Madness as metaphor : a study of mysticism in the life and art of Emily Dickinson

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Paddock, Virginia L.
Koontz, Tom
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Thesis (Ph. D.)
Department of English
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The present study establishes a more full and accurate understanding of the importance of mysticism in the art and life of Emily Dickinson, and shows that because of the physiological changes endured by the mystic and the unique relationship between mysticism and madness, what might be read literally as madness (psychosis) in Dickinson's poems should be seen as a metaphor for the dark counterpoint of the mystical cycle.Chapter One establishes a necessary background on mysticism and discusses the effects of mystical experience on the mind and body of the mystic. As the mystic undergoes spiritual purification, she will be changed physiologically because the central nervous system has to be cultured and strengthened to withstand the changes created by the transcendental level of consciousness.Chapter Two chronologically documents Dickinson's mystical achievement, using her letters as the primary source and Evelyn Underhill's five stages of mystical development as the base of measurement. Dickinson achieved the first mystic life-Awakening, Purgation, and Illumination. Hints of the Dark Night of the Soul may be seen in her later years, but there does not appear to be firm evidence that it was ever fully established. Oscillating between states of pain and pleasure throughout her life, she did not achieve the perfect serenity, peace, and certitude that characterizes Union. Chapter Three examines the symbiotic relationship between mysticism and madness, to show that they share a common source and the end result depends on the preparedness of the individual. Chapter Four examines selected poems, written from 1859-65, from the perspective that Dickinson is a mystic describing mystical experience rather than a psychotic describing insanity. Chapter Four, as does Chapter Three, refers to the interpretation of Dickinson's poetry made by the Freudian psychiatrist, Dr. John Cody, because his interpretation has made the strongest argument for literal madness in Dickinson's work. Chapter Three shows the insufficiency of the argument to explain Dickinson, other mystics, and two of the parallel cases Cody used to support his thesis; Chapter Four demonstrates the same insufficiency when applied to Dickinson's poems of madness, terror, and despair. Chapter Five briefly examines the relationship between Dickinson, the mystic, and Dickinson, the poet.