«Anachronistic Reading Literary works program or encode their future readings, though in an unpredictable way. This exemplifies Michelet’s ...»
J. Hillis Miller
Department of English and Comparative Literature
University of California
Irvine, CA 92697
voice: 207-348-6696 or 207-359-6535 or 949-824-6722
Literary works program or encode their future readings, though in an
unpredictable way. This exemplifies Michelet’s dictum that “Each epoch dreams
the one to follow,” or Percy Bysshe Shelley’s claim in “A Defence of Poetry,” that
poets are “the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.” The poet, says Shelley, “not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of the latest time.”1 A free reading would try to identify the way a poem or other literary work mirrors the future. Such a reading, it follows, is anachronistic. It takes possession of the old work for present uses and in a new context.
A poem encrypts, though not predictably, the effects it may have when at some future moment, in another context, it happens to be read and inscribed in a new situation, in “an interpretation that transforms the very thing it interprets,” as Jacques Derrida puts it in Spectres de Marx. The effects of a transformative reading exceed any intentions or intended meanings that may have been in the poet’s mind when he put the words down on paper, or, in Wallace Stevens’s case, dictated the poem to his secretary. A poem is only completed when it is freely read at some point in the future. It takes two to tango, the writer and the reader. Each reading, moreover, is unique, even if the same reader makes several readings of the same work at different times. The reading creates the meaning retroactively, by a species of metalepsis or what Freud called Nachträglichkeit, cause after effect, the cart before the horse. For Freud the initial traumatic event only becomes traumatic when its effect is triggered by a much later event that recalls, echoes, or repeats the first event. Another way to put this is to say that the poem, though not the poet, foretells, foreshadows, foresees, prefigures, or even brings about performatively the meaning and force it comes to have. Franz Kafka feared his stories and novels might bring about the catastrophe of the Holocaust they obscurely foresee. Therefore he could not finish his novels and wanted all his manuscripts burned, in an attempt, vain as it turned out, to abolish their performative force.
Just what would an anachronic, ahistorical, anachronistic, inaugural, proleptic, transormative reading, such as I am demanding, look like? I take Stevens’s “The Man on the Dump,” from Parts of a World (1942), as my example.
The poem, John Irwin reminds me, may echo the film of 1936 starring William Powell and Carole Lombard. William Powell plays the man on the dump who is hired as butler by a rich socialite, played by Carole Lombard.
The sun is a corbeil of flowers the moon Blanche Places there, a bouquet. Ho-ho... The dump is full Of images. Days pass like papers from a press.
The bouquets come here in the papers. So the sun, And so the moon, both come, and the janitor’s poems Of every day, the wrapper on the can of pears, The cat in the paper-bag, the corset, the box From Esthonia: the tiger chest, for tea.
The freshness of night has been fresh a long time.
The freshness of morning, the blowing of day, one says That it puffs as Cornelius Nepos reads, it puffs More than, less than or it puffs like this or that.
The green smacks in the eye, the dew in the green Smacks like fresh water in a can, like the sea On a cocoanut—how many men have copied dew For buttons, how many women have covered themselves With dew, dew dresses, stones and chains of dew, beads Of the floweriest flowers dewed with the dewiest dew.
One grows to hate these things except on the dump.
Now, in the time of spring (azaleas, trilliums, Myrtles, viburnums, daffodils, blue phlox), Between that disgust and this, between the things That are on the dump (azaleas and so on) And those that will be (azaleas and so on), One feels the purifying change. One rejects The trash.
To the bubbling of bassoons. That’s the time One looks at the elephant-colorings of tires.
Everything is shed; and the moon comes up as the moon (All its images are in the dump) and you see As a man (not like the image of a man), You see the moon rise in the empty sky.
One sits and beats an old tin can, lard pail.
One beats and beats for that which one believes.
That’s what one wants to get near. Could it after all Be merely oneself, as superior as the ear To a crow’s voice? Did the nightingale torture the ear, Pack the heart and scratch the mind? And does the ear Solace itself in peevish birds? Is it peace, Is it a philosopher’s honeymoon, one finds On the dump? Is it to sit among mattresses of the dead,
Bottles, pots, shoes and grass and murmur aptest eve:
Is it to hear the blatter of grackles and say
Well, what can I say about this poem? What does the poem say?
On the one hand, the poem tells a plausible realistic story. The speaker, whoever that is, let us call him the Hartford poet and insurance executive Wallace Stevens, “now, in the time of spring,” has gone to the dump at sundown and moonrise, perhaps the municipal dump of his home-town. He observes the everyday objects of American consumer life that have been discarded in the dump and carries on the endless meditation that was Stevens’s interior life and the concomitant of his poetry. That meditation, as transferred to language or generated by it, alternates, as was usual with Stevens, between an ornate richness of metaphorical transfiguration and a minimalist shedding that attempts to discard or eject all images, to “wipe away moonlight like mud,” as he says in another poem. The speaker beats an old tin can, a lard pail, no doubt found on the dump, as a rhythmical accompaniment to his meditations.
On the other hand, no thoughtful reader can doubt that “The Man on the Dump” is more than the realistic report of a visit to the Hartford dump by Wallace Stevens in 1942. The verbalized meditation is the point or substance of the poem. The poem’s material base must never be forgotten, nevertheless, since it provides the “material” that Stevens’s language transfigures. That transfiguration takes two chief forms in the poem.
One is the characteristically gaudy tropological transformations. The moon is seen as a woman named Blanche who places the sun in the sky like a bouquet of flowers, or, more precisely, like a “corbeil,” name for “a sculptured basket of flowers of fruit used as an architectural ornament” (American Heritage
Dictionary). The poem uses a wild assortment of tropes, a big bouquet of them:
metaphors, similes, metonymies, synecdoches, prosopopoeias, comparisons of more and less, alliterations that call attention to the material base of language (“bubbling of bassoons”), synesthesias, prolepses, analepses, metalepses, puns.
“The Man on the Dump,” moreover, turns back on itself to reflect on this process of verbal transmogrification and, ultimately, to reject it—almost. Of “the freshness of morning, the blowing of day,” the poet asserts, “one says/That it puffs as [a simile] Cornelius Nepos reads, it puffs/More than, less than or it puffs like this or that.” The word “puff” apparently refers to the intermittent breezes of a spring morning, but that puffing can be said to be more or less or like all kinds of things, this or that, even like the way Cornelius Nepos reads. Nepos was a Roman biographer, who lived from ca. 100-24 B.C. His only surviving work is the Excellentium Imperatorum Vitae (Lives of the Eminent Commanders). That work is certainly “puffs” in the sense that we speak of outrageously hyperbolic praise of a newly-published book as a “puff.” If the fresh breezes of a spring morning can be said to be like Cornelius Nepos’s puffs of these murderous military men, then almost anything can be said to be like almost anything else.
The other form of transfiguration is to see the junk in the dump as figures or what Stevens calls “images” and what Marx, and I, would call the residue of consumer fetishism’s ideologies. The waste items in the dump, so carefully
itemized by Stevens, are not exactly symbols. They are synecdochic examples:
newspapers used as wrappings for bouquets, the wrapper on the can of pears, the cat in the paper bag, the corset, the tea box from Esthonia, spring flowers that must be discarded when they wilt (azaleas, trilliums, myrtle, viburnums, daffodils, blue phlox), old automobile tires, lard pails, bottles, pots, shoes, and grass. This motley assortment is archeological signs of the social life of those people who have used and have discarded them, just as is the case with Roman or Mayan dumps archeologists disinter and analyze.
Stevens’s term for the way these things in the dump are ideological signs of commodity fetishism, and of the state of technology at that time, is, as I have said, “images”: “The dump is full/Of images.” The movement of “The Man on the Dump” is a complex temporal to and fro or give and take that attempts to move toward a repudiation or annihilation of these images by the man on the dump. That rejection leaves him “The Latest Freed Man,” as the title of the second poem after this one in the Collected Poems puts it.
In “The Man on the Dump” this movement of imaginative “decreation,” that sees things not as images but as they are, takes place quite suddenly, just after the gorgeous description of the way men and women copy dew in their clothes and jewelry: “One grows to hate these things except on the dump.” The poem opposes two kinds of time, the perpetual rhythm of sunset, moonrise, and then sunrise, in an endlessly repetitive present (“The freshness of night has been fresh a long time. The freshness of morning... “), to the time of culture in which things are manufactured, festishized as social values, and then thrown away, to remain as archeological or historical testimony in the form of images on the dump. We come to hate these images, to find them disgusting, like so much garbage. Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, in the “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” faces towards the ever-growing debris of history at his feet as he is propelled backwards into a future he cannot see.2 Stevens’s man on the dump has his back toward history and has repudiated its images in “disgust” in order to face toward a future that will, he hopes, be purified of ideological mystifications. He knows, however, that always more such images will come and will need in their turn to be repudiated and junked, put on the dump, time after time, in an endless task of purification.
The result of rejecting the trash is that “everything is shed.” In that moment of minimalist decreation so important in Stevens’s poetry, one sees (or thinks one sees) things as they are, without trope or deviation, in a double purification of both seer and seen: “the moon comes up as the moon/(All its images are in the dump) and you see/As a man (not like the image of a man)./You see the moon rise in the empty sky.” Such seeing without ideological distortion is extremely difficult and precarious. The last stanza, the most difficult lines in the poem, attests to that.
After the lines about beating an old tin can, lard pail, as a way of getting at “that which one believes,” which is “what one wants to get near,” the poem ends with a strange series of questions. It also returns to the gaudiness and tropological extravagance of the opening lines. Are these just rhetorical questions or are they real questions? It is not easy to tell, though the question is important.
If the stanza returns to the extravagant language of the poem’s opening, after the bareness of a disgusted rejection of all the trash, it returns with a difference. To get near to what one believes is to get near to the self. The poetic self is, for Stevens, the home of the imagination. That imagination creates what Stevens calls the new “supreme fictions” by which, according to him, we all ought to live. For Stevens, as for Percy Bysshe Shelley, poets are the legislators of all mankind, or at least the makers of new ideological images, as well as being those who put in question the old images.
For Stevens these supreme fictions are, for United Statesians, specifically American fictions based on our own landscape, our own birds and beasts.
Stevens celebrates, in “Sunday Morning,” his version of the ideology of the American Adam making a home in the wilderness: “Deer walk upon our mountains, and the quail/Whistle about us their spontaneous cries:/Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness” (CP, 70). Stevens knew as well as did Louis Althusser (if not Marx, who was beguiled by the hope of an end to ideology), that when one ideology or set of cultural images is rejected in disgust and sent to the dump, the resulting bareness lasts only a brief instant. It is then replaced by a new set of cultural images. Stevens wanted the poet, that is, Wallace Stevens himself, the man on the dump, to be the begetter of this new ideology.