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Kirkby, Joan: "'Matter’s doppelganger of the soul': Immortality and the Death Instinct in Emily Dickinson"

“Matter’s doppelganger of the soul”: Immortality and the Death Instinct in Emily Dickinson

Joan Kirkby, Macquarie University, Sydney

The nineteenth century saw a transition from the language of the soul to a language of the mind. During the greater part of the century many of the issues that we now think of as associated with psychology or psychoanalysis were actually debated in the context of natural theology, spiritualism, mesmerism. There was a curious pre Freudian mental philosophy with a distinctive theological bent, part psychology, part theology, and part ghost talk. The pages of the nineteenth century monographs and periodicals contained accounts of hauntings of various kinds which eventually lead to the articulation of the unconscious, the hypothesising of a death instinct, as well as reconceptualised ideas of immortality. “There can be no doubt, however, that in our minds or bodies there are powers latent,...which become active, and develop in an extraordinary way” (Harpers, 1851, “New Discoveries in Ghosts”). In this paper I will examine some of Dickinson’s poems about death (poems such as F886/J784 “Bereaved of all, I went abroad”; F431/J577 “If I may have it, when it’s dead”; F605/J470 “I am alive - I guess-”; F423/J410 “The first Day’s Night had come”; F1072/J 959 “A loss of something ever felt I”; F508/J1712 “A Pit but Heaven over it”) in the context of key texts on death and immortality in the periodicals to which the Dickinsons subscribed.