Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things



After the leaves have fallen, we return
To a plain sense of things. It is as if
We had come to an end of the imagination,
Inanimate in an inert savoir.

It is difficult even to choose the adjective
For this blank cold, this sadness without cause.
The great structure has become a minor house.
No turban walks across the lessened floors.

The greenhouse never so badly needed paint.
The chimney is fifty years old and slants to one side.
A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.

Yet the absence of the imagination had
Itself to be imagined. The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence

Of a sort, silence of a rat come out to see,
The great pond and its waste of the lilies, all this
Had to be imagined as an inevitable knowledge,
Required, as a necessity requires.

from Collected Poems, Wallace Stevens

Deleuze would once describe Minor Literature as the language of sense that is “traversed by a line of escape”. He’d go on to restate this simply as the point when “language stops being representative in order to now move toward its extremities or its limits”. For Stevens all of poetry had become a “minor house” a place of no place, a heterocosm that “badly needed paint”. Nihilism itself was first an imagining of emptiness, an act of destruction that as Nietzsche admitted would in turn require a greater act of creation to come. A reevaluation of all that had come before. An act of imagination that would require nothing less than everything.

Ours is a time when even the “absence of the imagination” itself is in desperate need of a paint job. Stevens did not say reality must be reimagined, that would be to reenter the cold nihilistic wasteland of the mind where thought is only a “sadness without a cause”, a reflection without its object, an objectification that leads to the endless patternings of mind chasing itself not the Real. This is not some revisioning of the world, but a vision of first things, being and becoming – of entering into a relationship to the plain sense of things without reflection or mimesis, where we must learn to stop the world and listen silently to the hum of things without us. Listen and see into the impersonal force of things in their becoming-minor; their lines of flight and movement. We must forget ourselves in things, then and only then will we discover the kernel of our self-becomings without the mirror of language.

Alain Badiou in The Age of Poets gives us a reading of Steven’s poem Description without Place. What he describes in this essay is of an art which speaks outside itself, which conveys the sense of things outside of language as happenings and acts. He’ll quote the beginning of this poem:

It is possible that to seem – it is to be,
As the sun is something seeming and it is.
The sun is an example. What it seems
It is and in such seeming all things are.

What seems is and what is seems: appearance and reality are not two things, nor one; there being no one-All, no Platonic world of archetypes and pure forms separate from the things of sense. As Badiou will relate it this is a question of being qua being and appearing – to be and to appear – appearing precisely in a place without description, in a tangible world in no need of words or descriptions just the silence of non-reflective knowing-without-knowledge. The sun is, and it is something seeming, and in poetry, we must name ‘sun’ neither the fact that the sun is, nor the fact that the sun seems, or appears, but we must name ‘sun’ the equivalence of seeming and being, the inseparability of being and appearing. And finally, the equivalence of existing and not existing.1

As T.S. Eliot once said in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock which Stevens echoes:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

Admonishing Eliot whose fantasia of metaphors quicken false perceptions rather than a sense of things Stevens tells us “No turban walks across the lessened floors.” Language cannot carry the burden of reality or the Real anymore. Our metaphors are destitute of significance. Our signs no longer refer to anything external. We live in a prison house of our own making, and contra Vico we no longer know what we have made, nor can we. Caged in a Platonic cave of shadows we assume is real. Yet, the Real is that false semblance, the tissue of abstract thought that overlays our minds, a world of illusive tracks leading nowhere. We are living contradictions. The gap between us and knowing is now laid down by false trails. The greenhouse is crumbling, the chimney falling to one side; we are left to our own devices in a world wiped clean of our linguistic signs. A world where it is “difficult even to choose the adjective / For this blank cold” kenoma, this vastation. A nihilistic world of phenomena possibly, but not one that we can sit still in and bewail our fate in some sorrowful diatribe. No. We must admit that the enlightenment culture of Reason has failed us:

A fantastic effort has failed, a repetition
In a repetitiousness of men and flies.

We’ve spent two-hundred years trying to get it right, trying to inhabit the scientific paradise of objectivity and pure description but it has got us no further than this emptiness of our late civilization. Science has moved from the visible to the invisible; it would make visible the invisible as if it could bring forth the secret of the Demiurge through its mathematization of reality. The Platonic matheme has taken on a priority in our time with its shifts between set and category theory, the vagaries of specialized and artificial languages that have replace reality with its semblance.

Badiou will go further, saying,

The eye, the concrete vision, is not in art the true sight, the real vision of beauty. The real vision of beauty is indifferent to the eye. It is an act of thinking. But Stevens does not agree, and I do not agree either. In the work of art, there is not the absolute dependence of appearing on a transcendent being. On the contrary, we have to fix a point where appearing and being are indiscernible. (The Age of Poets)

This is the work of imagination, of fixing a point where appearance and being are at once both and neither, indiscernible. Robert Frost would say this is the confusion of things as they are. By this we must remember that confusion etymologically was once a libation to the gods that brought forth truth rather than our common use of the word as a perplexity. When Stevens says:

………………………………………..The great pond,
The plain sense of it, without reflections, leaves,
Mud, water like dirty glass, expressing silence…

To express the silence of things without us, to speak the “plain sense of it” outside reflection, outside thought is to let the thing speak us and change us. As Badiou will tell us this is precisely the goal of the pure [poem]: to institute a new world, not by the strength of means, like images, painting, colours, and so on, but by the minimalism of some marks and lines, very close to the inexistence of any place. The poem is the perfect example of an intensity of weakness.(ibid., I changed drawing for poem!) This notion of “weakness” is portrayed by Adrian Johnson in a recent interview:

…transcendental materialism portrays nature as “weak” in the sense of it being a detotalized, disunified non-One/not-All of distinct, heterogeneous levels and layers of beings shot through with and riven by a thriving plethora of antagonisms, conflicts, fissures, splits, and the like (as paradigmatically embodied by the “kludge”-like central nervous system of human beings. (see Interview with Adrian Johnson)

We as subjects are caught in this detotalized conflictual world of antagonisms, fissures, splits etc. where as Stevens suggests “It is difficult even to choose the adjective / For this blank cold, this sadness without cause”. Slavoj Zizek in a pertinent statement relates it this way:

The subject observes reality from an external position and is simultaneously part of this reality, without ever being able to attain an “objective” view of reality with himself included in it. The Thing that haunts the subject is himself in his objectal counterpoint, qua object. Hegel writes: “The subject finds itself in contradiction between the totality systematized in its consciousness, and the particular determination which, in itself, is not fluid and is not reduced to its proper place and rank. This is mental derangement [Verrücktheit].”2

On becoming rat is this sense of being caught in a trap, fuddled, beleaguered, conflicted haunted by a world of shadows we cannot quite apprehend; we are sadnesses without a cause, effects wandering among the ruins of reality. Caught between the openness of the world and the closure of our mind and consciousness we scuttle around in the tunnels of the Real like rats in a maze. As if each of us were a rat caught in a burrow, a tunnel vision hidden in the darkness of our city lives forgetful of what lies outside our mythical Plato’s cave. So enamored of our virtual worlds, our illusive grasp of the shadows flickering across the networks of our economic lives we forget we’ve taken the shadows for reality. As if the State and its Laws were proscribed, the enforced truth of our lives rather than an imagined thing, a world of poetry. But we are neither Platonists nor Idealists that the world is split in two, no we live in an unbinding of things that do not need us and live out their destinies oblivious of our thoughts and worlds.

Being and event, appearance and reality, becoming and subject or the sense of things as pure contradiction:

“Contradiction” is not only the Real-impossible on account of which no entity can be fully self-identical; “contradiction” is pure self-identity as such, the tautological coincidence of form and content, of genus and species, in the assertion of identity. There is time, there is development, precisely because opposites cannot directly coincide. (Zizek)

Because opposites can never find closure, because there is no completed system of the world, a description that would finalize and pin the tail of the donkey with a meaning of meaning; rather we live in movement and motion, becoming minor in a time without boundaries, a space without description. Badiou will describe it this way: “To adopt the principle of materialism means to admit that, at a minimal point of appearing, there is a kind of “fusion” with the being which appears.” Zizek frowning on this fusion of thought and things will present the gap or point where being and appearance meet:

This inexistent is the point of symptomal torsion of a world: it functions as a “universal singular,” a singular element which directly participates in the universal (belongs to its world), but lacks a determinate place in it. (Zizek)

Is this not to say that we who move through time like marks and lines, intersections on a plane of inconsistency (Deleuze), we who are the concrete particulars, the “universal singulars” of subjectivation and consciousness who participate in this world yet have no actual determinate place in it; are we not the contradictory thing that is a “sadness without cause”? Creatures whose fixed and stable identity is none other than pure contradiction of being and becoming, motion and process. Or as Stevens will say many times in his poems. Are we not always the ones saying “farewell”? That the names we would give to things, to the sense of things will remain impermanent, contradictory, and incomplete? As if the Demiurge had not already botched it all, heaped the ruins of things against his own dark and imponderable anteriority?

Suddenly we walk away from our everyday inanity into the strangeness of this natural sense of things without us and we realize we must like Adam in the morning begin again from the beginning, realize for the first time that we must see things again for the first time, know with a knowing that is devoid of knowledge, an unknowing that perceives the barely perceptible darkness in things become visible for us in its pure firstness, its existence-as-appearance; being as the barely invisible visibility of the seen, more felt than known, more known than mentalized? But we cannot stop there we must allow this great silence to once again inhabit the House of the Poetry, reenter the world of language where being and existence relate to each other as something strange and new. Where the plain sense of things “imagined as an inevitable knowledge, / Required, as a necessity requires”. In that moment the knower and the known move in an evental time of motion of change, of happening and event; and, as we are changed so is the sense of things. But who is the changer and who the changed?

  1. Badiou, Alain (2014-11-04). The Age of the Poets: And Other Writings on Twentieth-Century Poetry and Prose (Kindle Locations 1826-1829). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
  2. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 8055-8059). Norton. Kindle Edition.

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