Heideggerian Considerations on a Poem of Dickinson’s: How do Nature and Reason Relate?

part 1 | part 2

“Love – is anterior to Life…” (917)
Emily Dickinson

Love – is anterior to Life –
Posterior – to Death –
Initial of Creation, and
The Exponent of Earth –

1. When commenting on Dickinson’s “Love – is anterior to Life…” some time ago, I said the following:

Human reason more than human nature places Man in the realm of becoming. A perfected human nature that is wholly rational is in the realm of being. But being reasonable is what we aspire to, not what we are always. And our self-awareness is what allows us to see our own nature in the first place, and see the steps we have to take for completion.

Now I hold that the poem forces a reading of this sort, where the relation between reason and nature becomes very tangled. The poem does this because it is working with eros, which unites all things (cf. Seth Benardete, On Plato’s Symposium). It attempts to unite the divine and the human, and in doing so loses distinctions necessary for answering other questions.

[You may wonder where reason comes up in the poem at all; poems aren’t necessarily rational, and we are talking about love. The answer is twofold: anterior/posterior are technical terms, and the first two lines thus attempt to steer clear of mythic imagery (in the end, they fail). More importantly, the poem takes the form of an attempted definition.]

2. So what are those distinctions? The poem, on my reading, forces one to place human reason within the realm of becoming and links it explicitly to the Christian God. “Initial of Creation” brings in the “light” metaphor of Genesis, and “Love – is anterior to Life – / Posterior – to Death” places the primary emotion outside of Time, leading one to wonder what resides in time.

Now I’m not saying that merely invoking Christianity results in a narrative that must be anti-rational. What I am saying is that the poem depends on conflation more than distinction. It is true that eros ultimately is a love of wisdom, an unquenchable striving for knowledge. It’s also true that eros is just eros, and that another way of conceiving of the love of wisdom is death. Socrates says philosophy is death in the Phaedo based on our common notion of death: death is where body and soul separate. If you hold that to be true, what is a philosopher doing when looking into the nature of a thing? He’s separating the “soul” from the actual instantiation, no?

So again: what distinctions are at stake here? Without separating divine from human, eros from death, knowledge as emphasis on unity from emphasis on distinction, reason from nature, we’re not going to know. The poem is a comment on love, and in its generality it also says something particular; all the philosophic categories have at least dual meanings here.

3. We move to Martin Heidegger’s discussion in Introduction to Metaphysics to see more clearly what is going on. We will put the poem aside for now. All quotes below are from the Fried/Polt translation published in 2000 by Yale University Press, p. 63 onward:

…this standing-there, this taking and maintaining a stand that stands erected high in itself, is what the Greeks understood as Being.  Whatever takes such a stand becomes constant in itself and thereby freely and on its own runs up against the necessity of its limit, peras. This peras is not something that first accrues to a being from outside. Much less is it some deficiency in the sense of a detrimental restriction. Instead, the self-restraining hold that comes from a limit, the having-of-itself wherein the constant holds itself, is the Being of beings; it is what first makes a being be a being as opposed to a nonbeing. Thus a basic characteristic of a being is its telos, which does not mean goal or purpose, but end. Here “end” does not have any negative sense, as if “end meant that something can go no further, that it breaks down and gives out. Instead, “end” means completion in the sense of coming to fulfillment. Limit and end are that whereby beings first being to be (63).

So far, we’ve worked in a bit of a circle: with “limit” constituting a being, we have answered that “yes, distinctions matter,” as if we didn’t know that already. Perhaps more crucial is the Being/standing relation:

…from an observer’s point of view, what stands-there-in-itself becomes what puts itself forth, what offers itself in how it looks. The Greeks call the look of a thing its eidos or idea. Initially, eidos resonates with what we mean when we say that a thing has a face, a visage, that it has the right look, that it stands. The thing “fits” (64).

In numerous places in this blog I have emphasized man standing upright as the key to man’s rationality. Here you can see a direct link between seeing, apprehending a form, understanding a thing in its limit, and knowing how it fits into a whole/what it is appropriate for.

Returning to the poem, we see this play out in “Life,” “Death,” “Initial of Creation,” “Exponent of Earth.” It is eros that drove us to these considerations even as it initially began by trying to articulate similarity and only similarity. But now we see just how different “Initial of Creation” and “Exponent of Earth” are, to take an example. “Initial of Creation” is wed to “limit” – even in the Genesis account, it is because God makes distinctions Creation occurs. “Exponent of Earth” is the totality realized by limit, where something stands, where consideration of a being tells us about all the other beings. We need to hear more about this “Exponent,” but that will occur later. What is crucial right now is to see how terms that invoke myth – Love as the “Exponent of Earth” pushes us to some sort of personification (cf. Plato, Symposium, where Eros is not a god but very much earthly) – are subject to a sort of analysis that is not empirical, but rather another investigation altogether.

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