In his very interesting and deeply flawed essay “Stevens Without Epistemology” (in Gelpi), Gerald Bruns attempts (and, finally, fails) to read Stevens against the grain, in Walter Benjamin’s phrase. Bruns attempts to read Stevens “deconstructively,” attentive to the rifts and fissures in his discourse. I have undertaken to do the same for Bruns, while preserving a sense of the value of his intervention.
Most of Stevens’ critics have read him from within the ideology of the text, sharing its foundational assumptions: i.e., the posing of questions of epistemology as its fundamental problematic. They have engaged in what Theodor Adorno calls immanent critique. The question Bruns poses is “What happens to our reading of Stevens’ poetry when the problem of how the mind links up with reality [i.e., epistemology] is no longer of any concern to us?” (24). Bruns is quite careful (sometimes to the point of condescending to the reader) to situate Stevens’ work within an intellectual framework. At times, he seems more interested in the framework, and in particular in debates with Geoffrey Hartman and Jacques Derrida, than in Stevens’ work. This is hardly rare among literary critics.
Bruns defines “the ‘epistemological turn’ in Western thinking’” (24), initiated by René Descartes, as the point when “questions about nature, reality, or the world began to be reformulated as questions about...Mind or Spirit” rather than about Being (24). The linguistic turn, seemingly simultaneous with the incipience of the twentieth century, and implicitly identifiable with the unmentioned Ludwig Wittgenstein, in turn reformulated these questions about mind into questions about language. Finally (but at no specified point), “there came a time when questions about language (and also therefore questions about mind and reality) began to be reformulated as questions about social practice” (24). This was the hermeneutical turn, concerned “with the historical and dialogical nature of understanding” (25).
Both the vagueness of Bruns’ periodization and its absences strike me as rather odd. Wouldn’t Karl Marx be rather crucial to any account of a soi disant “hermeneutic turn,” if such a “turn” is indeed a matter of attendance to “social practice?” And wouldn’t this hermeneutic turn predate the “linguistic turn,” which can be seen as a reaction against the hermeneutic turn as so defined? (I don’t think this is an idiosyncratic view of logical positivism, for example.) After all, in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Marx did write that while philosophers have traditionally attempted to interpret the world, whereas our true duty is to change it.
This absence reveals a certain anxiety of influence on Bruns’ part, in its implicit insistence on the priority and originality of his discourse. He makes an explicit claim to be doing what has not been done before, and his implicit positioning of himself as a pioneer of the new, original, “hermeneutic turn” seems crucial to that claim. Nor is the erasure of Marxism and the specificity of “social practice” it stands in for irrelevant to the emptied-out, idealist categories of “otherness” Bruns deploys. Bruns claims a social and even potentially political engagement that his conceptual apparatus rules out from the start.
Bruns contends that Stevens cannot be accurately read in terms of the linguistic turn, because “language [as just another mental product] just didn’t have much reality for Stevens” (25). To the extent that this is true, this is a source of Stevens’ indifference to problematics of form and of the poetic tradition. For Stevens “language” and “mind” are finally interchangeable terms. Bruns further asserts that Stevens has generally been read in idealist (i.e., epistemological) terms, and that he shall read him in hermeneutical terms, in terms not of the mind’s relation to reality but of the problem of other people: a problem not “of knowledge or of language...but of dialogue” (26), of people in society. This is a problem, Bruns asserts, that Stevens does not explicitly address. If we look at “Owl’s Clover,” an argument with the socialist view of the place and function of art, but also at shorter poems like “Mozart, 1935,” which judges Mozart and his music, “that lucid souvenir of the past,” to be inadequate to the fear, pain, and sorrow of the present moment (the moment of the Depression and gathering war clouds in Europe)—"We may return to Mozart./He was young and we, we are old,” but now the poet must play the present—it is clear that Bruns underestimates (privileging his critical knowledge over Stevens’ self-knowledge) the degree to which Stevens addresses, directly and indirectly, the problem of “people in society.”
Stevens’ poetry, as Bruns characterizes it, is that of the spectator, seeing or constructing something in order to make it intelligible and therefore his (the spectator is always male in Stevens’ poetry) own. It is a peopled poetry, but “people in Stevens’ poetry never answer back” (26). Bruns sees much of Stevens' poetry’s problematic as issuing from the attempt to silence or assimilate other voices when they do emerge, often from night or darkness: this is, not coincidentally, the ideological realm connoted as that of women and of “the coons and the snakes” of Italian-invaded Ethiopia, on whose side Stevens said himself to be against the Italians. It is the attempt “to keep...otherness from happening” (27), by converting dialogue into private meditation and “people into pure emotion” (29), or by denying a human source to a voice, e.g., the cry (a common index of otherness in Stevens, according to Bruns ) in “The Course of a Particular” that is not finally a “human cry,” that “concerns [or rather, need concern] no one at all.” “For Stevens, success in experience means hearing no one’s voice but your own. One can then enter into a new world without any loss of self-possession” (27-28). But Bruns, in making “otherness” completely abstract, formal, indeed, epistemological, repeats the same error of which he accuses Stevens, succumbing to the terms of Stevens’ discourse in the same way he accuses others of doing, and making that discourse more simplistic and univocal than it is.
Bruns very interestingly, and very problematically, characterizes Stevens as a European poet by Mikhail Bakhtin’s definition of poetry as a monological discourse (as against the heteroglossia of the novel), in contrast to much of Williams’, Pound’s, and Eliot’s work, which is more polyvocal. If Bruns means this as more than a technical observation (Pound, Williams, and Eliot incorporate quotations and employ linguistic montage, Stevens generally does not, though “Sunday Morning” is a kind of dialogue between the young woman in her peignoir and the poem’s narrator), it is simply wrong. Bruns seems to think that, because The Cantos or Paterson or The Waste Land contain quotations, other voices exist autonomously in these works, not subsumed by Pound’s or Williams’ master discourse. Bakhtin links heteroglossia and dialogue (not just several voices, but voices in discourse with one another), whereas clearly The Cantos, as a foremost example, incorporates all the cited voices into Pound’s monologue, the “victory of one reigning language (dialect) over the other” (to cite Bruns’ quotation of Bakhtin). Both The Waste Land and Paterson have a greater sense of dialogue, the interplay of voices and discourses, than do The Cantos (The Waste Land, at least, has no anchored or consistent viewpoint “I” at all), but it is the dialogue of a play whose shape and outcome have already been determined.
Given Stevens’ biographical position as, with Marianne Moore, one of the only two “stay at homes” among the major American modernists (even New Jersey-wedded Williams studied medicine in Germany), it’s odd that Bruns asserts that he “does not, it appears [to whom?], compose American texts” (34). Perhaps Stevens’ position as one of the only non-exiles, and his seemingly comfortable identification with America as it was rather as it should or could be (in contrast to his friend Williams, who also spent most of his life in America, and wrote that “the pure products of America go crazy” because of the distortions and injustices of American life), made the articulation of a rhetorical “Americanness” less of an issue for him. What would the definition of an “American text” be, and who has the authority to hand down such a definition?
Bruns proposes, as have several other commentators, most notably Hugh Kenner, that Stevens is the closest thing in English to Mallarmé, a poet whose texts “repress the phenomenon of voice in favor of” writing (34). This is an intriguing and suggestive characterization, but while Mallarmé represses “voice” into the (written) word, Stevens privileges voice (the singing voice and the crying voice), both thematically and formally. Mallarmé’s “writerliness” is very much a matter of his being the most syntactical of poets, an involvement with syntax as a constitutive and productive force that Stevens does not share. Stevens tends instead to supply given syntactical structures, those of oratory or of philosophical discourse, for example, with unexpected contents, maintaining what Mutlu Blasing calls the “gestures” of meaningful discourse. That many of those unexpected words are French or French-derived, that Stevens’ vocabulary is heavily Francophilic—in short, that, for Stevens, “French and English constitute a single language”—does not mean his poetry is “French” in Bruns’ sense. To appropriate Paul De Man’s dichotomy, Stevens is a poet of rhetoric, not of semiology (which De Man equates with grammar).
Nor does Stevens share Mallarmé’s conviction that poems are made up of words and not ideas, for to Stevens poetry is defined as the supreme fiction, not the supreme language. As he writes in his “Adagia,” “Poetry and materia poetica are interchangeable terms.” While Mallarmé seeks to dissolve content into form, much of Stevens’ appeal to the criticism industry resides in the foregrounding of conceptual content, of the “ideas” Mallarmé scorned or at least subordinated, in his poetry. Mallarmé is a poet inspired and tormented by the difference between words and the Word, books (which have all been read, alas) and the Book. For Stevens, to whom language and being are mutualities, their relationship “a consistent proportion of analogies” (Blasing 206), this is not an issue. As Stevens writes in “Adagia,” “Poetry is a poetic conception, however expressed. A poem is poetry expressed in words.” But he goes to write that “in a poem there is a poetry of words. Obviously, a poem may consist of several poetries.” If analogous figures to Mallarmé in American poetry are required (I’m not certain they are, at least not if one’s concern is “American texts”), I would nominate, in the nineteenth century, Emily Dickinson, and in the twentieth, Louis Zukofsky, both poets who write word by word, who foreground the written nature of their discourse, and for whom both syntax and the relationship of logic and Logos are central concerns.
To return to Bruns’ argument, for Bakhtin “The poet is a poet insofar as he accepts the idea of a unitary and singular language and a unitary, monologically sealed-off utterance” (The Dialogic Imagination, quoted 31). The poem, unlike the novel, is univocal. “The world of poetry, no matter how many contradictions and insoluble conflicts the poet develops within it, is always illumined by one unitary and indisputable discourse. Contradictions, conflicts, and doubts remain in the subject, in thoughts, in living experience—in short, in the subject matter—but they do not enter the language itself. In poetry, even discourse about doubts must be cast in a discourse that cannot be doubted” (op. cit., quoted 31-32). Taking this not as prescription, but as a description of a particular poetic mode, Bruns asserts that “[s]ound in such a text [the ideal type of which would be the Book to which Mallarmé’s texts aspire] aspires not to the illusion of someone speaking but to the formal conditions of music” (34). Here Bruns alludes to Walter Pater’s famous formulation that all art aspires to the condition of music, an art whose form and whose content are indissoluble and which is thus impervious to interpretation, an aesthetic ding an sich.
Bruns thus reads sound in Stevens’ poetry, which is frequently foregrounded (though to a much greater degree in the early work than in the late, a distinction of which Bruns would do well to take greater note), as a strategy by which Stevens “plays out...the drama of the fear and repression of alien voices.” One presumes that Bruns means by this that the insistence on the noise his own voice can make is a means for Stevens to drown out other (or Other) voices thematically present or implied. This would explain why Stevens’s most exoticist poems are often his most sonically insistent. Content is sublimated into form: a potentially threatening otherness is emptied out and rendered harmless by being translated into the glamour of an “exotic” language. Aestheticization is thus a mode of the appropriation of alterity, a repression or erasure in which epistemological readings collude.
This paranoiac drama of repression and appropriation is, in Bruns’ words, Stevens’ “strange, difficult way of being an American poet” (35). This is so because, as should be apparent from the discussion of Bakhtin above, for Bruns American poetry is characterized by heteroglossia. Thus much of Stevens’ interest is that “he is a poet troubled by the sort of poetry he is not writing and perhaps can’t bring himself to think of as poetic—the poetry of the other.” which might disturb the “monumental slumber” of a European tradition Bruns, tellingly, describes as “ours” (35). As some version of Tonto once said to the Lone Ranger, What you mean “we,” white man? Bruns does not give Stevens enough credit for being aware of what he is not writing, for deliberately and consciously not writing in certain modes or of certain contents, and for explicitly staging and dramatizing (perhaps I should write, thematizing) that awareness and that exclusion in many of his poems.
The question of who is or is not a properly “American” poet, of the definition of “American poetry” (and what and who gets to be included or excluded under that rubric), like the rhetorical jousting among Hugh Kenner, Marjorie Perloff, and Harold Bloom over whether the modern period in poetry is “the Pound Era” or “the Age of Stevens,” is wholly imaginary, a “problem” of critics and their will to taxonomy (one of the expressions of the critical will to power), not of poets or of poems. It is produced by the critic’s insistence on his or her own capacity to classify and account for the poem or the body or work, his or her “object,” and to thus assimilate this “object’s” discourse into his or her own, to silence the poets he or she purports to explain to themselves. And given Bruns’s insistence on the absence of a founding authority for American poetic discourse, there can be no other but a “strange” and “difficult” way of being an American poet.
I would have liked to see more specificity on Bruns’ part about the “othernesses” silenced in Stevens’ work, which are in Bruns’ text wholly abstract. In the words of John Carlos Rowe, “The slippage from the ‘otherness’ of what is repressed in ordinary acts of communication to the ‘other’ obscures the specificity of actual social ‘others.’ The very generality of the ‘other’ suggests a totalizing system likely to disregard differences of race, gender, class, culture, and history” (191). By choosing as his two main examples “Evening Refrain” and “The Course of a Particular,” poems in which the “othernesses” erased or silenced are non-human, and by these choices making otherness epistemological, not social, Bruns' discussion of “otherness,” again by some strange mimicry of the drama of fear and repression he describes in Stevens, erases the actual “others” in Stevens’ work. These others tend to be women (Bruns obliquely notes this in his discussion of “Apostrophe to Vincentine” , in which Vincentine steadily transforms from a purely imaginary figure into a real human presence that the poet must then transform back into “heavenly, heavenly Vincentine,” as if warding off the woman, without incorporating the fact into his argument) and exoticized racial others, usually black people.
An example would be the “nigger mystics” of “Prelude to Objects,” representatives of “the guerilla I” who “should change/Foolscap for wigs,” abandoning poetry for academic scholarship. This is an ambivalent presentation, in which the “nigger mystics” are noble savages, both primitive in the negative sense and primal in the way that poetry, “patting more nonsense foamed/From the sea,” is primal. The apparent recommendation of “Academies/As of a tragic science” seems ironic, since the poem concludes by saying “We are conceived in your [that is, the poet’s] conceits. Thus the “nigger mystics” are both denigrated by their description and presented as poetic ideals.
In a poem like “The Virgin Carrying a Lantern.” the two threatening othernesses that must be neutralized are (rather economically) combined into the “negress,” the black female other implicitly compared to a bear (emphasizing her animal nature), “who supposes/Things false and wrong” about the lantern (the light of wisdom?) carried by the implicitly white female other, who is split off and enshrined as the eponymous (and unthreatening) virgin. The poem enacts a version of the Madonna/whore dichotomy, in which the white woman, while a “beauty,” represents light and purity, while the black woman is filled “with heat so strong” by the lantern, her sexuality presumably having overcome her, in contrast to the virgin who walks only “as a farewell duty” before “her pious egress.”
Cornel West has noted that the discourse of postmodernism (a construction I adopt precisely because it conflates “postmodernist discourse” and “discourse about postmodernism” and thus leaves open the amorphous status of the entity “postmodernism”) “highlight[s] notions of difference, marginality, and otherness in such a way that it further marginalizes actual people of difference and otherness,” most particularly black people and women of all races (“Black Culture and Postmodernism.” in Kruger and Mariani 91-92). Bruns’ essay is very much part of that discourse of postmodernism, a repetition of the same (in)difference. Bruns tentatively approaches a social or even political reading, but stops far short. He translates his “hermeneutic” (read “political”) reading into exactly the “formalist,” “epistemological” terms he criticizes in others. The anxiety in the face of alterity Bruns diagnoses in Stevens is an anxiety equally at work in his own discourse, if not more. Stevens at least admits those others into his poems, however problematic and even contradictory his treatment of them. Bruns simply erases them altogether.
Blasing, Mutlu Konek. American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.
Gelpi, Albert, Ed. Wallace Stevens: The Poetics of Modernism. Cambridgeshire: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Kruger, Barbara, and Phil Marian, Eds. Remaking History: Dia Art Foundation Discussions in Contemporary Culture No. 4. Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1989.
Rowe, John Carlos. “Postmodernist Studies.” In Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn, eds., Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformation of English and American Literary Studies. New York: The Modern Language Association, 1992.
Stevens, Wallace. Complete Poetry and Prose. New York: Library of America, 1997.