- The Real and the Ordinary in Stevens’ Poetry: Enaction, Embodied Consciousness, and Phenomenal Experience in “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”
1. Introduction: Enactive Cognitive Science
READING A POEM is a particular kind of participatory sense-making, one with constitutive embodied and interactive features, whereby a poem’s meaning is not passively “received” but enacted, re-experienced, and reconstituted in an interactive process between the lyric voice and the reader. My primary motivation for this article is to open the reception of Stevens’ poetry to a novel and powerful methodology developed in a new comprehensive approach to human cognition called enaction or enactivism. By doing so, I also hope to offer a solution to a longstanding disagreement in Stevens criticism concerning how we are to understand the notion of “reality” in his poetry.1 I will argue that enactive theories of cognition allow us to see that reality and imagination in Stevens need not occupy two ends of the cognitive spectrum, as some of his critical commentators have claimed. Rather, enactive theories break down the very notion of such a dichotomy by attesting to the necessity of seeing “reality” as occurring in unique manifestations of human experience. If we grant that Stevens’ take on reality is broadly phenomenological, we can begin to understand his grasp of the need to offer a meticulous record of ordinary experience in his poems, a fact noted by many of his critics. Human experience happens in embodied interaction with a world, and such ordinary experience, as given in Stevens’ poetry, does not deliver propositional truths or abstract knowledge about reality. Perception, notes Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the French phenomenologist who is regarded as the main forerunner of embodied/enactive cognition, “does not give me truths like geometry but presences” (Primacy 14). I will argue that the many truths of lived experience—of reality as always already a human subjective reality—are the kinds of truths that Stevens brings to his readers. This discussion will culminate in a close reading of “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” [End Page 185]
In this first section, I will explain some of the main commitments of the enactive approach. Subsequently, I will seek to demonstrate how these offer new ways of reading Stevens’ poetry. An enactive approach to cognition represents the most recent stage in a series of changes that have taken place to reform how philosophers and cognitive scientists think about the mind. The notion of embodiment, which predates but is now incorporated in enaction, hails from contemporary European phenomenology—especially Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception—in its emphasis on the body as a pre-reflective medium through which the world becomes known in subjective first-person experience. An especially prominent inheritance from embodied theories of phenomenology is the project to extend explanations of cognitive processes beyond the traditionally conceived boundaries of the skull and examine the entire body’s role in cognition. The human mind is necessarily an incarnate mind, and cognitive theories of embodiment highlight the constitutive role played by the body in phenomenal experience, subjectivity, and intentionality.
A phenomenological and thus an embodied account of cognition seeks to clarify the nature of the intentionality (i.e., the world-directedness) of consciousness, and this concern bears directly on the relation between mind and world, or imagination and reality, in Stevens’ poetics. Such an account, moreover, sees human knowledge of reality as constituted in an ongoing relation with the world. What drives human perception and action are bodily forms of intentionality, not internal inferential processes inside heads. The very act of perceiving is seen not as an internal mental process aimed at creating a representation in the brain, but as a process of interaction between an organism and a world. This has important implications for our ability to understand other cognitive acts, such as memory or imagination, which are also seen as based in perception and as possessing very similar embodied characteristics. In summary, embodiment has successfully challenged previous views about the fundamental role assumed to be played by brain-internal computations and representations, and it has suggested new, non-reductive ways of thinking about human cognitive processes, such as those revealed...