Emily Dickinson, “What I can do — I will” (361)

There’s that scene near the opening of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige where Christian Bale’s character performs a magic trick with a trick cage. He makes a bird disappear after putting a cloth on the cage, and the kid watching him starts crying, thinking the bird has been killed. The cloth goes over the cage again, and presto, the bird is back.

Not much later the movie audience sees Bale push the carcass of the first bird out of the cage floor. The kid was right. He trusted his senses; they made him suspicious. We should be so lucky to build what is reasonable from what is sensible.

I speak often of being a bad writer. In truth, it is very difficult to write consistently when one cannot sense one’s audience. Even people who are used to filling dead air, like radio personalities or streamers, can run into a wall of unease at the worst times. Belief — making yourself believe something — seems to be a useful replacement for precise engagement and address of an external world. It can found reasonable action, even allow theorizing. Yet there is always a doubt: What if the foundation gives way, what if the floor is a trap?

Dickinson’s “What I can do — I will” contains a powerful promise. We can do what we will if, at first, we accept a peculiar smallness: What I can do — I will — / Though it be little as a Daffodil. I say “peculiar” because the smallness does not actually exist; “be little as a Daffodil” merges doing and willing, and in truth, that is not “little” at all. If you can do what you will consistently, you are your power. The last two lines expand this notion of power, preaching no less than infinity:

What I can do — I will (361)
Emily Dickinson

What I can do — I will —
Though it be little as a Daffodil —
That I cannot — must be
Unknown to possibility —

What I can do becomes That I cannot… [being] Unknown to possibility. This radical contention starts, as we said above, with combining doing and willing. The littleness of a Daffodil unites the two. A daffodil is a common, weed-like flower. But through growth, it fulfills its nature, completes its being. (There’s not a lot of Heidegger I understand, but this much I got from Introduction to Metaphysics: the phusis (nature) of a thing reaches a telos (end), a fulfillment. Nature is not simply a tendency, but enables us to describe a thing changing and being one thing at once.)

Still, the musings above are not quite enough to say That I cannot — must be / Unknown to possibility. What I can do enables growth, occasions a being. How does what I can do become the impossibility of cannot? Can I do all things?

In one sense, no. You could fairly read the last two lines as loud speculation. Still, this poem holds at least one more curiosity. “What I can do” and “that I cannot” [possibly fail to do] do not strictly parallel, as “that” is subordinate to “what.” The growth, the power realized, the faithfulness to one’s own being of “what I can do” includes what I cannot do. What is impossible is entirely accounted for. To understand this better, one has to imagine the parallel between “Daffodil” and “[cannot being] Unknown to possibility.” In “I dwell in Possibility,” Dickinson speaks of possibility as “a fairer House” composed of entirely natural elements: chambers of cedars, a roof of gambrels of the sky. I believe that we can plausibly speak of the choice of “Daffodil” mirroring “possibility:” you don’t really think a daffodil, you think fields upon fields of them, as numerous as the stars. Our flowering mirrors the cosmos, for that we grow depends on everything else. We contain multitudes, and the limit of our growth is us. We make choices and our time is finite.

Dickinson started with the smallest, what she assumed she could know, and it exploded. Belief in one’s self became nothing less than the key to the cosmos. You could say the belief a magic trick uses and my own need to imagine an audience are two entirely separate cases from Dickinson’s. That’s true, unless we’re speaking of trying to reason from the sensible, trying to think and act based on what we know. Belief is an entirely different order than knowledge, but it performs a set of functions closely related to knowledge. I’m not sure what else to say. If we could build directly from the sensible, the world would be far less deadly. But we can only build from some mixture of knowledge, assumption, and assertion. We get a much riskier world, where the notion of restraining one’s own claims almost seems an appeal to the divine. The craziest thing is that this may not be wrong.

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