Emily Dickinson, “Absence disembodies – so does Death” (860)

“Absence disembodies – so does Death…” (860)
Emily Dickinson

Absence disembodies – so does Death
Hiding individuals from the Earth
Superstition helps, as well as love –
Tenderness decreases as we prove –


Most copies of this poem online read “superposition” instead of “superstition.” When I look into the history of this poem, I may change everything below. I think “superstition” works well enough, obviously.

The Latin root of “superstition” means “standing over:” coupled with “Death,” we get a restatement of “Absence disembodies.” The immediate significance of “Absence disembodies” is that it does not stand “above:” it is right away questioned by the speaker with “so does Death.” Death hides individuals from the Earth. By putting all of us into the ground, our individuality is indeed destroyed in a bodily sense. The unity reduces the bodily to nothing, but we are not absent from each other.

Of course, one wonders why anyone would say that Death hides individuals from the Earth. By placing all within the Earth, aren’t we hidden from everyone and everything else? The speaker is using an overly strict logic. Absence disembodies because the locus of alienation is the self. The body vanishes because there can’t be one body in the world. Similarly, the Earth hides individuals from itself, as it is where Death is found. As the giver of life and death, it is a confused concept, and does no justice to the individuals it produced.

Which means that feeling isolated implies the existence of an intellectual problem. “Standing over” and “love” help – neither can address disembodiment. But the efficacy of both superstition and love are compromised by the problem. To feel absent in a world where one is unmistakably present means that we are looking to “prove” something else, something unlike the world. I’m very tempted to read “ourselves” after “prove,” but that is a narrowing of the issue. Still, it may show that there are desires of the intellect, and they dictate to us in ways which burden us, to say the least. The counterpart of being disembodied, perhaps, is to lose one’s mind.

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