Hands. In the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s, Dickinson inscribed herself otherwise, transforming the dead, restricting letter of the copybooks into a living, gestural letter--into a writing resembling sketching. On the pages of her manuscripts she marks the desire of a pencil pressed into paper, the intimate relation in her artistic process between conception and execution, the significance of touch to writing. . .
Yet in North's 1847 daguerreotype of Dickinson, the hands of the writer arrest our attention because they appear, paradoxically, to be inert. Gripping the stock bunch of flowers photographers sometimes gave to sitters who appeared nervous, or placed in the hands of dead subjects before taking imprints of them, the hands not only convey a state of personal suspension, a tactility strangely anesthetized or frozen, but suggest (point to) the powerful cultural system of fixations and inhibitions confronting the female subject, and especially the female writer, in the mid-nineteenth century. "Care should be observed not to leave the hands out of focus," cautioned S. D. Humphrey in his treatise on daguerreotype portraits, "as it causes them to appear magnified" (emphasis added). Dickinson had not yet begun composing poetry at the time North took his impression of her. In 1847, writing still meant copying (writing) for Dickinson--perhaps with the aid of a talantograph, an instrument, popular with Victorian writing masters, which regularized the writing process by literally binding the hand into the proper position for producing perfect copies: "In the first attempts at writing, the muscles may not perform what the mind directs, but by frequent and careful practice they are rendered supple and obedient in the execution of every variant of form. . ." (Spencer, qtd. "Hand Library"). Perhaps the hands in the daguerreotype initially arrest our gaze because we know that they will not remain in repose for long; their passivity conceals their potential--soon to be magnified. The first extant poem manuscript--"On this wondrous sea"--is dated 1853; and by 1863, the hands appear to have been engaged in the nearly constant inscription of poems: approximately 294 poems belong to that year alone, followed by approximately 97 poems the next year, and approximately 228 poems in 1865. "The punctum, then, is a kind of subtle beyond," writes Barthes, "--as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see. . ." (59).
The motionless hands of the daguerreotype may fix our attention--pierce us--for another, further, reason: the cultural system of fixations and inhibitions operating before Dickinson began to write and which she resisted all of her life through writing, violently reasserted itself after her death via the medium of the printing press. Print defines itself by its negative relation to the hand. In the paralysis of Dickinson's hands, we may read the paralyzing effects of the printing process on poems inscribed at the antipodes of autonomism, then fixed--in the photograph's future--in "bodies of type, secured in chases for printing at one impression" (OED).
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