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  • Wallace Stevens’ Owl’s Clover and the Dialectic of Deceit
  • Joel Nickels (bio)

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...


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