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  • In the Shadow of Central Man:Self-Transcendence and Self-Discovery in Charles Altieri’s Reading of Stevens
  • Allen Dunn

WALLACE STEVENS IS RENOWNED as the preeminent philosophical poet of twentieth-century modernism in English, and most readers understand his work as an investigation of the relationship between mind and world, between the world as it simply is and the world as it is configured by human perception and imagination. Accordingly, Stevens criticism has often focused on epistemological questions, on what we can know and how we can verify that knowledge. Deconstructionist and pragmatist critics, in particular, have found in Stevens’ poetry a confirmation of their suspicions of the realist’s confidence in the congruence of mind and world. In Wallace Stevens and the Demands of Modernity: Toward a Phenomenology of Value, Charles Altieri challenges such epistemological approaches and argues that values, not a theory of knowledge, are what matter most to Stevens and what constitute the most enduring legacy of his poetry. Stevens’ work is timely, Altieri claims, because it offers us access to the kinds of values that can withstand interrogation by a secular and skeptical age. Indeed, the central requirement of the kind of value that Stevens’ poetry exemplifies is that it retain the power to gratify and inspire us without losing track of its human origins, without deriving its authority from a superhuman source. The values celebrated in Stevens’ poetry, Altieri claims, derive from the mind’s ability to configure and reconfigure the world, and this process produces two closely related types of satisfaction. The first is immanent in experience itself; it is the pleasure that derives from the moment of “sudden rightness” when forces of self and world are balanced or integrated (see CPP 219). The second type of satisfaction is derived from a self-conscious appreciation of the powers of the imagination, both individual and collective. As Stevens himself puts it, in “Imagination as Value,” “The imagination is the power of the mind over the possibilities of things; . . . it is the source not of a certain single value but of as many values as reside in the possibilities of things” (CPP 726). Imaginative values are realized in particular moments of experience, but their enduring legacy is a sense of the self and a confidence in its powers [End Page 56] to exploit the possibilities in things. These powers alone, Altieri insists, are adequate to the challenge of modernity.

Altieri writes with a sense of urgency, in part because he believes that the contemporary world poses palpable threats to the kinds of values championed by Stevens. One of these threats comes from what Altieri calls empiricism, his term for scientific worldviews that sharply distinguish between facts and values and relegate the latter to the status of mere fictions. Defending Stevens’ values against empiricist thinking demands some subtlety, Altieri observes, because it obliges us to remain “respectful of the constraints basic to empiricist thinking” while rejecting the reductive distinction between fact and value that characterizes that approach to the world (9). Stevens’ poetry acknowledges the existence of a nonhuman world that imposes limits on the possibilities generated by the imagination, but insists that this constraint does not eliminate our power to configure the world in ever new and more satisfying ways.

Altieri sees a second and even more formidable threat to the poetic imagination emerging from moral and political systems of value. “[I]n my view,” he tells us, “the greatest threats now to what art can do for society derive not from those who reject imagination for facts but from those who align imagination with the questions that obsessed the spirit of Victorian moralism” (19). As he explains it, the threat posed by Victorian moralism is due to the way the Victorians secure their moral values by sharply distinguishing them from the world described by science. That is, they see morality as the result of a social compact, an agreement between individuals who promise to remain true to one another in the face of a meaningless and valueless world. This drastically narrows the scope of human values, Altieri argues. It ignores or suppresses the human capacity for creating meaning and value, and leaves the world...