Recently I came across a poem by Emily Dickinson that speaks of confinement:
I never hear the word "escape"
Without a quicker blood,
A sudden expectation,
A flying attitude!
I never hear of prisons broad
By soldiers battered down,
But I tug childish at my bars
Only to fail again! (1859)
Such lines support the most common image we have of Dickinson -- as a secluded poet, who experienced moments of only private joy.
But it's fascinating also to think of this poem as having to do with her lack of audience and publication -- as if what can't escape the confinement of her room are her poems themselves.
Dickinson published less than a dozen of her nearly 1800 poems. Of these, many were horribly rewritten by editors, to rid the work of its disruptive rhythms and dissonant slant rhymes -- precisely those qualities that make her the Thelonious Monk of poetry.
Judging from the dates of the poems in my book, this is one of Dickinson's earlier ones. What's striking is that even here, there's ultimately little hope of "escape"; her attempts at freedom are "childish" she says. But, one might ask, if her work seemed doomed to confinement from the start, what drove her to write so much?
A hint, I think, might be found in the repetitive quality ("only to fail again") to which this poem alludes. This brings to my mind a distinction made by the cultural critic Slavoj Zizek between "desire" and "drive".
Drawing on Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, Zizek tells us that "desire" is motivated by the hope of achieving some end (e.g. fame, publication, an audience, etc.). Drive is what happens when such a goal becomes so elusive (or simply hopeless or impossible), that one keeps going just for the hell of it. As Zizek puts it,
"...let us imagine an individual trying to perform some simple manual task -- say grabbing an object that repeatedly eludes him: the moment he changes his attitude, starts to find pleasure in just repeating the failed task [squeezing the object, which again and again eludes him], he shifts from desire to drive..." (p. 10)
The "driven", according to this logic, are often characterized as rebels -- for what motivates them are not the standard-issue rewards that society doles out, but something weirder, more eccentric.
But if driven-ness can have such alienating qualities, why not re-channel one's desire toward something more recognizable and achievable? The problem with this, according to Zizek, is that, paradoxically, this can be profoundly unsatisfying. For our desires are often not really our own, but, as he puts it, "desire for the desire of the Other." That's why they leave one open to humiliation.
Is not the pursuit of fame, for example, often rooted in a desire to create an image of oneself that others will not just approve of, but desire themselves? A wonderful example of this can be found in HBO's mini-series Mildred Pierce.
Artist as Social Climber
The Todd Haynes version of Mildred Pierce accomplishes something rare in U.S. films. Haynes captures, better than any recent director, the intense desire to rid oneself of class shame.
Early in the film, Mildred takes a job as a waitress; not only is she reviled by her daughter for this "disgrace", but thanks to Kate Winslet's masterful, nearly excruciating performance, you know that Pierce hates herself for "stooping so low."
Later, we see that Vida, Mildred's daughter (and the externalization of Mildred's own ambitions for the good life), does find a route out of the reviled service industry (and a way to look good): she sings opera. Mildred is so taken with this that she spends the profits she's made in the restaurant business on buying fine outfits for Vida, for her debut at the Hollywood Bowl.
When Vida appears on stage, Mildred, in the audience, can hardly contain herself. She gasps with excitement and begins sobbing when, at the end of the performance, her daughter sings "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" directly to her. (Winslet's mastery of facial expression here is incredible). It's touching but pathetic.
And it gets worse. Vida runs off with Mildred's "classy" husband -- leaving her mother bankrupt and even more humiliated than when she worked as a waitress.
Poetry vs. Prose
Of course, our Reality TV culture, which insists there is something wrong with us if we don't really want (conventional) success, understands the motivations of Mildred Pierce better than those of Dickinson.
But the beauty of Haynes film is that it suggests that cliched narratives of "the good life" are at least as confining and alienating as being driven to follow an eccentric path.
Perhaps Dickinson was hinting at her own disinterest in such conventions -- more the stuff of novels than of poetry -- when she began one of her most well-loved poems with the lines: "I dwell in Possibility -- /A fairer House than Prose --". Thoughts?