Wolosky edfn truth and Lie in Emily Dickinson and Friedrich Nietzsche



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Instead, Nietzsche insists that the reason the world seems to match human formulations is because our formulations set up our understanding of the world. This is tautology, not causality. It is, Nietzsche goes on to say, like someone who "hides an object behind a bush and then seeks and finds it there” (TL 251). The world conforms to human understanding not because we grasp it in itself, but because we arrange it, always in relation to our own categories. Reality is not correlated to language; rather it is "language which has worked originally at the construction of ideas."

The "thing in itself"(which would be pure, disinterested truth) is also absolutely incomprehensible to the creator of language and not worth seeking. He designates only the relations of things to men, and to express these relations he uses the boldest metaphors. (TL 248)
In "Truth and Lie," then, language is formative. Personifying human categories foundationally structure what they represent. But this is a concern of Emily Dickinson's poetry as well. Yet this need not mean that there is utter collapse of meaning: that if there is no absolute truth, all is mere lie. To deny correspondence theory is not to reduce all experience and expression to arbitrary or solipsistic expression. Tautology in this sense is not simply circular. It rather defines the parameters within which human experience takes place as conditioned and finite, as partial and even fragmented.17

If there is no world pre-existing its linguistic formulation, no world of "truth" that language merely reiterates, does that mean there is no world and no meaning? In contemporary terms, the critique of correspondence theory has posited instead a sign-theory in which no signified precedes a signifier. The signifier is not merely the result, effect, vehicle, expression of a prior meaning constituted without language. References do not subsist external to the linguistic forms through which we experience them. Rather, our language formulates our experience. This does mean that experience is never final or absolute, is always represented, is always beckoning to reformulation. But what then regulates the production of language so that it is not merely arbitrary or imposed, both on nature and, crucially, on other human beings? Dickinson suggests that it is exactly the insistence on the limits of claims, on the sense of a space beyond what humans can know or represent absolutely, curtails but also generates particular formulations. Therefore the negative – what is not expressed, attained, granted – emerges as a central site, defining even as – or rather, in that – it limits what is properly human.

The poem "The Tint I cannot take – is best –" examines and represents such a dialectic of limitation. Written in the mode of Romantic imaginative power, it nonetheless crosses into this discourse a counter one that resituates imaginative claims.

The Tint I cannot take – is best –

The Color too remote

That I could show it in Bazaar –

A Guinea at the sight—
The fine – impalpable Array –

That swaggers on the eye

Like Cleopatra's Company –

Repeated -- in the sky –


The Moments of Dominion

That happen on the Soul

And leave it with a Discontent

Too exquisite – to tell –


The eager look – on Landscapes –

As if they just repressed

Some Secret – that was pushing

Like Chariots – in the Vest –


The Pleading of the Summer –

That other Prank – of Snow –

That Cushions Mystery with Tulle,

For fear the Squirrels – know.


Their Graspless manners – mock us –

Until the Cheated Eye

Shuts arrogantly – in the Grave –

Another way – to see – (J 627 / Fr 696)


Harold Bloom calls this a "poem besieged by perspectivism" within the context of a Nietzschean affirmation in "our faith [in] the existing world" (WP 1046). As an "authentic American Sublime," the poem opens with a characteristic Dickinsonian gesture towards the sublime as standing beyond any actuality – a romance structure where what is not always exceeds what is, with the ideal ever hovering before and beyond whatever concretely exists.18 This is to recognize the realm of imagination as always surpassing what is actual. Yet, as Harold Bloom has theorized, such surpassing entails an element of negation. The imagination doesn't simply fuse or reciprocate with nature, but must counter it in order to open space for its own ventures.

Negation is thus imaginatively liberating and positive. But negation also has a limiting function that works across the sublime. The sublime can imply some endless reach of mind into ever greater extents. But it also signals, as in Kant, a confrontation with the unbounded in which the imagination experiences its own limits.19 This sense of negation points to what is beyond as something unreachable, never to be attained. It recognizes transcendence, but not as a second, eternal metaphysical world into which one hopes to enter or reach. Transcendence instead acts as a barrier, resending energy back into a beckoning temporality as the ever receding, ever summoning next moment which ever remains our framework and condition. Transcendence in this sense marks a limit that we, as humans, never cross: a negative transcendence not to be grasped, but instead to stand as guard against our attempts to claim and exceed what ever remains for us finite positions and understanding.

Perspectivism in Nietzsche involves not only viewpoint but, more radically, linguistic formulation. But this also resituates perspectivism away from solipsistic subjectivism. Linguistic formulation is necessarily shared. Language, as Saussure underscored, is itself a social institution into which individuals enter and by which they are shaped. Its constructions are common ones, with creativity working through and with common constructions. Each individual version still assumes and depends on shared language usage, as both a limiting function and also a power. "The Tint I cannot Take" interestingly works between visual and linguistic construction and the implications of each. "Tint," "Color," and "sight" all underscore the question of vision and perspective as situating the speaker. But the next stanza's "impalpable Array -- / That swaggers on the eye" at once asserts and cancels the visual dimension: an "Array" can be seen by the "eye," but the "impalpable" cannot. And this second stanza already moves into a sense of language rather than vision as the structure of experience. "Swaggers on the eye" is a personification, granting to "Array" an intentional and human action – indeed, a braggadocio, of overclaiming. At issue is not only seeing but saying. "Like Cleopatra's Company" is a likeness that is not perceptual, but conceptual, made possible and indeed invented through the rhetorical structure of simile itself. The verse then evokes a directly linguistic image: "Repeated – in the sky." Like Nietzsche 's "echo," the act of the seeker as he [she] "contemplates the whole world as related to man, as the infinitely protracted echo of an original sound," the sky repeats the poet, not the poet the sky. Indeed, this second stanza is followed by a quite Nietzschean gesture involving, as in the poem "To be alive – is power" the question of domination and will, again as linguistic phenomena. "The Moments of Dominion" are those when the "soul" experiences creative surge.

But "Dominion" here is deeply paradoxical. It involves not expression, but its limit; not possession but its evasion. It happens to "happen" on the soul, rather than being directly willed by it. As an experience of power, it lasts but a "Moment." As Dickinson writes in another poem, "Dominion lasts until obtained" (J 1257 / Fr 1299). And it involves not command of nature, but "Discontent" as nature never in fact corresponds with human desire. A second negation then follows. "Too exquisite – to tell" makes the experience at once linguistic and not so. As with all tropes of inexpressibility, there is a complex paradoxicality of language that declares the inability to name something beyond language.20 Dickinson is balanced on a boundary she thereby defines or marks out, of the extent of linguistic power, and also its borders and limits.

The poem continues its rhetoric of personification. "Landscapes" are said to "look" – i.e. to see, not be seen; "Snow" to play a "Prank," "Squirrels" to "know." These transferences of the human again move into linguistic tropes, which again delimit as well as affirming subjectivity. The landscape's "eager Look" turns out to signal something not seen: a "Secret" that is "repressed." The "Summer" is described as "Pleading," a beckoning rather than commanding speech act.

The conclusion of the poem again invokes an "Eye," but as "Cheated" and finally as shutting. The desire to see absolutely is rebuked as arrogant. Instead, its mortality is confirmed. The eye's vista shrinks to the "Grave." If there is "Another way – to see," this is left ambiguous between further vision and irony at the desire to gain it. Alongside this chastened visual imagery persists an imagery of language, which is similarly bounded. Our efforts to know what the summer pleads and what snow conceals "mock" us. Our knowledge is not directly of nature but always through linguistic acts that inevitably entail ourselves.21 Against the desire to grasp the world-in- itself, nature remains "Graspless," beyond our comprehension and our possession.

In this poem, language does not reflect, nor simply echo external reality. Rather, experience is itself inextricably and at once structured as and through language. Speaking forms the world through words. A prior signified does not determine language as referring or corresponding to it. Yet neither does this leave signifiers arbitrarily unanchored or coercively imposed, as Nietzsche's Will to Power is often taken to imply. Instead, what is traced here is an immersion in or experience of signifiers as the realm of human meaning, the only meaning we finally have, which is also one that is never final. This is not to say that meaning is merely relativist or arbitrary or dominating. Signifiers are not simply, freely, and independently posited. They are instead fundamentally, one might say foundationally linked to each other in chains or networks or, as Nietzsche repeatedly insists in "Truth and Lie," in relationships. Man knows nothing of the "thing-in-itself" but only designates

"the relations of things to men and for their expression he calls to his help the most daring metaphors" (TL 248). Such "relations" may seem only expressions of personal human will. But Nietzsche continues:

What, then, is for us a law of nature? It is not known to us as such, but only in its effects, i.e. in its relations to other laws of nature, which in turn are known to us only as relations. All these relations thus always refer back only to one another and are absolutely incomprehensible to us in their essence; what we add to them --- time, space, hence relations of succession and numbers, is all we know about them. . . . But we produce these perceptions within ourselves and out of ourselves with the same necessity as a spider spins its web. . we are compelled to grasp all things only under these forms. (TL 253)
The fact that we do not know nature "in-itself" does not mean we don't know it at all, or that we just make up what and as we please. While "reality" remains in Dickinson's terms "Graspless" in-itself – as Nietzsche writes, "we are compelled to grasp all things only under these forms" – there are other "manners" in which we do know. These are exactly the patterns that we weave in and through our language, articulating what Nietzsche calls "sums of relations." "These relations," Nietzsche writes, "refer only to one another and are absolutely incomprehensible to us in their essence." That is, they mean only to and for us, not in themselves as some absolute noumena. Yet to and for us they do mean. We conceive them in "relations of sequence," of "time" and "space," which Nietzsche treats, as human categories, as personifications or anthropomorphisms. Whether or not they subsist without us, they are known to us only as we designate them, making out of them, in one of Nietzsche's powerful images in "Truth and Lying," a "new world of laws" in a "sky of ideas." Nor is there any unity or whole. Relations remain multiple. Yet this very multiplicity also prevents them from being merely willful. As Saussure wrote about linguistic signs, despite their lack of essential relation to things outside themselves, their very multiplicity stabilizes a system which, in order to operate at all, cannot shift terms and usages randomly or at will.22 This multiplicity and its regulatory force applies as well to Nietzsche's language theory. Denying any tie to a signified exterior and prior to linguistic formulation does not release the signifier into wanton assertion. While the signifier is untied to a signified independent of it, the signifier is retied to other signifiers. In this net of relationships humans live and mean, in relations to each other that are regulated and not simply assertive or wayward.

In Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks Nietzsche posits the "essential character of primal being as coming-to-be." Being is not fixed and eternal, but everchanging and "indefinite."

This "indefinite," the womb of all things, can, it is true, be designated by human speech only as a negative, as something to which the existent world of coming-to-be can give no predicate. We may look upon it as the equal of the Kantian Ding an sich."23
The "indefinite" is a "negative" designation. It is not a "signified." It can be given "no predicate." But this negation is in many ways a defining act. It marks a transcendence as exactly what is beyond grasp. It thus defines our experience as within phenomenal reality, at once limiting and delineating it.

Transcendence then is not a failed goal but a regulatory limit.

In this light, the opening "Tint I cannot take," which suggests an image of point of view as a kind of coloring of how we see and promising some further viewpoint as yet unattained, comes also to signal, in its negative formulation, the impossibility of any final or absolute vision. Further, "tint" is also a form of engraving, and "tint block" is a term in printing for a "lightly colored background upon which an illustration or the like is to be printed." Visual imagery verges into imagery of printing. But this moves the poem's formulations from interior perception toward a shared world of exchange. Signifiers link together in a network of language that different selves participate in. The move from vision to language redirects the poem from subjectivism to negotiated, mutual and common understanding. Such understanding is never absolute. Rather, intrinsic reality remains "Graspless," resisting our attempts to comprehend it. This is a limitation the poem insists on, concluding in the defeat of any "Eye" which "arrogantly" tries to see absolutely. Instead, the poem declares the world to be a "Mystery" beyond our reach, whose "Graspless manners" – a near oxymoron suggesting a mode of modelessness – demand that we acknowledge and respect what cannot be grasped.
III. Veils and Circles: Modest Reflections

The linguistic world is one of mutability and participation, not of final command. It remains bounded by limitation and ontological "Mystery." Such "Mystery" is interestingly figured in the poem "The Tint I cannot take" as "Tulle." Tulle in Dickinson is a highly gendered image, closely associated with veils, with the female body itself, and also with language as material event in the imminent world. Feminized senses of "Veil" have been a topic in Dickinson, and also in Nietzsche studies. Regarding Dickinson, the veil has been associated with a problematic of the Gaze, of seeing while not being seen, within a nineteenth century discourse of gendered norms and commodification. 24 Veils and associated images appear in such well-known poems as "Because I could not stop for Death," where "Tulle" represents the speaker's body (J 712 / Fr 479). In "A Charm invests a face," it an emblem of the sublime which warns against exposure as lifting "her Veil / For fear it be dispelled." (J 421/ Fr 430)25 Veil is also expressly a linguistic trope. In "A Single Screw of Flesh" "Veil" figures both as body and as writing – the two in fact as fundamental tropes for each other. In this poem, the poet remains on her "side" of "the Veil" as body, separating the speaker from God – a side she however clutches at, reluctant to let go to pass into another world. But veil is also language, associated with "name" and the danger of losing it in erasure, with the self itself figured as "printed" language (J 263/ Fr 293).26

The topic of Nietzsche's imagery of woman is too vast even to broach here. But, as Derrida has particularly noted, there is a striking figure in Nietzsche of the "veil" as feminine image, associated in complex layers with both truth and lie.27 On the one hand, Nietzsche associates women with "appearance" – "her supreme concern is appearance and beauty" (BGE 232) Here she is an emblem of the world of becoming –in fact, a quite traditional assignment. Woman's place within metaphysical system has persistently been to mark what is not essence, what is not real, what is merely sensual and apparent.28 But in his reassignments of truth and falsehood, Nietzsche can also write: "Suppose truth is a woman" (BGE Preface). Here he implies that "truth" has been through the history of philosophy in fact a fiction, which calling it "woman" exposes. As Derrida writes, "There is no such thing as the truth of woman, but it is because . . . "untruth" is "truth" (51). Nietzsche wrote in the Gay Science: "perhaps this is the greatest charm of life: it puts a golden-embroidered veil of lovely potentialities over itself, promising, resisting, modest, mocking, sympathetic, seductive. Yes. Life is a woman" (GS 339). Derrida comments: "For him, truth is like a woman. It resembles the veiled movement of feminine modesty. . . [a] complicity between woman, life, seduction, modesty, all the veiled and veiling effects."

As Derrida's remarks reflect, the veil in both theoretical and historical terms is an icon of modesty, invoking what remains concealed. In women's history, this has persistently involved imposed constraint: a repression in the Foucauldian sense that also activates, conjuring a female sexuality defined from the standpoint of men and denying women's own subjectivity. Nietzsche has been aligned with these as with other Foucauldian trends. His position regarding modesty in any case will differ from Dickinson's. As Derrida writes, Nietzsche may not fall into mere anti-feminism or feminism (57), but Nietzsche generally regards woman from outside, as spectacle.29 Dickinson, in contrast, inhabits her womanhood and speaks from it. Modesty in fact is among Dickinson's most complex tropes, enacted, in both her life and work, as both defiance and embrace. 30 Dickinson gazes not only at, but through the veil: of body, of language, of limitation itself. At issue is the whole question of boundedness and boundaries.

This is a question intrinsic to another core Dickinson figure, circumference. Circumference has been largely interpreted in Dickinson as ultimately transcending boundaries into infinity. Jane Donahue Eberwein, who treats the trope extensively, sees it rightly as an aspect of Dickinson's "Strategies of Limitation" but ultimately in order to "explode beyond them."31 Albert Gelpi sees it as an emblem of the absolute self, "more infinite than infinity."32 In his discussion of Dickinson and Nietzsche in terms of "The Rites of Dionysus," Dwight Eddins focuses on "the dialectic between boundlessness and limitation" which circumference evokes. And he, too, ultimately sees Dickinson's as a drive to a Dionysian boundlessness, tracing an "all inclusive circle with the ultimate unity of Dionysian affirmation. There is nothing left outside the circle, no "otherness" anywhere in nature. . . in an ecstasy of omnipotence."33

Yet many of Dickinson's images of "circumference" are highly equivocal. Rather than affirming the transcendence of boundaries, they question that possibility. In the poem "I Saw No Way, the Heavens were Stitched," the self is figured as deeply disoriented. Going out "upon Circumference / Beyond the Dip of Bell" leaves the self precariously suspended. (J 378 / Fr 633). Gelpi cites the poem "Time feels so vast" as affirming continuity between the smaller circle of the self and an infinite circumference (J 802 / Fr 858).34 But the poem registers tension, contest, and discontinuity between smaller and larger, as Time's vastness presents a "Circumference" that threatens to exclude "Eternity." In yet another poem, "Circumference" is trope for "Ignorance," as inspired by the "Sunset" in a vision of "Omnipotence" glimpsed by "Our inferior face" (J 552 / Fr 669). Circumference then is not only a verge into the beyond, but also marks a limit needed to sustain selfhood at all. This is strongly registered in the poem "His mind of man, a secret makes." There Dickinson describes each self as a "circumference / In which I have no part . . . Impregnable to inquest." (J 1663 / Fr 1730). As she also writes, "The Suburbs of a secret / A strategist should keep." (J 1245 / Fr ).

Circumference thus stretches on an edge between boundlessness and boundary, but ultimately draws back into the world of limitation. In this it acts like a veil and like negation itself, refusing the desire to exceed into absolute realms. In the poem "Circumference thou Bride of Awe" the figure is clearly feminized (J 1620 / Fr 1636). This poem is most often read as urging possession; but there is also a suspicion against it. 35 The romance desire of the "hallowed Knights" to possess this "Bride of Awe" is suspected, not lauded, as coveting. The phrase "Possessing thou shalt be/ Possessed" makes unclear who possesses whom. Perhaps "Possessing" itself will be "Possessed;" or perhaps there is a mutual implication rather than command of ownership. Above all, "Awe," like "Mystery," projects a powerful boundary in Dickinson, pointing towards a relation to the world as transcending her: not in the sense of a metaphysical other world, but as the immanent world that remains beyond her ownership and command. In this she affirms both selfhood and its limits. 36

Dickinson's circumference may be compared to the core circle image in Nietzsche, the Eternal Return. Just what and how Nietzsche means by Eternal Return has continued to be debated. But one clear implication is that it brings back into phenomena and becoming the value that metaphysics, according to Nietzsche, drained from them. Eternal Return affirms the world of time and change, to the point of embracing their eternal enactment.37 It draws a circle within this world of time and language, not as mere restriction but as power-generating embrace.



In one of Dickinson's most famous texts, it is as language that circle imagery emerges in, "Tell all the truth but tell it slant / Success in circuit lies" (J 1129 / 1150). Is "Truth" here a pre-established Idea that resists expression into partial and inadequate language? An in-itself that, as the poem goes on to say, "must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind," requiring circumlocution to mediate its overwhelming presence? Or is "Circuit" here not a detour but the only path for telling a "Truth" which only emerges within the tropes and images of its representation? "Success in Circuit lies" itself plays on lie and truth, making them difficult to tell apart: does linguistic circuit lie, or is it the only form of truth we ever experience? Does circuit mark a boundary to be protested and transcended, or a limit to be embraced as both necessary and generative? Yet in the poem, truth only appears, only happens in the world, as slant, as figure. Indeed, the pull of the poem brings truth into the process of language and the language of process. Any attempt to strip away figuration is to try to penetrate to what is "Too bright for our Infirm Delight" – where "Delight" itself inheres in our infirmity, our human imperfection. As Wallace Stevens writes: "The imperfect is our paradise."



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