Emily Dickinson, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” (1129)

for Paula Gardner

Tell all the truth but tell it slant (1129)
Emily Dickinson

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Comment:

Cats jumping wildly at a moving laser-pointer: that’s how we are when we first learn to read. It’s so much fun to see that the little squiggles on the page can be said aloud. We’re announcing loudly what’s on signs the car passes by, or priding ourselves on the medal for going through more books than anyone else in class. Later, we make notes on larger texts and difficult essays, trying to remember what they say for the test. Rarely, we may try to relate to a character or interpret a book as a whole. Those few attempts might be a major part of our lives – think of how many people say they wish they had the loyalty of Ruth in the Bible, or are devastated for Anna Karenina – and yet we could have no serious conception of how or why we read. We extract meaning from stories upon which we build our lives while having no clue what we’re doing.

To be sure, there are more conscientious readers of literature. They work to understand the issues an author explores and connect the dots. They put authors and their works in dialogue with one another. Tolstoy’s spirituality can be contrasted with Dostoyevsky’s orthodoxy; Graham Greene’s moral complexity cannot exist in the world of hobbits, elves, and dwarves Tolkien inhabits. This is all well and good, but there is a trap. One tends to reconstruct voices which fail utterly at challenging one. We read into authors ideas we’re comfortable with. “We knowers are unknown to ourselves,” someone once said.

A peculiar phenomenon limited to a small set of texts brings forth a similar situation. It may be the case in less liberal ages – ages far more restrictive of speech – one had to hide one’s more radical opinions. For example, if you endorsed a more secular, representative government against notions of kingship, you might place the word “God” every other sentence when crafting your political writings. Or if you thought the future was a republic of scientists, you might write a strange, apparently incomplete work of fiction where sailors come upon a New Atlantis which wants them to witness their technological marvels and curious religious pluralism. Political esotericism makes perfect sense, now that we have the benefit of hindsight. There are always going to be scholars who doubt its existence, but one does not hide messages for consensus. The goal was to reach the minds who would create the future.

What is much, much stranger is another sort of esoteric writing, a subset of the group above. Jonathan Swift once noted that modern esotericism was like the spider: from the foulest was spun the most beautiful. That characterizes thinkers like Locke and Bacon, who dwell on the reality of power so as to arrange orders where we can live and think freely. Ancient esotericism, though, was like the bee: from the sweetness of flowers flowed ever so much more sweetness. Both Xenophon and Plutarch declare at times that they will not speak of unpleasant things when writing. It’s up to us to imagine those things for ourselves, to reconstruct the pleasures and pains of another world.

I

I cannot say with certainty that Dickinson has a project which encompasses all of her poetry. I do think her themes, her verse, and her life itself are radical enough.  At times, it looks like she has something she wants to say which will force us to reconsider everything. In “This is my letter to the World” (J441), she hints at this larger something:

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me —
The simple News that Nature told —
With tender Majesty

Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see —
For love of Her — Sweet — countrymen —
Judge tenderly — of Me

“The simple News that Nature told” is what the speaker has put in a letter to the world. This is quite stunning: Nature, which mankind has witnessed and investigated for thousands of years, has news? The speaker continues pleading with her countrymen, whom she obviously distrusts. She hopes they judge tenderly, she implores them to be sweet. But they have not been sweet. They have never written, and their distance from the “tender Majesty” of Nature could not be clearer.

I have not finished reading all of Dickinson, but I suspect her larger concern starts with a proposition such as this: Perhaps the world is eros. That desire and beauty, as Yeats says, put “the young in one another’s arms” – that’s the easy problem, the easy confrontation. More complex is when desire and beauty involve religion, where “safe in their alabaster chambers… sleep the meek members of the resurrection” (J216). Some pride themselves on the afterlife, thinking they have devoted all their desires to earning it. In the end, they can be said to have a portion of eternity in this life, as all else moves and eventually perishes while they sleep. The irony lies in how what happens while they are in the grave too literally is the Biblical promise. Their entombment has meaning when contrasted with dropping Diadems and surrendering Doges; their coffins are just as royal, with “rafter of satin.” However, the wisdom of justice as we understand it, the justice we pray for, does not impress the natural, perhaps created, world: “Pipe the Sweet Birds in ignorant cadence — Ah, what sagacity perished here!”

One might counter Dickinson’s suggestiveness by saying that eternity is not had in the grave, but only after the Second Coming. One might go further and argue that justice as we understand it cannot be the issue, only justice as God understands it. In any case, it seems to me that Dickinson is concerned with the orientation and intensity of our desires. The world is erotic in her telling, but she is alone. Her loneliness emerges emphatically in her poetry, over and over. I have yet to fix my interpretation of “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” (J288), but I always took it to be the speaker talking to herself.

At least in my own thinking, I hold that for Dickinson this question remains most prominent: What does it mean to be alone in a completely erotic world?

II

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant:” Christ Himself says to be wise as serpents, but surely this command of Dickinson’s cannot be applied to preaching the Gospel. What, exactly, is “all the truth?” Dickinson avoids answering this, continuing instead with geometric imagery. The “slant” we are to tell is completed by “Success in Circuit.” If we are careful in telling the truth, if we avoid hammering at certain issues, we will communicate truly without offense. Our audience might even consider something differently.

“Slant” and “Circuit” turn from geometric shapes into nothing less than the sun. The allusion is as Platonic as one could possibly get: “Too bright for our infirm Delight / The Truth’s superb surprise.” Dickinson herself says she has read widely in English poetry, but I cannot tell if she has spent much time with Plato’s Republic. Still, the idea there is this: there are unseen forms which are the truth of our world. “The form of red” is the truth of red, the answer to “what is red?”, in the same way that mathematics determines its objects. The quest for the forms is undertaken by the philosopher, who in the story immediately following the introduction of forms, ascends from a cave of artificial light and shadow puppetry to the surface, where the sun makes things visible.

Whatever the truth is, it has a “superb surprise.” One is telling “all the truth” in order to do some good, not to hurt anyone. Whatever that surprise is, it is “too bright for our infirm Delight.” “Infirm” is key: we’re inflexible. We’ve made a decision on what makes us happy. We want to work with the illusions that are useful and sometimes meaningful. The whole history of ideas, as I see it, is taking care to respect other people’s opinions about justice while bringing them to realize something more. “Infirm” carries a darkness upon which the truth all too easily focuses. To be a completely conventional human being is to be dictated completely by the dead.

III

“All the truth” remains the fundamental issue. It is our liberation from opinions we hold as true simply because they are old. But that liberation does not imply having the absolute truth oneself. If one knows that the Sun does not orbit the Earth, one does not necessarily know it happens to be precisely the opposite unless one knows a lot about physics and astronomy. There may be universal laws of which we remain purposefully ignorant, but to be more knowledgeable does not entail realizing those laws.

So in one sense, “all the truth” isn’t really “all the truth.” It’s the truth about oneself – it’s self-knowledge – which we want others to have. This brings about a further complication. Is it actually knowledge to know how many ways we can delude ourselves, or what rhetoric can entrance us? Is knowledge of our lack of self-knowledge a science? In Plato’s Gorgias, where Gorgias declares that rhetoric enables men to rule and makes them free, Socrates ends up calling rhetoric a pseudoscience, the false art of punitive justice. To put it cynically, self-knowledge can consist somewhat in our declaring ourselves not to be something while spewing hate toward that something. Xenophon understands the figure of Socrates by comparing and contrasting him with the figures of the best political leader (Cyrus), the gentleman (Ischomachus), and the purely ambitious (Xenophon himself).

There is a deeper sort of self-knowledge, where others’ choices do not have to punished for one’s own sake. The “truth’s superb surprise,” on this reading, consists precisely in telling the truth slant and completing the circuit. The risk is that even such subtlety will be too bright:

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

One must treat one’s audience like children scared of lightning. It seems pretty awful to imply people do not have the moral maturity to hear what they consider blasphemy. To be fair, I never thought books that hide a message to be terribly elitist, nor do I think this poem such. The problem is the risk of making “every man” blind.

That risk comes about this way. On an individual level, we can correct each other. We can be hurt and forgive and improve, or choose to walk away entirely. Moral communication occurs at a personal level, and it is risky there, but the stakes need not be life or death. When we’re talking about works that will reach a mass audience, there cannot be that sort of communication visibly. What results on a mass scale is a reaction, and crowds will be provoked one way or another, because there are certain things we must believe in, or civilization is doomed. It sounds almost like conspiracy theory, if it weren’t for the fact that mobs have existed and still exist, and that the power of the mob comes directly from the power of conventionality. Once something is declared “our way,” a perceived attack on it is an attack on us. This cannot be discarded as easily as one would like. Without a sense of a larger identity, without knowing who are friends or who are enemies, no one can fight on behalf of another.

It still is remarkable, in my opinion, that so many have been able to contribute to this indefinite, indeterminate thing called “humanity” over the years. Oftentimes, they don’t do it by fighting, but through sacrifice, even the sacrifice of measured speech. The hope is that the truth will dazzle gradually, whatever it is. “Whatever,” to be sure, is the wrong word. For “all the truth,” in the last analysis, is simply “all.” To speak carefully is to stress one’s own voice, one’s own sensitivity. Personal knowledge is the only knowledge we have.