother city”). It isn’t simple to find your true family, those you feel a kinship on the deepest level with. But since she has not really tried this before, she cannot immediately discount the possibility that it might happen sooner rather than later, that a certain felicity might be experienced.
She’s begun to consciously search for where she belongs. She’s always been in “a metropolis of homes,” she’s always been “an emigrant to be.” The problem of this poem is how to reconcile this search with who she was before. If I realize I have been where I have not belonged, do I throw away my old self entirely? Maybe with regard to morality, where the immoral must be rejected and repented for, but this poem feels like it concerns the problem of intellectual maturity. The Habit of a Foreign Sky / We — difficult — acquire / As Children—who we were before depends not just on our ignorance, but our learning. As children, we learned a difficult habit, i.e. how to not be ourselves. How to deal with a foreign sky. It’s not an entirely useless habit; in fact, if one wants to understand oneself on a deeper level, one doesn’t immediately look for kin or allies, but looks at how one reacts and learns.
Emigration of a sort has brought her back home even as she has declared herself away from home. She remains at home in Face, but her object is not to submit to the conventions of her world, but understand them so they cannot constrain her. Self-knowledge means becoming a migrant, putting on a mask for those who don’t have questions, who are hostile to questions, who only understand obedience: As Children, who remain in Face / The more their Feet retire. When we were children, there were many times we didn’t understand why we were being barked at, but we understood to keep quiet and ask the questions we needed to ask later. We understood how to understand, once. I suspect there is more of a link to contemporary events in this poem than I allowed in my initial remarks, but I would not approach any such conclusion lightly, as if being a migrant were easy.