Nihilism and Its Discontents on Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man”
One must have a certain kind of mind—of winter perhaps—to allow Wallace Stevens' famous little double-helix of a poem to do its work. To the receptive mind, “The Snow Man” winds its self-contradictory way around the byzantine conduit of the brain, implanting little rhetorical, linguistic, and grammatical inconsistencies along the way, and bringing the reader, finally, to the paradox—the something, or nothing, or something-and-nothing, or nothing-as-something—nestled unsettlingly at its center. One need only read the critics to see how consternating this twelve-line Imagist classic is: they spill prodigious ink disagreeing about its meaning, realigning the grammar to propose alternate readings, restructuring the syntax, redefining the words, applying various philosophical frameworks to decode its deceptively simple, crystalline word-play. Each critic has a reasonable but, I would hazard, incomplete interpretation. Stevens (that dandy—the only bit of color in his stark winter landscape) has written a poem that works on so many levels at once—intellectual, emotional, Romantic, Buddhist, existential, Cartesian, Jamesian, neo-Platonic—that to encompass them all might not be possible, or even desirable. The true mind of winter embraces (“be-holds”) the contradictions, the multiple readings, allowing them to stand in for all the irreconcilable realities that plague our human lives on this earth: lives for which we must struggle to find meaning with the abyss yawning ever beneath us.
Many critics see Stevens’ “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” as a nihilistic battle royale between an individual and the void. Samuel Jay Keyser puts it beautifully when, in a segment for All Things Considered he suggests that when parsed, the poem becomes a “…perfectly balanced mobile,” and this mobile, spinning, forces “…readers to reanalyze what they have just read again and again,” until one reaches reality: the emptiness at the core of things (NPR). In “Wallace Stevens: Form and Meaning in Four Poems,” Keyser delves further into how the poem’s structure informs its meaning:
The poem is in its structure precisely what it talks about in its content. It demands of readers that they reanalyze in order to see the truth of its syntax and this is what Stevens claims one must do with respect to one’s perception of the world in order to perceive the truth of the world’s reality (“Form and Meaning” 597).
Stevens’ Platonic aim, Keyser suggests, is to shed the “pathetic fallacy” and see the world as it is, bare of human emotional projection. There is no “misery” in Nothing, because there is nothing in nothing. John P. Wargacki agrees that Stevens wants to strip away the human to reach the nothing beneath. In “Reduction and Negation in Emily Dickinson’s ‘There’s a Certain Slant of Light’ and Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Snow Man,’” he likens the poem to a palimpsest (as resonant a metaphor as the mobile): “[Stevens’] process of reduction has been… likened to the removal of a surface painting upon which another painting beneath the first is revealed” (Wargacki 91). What is revealed, he goes on to say, through constant reduction and negation—constant “unnaming”—is the “universal blank of nothingness,” (Wargacki 94), and that “…what is and what is not ultimately reduces itself into the same nothingness, blank or void [emphasis mine]” (Wargacki 95). Stevens himself reinforces Wargacki’s metaphor (though not the void) when he talks about the “first idea.” In The Letters of Wallace Stevens, he says, “If you take the varnish and dirt of generations off a picture, you see it in its first idea. If you think about the world without its varnish and dirt, you are a thinker of the first idea” (Letters, 426-427). Harold Bloom writes about the connection between the “first idea” and the pathetic fallacy in “Wallace Stevens: Reduction to the First Idea:” one needs the mind of winter, he argues, “…in order to avoid indulgence in the fallacy of imputing human ‘misery’ to the wind and leaves” (54). He disagrees with Keyser and Wargacki, however, on the definition of “Nothing:” the poem’s “nothing,” he posits, “…is the most minimal and abstracted of fictions, yet it is still a fiction” (Bloom 55). It isn’t the void: It’s an alteration of the first idea to get as close to the void as a human being can get without being destroyed by it. So why approach the void at all, if we can hardly survive it? In “Grammar and Rhetoric in Criticism,” Robert Browne reinforces Plato’s contention that “knowledge, even of the void, is preferable to ignorance” (153). Stevens, then, is doing the brave, the necessary, with his imperative that we “must” develop a wintry mind, one that can withstand the Awful Truth.
Other critics argue that Stevens, rather than trying to expose the Platonic void (or the just-bearable minimal fiction of that “Nothing”), is trying to gain mastery over it. In “Wallace Stevens and the Symbolist Imagination,” Michel Benamou sees transcendence in Stevens’ “lexical opulence” (36): “The poetry of the beautiful surface with the dark terror beneath,” he remarks, “does not… escape the facts of death and suffering. It is a means of overcoming [the] terror [of them]” (Benamou 36). So, unlike Keyser, Wargacki, and Bloom, Benamou argues that our imaginations safeguard us, however provisionally, against the void: “The imagination,” he says, “is man’s best protection against the vast spaces ready to engulf him” (37). But the darkness is real, is ever near. Stevens, Benamou suggests, denudes this winter scene as an act of “linguistic askesis,” creating an aesthetic, “…similar to a glacier both transparent and denying transparence to the poet it will eventually paralyze” (55). We can overcome terror through imagination, but we cannot overcome the reality of the terror’s cause. In similar vein, Helen Vendler argues for Stevens’ mastery of the void in “Wallace Stevens: Hypotheses and Contradictions:”
…in spite of his frequent thematic bleakness, Stevens was above all a poet of fertility of verbal invention. His swerves, hypotheses… accretive elaborations, and asymptotic progressions establish… a mental landscape anything but bleak, one that matches the distributed richness of the material world with its own unfailing wealth of emotional, intellectual, and linguistic forms (117).
Thus, Vendler argues, there is an inherent contrast between the richness of Stevens’ landscapes and the painful subject matter with which he contends, and in fact, by creating the contrast, he “…attempts to contest his nihilistic deadness even as he voices it” (108). He is R. P. Blackmur’s dandy, a conspicuous creator within the wintry wilderness of the human condition (Blackmur 107). Both Benamou and Vendler celebrate the almost feminine fecundity of Stevens’ images.
Robert Randolph takes it a step further in “‘The Snow Man:’ Nausea or Numin?” He attributes a sort of divinity to the triumph of the human over the nihilistic. At the end of the poem, “Rather than Nothing… one is left with the ‘new transcendent fact’ that paradox does not necessarily destroy being… One can [survive paradox] through the use of symbol, or, as Stevens has it, image. Moreover, this sort of transcendence… carries with it a numinosity” (Randolph 121). Even Robert Browne, more firmly in the nihilist camp, admits that, “It is a paradox… that none of the misery signified by the sounds is in any way altered; but it is brought under control of the mind” (155). Art controls—or at least temporarily tames—the terror of the void.
Much of the debate between those who argue nihilism and those who argue transcendence comes down to one small question: whether the viewer (the “one” in the poem who “regards” and “beholds”) is the same as the listener “who listens in the snow,” and whether these are the same as the speaker. To Keyser, Wargacki, and Bloom, these three are all the same character, a character who must shed his human limitations in perception one by one in order to give himself a mind of winter, capable of apprehending stark reality and emptiness; the Nothing that is. The poem, to these critics, is a treatise on how to get ourselves out of Plato’s cave—to steel ourselves against revelations of the void. But others see important distinctions between speaker, observer, and listener. Browne sees the characters as discrete, inferring a lesser intellectual/perceptual capacity to the viewer than to the listener: “…the imperceptive viewer and the perceptive listener are much alike; both stand in the snow, both ‘see nothing:’ the viewer through lack of insight, the listener precisely because he has insight” (153). This “Capital-N Nothing” is more Buddhist than nihilistic, and provides the listener, who embodies enlightened patience (after all, says Browne, he is not “…born with a mind of winter but acquires it through long exposure” ) with a kind of connection to the world to which a regular human hasn’t access. In this interpretation the mind of winter is both achievable and desirable. To Ronald Hoag, by contrast, in “Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Snow Man:’ An Important Title Pun,” the listener is an actual man made out of snow, “This No-Man” (a homophonic reassembly of the title syllables), who is only divorced from the scene’s misery because he isn’t human: “…the snow man himself, mindless and devoid of imagination, beholds (embraces) both ‘Nothing that is not there (no-thing but the scene) and ‘the nothing [no-thing] that is’ (himself as a part of that scene)” (Hoag 91). Thus, Hoag suggests, we shouldn’t feel bad about being miserable in such a scene: the aesthetic beauty of this wintry bareness can only be enjoyed by an entity “created from the landscape” (91).
Like Hoag, David Hesla argues for the inescapability of human emotion in “Singing in Chaos: Wallace Stevens and Three or Four Ideas,” this time from a philosophical standpoint. He vehemently disagrees that the persona of the poem is, in tone, “…that of a steely-eyed positivist calling upon us to distinguish facts from feelings; nor is it that of a dialectical ontologist courageously facing the abyss of nothingness” (Hesla 251). Hesla argues for a Jamesian, rather than Platonic/Cartesian, reading. He notes that the mind does not exist in a vacuum, as Descartes would have it—it exists on a continuum of its own created reality and the world that informs it (Hesla 257). “James,” says Hesla, “eliminated the abstract dualism of mind and body, thought and things, and replaced it with the single, vital, complex concept of ‘pure experience…’ so the experience of a winter landscape may include the emotion of misery” (248). He concludes that the poem’s speaker, unlike the listener, the reader and, perhaps, the poet, is “…bemused, even appalled, by the fact that there can be people who have so far forgotten their humanity as to be unmoved by a winter landscape” (Hesla 251). Stevens is, Hesla suggests, condemning the Keysers, the Wargackis, the Blooms of this world, who have “forgotten their humanity” enough to think the void exists, is knowable, and—worse—is worth dashing ourselves against.
Glauco Cambon, too, fundamentally disagrees with the nihilists about the nature of the Nothing. In “Nothingness as Catalyst: An Analysis of Three Poems,” he identifies two extremities with opposite emotional valences in Stevens’ work. “Winter as deathly purity,” he says, “summer as exuberant fulfillment, constitute for Stevens the two poles of the terrestrial condition, beyond which there is no other… [thus] the absolute perceptual blankness Stevens’ observer [in ‘The Snow Man’] reaches by hypnotism is an end unto itself” (Cambon 97). So, like Browne’s Buddhist “Nothing,” the nothing at the end of Cambon’s reading is a goal worth achieving, a state of mind that cleanses, bringing “purity” and peace, and that one must “hypnotize” the self to attain. One imagines intense prayer, fasting, Sufi dance (or perhaps Benamou’s “linguistic askesis”), and the way these are used to stimulate a spiritual condition of non-being (the “No-Thing” the listener enjoys in the poem). Moreover, this state exists as but one of two necessary polar states. Cambon’s “deathly purity” is not a terminal, absolute “Truth,” the final stasis of the Romantic/Platonic/Cartesian search. Rather, it’s part of a duality of contingent truths represented by the fertile, procreative summer and the purgative winter. Benamou, too, finds “poles” in Stevens’ work, both equally necessary, and in this case gendered: his “constellating images of the South, the Moon-Woman, vegetation, summer, nature, music…,” which give way to “the masculine constellation of the Day, North, men… winter” (Benamou 37). These poles, Cambon and Benamou argue, are the extremes in the orbit of Stevens’ poetry, which is essentially center-seeking: “The centripetal imagination of Stevens,” says Benamou, “moves toward a pure center where it will find peace” (60). But does the reader—can the reader—ever get there?
Richard Blessing is the critic with perhaps the most humanist approach to the blank Stevens leaves us to decode in “The Snow Man.” In “Wallace Stevens and the Necessary Reader: A Technique of Dynamism,” Blessing argues that “The Snow Man” is indecipherable without its final indispensable ingredient—the dynamic engagement of the reader:
Stevens… is able to force the reader into participation in the poem—a participation which mirrors that of the scientist who discovers that, try as he will, his human act of observation has altered whatever it was that he was trying to observe without alteration. Even more disconcerting, the reader may find that in the process of reading he has discovered a poem which means something quite different from what it says that it means” (252).
So Blessing contends that the paradoxes Stevens leaves us with are there to stimulate, to make us search for our own meanings. The void, while it entices us with its simplicity, exists as a red herring, for, “While Stevens pretends to be directing us toward ‘Nothing’ with one hand,” Blessing reminds us, “he is making sure we don’t get there with the other” (252). Stevens does this verbally and syntactically as well as conceptually:
…our reactions to the world destroy our neutrality as surely as the poet’s choice of words adds meaning and value to the landscape he describes. The words “shagged,” “rough,” and “glitter” agitate the mind, force judgments upon us, cause us to add the colors of the emotions to the event which we are trying to see without emotion (Blessing 253).
So, Blessing argues, we can never achieve a mind of winter. We are human, after all, and while human beings can imagine the void, to imagine the void without a sensation of misery—that is going too far. We cannot and should not expect it of ourselves. We have a human’s perceptual apparatus and a human’s perceptual limitations. We are not snow men, and we haven’t “minds of winter.” Blessing and Hesla see the poem as a celebration of our humanity, not a turning away from it.
Who among this cacophony of criticism is correct? To this reader, they all present viable but incomplete readings: their mobiles, palimpsests, polar dualities and philosophical applications are useful, representing the full engagement of human endeavor. Perhaps that is Stevens’ intention. At the end of the day, only one thing is certain: “The Snow Man” resists easy decryption. It is, I suspect, built that way. In Hesla’s words:
For every position there is a negation, for every assertion a denial, for every denial a denial. Stevens’ poetry is a poetry of ideas and the men who thought them, but it is not a dignified debate among gentlemen. It is a wrestling match, it is a combat zone” (261).
And reading the critics’ vociferous disagreements is indeed mentally challenging—and mentally exhausting. But I like to think of Stevens as the dandy who incites the fight, who throws the wrench into the works of his own machine, in order to make us think. The paradox, to me—the nothing that is—is the constant, unwinnable battle between ourselves and the void; the byzantine complexity of our world and our human experience as the merest fragment of that world; and the jostling we must do between the things we need to know and our inability to know them.
Stevens said it best: “It can never be satisfied, the mind. Never.”
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