There be dragons!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

I'm Nobody, Who Are You?

I just came off of a class session with sophomores talking about Emily Dickinson's great poem "I'm Nobody, Who Are You?"

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us--don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Dickinson isn't just on some misery trip, here, bemoaning her lack of recognition; "Oh boo hoo hoo, Emily, nobody loves you - why don't you go eat some worms" (before they eat you, as Poe would suggest in "
Conqueror Worm").
No, there is something much more stunning in this poem. The two parts of the poem set up two possible ways of progressing through life between the freaks and the normals.

The normals in the second stanza are those who go through their lives seeking fame, success, recognition, health, beauty, influence and happiness in things; they enjoy sitting around talking about football teams, they like going to mixers and getting blitzed, they appreciate the praise and honor of their colleagues (even those they've trodden upon to reach their current tax bracket), they vacation in Barbados, they go to their cabin on the weekends, they exercise at the gym and enjoy good bowel movements by eating Activia and Bran cereal every morning. That's the normal course of existence. But, Dickinson suggests, it is an empty, cold, lifeless course, like a bog, dead to the reality of our existence and sucking down everything in sight. The normals, she suggests, are like frogs (to borrow the image from
Plato's dialogue).

But the other course of existence isn't much better. Dickinson is not just saying that she's comfortable with her Goth attitude. The fact that she calls herself a Nobody means more than a lack of recognition and popularity. Rather, "Nobody" is like "nothingness" - a vast, abyssal darkness at the heart of our existence as humans - a gulf so profound and terrifying that it is difficult to express it to anyone else lest they think of you as a freak. Once seeing that our life as humans has at its core this hollowness all other events, awards, amusements become trivial; "
there was a ship" says the Ancient Mariner. The darkness of life is in the morning, at noon, and at evening and how are we to crawl out of it? How put one foot before the next and make it out of Shelob's lair? Despair seems immanent and the chaotic destructiveness of Grendel, the Joker, or suicides such as Richard Corey seems an inevitability. Even in trying to find some other person who has gone through this experience is an impossibility b/c our pain is our own; each of us in his prison/Thinking of the key, as T.S. Elliot says. The terror is palpable that if anyone were to see the darkness we have witnessed they would throw us in a well, banish us, exile us from the good time everyone else is having. The situation is that everyone else "ate the food, drank the wine... had a good time, except you, you were talking about the end of the world."
So what are we to do? The bog is a lie as much as the cake is a lie. But the exile on the blasted plain is cold, alone, and desperate.

Surely there is a great heroism in the person who knows this reality and yet endures and yet is cheerful and yet continues to try and live their life w/o putting a gun in their mouth. And surely the experience ought to teach us mercy rather than judgmentalism toward the pain and suffering others undergo.

So I am amused at my young students who, in their vast experience of life, have determined that worldly success, fame, popularity are where it's at - and anyone raining on that parade, like Dickinson or Poe or Jesus or me, ought to be discounted ... or thrown off a cliff.

1 comment:

  1. What? They think success and fame are where it's at? Don't kids listen to pretentious anti-pop music anymore? Y'know, famous people who bemoan their fame, like Nirvana? Sex Pistols? Or has everyone started listening to the Jonas Brothers (all-right lads, but I can't abide their music)?

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