Friday, June 15, 2018

Stevens Textplication #40: A High-Toned Old Christian Woman

Now we come to the part of the program known as The Mother Poem. Typical for its genre, it displays little of the original wound it is there ostensibly to conquer. The depth of emotion behind it must inevitably remain sublimated. However this IS Stevens, so as usual there is something larger and more universal to take away from it.

From 1922, it’s called “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman”, and it also marks the first use of a concept that would later obsess Stevens, most famously in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” that of necessary fictions humans need to create to live full lives. This poem is pretty famous in its own right. Here it is:

              Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame.
              Take the moral law and make a nave of it
              And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
              The conscience is converted into palms,
              Like windy citherns hankering for hymns.
              We agree in principle. That's clear. But take
              The opposing law and make a peristyle,
              And from the peristyle project a masque
              Beyond the planets. Thus, our bawdiness,
              Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last,
              Is equally converted into palms,
              Squiggling like saxophones. And palm for palm,
              Madame, we are where we began. Allow,
              Therefore, that in the planetary scene
              Your disaffected flagellants, well-stuffed,
              Smacking their muzzy bellies in parade,
              Proud of such novelties of the sublime,
              Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk,
              May, merely may, madame, whip from themselves
              A jovial hullabaloo among the spheres.
              This will make widows wince. But fictive things
              Wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince.

Imagine, if you can, the curse of being born a poet in a household where the highest value is fealty to the biblical word. The chief requirement for being a poet – a topic Stevens would understandably come to explore time and again – is to take direction from an oracle known as The Muse. She is, as has been demonstrated as far back as Plato, an exclusive mistress who does not take the received wisdom of others kindly, especially that which is designed to organize – a.k.a. control – human society. Instead she urges her acolytes to remain in a state of intoxicated mystery, forever reaching just beyond the surface of things for a truth that dissolves just as it moves beyond the thing. The “poetry,” epithets and hymns of the Christian religious tradition enforce, on the other hand, a rigid set of beliefs in terms of right action, consequences and the will to salvation. On the surface, however, they seem to be poetry, the only true poetry, in fact, a pious believer (like Stevens’ mother) would unwaveringly conclude.

To be denied, thus, one’s calling to live life in the heightened state of poetic awareness is in a real sense a tragedy – at least to the sense of identity, place in the world and in the family. It is a primal wound, in fact, so deep, it cannot be looked at directly, but deflected with a series of “winces,” turned, in other words, into a gay but somewhat painful comedy.

Stevens enlists help for his cause in the form of his college mentor George Santayana, the philosopher of beauty, who argued in Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (the book he published when he was friends with Stevens at Harvard) that religion and poetry are both, equally, fictions, in that they express our longing for the ideal and give our lives direction. Aha, said the young Stevens, sharpening his blade, but the older Stevens, having let for the sake of familial piety the youthful possibility of poetry slip away (except in the courting of a woman his parents disapproved of), knew all too well how impossible it was to use such a subtle philosophical rock to move a high-toned old Christian woman from her hard place. But now, almost a decade after her death, firmly ensconced in his poetry vapor bar, he can carry on the argument in his head, on his own terms.

Suitably soused, he one-ups Santayana by declaring that poetry is, in fact, the superior illusion (“the supreme fiction, madam”). He proceeds, with an argument that grows progressively more convoluted, to tell us why. The alert reader will detect the anger in the passage that follows:

Take the moral law and make a nave of it
And from the nave build haunted heaven.

It is at once an elegant and clear-headed description of how religion may be perceived as a “fiction” as well as a vicious put-down of the belief system of people like his mother. The emotional sense is poetically expressed through the repetition of the word “nave.” Literally, a nave is the central part of a Christian church, where the parishioners worship, but it sounds exactly like “knave,” a dishonest or unscrupulous person. In the context this suggests that the Christian church uses “moral law” (implied to be objective in some sense) to make dishonest fools of people, who proceed to help the church construct a “haunted” afterlife (implied to be a fantasy).

The attack only intensifies from here, if that’s possible:

Thus, / The conscience is converted into palms, 
Like windy citherns hankering for hymns.

Again, on one level it’s a seemingly innocuous philosophical proposition. The believers transform their intuitively known moral law into grace through the use of symbols, in order to identify with the ideal who will bring to Earth the higher law (in the form of the palm branches Jesus’ followers spread for his final return to Jerusalem). They become vessels (cithern is a hollow-bodied stringed instrument somewhere between a lute and a guitar) who live in the desire for God’s word. The passage could equally be read, however, as its messy poetic antithesis: that belief in the Christian dogmas turns the human conscience (and by extension the soul) into a meaningless symbol, to be left with no more consciousness and will than a musical instrument on which the meaningless choir book is played. This sense is heightened, once again, by word sound. The word “cithern” echoes “cistern,” a holding tank for water that is at its linguistic root a prison or dungeon but in Stevens time most commonly referred to toilet tanks.

This bizarre Dr. Philosophy and Mr. Poetry schizophrenia continues as if Mr. Poetry isn’t even there: "We agree in principle. That's clear.” In other words, the philosopher logically may be able to find some common ground (in theory) for his sagacious understanding of the root of religious practice. It’s funny, pathetic, bitter and tragic as the poet tries to assert it. This poet, like so many before and after, has a hard time explaining himself to others.

This “opposing law” of poetry is not exactly, however, what the speaker has in mind with which to “make a peristyle … (a continuous porch of Greco/Roman columns around the perimeter of buildings, often enclosing, as in this case, an courtyard) [that will] project a masque (a lavish dramatic entertainment in the royal courts of Europe, usually based on classical rather than Christian themes) / Beyond the planets.” The “opposing law” clearly references – as a philosopher undoubtedly would – the ancient world, which had its own moral laws and monuments to higher powers. It is opposing only because it was opposed and ultimately defeated by Christianity, not because it represents some contrasting principle of darkness or evil. The reference to planets is also sly, given that the stars and planets were understood and named in the classical world, while the Christian world was often mired in the cosmological confusion created by the Bible. The idea is that the classical ideals could aspire beyond the understood planets, to the great unknown, with the implication that this was something unavailable to the Christian tradition.

The Greek alternative referenced here is also, of course, the birthplace of poetry muses and man as the measure of all things. “Thus” it offers a richer source of expression than the rigid church:

Thus, our bawdiness, / Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last, / Is equally converted into palms, / Squiggling like saxophones.

The Greek tradition honored the principle of life by elevating the temple prostitute as the most revered of humans. The term “bawd” means prostitute, so it’s not as simple as saying sexual debauchery is equal to religious ritual (although that is clearly what the passage suggests). “Indulged at last” invokes the firm hand of puritanical repression yes, but “Unpurged by epitaph” evokes a focus on life rather than the Christian preoccupation with death, or rather, viewing life only in terms of a final accounting. A less constricted, more sexual human “is equally converted” (bringing back Santayana’s formulation) to palms, a symbol of victory over death that ironically predates Greek as well as Christian cultures but was shared by both.* The meaning, of course, is that immortality is not limited to the Christian religion. But into this straightforward formulation comes again our Mr. Poetry, with the line that I personally would kill for: “palms, squiggling like saxophones.” It’s hard to get lustier than saxophones, or more evocative of the heightened state of being our decadent modern life can create for us. Yet the simile, for all the rich associations it connects, does not mean anything literal. The heaven of poetry is equally as elusive as that of Christianity.

Thus, “palm for palm, / Madame, we are where we began.” Neither the poet nor the unnamed Christian woman have unobstructed access into ultimate truth. And neither Stevens nor his mother can ever find common ground in what are, truly, separate spheres of reality.

“Allow, / Therefore,” – the note of desperate pleading comically made to seem like an uncontestable formulation …

that in the planetary scene / Your disaffected flagellants, well-stuffed, / Smacking their muzzy bellies in parade, / Proud of such novelties of the sublime, / Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk, / May, merely may, madame, / whip from themselves / A jovial hullabaloo among the spheres.

The key word here is “flagellants,” a long-standing Christian cult who furiously whip themselves in public while singing hymns in order to pay penance and honor the suffering of Jesus. They are qualified as “disaffected” (unwilling to support the authorities) because for most of Christian history such practices were considered heretical, to the point that many flagellants were burned at the stake! They are “well-stuffed” because, like play animals and dolls, their insides (in this case blood) come out when the skin is ripped. They exhibit the Christian sin of “pride” in “smacking” [hitting] their “muzzy” [woozy] “bellies on parade” [in public display]. Stevens drippingly dismisses their novelty “of the sublime,” presenting them, perhaps the most extreme yet pious of true believers, as representative of the Christian faith. He even mimics the sound they make as they walk along whipping themselves, as if it was a popular tune. While the bitter poet has scorched the earth with his high-rhetorical bludgeon, the philosopher is still willing to concede that this self-flagellation “may, merely may” create a connection with the higher planes of consciousness, or as the poet more sensually (and quotably) shows (rather than tells), “a jovial hullaballoo among the spheres.”

Then, just as we begin to believe this poetic rant disguised as argument can’t get any weirder, widows make their appearance:

This will make widows wince. But fictive things
Wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince.  

What is the “this” that “will make widows wince?” The sight of zealots whipping themselves? The reminder in the sight of heavenly hullaballoo that their husbands are no longer with them? The blasphemy of comparing the penitential sacrament to something as unsacred as poetry? Instead of clarifying, the poem distances itself further into the mystery: “fictive things / Wink as they will.” Leaving aside the enigma of just what a “fictive thing” is, “wink” could be read in any of three ways: to close and open one eye to acknowledge something shared between two, to pretend not to notice something bad or illegal, or to shine or flash intermittently, like a star. “Fictive things”, read as things created by the imagination, poetry specifically (since it is “the supreme fiction”), really do all of these kinds of winking: they acknowledge shared secrets and jokes, avoid topics that aren’t “poetic,” and can assume the quality of natural or ethereal objects. As we’ve seen, these qualities are not predictable, and cannot be produced systematically, they more or less naturally appear (“as they will”).

There’s a marvelous sense of freedom expressed here, that the responses of the widows (for whom we are presumably supposed to feel compassion) don’t have to be explained or accounted for, because the spirit of poetry metes out its own, ineffable sense of justice. The muse, rather than being traumatized by the sight of widows/mothers wincing, is actually strengthened by it, because the emotional material that comes out of such pain creates great art. Thus after purging all the anger of being denied, the poet can finally earn out of the experience the palm branch of victory.

*It is also an important symbol to Stevens, as indicated by the title of the very book we are using for this series, The Palm at the End of the Mind.