Emily Dickinson, “I made slow Riches but my Gain…” (843)

I made slow Riches but my Gain… (843)
Emily Dickinson

I made slow Riches but my Gain
Was steady as the Sun
And every Night, it numbered more
Than the preceding One

All Days, I did not earn the same
But my perceiveless Gain
Inferred the less by Growing than
The Sum that it had grown.

Comment:

“All Days, I did not earn the same / But my perceiveless Gain” – two parables of Christ are referenced here: first, “earn the same,” the parable of the workers who were hired early in the day for one wage and then workers who came later who were paid the exact same wage. The first workers saw that the workers who came later were paid the same as them and expected a bonus, and were angry that they didn’t get any bonus. Like the story concerning the reaction of the Prodigal Son’s brother, this is about the nature of justice that defines heaven. The afterlife is not a place where one floats on clouds and gets everything one wants. It is conceivable that one gets nothing in the heavenly order, except the joy – if one cares for others at all – that others are there with them. Who exactly is least in the kingdom of heaven is a tough question; there are many indications that the poor in this life will get far more than the rich, but it looks from this parable that no one will get anything. The spirit of the divine law is its own reward.

Second, the parable of the talents: “perceiveless Gain.” Three servants charged with guarding their master’s wealth do different things; two gain on investments, one buries the wealth and returns the exact same thing given to the master. That last person is rebuked by the master. The “talents” that comprise the master’s wealth can be perceived, and an increase in talents (“Gain”) is likewise physically accountable.

One more thing to consider before a more orderly explication: Xenophon’s Oeconomicus, II.3 – Socrates refers to his “substance,” his wealth, in such a way as to imply that his only true wealth is the knowledge of the beings he may have. He can only sell what he has for five minas, but he insists that wealth is only wealth if it is useful to one. In other words: the aspect of his wealth that was five minas was never properly speaking his true wealth. Xenophon commentators tend not to say “the beings” = “wealth” for Socrates; I think that’s a scholarly aversion that borders on an insult to wisdom. It doesn’t matter if the supposition is wrong: the point is it should be played with, thought about and refuted as it may be in certain instances. In this case, it brings up the very large question of whether an incomprehensible notion of justice is any justice at all. More generally, it forces us to ask how much we value knowledge itself, and what presuppositions we are bringing to the text that we may not bring to other activities. It’s easy when reading to value knowledge. Do we always act like knowledge matters?

The first stanza: the “Gain” is likened to the Sun. Light is in the background; the Gain resembles the Sun in terms of steadiness, it is always there. At Night – in darkness – it is accounted. It is true that one type of not-knowing, knowledge of ignorance, is 1) pain 2) quantifiable (you can, even as you know, sort the things you don’t know into rough classes) 3) dependent on knowledge in the way the Night is dependent on the moon and stars. If the Night is purely dark, it is beyond the scope of the human. We get an indication of labor – “slow Riches” – and a close look reveals an indication of the greatest pain. What numbers more every day is that our days our numbered.

Hence, the second stanza: what kind of stupid world is this that the only “gain” is ticking off the days before you die? We need another notion of justice, perhaps a divine one. But the speaker only knows her own experience (“All Days”). We do not earn the same thing every day, much less the same as others every day. And no one perceives our “Gain:” people take it for granted that others will be around forever, that they can take what has been shared with them and not give any interest to those who share. Inequality and ingratitude make it hard but not impossible to see the kingdom of heaven.

Dickinson at her best is not interested in bashing religion. She wants the best question possible, and in this case the Bible has done a very good job of outlining where the best question lies. She moves away from the Biblical promise (“Sum” instead of “Sun”) so as to address her own experience. After all, her own experience is actually addressing her: her “Gain” is not just days on a calendar being marked off. The “Gain” itself inferred – the Latin root means “to bear.” What the “Gain” realized was that there seemed to be less value in accounting for every single day and far more in looking at the Sum total of life. In this, Dickinson and Biblical finality (the day of judgment) are agreed, but you can see how an atheist could break from the Bible on the same ground – one may not want to take the Levitical law in its totality as the final guide to daily life, since the Sum matters most for purposes of sanity. The “Gain” made a realization, but is “perceiveless” itself: our speaker saw what it bore, and a lack of inference may imply having actual knowledge.

The question, then, is that of parts and the whole. Following Benardete – if you take a whole apart, the parts stand distinct in themselves; they are not merely parts of the whole. Similarly, merely recognizing the part in a whole may complicate the part/whole relation in ways that require no less than a philosopher to figure out. The parts may never be put back together to form the same whole again. The whole itself might be recognized as not a true whole. If you want to refine the question, the issue immediately at hand seems to be this: how did considerations of justice/equality/gratitude – considerations of politics/law/piety – stem from a simple question about whether we’re getting anything from life? How did the whole emerge from what seemed to be most partial? How did “I” become “All?”

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