12) “Two Illustrations That the World Is What You Make of It”

Santayana’s chapter XII and Stevens’ corresponding poem provide a convenient occasion to examine how the poet typically makes use of the philosopher’s writings. The Rock is not a versified pony to Scepticism and Animal Faith; indeed, in what may be a revealing comment, Stevens once praised Santayana’s writings by saying they “do not lend themselves for sensational summary” (OP 187). Instead, in ways large and small, Santayana’s chapters provided “jumping-off points” for Stevens’ poems; Stevens found fascinating ideas in the philosopher’s work which he “particularized” in his poetry.

To show how this is so, we might consider Stevens’ likely method of composition with this particular chapter and poem: outlining the arguments of Santayana’s Chapter XII per se without looking ahead to the poem; and then examining the poem, noting what Stevens borrows from the chapter (as well as what he leaves behind) and how he goes on in his own way.

Santayana’s Chapter XII

Chapter XII of Scepticism and Animal Faith (“Identity and Duration attributed to Essences”) consists of seven paragraphs in six pages (109–115). If organized by paragraphs, this is how Santayana’s comments might be summarized:

¶1. Systems of knowledge can be organized in different ways. One way is “the order of genesis” where the origins of beliefs and ideas lie in the realm of matter.

¶2. Another way is “the order of discovery” where the origins of beliefs and ideas lie in thought. Here, circumstances are ignored and attention is paid to the genesis of reason. The very first ideas and beliefs are likely to be concerned with goods and evils, perhaps imagined as the bequests of a deity but in any event reflecting the vehemence by which some subjects are preferred and others abhorred.

¶3. A third way a system of knowledge can be organized is by “the order of evidence,” and this is one that concerns Santayana. At a certain point, someone may ask (as Santayana says he does in this book) what is credible and what is dubious. Alternate creeds may then be built on “the bed-rock of certainty,” if there is such a thing. Santayana admits that, in his own case, “the bed-rock of certainty” is the most impossible ether — i.e., that realm of disassociated images called essences. This leaves him with only one remedy:

Willingly or regretfully, if I wish to live, I must rouse myself from this open-eyed trance into which utter scepticism has thrown me. I must allow subterranean forces within me to burst forth and to shatter that vision. I must consent to be an animal or a child, and to chase the fragments as if they were things of moment. But which fragment, and rolling in what direction? I am resigned to being a dogmatist; but at what point shall my dogmatism begin, and by what first solicitation of nature? (111)

¶4. Santayana proposes that the first article of belief is “identity”; as an example, he mentions picking up a pebble and then, after an interval, picking it up again and asserting that this is “the same pebble.” Strictly speaking, from the point of view of the sceptic, this is illogical since every essence is unique (i.e., the first pebble, the second pebble); but in this case, some disparity is allowed between them to say it is “the same pebble.” But the assertion of identity requires two significant presuppositions: a) the existence of time and b) the ability of the mind to traverse time.

¶5. The acceptance of these two highly questionable dogmas is made easier by a certain property of essences: their eternity. Essences are indestructible and timeless, but they are perused in time by human intuition: so that as long as I attend to an essence, it seems to endure; or when after an interval I revert to it, it seems identical. Intuition finds essences by exerting a jumpy and fluctuating animal attention upon them; when essences seem to be still, it is not because an essence’s native eternality has been detected but because the animal has projected upon them the stillness it feels when it pauses for a breath.

¶6. A further complication arises when one feature is said to persist while another disappears; in other words, when someone asserts, “This, and again this with a variation.” Strictly speaking, from the point of view of the sceptic, this is illogical because every essence (as well as its variants) is uniquely itself. To admit this idea, we have to import dubious notions of change, existence, and substance; in this way, intuition gets converted into belief and the mind watches hypostasized essences dancing this way and that. But consider what would happen if we withdrew the belief that we are perusing the “same” essence: without that presumption, it would be impossible to think or say anything about any subject: “[Such a belief] must be accepted as a rule of the game, if you think the game worth playing” (114).

¶7. What is the probable truth of these assumptions about identity and duration? Santayana wonders: Shall I call them false and invalidate the whole structure of animal faith constructed upon them? Or should I conclude that their usefulness implies their validity? Neither, since their utility is no guarantee of their veracity. We are in a situation of circular logic where we must accept the presumptions of identity and duration even if we try to disprove them. We are “in the region of belief, . . . in the region of animal faith” (115).

Stevens’ Illustrations of Santayana’s “Poetic” Concepts

In “Two Illustrations That the World Is What You Make of It,” Stevens takes Santayana’s more general ideas about identity and duration and converts them into “particulars”¹ in the poem’s two anecdotes. To do so, Stevens largely ignores the first three paragraphs of Santayana’s chapter XII and the looking-ahead conclusion of its last paragraph. The chapter’s first three paragraphs can be dismissed because they are contextual and unnecessary to Santayana’s main argument; these paragraphs take up various ways a philosophical system might be created before Santayana opts for one. In other words, Stevens skips Santayana’s introductory folderol but he does so with one exception.

Santayana ends his third paragraph in an “explosive” way when he concludes he must abandon his scepticism and accept articles of animal faith to begin his project of creating a philosophical system:

I must rouse myself from this open-eyed trance into which utter scepticism has thrown me. I must allow subterranean forces within me to burst forth and to shatter that vision. I must consent to be an animal or a child, and to chase the fragments if they were things of moment. [All bolded words indicate my emphasis.] But which fragment, and rolling in what direction? I am resigned to being a dogmatist; but at what point shall my dogmatism begin? (111)

There is an echo of this in the conclusion of Stevens’ poem where he says his persona “left only fragments found in the grass, / From his project, as finally magnified.”

Incidentally, there are other verbal echoes which suggest that Stevens had Santayana’s work in mind when he created his poem. A few are quite close: for example, when the philosopher (making a point) employs in one paragraph “breath,” “breathless,” and “breathe” (113) and the poet (making the same point) writes, “He breathed / The breath of another nature as his own, // But only its momentary breath.” Many other apparent echoes might, of course, be discounted as accidental (e.g., “life,” “own,” “nature,” “image,” etc.) except when they begin to accumulate. Finally, still other repetitions — both between the chapter and poem as well as within each (e.g., “knowledge,” “thought,” “time,” “change”) — might be taken as suggestions that both are dealing with the same subjects.

More to the point, however, is the way Stevens takes up Santayana’s concepts (in paragraphs 4, 5, and 6) and exemplifies them in the two parts of “Two Illustrations That the World Is What You Make of It.”

Poem, the First Part

In the first section of the poem (“The Constant Disquisition of the Wind”), Stevens particularizes the fifth paragraph of Santayana’s chapter by presenting a persona musing on a blustery winter’s day. We can explicate the poem by means of notes between its lines.

The sky seemed so small that winter day,
A dirty light on a lifeless world,
Contracted like a withered stick

It was not the shadow of cloud and cold,
But a sense of the distance of the sun —
The shadow of a sense of his own,

A knowledge that the actual day
Was so much less. […]

Projection. The winter sky seems “small” and “dirty” in a “lifeless” and “contracted” world not as a result of clouds and cold but because of the persona’s “knowledge” of how much “less” the day is and because of his sense of how distant the sun is.²

[…] Only the wind
Seemed large and loud and high and strong.

And as he thought within the thought
Of the wind, […]

He first thinks about the wind, then he thinks about his thought about the wind (how he has imagined that blustery phenomenon). The title of the section: “The Constant Disquisition of the Wind.”³

[…] not knowing that that thought
Was not his thought, nor anyone’s,

A paranthetical remark is inserted: He did not realize that this thought about the wind’s constancy did not arise in him but was a perception of the native eternality of essences which was not “his . . . nor anyone’s.” But again, this is an aside. To return: While he is thinking about the wind . . .

The appropriate image of himself,
So formed, became himself and he breathed
The breath of another nature as his own, […]

Santayana had said that the attribution of constancy (i.e., identity plus duration) is not the recognition of an essence’s eternality but a projection arising from breathing animal life when it pauses for a breath. So, the wind is really a made image of himself with parallel respiration.

But only its momentary breath,
Outside of and beyond the dirty light,
That never could be animal,

A nature still without a shape,
Except his own — perhaps, his own
In a Sunday’s violent idleness.

But this is “superstition,” Santayana says, a “confused temporal translation [of the eternality of essences]” within a creature’s fundamental “animal uneasiness” where attention is mercurial and comes and goes (113). The realm of essences “never could be animal” since it does not participate in this fitfulness of animal life that lives and breathes. That realm is eternal and without shape or, rather, it is only shaped by our projections. This is the final recognition the poem’s persona importantly comes to and shares with Santayana: It is “his own” shape he finds in nature, and the troubled sky and constant wind are in truth only extrapolations arising from his own “animal uneasiness” in “a Sunday’s violent idleness.”

Poem, the Second Part

As we have seen, the fifth paragraph of Chapter XII and the first part of Stevens’ poem present challenges to beliefs in identity and duration, and both end with the sceptical recognition that these attributes are human projections. Santayana’s sixth paragraph and the second part of Stevens’ poem continue these challenges to identity and duration in so far as they are implicit in our assertions of sameness-through-change.

Our notion of sameness-through-change is implied when we say, “This, and still this with a variation” (113). This concept is likewise subject to sceptical objections. In the sceptic’s eye, the assertion of sameness is an absurdity: “this” cannot change its nature, and any slight difference is a new essence. Moreover, Santayana adds, the sceptic’s critique of sameness-through-change has another and calamitous consequence: the very notion of an “I” disappears because it presumes a sameness in personality from one moment to the next.

This calamity is where the second section of Stevens’ poem (“The World is Larger in Summer”) begins. The opening stanza is an after-the-fact account of what occurs once the persona rejected belief in sameness-through-change:

He left half a shoulder and half a head
To recognize him in after time.

In a before-and-after manner, we are given here the “after” image and it is a picture of the fragments of an exploded statue.

The marbles lay weathering in the grass
When the summer was over, when the change

Of summer and the sun, the life
Of summer and the sun, were gone.

As Santayana would say, strictly speaking, when someone says “summer was over,” they hypostasize the season. They bundle a number of discrete moment and make “Summer” into an existing thing with a “life” of its own, into a something that can “change” (that can wax and peak and wane, that can be “over” and then “gone”). As the philosopher explains, “Material categories such as existence, substance, and change, none of which are applicable to pure data, are thus insinuated by the animal intellect into contemplation” (113).

He had said that everything possessed
The power to transform itself, or else,

And what meant more, to be transformed.

A subtle difference is suggested here. The first assertion (“that everything possessed / The power to transform itself”) arises from an animal mind where freely existing objects (including hypostasized phenomena like “Summer”) have autonomous powers to change (e.g., they can wax and wane). The second assertion (“that everything possessed / The power . . . to be transformed”) arises from a sceptical mind sensitive to the ways perceptions and pure data can be transformed by animal eagerness and hasty beliefs.

As Santayana often explains, the sceptic wishes to stop short with the indubitable: with intuition instead of belief, with essences instead of objects (hypostasized essences). From the point of view of the sceptic, the animal mind goes too far with its insinuations and additions that “transform intuition into belief; and this belief, as if it would reinforce essences when they appear and annul them when they disappear, ultimately posits an imaginary shuffling of sensible existences — hypostasized essences — dancing about us as we watch the scene” (114).

That dance of hypostasized essences is next presented by Stevens:

He discovered the colors of the moon

In a single spruce, when, suddenly,
The tree stood dazzling in the air

And blue broke on him from the sun,
A bullioned blue, a blue abulge,

Like daylight, with time’s bellishings,
And sensuous summer stood full-height.

In Stevens’ lexicon, the “moon” and “moonlight” refer to subjectivity and the mistake of believing we find in the world what in truth are only our own ideas projected there. Those terms appear in two other poems of The Rock: most notably in “Note on Moonlight,” but also in “Madame La Fleurie” where the poem’s persona suffers from “the sleepiness of the moon” and presents his ideas about nature to Nature herself who devours them (and him).

In terms of this poem, then, the persona here has “discovered the colors of the moon” when Summer “peaks” in front of him. He has discovered, in Santayana’s words, that his vision of Summer’s “peak” is only an “imaginary shuffling of sensible existences.” Again in Santayana’s terms, he has reinforced an essence when it appeared (the blue is “bullioned” and “abulge” with “time’s bellishings”) just as in the earlier, retrospective lines he annulled an essence when it disappeared (“when the change // Of summer and the sun, the life /Of summer and the sun, were gone”).

So, in the end, the persona discovers “the colors of the moon” in his imagined pageant of arboreal pyrotechnics and atmospheric splendor. Looking back with the eye of sceptic, he dismisses these illusions of seasonal climax as so much “imaginary shuffling of sensible existences–hypostasized essences–dancing about.” But this retraction also has an unanticipated result.

Imagining this very scenario that Stevens presents in his poem, Santayana had warned:

Even if this hypostasis is retracted afterwards by the critic, the postulate remains that he is steadily perusing the same essence, or returning to reconsider it. Without this postulate it would be impossible to say or think anything on any subject. (114).

In other words, if we are strict sceptics and withdraw belief in identity and duration, we can longer hold on to the idea that we are the same person from one moment to the next. So, once Steven’s persona has discovered “the colors of the moon” and retracts his wanton beliefs about Summer, he suffers the logical next step and is extinguished:

The master of the spruce, himself,
Became transformed. But his mastery

Left only the fragments found in the grass,
From his project, as finally magnified.

This is what strict scepticism leads to in the end: Without the dubious beliefs in identity and duration, nothing can be said because there is no sameness from moment to moment and no enduring mind to survey them. This is the fatality that befalls poem’s persona.

This fatality is the very reason Santayana shifts in his book from scepticism to animal faith:

I must rouse myself from this open-eyed trance into which utter scepticism has thrown me. I must allow subterranean forces within me to burst forth and to shatter that vision. I must consent to be an animal or a child, and to chase the fragments (111).

Here, the image Santayana presents of himself is of someone having reached the ultimate end of scepticism, exploding from within, shattered into fragments, and now ready to turn to animal faith. Pursuing his own path and arriving at utter scepticism, Stevens’ persona is likewise extinguished and suffers an explosion from within that shatters him, leaving only fragments.

This last and culminating echo between chapter and poem might lead us to muse on the possibility that the persona in Stevens’ poem is really a figure for Santayana. In fact, from the philosopher’s general ideas to the poet’s imagined specifics, the step-by-step argument of Santayana’s developing ideas in his chapter is exactly mirrored in the persona’s incremental stages in Stevens’ poem. In many ways, we might say Santayana’s “I” yields Stevens’ “he.”

Notes.

  1. Stevens distinguished philosophic poetry and modern poetry in this way: in the former, ideas were foremost and particulars in the shadows; while in the latter, particulars occupied the foreground and ideas resided in the background. (cf. OP 270).
  2. Cf. “Lebensweisheitspieleri,” another poem in The Rock, where the natives feel a sense of poverty and consequently see the sun as “a stellar pallor that hangs on the threads.”
  3. The “wind” and the “winds” are a repeating motif that give The Rock a coherence Stevens required of a “book” of poems. They blow through six more of the twenty-five poems: “The Irish Cliffs of Moher,” “One of the Inhabitants of the West,” “Vacancy in the Park,” “Looking Across the Fields and Watching the Bird’s Fly,” “The World as Meditation,” and “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself.”

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Jerry Griswold

Jerry Griswold

former literature professor (San Diego State, UCSD, UCLA, UConn, NUI Galway) and literary journalist (NYTimes, LATimes, & elsewhere)