American Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) was a highly successful attorney by day, and a poet by night. He is generally acknowledged as one of the most important of modernist wordsmiths. One of several recurring themes in Stevens’ work is the relationship between mind and world and thoughts to things. As part of this undertaking, Stevens’ poetry often addresses the structure of human consciousness, including the nature of its intercourse with that which confronts it as external, “other”, or “not-me”.
Stevens’ poetry is phenomenological in nature. That is, it attempts to convey a sense of our felt experience of reality as lived from one moment to the next, or what philosopher Simon Critchley (2005), in his essay on Stevens entitled “Things Merely Are”, calls “our practical involvement with the world” (p. 28). By “practical involvement”, Critchley means mental involvement; our psychic saturation with existence as it unfolds in consciousness across time, announcing itself in the form of thoughts, feelings, and desires arising in relation to specific experiences of life in this world. He notes, “Phenomenological descriptions…foreground things as they are experienced in the everyday world we inhabit, the world which fascinates and benumbs us” (p. 29).
In his poetry Stevens sometimes dwells more narrowly on the manner in which the experiencing human subject relates to the natural environment. Stevens’ 1923 poem “The Snow Man” considers the question of what it would be like to be mentally absorbed into nature, utterly and naively, and, in so doing, to disappear as a separate, experiencing subject. Among other things, this poem seems to be a meditation on the dissolution of the subject in death, one aspect of which is the extinguishing of consciousness. The demise of consciousness is the penultimate transcendence of the divide between subject and object, the “me” and the “not-me”. In this particular “take” on transcendence, the observing ego is extinguished as it immerses itself in the world. Writes Stevens…
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees encrusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice
The spruces rough in the distant glitter.
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there,
And the nothing that is.
The poem’s title, “The Snow Man”, is Stevens’ sly and subtle allusion to the nature of the reality of the subject: the observer is him / herself a “Snow (No) Man”. (Stevens is an inveterate trickster who loves to bury multiple intimations and meanings within words.) That is, he depicts the experiencing subject as essentially “nothing”(read “no-thing”), and, when contemplating the world around it, as beholding “the nothing that is”. This is a “nothingness” that reflects the insubstantiality and delusiveness of its own nature. Or, alternately, it may be that Stevens means to point to the impossibility of locating a “self” that is somehow set apart from the world, and so is illusory in the sense that it does not exist exist apart from the network of relationships in which it is embedded.
As may be inferred from the foregoing, there are multiple, contradictory conclusions that one may draw from “The Snow Man” about the relation between mind and the world of nature. This gets to a larger point about Stevens’ relative status as a philosopher. While there are recurring philosophical themes in Stevens’ work, Stevens is not a philosopher, and so it is simply misguided to attempt to locate a clearly-defined philosophical “position” in his poetry.
Rather, Stevens’ poetry is more usefully approached as a vehicle through which certain philosophical ideas are intimated and/or quietly suggested. It is left to the reader to make of these what he or she will. Hence, “The Snow Man” suggests different, provocative interpretations about the interface between the conscious “knower” and the natural world that it encounters as that which is “known”. Personally, I derive from this work the general idea that the mind is somehow inextricably grounded in Being itself, that is, in the entire life of the world, including that of nature.
This is a notion spelled out systematically in the early nineteenth-century philosophical school of German romanticism, a perspective best represented by Hegel and Fichte, among others. Critchley outlines a fundamental perspective of this school vis-a-vis the relation of mind and world, one that is at least strongly implied in “The Snow Man”. He says, “The world does not first and foremost show itself as an ‘object’ contemplatively and disinterestedly represented by a ‘subject’. Rather, the world shows itself as a place in which we are completely immersed and from which we do not radically distinguish ourselves” (p. 29).
You might ask if Stevens’ intellectual foray into the relation between mind and world is relevant to your daily life. The answer is yes! If we presume – and feel – that our subjectivity is fundamentally not a part of the world that we encounter, then we will likely treat the world as an “other”, an object to which we are unrelated. And this makes it excusable to treat the world as something (read “some-thing“) that we may exploit and dominate as a vehicle for our own satisfaction. The world is other than us, we think. We are separate and self-sufficient, set apart from the cosmos. And so the world that we experience is “fair game” for use in the service of ego-aggrandizement, we conclude. The natural world, the homeless street-person, the immigrant, and the differently-gendered person are not immediately related to us, we assume. We experience them as “out there”, unattached to ourselves, hence, only useful as fodder to power the development of an aloof sense of independent selfhood.
Stevens’ poem challenges this presumption, suggesting that mind is world, and, conversely, that world is mind. This is the basis upon which to evolve an ethos of empathy, compassion, and service to others. It also includes a renewed respect for oneself: the experience of unity with the world also suggests that one should honor and care for oneself as one among many sentient beings intimately related to, and expressive of Being itself. One possessing such a consciousness would no sooner degrade or dismiss the “other” than they would degrade or dismiss their own basic longings.
Critchely, Simon (2005). Things Merely Are. Routledge: London and New York.