- Against Vanishing: Winnicott and the Modern Poetry of Nothing
How often our major voices boldly assert and embrace their own nothingness. At the center of what has been called the “most celebrated moment of transcendence in American letters” (Hughes, 157), Emerson tells us “all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all” (6). Less transcendentally, Yeats picks up the theme: “Talk to me of originality and I will turn on you with rage. I am a crowd, I am a lonely man, I am nothing” (Essays, 522). Such boldness, perhaps, reflects a more diffident precursor. In a crowd, Keats writes, “the identity of every one in the room begins to press upon me that I am in a very little time annihilated”; his kind of poetical character “is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and nothing” (279–80).
Nothingness, apparently, is a condition much to be admired. Indeed, as Anthony Libby argues, “the poetry of this post-Christian age . . . tends to define what it seeks as nothing: in Wallace Stevens’s words [from “The Snow Man”], ‘the nothing that is’” (1). One might think of T. S. Eliot in Four Quartets seeking descent into “that which is not world, / Internal darkness, deprivation / And destitution of all property, / Desiccation of the world of sense, / Evacuation of the world of fancy, / Inoperancy of the world of spirit” (120–21); or saying to his soul, “be still, and let the dark come upon you” as, “when an underground train . . . stops too long between stations / . . . And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen / Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about; / Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing” (126). In a more contemporary mode, W. S. Merwin hears each of the dead proclaim, “I know nothing / learn of me” (51), and his translation of Antonio Porchia is also self-disclosure: “It is when I assent to nothing that I assent to all” (16). At the bottom of such a tendency lies [End Page 81] the mystical revelation that, as Hegel writes, “pure Being and pure Nothing are . . . one and the same” (quoted in Heidegger, 377). 1 So it is that, laying claim to nothingness, Keats, Yeats, and Emerson declare: my character “is everything”; “I am a crowd”; “I see all.”
I wonder, though, if this way of conjuring something—or everything—from nothing tells only half the story (or not even half). Libby’s claim that modern poetry seeks “the nothing that is” may minimize the extent to which nothingness is a fearful condition. After all, in Stevens’s poem, actually finding the nothing that is means having a “mind of winter”—being dead, or something like dead, having suffered the end of the mind’s lively interplay with the external world that for Stevens virtually defines the sacred (and, to glance ahead, defines for Winnicott the playful basis of the capacity for experience itself). Like Emerson, the snow man sees all (that is there) but is (and thus can imagine) nothing. 2 Nothingness, thus, makes for a highly problematic goal, here, as elsewhere in Stevens. In Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction, Canon Aspirin approaches a nothing beyond “normal things,” but retreats, for “The nothingness was a nakedness, a point, // Beyond which fact could not progress as fact” and “thought could not progress as thought” (229). Again, nothingness defines the end of the mind’s collaboration with the world (the collapse of Winnicott’s “potential space”)—not the goal of poetry but the denial of what makes it possible. Earlier in Notes we see Nanzio Nunzio’s desire for nothingness/nakedness thus undermined by Ozymandias: “the spouse, the bride / Is never naked. A fictive covering / Weaves always glistening from the heart and mind” (222)—a fictive covering which is poetry itself.
Thus, in one of the most prominent of post-Stevensian supreme fictions, James Merrill thinks back past the zero point of his own being, back “Forty years, fifty, past the flailing seed / To incoherence, blackout” (495), but finally stops short of such nothingness, as Maria (echoing the Canon Aspirin canto above?) admonishes him...