Friday, March 23, 2012

Stevens Textplication 14: The Plot Against the Giant

“The Plot Against the Giant,” first published in 1917, is one of Stevens’ most sociable and accessible poems. It takes the form of a humorous nursery (non-)rhyme to depict (as so many humorous nursery rhymes do) the delicate politics of male-female relations – and, as usual, quite a bit more:

First Girl
When this yokel comes maundering,
Whetting his hacker,
I shall run before him,
Diffusing the civilest odors
Out of geraniums and unsmelled flowers.
It will check him.

Second Girl
I shall run before him,
Arching cloths besprinkled with colors
As small as fish-eggs.
The threads
Will abash him.

Third Girl
Oh, la...le pauvre!
I shall run before him,
With a curious puffing.
He will bend his ear then.
I shall whisper
Heavenly labials in a world of gutturals.
It will undo him.

One can be forgiven for thinking this is a lot like The Three Little Pigs, right down to the “curious puffing.” This story however replaces terror towards the ogre with compassion (“Le pauvre,” the third one purrs, as if he doesn’t stand a chance). In addition, unlike the self-absorbed three pigs, the three girls here conspire to defeat the giant. Thirdly, unlike the timorous pigs, the girls seem to have complete confidence that their “plot” will work.

Finally, the wolf (proverbial symbol of the predatory male) is replaced by some strange kind of giant.

Wallace Stevens stood 6’3” (according to the Hartford Courant), which combined with his large girth earned him the apparent nickname of “giant” at Harvard. He refers to himself as a giant in a number of poems (for example “Bantams in Pine-Woods” and “Large Red Man Reading”), usually to identify his own persona in the depersonalized landscape, often in a self-deprecating manner.* He similarly portrays the giant here as a “yokel” (a derogatory term for an unsophisticated country person) who is “maundering” (talking in a rambling manner, or moving about in a dreamy or idle way). Those familiar with Stevens’ letters will recognize both of these qualities as negative traits he often assigned to himself. The giant, in true fairy tale fashion, is "whetting his hacker” (sharpening his ax) [Thanks Tom King - see comments], a term which combines ominousness with a cartoon-like secondary meaning (lost in contemporary usage) of “preparing to cough” (his hacker as the mouth that coughs or hacks). There are also suggestions, looking at words like vintages of wine, of hacker as an amateur without talent, a worn-out horse, a literary prostitute (I suppose one could also insinuate the modern connotation of hacker as violator of virtual property). All of these work together to identify the giant in quite oafish and unflattering terms. Magnifying the effect of the imposing awkward giant (as a stand-in for Stevens or a prototypical male) is that the females are described as girls. This is also important to establish the innocence in their play, even as they know the ruthless consequences of their actions. So aware, in fact, that we feel sorry for him, reading about the detailed strategy the girls have in store for him.

The first girl wants to “check” the giant (stop the forward motion) with the sense of smell, more specifically the “civilest odors” of geraniums. The fragrance of flowers is nature at its most sexual, of course, especially with the “unsmelled” qualifier to create dissonance in the giant against the civility required towards the lovely feminine blossoms. The next stage is to assault the giant with equally delicate sights, to ply him with “threads” that will “abash” him (destroy his self-possession or self- confidence of: disconcert). Again, the sexual suggestiveness is hard to miss: “Arching cloths besprinkled with colors / As small as fish-eggs.” Finally, in the coup de grace he will be undone by the sound of intimate whispering in his ear. The reader will immediately notice the clever double-entendre in the word “labial,” connoting both the surrounding lips of female genitalia and the consonant sound made by fully or partly closing the speaking lips (as in the letters b, m or w). This is matched with another pun, "guttural," the consonant articulated in the back of the throat (I’ll leave that particular image to others) that also contains notes of harshness, uncouthness, a mind, as it were, in the gutter.

One could easily read this poem in fact as a dramatization of the accouterments of female seduction, from fragrance to clothes to well-placed words, or even as some kind of manipulative foursome, proceeding from enticement (“check”) to stimulation (“abash”) and finally consummation (“undo”). Having “gone there,” however, I do not believe this poem is about sexuality as much as I think sexuality is being used as a correlative for the aesthetic response. The sensuous is not necessarily sensual, the cigar may be just a cigar, what appears on the surface is merely heightened (ptp) by the risqué undertone. We are all moved by nature’s scents, pacified by the sight of fine handiwork, and, perhaps most importantly for Stevens, affected at the deepest levels by the sound of poetry. Or that’s the theory at least. One of the charming things about this poem is that it all takes place from the perspective of the girls, so we never see if their plan ever really pans out. Maybe this theory only works on paper. I think of that oft-quoted line by Stevens’ good friend William Carlos Williams, “it is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” It’s more than conceivable that our yokel ogre would be completely unmoved by these machinations – as most people seem to be unmoved by art and poetry. Still, the whole tone of the poem proposes that there is something that is “deep within us” that is moved enough to believe this powerful goliath can be felled by delicate beauty, that music can indeed “tame the savage beast.” And if the beast, in fact, is Stevens, it could be a confession of sorts about how he is powerless before the lure of subtle beauty, as other men are powerless before the charms of women.

As satisfying as this line of reasoning is, the poem also opens up to deeper layers. The way the imaginative bouquets of scent, sight and sound unhinge the receiver’s perception of reality, for example, or the ideas about sound and sense and their respective roles in cognition expressed in the last three lines of the poem:
I shall whisper
Heavenly labials in a world of gutturals.
It will undo him.
I am struck by the similarity here to the work of Ferdinand Saussure (1857-1913), the Swiss linguist whose theories essentially created the academic disciplines of semiotics and structuralism, along with its offshoot deconstructionism. Saussure posited a tenuous relationship between the “signifier” (the word in the case of language) and the “signified” (the idea being expressed), theorizing that the abstract and value-free word stands in for the idea of a thing not out of any intrinsic connection but because we’ve been socially conditioned to believe it does. Stevens (who probably wasn’t familiar with Saussure at that time) demonstrates this fractured relationship by identifying the third girl’s speech not by its content but its phonetic components (labials and gutturals). To Saussure, words succeed in describing fundamentally alien concepts and things largely through a negative relation (i.e. we know red because it is not any other color). Similarly, the labials are “heavenly” only because they are not the gutturals that, come to think of it, are rather harsh and forbidding. As Saussure expressed it, “the entire linguistic system is founded upon the irrational principle that the sign is arbitrary.” Language, seen as an arbitrary sign, becomes distinct and unhooked from the content it is supposed to be subsumed under, showing an almost infinite flexibility to bend, shape and create reality and in fact take over the relationship with the thing being signified, because the signified is only understood through the signifier’s irrational and arbitrary expression.** “It will undo him,” Stevens concludes, the mere sound of the words, the quality of their phonemes tyrannizes whatever content was contained in that whisper. This is especially significant because Saussure put particular emphasis on speech as opposed to writing, which he viewed as a lesser component of language. It is the sound of words that embody their arbitrariness, and their power, to Saussure. So, too, the giant, slayed by irrational and arbitrary sounds, is hit at a level below that of mere understanding. “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood,” explained T.S. Eliot. Poetry at its best, in fact, undoes meaning, allowing a passage to our more naked and vulnerable state, where the pure play of words creates something far more important than meaning.

* Joan Richardson in her biography has an interesting theory that Stevens’ gigantism was caused by the minerals in the water around Reading, Pennsylvania where he grew up, a condition that was somewhat common in that area. It also had, according to Richardson, a noticeable side effect: sexual dysfunction, a trait she assigns to Stevens in coldly tracking his “loveless” marriage and only one (late in life) child. Whatever the merits of that thesis, size and sexuality are clearly interwoven in this poem.

** As influential as Saussure’s theories have been, their reliance on feeling instead of intellectual rigor forces them to stay as rather simplistic observations about the relationship between language and reality. The truly problematic nature of that relationship was far more brilliantly and breathtakingly expressed by the amateur American linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, who incidentally worked for the same Hartford Insurance Company that Stevens worked for from the 1920’s to the 1940’s. His analysis of Hopi and other ancient Indo-American languages formed the basis for the rather remarkable claim that the grammatical structure of language actually creates the way we conceive of reality. I’m sure I’ll get around to the Stevens-Whorf connection at some future point.


Rusty Kjarvik said...

I think this is so interesting. I've been doing a lot of conceptualizing about the possibility of a human society, either fictional or true, where writing precedes spoken language. I want to pass through the circumference of pictographic archaism as we know it in the western world, in order to point to what L. Caruana calls the "image-language" or something relationally intuitive, to experience human language as an offspring of the development of sight, often understood as the most biologically enhanced sense in the human organism. An interesting dialectic and indeed experience of language born out of a reading-centered relationship to writing then may emerge, giving birth to complex speech. This idea may also underline a downfall or break from our direct "sight" with our immediate environment and the local "language" of it's unique niche-specific ecology.

I was inspired to comment based on seeing the connection to the study of Native languages as a key to understanding the relationship of grammar to the perception of "reality" or "environment". Look up Leroy Little Bear, a Harvard educated Blackfoot physicist and linguist, and Betty Bastien for a great wealth of dialogue on the matter.

PS thanks as ever for your always enthusiastic and encouraging remarks about my work, you are genuinely appreciated!

Jack said...

Once again, I'm learning much.

Tom King said...

Regarding your:

"The term 'whetting his hacker' combines an ominous if ill-defined quality of danger with a cartoon-like literal meaning (lost in contemporary usage) of “preparing to cough” (his hacker as the mouth that coughs or hacks). There are also suggestions, looking at words like vintages of wine, of hacker as an amateur without talent, a worn-out horse, a literary prostitute (I suppose one could also insinuate the modern connotation of hacker as violator of virtual property)."

Don't forget whetting in the sense of sharpening. Sharpening his hacker (his ax). Grinding his ax?

Also, "the cigar may be just a cigar," but then what does it mean when we

"Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds."

Adriano Sverko said...

I have an off-the-wall theory. In Serbia, there was a poet in the late 1800s, early 1900s, called the Red Baron. The quatrains he collected came from the hinterland, from songs and dances akin to the anglo-saxon and scandic dances around the maypole. These customs were expressed at weddings, and, Fat Tuesday (Carnival). Since at that time there were already many Balkan people in Pennsylvania (particularly Croats and Serbs in the coal mining industry), he may have been inspired by such poems, and decided to make a uniquely American one.

He was perhaps connected to the lineage of such greats as Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ken Kesey, in this regard.