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Katz, Adam: "Suñña at the Bone: Emily Dickinson’s Early-Buddhist Deconstruction"

Suñña at the Bone: Emily Dickinson’s Early-Buddhist Deconstruction

Adam Katz, University at Buffalo-SUNY

Emily Dickinson interwove philosophically analytic language with literary devices such as ambiguity, prosody, and metaphor in order to open up questions about the relation between language and spiritual possibilities of transcendence. This has made her a target for theoretical speculation on the part of both Western postmodernists whom Dickinson may have directly influenced, and Eastern scholars who detect powerful resonances between Dickinson’s thought and their own traditions. While both these approaches see Dickinson as skeptical about the compatibility of language and transcendence, the postmodern interpretation views her as leveraging language’s inessential differentiality to stir up trouble for transcendent values such as truth, whereas Zen and Daoist interpretations view her as moving to silence, denounce, or curtail language to reserve space for the ineffable.
Focusing on poems in which Dickinson thematizes concepts associated with language (such as conversation and difference) alongside concepts associated with transcendence (such as presence and immortality), this paper seeks to account for the complexities whereby in one breath her text warrants and invites the albeit substantively incompatible postmodern and Zen interpretations. This paper argues that deconstruction and Theravada (literally “old school”) Buddhism, early influences on (respectively) postmodernism and Zen, perceive an ecosystemic symbiosis rather than a polemic incompatibility between language and transcendence, and are thus more dynamic and illuminative interpretive paradigms for Dickinson. While her limited and inaccurate exposure to Eastern thought ensured that her poetry’s Theravadan thematics had to be her own invention, this thematics nevertheless finds fitting company in her Orientalism’s simultaneous imagination of going beyond, and returning to report.