Emily Dickinson, “A Letter is a joy of Earth” (1639)

Calling distance from others difficult is an understatement. If unloved, distance can be especially maddening. You might as well be a ghost in the world, seeing but never seen, hearing but never heard.

Here’s Dickinson celebrating distance. A letter requires it, and “a letter is a joy of Earth:”

A Letter is a joy of Earth (1639)
Emily Dickinson

A Letter is a joy of Earth —
It is denied the Gods —

I’m almost tempted to regret the times I was hurt and alone. But I know I couldn’t simply have changed my feelings through enthusiasm for letter writing. People do neglect each other cruelly, and we do need to recognize each other in order to understand who we are and what we’re doing.

Short poems tempt. They’re read because they can beautify a moment, a day. No one wasted time trying to take a few lines of Dickinson to heart. However, beautiful words are no substitute for our judgment, even when they express sublime and sincere emotion. The pain of distance is all too real. One might say it underlies every religious impulse the human race has had.

*

Still. Sometimes, distance has a use. We panic far too much about not knowing who others truly are. Whether elaborate frauds are built in order to make oneself always attractive, beyond judgment. 

My letters so far have been failures. They try to say too much. I want them to be memorable and profound, so I try to speak about issues that take months of serious conversation to appreciate. And I’ll reduce those issues to a few awkward paragraphs and come off as clueless and misinformed.

I’m thinking now that the failure of the letters wasn’t the worst outcome. There’s lots to talk about and understand. The letters were pointing to the opportunity to be real and share experiences. They were pointing to a self to which I could aspire, one who could hear another and give something credible to them.

This is a very Earthly joy. The teenage complaint “you don’t know me” has relative value. Here it’s an opening to faith, hope, and love. Yeah, lots of people are fake—I’m not going to deny that’s a problem. But finding what they’re real about takes time. Often, neither party in a friendship or a relationship knows this from the outset.

*

I can’t help but feel the “Gods” in this fragment correspond to our consumerist visions of finding love. They have everything and must always be intimate. In fact, that intimacy and proximity are conjoined is a curse. They have to live out a version of “The Bachelor” every day of their lives.

There’s nothing to discover, despite how glorious everything is to see, hear, and touch. There’s no privacy when everything is known. The Gods may be eloquent, but they can’t speak love. I don’t know, for myself, how much I can deal with uncertainty in relationships. It isn’t as much fun as this reading of the fragment would suggest. I do remember how much fun it was to discover something new about someone I loved.

2 Comments

  1. “Our ability to differentiate between sense experience and the labels we ascribe to them becomes even more essential when we talk about the body and mind that we identify as being our “self”. When we deeply analyse this psychological organism, we find only a physical form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Each of these attributes can be further investigated until we discover that there is nothing within or behind them but emptiness. However, by believing that the labels are part of the actual experience, we may think that we (or others) are beautiful, creative, intelligent, and so forth. As a result of this misapprehension, we become attached to the body and mind and suffer when we age, become ill, or are in the process of dying.”

    “As we grow up, an initial self-image is formed in our mind. This first image became a point of reference for the future. If this initial image had some elements of inadequacy, we may have been trying to establish another self-image to prove that we are not inadequate. By attempting to negate the first image we are actually resisting it, which sets up an internal war that we cannot win. We would not be trying to create a new self-image unless we actually believed in the prior one.”

    Matthew Flickstein, ‘The Meditator’s Atlas – A Roadmap of the Inner World’ p158/159

    These quotes have a bearing on efforts to communicate; however, you may decide, if you wish, whether Matthew Flickstein’s beliefs might help or hinder communication – and why this is so!

    Never mind the problems associated with believing in God, and the problems associated with “believing in self” – and this is a key concern for some cultures in particular – what about the problems associated with believing in the “non self”?

    Matthew Flickstein would no doubt argue that this is a false trichotomy: whereas we encounter profound epistemological snags in regard to God and the Self, the same cannot be said in regard to the “non self”.
    The “non self” is, for him, one of those “self-evident” things that doesn’t require an epistemologically dense encounter.

    False trichotomy or not though, who can be sure who they are talking about, never mind what?

  2. Yeah, be that as it may, truth probably still
    lights up like a flare at sea or the undrab
    paradigm of what we mean by colour on a
    fish’s back caught in a second within the
    sunlight in the wave’s envelope on a blue
    beach.

    Isn’t it nice to think like that, wordlessly in
    words?
    So silence is turned upside down and walks
    around on stilts?

    Today, all time here collected itself and
    jumped one hour forward. Oh, so there is
    society after all.

    This is an upside down poem on stilts with
    its title at the end.

    Spring

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