- Wallace Stevens's Fascist Dilemmas and Free Market Resolutions
1. Revising Central Man
Readers have long assumed that the heroic persona in well-known Wallace Stevens's poems such as "The Man with the Blue Guitar" (1937), "Asides on the Oboe" (1940), and "Examination of the Hero in a Time of War" (1942) expresses an ideal version of the poet himself without insurance job distractions. The "impossible possible philosophers' man" in "Asides" is "The man who has had the time to think enough, / The central man" (lines 13–14). Even during wartime, this thinker aims for transcendence, something the "metal heroes"—soldiers, perhaps—cannot attain (6). He meditates upon the world and mediates between worlds to create brilliant poetic diamonds. "Central man" is no ethereal deity detached from current events but speaks to Stevens's oft-noted preoccupation with poetry's role during global crises such as the Depression. As "the glass man," he transparently embodies "the place in which / He is" (18–19, 38). Yet by the 1940s, Stevens's figurations of heroism, whether of a central man or a "major man," are insistently abstract. "The hero is not a person," the speaker declares in "Examination" (VIII.1), an idea Charles Altieri expands upon: "Major man is our fiction of our own fullest self-satisfactions … abler in the abstract than in his singular" (150). While fascinated with modernist figurations of heroism, masculinity, and sovereignty during World War II, Stevens insists on the hero's detachment from worldly sources.1 Central man could never be General Patton. [End Page 337]
Despite these demands for abstraction, before the US enters the war Stevens's depictions of centeredness are more topically troubled. Developing his hero precisely when global fascism and US military–industrial supremacy escalate, Stevens struggles to differentiate central man's focused strength from the contemporary imperialism and fascism—such as Mussolini's imperial conquest of Ethiopia in 1935 and Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939—which he read about daily in The New York Times and the Hartford Times.2 Consider, for example, the nightmarish figure in Stevens's seldom-discussed poem, "Life on a Battleship" (1939), who more closely resembles Mussolini's "uomo fascista"—fascist man—than the heroic figure of "Asides" or "Examination." A dictatorial captain on board his ship, The Masculine, plans to commandeer material resources to build one single, massive boat, "a cloud on the sea, the largest / Possible machine, a divinity of steel" ("Life on a Battleship" 12–13). From these new headquarters, he will draft the world's rules according to his whims. As his ship becomes the new world center, he imagines, "My cabin as the centre of the ship and I / As the centre of the cabin, the centre of / The divinity, the divinity's mind" (16–18). There at the world's center, he is a contemporary Captain Ahab (or perhaps Hitler as Ahab): hypermasculine, fascistic, and treacherous. He might possess "the divinity's mind"—the heroic poet's aspiration to transcendental power and intelligence—but he lacks a divinity's judiciousness and succumbs to human delusions. In his belligerent, warped idealism, he plans to fire "ten thousand guns" in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to relieve world sorrow (22). Even more worrisome, as he floats off the US East coast on The Masculine, he threatens Anglo-American masculinity and sovereignty.
A fascistic captain imagining himself at the world's center presents a sharp contrast to the central man of the oft-anthologized "Asides." While "Asides" depicts a thinking central man capturing the world in a poem, "Life" presents a fascistic man threatening to use his great guns to dominate the world. Before wartime propaganda dominates discourse, Stevens's centeredness trope evokes a radically different connotation. "Life" was originally published in the political Partisan Review, but it was among the satirical political poems Stevens excluded from The Collected Poems (1954). The exclusion reverberates critically: more philosophical versions of central man have preempted "Life's" negative account of centeredness. Harold Bloom significantly influenced later criticism on this issue by relying on Emerson's use of "central man" since subsequent discussions often rely on his correlation between Stevens...