Review of “The Spirit Lasts — but in What Mode” (1883)


Emily Dickinson (writer).

Read in 2021.

Apparently written to family following the death of Dickinson’s adorable second nephew, “Gib” (1875–1883). The spirit doesn’t last. Gib was gone, and Dickinson struggles fruitlessly with that fact.

The poem is about what Gilbert Ryle would later call the ghost in the machine. Dickinson couldn’t precede Ryle or Maurice Merleau-Ponty to the conclusion that the immortal soul does not exist, but for some reason, Dickinson does make the important observation that she cannot imagine the soul separate from the body, and then she gets all muddled up protesting the obvious conclusion on the basis of what she calls “Instinct”, which in this case is an innate cognitive defect.

Perhaps out of love for Gib, she tries to picture a version of Christian Heaven with life “Resuming at a mutual date” without bodies, but she can’t pull through with that, because she does not want to lie about it. More than a century later, Joan Didion would finally manage to write a book about grief for atheists.

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