Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Little lesson -- part 2

Wallace Stevens' poems dance across the spectrum between discover and invent, sometimes becoming so recklessly inventive as to be obscure. But he never loses sight -- if barely a glimpse -- of the world outside, as it is presumed to exist by the scientist, a world independent of our understanding -- the two pears, for example, there on the green cloth, waiting to be discovered when the poet enters the room. Call it, if you will, a naïve realism, but it is central to the scientific enterprise.

Science is invented, but it is all about discovery. Maxwell and Hertz invented the theory of electromagnetic radiation, but when my short-wave radio picks up a broadcast from Russia, halfway across the globe, who will deny that the invention captures some essence of a discovered reality? For that matter, is the Earth's sphericity an invention or a discovery? I think all but the most obstinate Berkeleyian would call it a discovery.

But back to Mr. Stevens.

The very last poem in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, written shortly before the poet's death, is titled "Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself." After three decades laboring in the workshop of invention, Stevens still hankers to touch the world unmediated by mind.
At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow...
It would have been outside.

It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mâché...
The sun was coming from the outside.

That scrawny cry -- It was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,

Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.
Yes, the world is necessarily mediated by mind, but we always return to a simple longing for what is, for a confident repose in the real. We want to know that the pears are there when we close our eyes, that the sun is indeed outside when the window brightens on a late-winter morning. Give Stevens his scrawny cry, that scrap of perception he can savor as real, a discovery, if you will, a bird's cry that is more than merely an echoing in his mind.

But surely we want more of reality than a scrawny cry. We want the full flush of discovery, nature laid bare, not just the c but the whole choir. Tomorrow I will suggest that science is our best hope of escape from the "vast ventriloquism" of invention. And yes, we'll see more of Mr. Stevens.