Wallace Stevens and the War between Mind and Sky: Psychology, Aesthetics and Violence in the “Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction”

Lim Lee Ching

Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Violence is a highly complex term for any intellectual inquiry, especially because we often understand violence only in its consequence, in the form of damage and injury. Yet, as such prominent writings like those by Georges Sorel, Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt have demonstrated, one key to comprehending violence – and, implicitly, the (mis)use of force – is founded upon the idea of instrumentality. At its most fundamental, violence is, for Arendt, “distinguished by its instrumental character. Phenomenologically, it is close to strength, since the implements of violence, like all other tools, are designed and used for the purpose of multiplying natural strength until, in the last stage of their development, they can substitute for it” (145). At the same time,

the implements of violence…like all other tools, increase and multiply human strength. Those who oppose violence with mere power will soon find that they are confronted not by men but by men’s artifacts, whose inhumanity and destructive effectiveness increase in proportion to the distance separating the opponents. Violence can always destroy power; out of the barrel of the gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant obedience. (Arendt 152)

Arendt’s observation here is no mere generalization. Rather, it gestures towards a kind of universal truth that points accurately to the dangers of an almost Newtonian sense of reciprocity as a dominant impulse in the face of violence. For Arendt, violence, as well as resistance, not only begets violence but does so with cumulative intensity. The exponential latency that this implies goes to the heart of the present paper’s concerns with violence – that its propensity for disproportion and excess is as troubling as the violence itself. This includes the sense of instrumentality and the inherent substitutive value surrounding violence that extends from Sorel’s tract on Syndicalist action, and is also an important example of the place of violence in 20th century critical discourse. There are parallels here with Benjamin’s characterization of violence as a pure means to an end, and its evaluation is premised upon the justness and justifiability of an apparent violent act towards its end: “violence is a product of nature…the use of which is in no way problematical unless force is misused for unjust ends” (Benjamin 236-237). This is however complicated by the contentions between natural law – and our predisposition to violence – and positive law, “which sees violence as a product of history” (237) – even as violence, in the form of war and revolution, also acts to interrupt and leave its imprint on history (Arendt 132).

Both Arendt’s and Benjamin’s evaluation of violence complement each other and point to a larger consideration of the relationship between law and violence in 20th century history. To Benjamin, for example:

All violence as a means is either lawmaking or law-preserving. If it lays claim to neither of these predicates, it forfeits all validity. It follows, however, that all violence as a means, even in the most favorable case, is implicated in the problematic nature of the law itself. (Benjamin 243)

This position includes anarchism, which Benjamin has some conditional affinity for (and which finds some resonance with Sorel’s Syndicalist impulse). Violence and the law, nonetheless, are ideas that are closely tied to each other. Violence is a condition that makes possible the law. In turn, the law justifies violence – in the form of enforcement and use of force.

Human behaviour is often rooted in violence because action presumes motivation. This complicates (perhaps clarifies) the circular relationship between violence and law, motivation and justification, and, by implication, action and consequence. Action presumes an expected rather than actual consequence, and the possibility of discrepancy between the expected and the actual is where action (as a use of force) becomes problematic. The impossibility of absolute certainty in the application of force – the relationship between action and consequence – is where conventional attempts to understand violence often present problems. While severity and excess come close to clarifying the nature of force as violence, it still comes up slightly short. A more accurate examination of violence necessitates the inclusion of the use of force as being disproportional to its actual consequence.

This, unfortunately, is a problematic way of considering violence, because the process is evaluative and can only be possible after the fact. Trying to understand violence by way of its disproportional effects thus offers very little in terms of pre-emption. This has two ramifications: firstly, that we often identify violence (and its anticipated effects) in approximation, basing the process on historical experience and replicative compulsions rather than actual experience; but, secondly, that acts of pre-emption based on such recognition is presumptuous and generates its own potential for violence. The implication of these for any artistic or poetic response to violence is tremendous: it can consider violence on hindsight or in anticipation, but it can never be exercised at the moment of violence itself. Wallace Stevens demonstrates an awareness of the difficulties of attempting to address and respond to violence. Yet, through his poetry, as represented by “Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction,” he also recognizes the need to respond, and to respond to violence and its excesses.

What we can take into consideration instead is that force is itself crucial to our comprehension of violence. Often used almost interchangeably with “violence”, “force”, as Robert Paul Wolff reminds us, is morally neutral (14). It is in its application that moral, ethical or political connotations become involved, which in turn play an important role in the discourse on violence. Force as a means is not an assurance of power (Wolff 14), and to assume such a relationship as consequential will only disappoint the agent, especially in the political arena. Yet, the neutrality that we attribute to force does not weaken its role in any evaluation of behaviour and action. Force, after all, is the ability to effect change. And change is where attempts to come to comprehend violence often deviate from one another.

In this respect, violence will be treated in the following observations as any excessive application of force that is disproportional to the change that it intentionally effects. This includes both physical force, as we commonly understand it, as well as its less tangible manifestations, such as psychological as well as verbal expressions – threats, essentialist or political rhetoric – that result in disproportionate change. In the context of this paper, violence will be considered in the complexity of its relationship with the world.

Violence, in the way that I examine Wallace Stevens’s response to it, is a human tendency with human implications. Attempts to understand violence involve raising questions about, among other issues, meaning, reason, ethics and even aesthetic value. These are pertinent points surrounding an especially human impulse. Obviously, violence can take other forms that do not necessarily involve humanity – some violent aspects of nature do come to mind, although even these can often be related back to human kind’s concerns. While Stevens’s poetic response to violence does not offer any solution to the pervasive violence surrounding his world, he at least attempts to contemplate the implications of violence in relation to art: how art is conditioned by violence, or vice versa; how art and the artist can – or should – respond to violence. Indeed, the notion of a response is perhaps the site upon which the poetry coincides with impulses of violence. The issue of responsibility and responsivity to violence extends from an intricate process that shifts from poet to reader, as mediated by the poetic text itself.

Below, I will consider the implications that violence has for art and poetry. I will examine the way that Wallace Stevens demonstrates such an awareness of the difficulties of thinking about violence, without generating any reciprocal violence, in the “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”. One of the poem’s many concerns is with the redemptive qualities that can issue from imaginative and aesthetic gestures, as an affirmation of the possibilities that poetry may bear in the continuing move towards establishing Stevens’s aesthetic philosophy. It is an extended trope for the simultaneous engagement and absorption of the multiplicity of experiences presented by the relationship of self to world – it incorporates (as the poem is organised) abstraction, change and pleasure as parts integrated to the totality of experience, expression and comprehension.

The basis of this, for Stevens, is the idea of the pure thought, which is couched in a sense of compulsion to respond to external, rigidified forms of understanding the world through the poet’s own imaginative gestures of construction. This is highlighted by the second Canto of ‘It Must Be Abstract’ in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”:

It is the celestial ennui of apartments

That sends us back to the first idea, the quick

Of this invention; and yet so poisonous (Stevens Collected 330).

Such a response is almost instinctive – “quick” – or at least should be, with the implication being that “the first idea” needs to be formulated as a kind of unmediated projection of the purity of (poetic) thought. This is what holds the self fast to its experience of the external world, where:

There was a project for the sun and is.

There is a project for the sun. The sun

Must bear no name, gold flourisher, but be

In the difficulty of what it is to be. (Stevens Collected 329-330)

The immediacy of such a project is seemingly necessary because its driving force is one that apprehends the possible dangers of aesthetic discordance – even as Stevens recognizes similar dangers that can arise from an insistence on poetic unity:

The quick

Of this invention; and yet so poisonous

Are the ravishments of truth, so fatal to

The truth itself, the first idea becomes

The hermit in a poet’s metaphors (Collected 330).

A fine line lies between necessity and inevitability, and it is perhaps a human failure that we are unable to differentiate between them. Admittedly, the poet’s acknowledgement points to a similar admission of weakness. But that at least suggests self-awareness that opens up the possibility of later poetic clarity. The “poet’s metaphors” emphasise both the abstract quality of “the first idea” as well as its deployment being reliant upon a vehicular process (in the sense with which I.A. Richards conceives of the idea of metaphor [96-97]). ‘Process’ itself is important here because, as the rest of “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” will remind us, abstraction, change and pleasure are all grounded on the inextricabilities between process and result. The dynamism between them can then be the possible source of psychological and emotional clarity.

This valorized moment of clarity is, for better or for worse, a kind of ideal that in itself forms the basis for human desire – often a source of violence. It is a realization that can diminish the quality of the poet’s abstraction of the first idea. But Stevens surely understands the process enough to feel compelled to contemplate the value and implications of such an approach to experience – this includes being able to pre-empt skepticism over the poetic process; Stevens does this by taking the first step to address the possibility of doubt:

May there be an ennui of the first idea?

What else, prodigious scholar should there be? (Collected 330)

The tone of the two questions would have appeared dismissive if Stevens had left them unanswered, to serve a merely rhetorical function. But the strength here is in the poet’s ability to consolidate the totality of his own ideas about such a poetics, as well as the complexities that extend from it. Unlike priest or philosopher, the poet of the first idea absorbs desire as process rather than end – that is the poet’s craft, and is what sets the artist apart as one who is equipped to deal with abstractions constructively:

It is a desire at the end of winter, when

It observes the effortless weather turning blue

And sees the myosotis on its bush.

Being virile, it hears the calendar hymn.

It knows that what it has is what is not

And throws it away like a thing of another time,

As morning throws off stale moonlight and shabby sleep. (Stevens Collected 330)

The climate is an excellent example of what such a poet is capable of. It is the “poet’s metaphor”, with implications for considerations of time, rhythm, questions of nature’s relationship with humanity, and finally for the rhythmic quality of the poem itself – the climate is an excellent trope for change and the structures that make change possible. Understanding these does not necessarily lead to an ability to control external forces and the forces of change, but the least that can be achieved is a manifest ability to respond to these forces. Implicitly, such ability also suggests the possibilities of the poet to respond viably to man-made versions of such forces of change as violence.

The instinctive nature of Stevens’s “first idea” is potent and is one whose influence is far-reaching. He likens it to the basic abilities that emanate from nature, itself the source of power that conditions the climate, hence change (as witness ‘Abstract’ Canto II). In Canto V, he extends the consideration further:

The lion roars at the enraging desert,

Reddens the sand with his red-colored noise,

Defies red emptiness to evolve his match,

Master by foot and jaws and by the mane,

Most supple challenger. The elephant

Breaches the darkness of Ceylon with blares,

The glitter-goes on surfaces of tanks,

Shattering velvetest far-away. The bear,

The ponderous cinnamon, snarls in his mountain

At summer thunder and sleeps through winter snow. (Collected 332)

The violence presented by the image is cumulative and points to an implicit structure that gives rise to this series of representations in the first place. There is value in looking past the immediacies of experience to consider the basic significances that lie beneath even “surfaces of tanks.” Stevens’s ecology here manifests a kind of vitality that is as much an apocalyptic potential as is the desolation that we would expect. Stevens has considered this in “The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet”:

It is the mundo of the imagination in which the imaginative man delights and not gaunt world of the reason. The pleasure is the pleasure of powers that create a truth that cannot be arrived at by the reason alone, a truth that the poet recognizes by sensation. The morality of the poet’s radiant and productive atmosphere is the morality of the right sensation. (Collected 679)

The human hesitation around nature (and the animal kingdom) is often evidenced by an inability to recognize the basic virilities that can be emulated from nature. To attain that radiance and productivity of the virile poet thus necessitates absorption of the basic capabilities that animals possess. The alternative is to “writhe and press / A bitter utterance from your writhing, dumb, // Yet voluble of dumb violence” (Stevens Collected 332). That is the common, sterile method of human behaviour – our reaction to basic anxieties. In our failure to comprehend nature, or any respect of the unknown that is external to ourselves, we respond by attempting to master it – “lash the lion, / Caparison elephants, teach bears to juggle” (Stevens Collected 332) – subjecting nature and even ourselves to processes that are violently antithetical to the very idea of a “first idea”.

The difficulties of abstraction, or at least of understanding the possibilities that abstraction makes available, is a valid explanation for humanity’s (Stevens’s ephebe) limitations in the engagement with the experience of the external world. As Stevens has addressed in ‘Abstract’ Canto V of “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”, there are understandable explanations that can account for the failure to respond productively with values that are alien to the self. Responding to anxieties by trying to overpower them and subjecting them to modes of control masks a kind of violence. It is a violence that fills the gaps presented by the intellectual inaccessibility of abstraction. The weather, an extension of nature and climate that has already been considered in previous Cantos, is a useful notion for the attempt to render the inaccessible accessible in Canto VI of ‘It Must Be Abstract.’ The entire Canto can be seen as a trope for the structural bases upon which change, and the abstraction of the idea of change, take place. It is perhaps the most self-contained Canto in all of “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” – replete with anaphoric moves, and alliterative echoes that evoke synesthetic perceptions and responses:

Not to be realized because not to

Be seen, not to be loved nor hated because

Not to be realized. Weather by Franz Hals,

Brushed up by brushy winds in brushy clouds,

Wetted by blue, colder for white. Not to

Be spoken to, without a roof, without

First fruits, without the virginal of birds,

The dark-blown ceinture loosened, not relinquished.

Gay is, gay was, the gay forsythia

And yellow, yellow thins the Northern blue.

Without a name and nothing to be desired,

If only imagined but imagined well.

My house has changed a little in the sun.

The fragrance of the magnolias come close,

False flick, false form, but falseness close to kin.

It must be visible or invisible,

Invisible or visible or both:

A seeing and unseeing in the eye.

The weather and the giant of the weather,

Say the weather, the mere weather, the mere air:

An abstraction blooded, as a man by thought. (Stevens Collected 333)

These are the abstractions made possible by just one aspect of the multitude of humanity’s experience with nature. It is meteorology as poetry and, ultimately as a supreme fiction. This speaks of a potential all-inclusivity that involves change and the unchanging, and of nature as likely source for artistry (“Brushed up by brushy winds in brushy clouds”). The poetic effects, like the effects of weather, are both seen and unseen, felt and intangible – “A seeing and unseeing in the eye”; “the mere weather, the mere air.” These are the echoes of reality that are accessible to a type of poetic instinct, both sense and sentience, that can be mastered, and indeed should be mastered. This in turn is an aesthetic sensibility that embraces the abstract as being part of a sense of the real, with reality as a realisation of abstractions. There is a sense of circular logic in all of these, but within the depth of understanding of abstraction, this circularity – as meteorology also is – is perhaps the structural premise out of which the dynamism of poetic experience emerges. This is “abstraction blooded,” imagination given life – despite the seemingly violent metaphor.

The second of three sections in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” does not, in spite of its heading, deal with obvious ideas pertaining to overly-generalized observations about history and change, such as “the world is in constant flux”, or “change is the only constant.” Stevens’s aphoristic impulses are far more complex than the mere offering of truisms. What he does try to accomplish in ‘It Must Change’ is to chart the problematic ways in which we attempt to comprehend the dynamisms of the world in flux. Stevens also offers the possibilities that can be made available to assuage anxieties over change and the subjection to change. The human response to change is to fix it to a kind of structure in order to comprehend it; this is limiting. Seeking assurance by resorting to stable meaning is problematic because it fails to absorb the dynamisms and plurality of experience. The disparity between experience and expression suggests a kind of inadequacy for the human: the various images that Stevens offers in the first two-and-a-half tercets of ‘Change’ Canto I underlines this as a kind of lag. This takes the form of the serial, insistent situation of each description in the past tense, which works in tandem with the essential ephemerality of the images that open the Canto:

the doves

Rose up like phantoms from chronologies.

The Italian girls wore jonquils in their hair

And these the seraph saw, had seen long since,

In the bandeaux of the mothers, would see again.

The bees came booming as if they had never gone,

As if hyacinths had never gone. (Stevens Collected 336-337; my emphases)

The human perception experiences change, but fails to register it because the impression is fixed: “the seraph saw, had seen long since” and expect to continue seeing (Stevens Collected 337). Mistaking repetition for change is the human habit that must also change. It is easy enough to pay lip service to the need to adapt – but adapting is yet another gesture of grounding mutable experience to a structure of predictability.  It is also easy for the artist or poet to think imaginatively of change merely as degeneration – “the distaste we feel for this withered scene” (Stevens Collected 337). The past in this model therefore takes on misguided aesthetic value as part of a nostalgic impulse, and as an ideal from which the present has deviated. Such a conception of change and, by implication, compulsion to return to, to regain, and to recover violets, doves, girls, bees, hyacinths, and so on, “as if they had never gone,” becomes characteristics of a resistance to change that poses a genuine aesthetic and psychological (not to say ethical) challenge to the poet.

Stevens’s example of a productive response to change can be seen in his summation of the various implications of change in the final Canto of ‘It Must Change.’ The process that he presents is a straightforward poetic strategy that integrates the elements of time with those that constitute a sense of space – respectively, ‘past’, ‘present’, ‘future’ with ‘here’ and ‘there’. These form an intuitive sense of the entailments of change for the poet. Canto X is a remodeling of the section’s first Canto in the way that the delineation of time and space are deployed. The first four stanzas are grounded in a temporal past to indicate the poet’s progress – the change he has undergone – in order to arrive at a state of viable comprehension. That past was a time when the strategy largely involves flawed modes of expression and representation of aesthetic experience with reality. The “Theatre / Of Trope” is a gallery of contrived metaphors, failed similes and arcane symbolisms (Stevens Collected 343). These had served a purpose: “The west wind was the music, the motion, the force” (Stevens Collected 343), but their validity is not necessarily anchored to serving present and future demands anymore. What is valuable, however, remains the sensibility that made possible these earlier responses in the first place, which is the “will to change” (Stevens Collected 343). Stevens’s anaphoric deployment of “will” is central to the overall intent of the Canto, as well as the Canto’s function in relation to the entire section. “Will” is both indication of human consciousness (and by implication, agency) and signal for time-to-come by means of human intent and expectation. If there is one force that can reconcile effectively with the forces of change that make for a “volatile world”, it is the “will to change, / A will to make iris frettings on the blank” (Stevens Collected 343; my emphasis).  Granted it is an overwhelming will to change that has often resulted in volatility, but it is an impulse that is also equipped to anticipate and respond adequately. This removes anxieties over change from the process and experience, and can in turn be transformed into aesthetic pleasure. It is a pleasure that responds to the new:

The freshness of transformation is

The freshness of a world. It is our own,

It is ourselves, the freshness of ourselves (Stevens Collected 344).

Such an ability to adapt has significant poetic implications – it points to new imaginings, new expressions, new tropes: “Time will write them down” and the writing down is one imaginative step closer to a supreme fiction (Stevens Collected 344), as well as a poetics that take into account the possibilities and anxieties of history.

This can take the form of a kind of aesthetic pleasure derived from poetry, which, as a version of Stevens’s idea of supreme fiction, can also be thought of as the ability to appeal to (or at least evoke) the totality of the human senses. In ‘Pleasure’ Canto III of “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”, Stevens’s lines are perhaps at their most abstract. But there is nonetheless an internal logic that grounds it to this particular section of the poem, rather than in ‘It Must be Abstract’. The composition of images points to an aestheticised approach to imagined violence – although it may be necessary to clarify that the pleasure stems from the imaginative and poetic process rather than from the implicit violence. A quick look at the first five stanzas of the Canto will give an idea of the deep-seated complexities of Stevens’s strategy here:

A lasting visage in a lasting bush,

A face of stone in an unending red,

Red-emerald, red-slitted-blue, a face of slate,

An ancient forehead hung with heavy hair,

The channel slots of rain, the red-rose-red

And weathered and the ruby-water-worn,

The vines around the throat, the shapeless lips,

The frown like serpents basking on the brow,

The spent feeling leaving nothing of itself,

Red-in-red repetitions never going

Away, a little rusty, a little rouged,

A little roughened and ruder, a crown

The eye could not escape, a red renown

Blowing itself upon the tedious ear.

An effulgence faded, dull cornelian (Collected 347).

The twin poetic moves of alliteration and synesthesia are particularly nuanced here. In fact, the alliterative strategy is synesthetic, casting the intensity of the corporeal, violent red-dominant alongside the soft consonantal ‘r’. Poetic construction, Stevens demonstrates, is capable of softening the blows of violence. In the one stanza in which the alliteration is not deployed (stanza 3), the violence is immediately overwhelming, its threat being insistently pointed out by the repeated definite article. This singular moment in which the poet lets his guard down is the moment he is rendered almost completely inarticulate. Here is Stevens’s offering of a possible solution for the human longing for certainty in a world of change: inventiveness of language, of perception, of comprehension, and of response. Poetry has already shown how the threats of violence can be diffused. All that is required is the insistent presence of imagination. And when “That might have been. / I might and might have been” proves to be overwhelmingly uncertain in assuaging anxieties, there will at least, and certainly, be other possibilities that can set things right. The worst consequence of change and uncertainty really is the possibility of terminus, of death. But that, too, is a certainty, and there is already precedence for finding aesthetic value, if not pleasure, from such an eventuality, as implied by Stevens’s resort to the Orphic trope near the end of the stanza:

But as it was,

A dead shepherd brought tremendous chords from hell

And bad the sheep carouse. Or so they said.

Children in love with them brought early flowers

And scattered them about, no two alike. (Collected 346)

No two shepherds, sheep, children, flowers are alike. And this essential difference is a vitality recognized and celebrated by poetry.

For all his assertions of possibility throughout “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” Stevens is also continually aware that its very nature opens up to a sense of vulnerability to uncertainties and, importantly, failure. But there is an attendant sense that failure is ineradicable and is a persistent influence on the human consciousness. The key, for Stevens, is to acknowledge the presence of doubt and to work it through his poetic thought, rather than to deny its influence by assuming bravado, or to be overwhelmed by it. Canto VIII of ‘It Must Give Pleasure’ is a culmination of all the intellectual uncertainties that have surfaced throughout “Notes.” At a glance, the Canto points to a deeply-felt sense of disquietude. But despite the structure of the Canto as a series of questions with no clear answers, it does absorb doubt into the fabric of a larger aesthetic sense, and can also be considered an aspect of human complexity. It is the ability to understand the necessity of doubt that makes both doubt and poetry the sources of pleasure. Doubt and imagination are not naturally complementary notions, but their co-location in verse, in Stevens’s Canto, creates an aesthetic dynamic that allows for the larger intellectual achievements of the entire poem to be realised. “What am I to believe?” the poet asks, a concern that Stevens addresses in “The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet”:

What we have called elevation and elation on the part of the poet, which he communicates to the reader, may be not so much elevation as an incandescence of the intelligence and so more than ever a triumph over the incredible. (Collected 349, 680)

It is a call to subscribe to the possibilities offered by the dynamics of absolute fact, poetic truth, and the mediating prowess of the imagination (Stevens Collected 680). Stevens’s questions in ‘Pleasure’ Canto VIII are an extended epistemological inquiry that takes on further ontological gravitas:

If the angel in his cloud,

Serenely gazing at the violet abyss[1],

Plucks on his strings to pluck abysmal glory,

Leaps downward through evening’s revelations, and

On his spredden wings, needs nothing but deep space,

Forgets the gold centre, the golden destiny,

Grows warm in the motionless motion of his flight,

Am I that imagine this angel less-satisfied?

Are the wings his, the lapis-haunted air? (Stevens Collected 349)

The two questions here are directly linked, and take the moment of imagination as a moment of possible transcendence between the imaginer and the imagined.  This is abstraction, change and pleasure converging upon a singular gesture, when the poet can become the poetry, and where the self absorbs and is absorbed by reality:

There is a month, a year, there is a time

In which majesty is a mirror of the self:

I have not but I am and as I am, I am. (Stevens Collected 350)

And yet, Stevens is too complete and self-aware a poet to allow his verse that measure of completeness. For him, the doubt and anxiety over failure is merely absorbed and not excised – they are necessary as reminders of genuine limits that the poetic consciousness must continually engage with: external regions, reflections, “roofs” (Stevens Collected 349).

In Stevens’s poetic approach to violence, it is possible to consider violence from a kind of instrumentalist perspective, change, as an end, assumes less privilege than the act of enforcement in itself. What is important is the legitimacy of the attempt at change. According to Walter Benjamin:

if violence were, as first appears, merely the means to secure directly whatever happens to be sought, it could fulfill its end as predatory violence. It would be entirely unsuitable as a basis for, or a modification to, relatively stable conditions. The strike shows, however, that it can be so, that it is able to found and modify legal conditions, however offended the sense of justice may find itself thereby. (240)

Benjamin charts this logic in his location of the general strike – as Sorel understands it – with the revolutionary general strike. The exercise of a right to strike is violent because it merely serves as a kind of extortion (improved wages or work conditions, for example) without changing the basis of labour-employer relationship – work-stoppage can be damaging in a multitude of ways. The revolutionary strike, however, demands nothing and is geared merely towards effacing the modes of socio-political organisation – the state that makes possible its laws. In the Benjaminian model, this is merely a resort to pure means rather than violence. Its intention is omission of participation in the means-ends binary of the legal frame as opposed to the general strike’s widespread omission of labour-service that exceeds the basic right to strike. This latter constitutes a breach of legitimacy, and is thus considered violent. The basis of violence then, as Benjamin sees it, is grounded in questions of what is changed and what is not, thus constituting the legitimacy (or not) of the action, of the strike as force and violence.

In relation to the issue of change, violence and its instrumentality can provide suitable consideration of what is at stake. Hannah Arendt points out that “violence, contrary to what prophets try to tell us, is more the weapon of reform than of revolution” (176). It is also a reminder that in the range of manifestations that is violence – from its inherent substitutability to the various forms of its application – the anchoring constant is the impulse for change, whether it is in intent or in consequence. On this aspect of violence, Arendt also considers that

the danger of violence, even if it moves consciously within a nonextremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will be not merely defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the whole body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world. (177)

The underlying futility here with regards to violence has severe implications for how violence relates to the world of actual experience, both collective and individual. It is this immanently paradoxical position of consistent, persistent change that informs any attempt to read into the psychological reaches of violence.

The problem with violence is that its very nature resists simplistic considerations because violence takes many forms and its implications are manifold. Where responsibility might have been a significant ethical issue relating to violence, the various slippages, undecidability and aporias surrounding it foreground the questions of the ability to respond before questions of necessity can even be raised. The inevitability and inextricability of human kind’s relationship with violence prevents this relationship from ever being a simple one that is based on reason or ethics. Even the struggle to understand violence, to comprehend its meaning and implications, cannot be a wholly satisfactory project because the attempt to get at meaning involves largely the same kind of procedures that give rise to violence in the first place: the need for stable meaning, certainty and order are very often part of the strategy, rhetoric or even pretext on which violence is carried out. This is further complicated by the multitude of considerations surrounding violence: meanings, forms, connotations, degrees, for example. Violence can thus be seen to resist the apparently straightforward manner with which we traditionally perceive of the comprehension, hence reading, process. As a human tendency, violence, and the various forms that it takes, often point to the inter-relatedness of the different types of violence.

Through all of these, the notion of failure occupies a kind of centrality in the consideration of the dispensation of violence in relation to imagination and expression. It may be useful to remind ourselves that art, too, can make no claim to being able to transcend these failures. Literature, for example, can merely admit its own inability to adequately respond to violence. What is worse, with poetry, the poets’ failure can be deepened because the demands of compression, density and abstraction frequently implies obfuscation even despite the best aesthetic efforts to portray the consequences of violence.

Out of these realisations, we must perhaps come to an acceptance that there is no genuinely appropriate or adequate way to respond to violence without the attempt resulting in further violence. Such a resignation speaks of futility but it is nevertheless still a tenable response. The poet’s role is to understand the consequences and ramifications of violence and to mobilise its processes to creative ends. The strategies that Wallace Stevens deploys are examples of attempts to engage with psychologies of violence in order to make sense of the collective human condition in a landscape of often incoherent excesses. Stevens shows an awareness of the poet’s responsibility – and art’s responsibility – to continue committing to respond to the world, its persistent violence, and the reality of its failings, however fruitlessly. For all the explosive manifestations of the 20th century’s violence, such a response may come across as insufficient, even inappropriate. But there is nonetheless inherent value that can be garnered from the poetic treatment of violence.

Stevens’s “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” ends, properly speaking, with an assertion, in ‘Pleasure’ Canto X, of the regenerative possibilities that can issue from imaginative and aesthetic gestures:

The fiction that results from feeling. Yes, that.

They will get it straight one day at the Sorbonne.

We shall return at twilight from the lecture

Pleased that the irrational is rational,

Until flicked by feeling, in a gildered street,

I call you by name, my green, my fluent mundo.

You will have stopped revolving except in crystal. (Collected 351)

This would be a final position of affirmation of the possibilities that poetry may bear in the continuing move towards Stevens’s idea of a supreme fiction. The fat girl of this final Canto is a trope for the possibility of the simultaneous engagement and absorption of the multiplicity of experiences presented by the relationship of self to world – it is, like ‘Pleasure’ Canto VIII, abstraction, change and pleasure as parts integrated to the  totality of experience and aesthetic expression. It is also a way of adjusting present response in anticipation of future possibilities. Given the contemporary mood, however, this approach to the supreme fiction would only amount to so many dead words, and is radically insufficient as an intellectual, even ethical, gesture. For all his groundedness to the possibilities of abstraction, Stevens is significantly unreliant on it; the ongoing World War is an important reminder for him that there are genuine conflicts and differences between humans that may never be resolved.

The Coda to “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” is, in that sense, a remarkable example of Stevens’s realisation, and is an important way for him to complete the entire work in a kind of suspension that contemplates the implications of irresolution:

Soldier, there is a war between the mind
And sky, between thought and day and night. It is
For that the poet is always in the sun,

Patches the moon together in his room
To his Virgilian cadences, up down,
Up down.It is a war that never ends.

Yet it depends on yours. The two are one.
They are a plural, a right and left, a pair,
Two parallels that meet if only in

The meeting of their shadows or that meet
In a book in a barrack, a letter from Malay.
But your war ends.And after it you return

With six meats and twelve wines or else without
To walk another room…Monsieur and comrade,
The soldier is poor without the poet’s lines,

His petty syllabi, the sounds that stick,
Inevitably modulating, in the blood.
And war for war, each has its gallant kind.

How simply the fictive hero becomes the real;
How gladly with proper words the solider dies,
If he must, or lives on the bread of faithful speech. (Collected 351-352)

The source of the central problematics in both the external reality and Stevens’s sense of a unified poetics is the fourth formulation that he does not include with the existing three. This can be thought of as at least part of the intent of the Coda, and which in a letter to Robert Pack, he has clearly indicated: “For a long time, I have thought of adding other sections to the NOTES and one in particular: It Must Be Human. But I think it would be wrong not to leave well enough alone” (Letters 863-864). For all the pessimism of its historical context, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” and, especially its Coda, is not situated in any pessimistic tone.

The Coda is really a suggestion of poetry’s redemptive qualities. In “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” Stevens is adamant that:

The subject-matter of poetry is not that “collection of solid, static objects extended in space” but the life that is lived in the scene that it composes; and so reality is not that external scene but the life that is lived in it. Reality is things as they are. (Collected 658)

Despite the acute oppositions that he considers as sources of conflict and violence in the Coda, the unifying factor remains the same humanity in deep involvement with the world. To this end, soldier and poet are one and the same: “it depends on you. The two are one. / They are plural, a right and left, a pair” even if “The Soldier is poor without the poet’s lines” (Stevens Collected 352). The apparent privileging of poetry here is understandable, given the subjection of the soldier’s vocation and fate to language. If rhetoric and “the bread of faithful speech” are the political implements that have sent the soldier to face violence and bloodshed, then poetry and its own mode of fictive language may be the force for rehabilitation and transformation. As a gesture of affirmation, this is, for Stevens, an unconditional position. It is one that he clarifies, in “The Figure of the Youth,” as the basis for the poet and art’s final victory in the “war between mind / And sky” (Collected 351):

our nature is an illimitable space through which the intelligence moves without coming to an end. The incredible is inexhaustible but, fortunately, it is not always the same. We come, in this way, to understand that the moment of exhaltation that the poet experiences when he writes a poem that completely accomplishes his purpose, is a moment of victory over the incredible, a moment of purity that does not become any less pure because, as what was incredible is eliminated, something newly credible takes its place. (Collected 676)

Stevens’s closing observations in the Coda, as well as all of “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” can be seen, finally, as an assurance – a promise of triumph delivered by art – for all humanity, regardless of the condition of the world.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. Crises of the Republic: Lying in Politics; Civil Disobedience; On Violence; Thoughts on Politics and Revolution. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,1972

Benjamin, Walter. “Critique of Violence.” Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Selected Writings: Volume 1: 1913-1926. Eds. Marcus Bullock, Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 1996. 236-252.

Richards, I.A. The Philosophy of Rhetoric. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Sorel, Georges. Reflections on violence. Ed. Jeremy Jennings. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poetry and Prose. New York: Library of America, 1997.

—–. Letters of Wallace Stevens. Ed. Holly Stevens. London: Faber and Faber, 1969

Wolff, Robert Paul. “On Violence.” Violence and its Alternatives: An Interdisciplinary Reader. Eds Manfred S. Steger and Nancy L. Lind. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1999. 12-22.


[1] In both the 1955 and 1968 editions of The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, this line reads: “Serenely gazing at the violent abyss” (New York: Knopf, 404). While this would be an equally plausible rendition of the line, “violet abyss” appears the more viable one, given the persistent use of ‘violet’ in various forms throughout “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”. In particular, it is possible to think of the line here as corresponding to “The pensive giant prone in violet space” of ‘Abstract’ Canto VIII (Stevens Collected 334).

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