I was amazed to read this essay. For the longest time I had associated Stevens with my new-age past. After my conversion to Catholicism I became drawn to the mystical writings of Simone Weil (several posts here). Until Professor Lindroth made the connection I had never imagined that Stevens had also been drawn to her and that his poem “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” could be seen as a response to many of the writings in Gravity and Grace which he had been influenced by. This is a complex essay and a difficult read. Probably only of interest to those of you who share my fascination with Weil and Stevens. Stevens’ “strong religious concern[s]” are still batted about in the secular university. Needless to say while I was growing up, this was never considered. I had always considered him a factor in my conversion and have been cheered by others seeing the religious significance of his poetry.
Wallace Stevens’ deathbed conversion to an orthodox Christian faith, reported by Peter Brazeau in Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered: An Oral Biography (1983), has been met with cynicism by James K. Guimond, among others, who speaks of it as a “final insurance policy” and with outright denial by his daughter Holly. Yet Stevens’ correspondence with Sister M. Bernetta Quinn, (See particularly the letters dated 7 April 1948 and 21 Dec. 1951; in the first, Stevens remarks on the striking similarity of their minds, after which he asserts that he does “seek a center” and expects “to go on seeking it”; in the second, he expressly states his belief in God, although not “the same God in whom” he believed as “a boy.” Wallace Stevens, Letters of Wallace Stevens, selected and edited by Holly Stevens (NY: Knopf, 1977) 584, 735.)
His reading of Simone Weil toward the end of his life, (Stevens, who died in 1955, was 68 when Weil’s La Pesanteur et La Grace was published; he draws upon this 1947 edition for his essay “The Relations between Poetry and Painting,” originally read at the Museum of Modem Art in 1951 and subsequently published in his The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (NY:Knopf, 1951) 159-76) and the corpus of Stevens’ poetry, particularly the late poems, bears witness to a strong religious concern often commented upon by his critics.
Although most, like Milton J. Bates in his authoritative new biography, find it subordinate to and ultimately subsumed by his poetic theory. In Bates’ final judgment that “Stevens effaced himself before the Supreme Imagination” in the way that “Eliot effaced himself before the Supreme Being,” Bates is representative of those critics who reject the notion that what ultimately became most important for Stevens was the quest for Weil’s uncreated reality, although the emphasis on the effacement of self is very close to Weil’s notion of de-creation. However, unlike “The Man with the Blue Guitar” and “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction,” earlier poems to which it is frequently compared, “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” composed in 1949 just prior to Stevens’ seventieth birthday, contains a subtext echoing Simone Weil’s religious meditations and displaying a spiritual ascesis in accord with the poet’s final religious act.
It is not only fitting that Wallace Stevens should be drawn to Simone Weil, a figure whose belief presents a religious paradox as problematic as his own, but that Weil’s mystical notion of de-creation should provide a key to the understanding of one of Stevens’ most difficult and, at the same time, most religious poems. Weil’s meditations on de-creation appear in her notebooks and were included in Gustave Thibon’s selections from these notebooks, published under the title La Pesanteur et La Grace (Gravity and Grace) 1947, two years before the composition of the Stevens poem. It is to the selection that Stevens refers in The Necessary Angel, and it is from this selection that he draws the notion of de-creation to emphasize the absolute value of artistic effort in his consideration of poetry’s relationship with painting.
“Simone Weil in La Pesanteur et La Grace,” says Stevens, citing the edition by its complete French title, “has a chapter on what she calls de-creation. She says that de-creation is making pass from the created to the uncreated, but that destruction is making pass from the created to nothingness. In this essay, “The Relations between Poetry and Painting,” Stevens only appropriates Weil’s notion of de-creation for the purposes of his familiar aesthetic argument that in the modern world the poet functions as a substitute for God. Still, from the standpoint of his late poetry in general and more particularly as it applies to “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” Stevens’ acknowledgment of a full familiarity with the Weil text becomes critically significant, as does the undeniable sympathy between the two as religious thinkers. If Weil’s mystical notion of the de-creation of self is a pertinent idea for Stevens in his later years, so are the correlative notions of spiritual gravity, a hidden God, affliction, and the renunciation of time.
De-creation, as postulated by Weil in Gravity and Grace, is making “something created pass into the uncreated,” and to this she opposes the notion of destruction, making “something created pass into nothingness,” which she calls a “blameworthy substitute for de-creation” (Gravity and Grace 28). For Weil, the uncreated, another term for reality, is identified with God, and the passage from the created to the uncreated is not a fall into nothingness but the attainment of God. Yet this attainment of God, through de-creation, depends on the individual’s willingness to become nothing, to detach himself from sense life, and ultimately even from a “belief in the prolongation of life,” robbing “death of its purpose” of allowing the individual to attain divine being (Gravity and Grace 33).
Within this mystical formulation, one’s greatest enemy is the world of appearances to which one clings in a desperate effort to prolong life. “Appearance clings to being,” asserts Weil, “and pain alone can tear them from each other. For whoever is in possession of being there can be no appearance. Appearance chains being down” (Gravity and Grace, 34). Here, Weil’s chain metaphor emphatically evokes her notion of spiritual gravity, the force that binds one to the created world of appearance and time. Creation says Weil is composed of the descending movement of gravity to escape gravity’s pull the individual ‘must necessarily turn to something other than himself, since it is a question of being delivered from self’ (Gravity and Grace, 3) Paradoxically, and it is a paradox fully explored by Stevens in “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven”; time, our enemy in the conventional sense, becomes our salvation, since time “in its course tears appearance from being and being from appearance, by violence. Time makes it manifest that it is not eternity” (Gravity and Grace 34).
Weil’s notions of de-creation and spiritual gravity manifest themselves in the Stevens poem through two informing impulses. The first of these is the poet’s stated intention the need to strip created reality of all illusion ‘Here,” declares Stevens of An Ordinary Evening in New Haven:
“My interest is to try to get as close to the ordinary, the commonplace and the ugly as it is possible for a poet to get. It is not a question of grim reality but plain reality.” The poem’s second informing impulse is the desire to embrace uncreated reality. This double movement produces a subtle text continually questioning the poet’s relationship to the phenomenal world of appearances, and an even subtler subtext presenting our relationship to the noumenal (vocab: In the philosophy of Kant, an object as it is in itself independent of the mind, as opposed to a phenomenon), to uncreated spiritual reality — to God.
Attending to the first movement alone has invariably led critics to reductive interpretations some dismissing the poem as an aging poet’s cry of despair over the loss of imagination; others finding a saving ballast in what they mistakenly judge to be the old Stevens’ renewed affirmation of the sense world Helen Vendler, for instance, invoking “Dejection An Ode,” sees the Stevens poem as a “long expansion of Coleridge’s disjunction before the moon and the stars,” the depression of the poet experiencing the “metabolic depletion” of age. In a similar fashion, Harold Bloom, although rejecting Vendler’s interpretation of the poem as a “portrayal of dessication,” is equally reductive in his insistence that the poem is a Whitmanian celebration of sense life and that the final canto presents reality as “the solipsistic recognition of privileged moments, sudden perfections of sense, flakes of fire, fluttering things having distinct shapes.”[Harold Bloom, Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1976) 336]
At the heart of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” is neither “metabolic depletion” nor celebratory “solipsism” but, as is the case with Weil’s meditations, the notion of ascetic denial leading to spiritual life, to being, to God. Like Weil, Stevens raises the ordinary to a mystical level where the drama of de-creation is presented in terms of the shedding of appearances, the renunciation of the created in time, the acceptance of nothingness: “The dilapidation of dilapidations” (16.3), “total leafless-ness” (16.18), “The dominant blank” (17.7).
As a major obstacle to de-creation, Weil postulates spiritual gravity, the pull exerted by the world of appearances (Gravity and Grace 45-48). “Weil,” says Eric O. Springsted, commenting on this aspect of de-creation, “contended that our natural attachment to our terrestrial existence is weighty and constitutes a sort of spiritual gravity to which we are constantly subject. Consequently, she argued that as long as we remain subject to this gravity there is no way from man to God” (Springsted, Christus Mediator, 117).and it is in the exact middle of the poem, Cantos XV, XVI, and XVII, that Stevens gives his most compelling evidence of this spiritual gravity at work.
Canto XV, for example, places the drama of de-creation against a rain-drenched landscape where the rain heightens man’s awareness of the sense world, drawing him to it and away from the spiritual:
He preserves himself against the repugnant rain
By an instinct for a rainless land, the self
Of his self, come at upon wide delvings of wings.
The instinct for heaven had its counterpart:
The instinct for earth, for New Haven, for his room,
The gay tournamonde as of a single world
In which he is and as and is are one.
For its counterpart a kind of counterpoint
Irked the wet wallows of the water-spout.
The rain kept falling loudly in the trees
And on the ground. The hibernal dark that hung
In primavera, the shadow of bare rock,
Becomes the rock of autumn, glittering,
Ponderable source of each imponderable,
The weight we lift with the finger of a dream,
The heaviness we lighten by light will,
By the hand of desire, faint, sensitive, the soft
Touch and trouble of the touch of the actual hand.
Because of his “instinct for heaven,” the protagonist in this drama of de-creation finds the rain “repugnant” rather than refreshing, and he “preserves himself against” it by “an instinct for a rainless land.” Against the backdrop of this rainless land, the biblical desert of purification, Stevens situates the protagonist’s “self / Of his self:,” the hidden “I” spoken of by Weil (“My ‘I’ is hidden for me . . . it is on the side of God, it is in God, it is God” [Gravity And Grace 33]); and the discovery of this hidden “I” is accompanied by the traditional sign of contact with the holy, the “wide delving of wings. But this is poetic drama, not platitude, and set against the man’s “Instinct for heaven” is an equally powerful “Instinct for earth, for New Haven, for his room, / The gay tournamonde as of a single world / In which he is and as and is are one.”
“Tournamonde,” providing as it does a strong echo of Weil’s notion of spiritual gravity, is central here, and in a letter to Herbert Weinstock, his editor at Knopf, Stevens gives the following explanation of the word. “Tournamonde,” Stevens says, “is a neologism. For me it creates an image of a world in which things revolve and the word is therefore appropriate in the collocation of is and as. . . I think the word justifies itself in the sense of conveying an immediate, even though rather vague, meaning.” If the movement to God’s spiritual reality is outward, away from the apparent self and the created world, the movement here is centripetal and inward, in which the man revolves in tighter and tighter circles of the illusory self. It is not the joy of God that attracts but the gaiety of appearances, the world whose constant movement creates the illusion of being where “is” and “as” are the same.
Canto XVI heightens the drama of de-creation with further evidence of the pull of gravity emanating from creation and time:
Among time’s images, there is not one
Of this present, the venerable mask above
The dilapidation of dilapidations.
The oldest-newest day is the newest alone.
The oldest-newest night does not creak by,
With lanterns, like a celestial ancientness.
Silently it heaves its youthful sleep from the sea
The Oklahoman—the Italian blue
Beyond the horizon with its masculine,
Their eyes closed, in a young palaver of lips.
And yet the wind whimpers oldly of old age
In the western night. The venerable mask,
In this perfection, occasionally speaks
And something of death’s poverty is heard.
This should be tragedy’s most moving face.
It is a bough in the electric light
And exhalations in the eaves, so little
To indicate the total leaflessness.
The opening of this canto presents one of time’s most powerfully attractive images in the spectacle of the natural world continually renewing itself, but it is the figures of youth and old age, renewal and exhaustion, birth and death that give it its dramatic structure. Moreover, subtending the canto’s entire drama is the notion of nudity, the total purity achieved, according to Weil, at only two points of existence: birth and death (Gravity and Grace 32),
Death, an emphatic point of nudity for Weil and Stevens alike, is suggested by the “dilapidation of dilapidations” and by the late-autumn tree bereft of its leaves, reduced from the image of fecundity to the bare line of “a bough in the electric light,” to “total leaflessness.” The second point of nudity, birth, is suggested by the two paradoxes of the “oldest-newest day” and the “oldest-newest night”; or rather the two points intersect, since as the day dies the night is born as “Silently it heaves its youthful sleep from the sea” and encroaches on “The Ok1ahoman — the Italian blue” disappearing beyond the mind’s horizon. This symbolic intersection of birth and death resonates with and reinforces a similar intersection in canto XV where Stevens juxtaposes winter, the season of death, with spring, the season of new life, through “The hibernal dark that” hangs “In primavera.”
Moreover, in both cantos XV and XVI, the opposites of youth and age, renewal and exhaustion, birth and death combine in a metamorphic process resulting in a denudation of existence synonymous with Weil’s notion of de-creation. In canto XV, the darkness of winter already present in the spring landscape in the “shadow of rock” is transformed into the “rock of autumn”; in canto XVI, the “masculine” light of the “oldest-newest day” retreating from the implicitly feminine darkness of the “oldest-newest night” is metamorphosed into the asexual, barren “electric light” illuminating the once youthful lips and eyes (“Their eyes closed, in a young palaver of lips”) now shrunk into “The venerable mask” of age. Finally, both cantos conclude with emphatic symbols of existence stripped bare: the “rock of autumn” and “total leaflessness.”
A major part of the drama of de-creation derives from Weil’s postulating a God who “could create only by hiding himself’ (GG 33) with the consequence that “God and the supernatural are hidden and formless in the universe” (Gravity and Grace 49: As Gustave Thibon points out in a comment on a related text, “contact with supernatural reality is first felt as an experience of nothingness” since “God does not exist in the same way as created things which form the only object of experience for our natural faculties” (Gravity and Grace 19n) Stevens meditates on the hiddeness of uncreated reality throughout “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” but a particularly clear example of such meditation presents itself in canto XVII where Weil’s absent God, the hidden holiness, is poetically evoked as “The dominant blank, the unapproachable:
The color is almost the color of comedy,
Not quite. It comes to the point and at the point,
It falls. The strength at the centre is serious.
Perhaps instead of failing it reflects
As a serious strength rejects pin-idleness.
A blank underlies the trials of device,
The dominant blank, the unapproachable.
This is the mirror of the high serious:
Blue verdured into a damask’s lofty symbol,
Gold easings and ouncings and fluctuations of thread
And beetling of belts and lights of general stones,
Like blessed beams from out a blessed bush
Or the wasted figurations of the wastes
Of night, time and the imagination,
Saved and beholden, in a robe of rays.
These fitful sayings are, also, of tragedy:
The serious reflection is composed
Neither of comic nor tragic but of commonplace.
In discussing Weil’s argument that perfect love of God is possible “only in actual affliction” and His “total absence,” Eric O. Springsted, in Christus Mediator: Platonic Mediation in the Thought of Simone Weil, points to Weil’s emphasis on parallel notions in Saint John of the Cross and Plato. Springsted emphasizes Weil’s singling out of “two periods of void” described in Plato’s “Cave Analogy,” two periods, which in Well’s words, “correspond exactly to the two dark nights described by Saint John of the Cross.” The first of these occurs “when one is unchained and walks out of the cave without being able to use his customary, but illusory, bearings”; the second occurs “when one emerges from the cave and is blinded by the light”
If Stevens evokes the hidden God through “The dominant blank” and the problematic of affliction through his opening rejection of comedy, he also, like Weil, reinforces these notions with imagery drawn from the Bible, the literature of mysticism, and Plato. For example, Stevens’ “wasted figurations of the wastes / Of night” evokes not only the Old Testament prophet’s desert of purification and Christ’s agony in the garden but the mystic’s dark night of the soul. Moreover, drawing upon the imagery of Plato’s cave and upon the Old Testament figure of the Burning Bush, Stevens renders the relation between uncreated and created reality as light reflected in darkness, and at the same time hints at the hidden God suddenly revealed in a “robe of rays.”
These major themes of Weil — de-creation of self in and through time, the pull of gravity exerted on the spirit by the world of appearances, affliction that leads to a freeing of the spirit, and a God who is hidden—resonate throughout “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” with the world of appearances receiving particularly strong emphasis in its opening cantos. Canto I, a meditation on spiritual gravity, first postulates a Platonic world of appearances and then suggests the way in which man under the force of this gravity produces an illusory God fashioned on the model of self:
The eye’s plain version is a thing apart,
The vulgate of experience.
Of this, A few words, an and yet, and yet, and yet –
As part of the never-ending meditation,
Part of the question that is a giant himself:
Of what is this house composed if not of the sun,
These houses, these difficult objects, dilapidate
Appearances of what appearances,
Words, lines, not meanings, not communications,
Dark things without a double, after all,
Unless a second giant kills the first–
A recent imagining of reality,
Much like a new resemblance of the sun,
Down-pouring; up-springing and inevitable,
A large poem for a larger audience,
As if the crude collops came together as one,
A mythological form, a festival sphere,
A great bosom, beard and being, alive with age.
Starting with the “eye’s plain version” dramatically contrasted to the “experience” of transcendence, then focusing his attention on the first of these, Stevens ponders the material world as manifested in the houses and streets of New Haven and offers the possibility that these creations of light are illusions lacking substance, “Dark things without a double.” This pessimistic questioning of created reality leads to a second question that, displacing the first, relates the material site of existence to the “crude collops” coming together in the imagination as an androgynous “mythological form” with “great bosom, beard, and being.”
The figure of the giant, with his great height but also his great weight, dramatically displays man operating under the force of gravity, first dismissing plain reality because he is not the uncreated self supporting it and then filling the “dominant blank” of the absent God with one of his own making. In each case, the figure of the giant, Polyphemus translated to Plato’s cave, emphasizes the obscured vision of the questioner and implies an ultimately unsatisfactory answer to the question of being. Stevens demonstrates his emphatic rejection of this second “giant,” the anthropomorphic god of mythology, in canto XXIV where this god in the guise of “The statue of Jove” is blown up “among the boomy clouds.” This can be construed as a de-creative act in that it conforms to Weil’s notion that we must empty ourselves of “false divinity” (Gravity and Grace, 30); Jove as an anthropomorphic divinity modeled on self is an emphatic example of such falseness. Leonora Woodman sees this as a “token of Stevens’ repeated effort to banish mistaken forms of the divine” (Woodman, Stanza My Stone, 109)
“The reality of the world,” Weil asserts, is “the reality of the self which we transfer to things. It has nothing to do with independent reality. That is only perceptible through total detachment.” Having examined New Haven, the material site of existence, as appearance and reflection, Stevens in canto II meditates on Weil’s notion of the world as an extension of self
Suppose these houses are composed of ourselves,
So that they become an impalpable town, full of
Impalpable bells, transparencies of sound,
Sounding in transparent dwellings of the self,
Impalpable habitations that seem to move
In the movement of the colors of the mind,
The far-fire flowing and the dim-coned bells
Coming together in a sense in which we are poised,
Without regard to time or where we are,
In the perpetual reference, object
Of the perpetual meditation, point
Of the enduring, visionary Jove,
Obscure, in colors whether of the sun
Or mind, uncertain in the clearest bells,
The spirit’s speeches, the indefinite,
Confused illuminations and sonorities,
So much ourselves, we cannot tell apart
The idea and the bearer-being of the idea.
If one answer to the question of being lies in the direction of Plato’s shadow-world of appearances, and another in the direction of the god of mythology, still a third looks to external reality as spiritualized self. On one hand, this version of reality has the advantage of freeing the self from limitations of “time” and space; it has a second advantage of situating the self at the metaphysical center. From this central point of intersection issue the “transparencies of sound” and the “colors of the mind” that come “together” as the impalpable town the way the “crude collops” came together as “mythological form.” The disadvantages are that although situated at the metaphysical center and poised between created reality and the “visionary love” of the uncreated, the self has in Weil’s sense transferred its reality to the reality of the created world with the effect of confusion. Subject-object distinctions vanish; and in “the indefinite, I Confused illuminations and sonorities” that result “The idea,” the “Impalpable town,” the “transparent dwellings of self” can no longer be distinguished from “the bearer-being of the idea.”
Turning from the versions of created reality postulated in the first two cantos, Stevens, in canto III, further heightens the drama of de-creation by directing his attention to the hidden holiness to be discovered through affliction and selfless love:
The point of vision and desire arc the same.
It is to the hero Qf midnight that we pray
On a hill of stones to make beau mont thereof.
If it is misery that infuriates our love,
If the black of night stands glistening on beau mont,
Then, ancientest saint ablaze with ancientest truth,
Say next to holiness is the will thereto,
And next to love is the desire for love,
The desire for its celestial ease in the heart,
Which nothing can frustrate, that most secure,
Unlike love in possession of that which was
To be possessed and is, But this cannot
Possess. It is desire, set deep in the eye,
Behind all actual seeing, in the actual scene,
In the street, in a room, on a carpet or a wall,
Always in emptiness that would be filled,
In denial that cannot contain its blood,
A porcelain, as yet in the bats thereof
In drawing a distinction between the actualities of holiness and love and their potentialities, Stevens places the same weight as Weil on possession and the need to relinquish possession if divine holiness and divine love are to be attained.
Weil’s paradoxical distinction between being and having is echoed in Stevens’s distinction, which in its elaboration situates desire “Behind all actual seeing” and raises its value above that of actual possession. For Weil, only “having,” Stevens’s “possession,” belongs to man situated in the ordinary world; or as Weil puts it: “Being does not belong to man, only having. The being of man is situated behind the curtain, on the supernatural side…The curtain is human misery: there was a curtain even for Christ” (GG 33-34). For Stevens and Weil alike, the divine, true holiness and true love, lie behind the curtain. Stevens alternately examines and embraces, wraps himself in, and steps through this curtain of the ordinary. Or as Stevens expresses it in the last two triads of canto III, behind the “actual scene,” the “street,” the “room,” the “carpet,” the “wall,” there is always the “emptiness that would be filled” and that can only be filled by being.
As the drama of de-creation unfolds in canto III, the afflicted Christ, “the hero of midnight…On a hill of stones,” displaces the self at the point of intersection between “vision and desire,” between the created and uncreated. The imagery conflates two figures central to the notion of the afflicted Christ: the figure of Christ as “the hero of midnight” undergoing the nightlong agony in the garden of Gethsemane; and the crucified Christ “On a hill of stones,” on Calvary. In his suffering, the afflicted Christ is the avatar of holiness and sainthood and in this sense becomes “ancientest saint ablaze with ancientest truth” whose holiness not only transforms the “hill of stones” into the “beau mont” but who embodies in his humanity the desire for the “celestial ease” of God’s love, “which nothing can frustrate.”
Stevens returns to Weil’s notion of affliction in canto XIX with the introduction of”A figure like Ecclesiast” (19.16). In this Old Testament guise, the afflicted Christ functions as a bridge to uncreated reality, although the imagery providing the backdrop against which the figure appears is more emphatically that of Plato’s cave rather than Calvary. A dominant figure of affliction emerges in two images: things not only shrouded in darkness but lying “Prostrate” (19.3) in the reflected light of the moon; and the transformation of daylight splendor into the privately sterile, the “public green turned private gray” (19.4).
Negative changes wrought by time reinforce the sense of affliction, as the “man who was the axis of his time” (19.9) is reduced to the “infantines” of the original “Image” (19.10). “What is the radial aspect of this place,” asks the afflicted speaker, “This present colony of a colony / Of colonies, a sense in the changing sense / Of things?” (19.13-16). In his affliction, the speaker looks to a “figure like Ecclesiast,” the embodiment of Old Testament wisdom in regard to suffering resulting from the depredations of time and the insubstantiality of created reality: “A figure Like Ecclesiast, / Rugged and luminous, chants in the dark / A text that is an I answer, although obscure” (19.16-18).
If the hero of midnight and a figure like Ecclesiast point toward Weil’s notions of the uncreated and of affliction that leads to a freeing of the spirit, two other of Stevens’s chief dramatis personae, Professor Eucalyptus and the black shepherd, restage Weil’s drama of de-creation with renewed vigor, as they show the self torn from gravity’s pull by the assault of time and death. Through Professor Eucalyptus, Stevens refocuses attention on the world of appearances, and in canto XIV where Stevens first introduces him and canto XXII where he returns, Professor Eucalyptus provides another powerful example of man operating under the force of Weil’s spiritual gravity
In the first of these two cantos, Professor Eucalyptus seeks God not in the realm of the transcendent but “In New Haven with an eye that does not look / Beyond the object” (14.3-4); more particularly “He seeks / God in the object itself, without much choice” (14.6-7). Caught by this powerful attraction to the created yet longing to discover the uncreated, professor Eucalyptus presents a theological paradox echoing those of Weil. On one hand, filled with self he freely proclaims his own divinity in the “commodious adjective” (14 8), the paradisal parlance” (14 13) that substitutes god-like word for plain thing. On the other hand, he achieves partial de-creation, release from gravity’s pull, through an “Indifference of the eye” that remains “Indifferent to what it sees.” (14.15-16) This neutrality of vision, if not of speech, sets up the possibility of a bridge to the uncreated through the unsparing presentation of its opposite, not “grim / Reality but reality grimly seen” (14.11-12).
With the return of Professor Eucalyptus in canto XXII, the philosopher and the poet conduct parallel searches “For reality” (22 2), in the philosopher’s case the “search / For an interior made exterior” and in the poet’s the search “for the same exterior made / Interior” (22.4-6). Like Professor Eucalyptus in canto XIV, the poet presents a paradox in that he demonstrates the powerful force of spiritual gravity through his emphasis on recreation of the here-and-now and at the same time discovers through this recreation a bridge to the uncreated. Intimated in “breathless things broodingly a breath / With the inhalations of original cold / And of original earliness” (22 6-8), the uncreated prompts the poet “To re-create” (22 12), to search” (22 14) a possible for its possibilities” (22 18).
Just as in canto XIV, where “The tink-tonk / Of the rain” serves as a bridge to an ‘essence not yet well perceived (14 16-18), here it is “the evening star, /The most ancient light in the most ancient sky” (22 14-15) that serves as such a bridge. In a similar manner, Professor Eucalyptus, the philosopher operating under the force of gravity and self, is like his natural namesake “The dry eucalyptus” that seeks “god in the rainy r cloud” (14.1). Moreover, as symbolic comment on the Professor’s search for God, the eucalyptus suggests the hidden flower of spirit still enclosed within its base material covering, and paradoxically this spirit will emerge g not with spring rain as is the case in the natural world but only when / total leaflessness, Weil’s de-creation of self, has been achieved
The introduction of the black shepherd in canto XXI further intensifies the drama of de-creation, since through his meditation on the black shepherd’s approach, Stevens, like Weil, stresses the painful rending of self from the world of appearance and necessity through the twin assaults of time and death “Necessity,” for Weil, “is the screen set between God and us so that we can be,” and she declares that it “Is for us to pierce through the screen so that we can cease to be” (Gravity and Grace 28). Stevens turns his attention to this “will of necessity, the will of wills” (21.3) with the appearance of the black shepherd, but as a prelude canto XX evokes New Haven and the individual self assaulted by what Weil calls “Time’s violence” (Gravity and Grace 134):
The imaginative transcripts were like clouds,
Today; and the transcripts of feeling, impossible
To distinguish. The town was a residuum,
A neuter shedding shapes in an absolute.
Yet the transcripts of it when it was blue remain,
And the shapes that it took in feeling, the persons that
It became, the nameless, flitting characters –
These actors still walk in a twilight muttering lines.
It may be that they mingle, clouds and men, in the air
Or street or about the corners of a man,
Who sits thinking in the corners of a room.
In this chamber the pure sphere escapes the impure
Because the thinker himself escapes. And yet
To have evaded clouds and men leaves him
A naked being with a naked will
And everything to make. He may evade
Even his own will and in his nakedness
Inhabit the hypnosis of that sphere.
Under the force of necessity’s will, the apparently solid forms constituting New Haven vanish until the town becomes “a residuum, / A neuter shedding shapes in an absolute” and its even more substantial inhabitants partially dematerialize into “nameless, flitting characters” dimly seen and faintly heard as they “walk in a twilight muttering lines.”
In response to time’s assault, the man withdraws from the world into his “chamber,” into the “corners of a room,” into the self where “the pure sphere escapes the impure / Because the thinker himself escapes.” Transformed through partial de-creation into “A naked being with a naked will,” the protagonist through his emphasis on the imagination shows himself to be still under the influence of gravity. “The imagination,” says Weil, “is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass,” and this is the role of the imagination here (Gravity and Grace, 16). Instead of inciting the protagonist to acts of further de-creation, the void (because it leaves “everything to make”) becomes a test for the imagination, gravity’s call for recreation in resistance to de-creation. The canto con-eludes by reemphasizing, as a possible alternative to the self drawn by gravity into time’s process of recreation, the earlier escape of self into the Platonic ideality of “the pure sphere”: “He may evade / Even his own will and in his nakedness / Inhabit the hypnosis of that sphere” (20.16-18).
Now, as the black shepherd looms up at the edges of the dominant blank, Stevens, in canto XXI, considers still another possibility:
But he may not.
He may not evade his will,
Nor the wills of other men; and he cannot evade
The will of necessity, the will of wills –
Romanza out of the black shepherd’s isle,
Like the constant sound of the water of the sea
In the hearing of the shepherd and his black forms,
Out of the isle, but not of any isle.
Close to the senses there lies another isle
And there the senses give and nothing take,
The opposite of Cythére, an isolation
At the center, the object of the will, this place,
The things around — the alternative romanza
Out of the surfaces, the windows, the walls,
The bricks grown brittle in time’s poverty,
The clear. A celestial mode is paramount,
If only in the branches sweeping in the rain:
The two romanzas, the distant and the near,
Arc a single voice in the boo-ha of the wind.
Emanating from the black shepherd’s isle and “In the hearing of the shepherd and his black forms,” the sound of necessity is the sound di death’s approach. This sound strips away the illusory pleasures of Cythére, and draws attention to a contrapuntal sound, “an alternate romanza,” emanating from “an isolation at the center.” An end result of a decreative process spurred by “time’s poverty,” this “isolation at the center” affirms Weil’s paradox that time aids de-creation by “tearing appearance from being and being from appearance” (Gravity and Grace, 34). If the black shepherd defines one limit of creation and naked being another, the sounds of death and isolation marking these limits are contrapuntal; but paradoxically, like the decreative process in which the self gains the uncreated through annihilation, these opposites merge into the single voice” of “A celestial mode” that “is paramount.”
In their turn, Professor Eucalyptus, the hero of midnight, and the black shepherd evoke Weil’s notions of spiritual gravity, salvational affliction, and time’s violent rending of the self from the world of appearance and necessity. They also make it possible to discern Weil’s drama of de-creation in the otherwise perplexing roles of Alpha and Omega, the “Immaculate interpreters” of canto VI:
Reality is the beginning not the end,
Naked Alpha, not the hierophant Omega,
Of dense investiture, with luminous vassals.
It is the infant A standing on infant legs,
Not twisted, stooping, polymathic Z,
He that kneels always on the edge of space
In the pallid perceptions of its distances.
Alpha fears men or else Omega’s men
Or else his prolongations of the human.
These characters are around us in the scene.
For one it is enough; for one it is not;
For neither is it profound absentia,
Since both alike appoint themselves the choice
Custodians of the glory of the scene,
The immaculate interpreters of life.
But that’s the difference: in the end and the way
To the end. Alpha continues to begin.
Omega is refreshed at every end.
Omega, whose “dense investiture” suggests the weight of the human and whose “twisted” shape testifies to the force of gravity’s pull, is, like Professor Eucalyptus, tied to the thingness of things. As “Custodians of the glory of the scene” and the “Immaculate interpreters of life” both characters, despite their apparent differences in that Alpha is “the infant A standing on infant legs” and Omega the “stooping, polymathic Z,” demonstrate a similar inability to become disentangled from the created.
However, considered in another way, Alpha and Omega present a demonstration of Weil’s distinction between the different modes of God’s presence. “The presence of God,” says Weil, “should be understood in two ways. As Creator, God is present in everything that exists as soon as it exists. The presence for which God needs the cooperation of the creature is the presence of God, not as Creator but as Spirit. The first presence is the presence of creation. The second is the presence of de-creation” (Gravity and Grace, 33). Stevens, through his personification of Alpha and Omega, Greek letters traditionally understood as signifying God, offers a strong echo of Weil. Not only does he evoke the created world through symbolic types, he also presents a poetic figure of God’s presence.in the created and subtending it. The figure is that of created reality as a circle closed at the point where Alpha and Omega meet: “But that’s the difference: in the end and the way / To the end. Alpha continues to begin. / Omega is refreshed at every end.”
From the standpoint of God’s support of it, created reality, as is suggested in Alpha’s continuing “to begin” and Omega’s being “refreshed at every end,” is continuously created, and in this sense “Reality is a beginning not the end, / Naked Alpha, not the hierophant Omega.” But for Stevens, as for Weil, this manifestation of God’s presence is not to be confused with God as Spirit, the Spirit behind the dominant blank, the “profound absentia” to which creation points.
“Time,” says Weil, “is an image of eternity, but it is also a substitute for eternity” (Gravity and Grace, 18); and for Weil and Stevens alike, the Spirit behind the dominant blank can be attained only through the renunciation of time. In the final cantos of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” Stevens presents the most emphatic example of Weil’s link between the renunciation of time and spiritual ascesis. The penultimate canto, canto XXX, in preparation for this final renunciation, opens with a scene whose barrenness powerfully echoes that of “The dilapidation of dilapidations,” “total leaflessness,” “The dominant blank”:
The last leaf that is going to fall has fallen.
The robins are là-bas, the squirrels, in tree-caves,
Huddle together in the knowledge of squirrels.
The wind has blown the silence of summer away.
It buzzes beyond the horizon or in the ground:
In mud under ponds, where the sky used to be reflected.
The barrenness that appears is exposing.
It is not part of what is absent, a halt
For farewells, a sad hanging on for remembrances.
It is a coming on and a coming forth.
The pines that were fans and fragrances emerge,
Staked solidly in a gusty grappling with rocks.
The glass of the air becomes an element –
It was something imagined that has been washed away.
A clearness has returned. It stands restored.
It is not an empty clearness, a bottomless sight.
It is a visibility of thought,
In which hundreds of eyes, in one mind, see at once.
Unlike Omega’s men who attach themselves to the past with their prolongations of the human, the protagonist rejects any such “sad hanging on for remembrances,” any “halt / For farewells.” Rather the “barrenness” of the present moment readies the de-created self for a final renunciation of time and for the approach of the uncreated: “The barrenness that appears is exposing”; “It is a coming on and a coming forth.” Within the context of barrenness the de-creation of self hurries toward completion as it finds its own relation to the uncreated repeated in the upward movement of the pines in their “grappling with the rocks” and in the transparency replacing the darkness of the cave with its flickering reflections:
“The glass of the air becomes an element — / It was something imagined that has been washed away. / A clearness has returned.” What is exposed is an Argus-eyed reality: “It is a visibility of thought, / In which hundreds of eyes, in one mind, see at once.” At the conclusion of this penultimate canto, then, the hidden God stands revealed and the passage from the created to the un-created, Weil’s de-creation, is all but finished.
The powerful final triad of the poem’s final canto brings Stevens’ drama of de-creation to an emphatic close through a second extraordinary evocation of Weil’s hidden God:
It is not in the premise that reality
Is a solid. It may be a shade that traverses
A dust, a force that traverses a shade.
In this canto, as in the poem as a whole, Stevens employs figures of incompletion and emptiness, “dead candles at the window” (31.5), “Mr. Blank” (31.9), a woman’s canceled note (31.15), to mark the world of time and prepare for its renunciation. And if the black shepherd’s approach can be discerned in the evening’s “spectrum of violet” (31.14), so too does the earlier figure of the “fire-forms” (316), like that of the “blessed beams from out a blessed bush” of canto XVII, announce the uncreated and prepare for the final triad’s disclosure of God. In these last lines, not only does Stevens invoke Weil’s God as Creator, her “presence of creation” (UG 33), through the Biblical figure of Adam’s creation inhering in the “shade that traverses / A dust”; he also invokes Weil’s hidden God, God as Spirit, God as the “presence of de-creation” (Gravity and Grace 33), in the paradoxical figure of the force behind creation, the “force that traverses a shade.” For Stevens, as for Weil, reality and God are one, and with these mystical hints of the spiritual fullness awaiting the de-created self the poem ends.