“Not a Choice between but Of”: Revisiting Stevens’ Other Major Grammatical Operator
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“Not a Choice between but Of”:
Revisiting Stevens’ Other Major Grammatical Operator

AS A CRITICAL PROJECT motivated by an inherently Stevensian impulse, Charles Altieri’s Wallace Stevens and the Demands of Modernity offers at least two significant contributions to Stevens’ critical reception. Drawing insights from the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, Altieri’s first move is to develop a non-epistemic model of value that reorients the discourse on Stevens away from the real/fictive binary that has tended to preoccupy critics toward a fact/value emphasis, thus allowing his treatments of Stevens to focus on the uniqueness of his formal qualities without being beholden to either New Critical-style claims for truth-value or to deconstructive skepticism. In Altieri’s view, Stevens’ conception of the imagination deals less with what the world is than with how it is; the ways that qualities of experience take on vividness in relation to the mind become more relevant than what we can know about those qualities. Drawing on the philosophical grammar of Wittgenstein, Altieri develops a focus on elementary grammatical functions as the primary building blocks of imaginative activity, thus allowing one to bracket larger metaphysical claims for the imagination while still providing a conceptual arena within which to view its distinctive operation. At stake for Altieri, a stake he inherits from Stevens, is the possibility of shoring up a place for human agency without necessarily challenging the kind of naturalistic worldview advanced by the sciences.

Perhaps as a consequence of the kind of philosophical heft Altieri wants to claim for Stevens’ poetics, this project remains haunted by certain pressures of reality that constantly threaten to reify or undo the sense of agency Altieri hopes to claim for the Stevensian imagination. Taken as a philosophical stance, Altieri’s reading of Stevens’ conception of the imagination is situated on a razor’s edge between the equally unsatisfactory accounts of consciousness we might call the Scylla of constitutive subjectivity and the Charybdis of empiricism. The tenacity of the question of agency appears both in Stevens’ oeuvre and in Altieri’s masterful readings as a persistent, animating ambiguity within the characterization of imaginative capacity between the mutually exclusive activities of making and finding. [End Page 65] This ambiguity is more a matter of latent emphasis than anything explicitly formulated by Altieri. It appears within Altieri’s text primarily through the ways in which claims are weighted rhetorically toward particular ways of framing how the Stevensian subject is positioned, or positions itself, in relation to an experienced world. For example, Altieri writes, “the values attendant on these conditions of experience need not be considered as somehow constructs composed by the mind. Instead, the values seem inseparable from the kinds of care and attention that poetry brings to that actual world” (41). Yet he advances a more direct claim for the constructive agency of the poetical subject shortly thereafter, when he notes that Stevens’ grammatical usages stage “equivalences that mark the activity of the subject in the formulation of the object” (42). Here we see the necessity of the intricate evasions of as. The aspects of experience that Altieri points to as concrete presentations of imaginative activity within Stevens’ poems give us that experience in value-laden form, as invested with the mind’s contributions, at which point the question arises of how to characterize the precise manner in which such value came to invest the experience. If a predominant focus on making emphasizes imagination’s production of value, one must either postulate a transcendental basis for this operation in subjective faculties, or allow that such a production merely amounts to a kind of fantasmatic projection onto the real. If the emphasis on imagination as what Altieri calls a “means of habitation” (45) frames value as purely found or discovered, on the other hand, its products can ultimately be traced back to the impingement of the real on a passive subject, however circuitously construed.

Before attempting to explore whether Stevens’ work itself provides a way out of such a binary, I think it is important to consider why the question matters and how it arises as a necessary consequence of the kind of intellectual work Altieri...