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Dickinson’s Charm

In response to:

The Pleasures of Abstinence from the June 6, 1996 issue

To the Editors:

Roger Shattuck’s unfashionable essays on abstention in Madame de Lafayette and Emily Dickinson [NYR, June 6 and June 20] are powerful and (you’ll excuse the term) penetrating. But why does he think Dickinson’s poem number 421 describes the veiled lady’s attraction to “the almost magical beauty of another person,” and her decision to “place her faith in the picture she can represent in her mind rather than to seek fuller or more intimate knowledge of the other person”? The word “charm” originally meant a magical incantation or formula, and secondarily an amulet or artifact invested with its supernatural powers. So the first two lines of the poem,

A Charm invests a face
Imperfectly beheld—

refers to the face of “The Lady,” who

dare not lift her Veil
For fear it be dispelled—

and indirectly to Dickinson herself, as the one who utters the magical incantation—the poem—and so invests her own “imperfectly beheld” face behind its veil with supernatural power. She “dare not lift her Veil/for fear” that the supernatural power of the face that speaks the incantation will be dispelled by being nakedly revealed. This sentiment echoes a prohibition found in many religious traditions against directly beholding the face of God: in Judaism, for example, against idolatry; in Islam, against the representation of Allah in figurative imagery; and in Krishna’s warning to Arjuna against directly perceiving his divinity in the Bhagavad Gita. In order to preserve the magic and divinity of her person, “The Lady” instead peers beyond her mesh—

A “mesh” is a loosely woven net that may ensnare or entangle. So “The Lady” looks beyond that which both protects her magic and has the capacity to ensnare the uncautious, to the consequences of relinquishing this protection. She wishes divine union; to reveal herself, to know and be fully known in the biblical sense without entanglement, as she has clearly expressed in the earlier verse that Shattuck quotes:

Heaven”—is what I cannot reach!
The Apple on the Tree—
Provided it do hopeless—hang—
That—“Heaven” is—to Me!

But self-revelation—lifting the meshed veil from between her face and the other’s—means dispelling the magic and entangling the other in the web of carnal relationship. So instead she

wishes—and denies—

That is, she denies her own wish to be known, and preserves the other’s “want”—that is, the other’s desire reciprocally to know her:

Lest interview annul a want That Image—satisfies—

She refuses “Interview” in order to preserve the other’s distance from the “Image”—her own image as powerfully seductive because inaccessible avatar of poetry. This image of the distant and divine “satisfies” the desire for carnal knowledge of the other without annulling it, in the same way that any image of distant divinity simultaneously inflames and slakes the desire for transcendence of the boundaries of the individual self in divine union. Beheld as such, an image of divinity holds out the promise of ultimate union with the divine and interpenetration by it, but without violating the boundaries of the individual self through humdrum interpersonal entanglement. In poem number 421, Dickinson offers to the other the veiled, distant, and imperfectly beheld divine image of herself as a poet. She thereby satisfied both her own and the other’s desire for divine union that mere fleshy enmeshment would have annulled.

Adrian Piper
Department of Philosophy
Wellesley College
Wellesley, Massachusetts

Roger Shattuck replies:

Adrian Piper’s letter resembles a few other letters concerned with the veil motif. It is evident that the primary reading of Dickinson’s poem number 421 assigns Charm to the Lady’s veiled and therefore imperfectly beheld visage. It is so evident that I wanted to give full value to a secondary, reciprocal reading in which Charm is projected onto the other person who observes her. The Lady, too, becomes an observer when she “peers beyond her mesh.” And the verb “wishes” implies that she feels the Charm in all its physical and magical force. Until she denies it, her want equals the other’s want and gives strong presence to both figures. I concur, therefore, with most of Adrian Piper’s comments. But the literal, human level of the poem does not surrender to a purely religious interpretation.

What may have caused these readers to write is the first sentence of my paraphrase of Dickinson’s poem. “Looking through her veil, a woman feels deeply drawn by the almost magical beauty of another person, for whom she, thus concealed, may herself exert a powerful charm.” Placed halfway through the essay, the paraphrase serves to draw attention to the secondary reading. By mentioning it first, I may have overplayed my hand.

I should like also to acknowledge a letter from the distinguished scholar, Dorothy Hall Oberhaus, author of Emily Dickinson’s Fascicles: Method and Meaning (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995). She points out tartly that I exaggerate Dickinson’s use of the adjective “funny,” that in Dickinson’s second letter to Higginson both “friend” and “Tutor” probably refer to Benjamin F. Newton, and that Dickinson had been writing poetry much longer than three years before the Higginson correspondence. I am grateful for Professor Oberhaus’s response. She does not question my interpretation of poem 421.

In reference to my two essays, M. Meo of the Portland Public Schools writes to point out that much of Søren Kierkegaard’s work “consists precisely of celebration of abnegation.”

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