Emily Dickinson, “Whoever disenchants a single human soul” (1451)

Whoever disenchants a single human soul (1451)
Emily Dickinson

Whoever disenchants
A single Human soul
By failure of irreverence
Is guilty of the whole.

As guileless as a Bird
As graphic as a star
Till the suggestion sinister
Things are not what they are —

Comment:

I’ve been dealing with a lot of people who might as well be gurus recently. I know, pot-kettle, but still – this gets annoying fast. There was the crazy lady who thought that corporations can screw us however they want (true, but…), and therefore people are moving from the U.S. to Russia all the time, as there’s more equality and opportunity there (um). I used up my “getting into a really stupid argument” card on her because I was moody. Then there’s a number of people giving me practical advice, 99% of whom are absolute gems. I am doing whatever they say pretty much without question, because I’m grateful for the support and the concern. However, a few are thinking that success must result, and the proof I did things wrong is a lack of success. Again, I’m not sure how in a world where great civilizations rise and fall, where saints are martyred, where the best people can die before they’re even born – I’m not sure how success is the metric for things done right. And I’m not sure how an obsession over certain details creates success. I guess America is the land where everyone is a self-help guru, whether they know it or not.

And then there’s something else I’m dealing with. Almost ready to go is an essay on lack of acknowledgement, because I’m wondering why it hits like a truck. People who don’t want to deal with you are the ultimate gurus: they teach you your place.

This poem got me to crack a smile. I don’t know why it’s felt rough the last week or so, but it has felt rough. Still, I can acknowledge being guilty of the sin of the first stanza. I’ve got my vision of the “whole” and I take it too seriously (“failure of irreverence”). I don’t think I’ve pushed so far as to disenchant someone, i.e. turn them away from wonder, or just a lighter approach to life. Some of the best people I know are receptive to intellectual things because they’re trying to lead graceful lives. They’re too good to take me seriously.

On that note, it’s really amazing how far a little cheerfulness, a little reaching out to someone, a little of pretending life makes sense goes in that direction. I don’t want to say a good thinker can’t be serious or moody or cheerless. Sometimes truth is hard, sometimes we have to deal with awful situations. But I can’t say there’s absolutely no link between how one approaches knowledge and one’s character or attitude.

It’s that link which provokes some people, including myself, to “failure of irreverence.” The link is sketchy, but that doesn’t stop some people from thinking that there are intellectual failures which are the worst sins, or that there is a thought or series of thoughts which produce a virtuous life. I remarked to Nathaniel how right he was about Xenophon’s insistence that knowing something is not the same as doing it. We like to say that if you really know, you’ll do it, but that’s crazy for the most part (though: it implies a heroism where one can be as good as one’s word). I think we agree that Xenophon insists knowing isn’t the same as doing with regard to virtue precisely to guard against the notion that there is some perfect thought alone which makes us perfectly whole, or variants of that.

Instead of placing all the weight on the unity of our understanding, we must turn to experience, the practice of living. Dickinson’s poem, after condemning one who may be “guilty of the whole,” starts describing someone. Is that someone “disenchanted,” a victim of a dogmatic accounting? Or is that someone the disenchanter? Either way, here’s the description:

As guileless as a Bird
As graphic as a star
Till the suggestion sinister
Things are not what they are —

This can easily describe the “disenchanted soul.” Presumably they were naive, “guileless.” They stood out like a star, determined by position. And for them, yes, “things are not what they are” is not life, like it is for most of us, but a “sinister” suggestion, that they have to rollback a lot of dogma they bought into.

But this could grammatically link with “whoever,” the disenchanter. He too is guileless, but agile and soaring above. “As graphic as a star” is a spectacular comparison. Not merely standing out, not just determined by position, but a power which demonstrates the laws of the cosmos. Removed from humanity, but with purpose writ large. What could possibly be the suggestion sinister for such a one?

It can’t be that he starts waking up and seeing the world as is. That’s not how powerful cognitive biases work, and truth be told, we’re all dogmatic to a degree. Seeing the world as it actually is would require us to be God. Perhaps Dickinson plays with a sly and wishful humanism here. “Things are not what they are” is a dramatic climax. Birds don’t consistently recognize human beings, and stars of course never do. To realize you’ve been treating other people as things, if not objects, would indeed be quite an awakening. And yes, from my vantage, wishful thinking.