Dec 31st 2013

The writer as creator: Wallace Stevens, Part one - Stevens and the Absolute

by Mary L. Tabor

Mary L. Tabor worked most of her life so that one day she would be able to write full-time. She quit her corporate job when she was 50, put on a backpack and hiking boots to trudge across campus with folks more than half her age. She’s the author of the novel Who by Fire, the memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story and the collection of connected short stories The Woman Who Never Cooked. She’s a born and bred liberal who writes lyric essays on the arts for one of the most conservative papers in the country and she hosts a show interviewing authors on Rare Bird Radio. In the picture Mary L.Tabor

“I wonder if anyone in my generation is able to make the movements of faith?”

—Søren Kierkegaard[i]

 

As one who tries herself to put words on paper, in story, in an attempt to make sense of existence, I am interested in Wallace Stevens’ conclusions about the role of the poet as creator and how he views the poem, the creation, in its relationship to the Absolute.

In 1951, four years before his death in 1955, he said, “In an age of disbelief, or, what is the same thing, in a time that is largely humanistic, in one sense or another, it is for the poet to supply the satisfactions of belief, in his measure and in his style. . . . I think it is a role of the utmost seriousness. It is, for one thing, a spiritual role.”[ii] 

Does he believe, when he says this, not only that one’s consciousness and expression through language are spiritual acts but also that poetry replaces belief in the absolute, or perhaps better stated, that poetry, or in Stevens’ parlance “the imagination,” is what we have in the absence of God?

Is the poet, in some sense, then, a stand-in for God when there is nothing else? I do not mean to imply by posing the question this way that Stevens saw himself as stand-in, or that he ever arrogantly asserted such, though his statement that I have quoted comes close. I assert that Stevens addressed the question of poet as creator, as stand-in for the Absolute, in both his poetry and his essays. I hope to examine here both his stance on this issue and the implications for me as his reader and as one who tries to write fiction and memoir. 

To help with this difficult issue—writer as creator—I turn to two fiction writers who also write critical essays and who, in my view, span a continuum of thought on the role of literature in the struggle for belief: William Gass and Cynthia Ozick. In their essays both have grappled with this question head-on, much the way Stevens has in his essays. But it is clearer to me, than with Stevens, where each of them comes out.

Gass says “Novelist and philosopher are both obsessed with language, and make themselves up out of concepts. Both in a way create worlds … . They are divine games.”[iii] 

It strikes me that he sounds a bit like Stevens with the notable exception that Stevens asserts the “utmost seriousness” of this spiritual role, while Gass makes clear his absurdist stance in the phrase “divine games.”

Gass is also clear that this “game,” one’s consciousness through language, is all there is for him: “A word is a concept made flesh, if you like—the eternal presented as voice.”[iv] 

And if one hasn’t gotten his point yet, he adds, “… [T]o create a character is to give meaning to an unknown X; it is absolutely to define; and since nothing in life corresponds to these Xs, their reality is borne by their name. They are, where it is.”[v]

Cynthia Ozick seems to me to lie at the other end of the continuum, if you will. Though she is an admirer of Gass[vi] (I believe because of the clarity of his stance). Ozick says, “When art is put in competition, like a god, with the Creator, it too is turned into an idol.”[vii] 

She has no countenance with idols, and it is the seductiveness of literature as idol that concerns her: “An idol can have above all, a psychological realism that is especially persuasive and seductive.”[viii] 

She invokes the Second Commandment (against idols) to make both her belief in the Creator and her stance on literature as idol clear: “The Second commandment is more explicit than the Sixth, which tells us simply that we must not kill; the Second Commandment tells us we must resist especially that killing which serves our belief. In this sense there are no innocent idols.”[ix] 

And she concludes, “Literature, one should have the courage to reflect, is an idol.”[x]

My aim here is to attempt to place Stevens on the continuum between the stance of Gass—consciousness through language is all we have, “where it is,” as he says—and Ozick—literature as idol is “seductive” and her assertion that “the recovery of Covenant can be attained only in the living-out of the living Covenant; never among the shamanistic toys of literature.”[xi] 

The issue here is not who is right or wrong. Ozick would, I believe, defend Gass’s stance because it is clear.

Gass says, “Perhaps all we have now is a hand—my pure palm and your dirty bones—but perhaps it is better to end with a hand than a whole world. How much applause has God got for all His trouble over the years?”[xii]

The issue is whether the writer knows where he stands on this continuum. Does he know what he thinks and has he confronted the implications in terms of the Absolute, the ultimate “Other”? 

It seems to me that the writer who has concluded, as I believe Gass has, that the word, out of his own consciousness, is all must come to that place through a profound questioning and rejection of the Absolute.

It is my contention that Stevens lies on this continuum very close to Gass, but that he has not confronted the absurdist implications of that stance. 

One cannot have it both ways: If the writer who creates in words and whose subject is the nature and meaning of existence—and I believe this is Stevens’ subject—if this writer concludes there is nothing but human consciousness, then he must also, at the very least, confront faith as an insurmountable abyss.

It is clear to me that Stevens holds language as paramount, that he recognizes the limitations of language and, although he does so with a measure of humility, he does not confront the abyss that, by implication, must result.

I do not criticize him for not being able to make what Kierkegaard calls the “movements of faith,” but for not seeing that that is the problem—the ultimate question of existence.


A bibliography in five parts - Please click here for part two.



[i] Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 34.

[ii] Wallace Stevens, “Two or Three Ideas,” Opus Posthumous, ed. Samuel French Morse (New York: Vintage Books, 1982) p. 206. 

[iii] William Gass, “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction,” Fiction and the Figures of Life (New York: Vintage Books, 1971), p. 4.

[iv] Gass, “The Medium of Fiction,” Fiction and the Figures of Life, p. 29.

[v] Gass, “The concept of Character in Fiction,” Fiction and the Figures of Life, p. 50. 

[vi] Cynthia Ozick, “Literature as Idol: Harold Bloom,” Art and Ardor (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983) p. 179. Ozick refers to Gass here in a relevant passage on the role of poetry, and thus I view this passage worth quoting: “The ideal of ‘the poem itself’ has been with us for so long now, and is so bracing, that it is difficult to dislodge. Nevertheless it is true that biography and psychology have begun to seep back into academic readings of texts, and some belletrists—one thinks immediately of William Gass—have even dared to revive the subjective style of impressionism, wherein the criticism of the text vies as a literary display with the text itself, and on a competitive of virtuosity, even of ‘beauty.’”

[vii] Ibid., p.191. I should note here that Ozick’s essay is, in part, an attack on Harold Bloom’s style of criticism and on what she views as his inability to separate art from idol: “Bloom invents subversion after subversion, until he comes at last to the job of idol-making” (p. 187). I shall not deal with this aspect of Ozick’s essay because I believe what she has done here is considerably larger. I should note also that I will use Bloom, a noted Stevens’ scholar, to help explicate Stevens’ poems.

[viii] Ibid., pp. 188-9. 

[ix] Ibid., p.190.

[x] Ibid., p. 196. 

[xi] Ibid., p. 199.

[xii] William Gass, “The Ontology of the Sentence,” The World Within the Word (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), p.338. (Note: These are Gass’s last words in this volume.)




  

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Aug 8th 2019
Consider the following facts as you wend your way to the Guggenheim Museum and its uppermost gallery, where you will presently find The Death of Michael Stewart (1983), Basquiat’s gut-punching tribute to a slain artist, and the centerpiece for an exhibition that could hardly be more timely.
Jul 22nd 2019
It’s worth remembering, then, that we are not designed to be consistently happy. Instead, we are designed to survive and reproduce. These are difficult tasks, so we are meant to struggle and strive, seek gratification and safety, fight off threats and avoid pain. The model of competing emotions offered by coexisting pleasure and pain fits our reality much better than the unachievable bliss that the happiness industry is trying to sell us. In fact, pretending that any degree of pain is abnormal or pathological will only foster feelings of inadequacy and frustration. Postulating that there is no such thing as happiness may appear to be a purely negative message, but the silver lining, the consolation, is the knowledge that dissatisfaction is not a personal failure. If you are unhappy at times, this is not a shortcoming that demands urgent repair, as the happiness gurus would have it. Far from it. This fluctuation is, in fact, what makes you human.
Jul 10th 2019

 

The eight-mile ‘river of flowers’ that grows alongside a motorway nea
Jul 5th 2019
"........since World War II, 97% of unimproved grassland habitats have vanished from the UK. This has contributed to the loss of pollinating insects – and the distribution of one third of species has shrunk since 1980."
Jun 25th 2019
"For many of us, eating a meal containing meat is a normal part of daily life. But if we dig deeper, some sobering issues emerge. Every year, 66 billion terrestrial animals are slaughtered for food. Predictions are that meat consumption will rise, with increasing demand for meat from China and other Asian countries as their standards of living increase. The impact of grazing animals on the environment is devastating. They produce 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases, and livestock farming is a major contributor to species extinctions."
Jun 22nd 2019
"Throughout history, people who have gained positions of power tend to be precisely the kind of people who should not be entrusted with it. A desire for power often correlates with negative personality traits: selfishness, greed and a lack of empathy. And the people who have the strongest desire for power tend to be the most ruthless and lacking in compassion."
Jun 21st 2019
"In this era of Trump, it should perhaps come as no surprise to find supposed experts lacking in historical perspective. Yet it is still disappointing to find this deficit in the New York Times, which prides itself on clinging to a pursuit of the truth. So it is a bit sad to read the plaintive cry of Allison Schrager’s op-ed of May 17, lamenting that the domination of art markets by the super-rich will somehow force smaller galleries to go out of business, and imperil the careers of young artists."
Jun 17th 2019
Extract: "ust as an earlier generation resisted the limiting post-War era "white middle class" definition of being American by giving birth to an awakening of cultural pluralism and ethnic pride, it falls to our generation to fight for an expanded view of the idea of being American that rejects the narrow view projected by Trump and white nationalists. The idea of America isn't theirs. It's bigger than they are and unless our national cohesion is to unravel, this challenge must be met by projecting an inclusive vision of America that celebrates our inclusive national identity in an increasingly globalized world."
May 28th 2019
Whatever other attributes Homo sapiens may have – and much is made of our opposable thumbs, upright walking and big brains – our capacity to impact the environment far and wide is perhaps unprecedented in all of life’s history. If nothing else, we humans can make an almighty mess.
Apr 29th 2019
A century ago, unspeakable horrors took place on every continent that were known only to the victims and the perpetrators. Not so today. As a result of advances in communications – from the telegraph and radio to satellite television and the internet – the pain and loss of global tragedies are brought home to us in real time.   Because of this expanding consciousness, the post-World War II era has witnessed the rise of visionary leaders and the birth of countless organizations dedicated to alleviating suffering and elevating the causes of peace, human rights, and tolerance among peoples. Individually and collectively, they have championed the rights of peoples in far-flung corners of the world, some of which had been previously unknown to those who became their advocates. These same leaders and groups have also fought for civil rights and for economic, social, political, and environmental justice in their own countries. 
Apr 23rd 2019

 

“Cursed be that mortal inter-indebtedness which will not do away with ledgers. I would be free as air; and I’m down in the whole world’s books. I am so rich… and yet I owe for the flesh in the tongue I brag with” (Moby Dick, chapter cviii). 

Apr 20th 2019
Economists speak in numbers only, clinging to statistical data and quantitative models. We do so in the hope of looking objective. But this is counter-productive – “data” cannot tell us everything. Other social sciences such as sociology and anthropology use a broader range of methods, and consequently have a broader perspective on society. If we take our societal role of adviser on economic matters seriously, we will need to open up and adopt the insights that these other disciplines bring us about how the economy works.Politics and economics are inextricably intertwined, as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx knew all too well. Somehow this has been forgotten. This does not mean economists need to get political or choose sides. But it does mean that we ignore politics at our own peril – by blindsiding ourselves or dismissing it as “external stuff”, we hamper our understanding of the very system we study.
Apr 16th 2019
Although it is not likely that many visitors who pass by the Giacometti sculptures on their way to Las Meninas will ponder it, the contrast between these works underscores the single greatest transformation in the history of western art, from a regime in which artists tailored their works to the aims of individual patrons, to one in which artists choose their techniques and motifs according to their own concerns, and only then present the products to an anonymous competitive market
Apr 4th 2019
On March eleventh, the world lost someone who was very special, who made a mark and touched people with his voice, as a singer, a humorist and writer..........I had the great good fortune to know him and spend time with him, playing music, talking with him – he was a man of immense culture, fluent in Hebrew, German, English, and Romanian. He loved New York City and Vienna and we would often swap apartments so that he could stay in New York while I lived at his place in Vienna.
Apr 1st 2019
The ongoing controversy over admissions to American universities has overlooked the one of the most telling aspects of the scandal—that it took place with the connivance and active participation of administrative bureaucracies able to act with impunity in the pursuit of their interests. Neither the professoriate, often the target of opprobrium from the left and the right, nor the student body, also the target of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, bore any of the responsibility.  Current debates over “what ails” U.S. colleges and universities consistently ignore the single most important dynamic of all institutions—their structure of power. I suggest that the way in which power is allocated within American universities is strikingly similar to that of Soviet-type regimes. Presidents, chancellors, provosts, deans, and their bureaucratic apparatuses preside over vast real-estate and financial holdings, engage in the economic equivalent of central planning, have inordinate influence over personnel, and are structured hierarchically, thereby forming an enormously powerful “new class” like that described by the renowned Yugoslav dissident, Milovan Djilas, in the mid-1950s. 
Mar 22nd 2019
When you think of religion, you probably think of a god who rewards the good and punishes the wicked. But the idea of morally concerned gods is by no means universal. Social scientists have long known that small-scale traditional societies – the kind missionaries used to dismiss as “pagan” – envisaged a spirit world that cared little about the morality of human behaviour. Their concern was less about whether humans behaved nicely towards one another and more about whether they carried out their obligations to the spirits and displayed suitable deference to them. Nevertheless, the world religions we know today, and their myriad variants, either demand belief in all-seeing punitive deities or at least postulate some kind of broader mechanism – such as karma – for rewarding the virtuous and punishing the wicked. In recent years, researchers have debated how and why these moralising religions came into being.
Mar 19th 2019
European food and ingredients have become staple food choices for the British. The use of ingredients such as garlic, peppers, avocados, Parmesan cheese and all those other European ingredients that are now taken for granted are relatively new and were still rare in the 1990s. When I was growing up in rural Devon in the 1970s, olive oil was only really readily available in chemists as a cure for earache – now it is found in most food cupboards. And wine drinking has permeated through all social classes.
Mar 12th 2019
The Guggenheim’s strange and wonderful exhibition of Hilma af Klint’s groundbreaking, yet largely unknown body of abstract art is an important event – one that challenges us to not only rethink the early history of twentieth century abstract art, but to recognize her vision of art and reality as unique, authentic, and deliciously puzzling. 
Feb 25th 2019
Looking at the world today, it's clear that the consequences of this imperial legacy are still with us. If anything has changed it is that we are now beyond just viewing the former "natives" as far-away oddities. They are now living within our borders, having come to find the opportunities they were denied at home. So when I hear the reactions in the West to the influx of South Asians going to the UK, or North Africans going to France, or Central Americans migrating to the US, I can only say "Guys, these are the fruits of your conquest – your chickens coming home to roost."
Feb 25th 2019
Extracts: "The new novel Sérotonine by Michel Houellebecq, the bad boy of French literature, is a saga of depression and death told with such irony and wit that readers seem to love it despite the unsettling themes. Maybe it’s just me but I found myself laughing out loud.......True to form, the French don’t agree on Houellebecq – or anything else, for that matter. The impact of his new novel has divided the readers into opposite love-hate camps with hardly any middle ground. Houellebecq cannot leave you indifferent, notes a literary friend of mine"........Picture: Michel Houellebecq, by the reviewer Michael Johnson.