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Dawkins, Laura: "'Their coming back seems possible': Dickinson’s Ghosts"

“Their coming back seems possible”: Dickinson’s Ghosts

Laura Dawkins, Murray State University

Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok have explained the concept of the “phantom” in psychoanalytic theory as the individual’s assimilation of an “alien subjectivity” (usually that of a lost parent) into his or her own psyche. Following Abraham and Torok, Mitchell Breitwieser describes this process as a subconscious response to bereavement, a “strategy of denial to which the subject tends to turn desperately” in order to achieve “the reconstituted feel of the relation” that has been lost. Abraham and Torok’s notion of the “phantom” provides a useful lens through which to view several of Dickinson’s poems about loss. A recurring figure in Dickinson’s work, the phantom or ghost sometimes functions as an “alien subjectivity” that the bereaved persona attempts to subsume into her own identity. In “The distance that the dead have gone” (J, 1742), for example, the poet counts herself among those mourners who mentally “follow” their loved ones into death, “so intimate have we become / With their dear retrospect.” Not simply honoring the endurance of human bonds, the poem more radically suggests the persona’s incorporation of the dead beloved into her own consciousness. Similarly, in “Of nearness to her sundered Things” (J, 607), the poet imagines a confusion of ego boundaries between the dead and the living: “As we—it were—that perished / Themself—had just remained till we rejoin them-- / And ‘twas they, and not ourself / That mourned.” Dickinson’s ghosts arguably represent internalized subjectivities or “phantom selves,” demonstrating the poet’s desire to bind the dead to her at the cost of her own psychic wholeness.