“It was their annihilation, not ours, and yet it left us feeling that in a measure we, too, had been annihilated.”

I’ve been reading a lot of Wallace Stevens the past few weeks, as I tinker with some extended thoughts on the transition that occurs between his “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” and “Esthétique du Mal,” and in the course of doing so I’ve been reading his prose, which I had previously all but ignored (or, in the case of the Necessary Angel essays, forgotten). One essay that caught my attention was “Two or Three Ideas.” I encourage you to read it — the thoughts on style by a master stylist, for whom though the substance of content may crumble like leaves or fade likes fads, style, if it doesn’t remain the same, remains ever still. I’m quite taken by the idea he explores here, in this most exquisite of prose poems, which I would love one day to perform, as it was also a lecture, and believe his development of style is an iteration of a profoundly creative (what other kind of creativity is there?) immanence (what other kind of immanence is there?).

But perhaps you need a quote to tease the appetite. Few modern poets do our dead gods the kind of justice they deserve quite like Stevens. (E.g., “The death of one god is the death of all.”) As he thinks through the question of style in “Two or Three Ideas,” he meditates long on the relationship of god and humanity, particularly their respective styles, or whether they are in fact so distinctive after all (hence the title of the essay). What prompted this age of disbelief, he wonders? — this “humanistic” age that is not purely secular, for the secular subject is as settled into his chosen fiction as the religious subject, defensive to the hilt of its substance and content, but is rather purely creative? I’ll have more to say of this “purely creative,” but for now . . .

To see the gods dispelled in mid-air and dissolve like clouds is one of the great human experiences. It is not as if they had gone over the horizon to disappear for a time; nor as if they had been overcome by other gods of greater power and profounder knowledge. It is simply that they came to nothing. Since we have always shared all things with them and have always had a part of their strength and, certainly, all of their knowledge, we shared likewise this experience of annihilation. It was their annihilation, not ours, and yet it left us feeling that in a measure we, too, had been annihilated. It left us feeling dispossessed and alone in a solitude, like children without parents, in a home that seemed deserted, in which the amical rooms and halls had taken on a look of hardness and emptiness. What was most extraordinary is that they left no mementoes behind, no thrones, no mystic rings, no texts either of the soil or of the soul. It was as if they had never inhabited the earth. There was no crying out for their return. They were not forgotten because they had been part of the glory of the earth. At the same time, no man ever muttered a petition in his heart for the restoration of those unreal shapes. There was always in every man the increasingly human self, which instead of remaining the observer, the non-participant, the delinquent, became constantly more and more all there was or so it seemed; and whether it was so or merely seemed so still left it for him to resolve life and the world in his own terms.

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5 Responses to ““It was their annihilation, not ours, and yet it left us feeling that in a measure we, too, had been annihilated.””

  1. Tyler Says:

    Thanks for this. You’ve piqued my interest in Stevens with this and the post on Weil. As I was reading up on him yesterday it was an immense pleasure to learn about his beef with Hemingway and Stevens probably getting his ass kicked and breaking his hand on Hemingway’s jaw. According to Hemingway’s account, Stevens arrived in the Keys every year “pleasant like the cholera.”
    Cheers.

  2. Brad Johnson Says:

    Tyler, that’s tremendous! I’d never heard that story before, and reading up on it now has greatly improved my morning.

  3. Tyler Says:

    Don’t have much more to offer than appreciation given my modest novitiate status as a Wallace-reader, but the linked essay, if nothing else, on account of the way he flattens the planes of the religious and the aesthetic — the poem, god and man — seems to be a confirmation of your earlier description of Wallace as the aesthete (rather than the ascetic). And given what you call his iteration of a profoundly creative immanence, do you think there is a relation between immanence and the aesthetic? or how would the relation between these two concepts be parsed? (hopefully this question is only mildly naive…)

    Reading about the fight again (which I really can’t get enough of), it is a shame that landing a ‘Sunday punch bam’ hasn’t had the staying power of something like landing a ‘haymaker’ in boxing idiom or any other relevant contexts.
    Best.

  4. Brad Johnson Says:

    The question re: the relation between immanence and the aesthetic is one I’m thinking a lot about, but the substance of these thoughts are not quite ready for prime time. They are, as it were, still in need of some crucial development. I’ve begun applying for research posts again, if for no other reason than to keep myself occupied in-between non-academic job applications, and have been tinkering with a project very much along these lines.

  5. Tyler Says:

    Best with your applications, both academic and non. I’ll keep an eye out for the debut of further thoughts you have on the relation.


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