Emily Dickinson, "Perception of an object costs" (1071)

Did Dickinson send something so elaborate just to say "get out of my life?"

Emily Dickinson, "Perception of an object costs" (1071)

Welcome! Glad to have you here

I should be writing on philosophical topics more in coming days, if that's of interest to you. I feel like I need to take this time to make sure I know what I'm talking about. On that count, it's impossible to read and write too much.

If you haven't seen them yet, there are two pieces of Afghanistan I believe are worth reading. Hayes Brown's op-ed on how political elites made the right decision to accept Vietnamese refugees after the Vietnam War points at a powerful truth about our desire to demonize. We'll demonize our allies in the face of failure. And Spencer Ackerman is spot-on with how the argument to not allow in those who worked for the US is pure white nationalism.

Below, I've provided a close-read of a poem of Emily Dickinson's with a lot of twists. I was hoping to make the poem clearer while talking about how difficult it is to deal with the opinions of others. How being judged puts us in awkward spots, how I'm not quite sure how I should always respond.

I think I got caught up in the weirdness of the text. You be the judge:

Emily Dickinson, "Perception of an object costs" (1071)

You don't know how you should see things.

I don't know how I should see things.

"Perception," Dickinson repeats three times. As if to say "it's all perceiving." Or "you see it one way, maybe try another."

Perception of an object costs (1071)
Emily Dickinson

Perception of an object costs
Precise the Object's loss —
Perception in itself a Gain
Replying to its Price —

The Object Absolute — is nought —
Perception sets it fair
And then upbraids a Perfectness
That situates so far — 

This poem has a wild backstory. Dickinson sent it to her sister-in-law, who was known for being rather controlling. I can't imagine sending someone like that an exquisitely crafted work of art. One with hidden details only a few would notice. Themes which raise challenging questions. Did Dickinson send something so elaborate just to say "get out of my life?"

She might be saying "you have no idea how damaging you are." That makes sense to me. I've made a similar mistake a number of times in my life. I certainly couldn't craft words as beautiful as Dickinson's, but I could express hurt or dissatisfaction obliquely to the benefit of no one. Telling someone they're crude, self-absorbed, or bullying will not motivate them to change unless they value you. Obviously, they clearly don't. But what about saying it quietly, dropping hints something is wrong? —Well, when was the last time you saw someone obsessed with running other people's lives recognize anything like a hint?—

Dickinson is like us, but is not us. Unlike me, she refuses to waste a moment of her life. She resolutely forges words as close as she can to "the Object Absolute." "Perception of an object costs / Precise the Object's loss:" a statement beginning in the sentiment that if I am looked at too closely, overscrutinized, I cease to be. But the aphoristic sound of these lines goes beyond the personal, even the moral. You could use them in a critique of philosophical Idealism, the theoretical commitment to objects depending upon perceivers for their existence. This seems too removed from the occasion for Dickinson's lyric—what matters is loss, not speculation about reality. However, one of the most prominent Idealists was Bishop Berkeley, who held the world exists because God continually perceives it. Too much perception, too much judgment, and all we are is seen.


Dickinson, wary of judgment, does not entirely reject it. She provides judgment a riddling value. "Perception in itself a Gain / Replying to its Price." I have to believe this is earned wisdom, and it does feel like that for me. What exactly is meant, though? There are readily recognizable moments of "Perception in itself a Gain." Some of the more powerful and positive ones I obtained from the classroom. Working to make sure every student gets attention, not quite seeing any change until heartfelt, thoughtful passages appeared from them in their papers. "Perception in itself a Gain"—I was given a glimpse into possibility.

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However, Dickinson does not mean "Perception in itself a Gain" as a positive event. It comes at a price. "Perception in itself a Gain / Replying to its Price." Some things, like being treated cruelly, we'd rather not see. We'd rather pretend they're not happening. Some of those I trust least play at being positive to keep the pain of others from ever being acknowledged. Dickinson, I believe, is saying perception of the pain, the lying about the pain, and the whole resulting mess is still, somehow, a gain. A gain always conscious that it is a response, that it has come at a cost.


The last two lines of the first stanza are for Dickinson herself, I feel. She started by addressing the audience, then mused on what she meant. In the second stanza, she parts, leaving them directly addressed.

"The Object Absolute — is nought — / Perception sets it fair" has the tone of a grand, metaphysical proverb. I don't believe her intended audience would quite understand it. If her audience read Hegel or Kant, or even the occult, they could be misled. The phrase "the Object Absolute," as Dickinson uses it, helps describe a behavior: "Perception sets it fair."

Perception costs. It can be a gain. And now, it "sets it fair." Two different people are being discussed in two different stanzas. Perception costs and gains for Dickinson. For whom she addresses, there is what is set as beauty. No cost, no gain, no change, no value. Instead, "the Object Absolute," a representation of perfection. Unreal. But enough to dictate to someone their life. Enough for an outsider to tell them what to do.

This might be acceptable, if perfection did exist and could inform perfectly. Of course, it doesn't exist. There's only perspective, our perceptions from a certain vantage. And it can be weaponized. "Upbraids a Perfectness / That situates so far." Dickinson's phrasing is most strange. We expect a message closer to "perfection attacks our reasonable expectations, our regular perceptions." Instead, she asserts a "Perfectness" does exist and has meaning. It "situates so far." This perfectness is attacked by someone's perception, someone's perspective, as it is not their "Object Absolute."

Perception in itself is a gain, and Dickinson can see herself at a remove. There is a "Perfectness" in this, but it cannot be described through superlatives. Only by means of what it is not. Or rather, how it is independent.


McCarthy, Janice Spradley. The Influence of Lavinia and Susan Dickinson on Emily Dickinson, thesis,  May 1973; Denton, Texas. (https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc164054/: accessed August 18, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, UNT Digital Library, https://digital.library.unt.edu