- The Hero on a Pedestal: Reading Stevens in an Indian Classroom
When a field is filled from end to end with sheep, a stag stands out. When a continent is filled from end to end with the compliant, we learn what heroism is. And alas for the society that requires heroes.—Cynthia Ozick, Fame & Folly
The statue may be dismissed, not without speaking of it again as a thing that at least makes us conscious of ourselves as we were, if not as we are. To that extent, it helps us to know ourselves. It helps us to know ourselves as we were and that helps us to know ourselves as we are. The statue is neither of the imagination nor of reality.—Wallace Stevens, “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words”
IF THE HUMANITIES CURRICULUM means anything at all, it means that everyone’s story is also everyone else’s story.1 We must unmoor the curriculum, then, from its elite safe harbors of this literature or that philosophy that intone the largeness of what are, in fact, small worlds. That was the spirit in which most Indians before my generation began reading American literature in the 1960s. The American Studies Research Centre (ASRC) contributed to the dream of fostering and sustaining dialogues among people who read widely in Indian and American disciplines of thought.2 Scholars who reached this academic ashram in Hyderabad trained themselves to study the vast epistemic discontinuities of Anglophone cultures. This became possible especially when they slowly got used to the American Studies method of no longer viewing literature, politics, history, international affairs, sociology, or economics and business as autonomous and discrete disciplines. The ASRC weekly seminars and quarterly conferences brought in “Americanists” from across South Asia, North and South America, and occasionally from Africa, Europe, and South East Asia, who challenged versions of the self-evident, self-ingratiating “nation.” Olive I. Reddick, William Mulder, and Robert M. Crunden, to name three of the [End Page 43] most outstanding ASRC directors, were clearly indifferent toward “disciplines.” They encouraged visiting scholars to loosen the presumptuous bands that tightly held national territories, generic modules, and literary histories. When a 2007 collection of essays called Shades of the Planet: American Literature as World Literature demanded that we desist from un-critically privileging nations, borders, and boundaries, I could not help thinking that the Indian contributors first learned precisely those lessons at the ASRC. The editors of this volume, Wai Chee Dimock and Lawrence Buell, speak of “frontiers” rather than borders, “reading relations” rather than hemispheric affiliations. They urge us to look far beyond the graphic and textual, particularly at the expressive and performative, in a bid “to enlarge the circumference of literature and to highlight its local inflections” (Dimock 288). If, for a moment, we are able to see the planetary frame Dimock and Buell suggest in the light of Wallace Stevens’s “Of Modern Poetry,” then the antecedent of the demonstrative “It” in that poem will no longer be just “Modern Poetry” but the larger formation adumbrated in Shades of the Planet :
It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.It has to face the men of the time and to meetThe women of the time. It has to think about warAnd it has to find what will suffice. It hasTo construct a new stage. It has to be on that stageAnd, like an insatiable actor, slowly andWith meditation, speak words that in the ear,In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the soundOf which, an invisible audience listens,Not to the play, but to itself. . . .(CPP 218–19)
As far as I recall, whenever I have taught this or other poems, Stevens has seldom seemed to me or my Indian students the typical icon of an era (Pound’s? Stevens’s?) or someone to incite cockfights among critics obsessing over the difficulties of modernism or the modernisms of difficulty. His “difficulty” was never the point.3 Instead, what usually caught our imagination was, first, the abrupt scene of his poetry unfolding...