- Early Stevens: The Nietzschean Intertext, and: Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things, and: Wallace Stevens and Literary Canons
In Canons and Contexts (1991), Paul Lauter finds the contemporary academy divided by its version of an old opposition between what he calls aesthetic or formalist criticism and moral or canonical criticism. This opposition goes by various other names: “theory” and “history” is one widely touted pairing, invoked equally in debates within literary academic feminism and in New Historical and marxist responses to the more ahistorical poststructuralisms. Like most such binaries, this one has both limitations and a certain heuristic value: in this case, for contextualizing recent developments in Wallace Stevens studies.
On the formalist/theory “side” we find B. J. Leggett, who wants “to produce a Nietzschean reading of early Stevens” (vii)—the Stevens of Harmonium (1923) and Ideas of Order (1935). More generally, he seeks to offer a theoretical model and practical example of intertextual reading. To fulfill this double promise, Leggett begins by distinguishing his version of the Nietzschean intertext from others (Miller, Riddel, Bloom) and from traditional source study. He is not arguing, that is, for Nietzsche’s direct influence on Stevens or even for his pervasive presence in the poetry, but simply for Nietzsche as a useful lens through which to re-view the [End Page 281] early Stevens. Leggett defines intertextuality by reference to Roland Barthes, to Michael Riffaterre, and to Pierre Macherey’s view of the gaps and contradictions in a text as markers of suppressed ideology. His first chapter makes some subtle theoretical distinctions, and lays out the premises and methods of intertextual reading more specifically and lucidly than any other discussion I know.
Following this opening methodological defense, Leggett examines Stevens’s epistolary exchange on Nietzsche with his friend Henry Church for its “ambiguities, absences, contradictions” (48), and then turns to the poems. He approaches “Peter Quince at the Clavier” through The Birth of Tragedy and Nietzsche’s antithetical Apollonian and Dionysian artistic impulses—a reading that accounts for the radical shift of rhetoric in that poem’s last section as an affirmation of transience, or what Nietzsche terms “becoming.” Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity and his use of genealogy then drive a sustained analysis of “Sunday Morning.” And from this discussion Leggett develops further Nietzsche’s view of the ascetic ideal and “the antithesis of femininity and virility” (125) in reading “To a High-Toned Old Christian Woman”—a wise shift of focus given that, as Leggett admits, the gender issues raised by this text “are more interesting to readers at the moment than the poem’s arguments against Christianity” (124).
Leggett mostly reads Stevens’s poems in terms of their “argument” (as, by the way, does James Longenbach); attention to aesthetic issues, to what makes Stevens’s writing poems instead of, or in addition to, arguments gets short shrift. Aesthetic concerns do become more prominent, however, when Leggett discusses Nietzsche’s perspectivism “as the more or less official epistemology in the texts of both writers” (150) and as a stance that “dictates...a plurality of styles” (160). He shows how this stance leads toward a self-conscious excess of metaphor and, structurally, toward self-contained but discontinuous fragments and the use of aphorism. Developing this discussion in a subsequent chapter, Leggett finds Stevens’s perspectivism “built on the opposition of chaos and order” (179), and usefully assesses its internal contradictions in his readings of “The Snow Man” and “Anecdote of the Jar.”
As I understand it, Leggett’s version of intertextuality turns out to be pretty uncontroversial at base, for his central claim boils down to this: one can use Nietzsche to throw new light on Stevens’s early poems, to “complete,” rather than “interpret,” the gaps that a Machereyan symptomatic reading reveals. To...