An Interesting Footnote

I’ve been having great fun with a book I got at the Emily Dickinson Museum called Lives Like Loaded Guns by Lyndall Gordon.

The Dickinson family had a grandmother, Lucretia Gunn, who was “tart and ill-tempered.” When anyone said anything nasty, it was excused as Grandma Gunn coming out.

This was probably behind Emily’s line “My life had stood — a Loaded Gun.”

I’ve learned a tremendous amount about the Dickinsons. About Austin Dickinson’s well-documented adultery, about Emily’s liaison with her father’s friend Judge Lord (I guess she didn’t ‘die wondering’ as my grandmother would say) and about Emily’s epilepsy.

Gordon makes a good case that epilepsy is what caused Emily to become a recluse, and also what gave her the insight to write immortal poetry.

In a fascinating footnote about epilepsy, Gordon references Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, who describes his epileptic experience in this way: “Yes, for this moment one could give up his whole life.”

Dostoyevsky suggests that ‘the epileptic Mahomet’ had an attack that provided him with his transcendental visions: “In that second he was able to survey all the habitations of Allah.”

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