Emily Dickinson, “Experience is the Angled Road” (910)

Watch Tom Brady at his peak throw a football low and away to a receiver who has yet to turn around and dive for it. It isn’t a misplay. That’s the actual play. The cornerback covers the other side of the receiver; when Brady throws low and away, the corner would have to run through the receiver to interrupt the pass. Because the ball is thrown low, the receiver doesn’t take a direct hit.

That’s what I imagine Dickinson means when she says Experience is the Angled Road. I mean, she’d probably hate the Patriots. She’d probably take especial pleasure in Brady’s Buccaneers losing to a Bears team where Nick Foles underthrows his receivers by 15 yards, but hey, my expertise on poetic matters is limited. Experience is the Angled Road because it is a way that works, allowing at times for spectacular achievements. It has been tested, and the way through obstacles is not to attack them at their strongest, to meet them head on, but to approach from different angles. Gradual inclines, paths that lean away from the shortest distance, safety over shortcuts.

No wonder Experience… [is] preferred against the Mind. The Mind itself makes the preference, as it would like Experience to lead. It presumes Experience actually does lead. Mind believes that when Mind is left to its own devices, it is hopeless.

Experience is the Angled Road (910)
Emily Dickinson

Experience is the Angled Road
Preferred against the Mind
By — Paradox — the Mind itself —
Presuming it to lead

Quite Opposite — How Complicate
The Discipline of Man —
Compelling Him to Choose Himself
His Preappointed Pain —

Dickinson’s first stanza recalls a problem I left outstanding in my dissertation. Xenophon depicts Socrates arguing with an experienced soldier who wanted to be a general. That soldier, eager to show off his scars, fumes over the Athenians picking a wealthy man over him to be general. Socrates defends the choice of the wealthy individual. He had used his money before to find the best for the city when it came to choral competitions, even though he knew nothing about music. Why wouldn’t he find the best to compose and direct an army?

I dealt with the episode as a Socratic depreciation of courage. Obviously, there’s a lot more happening. To what degree is Socrates like the wealthy man, able to find who else might be an expert while not being an expert himself? Can wealth substitute for what we might consider knowledge about knowledge? And what if someone could defraud the wealthy or the philosophic? (Regarding that last situation, the implication might be knowing who to trust is more important than knowing who is the best.)

Xenophon’s little story about Socrates points to two substitutes for experience. First, does experience matter if you have the means? What if someone else can do what you need done for you? Second, what about your own knowledge of the means? If you yourself actually know how to do something, why does it matter if you have done it before?

With regard to football and a host of other activities, we speak of muscle memory. There’s discomfort in doing something that feels new. We’d like our bodies to feel comfortable with the actions we’d like them to take. This, not incidentally, is connected with the mind feeling comfortable with what has to be done. Experience is the “Angled Road,” Experience is “Preferred,” experience is comfort.

The problem of experience being a kind of comfort was perhaps best seen by Kant. When we speak of ethics, we have to speak of the possibility of doing your duty even though you feel especially uncomfortable doing so. When it comes to friendships and relationships, there are many moments of discomfort, usually because of miscommunication. The duty to love, to treat others as ends-in-themselves, can mean putting aside one’s strongest feelings in order to think and act clearly regarding what people actually need.

Mind displaces experience with regard to more than ethics, though. What if you solve a scientific problem as though you had dreamed the answer? Now your actions have no precedence, your hands might be shaking and sweaty, and yet you’re conducting the experiment or demonstrating your reasoning as if you were absolutely certain. And you have every right to be so certain. Our weighting of experience, in this case, can serve as an obstacle to the acceptance of truth.

It almost seems Dickinson wants us to conceive this last example when she declares that the truth is “Quite Opposite” Mind’s own preference for Experience. Mind chooses prior to Experience, she claims. But she makes the claim in such a way that the poem changes from a philosophical comment to something much more personal. How Complicate / The Discipline of Man —  Compelling Him to Choose Himself / His Preappointed Pain. Mind is prior to any actions taken. It understands and chooses a “Preappointed Pain.” I can’t help but imagine that Dickinson speaks of why she bothered to fall in love again. There’s more than a cynical joke at play here, I believe. 

Experience can make one better at relationships, but only to a degree. Learning how to love another person, I’ve learned, entails starting with no presuppositions. How exactly experience helps is a mystery. Each person, each relationship is different. That Mind seeks to defer to Experience is Dickinson’s real joke: Mind will give up everything to feel loved. The trouble is that being loved depends entirely on the experience and judgment of another.

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