A Fetish for Death

Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.” Sigmund Freud

I dwell in possibility…” Emily Dickinson

Psychoanalytical criticism began with the work of Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud. Freud was born in 1856 and began practicing and seeing patients in 1885; from his experience with patients, mostly female he wrote the work that revolutionized the way we see the human psyche and subconscious. In 1900, Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams a compilation of deep analysis of the dreams of his psychiatric patients and an examination of the unruly subconscious of these women.

Emily Dickinson’s work titled for the sake of this analysis “I heard a Fly buzz- when I died” is a complex work that under the broad lens of psychoanalytic criticism can be easily described as the work of an author desperately seeking to control her own subconscious and expel aspects of her neurotic psyche. This will be achieved in three key steps, firstly in analyzing Emily Dickinson herself, and then to analyze the work as a whole, lastly would be to understand both concerns of the fetish and its relation to the tripartite psyche of the author.
One of the major aspects of psychoanalytical criticism is the divided psyche, which is separated into three distinct areas. The first aspect of this is the id, the aspect that embodies “erotic primal urges” (Abcarian 1138) and immaturity, including aggression and desire. The second is the superego, this is considered to be the conscience of the individual, and this provides guilt and “struggles to control the id” (Abcarian 1138). The last of this is the ego, this aspect is the self; “ego” being the Latin word for “I”, the ego strives to balance the struggle of the id and superego and represents reason and logic. The ego strives to balance desire and responsibility. Classic psychoanalytic criticism “reads works as though they were the recorded dreams of patients; interpreted the life histories of authors as keys to the works; or analyzed characters as though like real people they have a set of repressed childhood memories” ( Bain 119) .

Freud, through the lens of psychoanalytical criticism also brought about a new concern with the fetish. A fetish can be an innocent attachment to a certain item, person, or place. Freud turned the fetish into an aspect of sexual and social deviance. Under this scope, the fetish is not just an attachment, it is a neurosis. Neurosis acts almost glitch in the psyche. It can be as simple as a slight obsession with someone relatively innocent or something as significance of a obsessive compulsion but is always a defective function of the subconscious in the Freudian model.

According to Freud, all writers are neurotic; these hidden neuroses riddle the works of poets and novelist. In the Freudian world, each step, each word, every aspect of the human experience is full of hidden whims of the subconscious slipping out from the psyche to the natural world. Even Freud himself is attributed to saying “Sometimes a cigar, is just a cigar.”

Emily Dickinson was born one of three children in 1830 to a wealthy family in Amherst, Massachusetts. She spent most of her life in her parent’s home, unmarried. She led a reclusive life, wearing on only white and refusing to see visitors. She spent less than a year studying at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary which from there she promptly returned home. She communicated to the outside world mostly through letters and wrote extensively in the years she spent at home.

She had one trip to Washington D.C. while her father was serving a term in Congress; there she met a married man, Reverend Charles Wadsworth. Dickinson considered Wadsworth to be her “dearest earthly friend” (Abcarian 1149) in 1862, Wadsworth moved to San Francisco, California and Dickinson experienced another burst of creative potential. It was also during this time that Dickinson began “literary correspondence” (Abcarian 1149) with critic T.W. Higginson. Many of her greatest known works were written during the time until her death.

Emily Dickinson died of typhoid fever in 1886 at the time of her death, Dickinson asked that all of her countless bound journals filled with poetry to be burned. Her work was published posthumously by her sister Lavinia found the large amount of work done by her sister. Lavinia then did as requested by her sister and burned most of the work but then did her best during the remainder of her life to ensure that the poems were published.

Dickinson’s writing can be difficult to manage; none of her works are officially titled. Several critics and authors have come up with elaborate numbering systems and methods taking the first line or key words of her poems to act as titles for the dozens of pieces of individual written pieces we have in our literary collections today. This can easily be considered as neurosis within many deeper neuroses.

The inability to claim her work through the intimate relationship of titling may be hidden insecurity or fear of her work. Dickinson’s mental status can be a bit difficult; as said in the quote from her above, dwelling in a land of possibility is either a strong indication of her creativity or a deep psychological issue that could either be schizophrenia, depressive or dissociative disorder. Both of these disorders in modern psychology are considered to be repressive aspects and in Freudian terms would be strong neuroses of the id and superego. These can result in prolific creativity in the arts to help cope with deeper issues around the subject.

Emily Dickinson lived a reclusive life. She barely left her parents’ home in her lifetime and during those years she spent a great deal of time writing hundreds of poems ranging in subject matter from birds to death. Dickinson’s relationship with her parents could be described as mostly normal considering her lifestyle as a hermit, locked away in her room. Her refusal to leave her room could be a strong anxiety such as agoraphobia or simply social rejection and an intentional cloistering of herself to focus on her writing work.

Her selective choices in wearing white, a color that symbolizes purity could be a hidden neurosis from her childhood and more likely an aspect of her id doing its best to make its presence know in the levels of her hidden psyche. There is a possibility of repressed memories from her childhood that seem to leak out into her poetry.

Dickinson’s work also lacks titling; that can be an aspect of a neurosis with deeper neuroses. The danger of this step is not having the live subject. Emily Dickinson died years before Freud’s work had be published and the likelihood of her being psychoanalyzed properly even if their time periods had coincided would be very unlikely. Dickinson would have never left the safety of her home, nor is it confirmed that she had a deep psychological problem; since she would not have seen a problem with herself she would not be likely to receive treatment.

Analysis of the work including a consideration of the tripartite psyche involves first the specifically odd meter of the work. The work is heavily dashed, creating rigid pauses during both visual analysis and aural analysis. Certain words as capitalized that normally would not be in any other work, such as “Fly” and “Stillness”. The tone of the poem is melancholic; death is not usually a subject in which joy is associated with.

The Fly in this work is not our narrator but acts almost like the oppressive superego, this lingering figure that does not affect the scene as a whole but provides a source of contemplation. The fly does not stop at the time of the narrator’s passing, an event normally regarded with great respect. In this case the narrator acts almost as both the ego, representing the self as Emily Dickinson and the id, representing the desire to want this moment of her life to be noticed more.

Dickinson’s had an odd fascination with death and morbidity throughout most of her life and many of her works revolve around the subject of death or dying. The tone of these works range from a quiet acceptance to a reverent happiness. Dickinson could have been said to have a fetish for death and morbidity. Fetish is not exactly a negative term; it is simply an affinity for an item. Most humans fear death as a subject and that reflects in our attitudes and writings when we encounter someone who is not afraid of the subject we mark this as social deviance. The fetish only became an aspect of social deviance through Freudian critique. Dickinson’s fetish for morbidity can be explained as either a strong acceptance of her own mortality or an even stronger fear of the subject that is expressed through poetry as a coping mechanism.

Sigmund Freud believed that all writers are neurotic, that deep within each line and word was a hidden defect of the subconscious, an imbalance or imperfection. Aristotle coined the term “catharsis” or healing, this is a more acceptable of an explanation than the neurosis of the Freudian model. A writer does write at times due to a defect or an issue that cannot be discussed in public. Emily Dickinson’s work “I heard a Fly buzz- when I died” can be described as a marked example of writing to help solve either a slight mental defect or to help assist healing of a profound fear.

Works Cited

Abcarian, Richard, and Maravin Klotz. Literature, the Human Experience: Reading and Writing. Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s, 2006. Print.

Bain, Carl E., Jerome Beaty, and J. Paul Hunter. The Norton Introduction to Literature. New York: Norton, 1986. Print.

Dickinson, Emily. “I heard a Fly buzz- when I died” Literature, the Human Experience: Reading and Writing. Ed. Richard Abcarian and Maravin Klotz. Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s, 2006. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. Ed.Rivkin, Julie. The Interpretation of Dreams Malden, Mass. u.a.: Blackwell, 2008. Print.



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I'm just your everyday human person with a keen eye for what's really happening. Be prepared for wit, humor and Dr. Who references. Loves include anime, writing, eating sweets, art and visits to the park to feed the ducks.

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