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Stanley J. Scott WALLACE STEVENS AND WILLIAM JAMES: THE POETICS OF PURE EXPERIENCE Though Wallace Stevens's remarkable early poetry germinates from the clash of opposites he terms "imagination" and "reality," many readers have been slow to recognize that the great meditative poems of his later years spring from a mind that has moved, in a noted critic's phrase, "beyond metaphysical dualism."1 A significantly parallel pattern of growth, which also takes the form of a struggle to shed the straitjacket of dualism, emerges in the philosophy of William James. This fact alone suggests a vital kinship between poet and philosopher, a kinship of which Stevens was perhaps never fully aware. Yet in a series of letters to various individuals regarding his major late poem, Notes toward a Supreme Fiction (1942),2 Stevens leaves clues that briefly but unmistakably link the central ideas of the work to elements in James's philosophy. My contention here is that the specific affinity noted by Stevens between his own poetics and the Jamesian "will to believe" is only the hint of a deeper affinity between the two men's ideas; and that certain basic Jamesian principles provide a valuable but neglected critical approach to Stevens's later thought and art—especially the Notes. Such an approach, I hope, will also shed new light on Stevens's move beyond dualistic structures of thought in his poetics. As a psychologist and later as a philosopher, James showed a progressively deliberate effort to describe, apart from theoretical models of any kind, the phenomena of consciousness as found in immediately lived experience. James's "phenomenological method," as this effort has been called, was governed by a constant watchfulness to avoid the natural tendency—the "psychologist's fallacy"—to impose pre-conceived or theoretical constructions on the phenomena of consciousness.3 Thus in the years between the publication of his monumental Principles of Psychology (1890) and his Essays in Radical Empiricism (collected in book form in 1912, two years after his death), James turned away from the convention of dividing experience into subjective and objective 183 184Philosophy and Literature categories, and eventually came to regard this dualistic formula as a heuristic device, useful perhaps for some analytical purposes, but not ultimately valid as a way of describing the living actuality of experience. In working out his poetics, Stevens went through a similar process of development. The intensity of his batde with the problem of dualism is suggested by a passage from a late essay "A Collect of Philosophy" (1951): According to the traditional views of sensory perception, we do not see the world immediately but only as the result of a process of seeing and after the completion of that process, that is to say, we never see the world except the moment after. Thus we are constantly observing the past. . . . The material world, for all the assurances of the eye, has become immaterial. It has become an image in the mind. The solid earth disappears and the whole atmosphere is subtilized not by the arrival of some venerable beam of light from an almost hypothetical star but by a breach of reality. What we see is not an external world but an image of it and hence an internal world.4 Implicit in the passage is a longing for greater immediacy of awareness and a dissatisfaction not only with "traditional views" but also with the process of ordinary sense perception itself. The split between mind and external reality leads paradoxically to the dissolution of perceived objects into immaterial mental "images." The psychic tension issuing from this "breach of reality" impels the poet to seek a more penetrating and efficacious mode of perception, one capable of grasping and holding on to the "solid earth" as fact, without a mediatory "process of seeing." And the effort to define his "supreme fiction," the ultimate act of imagination, is motivated by this need to pass beyond the limitations of a dualistic psychology. The peculiar meaning that Stevens gives to the terms "fact" and "factual" in his essays throws much light on the higher level of perception articulated in the Notes. In The Necessary Angel (1951), he distinguishes between absolute fact...


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