Thursday, June 21, 2018

Of Mere Being: Wallace Stevens and the Mythic Imagination

Lately I seem to myself to be more removed from the world, more separate somehow. I don’t know if I like it or if I do not; it simply seems that it is so; my remove is a fact. I don’t know if it is because at sixty, I’m older, or perhaps because it’s due to the current social, economic, and political climates which seem to make cultural life, and a life lived in it, less of a pleasant proposition. Perhaps my inward reality no longer tallies well with the outer reality. Perhaps I simply desire to reach beyond what I think are the edges of myself and discover a place within large enough to hold and reconcile the totality of my being. Whatever it is that I must do, it may only be accomplished by going beyond inner and outer perspectives, beyond pairs of opposites, beyond judgments of good or bad, right or wrong. I must go to the place, and perhaps beyond, that allowed Whitman to say, “I am large. I contain multitudes.” The poet, Wallace Stevens, in the final stanza from his poem, “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” put it this way:

                           I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw
                           Or heard or felt came not but from myself;
                           And there I found myself more truly and more strange.

An early reviewer of Stevens’ poetry remarked that he created “fictitious” realities and was apparently unwilling to concede that the lie of art often exposed more truth than objective or consensual reality could muster. Stevens himself often seemed to be a refugee in a war between his outer and inner realities. He was a big, some might say burly, man who was often depressed, drunk, and self-centered; he seemed to cause his family frequent unhappiness. In the mid 1930’s he, drunk, broke a few bones in his hand when he punched Ernest Hemingway in the jaw. Hemmingway promptly beat Stevens to a jelly, and afterward agreed to tell others a face-saving story that Stevens had fallen down the stairs. And yet, for all his human-all-too-human messiness, Stevens’ poetic insights and his use of language were utterly sublime.

It is the sublime, in fact, that is the subject of my favorite Stevens poetry. Stevens is a hard poet precisely for this reason: the sublime is hard. The sublime is not merely beautiful, although an aesthetic experience is certainly a consequence of encountering the sublime. In the writing of Edmund Burke, the sublime is characterized by its “vastness” and “terror.” The sublime is overwhelming, disturbing, and possessed of a tremendous force, while the beautiful is “balanced” and “delicate” and serene. But myths are made of the overwhelming, the terrifying, the incomprehensible, and the vast; one’s experiences of these qualities are the proper subjects of myth.

In his best poems, Stevens is working with, and on, the sublime, rendering it through a modulating lens of beauty. The sublime, according to Immanuel Kant, is a natural phenomenon, a phenomenon extant in nature, and as such is difficult for a human consciousness to understand and be with it in relationship because we feel, subjectively, a bit separated from it; a bit different, alien to it. The best poetry and the best mythology (are they really different?) present the sublime in a beautiful form; this is, to gloss Picasso, the art of the lie that tells the truth. And the truth pointed at by fortunately fashioned myths and art is that there is much more to being an animate, living human than we can imagine based upon the reckonings of established, conventional consciousness. Great art and great myth pitch us out of our ordinary, domestic consciousness and exposes us, in some moderated way, to the sublime realities of our existence.

Here is another Stevens poem, Of Mere Being, that provides a good example:
                            The Palm at the end of the mind,
                           Beyond the last thought, rises
                           In the bronze décor,

                           A gold-feathered bird
                           Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
                           Without human feeling, a foreign song.

                           You know then that it is not the reason
                           That makes us happy or unhappy.
                           The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

                           The palm stands on the edge of space.
                           The wind moves slowly in the branches.
                           The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

This poem, for me at least, symbolizes an approach to a transcendent experience beyond definition or clear form, and exposes one to the very substance of all things, which includes ourselves. One might think of it as the singularly sublime. While ultimately unknowable in toto, the images It produces (and the images we produce since we are It) act upon us as a glittering, golden lure drawing us ever nearer and deeper into the ultimate mystery of being. Stevens’ images succeed in this respect exceptionally well. By conjuring “the palm at the end of the mind, beyond the last thought,” Stevens moves the reader to struggle free from rational, domestic thought experience and into a metaphorical, mythic, imaginal thought, and a distant, somewhat alien internal landscape that lives apart from the familiar world of known things. The palm calls to mind an oasis in the vast unmapped desert located between the mundane, rational world of experience and the transcendent essence of being, and in this palm is a bird with golden feathers singing a song without “human meaning” and “human feeling,” a song previously unheard and unknown, a song that feels alien and strange to we who visit this strange new world, but indigenous and well-known to the new world in which we find ourselves.

Stevens suggests, I think, that in this mythogeographical place, human meaning and feeling are not the constituent elements of happiness. Rather, concepts like imagination, courage, and the sublime become the ideals that offer one a deep sense of satisfaction. The mythological space of the poem is the place of gold and bronze, colors that suggest illumination, recherché riches, and the sun burnished, sun infused experience of an Odyssean traveler on a mythic journey. Odysseus himself, is burnished bronze by his years under the Mediterranean sun, a Bronze-Age king whose palace has floors of bronze reflecting his great wealth, achievement, and not quite god-like but certainly not merely human, standing; his strange encounters, over so many years, with divinities, monsters, and his own, solitary experience, carried him beyond his own last thoughts, beyond human meaning, they sustain him and guide him (often roughly), and finally, drive him deep within himself to once again transform, to deepen his understanding of self, of others, of the world, to psychologically and metaphorically die and be reborn. He washes up on the island of the Phaeacians and buries himself in leaves beneath two shoots of an Olive tree as one would, Homer writes, hide a “fire-seed”—a hot coal—in the ashes to keep its light alive. And out of those ashes, he finds himself reborn.

One might begin to have an inkling of what this bird with golden feathers is, the bird who inhabits the palm beyond the last thought; it can be aught but the Phoenix, that bird with golden feathers invested with the power of the sun itself to self-immolate and be reborn of its own ashes. This is the metaphysical reality encountered beyond the last human thought, rooted at the edge of space. In this Stevens echoes Whitman, who unabashedly averred, "The smallest sprout shows there is really no death; and if ever there was, it led forward life." That palm at the end of the mind, on the edge of space is a symbol of indefatigable, indestructible life, for the brilliant mind of Wallace Stevens knew that the Greek work for palm is phoenix, φοίνικας, and by placing in the phoenix a Phoenix, he compounds and insists upon the point that just beyond the place of human thought and feeling is a metaphysical reality that dictates birth, life, and death be understood as metaphors. Where are we before we're born? After we die? What is that realm or aspect of being?

The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangling down may be the only glimpse I can have, but I am discovering in my increasing alienation from the material world, that those dangling feathers may be just enough of an enticement to continue the inward journey, to find myself more truly (and more strange), to continue exploring the boundaries of consciousness, to continue to turn over the fertile ground of the unified field and plant the seeds of a far reaching--and ever farther reaching, human potential.