In the years before I started grad school, I worked for a time at a French bakery on the ground floor of a five-star hotel. It was essentially a fast-casual restaurant dressed up with ornate lettering and heavy marble tables, the kind of place populated mostly by hotel guests, businesspeople on their lunch breaks, and middling Francophiles. Once, on a slow day, our manager dug out a list of interview questions that had been devised by the bakery’s owners when the place had first opened. One question asked: “What does luxury mean to you?”
It was an absurd question, considering that everyone who worked there made minimum (or close to minimum) wage. It certainly didn’t feel luxurious to wake up at a quarter past three for opening shifts or to drag two large rolling trash bins down several blocks every day. There was, however, a perverse luxury to the way we ate: macarons shoved in our mouths when the customers weren’t looking, a ham and cheese croissant on break, caramel pecan brioches on the bus ride home. Because no one kept close track of our supplies, we took entire quart containers of chicken salad and wild mushroom soup home with us, drank 20-ounce cold brews spiked with Five Hour Energy to stay awake and $4 bottles of Fiji water just because we could. We sweated luxuriously—butter, chocolate, cooking spray, dishwater, coffee, bleach, and trash juices all baked into our skin by the radiating heat of the oven—and then we went home, showered, and got ready to do it all over again.
Though “luxury” is now primarily a matter of excess, bodily or otherwise, the word originally meant lust and lasciviousness. The OED notes that in Latin and in Romance languages, luxury “connotes vicious indulgence,” as opposed to its more “neutral sense” in English. As such, luxury is inextricable from wealth, but they are not exactly identical. We see in the word’s first usage a luxury that is routed through body and sensation, an indulgence in fleshy and emotional excess. There’s nothing necessarily egalitarian or utopian about this other kind of luxury—my frenzied consumption at the bakery proves that several times over—but it’s an excess of something other than wealth per se.
* * *
Madeline Olnek’s 2018 biopic of Emily Dickinson, Wild Nights with Emily, takes its title from a Dickinson poem in which luxury is at once an engine of fantasy and a formal alibi:
Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Futile – the winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden –
Ah – the Sea!
Might I but moor – tonight –
The repetition of “wild nights” in the first and third lines of the opening stanza seems to slice the stanza in half, a wish repeated. But another kind of organization is present here as well—the exclamation points in lines 1 and 4 that, in their abrupt verticality, seem to fence those two lines in, leaving a gooey propositional middle that sighs, longingly, “Were I with thee / Wild nights should be…” “Luxury” sprawls in the stanza’s last line, occupying three out of the four syllables that in previous lines had been parceled out economically between one- and two-syllable words. The word’s dactylic downswing—the two unstressed syllables at its end breaking the fall of the first’s stress—settles soft and pillowy on the page, and cinches closed a reassuring full rhyme with “thee.”
The poem’s last stanza ends an extended oceanic metaphor by returning to a propositional mode, more gently this time. The speaker inquires, cautious, “Might I but moor – tonight / In thee!” The concluding line feels sparse, just two syllables on which the rest of the stanza is made to balance, downright precarious when compared to the firm foundation that “luxury” provides in the first stanza.
What does luxury mean to this poem, to Dickinson and to Olnek? Posed pointedly against the canonical image of Dickinson as a sexless recluse—an image which, as Olnek herself has pointed out, Terrence Davies’ critically acclaimed 2016 film, A Quiet Passion, does little to unsettle—Wild Nights With Emily unfolds through the prism of Dickinson’s lifelong love affair with her childhood friend and, later, sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson (Susan Ziegler), a conceit as rare as it is luxurious. The casting of Molly Shannon, known almost exclusively as a comedic actress, in the role of Emily Dickinson does much to transform the poetess into an earthly creature who is at turns playful, petty, and pining. In an early scene, Susan archly cautions Emily against including her name in love poems lest others discover their secret escapades; Emily retorts that no one suspects a thing, not even from a line as suggestive as “I taste a liquor never brewed.”
Trappings of the Dickinsonian myth are given fresh legs in Olnek’s universe. The white dresses that Shannon’s Emily wears seem sumptuously trimmed with lace, fanciful rather than austere, and the bedroom where she composes her poems is airy and filled with light. When she uses a pulley to send homemade gingerbread down to the children gathered by her house, the act seems to be that of a woman fully engaged with her community instead of an isolated scribbler.
There’s something luxurious, too, about the film’s tone, which strays purposefully and delightfully from period piece conventions. Olnek has cited Drunk History as an influence, wanting to make the film’s nineteenth-century setting and its queer revisions feel lighthearted and unintimidating. And indeed, although Wild Nights has its serious moments, it proceeds largely through comedic vignettes, all embedded in a frame narrative in which Mabel Loomis Todd (Amy Seimetz), Dickinson’s first posthumous editor, speaks the canonical image of a spinster Dickinson into existence in front of a captivated audience. Rather than seizing on the dramatic irony of this narrative structure in order to assert its version of Dickinson as the definitive one, the film instead revels in its own internal inconsistencies and exaggerated comic timing, relinquishing its claim to historical accuracy while still insisting on the importance of its narrative intervention.
This unusual tack has some trade-offs. In its strongest moments, Wild Nights seems to be constructing a new, better, funnier origin myth in real time. In its weakest moments, the film feels disjointed and vacuous, and at times troubling. A notable misstep is the film’s cursory attempt to address slavery and the Civil War. In a scene towards the end of the film, Dickinson imagines her own death, and we see her suspended in a tomb-like space with a Black solider (Derrick T. Tuggles) who had previously been introduced as a member of the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry Regiment. The two figures face each other and recite Dickinson’s “I died for beauty” line by line, descending into a whisper, until they are silently mouthing words at one other. This scene is the film at its most manifestly surreal—the soldier’s body is wrapped tightly in an American flag and Emily’s face is gradually covered with moss—and it doesn’t quite land. The problem is not its lack of realism; rather, whatever political claims the scene wants to make are muddled by the lack of instructive context for reading it. The leveling between Emily, who “died for beauty,” and the Black solider, who presumably “died for truth,” comes across as an unnuanced attempt to equate Dickinson’s aesthetic concerns directly with political action.
My qualms here are perhaps obliquely related to what Virginia Jackson identifies in Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading as the wholesale “lyricization” of poetry, the process by which all poetry, regardless of genre, has come to be understood and interpreted in the past few centuries as private utterances that “require as its context only the occasion of its reading.” In fact, Jackson might argue that Dickinson has been able to persist in the cultural imagination as an isolated, private genius precisely because of this lyricizing process. Put in these terms, the tomb scene ends up ironically reaffirming a critical investment in Dickinson’s “scenelessness,” thereby undermining the film’s commitment to highlighting the lived specificities of her life and work.
There are, however, important ways in which Jackson’s Dickinson’s Misery and Olnek’s Wild Nights align. In her concluding chapter, Jackson historicizes the misery overidentified with Dickinson by putting the poet’s work and its reception in the context of nineteenth-century female lyric sentimentalism (also called “the literature of misery” by one nineteenth-century male critic), and traces the process by which that misery came to be divorced entirely from genre. Wild Nights, too, is about Dickinson’s reception, only it positions luxury instead of misery as the interpretative bedrock of Dickinson’s life and work. This is what, in the end, I find so engaging about the film: this promise of the luxury to imagine and realize wilder, queerer nights for Dickinson, who otherwise is torn from her social and aesthetic worlds and, as Jackson suggests, made miserable for consumption.
* * *
In a letter-poem written to Susan in the mid-1860s, Dickinson contemplated luxury once more:
The Luxury to
The Luxury ‘twould
To look at Thee
A single time
An Epicure of Me
Till for further
I scarcely recollect
So first am I
The Luxury to
The Luxury it was
To banquet on
On plainer Days
Whose Table, far
As Certainty – can see –
Is laden with a
single Crumb –
The Consciousness –
The letter-poem has “[l]uxurious spacing between words and lines” and is written on paper that is “gilt-edged, embossed ‘Paris,’” as the editors of Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson note. Unlike “Wild nights – Wild nights!” however, “luxury” sits in the middle of lines and is not made to rhyme with “thee.” Instead, the semi-paratextual signature “Emily” is what sonically enables a renewed meeting between “I” and “thee” through which “the Luxury to / apprehend,” to “look,” “to meditate,” and “to banquet” is staged. Through the letter-poem’s hybridity, the related intimacies of love and correspondence are transformed by poetic form into a scene of speakerly presence.
What’s more, luxury is materialized through an extended metaphor of looking as eating, in which beholding the beloved is a kind of luxurious consumption that dulls other appetites even as it spurs on sensuous recall. Luxury gains access to the body in a roundabout way, one kind of physical intimacy clothed in the metaphor of another. The beloved both sates and empties, driving the cycles of lack and fulfillment through which desire and luxury are enacted.
I am reminded, perhaps improbably, of “fully automated luxury gay space communism,” the memified form of Aaron Bastani’s controversial proposal for technological utopianism. As with much internet humor, it is impossible to tell whether the additions of “gay” and “space” to Bastani’s phrase are made in the spirit of mockery, and if so, who or what the object of that mockery is. Is the piling on of adjectives meant to exacerbate the clunkiness of an already clunky phrase, with an implicit denunciation of the notion as too farfetched? Or is there an unironic critique of Bastani’s proposal being leveled through the additions, the reaffirmation of a luxury that cannot exist apart from queer speculation?
Olnek would likely approve of these additions; her first feature film was titled Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same. I don’t mean to suggest, however, that “luxury” queered and reconfigured undoes its dependence on the value-producing configurations of social inequity; poet Anne Boyer recently tweeted in response to Bastani’s proposal: “Finally just realized that “luxury” means death—feathers, furs, leather, meats, diamonds, social isolation, being served, wearing perfumes with extract of anal glands of dead mammals, etc.” In contrast to the deathbound luxury of opulent objects and opulent living, Wild Nights and Dickinson’s poems instead propose that it is only though renouncing social isolation in favor of the longed-for joining of “I” and “thee”—and everything those words together can encode—that a poetics of luxury can be fully realized.
Dandi Meng is a PhD student in the English department at UCLA. She works on contemporary American literature and media and questions of race and aesthetics.