Monday, June 25, 2007

Emily Dickinson, the Brain, and God

The Brain — is wider than the Sky —
For — put them side by side —
The one the other will contain
With ease — and you — beside —

The Brain is deeper than the sea —
For — hold them —Blue to Blue —
The one the other will absorb —
As Sponges — Buckets — do —

The Brain is just the weight of God —
For — Heft them — Pound for Pound —
And they will differ — if they do —
As Syllable from Sound —

This poem by Emily Dickinson comes with some interesting commentary by Steven Pinker in his book, The Blank Slate: "In its staggering complexity, its explosive combinatorial computation, and its limitless ability to imagine real and hypothetical worlds, the brain, truly, is wider than the sky. The poem itself proves it. Simply to understand the comparison in each verse, the brain of the reader must contain the sky and absorb the sea and visualize each one at the same scale as the brain itself. The enigmatic final verse with its startling image of God and the brain being hefted like cabbages, has puzzled readers since the poem was published. Some read it as creationism (God made the brain), others as atheism (the brain thought up God). The simile with phonology — sound is a seamless continuum, a syllable is a demarcated unit of it — suggests a kind of pantheism: God is everywhere and nowhere, and every brain incarnates a finite measure of infinity. The loophole "if they do" suggests mysticism — the brain and God may somehow be the same thing — and of course, agnosticism. The ambiguity is surely intentional, and I doubt that anyone could defend a single interpretation as the correct one."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting commentary on a remarkable poem. Medicine Novel Laureate Gerald Edelman
used this poem for the title an
epigraph of his recent book
"wider than the sky", in which
he sets out his theory of how
the brain works.

Dickinson wrote a number of poems
that tackled the mind-brain question. The nature of consciousness was a subject central to her thought and poetic
expression.