Monday, November 26, 2007

Part 1 -- It must be abstract

Wallace Stevens is a poet one either loves or hates. As a poet, he is not among my favorites. As a poet-thinker, he was an important influence on the evolution of my own thinking.

What follows is a three part meditation on his poem Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction, corresponding to the three parts of the poem itself. As usual, Stevens' take is witty and whimsical, cryptic, almost opaque. He speaks, however, to a central philosophical issue of our time.

He begins with an assumption few moderns will dispute. The gods are dead. Amun-Ra, Zeus, Jehovah, God, Allah: As Stevens says in the peom, these were names "for something that never could be named." With the demise of the gods went the age-old distinction between natural and supernatural. "The death of one god is the death of all." We are left on our own, natural conscious beings in a natural world.

But our very consciousness demands a narrative, a supreme fiction that makes sense of the world, that affirms a meaning to our lives, that dignifies our personal oblivion. That is the central task of our time, suggests Stevens. The world within our consciousness is an invented world. What we require is an invented world that begins in the thing itself, the world perceived with a minimum of projected self.
There is a project for the sun. The sun
Must bear no name, gold flourisher, but be
In the difficulty of what it is to be.
But of course it is impossible to know the thing itself. To speak at all is to let consciousness intrude. Science and poetry are necessarily metaphorical. And every metaphor can poison our search for truth by standing in for truth itself.

So, yes, our supreme fiction must be abstract, a mere intimation of the thing itself, a shadow on a wall. In the past, we made nature in our own image, made it conform to our desire. Now we must make ourselves in the image of nature.
From this the poem springs: that we live in a place
That is not our own and, much more, not ourselves.
The clouds, the lake, the moon and sun are our teachers. So too are our sensuous, sensual bodies. We observe the world with a searching eye, not taking ourselves too seriously, knowing that we are a little ridiculous, "the man/ In that old coat, those sagging pantaloons." We wait, we watch, for gifts of grace, those moments of awakening when we are more than awake. The scientist, the poet, the mystic too -- striving to abstract a work of illumination from a world that is ultimately beyond our grasp and oblivious to our strivings, make, to confect
The final elegance, not to console
Nor sanctify, but plainly to propound.
(Tomorrow -- It must change.)