Dickinson’s Theory of Vision

It is fairly difficult to assemble one unified theory of vision from reading the poems of Emily Dickinson. Her idea of vision includes not only the physical act of seeing, but a whole world of perception and belief; no doubt informed by her Calvinist upbringing and her own metaphysical convictions. Her style, which often does away with most non-essential words and is light on expository language makes interpreting her particular viewpoint difficult and imprecise. Since we have very little writing from Dickinson outside of the eighteen-hundred or so poems she left behind, our understanding of Dickinson’s views on what it means to “see” must be assembled from what we read in her poetry. Dickinson’s descriptions of color, light, darkness and the human mind’s perception of them –not to mention her unwillingness to be photographed- demonstrate an inclination towards the approaches towards vision demonstrated in J.W.M Turner’s paintings and Goethe’s theory of color. Her emphasis on the viewer’s creation of what he or she sees and percieves places her outside of other models of vision such as the camera obscura and the physiological model.

Lines like “A Slash of Blue! A sweep of Gray!”, (1-2), from “233” demonstrate Dickinson’s preoccupation with the subjectivity of the viewing experience. In this poem she sees a sky not as a perfectly objective image which one perceives in the same way, but as an image the viewer herself (in this case, Dickinson) creates. Dickinson’s viewer is not simply processing stimuli based on a set of physiological principles that are common to all people. The viewer is instead assembling the image on a sort of mental canvas using different pigments and brushes in the way a painter would; hence Dickinson’s use of “dashes” and “sweeps” to describe the way colors are applied to the blank canvas. Dickinson continues to speak about “scarlet patches” (2) and “Purple – slipped between” (4), describing them in a way that reminds one of a painter putting the final touches on a painting; filling in spaces and adding texture. At the end of the first stanza, Dickinson states that this “Compose(s) an evening sky” (3) and in the second stanza claims that this “makes out the morning sky!” (7).

These last lines point to Dickinson’s view that seeing is not physiological, nor is it something that can be reproduced ad infinitum by mechanical means. This is because the viewer creates each image based on his or her own subjective interpretation of what is in front of them The camera obscura model of vision fails here because it is predicated on the idea that there is a subjective truth that can be reproduced with mechanical precision. Modes of mechanical reproduction such as photographs are static and non-changing. A camera cannot change its perception of an image; it can only produce a facsimile of the information it has been fed. Thus, it becomes difficult to imagine photograph with purple “slipped between” and “Ruby trowsers – hurried on” (5)

Dickinson’s emphasis on subjectivity and her references to painting techniques put her at odds with the physiological and camera obscura models of vision, which both rely on a subjective view of the the nature of seeing. However, they also put her in similar territory to one Joseph Mallord William Turner. Turner’s paintings stress the objectivity of the viewing experience by removing things such as an immediately identifiable focal point that we traditionally associate with landscape portraits and stylizing lines, shapes and colors in such a way that it becomes difficult to tell where a figure begins and ends.

Dickinson’s poetic style is somewhat of a literary analogue to Turner’s paintings, with its strange meter, slant rhymes, idiosyncratic capitalization and punctuation. Both of them seem to be precursors to the modern artists (or poets) who would follow them, so it stands to reason that both would take a relatively modern approach to the idea of seeing. In her poem, Dickinson describes the process of creating the image of the evening and morning skies as something akin to painting. Slashes and sweeps and “waves of gold” (6) are described. These strokes of the brush leave behind evidence of the human hand at work, as opposed to mechanical means, which strive to get rid of any evidence of the means of production.

This is something which she has in common with turner. Instead of striving to get the cleanest lines and most perfect colors, Turner chose to use broad strokes and other techniques in order to give the work a unique texture; a texture that had distinct traces of human handiwork. In order to show viewers how a person creates their own visual perception of the world, both Dickinson and Turner demonstrate the similarities between our inner process of  “developing” an image and composing one on a canvas; Dickinson with words and Turner with paint. It is the “art of conjuring something from nothing, and then (unlike God) having the temerity to deposit the working trace of that mysterious process on the canvas” (Schama 1).

Dickinson’s poetry focuses, like Turner’s paintings on the creation of images within the human consciousness rather than an accurate depiction of “reality”. Her “theory of vision”, however, is not limited to the way one processes visual information. Rather, her theory extends to the creation of one’s own insight and beliefs. Dickinson’s figurative language serves much the same purpose as Turner’s opaque landscapes. It strips away all unnecessary artifice that usually provides clarity for the reader. Without the easily understandable language that permeated the poetry of the time, Dickinson can help readers look past poetic conventions and see through to a meaning they interpret for themselves.

Her figurative language is often cryptic and colored with themes of creation and death, indicating a preoccupation with religious matters. Though Dickinson never explicitly takes a particular religious stance, poems such as “233”, with its focus on the “creation” of a landscape suggests a religious analogue to Turner’s historical perspective. The inner creation of images seems an adequate metaphor for the intense experience of a personal religious epiphany.

Another poem that makes mention of the metaphysical is “Before I got my eye put out” (336). Here, Dickinson speaks once again about perception and creating one’s own vistas. This time, however, she does not speak in the context of “vision”. Instead, she abstains from creating visual images –shunning all visual information. In this poem, Dickinson uses “just [her] soul” (18) to guess (18) what lies beyond. The poem’s final line stresses how she is now, in her eyeless state, “Incautious – of the Sun” (21) as if the sun were a harmful influence. Note the capitalization of “Incautious” and “Sun”. The sun, which illuminates all things and allows one to see the world, becomes that which impedes true “sight”. This bears some resemblance to Turner’s painting, “Regulus”, in which he portrays the blinding of the Roman general by the sun by “coating the picture with lumps of flake-white” (Schama 2).

In “Before I got my eye put out-” as well as “Regulus”, it is the light that destroys one’s ability to perceive the world. That which should illuminate actually blinds the viewer. Dickinson’s belief is that perception must come not from outside visual cues, but from “guessing” with one’s soul. The relationship between light and darkness that Dickinson proposes here is one that is not dissimilar to Goethe’s Theory of Color. In addition to proposing that color is the result of interaction between light and shadow, Goethe proposes that Newton’s observations about light are only one of a variety of different ways light can be perceived. Essentially, Goethe argues, color can be perceived a number of different ways depending on the circumstances in which it is observed. Dickinson, of course, takes a similar view in both of these poems. The way she describes “vision” focuses on the subjectivity of the image creation process and, to take things further, implies that the theory applies to endeavors other than visual processing. She and Goethe essentially argue that “seeing” the world, in a broad sense, is a very subjective, personal process.

Perhaps James Richardson’s Dream of Reading has the best understanding of Dickinson’s theory. Richardson states that dreaming and reading both “involve the postulation of narrative in partial or total sensory isolation from the stimuli of the real world.”. This is what Dickinson wants to express in “Before I got my eye put out-” and “A Slash of Blue! A Sweep of Gray”; that in order for one to truly see, perception must occur at an internal level and must have more to do with one’s own subjective view than with the outside world.

Works Cited

  • Dickinson, Emily, and Ralph William. The poems of Emily Dickinson. Belknap Pr, 1999. Print.
  • Schama, Simon. “The Patriot.” New Yorker . 24 Sept 2007: 1,2. Print.
  • Richardson, James. “The Dream of Reading.” Yale Review. 4 (2000): Print.
  • Goethe, Wolfgang Von. Theory of colors. John Murray, 1810. Print.
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Blog post: James and Carter’s discussion of consciousness.

James and Carter’s ideas of consciousness bear a few similarities to each other at first. Both seem to agree that the brain ignores certain impulses in favor of others. They are also in apparent agreement about the continuity of the brain’s way of “merging the consciousness of one moment with that of the next” (Carter 18). However, when we get down to the most elemental aspects of consciousness, the similarities between the two seem to end.

For the most part, Carter’s explanation of consciousness is a good deal more modern than James’s, which is typical of the 19th century. James believes that all thoughts originate from a “personal consciousness” that is independent from all other objects. In other words, according to James, it is the self who determines what we percieve. additionally, James argues that our subconscious -in this case a “secondary personality” (James 227) which is subservient to the main personality and follows its precepts- is part of the same “self ” which has been pushed into a background role after the mind’s division into two personalities.

Furthermore, James argues that the mind is always “interested more in one part of its object than another, and welcomes and rejects, or chooses, all the while it thinks” (284). James believes that the mind, on top of operating independently of any stimuli, picks and chooses what it pays attention to. This implies that the mind can percieve every detail of a scene, and choose to ignore all others once it has selected details to focus on. senses, James claims are “organs of selection” (284). According to consciousness has extremely wide parameters and human beings choose to narrow them for the sake of simplicity.

This conflicts with the views expressed in Carter’s “Stream of Illusion”. From her very first paragraph, Carter subverts James’s idea of consciousness. When she mentions not thinking about one’s own nose, our nose comes to the forefront of our consciousness because the cue is “immediate, personal and odd”. From this it becomes apparent that the parameters of our consciousness are much narrower than we think. We percieve things not by choice, but by how immediately they capture our attention based on a set of perceptions. our grasp of detail is ultimately proven to be quite weak, especially when it comes to our “blindness”. Carter’s examples of “Change blindness” and “inattentional blindness” demonstrate our lack of ability to percieve a wide range of visual information. Instead of noticing the most important aspect of an image, our minds are involuntarily drawn to a specific part because it triggers our immediate interest, leaving us blind to important details such as the missing engine or the gentleman in the gorilla suit. What this ultimately demonstrates is that it is not a personal consciousness, as James thought, that moves our thoughts, but our consciousness is affected by objects outside of itself and thoughts occur as responses to these stimuli, as Carter believes.

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Turner’s Modernism

The “modern” quality of Turner’s painting is quite evident when contrasted with previous ideas of the relationship between the observer and the object of observation. The dominant idea about vision and observation prior to the 19th century was best exemplefied by the camera obscura. The model of the camera obscura assumes that observation should lead to something approaching a “perfect” view of thing. This view is uniform and and unchanging. What one observer sees, others should as well. The observer’s own subjective thought processes play no role in observation in the camera obscura model. The camera obscura, according to Crary, is “an apparatus that guaranteed access to an objective truth about the world” (31).

The idea of objectivity in observation and the non-emphasis on the observer’s perception is quite different from Turner’s approach to images. the accurate and clearly defined lines and proportions produced through the use of a camera obscura are greatly diminished in Turner’s landscape paintings. In their place, he defines his images with bold, unconventional textures, a lack of distinct features and and the removal of an immediately identifiable horizon or focal point. Turner’s paintings seem more concerned with the way the observer views its colors and shades and how they interpret these than with producing an “accurate” image. Above all else, the thing that makes Turner’s paintings modern is that they allow the observer to engage in discourse with the image they are viewing. To Turner, the boldly outlined, easily interpreted quality and assumed objectivity of the camera obscura model appear to be “a sign of conceptual banality, a weakness in the mind’s eye”. Rather than spoon-feed an audience an image, goes Turner’s logic, why not give them cues and allow their perception to color their observation of the image? Turner’s use of light in his paintings often brings to mind the afterimage one sees after staring at the sun, giving some images a hazy, there-but-not-there look. His ability to reconcile the ambiguity of his creative process with a thematic consistency give his works a surreal and personal quality that somewhat makes him the Debussy to the camera obscura school’s Bach and Vivaldi. This disregard for centuries-old artisticconventions and emphasis on the subjective experience would go on to influence other modern art movements such as impressionism(one could argue that Turner was the first one).

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