Wallace Stevens and Imagination

It would seem at first blush that American modernism is incompatible with American conservatism.  But this impression pivots on a too-narrow conception of both “modernism” and “conservatism.”  The aesthetes who animated modern American poetry were many of them social and political conservatives.  This fact has been lost on those intellectuals who do not admit or acknowledge alternative and complicating visions of the world in general and of modernism in particular.  In the wake of the radical 1960s, many intellectuals simply ignored the contributions of the conservative imagination to literature, preferring to will away such unpalatable phenomena by pretending they do not exist.  However well-meaning, these intellectuals either assume without much hesitation or qualification that all modernist theories and practices were progressive, or they brush under the rug any conservative tendencies among writers they admire.  American modernism was progressive in its adaptation of forms, but it does not follow that avant-garde aesthetics necessarily entails progressive political programs.  Nevertheless, under Frankfurt School and Marxist auspices, among other things, the literati and others in the academy have rewritten the history and thought of modernist American poetry to purge it of all conservative influence.  George Santayana, Allen Tate, T.S. Eliot, Yvor Winters, Marianne Moore—these individuals, according to progressive mantras, were intellectually challenging and therefore, the argument goes, politically leftist.  Such revisionism will not do.

Fortunately some thinkers know better.  Notwithstanding the fact that Santayana, Frost, Moore and others employed traditional forms, these authors shared a vexed relationship with modernist circles and modernist movements, which were variegated and elusive and which amounted to much more than tired insistences upon the new.  Peter J. Stanlis recently reminded us of Robert Frost’s conservatism in Robert Frost: The Poet as Philosopher (ISI Books, 2007).  James Seaton, John Lachs, Wilfred M. McClay, and Roger Kimball called our attention to the delightful nuances of Santayana’s genteel tradition (The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States, Yale University Press, 2009).  ISI recently reprinted Russell Kirk’s Eliot and His Age (ISI Books, 2008), which remains the most charming biography of Eliot to date.  I could go on.  The point is that the conservative thinking of modern American poets—to say nothing of the conservative thinking of other modernists such as William James or the Southern Agrarians—has begun to receive renewed attention.  It is in the spirit of this overdue attention that I recommend Wallace Stevens’s Collected Poetry and Prose (Joan Richardson, ed., The Library of America, 1997) to those conservatives who are poetically inclined.  This handsome hardback, although more than a decade old, continues to offer telling insights into the complex life and thought of Mr. Stevens, a lawyer, poet, and Taftian Republican according to literary critic William York Tindall.

I recommend this particular edition of Stevens, despite its datedness, because of its inclusion of certain critical essays on the imagination: “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” “Three Academic Pieces,” and “Imagination as Value.”  Although I am not a pragmatist, I admire Joan Richardson, the editor, for her pragmatist scholarship and for her seeming commitment to critical methodologies that reject rigid ideology in favor of thinking that adapts—chameleon like—to particular intellectual environments.  In this sense, Richardson is not openly hostile to conservative ideas (depending, I suspect, on who’s defining the term “conservative”).

Richardson aside, imaginative conservatives will learn much from Stevens’s investigations of the res, or “the thing itself.”  These investigations present themselves in both Stevens’s poetry and prose.  Much like Russell Kirk, Stevens was a student of the human imagination, except that, contra Kirk, Stevens was ambivalent about religious matters.  So much has been written about Stevens’s poetry that I want to focus here on Stevens’s prose, which is arguably more revealing of his political and cultural conservatism than are any of his poems.

For Stevens the imagination is a source of agency that empowers its technicians to create and poeticize.  Form and order emerge spontaneously from and through the imagination and language.  The imagination is vast and complex and cannot be institutionalized or crystalized into political or ideological machinations.  To truly appreciate the imagination we would have to cast aside our biases and presuppositions and, à la Kirk, acknowledge that imaginative powers, properly understood, defy ideological compartmentalization.  “It does not seem possible to say of the imagination,” Stevens submits in The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words, “that it has a certain single characteristic which of itself gives it a certain single value as, for example, good or evil.”[1] Stevens adds that to “say such a thing would be the same . . . as to say that the reason is good or evil or, for that matter, that human nature is good or evil.”  Thus interpreted, imagination is morally neutral or perhaps not useful unto itself.

I pause here to acknowledge the complexity of this phrase: “useful unto itself.”  This complexity begs the question of whether usefulness and value are the same or even similar constructs.  I employ the term “useful” because Stevens employs the term “value,” which is loaded with economic freight and not necessarily connected with any particular moral philosophy save for consequentialism and its attendant utilitarianism.  From this premise, at any rate, Stevens maintains that imagination is a faculty of mind that internalizes data and other externalities which themselves sound no ethical tones until reason—with its perpetual processes of association—synthesizes the real and the visionary.  Stevens calls imagination “the power of the mind over the possibilities of things,” qualifying that imagination does not admit one value but “many values,” since, after all, values reside in things, which are, if not infinite, then at least too various for a mind to completely digest.

Stevens begins The Nobel Rider and the Sound of Words with an account of Pascal, who prized reason over imagination and the real over the illusory.  Stevens takes issue with Pascal’s memorialization of these binary oppositions and decries Pascal’s notion of the imagination as “the mistress of the world” and as the “deceptive element in man”: tags which reverse the privilege of evil and good (Pascal believes that imagination signals the false, or evil, and not the real—the good) and which Pascal, in his more desperate moments, such as when he lay dying, seemed to swiftly dismiss.  The problem, or the answer, as Stevens sees it, is that imagination is not false or fleeting but the path en route to reality.  “When we consider the imagination as metaphysics,” he claims, “we realize that it is in the nature of the imagination itself that we should be quick to accept it as the only clue to reality.”  Imagination, then, is referential and rhetorical, at least insofar as it reveals truth through media and images that themselves are more aesthetic than true (“ideas about the thing but not the thing itself”).  Even logical positivists, Stevens claims, acknowledge such values in imagination.

Stevens distinguishes between the romantic, which perverts imagination or misuses liberties that imagination engenders, and the metaphysical, which deals with what Stevens calls the “vital.”  Stevens would have us walk the line between logical positivism and excessive romanticism.  He would, á la William James, have us live the life of the mind—where imagination flourishes—and discriminate between the artificial and the real, both of which, Stevens seems to suggest, retain, or can retain, value.  To live this life well is to become a poet because a poet is the “orator of imagination,” desperately needed in times and places dominated “by great masses of men” equipped with imagination, but devoid of poetry and subject to forces of proliferating communism: that “grubby faith” which itself is a product of vulgar imagination “on its most momentous scale.”

If Stevens’s metaphysics maintains that vibrant imaginings are morally neutral, his subtle critique of communism and the communist imaginary suggest that this dogmatic ideology lacks aesthetic sophistication—that its subject is not properly shaped or poeticized.  Even if it were properly shaped or poeticized, communism would exhaust itself because no such ideology can stand up to the complexities of the res.  Communism is endowed with imagination and the promise of an “earthly paradise,” and its imaginative parameters are not immoral per se but narrow—too narrow to encapsulate reality or to actualize its idealized fantasies.  In that sense, communism is simply too broad and quixotic.  Here Stevens echoes his point that imagination is not one thing but many.  “It is not,” he says, “that the imagination is versatile but that there are different imaginations,” one of which, he claims, is the materialism of communism.  The wrongness of communism has to do in part with its perversion of aesthetics.  Communism fails to account for what Santayana (whom Stevens references) calls the “genteel tradition,” and it becomes mechanistic and deterministic—a habit of mind—evacuating individual faculties of aesthetic value.  Communism is, in short, imagination without poetry—poetry located within the human mind and not within external constructs like “arts and letters” that are bound up with social ethics such as (to cite Stevens’s example) those espoused by prudish Victorians and fanatical Stalinists.

All contemplations of the past or the future necessarily entail imagination because we “cannot look at the past or the future except by means of the imagination,” and yet, Stevens tells us, “the imagination of backward glances is one thing and the imagination of looks ahead something else.”  The point again is to show that just as there are varieties of religious experience, as William James once argued, so there are varieties of imagination.  Inasmuch as these varieties diverge or intersect, we indulge and entertain our own idiosyncrasies.  Communists indulge theirs by abstracting from particulars and delighting in unreality.  They satisfy their imagination with and through politics, which differs from poetry because the one seeks to champion a single imaginative schema at the expense of all others, whereas the latter—that of the poet—seeks to “penetrate to basic images, basic emotions.”

How does Stevens’s imagination translate into social policy?  It signals reality, first of all, and culture should therefore be based upon it and not upon the fantastic or the unimaginative.  But what would such a system of imagination look like?  What shape would it take?  In a way these questions miss the mark because Stevens does not wish to institutionalize imagination but to shape social forms by using imagination.  These social forms are not necessarily political bodies or groups; they are states of mind emanating from sensorial data, from the “collected instances of imaginative life as social form over time.”  Stevens is not calling for a particular political program but for the unmasking of that which day to day “conceals the imagination as social form.”  Institutionalizing imagination would also mean bureaucratizing and centralizing and therefore crystallizing imagination as something unimaginative.  Contra this crystallization, Stevens muses, “No one doubts that the forms of daily living secrete themselves within an infinite variety of things intelligible only to anthropologists nor that lives, like our own, lived after an incalculable number of preceding lives and in the accumulation of what they have left behind are socially complicated even when they appear to be socially innocent.”  The residual effect of accumulated experience, internalized as imagination, obtains to human faculties in a more profound way than even art or literature; for in art and literature “what is important is the truth as we see it,” whereas in life “what is important is the truth as it is.”  Rooted as it is in actual experience, life reveals truth as it is and not as it ought to be.  We immerse ourselves in the realities of truth; the unrealities of truth are thrust upon us.  “If the imagination is the faculty by which we import the unreal into what is real,” Stevens reasons, “its value is the value of the way of thinking by which we project the idea of God onto the idea of man.”

Truth, as it were, is always in flux.  That is why a retained image never congeals into reality—or at least not into the reality that it stands in the place of.  It may be reality unto itself, caught up in an endless chain of unrealities, but its understanding is always mediated and that mediation is both real and unreal at once.  Truth exists to be sure, but it is always attendant upon and mediated by the fallibility and inadequacy of the human mind.  The imagination is “the irrepressible revolutionist” because it is the “power that enables us to perceive the normal in the abnormal, the opposite of chaos in chaos.”  Without imagination, which precedes reason, we cannot appreciate the spontaneous order of things.  Without it, we cannot achieve logic or rationality.  And without logic or rationality, we cannot see the portal of literature, which is the portal of the imagination.

For more readings on Stevens, imagination, and conservatism broadly defined, I recommend the following:

John William Corrington, “Wallace Stevens and the Problem of Order,” The Arlington Quarterly, Arlington, Texas, Vol. 1, No. 4, Summer 1968.  50ff.

Corrington was a conservative lawyer, novelist, poet, screenwriter, Southerner, and critic.  Click here to read my article about him in The Front Porch Republic.

Joel Porte’s “Artifices of Eternity: The Ideal and the Real in Stevens, Williams and Satayana,” James Seaton’s “Skepticism, Romanticism, and ‘Penitent Art,’” and David Dilworth’s “The Life of the Spirit in Santayana, Stevens, and Williams” in the Fall 2005 (No. 23) issue of Overheard in Seville: The Bulletin of the Santayana Society.

Allen Porter Mendenhall is an editor of The Mendenhall.


[1] All quotes come from Richardson’s edition.

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