Friday, May 11, 2012

Final Exam: Philosophy 101

Among the collected aphorisms of the poet Wallace Stevens is this: "The thing seen becomes the thing unseen. The opposite is, or seems to be, impossible." Discuss.

The first question to ask is whether this aphorism, or any of Mr. Stevens aphorisms, means anything at all. Stevens is known for his tricky opacity, his oblique glance, his wry twists. All of this sometimes makes him seem profound, and fine fodder for the critic, but one has to ask: Does it really add up to a hill of beans?

And the answer, I think, is: Yes. It does add up to a hill of beans. In fact, it is not hard to imagine Stevens writing a poem about a hill of beans. It might begin, for example:
A hill of beans in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon he ground.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
I parody, of course, his poem Anecdote of the Jar. But you see what I mean. A hill of beans is the thing seen. It takes dominion, as aptly as a jar, or ice cream, or a cockatoo. It organizes. It becomes the thing unseen, the suddenly unslovenly wilderness. The poet has taken the commonplace and found in it a satisfying abstraction. Made the ordinary magical.

And hasn't that been the essential human project since time immemorial, inventing the unseen out of the seen? Our gods and demons, for example, are projections of ourselves. Light is sometimes a particle, sometimes a wave. Creativity, for the myth-maker, the poet, and the scientist, means putting one's shoulder to the wheel of metaphor. How could it be otherwise?

Can it be otherwise? Might the poet's aphorism be wrong? Can the unseen intrude itself into reality? Take dominion among things seen? The great majority of humans would answer in the affirmative. Incarnations. Miracles. Revelations. The voice in the burning bush. But when all is said and done, it is only the seen that we have in evidence. The jar. The ice cream. The green freedom of the cockatoo. The hill of beans.