Philosophy and Literature 26.2 (2002) 346-353
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Stevens after Davidson on Metaphor
IN "NOTES TOWARD A SUPREME FICTION" 1 Wallace Stevens suggests that the absolute as we imagine that an angel would experience it constitutes the supreme fiction. We conceive the experience of the angel only in a fantasy, but it is our fantasy, and therefore the experience of the angel and its absolute are things that we comprehend in our imagination. Thus, in imagination we can apprehend that which we may at first suppose only angels can apprehend, since "the lapis-haunted air" of the angel's absolute is a creature of our own imagination and nothing more. When Stevens asks, "Is it he or is it I that experience this?," the question is rhetorical, since the angel's "experience" exists only within the poet's imagination. In "Sunday Morning," likewise, Stevens suggests that the concept of paradise is defined only within the limits of human imagination. It is a construct which people can comprehend only in the terms of their essentially finite "passions," "moods," "grievings," "elations," "remembrance" and "desire;" it is a construct which people create in "a chant of paradise, / Out of their blood, returning to the sky." Abstracting from our ordinary feelings will not leave us with a transcendent conception of paradise; on the contrary, it will deprive us of our sense of value. The image of the inhuman god ("Jove in the clouds" with "his inhuman birth") is sterile, remote from all human concern. For Stevens, "The ultimate value is reality." 2 [End Page 346]
It is possible to regard this as a sad and resigned affirmation that we have at most this world and its parochial values, since God is "dead" and we cannot really have paradise at all, 3 but it is also possible to regard it as an affirmation of the genuine value of the ordinary and the human. On this interpretation of Stevens, "Sunday Morning" calls us from the shadows of a self-defeating attempt to transcend our own values to a consideration of the place of ordinary values in our conception of paradise:
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
The question, which is already rhetorical, is answered flatly in another poem, "The Rock"; the imagination can indeed find paradise in reality:
In this plenty, the poem makes meanings of the rock,
Of such mixed motion and such imagery
That its barrenness becomes a thousand things
And so exists no more. This is the cure
Of leaves and of the ground and of ourselves.
In this "cure" we imagine the world as paradise, or the rock as meaningful, or barrenness as a thousand things. There is, however, an unresolved tension between imagining one thing as another and recognizing that the things are, in fact, different. Max Black regards this tension as the greatest weakness in his "interaction" theory of metaphor. 4 In "Notes" Stevens addresses this problem:
Fat girl, terrestrial, my summer, my night,
How is it I find you in difference, see you there
In a moving contour, a change not quite completed?
The problem here is the general problem of metaphor: metaphors seem to constitute an "evasion" 5 since they are usually literally false. 6 For example, the "fat girl" is presumably not literally summer or night, and may not even be fat or a girl, metaphors being what they are. To the "fat girl," the poet says, [End Page 347]
You remain the more than natural figure. You
Become the soft-footed phantom, the irrational
Distortion, however fragrant, however dear.
His metaphors disguise the object; the object is represented in them as "more than natural"—in other words, not natural, not the thing as it is. "The very thing and nothing else" ("Credences") that Stevens, the poet of the real world, wishes to see thus becomes "obscure," a thing in "an obscure world / Of things that would...