Emily Dickinson, "A nearness to Tremendousness" (963)

What shattering, colossal lines: "A nearness to Tremendousness – / An Agony procures."

Emily Dickinson, "A nearness to Tremendousness" (963)

Of note

  • Jude Doyle's essay on Lana Del Rey and our fascination with her is a revelation. It is an incredible work of criticism which begs to be shared. When you read it, you'll marvel at how many words were put into the service of making Del Rey more than she was. The quote Doyle has from The New Inquiry putting her into dialogue with Audre Lorde (!!) is jaw-dropping: "Contra Audre Lorde’s argument that ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’—or, indeed, the singer Lorde’s claim that ‘that kind of luxe isn’t for us’—Del Rey understands that the master’s house and the master’s tools are all there is[.]"
  • Spencer Ackerman wrote about South Africa's case against Israel at the International Court of Justice. One set of sentences that I think everyone needs to read: "The filing views the Israeli attacks on Palestinian health care infrastructure represent [sic] the destruction of the foundations necessary to sustain life. But it also pays chilling attention to what those attacks are doing to those who quite literally birth a Palestinian future. 'Pregnant women are also being subjected to caesareans without anaesthetic,' is a sentence in this filing that sharply concentrates the mind."

Emily Dickinson, "A nearness to Tremendousness"

What an opening. What shattering, colossal lines: "A nearness to Tremendousness – / An Agony procures." I can't help but think of jealousy when it looks like an ex or rival has found love or success. They've found something tremendous–they may not even be happy!–but we're near, and even the virtuous among us will feel some pain. It's not that we're petty and can't let go. It's more that what we're not in the middle of can look amazing. "Tremendousness," by its very nature, lacks precision.

A nearness to Tremendousness (963)
Emily Dickinson

A nearness to Tremendousness —
An Agony procures —
Affliction ranges Boundlessness —
Vicinity to Laws

Contentment’s quiet Suburb —
Affliction cannot stay
In Acres — Its Location
Is Illocality —

I want to talk about jealousy and a lack of knowledge a bit more because Dickinson, in this short lyric, goes two places with it. First, she details the "Agony," the "Affliction." It literally drives her crazy, pushing her to move elsewhere in the poem. "Affliction ranges Boundlessness," she says. In the face of unrelenting pursuit she considers "Vicinity to Laws // Contentment's quiet Suburb." It isn't clear that vicinity, that nearness, heals or protects her, but she reaches for a practical solution to a problem. The other place she goes into is boundlessness, where language & reason, identity, and mysticism blur into each other. "Illocality," she declares, and Joely Fitch has written a thoughtful set of reflections on what that might mean for sexual orientation.

These two places, the practical problem of pain and an inability to know where you are, deeply relate. Often, if you're working with young children and you give one attention, the others immediately clamor for your attention. Sure, this may say something about the adults in their lives. Or maybe it speaks to a culture thoroughly dominated by narcissism. But it seems more likely we only begin to know who we are in relation to others. For us adults: you've got people screaming at you not to be jealous, to be bigger than someone who hurt you, and the result is feeling more abandoned than you've ever been.

Obviously I do not believe we should be angry and jealous of everyone else. A friend heard a rage-filled, alcoholic ex found someone and tied the knot. That friend couldn't help but experience some self-doubt. I didn't hesitate to remind the friend that they were there for countless others, that they worked on themselves and grew whether the circumstances were good or not. It's hard not to feel abandoned even by bad people, because we need to know we are known.

"Affliction cannot stay / In Acres," Dickinson intones. "Its Location / Is Illocality." I must understand how we go from jealousy, or something like jealousy, to mysticism. To be sure, the move makes intuitive sense, but why? What do we see with the mind's eye which requires articulation? For now, I'm settled on this reading: we are the pain ourselves, the "affliction." We are only known relatively. So our small, ugly torments–torments we have to learn to manage–point to how regard is not just a matter of feeling, but knowledge itself. The very possibility of knowing oneself is exposed. My quick thought on "Illocality," then, is that if you want a more consistent self, one able to pull from the tremendousness that is everything, illocality is the start.