Emily Dickinson, "The difference between Despair / and Fear" (305)

The outstanding question of Dickinson's "The difference between Despair / and Fear" is why the difference has to be known.

Emily Dickinson, "The difference between Despair / and Fear" (305)

First of all, have some Bach

Bach composed these Trio Sonatas for organ, but you'll note they work exceptionally well in string arrangements. Here's London Baroque:

I've been addicted to these this past week. Some are appropriately somber. I can't imagine how anyone is having a good week. The news isn't an abstraction: it is what happens to the rest of us, what can or will happen to us.

Re: Chris Hooks, "A Year of 'Protecting Children' in Texas"

Chris Hooks' "A Year of 'Protecting Children' in Texas" captures our rightful rage, detailing how things fall apart. His second paragraph, my god:

Each revelation of new misery brings a new wave of revulsion, but—I hate to say this—as you learn more about how the social safety net works in Texas, the revulsion starts to fade, and it becomes a dull undercurrent to an awareness of the world instead of something sharp that pokes through. As it fades, so comes the realization that it has faded in the same way for those in power—and that nothing gets fixed because leaders have been immunized from caring to an even greater degree. The grid remains unsteady; children in foster care still get abused. Legislators make a show of passing partial, temporary fixes and resist looking at problems head-on. The Texas Legislature, with all its self-regard and jocularity and pride in itself as an institution, turns out to be suffused with a very dull and banal kind of evil.

It's those last lines that get me. "A very dull and banal kind of evil" from an institution that's got a bit too much "self-regard," too much "pride"—how could this be destroying everything? Why are we literally looking at the blood of children everywhere? Why can't those who make the laws do anything? And the answer is simple: "nice," "polite," and "a little misguided" are massive moral failures in the face of emergencies. Most of us feel indifference is often worse than actively doing wrong, because indifference not only can be deadly neglect, but because it refuses to acknowledge the value of anything or anyone else.

I feel like life is a dark joke on this count. I've been working on getting less angry at people who are indifferent or neglectful, but who are nice enough. And now I'm forced to see that their attitude is a problem which can get us all killed. They make the actions of evil actors so much worse, when they're not letting the world burn to a crisp. I can't get angry at them, but I do need anger at their behavior, because it is so grossly irresponsible, demanding of shame.

If you like this newsletter, I can use your help promoting it

I'll probably dedicate a post to this, because "marketing" isn't just "marketing." It's about how you conceive your audience, what you believe is of value to them, and what you give through the very concept of what you create.

I definitely can use your help spreading the word about this newsletter. There will be more interviews soon—working on one right now—and I think that's useful for anyone interested in making things, whether we're talking about poetry, a web presence, or political theory. The interview archive can be found through the interview tag.

It also doesn't hurt to have numbers on my side. Please do subscribe: free subscriptions help enormously. And for those of you who use it, you'll notice I'm more active on LinkedIn. It's proving to be a valuable resource. If you care to add me there, would love it.

Thank you for being here, thank you for reading, and thank you for your help.

Emily Dickinson, "The difference between Despair / and Fear" (305)

The outstanding question of Dickinson's "The difference between Despair / and Fear" is why the difference has to be known. If we're talking about the good things we need, it makes sense to define the distinctions between them. For example, people will get married, lose their previous friends, and wonder why they feel lonely. It turns out friendship is not exactly equivalent to companionship, as we have a need to give and receive different sorts of love with different sorts of people. However, let's say I finely distinguish despair and fear. Do I want either emotion in my life? Both can completely destroy any motivation, any hope, any trust I have. Best to avoid them entirely.

So Dickinson begins with an intense, fragile emotional state. She's not sure how she's feeling—what she's reacting to—and then she opens the floodgates. "The difference... / is like the One / Between the instant of a Wreck / And when the Wreck has been". With "a Wreck," with present horror and carnage,  "Despair" and "Fear" seem almost trifling.

The difference between Despair (305)
Emily Dickinson

The difference between Despair
And Fear — is like the One
Between the instant of a Wreck
And when the Wreck has been —

The Mind is smooth — no Motion —
Contented as the Eye
Upon the Forehead of a Bust —
That knows — it cannot see — 

It's worth pausing our reading of the poem to address this issue at some length. Our language for describing things which hit hard but must give way overlaps with our language for things which are shocking, fatal, or traumatic.  "Despair" and "Fear" could concern lost loves or a feeling of failure. Now, though, Dickinson speaks of "a Wreck" of irrecoverable loss. We may believe "a Wreck" should take priority, but that is a premature moral judgment. Any given feeling we have is usually a bundle of other feelings and expectations. Doing something with your life intimately connects with your regard for those you've lost. You despair and fear you couldn't do more, could never do more. Of course, some are insensitive to a fault, and they do not want to acknowledge another's loss or even admit they have lost. "Despair," "Fear," and "a Wreck" are all the same to them. I do not think what I am speaking about applies in that case. The tension between accomplishment and respect for the dead characterizes those who want to be honorable. It is far from selfish, if navigated correctly.

I believe Dickinson, by the end of the first stanza, voices a specific overwhelm. There's despair, there's fear. Will I amount to anything? How will I survive in this family? Can I possibly survive without anyone? Despair and fear are ruinous enough, and then there's disaster, or an unshakeable premonition of disaster.

Strangely, contemplating disaster leads back to contemplation itself, even if we are numb, cynical, and exhausted. Dickinson's poem initially parodies the effort to self-reflect. She promises to tell us about the difference between despair and fear through the simile of a wreck. It doesn't work. There's the "instant of a Wreck," where you might despair, but you really can't if you're in it. Rather, you're fearful of the worst possible outcome, and move to save what you can. Then, "when the Wreck has been" offers fertile ground for both despair and fear to establish themselves.

Dickinson brings us to distinction without difference. It's all a mess, she's a wreck, and the possibility of contemplation—just a moment of relief—has only been glimpsed. Her second stanza refuses to provide relief, too. "The Mind" is "[c]ontented" when confronted with disaster. It knows it can try cleverness to no avail. You can use fear to salvage what you can in an emergency, but then what? Plenty of people survive battles to die later in the war. There is "no Motion," your "Eye" might as well be on "the Forehead of a Bust," unable to see.

Dickinson's frustration, ironically enough, creates the space to stop. Her mind doesn't merely see despair or fear, if only for a moment. This is not a relief, much less contemplation. But we are more than failed expectations or personal tragedies, even if we don't believe it.