- Snapping the Spectrum Up for Food:Marianne Moore, Artistic Representation, and the Ethics of Use
Avant-garde Modernism attempts to repopulate generalizations either with the particular experiences that may be imagined as having originally inhabited them or with new experiences derived from the contemporary world. This is as true of "mimetic" Imagist practice as of nonrepresentational abstract art. For Hulme, and for Pound and the other Modernists who followed his argument, universals in the modern age had lost their real value and had become merely dead counters (Hulme 1936, 134-35). Pound associated this general inflation with the ascendancy of rhetoric and the use of abstract terms in artistic practice, and his Imagist and Vorticist interventions were meant to evoke the authority of the standards of concrete experiences and labor against which the real values of words and signs might be redeemed. Rhetoric in Pound's sense is the forgetting of this base of essential particulars; to "make it new" is to renew old metaphors with the new blood of concrete particulars. The model for this empirical rootedness was the pictorialism of the Chinese ideogram, in Pound's understanding. Similarly, the [End Page 141] rise of abstraction in art, by explicitly drawing attention to the constructed nature of art, signals a reinvestment of value in the basic units of artistic exchange—color, form, and composition—rather than in its explicit subject. Emblematic Modernist poems such as Williams's "The Red Wheelbarrow," Stevens's "Domination of Black" and "The Snow Man," Eliot's The Waste Land, and those in Stein's much earlier Tender Buttons, reenact the processes by which artistic wholes emerge from the fragments of sensory experiences.1
The Modernist attempt to rejuvenate metaphysics by grounding it in concrete particulars might be acceptable as good empiricism, but as a basis for artistic practice, it runs the risk of creating derivatively literal art. This was the limitation of Imagism at the hands of its imitators, as Pound discovered very early. The Modernist fear of literalism2 repeats the familiar Romantic affect of horror at reducing the human being to a mere residue of sensory experiences, and is forced—as Romanticism was—to explain and allow for human creativity through theories of the imagination. Williams declares in the opening section of Spring and All (1923): "To refine, to clarify, to intensify that eternal moment in which we alone live there is but a single force—the imagination. This is its book" (1986, 1:178). Stevens's Crispin in the important long poem "Comedian as the Letter C," which appeared first in Harmonium in the same year, is forced to become an "introspective voyager" (Stevens 1990, 29) after facing the starkness and power of the sea. In another Harmonium poem titled "To the One of Fictive Music," the realist impulse is rediscovered to be productive of merely a "[g]ross effigy and simulacrum" by "being so much of the things we are" (Stevens 1990, 87), and the creative musician's task then is to go beyond this: "Unreal, give back to us what once you gave: / The imagination that we spurned and crave" (88).
The dialectic of the literal and the imaginative is played out in Marianne Moore's poems as a dual and equal commitment to experience and imaginative creativity. This condition entails the activation of a metaphysics that is rooted in actual experience and yet is able to relate to objects of projected or possible—and therefore imaginative—experience. The concern here is to evolve an a posteriori and to that extent "natural" and trustworthy metaphysics whose probity in turn would impart authenticity to the products of the artistic enterprise. The fiat nature of the art object implies the possibility [End Page 142] of an a priori metaphysic, however, so that the coincidence of observed fact and imaginative creation presents itself as an instance and proof of authentic human creativity. Estranged from empirical origins, metaphysics can take the form of imperial domination and reduce all objects to imperial use value. In the work of art, on the other hand, the metaphysics of the common and the proper converge. Moore brings this...