RUFFIN IT: WAS EMILY MAD, OR MERELY ANGRY?
[This week I continue with another piece of literature scholarship.]
Over the years I have taught a number of undergraduate and graduate courses in which I spent some time on the poetry of Emily Dickinson.
Now, ED strikes students different ways, Some view her as odd but pleasant, and most seem interested more in Emily the Person than Emily the Poet, this in spite of the fact that, as several students have pointed out, her poems are very short and many can be sung to the tune of “Amazing Grace.” Why this latter characteristic should loom large would be beyond me, but for my acceptance of the fact that most of my students have been from Protestant households and know and love the hymn beat the way they do the rhythm of their own hearts. I do too.
It is a fact that many of our poets practice eccentricity, since such behavior hints at genius, whether it is there or not, Usually it isn’t, Emily Dickinson did not practice: She was eccentric, A graduate student said to me one time, after we had finished analyzing a poem of hers titled “I felt a funeral, in my brain” (actually the first line of the poem–Dickinson provided no titles): “This is one of the strangest poets I’ve ever been exposed to, Was she simply nuts?” I do not recall my answer.
Interest in Emily Dickinson the woman and Emily Dickinson the poet has surged and waned over the past hundred years, but at no point since the 1920s has she or her poetry been in any danger of disappearing from the literature texts. Indeed, given the fact that she is universally embraced by almost every school of criticism, the prospects of her continued prominence as one of the few representative American poets of the 19th Century seem virtually assured. Like the Bible, her work can be interpreted almost any way that you wish to fit your particular agenda, whether you are Freudian, feminist, Marxist, or of a more conventional tribe.
One of the most controversial pieces published recently on Dickinson is psychiatrist John F. McDermott’s “Emily Dickinson Revisited: A Study of Periodicity in Her Work,” which appeared in May of 2001 in The American Journal of Psychiatry.
In this article McDermott concludes, after conducting a meticulous study of her letters and poetry, that Dickinson suffered from a broad range of mental problems, including agoraphobia (fear of open or public places), “seasonal depression,” and bipolar disorder. He bases these diagnoses on her patterns of creativity and social behavior at different times in her life.
What is unusual here is not that a psychiatrist has attempted to diagnose mental disorders in a writer long since dead–this has been done a number of times–but that McDermott rendered his analysis after applying the codes of what is referred to as the modern psychiatrist’s diagnostic bible, the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition [now available in a 5th Edition]), a complex publication listing both alphabetically and numerically all known mental disorders, complete with symptoms and diagnostic criteria. This is presumably the first time that a posthumous diagnosis of one of our writers has been made through the application of the codes of the DSM.
McDermott’s conclusions have, of course, been discounted by the feminists, who prefer to believe the focus should remain on Dickinson’s talent and perseverance and hard work. Why are the women always being picked on, when madness must surely have been at work in the creative production of many male artists? Why must men be portrayed as superior enough to rise above their mental problems to produce their art while the creative genius of women is the result of their madness? But take any random group of literary critics and have them sit in a room and discuss Emily Dickinson, and the only thing you’ll find them agreeing on is the fact that Emily Dickinson is dead, and even then a couple of them will insist on DNA evidence before concurring with that conclusion.
Doubtless this will not be the last of our writers to be psychoanalyzed through the application of the DSM codes, James Morris’s DSM-IV Made Easy lays everything out so clearly that the layman might well render his own diagnoses with a fair degree of accuracy. I recently ordered the book from Amazon and set about trying to analyze some eccentric poets I know. My conclusion is that most of them are not mad at all, only angry at and disappointed with themselves, and most are suffering from profound self-loathing, for good reason.