Emily Dickinson, “A Man may make a Remark” (952)

“What were trolls?” a historian of the distant future will ask, as a Twitter thread about Internet trolls is projected in 3 dimensions from the molecular computing station Smithsonian. Fellow historians and archivists from around the galaxy will chime in telepathically. “Perhaps they were creatures from that century’s failed science. A primitive attempt at intelligence which could not control resentful thoughts.” Others: “What is an Internet?” Still more: “I am a prince from Planet X23B who has been denied access to an account containing 1 zillion GSD. Please send me…”

In any case, it will take the future a little while to realize trolls aren’t a relic of a time long past, but have been in our hearts all along. Why try to provoke everyone around you into a rage? Oh right, the second a troll gets trolled we know the answer: they can’t help themselves, they’re foaming at the mouth and typing furiously. For the most part, trolling is a matter of projection.

Which brings us to Dickinson’s poem. A Man may make a Remark – / In itself – a quiet thing — see, there’s no reason to get really upset about that Wikipedia entry about otters. Those are remarks of the quiet sort, as Emily Dickinson has just told us. Oh wait, she’s not done — That may furnish the Fuse unto a Spark / In dormant nature – lain. At first glance, a spark lights a fuse and someone will explode. A quiet remark is prelude to someone else getting angry:

A Man may make a Remark (952)
Emily Dickinson

A Man may make a Remark – 
In itself – a quiet thing 
That may furnish the Fuse unto a Spark 
In dormant nature – lain – 

Let us deport – with skill – 
Let us discourse – with care – 
Powder exists in Charcoal – 
Before it exists in Fire. 

Dickinson’s language holds a twist, as the remark furnishes the fuse. The remark is the fuse, not the spark. The cause of someone’s losing their temper lies in their dormant nature. They’ve always been angry, waiting to start a detonation or conflagration. The remark is just an excuse.

So Dickinson turns into an anger management counselor, teaching all of us how to deal with potentially difficult personalities. Let us deport – with skill – / Let us discourse – with care: be aware people are carrying around a lot of anger and don’t set them off. The whole poem is prelude to the last two lines, the advice metaphorically summed up: Powder exists in Charcoal – / Before it exists in Fire.

Not to get too clever, but I wonder to what degree Dickinson consciously projects. Sometimes it’s easier, while not condemning anyone, to identify a problem in others and then apply the reasoning regarding that problem to one’s own life. The poem pushes me to think “hey, I never want to be the charcoal that gets set off so easily.” In this day and age of social media — and, I’d add, a surprisingly developed expertise in passive-aggression — I think it’s important to recognize that we have the right to get angry, we just have to make sure we don’t hurt anyone. Some quiet remarks are utter nonsense that will cause damage. All the trolls in the world aren’t a tenth as bad as one or two twitter feeds I follow that are nonstop misinformation. Why do I follow those feeds? In one case, the gentleman in question holds considerable power over the lives of others. And deporting with skill, discoursing with care, isn’t quite the same as establishing rules and setting boundaries. Sometimes you must let those who are more than merely careless know that they are way out of line.

Dickinson wants to take her genius and help us manage our anger. She’s put together 42 words that can make quite a difference if we’re not yelling at each other on Reddit.

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