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R. D. Ackerman BELIEVING IN A FICTION: WALLACE STEVENS AT THE LIMITS OF PHENOMENOLOGY The "ring of men" of "Sunday Morning" will chant their "devotion to the sun, / Not as a god, but as a god might be, / Naked among them, like a savage source" (CP, pp. 69-70).' Solar nakedness is deferred even as it is named. The problem for belief is the question of appearance and representation. Things appear as and like. . . . The phenomenological return to things is also a turn to fiction, as Husserl understood: "If anyone loves a paradox, he can really say . . . that the element which makes up the life of phenomenology ... is fiction. ' " The sun is divine, and it is not; it is both naked and clothed, savage and civilized, source (or end) and means. But such paradox is ultimately unsatisfying, and as we will see with Stevens, the need for belief—for an image or idea of totality—forces the issue of fiction and reality. The Stevens we will have in view is not the Stevens—as if there were such a creature. Our Stevens is the one most persuaded by promises such as those of phenomenology, the one most concerned with decreation (reduction) and fresh beginnings, with discovery and recognition, with imagination, the body, and the earth. This is the Stevens for whom the barrier of language presages at last not absence and difference but fictive recovery of presence and identity, the one for whom poetry represents a way of belief beyond mysticism even as it bodes mythic proximity. Finally, this is the Stevens who predominates throughout the prose (as well as in much of the poetry), who tries mightily to secure a belief while disencumbering himself of metaphysics—but alas, I think, with small success. Although Stevens's association of the problem of belief with the idea of fiction occurs in early poems such as "A High-Toned Old Christian 79 80Philosophy and Literature Woman" and "To the One of Fictive Music," his most intensive involvement with fiction as belief dates from the early 1940s and spans the period of his major essays and his last four volumes of poems. He recounts, for instance, a 1942 conversation with a student: "I said that I thought that we had reached a point at which we could no longer really believe in anything unless we recognized that it was a fiction. The student said that that was an impossibility, that there was no such thing as believing in something that one knew was not true. It is obvious, however, that we are doing that all the time" (L, p. 430). What does it mean to believe in a fiction? That is my main subject here, as we seek out the limits of the phenomenological Stevens. His letters of this period are preoccupied with the problem of fictive belief: "If one no longer believes in God (as truth), it is not possible merely to disbelieve; it becomes necessary to believe in something else. ... A good deal of my poetry recently has concerned an identity for that thing. . . . In one of the short poems that I have just sent to the harvard advocate, I say that one's final belief must be in a fiction. I think that the history of belief will show that it has always been in a fiction" (L, p. 370). The poem referred to, "Asides on the Oboe," begins: The prologues are over. It is a question now, Of final belief. So, say that final belief Must be in a fiction. It is time to choose. (CP, p. 250) Acknowledging that "in the long run, poetry would be the supreme fiction" (L, pp. 430-31), Stevens nonetheless singles out the nominative function of poetry as the essence of its claim to supremacy: "Poetry means not the language of poetry but the thing itself. . . . The subject matter is what comes to mind when one says of the month of August . . . 'Thou art not August, unless I make thee so'" (L, p. 377). The quoted line (also from "Asides") underscores the paradox that for Stevens the essence of fiction (the nontrue) is its capacity to nominate the true or the real. This...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 79-90
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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