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Alterity and the lyric: Heidegger, Levinas, and Emily Dickinson

Hyesook Son, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Dickinson's various poetic experiments are informed by her struggle with the complex relation between self and what twentieth-century philosophy calls “the Other.” But most critics misinterpret her poetic experimentation as a quest for the essential, authentic self. By drawing on a traditional definition of the lyric as a purely subjective form—marked by the self's exclusion of all others and the freedom from historical and ideological pressures—they conclude that Dickinson's lyric self signifies the solitary ego who has no relationship with the other as Other. Even much of feminist and new historicist criticism fails to fully explain Dickinson's poetry, and the lyric in general, because these approaches also rely on the traditional concept of the lyric subject. In contrast, I suggest that the consciousness constructed in the lyric space is not confined within a solitary monologism. It is, rather, engaged in a process of perpetual interchange that denies the sovereignty and independence of either the subject or the Other. Thus, I propose that we view the lyric subject not simply as a consciousness of something, but as a release from oneself or, more fundamentally, as a relationship with alterity. This new understanding of the lyric enables us to appreciate Dickinson's poetry for its own dynamics and tension in the self/Other relationship. Her acute sense of the otherness of the Other is conveyed by many aspects of her writing: the violent intensity of her expression, the accuracy and hardness of her language, and most significantly the nature of her perception. This sharp perception, combined with her poetic skill and ingenuity, leads to her characteristic style and poetic form. Dickinson attempts to preserve beings in their specificity and isolation, not subsume them under the general category of God, Truth, or Being. Her poetic experiments reveal the possibility of keeping the self while questioning it as it encounters the irreducible Other. I conclude that this possibility is essential when we attempt to understand ourselves and the world in this age of anti-humanism, multiculturalism, and pluralism.

Subject Area

American literature

Recommended Citation

Son, Hyesook, "Alterity and the lyric: Heidegger, Levinas, and Emily Dickinson" (2002). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3056281.