Wallace Stevens’ Owl’s Clover and the Dialectic of Deceit
In his 1943 Talk at Mount Holyoke College, Wallace Stevens read a quotation from Two Sources of Morality and Religion, a book that represents the culmination of Henri Bergson’s political thought. The quotation is highly elliptical, consisting of four splintered sentences, culled from three paragraphs of the original text. In italics I reproduce the entirety of Stevens’ quotation, and in brackets I include some material from Bergson that Stevens excludes:
[Let us . . . consider separately, in themselves, pressure and aspiration. Immanent in the former is the representation of a society which aims only at self-preservation; the circular movement in which it carries round with it individuals, as it revolves on the same spot, is a vague imitation, through the medium of habit, of the immobility of instinct. . . . The morality of aspiration, on the contrary, implicitly contains] the feeling of progress. The emotion . . . is the enthusiasm of a forward movement [, enthusiasm by means of which this morality has won over a few and has then, through them, spread over the world. “Progress” and “advance,” moreover, are in this case indistinguishable from the enthusiasm itself] . . . . But antecedent to this metaphysical theory are the simpler representations . . . of the founders of religion, the mystics and the saints. . . . They begin by saying that what they experience is a feeling of liberation. . . .(Stevens, Necessary 49; Bergson 43–44)
This hybrid citation exemplifies a deep methodological torsion at work in Stevens’ poetry. On the one hand, Stevens is drawn to Bergson’s idea [End Page 103] that “purification” of the ego might lead to contact with a “mystical vis or noed vital” (Stevens, Necessary 49) which can be conceived as a “center of poetry” (44). Like Bergson, he understands the ego to be ideologically conditioned by a socially necessary “pressure”—a “myth-making faculty” (Bergson 109) which is “produced by a virtuality of instinct” (109) and acts through “the statement of apparent facts, by the ghosts of facts” (99). Opposed to this ideological reflex-action is “aspiration,” which for Stevens leads toward a moi profond in which the relational sensitivity of the individual overlaps with intersubjective currents experienced as the “possibility in things” (136). In this condition, the field of poetic intuition is not reduced to a “collection of solid, static objects extended in space”; instead, it is expanded into “the life that is lived in the scene that it composes” (25). In other words, beyond the superficial affirmations of the ego, there lies a condition of radical openness to intersubjective life—a condition in which the sensory apprehension of objects seems to reveal the ways in which cultural forces define the very contours of perceptual activity.
For Bergson, this kind of profound intuitive activity allows exemplary individuals to grasp the very motive forces of history, and qualifies them to gather these forces into a great “forward movement.” Stevens, however, hesitates to accord this kind of legislative authority to any individual’s intuitive processes, no matter how “pure” and non-egoic they may seem to have become. This is why, in our hybridized quotation, Stevens interrupts Bergson just before he defines “forward movement” as an historical process whereby the morality of aspiration “has won over a few and has then, through them, spread over the world.”1 Similarly, Stevens breaks off his quotation with Bergson’s invocation of the mystics’ subjective “feeling of liberation,” whereas Bergson continues in the next sentence, and in the rest of the paragraph, to define the concept of liberation in overtly social and historical terms. Mystics “break[ ] away” from “well-being, pleasures, riches” and act in such a way that “the relative immobility of the soul, revolving in a circle in an enclosed society” is animated by their “forward movement” (44). For Bergson, the élan vital, which in Creative Evolution was pristinely apolitical, has acquired the status of the vital impetus of history, with mystics serving as its executors, its “great men of action” (90).2
One of the principal points I hope to elaborate here is that Stevens and Bergson share a similar conception of the ego as arrested by [End Page 104] “systematically false experience” (Bergson 99)—by an accretion of dead metaphors and perceptual modes inadequate to the necessities of the present. But for Bergson, it is possible to negate this ideologically habituated ego completely and establish contact with a vital force that lies beyond the falsities of everyday consciousness. In this context, Stevens’ hesitations emerge as a broad philosophical diagnostic. The idea of a self-negating ego remains problematic for Stevens; with no credible “beyond” to rely on, Stevens is unable to guarantee the thoroughness of these egoic “purifications” or their ability to merge individual intuition into the world-historical impulses Bergson describes. And yet, Stevens must evolve some model of social intuition that can serve as an alternative to the ideological reflexes of the ego. In other words, Stevens asks: how is it possible to salvage any notion of the poet as a diviner of social reality, when no external touchstone exists that could qualify certain perceptions as “objective” or intersubjectively “vital” and others as merely “personal” and “ideological”?
Stevens’ engagement with Bergson furnishes us with some preliminary answers to this question. For example, one of Stevens’ strongest claims in the service of the poet as “purified” mediator of historical forces occurs just after his meditations on the “harmonious decree” precipitated by Bergsonian aspiration (50). Reflecting on the extent to which “the centuries” get their character “from their philosophers and poets” (52), Stevens turns to the seventeenth century and writes,
What we are remembering is the rather haggard background of the incredible, the imagination without intelligence, from which a younger figure is stepping forward in the company of a muse of its own . . . the clear intelligence of the young man still bearing the burden of the obscurities of the intelligence of the old. It is the spirit out of its own self, not out of some surrounding myth, delineating with accurate speech the complications of which it is composed.(52–53)
Stevens’ choice of historical periods is pointed, to say the least. As modernity is stepping forth from the “haggard background” of religiosity and superstition—in short, all the “obscurities” that are in the process of becoming in-credible—we find as a fulcrum or vital node of this transition an historical persona. The “youth as virile poet” is, in the [End Page 105] first instance, the condensation of collective historical experience into a mythic persona which, in delineating its inward composition, gives shape to an intersubjective “intelligence.” But what Stevens defines as “incredible” in the seventeenth century obviously constituted widely credible and, one might say, obligatory structures of thought during that epoch. So, when he describes the break with this doxa as “the spirit out of its own self,” the self in its “purity” is thus identified with all that is emergent, or as Stevens says, “modernizing” (45) in an historical panorama, as opposed to the residual ambience of “surrounding myths.”3 This, then, is what Stevens signifies, still orientating himself with respect to Bergson, when he describes the “moment of exaltation,” the “moment of purity” and “triumph over the incredible” (53) that the poet achieves.
The “process of the personality” of the poet is thus most “pure” when it displaces itself into the disorder of historical newness, while at the same time retaining a creative will which is, in principle, contentless. But because this will is immersed in the complications of a concrete historical world, instead of the transcendental rapture of Bergson’s divine impetus, it can lay no claim to any authority except that which might be derived from the credibility of its performances.
This is a central contradiction in Stevens’ poetics. Because he operates with a model of the poet as a diviner of emergent social realities, Stevens needs to believe that intuition is capable of abstracting the individual from the narrow scope of egoic concerns. According to this model, poetic activity can become so purified of subjective biases that it “never brings anything into the world” and, in fact, functions almost like a mechanical transceiver, recording what presents itself “by chance” (59). And yet, Stevens’ engagement with Bergson shows us that this model of self-purification is legitimate only as a representation of the poet’s subjective experience of selflessness—as an “aspiration” the poet may feel himself or herself to have fulfilled. When it comes to according the poet any prescriptive authority based on this perceived moment of pure historical insight, Stevens stops the Bergsonian dialectic in its tracks.
What he puts in the place of Bergson’s mystic certainty is the idea of a poet as a performer, referring his or her intuitions to prospective readers. The poet is deposed as a selfless conveyor of transcendental truths and is situated amidst an audience understood to be continually [End Page 106] taking up the contents of poetic utterance, with a view to assessing their credibility.
This does not mean that Stevens is not tempted by the epistemological certainty and social centrality that Bergson accords his great mystics. On the contrary, Stevens will constantly reposition himself with respect to this Bergsonian fiction throughout his career, sometimes assuming its mantle with bravado, sometimes retreating from it with a great deal of anxiety. This repositioning typically takes place from poem to poem, as Stevens experiments with a variety of epistemological attitudes. However, Stevens’ longest poem, Owl’s Clover, is unique in that it tries out almost every conceivable position on this epistemological spectrum in rapid succession, offering rare insight into the true stakes of Stevens’ perpetual crisis of authorship. The idea that individual intuition could become nothing but a transcription of the historical forces that shape everyday consciousness could be described as one of the most central fictions of modernist literature. In this context, Stevens’ crisis is a quintessentially modernist crisis, with Owl’s Clover providing a revealing glimpse into why such modernist fictions would become such necessary fictions. Indeed, Stevens broaches the idea of the “necessary fiction” for the first time in the context of Owl’s Clover, which was published six years before the topic would be elaborated in his more celebrated Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction. In fact, I will argue that Stevens’ comparatively neglected, uncollected long poem serves as a vast, originary and somewhat sloppy playbook of all the epistemological attitudes that Stevens will elaborate more carefully in his more canonical work.
Owl’s Clover serves this function by throwing the very methodological presuppositions of modernist intuition into complete crisis and then attempting to improvise poetic postures that might respond to this exigency. At first, for example, the poet’s self-purifying gestures appear to qualify him as an authoritative representative of the vast social forces with which he identifies himself. Immediately, however, Stevens turns the tables on this Bergsonian model of historical genius and shows its pretension to objectivity to be hopelessly ensnared in the very old-world value-systems that it pretends to have overcome. In order for the poem to continue, a radical change in perspective is required. The model of the individual poet impersonally merging with a social “raw material” is exposed as an elaborate ruse and instead the poet is re-imagined as just one player within the continuum of this intersubjective “raw material”—a [End Page 107] “raw material” which in fact possesses its own capacity for creative activity and interpersonal coordination. In this new scenario, the poet is stripped of any centrality he or she hoped to acquire, but is not dispensed with altogether. Instead, the poet’s performances are rede-fined as experimental ideas of order intended to provoke responses from the specific historical communities with which they intersect. Likewise, the duplicity which inevitably attaches to the modernist’s attempts to become a pure, central consciousness does not vanish, but rather re-emerges as a fiction intended to provoke the challenges, debunking strategies and counter-propositions of its audiences. For Stevens, the modernist ideals of impersonality and objectivity conceal a subjective will to power that cannot be cured by even the most candid and thorough efforts to extinguish personal interest. In fact, such displays of self-extinction are exactly what lend the modernist ruse of impersonality whatever credibility it may possess. The flaws of the impersonal method cannot be cured by redoubled, sincerer forms of impersonality, but neither can they be discarded in favor of overt subjectivism. Instead, Stevens will place us in an imagined social landscape—a place of “universal deceit” in which the ruse of impersonality has acquired such a quotidian, practical character that it is treated by its audience as a matter of permanent debate and contestation.
In an essay Stevens read as a companion piece to Owl’s Clover, he describes the “transposition of objective reality to a subjective reality” (Opus 224) as a “Hegelian process” (225)—a process that occurs “in the rational mind” but “which we recognize as irrational in the sense that it takes place unaccountably” (225). In this “Hegelian” dialectic of subject and object, Stevens stresses the “automatic aspect” of composition—the status of poets as “biological mechanism[s]” (226) who “purge themselves before reality . . . in what they intend to be saintly exercises” (231). Stevens’ emphasis on ineffability and self-expurgation evokes a primordial phase of Hegelian consciousness—the phase that assigns an objective significance to its own thought-content only when it appears as the internal representative of an unknowable beyond. But this is merely a particular moment in Hegel’s dialectic—the one, in fact, that brings Hegel in greatest proximity to Henri Bergson. Bergson and Hegel are closest when they depict an ascetic consciousness certain [End Page 108] that its ablutions render it a pure vehicle of universal processes. The difference is that Hegel distances himself from the grandiose claims such a consciousness makes for itself, arguing, in Judith Butler’s words, that the
renunciation of the self as the origin of its own actions must be performed repeatedly and can never finally be achieved, if only because the demonstration of renunciation is itself a self-willed action . . . . Paradoxically, performance becomes the occasion for a grand and endless action that effectively augments and individuates the self it seeks to deny.(Psychic 49)
For Hegel, contra Bergson, self-renunciation is no guarantee of objectivity, and the certainties of unhappy consciousness are shown to proceed from an elaborate masquerade in which a phantom principle of will conveys individuated data to an ego perpetually feigning surprise in the face of its own actions.
For the moment, however, Stevens follows Bergson in the quintessentially modernist ruse of impersonal cognition. In line with this epistemological model, Stevens defines personality as static, insofar as it is constituted by the ideological mythosphere that surrounds it. Objectivity, on the other hand, is knowable only as a kinetic force that accomplishes an unforeseen breach in the individual; the hallmark of objectivity is that it announces itself unexpectedly as other to the habitual verifications of the subject. This, at least, is the state of affairs at the start of “Owl’s Clover II”:
The statue seemed a thing from Schwartz’s, a thing Of the dank imagination, much below Our crusted outlines hot and huge with fact, Ugly as an idea, not beautiful As sequels without thought.(Opus 78–79)
Here, the stable, constituted “idea” is not merely the defunct product of a superannuated imagination. It is also an inherited Weltanschauung that lives on in the poet as a set of reified thought-habits.4 Stevens glosses the above passage: “The imagination, a toy unworthy of its reality, incapable of unconsidered revelations (sequels without thought)” (Letters 366). The “outlines” of “fact” are accessible, it would seem, only [End Page 109] by way of an aperture in subjectivity—a state in which what follows from the irruption of reality (“sequels”) in no way prepares the “raw material” of thought or anticipates the forms it will take on.
This is why the second section of this poem is defined in terms of poetic “adaptation”: a compositional mode which is merely responsive to unpremeditated social requirements. Here, Stevens seems to exhibit what J. Hillis Miller calls a “willed disencumbering of himself of all the corpses of the past” (150)—a heroic self-divestiture similar to that of the Bergsonian mystic, who stands naked before the necessitous voicings of the historical present. And yet, the picture Stevens will paint is not of a complete evacuation of self, but rather of an internal panorama populated by profoundly ambivalent, if not recalcitrant, spiritual entities. The “celestial paramours” Stevens addresses here are, he writes, “all the things in our nature that are celestial . . . They are compelled by desire . . . in the commingling of those two immense reflections” (Letters 367)—i.e. the commingling of the past and the future. But for figures of self-relinquishment and historical transition, they exhibit a stubborn attachment to the past. It seems, then, that on the one hand they represent the various emotional complexes that adhere tenaciously to the social epoch that is disappearing. On the other hand, they represent all the formal sensitivities and capacities frozen, as it were, in this affective landscape, but which can nevertheless be reanimated in order to fulfill the adaptative functions of which Stevens writes. What is more, it seems that in the first instance it is all the faculties and affections of the poet’s own sensibility that are personified here, in the guise of a “sexual other within” (Lentriccia 126): aristocratic ladies who must undergo a lengthy process of tutelage instigated by—Stevens himself.
It is important to register the uncanny scission that occurs when Stevens adopts the imperative mood with respect to the inhabitants of his own affective geography. It is as if he is identifying everything that corresponds to the habituated, static personality into which unpremeditated contents must penetrate, while placing himself in a spiritual aperture as the spokesman of emergent, unforeseen realities:
Come, all celestial paramours, Whether in-dwelling haughty clouds, frigid And crisply musical, or holy caverns temple-toned, Entwine your arms and moving to and fro, [End Page 110] Now like a ballet infantine in awkward steps, Chant sibilant requiems for this effigy.(79)
Note that the statue—the epoch of proud, untroubled illusions—is already an “effigy” deadened by the desperate negativity of “Owl’s Clover I.” The indigent woman of that section, along with all “those who suffered during the depression” (Opus 226), have transformed its “casual delight . . . in . . . nobility” (Necessary 5) into a meaningless “marble hulk” (Opus 76)—“a dead thing in a dead time” (Letters 366).
Nevertheless, for Stevens, no new order has emerged from the “tortured wind” (Opus 77) of political discontent. Instead, the indeterminacy which has been awakened in the social field is to be mirrored in the spontaneity of the poetic subject, the “passive” negativity of mass discontent appropriated as the active movement of internal faculties which bear within themselves the fragile efflorescences of the possible:
Bring down from nowhere nothing’s wax-like blooms, Calling them what you will but loosely-named In a mortal lullaby, like porcelain. Then, while the music makes you, make, yourselves, Long autumn sheens and pittering sounds like sounds On pattering leaves and suddenly with lights, Astral and Shelleyan, diffuse new day.(79)
But a jarring shift occurs in the final lines of this passage, as Stevens departs from the relative modesty of poetic adaptation and suddenly endows his timid internal ingénues with the power of social prescription. Shelley appears as a guarantor of the socially authoritative value of Stevens’ “unconsidered revelations”; as the paramours are instructed to project this “new day” onto the face of reality—“on this ring of marble horses” to “shed / The rainbow” of social regeneration (79)—it is easy to detect the will to power latent in Shelley’s famous dictum that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
Nevertheless, Helen Vendler is on the mark when she compares these “debilitated, fragile, even frigid” paramours to the simpering Byzantines of “Peter Quince” and concludes that the “squeamishness of concept” embodied in their activity “invalidates [them] as figures of power” (80, 81). Stevens’ assertion of a world-historical poetic mandate here is embarrassingly premature. As he notes, the Shelleyan moment [End Page 111] arrives “suddenly”—indeed, just a few lines after the paramours must be coaxed down from their “holy caverns temple-toned”: sacrosanct internal enclaves bathed, it would seem, in the affective timbre of the civilization to which they are accustomed—the “temple” of the old world, as opposed to the “temple . . . never quite composed” (82).
This is why the affective personae of this drama—Stevens’ own, it is to be remembered—seem in need of reassurance that the “new day” they are supposed to have propagated has not reconstituted the material world in a shape that is in any way threatening to them:
Agree: the apple in the orchard, round And red, will not be redder, rounder then Than now. No: nor the ploughman in his bed Be free to sleep there sounder, for the plough And the dew and the ploughman still will best be one. But this gawky plaster will not be here.(79)
Stevens comments, “The astral and Shelleyan lights are not going to alter the structure of nature. Apples will always be apples, and whoever is a ploughman hereafter will be what ploughmen have always been. For all that, the astral and Shelleyan will have transformed the world” (Letters 367). As a kind of compromise, the “structure of nature” is invoked, encompassing within its orbit both the material self-identity of the “apple in the orchard” and the stable relations of production that situate the ploughman in this maladroitly pastoralized scene. This abrupt foreclosure of possibility is startling, considering that the heroism of Stevens’ poetic posture in this part of Owl’s Clover is defined over and against the complacency of the “foppish” imagination that can do no more than romanticize the deadly “need” of the masses in “Owl’s Clover I.”5
As Stevens later implies in a 1940 letter to Hi Simons, this conciliatory hedging constitutes an arrestation of the process of adaptation: “It is impossible to be truly reconciled, if one romanticizes the past (ploughmen, peacocks, doves)” (367). This parenthetical grouping offers a new perspective on Stevens’ note concerning the “structure of nature,” for in a much earlier letter to Ronald Lane Latimer, immediately after stating that “Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue” is a “general and rather vaguely poetic justification of Marxism,” Stevens continues, [End Page 112] “to the extent that the Marxians are raising Cain with the peacocks and the doves, nature has been ruined by them” (294–95). In other words, the peacock’s “pride” and the dove’s “adagio” (Opus 80), which are mourned by the paramours, are not so much “nature” conceived as an extra-human complex of physical laws and material processes as they are the “natural” structures of feeling continuous with a dying social order in which it was still possible to romanticize the stable, quotidian labor of the working class. In another letter, Stevens writes:
I think we all feel that there is a conflict between the rise of a lower class, with all its realities, and the indulgences of an upper class. This . . . is one of the very things which I at least have in mind in mr. burnshaw. My conclusion is that, while there is a conflict, it is not an essential conflict . . . Marxism may or may not destroy the existing sentiment of the marvelous; if it does, it will create another.(291–92)
In the poetic passage above, then, Stevens stages something of a relapse of the heroic modernist imagination. Initially appointing himself as the plenipotentiary of the “realities” of a rising lower class and internalizing this negativity in order to animate and transform sentiments which still adhere to the old world, he concludes by smuggling the paramours’ “natural” affective attachment to social stability into the phony vision of historical rebirth offered at the end of the passage. On display here is the dialectical deceit performed by modernists when, through an exhibit of self-expurgation, they offer their consciousness as an impersonal reflection of emergent social requirements. But, as in the Hegelian ruse in which individual consciousness “assigns the essence of its action not to itself but to the beyond,” and “renounces the show of satisfying its feeling of self ” (Phenomenology 134), Stevensian consciousness too retains its self-feeling—not merely in the phantom “will, action, and enjoyment” (Phenomenology 134) which subtend the entire process of self-renunciation, but ultimately in its refusal to divest itself of those affective possessions which cling to the illusory peace of the “dove,” the “peacock” and the re-domesticated “ploughman.”
Clearly, such a state of affairs is unacceptable, so Stevens interrupts this entire dialectic of deceit with a far different conception of the “replacement” for the plaster-cast civilization which is disappearing. [End Page 113]
‘A Drastic Community’
The stones That will replace it shall be carved, “The MassAppoints These Marbles of Itself To BeItself.” No more than that, no subterfuge, No memorable muffing, bare and blunt.(80)
This short passage, which follows directly upon the heels of the par-amours’ dance, appears as a turning point for the entire poem.6 Its “bareness” and “bluntness” serve as a bracing antidote to what Stevens describes as “subterfuge” and “memorable muffing,” in obvious reference to the preceding dance: the “sibilant” chants of the paramours (79) and especially the embarrassingly baroque climax of “glistening serpentines / Made by the sun ascending seventy seas” (79). Before he introduces the blunt reality of the pediment, Stevens was content to let “the poet’s politics / . . . rule in a poet’s world” (82): a static, rusticated “Italy of the mind” pleasing to aristocratic affections that live in “fear before the disorder of the strange” (80). After the introduction of the pediment, Stevens chides the paramours for fearing “a drastic community evolved / From the swirling, slowly and by trial” and “men gathering for a mighty flight of men” into the “possible blue” of the future (82).
The pediment, then, is a testimony to forms of social organization taking place outside the poet. Independent of the artist’s partial self-renunciation and universalist pretensions, the pediment is necessarily “bare” insofar as the artist has not appropriated it and lent it content. However, Stevens does point toward a synthetic bust the multitude is making for itself—a “collective self ” being fashioned from the substance of the pediment and destined to take the old statue’s place.7 It consists of the blended physiognomies of an international assemblage of immigrant workers, “massed for a head they mean to make for themselves, / From which their grizzled voices will speak and be heard” (91). Stevens’ phenomenological exteriority to these processes—his inability to “conceive” clearly what they “mean” (91)—is emphasized by the fact that the head being created by the masses is not a recognizable, individual leader to represent them, but rather a composite physiognomy and a trans-individual coordinative intelligence: a collective “head” consisting of their various features (the “English noses and edged, Italian eyes,” etc. ). [End Page 114]
Stevens even poses to this self-organizing multitude the question that was once posed to the heroic, self-abnegating genius: “Are all men thinking together as one, thinking / Each other’s thoughts, thinking a single thought, / Disclosed in everything . . . ?” (92–93). In other words, is it possible for masses of people to achieve the kind of reciprocal ordering capacity that is usually only thought of as the possession of individual geniuses?
Stevens is not sanguine about such a prospect, in part because he believes that the same kinds of outdated attachments exhibited by the paramours may hold sway in any project of popular self-organization; in part because he believes that social transformation, executed in an inclusive and non-hierarchical fashion, is too easily co-opted and subjected to the dictatorial will of a vertically-structured social order; and in part because he believes that such a central, coordinating will may in fact be necessary to prevent historical transition from devolving into a chaotic war of competing interests. So, despite the guarded optimism of the above passage, the only praxic model Stevens is prepared to offer here is a crassly individualistic distortion of popular self-organization:
Then Basilewsky in the band-stand played “Concerto for Airplane and Pianoforte,” The newest Soviet réclame. Profound Abortion, fit for the enchanting of basilisks.(93)
This passage represents the worst possible caricature of workers’ self-organization: an individual worker setting himself above others and claiming to embody in his idiosyncratic syntheses the will of all. Crudely juxtaposing the massive noise of the jet engine with his individualistic tinkerings on the pianoforte, he seeks only to wed the masses to his own egoic sectarianism—to produce small Basilewskys, i.e., “basilisks,” or perhaps “basilists.”
Imagining, then, that the idea of popular self-organization is hopelessly freighted with the vulgarity and opportunism of the social order which the masses are attempting to supersede, Stevens falls back once more on the modernist ideal of impersonality. According to Owl’s Clover’s model of impersonality, the poet is to serve as a surrogate of the people—as a neutral “metropolitan of the mind” (Letters 372) capable of producing the necessary orders which the self-interestedness of real human agents prevents from emerging. [End Page 115]
But this modernist fantasy, however intellectually compelling, becomes slightly more comical each time it is produced in the poem as a solution to the overwhelming question Owl’s Clover repeatedly asks: where is credible legislative authority to be located? In fact, the following section, which resurrects the poetic legislator in the somewhat ridiculous forms of “Don Juan turned furious divinity,” “oozer and Abraham,” etc., seems to serve as a final, desperately “stubborn” (94) assertion of poetic authority, before Stevens employs his strategy of self-interruption once more. As if calling himself to order, Stevens next allies himself in perfect candor with the we-persona of the workers in the park in order to address more concretely the problem truly concerning him: if even the self-renunciations of the most rigorous modernist amount in the final analysis to an “interested” masquerade, how is it possible to imagine that a collectivity might surrender its multiplicity of personal interests, its stubborn attachments to self-feeling, and thus acquire the trans-individual discipline necessary to evolve new models of social organization?
Stevens writes, “When shall lush chorals spiral through our fire / And daunt that old assassin, heart’s desire?” (96). He answers: “These people have / A meaning within the meaning they convey, / Walking the paths, watching the gilded sun, / To be swept across them when they are revealed, / For a moment, once every century or two” (95). For a non-Marxist poet, these lines are remarkable. Stevens suggests that for the time being, workers stick to the “paths” of the capitalist circuit. Producing and produced by an individualistic society, they carry together along the path the “meanings” proper to it, clutching “crude souvenirs” (94) suffused with the affective forms such a society makes available. But beneath the surface-emotions which contain and define them, there are undisclosed affective “meanings” which are real and abiding, but colonized and redefined in terms more suitable to the limitations of the park.
These potentialities are suddenly revealed when the cyclical pattern of capitalist crisis is repeated “every century or two”; and “the tempo of this complicated shift,” (96), the “epical . . . catastrophe” (95) which discloses the possibility of social transformation, is “a leaden ticking circular in width” (96). In other words, the liquidation of self-feeling the heroic modernist tries to initiate and sustain on an individual basis is here accomplished by an historical “envoi” (96): a moment of crisis [End Page 116] that allows for the actuation of suppressed affective possibilities. Infrastructural crisis tends to deprive traditional celebrations of individual agency of their credibility, even as it highlights the urgency of evolving new models of intersubjective association. And for Stevens, this idea that ideologically-regulated models of selfhood and cognition could be interrupted from without, as a consequence of large-scale social crisis, rather than interrupted exclusively from within, as a consequence of heroic, individual acts of self-renunciation, demands a radical change in perspective.
For Stevens, this means that modernist impersonality has surrendered its last bastion of credibility, namely, the idea that some central individual must take responsibility for the requirements of the masses, by neutrally enacting the kinds of organizational processes that could lead to social transformation. As a consequence, Stevens confronts a crisis of modernist authorship. After all, if the masses are already having their ideological certitudes and conventional senses of self stripped from them, then the poet’s self-renunciations and social intuition seem just one small part of a much larger, intersubjective process of destruction and recombination. In this case, the poet’s heroic acts of self-extinction guarantee him or her no epistemological centrality, but in fact become one performance contending with a multitude of other performances for some measure of credibility.
A new image of the modernist emerges from this: the finger-paring God awakes to find himself just one element in a vast, intersubjective process of self-organization—one that constitutes itself, at least in part, through its ability to perceive and debunk the pretensions to impersonality advanced by the modernist. Stevens experiences a representational crisis in his attempts to evoke this process of intersubjective coordination, in large part because it is a process that is traditionally conceived as possible only within the mind of the individual genius. The first shape this elusive intersubjective process takes, then, is as a “subconscious” that belongs to society itself, with individuals acting as nodes of collective “remembrance.”
The Object of Remembrance
Stevens begins “Owl’s Clover V” with the image of a “subman under all / The rest” (96), an “anti-logician, quick / with a logic of transforming [End Page 117] certitudes” (96). This “man,” however, is not the poet as we have come to recognize him: the self-negating force merging with the populace by way of a phenomenological masquerade. In fact, the subman seems to be Stevens’ way of representing the affective structures latent in the populace, which are awakened in the historical rupture created by capitalist crisis.
That Stevens is on unfamiliar terrain here is signaled in various ways. First of all, his appropriation of Jungian terminology in an exposition of “Owl’s Clover V” is highly uncharacteristic:
The sub-conscious is assumed to be our beginning and end . . . It follows that it is the beginning and end of the conscious . . . In another note I said that the imagination partakes of the conscious. Here it is treated as an activity of the sub-conscious: the imagination is the sub-conscious.(Letters 373)
Stevens’ unusual adoption of a we-persona in this letter, and in the passage to which it refers, suggests that he is attempting to describe a collective subconscious. This impression is deepened by Stevens’ depiction of the lapsed historical period as a time of agonizing social atomization: “The solid was an age . . . / Each man in his asylum, maundering, / Policed by the hope of Christmas” (98). The spiritual dementia of this atomized society, represented by the administered freedom and commodity-based exchanges of Christmas, is contrasted in this passage with the “fluid . . . cat-eyed atmosphere, in which / The man and the man below were reconciled” (98). But what is Stevens attempting to evoke with this alternative, fluid, feline social atmosphere? In a remarkable note on “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” Stevens describes the “liquid cats” of that poem to be “sombre cats [that] are merely sombre people going about their jobs” (Letters 361). He then goes on to explain that in the passage, “cat-eyed is a migration of the French word chatoyant, changeable, as in the irised glimmering night” (362). In an extraordinary series of metonyms, then, Stevens portrays the night that has descended on the concretions of individualist society as suddenly alight with a multiplicity of interchanging, flickering pupils.
Meanwhile, the bodies of the cats are no more than “black blobs on the mind’s eye” (361)—a diffuse, de-individuated atmosphere that is somehow identical to the radical indeterminacy of the night itself. [End Page 118] Stevens symbolically links this “changeability” to the movements of working people who in “The Man with the Blue Guitar” merely “go about their accustomed jobs, unconscious of what is occurring” (361). So, the “cat-eyed atmosphere” of “Owl’s Clover V” represents a collective, unconscious panorama, suddenly illuminated with an incipient consciousness of the possible orders that might emerge from the trans-individual fluidity of the sombre people’s ordinary activity.
This attempt to evoke intersubjective ordering processes represents a radical shift in “Owl’s Clover V.” It means that Stevens is attempting to locate the possibility of historical agency in the social body itself, rather than confining it to the action of Bergson’s self-expurgating, saintly individuals. The latter are guided by a mystic élan putatively active in the historical evolution of the human species, but by no means a function of its capacity for self-organization. By contrast, the subman described below is referred to as an “inhabitant” of that “field of lights” (97) in which the social relations that govern ordinary people’s “accustomed jobs” suddenly appear to be as “changeable” as the unconscious play of associations that traverse this intersubjective space:
He dwells below, the man below, in less Than body and in less than mind, ogre, Inhabitant, in less than shape, of shapes That are dissembled in vague memory Yet still retain resemblances, remain Remembrances, a place of a field of lights, As a church is a bell and people are an eye, A cry, the pallor of a dress, a touch. He turns us into scholars, studying The masks of music. We perceive each mask To be the musician’s own and, thence, become An audience to mimics glistening With meanings, doubled by the closest sound, Mimics that play on instruments discerned In the beat of the blood.(97)
In this astonishingly rich passage, the subman is clearly neither an individual agent nor a mystic élan. Instead, he represents the possibility that Stevens’ we-subject might collectively “remember” the unrealized social potentialities that are latent in its everyday activity.8 [End Page 119]
The “object” of remembrance in this passage does not, therefore, pre-exist the act of remembrance itself; remembrance is synonymous with the play of representations by means of which a collectivity recalls itself as a vast network of social forms and faculties. More than anything, then, this remembrance is kin to the Hegelian process of re-collection (Erinnerung), in that the energies and powers summoned in the “dissemblances” of collective memory only exist “in themselves” once they are “gathered in” as part of an intersubjective process of contestation.9
In this passage, then, Stevens locates remembrance not in the mystic operations of the individual poet, but in the process of debate and contestation to which the poet’s individual representations are subjected. This is why the dissemblances of the poet—his or her impossible pretensions to speak on behalf of the populace—are not fatal to the larger process of remembrance. In fact, the mask of the poet—the duplicity involved in his or her displays of impersonality—is precisely what elicits the critical poise that makes “us . . . scholars, studying / The masks of music” (18). Learning to detect what is merely personal, or idiosyncratic, in the poet’s attempts to compose a universally credible “music” can be the first step in remembering and defining all the transpersonal, non-idiosyncratic requirements that such individual performances exclude.
So, for example, the masquerade of Basilewsky’s musical performance, in which he dons the mask of disinterestedness in order to pass off his technical contortions as a universally valid representation of social need, would now be subjected to the scrutiny of “scholars”: ordinary individuals engaged in a mutually-corrective “interplay of individualities” (Hyppolite 310) capable of detecting the “mask” of egotism in every individual staging of the social whole. This is why the Hegelian idea of “universal deception” is so useful in this context. The play of dissemblance and critique Stevens models does not resolve itself into some collective moral candor, or abstract “humaneness.”10 Instead, Stevens stages a dialectic of deceit, in which many individuals bring forth “into the light of day” (Hegel, Phenomenology 251) their individual “works,” each one staking a claim to universal significance. It is in this very “interplay of . . . mutual deceit” (Hyppolite 314) that a field of intersubjective contention and activity is opened, with each partial, subjective representation of the social whole calling out in such [End Page 120] a way “that others hurry along like flies to freshly poured-out milk, and want to busy themselves with it” (Phenomenology 251). Hence, even the mediocre representations of a Basilewsky, insofar as they pretend to concern themselves with the shaping forces of social reality, elicit the “participation by all and sundry” (251) in an affair which is truly “the affair of everyone” (251).11
Numerous musicians therefore appear in the Stevens passage above. Not merely the cunning modernist, but all the Basilewskys of the world, each pretending to universal significance, are reduced to mere moments in an intersubjective field, which now perceives the sum of its own activities to be the social reality which each individual worldview, philosophy, etc. vainly strove to encompass. In Hegel’s words, “consciousness learns that no one of these moments is subject, but rather gets dissolved in the universal ‘matter in hand’” which “loses the characteristic of lifeless abstract universality” and is rather “substance permeated by individuality . . . and . . . the universal which has being only as the activities of all and each” (Phenomenology 252). The deception of the mimics evoked at the end of the Stevens passage has therefore lost the character of domination from above. Properly speaking, the object of any individual mimetic impulse simply does not exist in itself, but exists only as the collective interchange which takes up the content of these refracted meanings within the negotiated space of Stevensian “universal intercourse” (Letters 368).
This Hegelian rhetoric, however, and the Enlightenment ideal of universal debate that it embodies, seems to leave us with a model of the public sphere that is based on suspect models of reason and benevolent, liberal “inclusiveness.” As Theodor Adorno points out, artworks that pretend to enact such processes of discursive harmonization are “permanently threatened with” and “complicitous with ideology in that [they] feign the actual existence of reconciliation” (Aesthetic 134). Therefore, for Adorno, art must signal all that it excludes from its representations, by introducing the “interference” (114) of the collective, i.e. the protests and dissonances of all the social elements that the individual artwork cannot render articulate. Of course, the place of these “art-alien” elements in the aesthetic whole is silently appointed by individual artists themselves, which means that we are returned, with Adorno, to a guilty, benevolist model of artistic agency, that imposes a “total determination from above to below” (108) while creating the illusion that its [End Page 121] imposed “unity of the multiplicitous . . . had done no violence but was chosen by the multiplicitous itself ” (134).
It is easy to see how this would cause Adorno to recommend redoubled efforts on the part of the artistic will to “divest itself of its subjectivity” (Aesthetic 24). The only cure for the dissemblances of artistic subjectivism, it would seem, is even more thorough and relentless extinctions of subjectivity. But what Owl’s Clover allows us to see is that this guilty individualism implies, as its internal horizon, the impossibility of the very modes of popular self-organization explored by Stevens’ poem. According to the Adornian posture, it is inconceivable that the “membra disjecta” of society, left to their own devices, could “somehow unite” (108).
Hence, we remain trapped at the level of Hegelian unhappy consciousness, with an individual will that excoriates and negates itself until it is certain that it is empty enough to serve as a pure vehicle of collective necessities. By contrast, Owl’s Clover forces this dissembling, “backstage” (Aesthetic 108) figure of aesthetic organization onto the stage of the poem, mask in hand, to become one of the dramatis personae in a vast theater of social reconstitution. In such a scenario, poetic exponency is no longer guaranteed by a romantic self-purification seeking to “appropriate the world under some single, synthetic force” (Altieri, Painterly 356). Instead, it is framed as something collectively recognizable, after the creative act, if and when the poem’s “invitation to participate in the processes of fit it composes” (354) successfully mobilizes “publicly significant emotional intensities” (Altieri, “Stevens’s” 145).
In other words, Owl’s Clover’s models of aesthetic organization depend on a conception of popular self-organization that Adorno’s version of modernism must deny and repudiate. As we have seen, Owl’s Clover initially signs on to Adorno’s guilty dialectic, framing the “collective subject” (Aesthetic 131) at first as a mere “in-itself,” whose only content is the anguished cry it direct towards the artist, in whom “what is in need summons fulfillment and change” (132). But Stevens’ poem reveals the limitations of this posture by testing it against the increasingly complex conceptions of social reality it evolves. By the end of the poem, the social body has become so dynamized and self-organizing that the artist’s ordering processes are stripped of the social centrality they appeared to possess when aesthetic creation seemed a matter [End Page 122] of heroic, substitutory agency. Now, the Bergsonian mystic, Hegel’s unhappy consciousness, and Adorno’s self-renouncing artist are all, in Jean Hyppolite’s words, “deposited in the universal milieu of objective being” (304–5). In fact, this social milieu could be said to have turned the tables on the artist: it “remembers” itself in the artistic work, validates the work’s claim to social significance, only once the artist’s mask of subjectivism becomes publicly, embarrassingly, visible.
So, even though Stevens’ model of self-organization may be idealistic, in the colloquial sense of the term, I would argue that it is not necessarily based on the kinds of ideation associated with Enlightenment reason. To begin with, Stevensian remembrance is not a product of liberal “inclusivity” or benevolence. In fact, it is involuntary, in that it emerges only when the leaden ticking of the industrial production process has completed one of its cycles, descended into crisis, and severed the bond between the populace and their conventional ideas of selfhood and order. Also, the critical “discernment” that is awakened in Stevens’ collective “audience” in the passage above is coextensive with a primordial “beat in the blood” (97). It appears, therefore, to be a form of social reflection that is somehow indistinguishable from primary affective states. Of the “universal intercourse” that emerges, Stevens writes, “Cross-reflections, modifications, counter-balances, complements, giving and taking are illimitable. They make things inter-dependent, and their inter-dependence sustains them and gives them pleasure” (Letters 368). Owl’s Clover, then, performs what could be described as an affective inventory of a moment when the possibility of radical social transition is psychically available primarily as a shared sense of “illimitable” libidinal transivity. In this context, the fakery of Stevens’ mimics appears as “imitations” of an intuited, primal social demand that exceeds every concrete relational system.
But this collective demand does not for that reason become an object of detached, interpretive activity. Its magnetizing force is not that of hermeneutic inquisitiveness, but rather of a socio-economic catastrophe that absorbs all human relations within the scope of its exigency. This, indeed, seems to be why it presents itself in the form of a collective remembrance: not an external object of thought to be speculated upon, “universal intercourse” presents itself as a renovating collective process that must be “recalled” from the deep, pre-individual patterns of the present. [End Page 123]
In conclusion, then, I would simply like to register how far Owl’s Clover has carried us from the models of heroic exponency so often attributable to modernist artwork. We have seen how Henri Bergson’s models of self-renunciation and heroic exponency exerted a powerful attraction on Stevens, as they did on many of his contemporaries. But, ultimately, Stevens must explore the possibility that this model of modernist agency represents an elaborate process of dissemblance. Using Owl’s Clover as an aesthetic proving-ground for the various artistic postures he wishes to try on, Stevens ultimately strands the figure of the self-renouncing poet in alien territory, to see if it can “fend for itself ” in a collective environment indifferent to its universalist pretensions. What Stevens discovers is a novel form of modernist agency that achieves social significance as a consequence of the very critical operations that strip it of the central authority it wishes to assert. In other words, Stevens’ ability to imagine ordinary individuals as capable of self-organization means that Bergson’s great mystics and Adorno’s agonized legislators no longer make sense as figures of agency. Instead, the artist is to be thought of as one who proposes orders that either do or do not withstand the testing-operations of an engaged collectivity; indeed, as Stevens’ “we-persona” suggests, the poet is a member of this collectivity—one which is continually mimicking and studying its own possibilities for social cohesion.
This imagination of social self-organization opens up a speculative vista glimpsed only rarely by way of modernist intuition. For it is at the level of primordial affective states, the subconscious, and the senses that this new organizational intelligence is born—a social vision less similar to Bergson than to the Young Hegelian who wrote that in “the sensuous appropriation for and by man of the human essence . . . the senses . . . become directly in their practice theoreticians” (Marx 107).
Joel Nickels is Assistant Professor of English at University of Miami. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Postmodern Culture, Criticism and Paideuma. His current book project is entitled Rising from Nowhere: Spontaneity, Modernism and the Multitude.
1. Kennedy notes that for Bergson this metastasis is not figurative, but rather a socially concrete phenomenon, involving the “ ‘material’ reality of progress.” The antinomies of “pressure” and “aspiration” thus embody the tension between a social cohesion “imposed by violence” and the interhuman “progress” toward Bergson’s ideal of the “open society” (156, 157).
2. “Life,” Bergson writes, “which has had to set down the human species at a certain point of its evolution, imparts a new impetus to exceptional individuals [End Page 124] who have immersed themselves anew in it, so that they can help society further along” (91).
3. Williams’ terminology is especially relevant here because of his definition of the “true social present” as a collective experience “which is still in process, often indeed not yet recognized as social but taken to be private, idiosyncratic, and even isolating, but which in analysis (though rarely otherwise) has its emergent, connecting, and dominant characteristics . . .” (132). So although he objects to the methodological abstraction of affection and subjectivity from the social, Williams is recognizably “modernistic” in his emphasis on the socially preformative content to be derived from affective and stylistic elements of literature which cannot “be reduced to belief-systems, institutions, or explicit general relationships” (133).
4. Stevens begins “Owl’s Clover II” by proclaiming “The thing is dead . . . . Everything is dead except the future” (78). According to a fairly broad critical consensus, this statement is merely an ironic parroting of Marxist orthodoxy. But some recent critics have recognized its “ideas and rhetoric” to be “characteristically Stevensian” (Cleghorn 68)—a plain statement of “Stevens’ theory of flux” and artistic “exponency” (Ophir 43). I would add to these latter formulations the suggestion that Stevens is “trying on” the rhetorical stance implied by his bold abolition of the “thing,” according to a mode of address oriented more toward assertion and self-correction than an inert form of “irony.” On this score, note Litz’s observation that “the dialectic of the poem’s structure traces the necessary accommodation between imagination and reality, as each section qualifies its predecessor and builds toward a more complex statement” (214–15).
5. In a letter to Hi Simons, Stevens defines “foppery” as that which resists “the evolution of what ought to be” (366).
6. The passage has traditionally been seen as a parody of vulgar Marxism. But some excellent criticism has begun to complicate that reading. Filreis, for example, sees this “Marxist rhetoric” (232) as salubriously transformed by the paramours’ “hymn of reconciliation.” However, it succeeds in “mediating communist and modernist” only at the cost of forecasting the “failure of the revolution . . . by revising the concept of ‘change’ sufficiently so that . . . it will be recognizable even to the muses” (233). Longenbach notes that the inscription is “transformed from a naïve tenet of socialist realism into the goal of an intricately dialectical process by which art, in all its complexity, engages the world of human speech and makes it ‘real’” (170). I add to this tradition of interpretation by suggesting that Stevens does not intend to represent the poet as currently adequate to the pediment’s imperative. Instead, he has the pediment explode the poet’s artistocratized sensibility and lead him far from the inwardness of the interior paramours. Patke is one critic who notes Stevens’ profound investment in the pediment. He writes: “‘No memorable muffing’ is too Stevensian an exfoliation . . . to be resisted by the poet or to be ascribed with any kind of plausibility to the Marxist” (54). Indeed, Stevens’ gloss on the passage contains no hint of irony; in order to adapt, the paramours must look to the future and, Stevens writes of the passage, “apparently it is to be a future of the mass” (Letters 366). [End Page 125]
7. Bates notes, in this connection, that the “poem applauds the Marxist insistence on change, revolution, and the future of man” (176). “Collective self ” (177) is the term he uses to describe the composite, internationalist agency the workers are in the process of forming.
8. Critics have repeatedly testified to the radical and unique nature of this “remembrance” passage. Monroe, for example, observes of this passage, “what is posited as the substratum in the problem of poetic figuration turns out to be identical to the human base of material production” (141). Teres stresses the active aspect of this dynamic when he refers to the “unconscious” of Owl’s Clover as “a source of emancipatory change” (141). And Cleghorn captures the collective quality of this unconscious agency in his suggestion that Stevens “turns away from the autonomous artist as visionary savior” and implies “the dreaming mass will be agents exposing the old lies in their collective night music” (101).
9. In Hegel’s Science of Logic, Erinnerung denotes the process of re-collection or “inwardizing” whereby social agents cease being inert, self-contained beings and begin to realize themselves in a self-mediating relational movement: “pure being, the negation of everything finite, presupposes an internalization, a recollection [Erin-nerung] and movement which has purified immediate, determinate being to pure being” (389). “Essence” is Hegel’s name for this pure, or self-relating, movement of being. The key, however, is that “the determinatenesses of being are sublated in [essence]; they are contained in essence in principle [an sich] but are not posited in it” (390). In other words, this “purity” is not a complete evacuation of the personal and social realities that these agents embodied before they began their self-relating movement; it is not a Bergsonian self-annihilation, but an unfolding of unexpressed possibilities of being. Similarly, for Stevens it is only through the continuous in-gathering and externalizing movement of re-collection that what is implicit in social being emerges. This idea of collective self-organization that Hegel shares with Stevens stands forth most clearly in the final paragraph of the Phenomenology: “The goal, Absolute Knowing . . . has for its path the recollection of the Spirits as they are in themselves and as they accomplish the organization of their realm” (493). The Logic, then, expresses the inner structure of Erinnerung, while the Phenomenology shows it in motion as the self-constituting, self-comprehending action of a composite historical agent.
10. I am thinking, in particular, of Adorno’s conception of “the humane” (“Marginalia” 262), which he defines specifically in opposition to praxis.
11. In her essay on Stevens and Hegel, Butler notes how the poet as “incapable master” of the dialectic sees his “creation take[ ] on a life of its own” and “turn[ ] upon its originator” (276). But Butler describes the “inhuman meditation” that “overwhelms” and “overtakes” the poet (278) as a self-reparative movement of the “organic world” (274). The corrective to the poet’s legislative imposture is located not in the heteronomous self-activity of the social landscape but in the Heideggerian notion of the natural world as an atelic “agent of meditation” (271). What I emphasize in Hegel is the leap from Subjective Spirit to Objective Spirit, which [End Page 126] only occurs when the solipsist dialectic of individual consciousness is stranded in an inhospitable public sphere with whose spiritual content it once believed itself to be privately synchronized. The essential point is that Hegel’s “beyond” of the individual subject is for me not an agentless “presencing” (274), but rather an inter-subjective process of contestation that leads, in the Phenomenology, to the self-constitution of social producers as agents of social transformation. This is why Hegel’s emphasis on “‘externalized’ reality . . . as a nodal point of social interests” (Lukács 482) is so essential to how I view the figuration of trans-individual praxic organization in Stevens.
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