11 December 2011


What was Wallace Stevens aiming at in "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird?"  Some of the responses to my last 'opusculum' prompt me to essay an answer.  Questions were particularly raised about my description of the imaginary blackbirds in the strophe of the glass coach as "nonspecific, ordinary, accidental."  The following excerpts offer clues to what I understand Stevens to mean:
From "Anecdote of the Jar:"
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it, 
And sprawled around, no longer wild...

From "Study of Two Pears:"
          Opusculum paedagogum.
          The pears are not viols,
          Nudes or bottles.
          They resemble nothing else...
The pears are not seen
As the observer wills.

And from "The Snow Man:"
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time...
                                           ...not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind...
For the listener, who...
                    ...nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

What is Stevens saying?  I think he's talking about how we humans can't help searching for ourselves and our categories wherever we look.  We insist on extracting pattern out of random accident; unless hard-pressed, we mostly notice what we expect to find.  Stevens is fascinated by how we try to domesticate or gloss over what we perceive, rather than trying to take it in straight.

Consider, for example, strophe VI:
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
This 'mood' looks for 'cause' (whether simple antecedent cause or demiurge) in the accidental: this is the Pathetic Fallacy, translated by 'indecipherable' into a Modernist irony.   'The mood'--not, we notice, 'my mood'--is not that of "The Snow Man:" it lacks "a mind of winter."

Here is strophe IV:
A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.
How is the first couplet changed by adding a blackbird?  In one register, not at all: a blackbird has no place in the romantic context in which a man and a woman are one.  Consequently, the couplet's meaning is completely recast by the blackbird, which reminds us that such romantic oneness exists within a tiny parish of the incomparably vaster multiverse, which takes no account of our ideas.  As Blake also reminds us, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, "How do you know but ev'ry Bird that cleaves the airy way, is an immense world of delight, closed by your senses five?"

Strophe X:
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
The bawds, I suppose, are those soi-disant bards (try saying that word as Margaret Dumont might've) who would prostitute their immediate, un-re-imagined apprehension of the world to an ideal beauty of utterance, perhaps akin to the "noble accents/ And lucid, inescapable rhythms" of strophe VIII.  In this moment the shocking and beautiful otherness of the Real overruns the habit of meretricious euphony.

Strophe XIII:
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing,
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
The first line is a metaphor; the second and third slide from the present into an anticipated future; the three lines together carry a human sense of gloom and foreboding, and seem almost to attribute motive and being to a winter day.  This first tercet is a psychological operation.  To my ear, the last descriptive couplet insists on being resolutely unmetaphorical and atemporal by contrast.

As my friend Chick Chickering pointed out to me, blackbirds seem to evoke a sense of menace in many of these strophes, as in strophe XI, which I discussed earlier:
He drove over Connecticut in a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.
Wallace Stevens is describing a typical human response--a hostile, even paranoid, response--to glimpsing the indifference of the Real to our abridged visions of the world.  An actuary in his virtual world of numbers is threatened by the surprising intrusion of blackbirds.  Even worse, these blackbirds are creatures of his mind.  This is truly the return of the repressed: I mean, that to go on believing that our human experience of the world really matters, we have to repress the knowledge that the (to quote myself) "nonspecific, ordinary, accidental," and supra-human Real is truly indifferent to our pretensions.   The rider in his glass coach has repressed it: therefore, he is haunted by looming blackbirds.  Deep down, we all know that our grandiosity is a brittle and graceless construction, like Ozymandias, broken by time into "a handful of dust."

Death is the ultimate manifestation of the indifferent Real.  All of our narcissism--our narcissism as individuals, as societies, and as a species--is structured as an effort to deny, denature, or domesticate death.  The paranoid hostility which I've claimed we feel--at our worst--towards whatever points up our inconsequentiality by refusing to be co-opted into our categories, is fueled at bottom by the fear of death, of the nothing that is [there]. Stevens's ominous black birds are liminal creatures, emissaries of the great world, to which we matter as little as any blackbird, and into which we shall all disappear, "on a day like any other day, only shorter," as Samuel Beckett tells us.  How like him, as Eeyore might say.  This is Stevens's "The Worms at Heaven's Gate" (Badroulbadour was Aladdin's princess):
Out of the tomb we bring Badroulbadour,
Within our bellies, we her chariot.
Here is an eye.   And here are, one by one,
The lashes of that eye and its white lid.
Here is the cheek on which that lid declined,
And, finger after finger, here, the hand,
The genius of that cheek.  Here are the lips,
The bundle of the body and the feet.
.     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .
Out of the tomb we bring Badroulbadour.
Some might say that I have here perpetuated the same error which I claim Stevens is examining, by trying to extract an intellectual pattern out of art.  Like Eliot, however, Stevens is also an intellectual, a "metaphysician in the dark," as he says in "Of Modern Poetry."  He applies his metaphysical imagination to representing the Real as it resists mediation by ideas.  Representing, not depicting: "The poem of the mind in the act of finding/ What will suffice" is an act of imagination, not intelligence.  For Wallace Stevens, the work of the imagination is all we have to set against what has been lost from our inexact maps of the territory we live in: it is our only respite from blackness.

25 November 2011


This is from Wallace Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird:"
He rode over Connecticut in a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.
I used to find this verse puzzling.  Its sense seems plain enough: a man, apparently a personage insulated from the world by his 'glass coach,' is suddenly spooked by his coach's shadow, which he mistakes for an impingement by Nature.  Like Randall Jarrell's ball-turret gunner in his somewhat different glass enclosure, the man in the glass coach, "loosed from [his] dream of life," wakes up to the [imaginary] Real for a moment: his splendid isolation is exposed as the fragile contingency that it is.  The diction of this verse enacts its subject: the bubble of the glass coach--its rotund artificiality heightened by the wonderfully orotund word 'equipage'--is perfectly deflated by that baldly declarative last line, with its nonspecific ordinary accidental blackbirds. 
"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is an austere and tough-minded poem, which aims to show us the distance between the Real and the rationalized, predictable world we pretend we live in.  But what is a 'glass coach' doing there?  At a stretch, one might locate it in the borderland between reality and fable--in actuality, 'glass coach' refers to the kind of coach of state in which kings are conveyed to their coronations--but of course its richest associations are to fairy-tales.  Stevens's character seems a 'practical' fellow, whose coach seems to tell us that "his state is kingly," and who "rode over Connecticut" like T. S. Eliot's "Cousin Nancy," who "Strode across the hills and broke them,/ Rode across the hills and broke them."  Cinderella's coach seems an unlikely conveyance for such a man.  But Wallace Stevens, that tough-minded insurance company executive from Hartford, Connecticut, though fanciful in his images, rarely stooped to whimsy.  Why would he invent a glass coach riding over Connecticut?

Decades after college, when this question first niggled at me, I learned the answer.  I was traveling from Boston to New York, seated on the shady (landward) side of the train, where it runs along Long Island Sound towards Stamford, Connecticut.  The railway carriage had large windows on both sides, and the sun, near eleven o'clock, shone right through the train, casting a diaphanous shadow on the ground along my side of the track.  Probably I was wool-gathering or had just looked up from a book; anyway, I was gazing unfocusedly out the window.  Abruptly I was startled into alertness with my heart racing: rushing smoothly along, the shadow of my coach had passed over some brush by the track, and sudden twiggy blotches of shade had leapt up at me. Blackbirds!

When I thought about writing this, I expected to end with that image.  This morning however, while I was Googling 'glass coach,' with my head full of the memory of those shadows beside the train, a sudden summons fetched me to my mother-in-law's backyard, where a large flock of grackles wheeled through a stand of leafless trees for ten or fifteen seconds; I gaped at them in amazement with the sun at my back.  For an instant, two times were superimposed: the birds' shadows on the branches were indistinguishable from the shadow of a coach... 

25 October 2011


          In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud tells us that dreams are not stories.  Their apparent narrative structure is delusory: it is an artefact of consciousness, which glosses over gaps in what we perceive in order to preserve a feeling of reasonable continuity (that is, continuity which supports reasoning about the world perceived).  Dreams acquire their form from the peculiar action of what Freud called the "primary process:" the thinking we're born into, which existed before spoken language, persists in the Unconscious, and invests the immortal vestiges of unmet wishes from childhood.  The primary process knows only one tense, the eternal present.  That, Freud says, is why dreams always feel like immediate present experience rather than like thought or memory.  Dreams begin as rational but non-conscious thoughts (ideas gone awry, worries, suppressed desires), which become conflated during sleep with those repressed primordial wishes.  Driven by the motive force of unfulfilled desire, these configurations of thought and prehistoric yearning are subjected to the primary process and therefore translated into the pre-verbal language of images.  This passage is from the beginning of Chapter VI of The Interpretation of Dreams (in James Strachey's translation):

          "The dream-content... is expressed in a pictographic script, the characters of which have to be transposed individually into the language of the dream-thoughts.  If we attempted to read these characters according to their pictorial value... we should clearly be led into error.  Suppose I have a picture-puzzle, a rebus... [which] depicts a house with a boat on its roof, a single letter of the alphabet, the figure of a running man whose head has been conjured away, and so on.  Now I might be misled into... declaring that the picture as a whole and its component parts are nonsensical.  A boat has no business to be on the roof of a house, and a headless man cannot run... [If the whole picture] is intended to represent a landscape, letters of the alphabet are out of place in it... We can only form a proper judgment of the rebus... [if] we try to replace each separate element by a syllable or word that can be represented by that element in some way... The words which are put together in this way... may form a poetical phrase of the greatest beauty and significance... A dream is a... rebus."

         Upon reading this, I decided to construct a rebus out of the poetical phrase A dream is a rebus.  Ultimately I constructed three (for no particular reason I knew of):

    ad           +      tree            (   -T   )      +        mizzen           (    - Zen  )

                                                +         A           +            rib               +          us



      adder              +           E            +            Ms.
                                                 +         airy                +             bus                                        

     Audrey                 (            -  U           )          +          [Les] Mis          +       [Mt.] Erebus

           Having done this, I recognized that Freud's formulation is only true in a limited way, because a rebus is really a very simple construction, a one-to-one correspondence between sounds and pictures.  In dreams, however, the pictorial and figural elements into which the dream-thoughts have been translated are subjected to a kind of psychic Waring blender or mash-up.  They are dismembered and recombined, and their points of emphasis are broken up and spread around, so that a given aspect of the dream-thoughts may be represented in several different places in the dream, and a particular image in the constructed dream may derive from several different elements in the dream-thoughts.  In constructing these rebuses, I had already used one of Freud's laws of dream-formation, "considerations of representability."  I realized that for them to resemble a dream more fully, they had to be subjected to the other processes he described, namely "condensation" and "displacement."  Finally they had to undergo the 'narrativizing' action of what Freud called "secondary revision," at the behest of the [at least overtly] rational "secondary process."  

          Condensation, comparable to poetic metaphor ("My love is like a red, red rose"), is the combining of different pieces of the dream-thoughts to produce composite images or situations.  If my love appeared in a dream with a special bloom in her cheeks or wearing 'spiky' jewelry, depending on what aspect of her rosiness I was exercised by, or if she had some feature of another woman I find attractive, condensation would have been deployed.

          Displacement is comparable to the poetic device of metonymy, the substitution of something by a part of itself or by something associated with it.  For example, "The White House [replacing 'the President'] announced today that it would take a firm stand in opposing the radical Right" (now, there's a dream worth having).  Elements of the dream-thoughts are replaced with other things associated with them in the process of dream-construction. If my love were replaced in the dream by a rose or a thorn, or by another woman I find attractive, displacement would be in play.

          I tried to construct a story out of this gallimaufrey of pictorial and figural elements:

          We're on a bus.  You might be dreaming, and I'm looking at a magazine called "Ms. Geographic" or something like that.  There might be more than one bus in the dream.  I can see an ad for Tiffany's on the side of the bus--maybe it's for a cigarette holder--against a red, white, and blue background, sort of like the French flag.  Then I notice we're moving, because a cold breeze keeps ruffling the curtains.
          We're driving on a winding road through a dark forest, and then up a bare snowy mountain.  It seems to be a volcano.  We can see the road kind of snaking up the volcano, and lots of people are standing all along it, all wearing robes which cover their heads, so their faces are indistinct.  We can hear some of them moaning, "+A+E+A+E."
          There's a man in robes on the bus too, with a laurel wreath on his head, and somehow I know he's a Buddhist monk.  He seems miserable and tries to ask me something in French but I can't understand him.  Then he gets angry and hits me with his staff, calling me "tu" (and I seem to see the letters TU before me, as if printed in heavy type).  Realizing that he's no Zen master, I hold out my hand and slap him (and weirdly, there's no sound).  Then I knock him off the bus with my staff.
          We come over a slope, and there's a tree in front of us.  I'm struck by how straight and tall it is.  Near the top of the tree there's a red, white, and blue triangle, a flag, or maybe it's a sail.  Suddenly I realize that the triangle is actually the head of an enormous snake which is coiled up the tree.  There's also a beautiful naked woman next to the snake, who looks a bit like Katharine Hepburn.  She opens her mouth and starts shrieking like a maenad, "+A+E+A+E!"  All of a sudden, she's on the bus with us.

          No trace of a dream or a rebus in this salmagundi!  It was the act of taking such a dream and tracing the trains of thought associated with its elements back to [some of] the suppressed ideas that gave birth to it which inaugurated the Freudian revolution.  One of the aspects of this game which I found most interesting is that without any conscious intention on my part, the writing of this pseudo-narrative seemed to entrain unexpected coincidences and connecting links.  Thus, the fact that Erebus is a region of Hades as well as a volcano in Antarctica seemed to introduce Dante and the Inferno, and therefore Virgil with his laurel wreath; coincidentally that same Virgil from whose Aeneid Freud got the epigraph to The Interpretation of Dreams: Flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo ("If I cannot move the powers above, I'll stir up Hell").  That Erebus is also the name of the pre-Classical Greek god of darkness seemed unwittingly to lead into Dante's "dark wood where the straight road was lost."  Gustave DorĂ©'s engravings for the Inferno, with its images of the damned and of Virgil in their robes, converged with the necessity to represent "Zen."
           The iconic logo of Cosette with her French flag made the combination of the two discarded letters to spell the French "tu" seem inevitable.  The implication in calling someone "tu"--that the speaker thinks of himself as addressing an inferior--led inevitably to an "Oedipal" conflict, which the imaginary dreamer naturally won, since the Zen monk with his "tu" had to be expelled from the dream-text.  Similarly, the condensation of a triangular mizzen sail (on a mizzenmast) with a triangular pennon, and its assimilation to the triangular head of an adder seemed almost a matter of course.  It will be obvious that the resemblance between these three triangular objects is linguistic rather than visual. Although this fact serves to demonstrate that the 'translational modes' used to replace thoughts with images in dreams regularly make use of linguistic devices like puns and bad jokes, I did not consciously mean to show that.  I was conscious only that flags like Cosette's can be triangular too, and the rest followed.  Of course, the focus on triangles (and my original [unconscious] decision to devise three versions of the rebus) seems quite ordinary in retrospect, given the connection to Freud and to the Oedipus Complex.

          Eve and the Serpent showed up quite unexpectedly, simply because of the juxtaposition of 'rib' and 'adder.'  I will admit that the identification of Eve as a maenad was purposeful, since I was thinking about manifestations of the primary process (I'll also confess to inserting "the no-sound of one hand slapping" consciously).  However, of the three possible "phallic symbols"-- staff, tree, and snake-- none was added wantonly.  And the recognition that a different Hepburn--Katharine--starred in "Adam's Rib" was entirely serendipitous.  Or was it?  Is it possible to think of a complex set of ideas without--by the very nature of our associative thinking--bringing in a much broader field of linked ideas?  Isn't that essentially what Freud told us, that nothing in our thoughts (that "mycelial" network) can be truly random?

          Of course a real dream is far more comprehensively "over-determined" than this pastiche, since its content is not only more complex but also forbidden, and therefore in greater need of camouflage.  Elsewhere in his dream-book, Freud compared dreams to fireworks, which take a long time to prepare, and produce their effect in an instant.  In a different state of mind I might have included Dante's Lucifer, frozen in his sea of ice, or had the bus pulled by Amundsen's sled dogs.  Someone with more Milton in his head might have assimilated Lucifer's fall to that of Eve and Adam, from the poetic present of the primary process into the time-bound languages of reason.  Vulcanology, the works of the Irish writer AE, Spencer Tracy, prelapsarian theology, the nautical know-how of Patrick O'Brien, D. T. Suzuki, all might have been shoehorned in by a different "dreamer" or by me on a different day.  Indeed, this kind of elaboration and associative over-egging could probably go on forever, since it lacks the pressure of lust to prompt it into expression as a dream... I suppose this is how Joyce got started on that other great 20th-Century dream-book, Finnegans Wake.