22) “Note on Moonlight”

Note. We commonly discriminate between what is “objective” and what is “subjective”: between (on the one hand) things and events that occur in the world at large, and (on the other hand) their significance as interpreted by the mind of the individual. Though he often mentions “object” and “subject,” Santayana does not use the words “objective” and “subjective” in “Scepticism and Animal Faith.” And Stevens does not often use those terms in his prose or poetry, though he takes up the same concepts in his frequent discussions of, respectively, “reality” and the “imagination.” Nonetheless, I employ the terms “objective” and “subjective” in the discussion below because it provides the best way of elucidating their ideas in what has become more common, modern parlance.

“Note on Moonlight” does not tell a story. It is not a narrative exemplification of Santayana’s ideas in the manner of Penelope’s remembering the absent Ulysses in “The World as Meditation.” Instead, it is closer to a poetic lecture or a lyrical re-presentation of Santayana’s ideas in Chapter XXIV, though it should be added that in the finale Stevens does go farther than the philosopher.

To understand “Note on Moonlight” it may be helpful to have an overview of its structure. The poem essentially divides along the lines of its four complete sentences, but the third sentence is also subdivided with a semicolon.

The subject of the poem is moonlight shining “on the mere objectiveness of things,” and that is the referent of the “It” that begins the second and third sentence. As I explain below, by this “moonlight shining” Stevens means the subjective illuminating the objective. In the poem, Stevens supplies examples of this. The first appears as a simile within the comma phrase of the first stanza and sentence (“like a plain poet . . .”). The second is also a simile and announced at the start of the second stanza (“It is as if . . .”). And the third and fourth are metaphors in the third sentence that divides into two parts beginning with “It is to disclose” and balanced after the semicolon with a second part “or else // To disclose.” After the presentation of these illustrative examples, the fourth sentence and the remainder of the poem (starting with “So, then”) amounts to a conclusion.

As we will see, in his presentation of ideas, Stevens generally follows the structure of Chapter XXIV (evident in the sequence of citations below) — though he does so in a more economical and poetic way, reducing the philosopher’s ten pages of closely reasoned prose into a page and a half of skilled verse.

Projection, or how the subjective can contaminate the objective

The one moonlight, in the simple-colored night,
Like a plain poet revolving in his mind
The sameness of his various universe,
Shines on the mere objectiveness of things.

“Moonlight” is Stevens’ favorite word for the subjective¹ and, as the poem opens, he says here that it “shines on the mere objectiveness of things.” That is close to the way Santayana often describes the operation of the spirit in the world: for example, “By spirit I understand the pure light or actuality of thought” which bathes the given universe (214). This same figure is frequently used by Stevens to convey the idea of the imagination (a light or lamp) shining upon reality; occasions of this are too abundant to list but one germane example appears in The Rock in the poem “Prologues to What is Possible” where Stevens speaks of the “self” as “the smallest lamp, which added its puissant flick . . . over the ordinary of his commonplace”(546).

These are the subjects of “Chapter XXIV. Literary Psychology” in Scepticism and Animal Faith. And Santayana begins by noting that while scientific psychology deals with the objective, literary psychology deals with the subjective. He adds that, regrettably, these two realms are often mixed and objective facts mingled with subjective thoughts and feelings. The result can be what a modern-day readers of Santayana would call “projection.” As an example, Santayana points to ancient animists who took the variegated world that scientists know and reduced it via myth and analogy, imagining the universe as a single creature with thoughts and feelings like our own (252–253).

Projection explains the first example Stevens gives of subjectivity shining on the objective world and, it appears in the paranthetical phrase (technically, a nonrestrictive modifier) within the first stanza where the moonlight shining “on the mere objectiveness of things” is

Like a plain poet revolving in his mind
The sameness of his various universe.

This “plain poet” recalls an earlier poem in The Rock, “The Plain Sense of Things,” where the project is to reduce the subjective contributions of the self to a “mere” objectiveness and where, voila, what is finally discovered after all these reductions is classic projection: a “reduced” world. Likewise, the “plain” poet here discovers a “plain” world: he encounters a monochromatic world of sameness in what is (really) a “various” universe. Indeed, later in the poem, when there is “a change of color in the plain poet’s mind,” what is discovered is a polychromatic world and “the various universe.”² This is how projection — a certain way moonlight shines upon the universe, a mingling of the subjective and the objective— works.

What interests us is the subjective

It is as if being was to be observed,
As if, among the possible purposes
Of what one sees, the purpose that comes first,
The surface, is the purpose to be seen,

The property of the moon, what it evokes.

What really interests us in ancient animists, Santayana says, is not the objective facts they interpreted, but their subjective interpretations of those facts. The same is true of Modern History: When Modern Historians say they can tell us what feelings and sentiments animated dead heroes, we know, Santayana observes, that they are really giving us their subjective versions of what might have been the hero’s thoughts, since the original feelings and sentiments are lost and irrecoverable. Likewise, when Modern Philosophers say they can tell us about our mental life, we know, Santayana notes, that they will really tell us about their version of mental life. So, ultimately, what really interests us in Modern History and Modern Philosophy is the particular subjective perspectives of its authors (253–254).

This is where Stevens takes us as his poem continues with the second simile. The repetition of the phrase “as if” proposes a hypothetical change of focus. We are not interested in the facts others presume to convey but in their particular presentation of those facts: “It is as if being was to be observed,” Stevens says. Of all the possible ways to read Modern History and Philosophy, for example, we read it for its “surface” value–what it tells us about the subjectivity of an author.³ We are interested in, Stevens explains, “the property of the moon, what it evokes.” In other words, we are not interested in the object but in what is evoked, what becomes the property of the moon, in the subjective that shines “on the mere objectiveness of things.”

How the subjective can subtract from the objective

It is to disclose the essential presence, say,
Of a mountain, expanded and elevated almost
Into a sense, an object the less; [. . .]

There are, however, some philosophers who insist that their subjective version of mental life is an objective fact. Santayana calls this philosophical school “romantic psychology” and explains that their insistence is the result of wishing the same validity for their conclusions that science has. But science differs from romantic psychology because it deals with objective facts — things or events in the world at large. Since mental life, sentiments, and feelings have no physical existence, romantic psychologists were at a disadvantage until they concluded that mental life was more concrete and more real than the objective world. What they did, Santayana says in italics, was make a “hypostasis of an imagined experience” (255). Hearing, for example, became more important than sound. Santayana labels this error “psychologism.”

Psychologism is the mistake of taking the subjective as objective and the objective as subjective. Stevens provides an example. Consider a mountain. Then consider its essence, its mountain-ness, until the object drops away, as it were, and we are left with its idealized substitute — of course, this is very same substitution described by Stevens in the earlier “The Poem that Took Place of a Mountain.” And in the same way that romantic psychologists prize the sense of hearing more than sound, Stevens says “the essential presence” of a mountain (its mountain-ness) is elevated “almost / Into a sense.” What has happened is an expansion, an elevation, a “hypostasis of an imagined experience.” The subjective has changed places with the objective, and the object has been lessened or become, as Stevens says, “an object the less.”

How the subjective can add to the objective

[. . .]; or else

To disclose in the figure waiting on the road
An object the more, an undetermined form
Between the slouchings of a gunman and a lover,
A gesture in the dark, a fear one feels

In the great vistas of night air, that takes this form,
In the arbors that are as if of Saturn-star.

Stevens’ fourth analogy for moonlight shining on the mere objectiveness of things — besides the plain poet regarding the sameness of the universe, besides the suggestion that we should look first not at an object but at what it evokes, and besides the substitution of the essence of a mountain for the thing itself — appears in the third complete sentence. That sentence begins “It to discloses the essential presence, say / Of a mountain. . . .”), but then the sentence breaks in half at the semicolon and the fourth alternative is offered in the phrase that begins “or else // To disclose . . . .” In the first half, what had been disclosed is “an object the less”; in the second half, what is disclosed is “an object the more.”

To understand this distinction, we might note, with Santayana, the obvious fact that subjective interpretations are sometimes wrong and go wide of the mark in representing facts. But at other times, they may be right and even eerily on target. To understand the latter phenomenon, Santayana ask us to consider someone with fine instincts and sharp perceptions who observes the behavior (the gestures and attitudes) of other people. He offers himself as an example:

A good literary psychologist, who can read people’s minds intuitively, is likely to anticipate their conduct correctly. . . . I watch a pair of lovers; and it requires no preternatural insight for me to see whether their love is genuine, whether it is mutual, whether it is waxing or waning, irritable or confident, sensual or friendly. (256–257)

A similar situation occurs in Stevens’ poem where someone is trying to fathom the intentions of a “ figure waiting on the road.” While Santayana provides an example of the intuition of the fate of two lovers, Stevens creates a more dramatic situation where someone is called upon to interpret the intentions of a figure on the road whose “slouchings” may be expressive either of the benignity of a lover or the darker intentions of a gunman. Stevens’ own literary psychologist views an “undetermined form” and wonders what to make of “a gesture in the dark.”

Here, again we see the play of the “objective” and the “subjective.” The figure on the road is the objective matter-of-fact and the same in the case of either a benign or malign interpretation. But the determining of this “undetermined form” is shaped by various subjective factors: if the poem’s persona thinks the mysterious figure is a lover, we may see the projection of joy; if he takes the figure as a gunman, we may see fear. Besides the world of objects, then, there is intermediate realm of subjectivity that adds its own determinations and gives form to the undetermined. These forms, themselves, also populate the night, and so we encounter “an object the more” — as Stevens says in a flourish that concludes the sentence: “a fear one feels // In the great vistas of night air, that takes this form, / In the arbors that are as if of Saturn-star.”⁴

So, there is an intervening subjective life

So, then, this warm, wide, weatherless quietude
Is active with a power, an inherent life,

In spite of the mere objectiveness of things,
Like a cloud-cap in the corner of a looking-glass,
A change of color in the plain poet’s mind,
Night and silence disturbed by an interior sound.

There is something, then, which intervenes between ourselves and a physical object or event: a subjective filter or what Santayana calls a “visionary stratum” (253, 257). And it is full of the rises and falls of passion and fancy through which we view the objective world. In Stevens’ terms, there is an active “inherent life” that powerfully adds to the “weatherless quietude” of the “mere objectiveness of things.”

We become aware of this subjective life, Santayana says, in certain “transcripts” which suggest how others felt about what they saw. In a wonderful example, he imagines:

The literary psychologist is like some antiquary rummaging in an old curiosity shop, who should find the score of some ancient composition, in its rude notation, and should sit down at a wheezy clavichord and spell out the melody, wondering at the depth of soul in that archaic art, so long buried, and now so feebly revealed. This curious music, he will say to himself, was mighty and glorious in its day; this moonlight was once noon. There is no illusion in this belief in life long past or far distant; on the contrary, the sentimentalist errs by defect of imagination, not by excess of it, and his pale water-colours do no justice to the rugged facts. [259]

To rephrase Santayana’s ideas, we might say that we can sense in Baroque music, however feebly, how people felt in those times. We can intuit, as well, a people’s change of feelings when, for example, the colors change from those of the Flemish masters to Van Gogh.

But these are my examples. Stevens, of course, rephrases Santayana’s ideas in his own ways. He refers to the subjective world in three similes, each of them brilliantly linking to other poems in The Rock (see notes). So, the addition of the realm of the subjective is like:

  • “a cloud-cap in the corner of a looking-glass” (or catching a glimpse of a cloud in the corner of a mirror)⁵
  • “a change of color in the plain poet’s mind” (because, as suggested above, a change in the subjective reshapes the objective and the addition of color in a “plain” poet’s mind yields a polychromatic universe)⁶
  • “night and silence disturbed by an interior sound” (or an occasion like that in “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself” where a nocturnal thought seems like an external disturbance from a bird outside)⁷

The value of moonlight

The one moonlight, the various universe, intended
So much just to be seen — a purpose, empty
Perhaps, absurd perhaps, but at least a purpose,
Certain and ever more fresh. Ah! Certain, for sure…

Santayana notes that there is an added benefit to the study of these transcripts of subjective life, like the musical score uncovered by the antiquarian in the example above. In fiction, for example, we may vicariously have feelings which are not our own. The illusion of fiction allows us to expand our subjective acquaintance with the world without the necessity of an objective acquaintance. Here is moonlight, Stevens says, “intended . . . just to be seen” and not necessarily experienced.

In summary, Santayana suggests, there are three ways to regard the subjective:

  • One school of thinking views the subjective as a valueless region of inarticulate feelings and dumb sense.
  • Another school of thinking approaches subjective life as labyrinth of dreams, and these thinkers — Santayana has in mind Freudians — make the subjective overly articulate by grafting on theories of animal and sexual instincts.
  • But the genuine study of the subjective, the philosopher suggests, lies somewhere in between these two, between the inchoate and the overly determined. (260)

With admirable concision, Stevens presents each of these three options when considering “moonlight”: “a purpose, empty / Perhaps, absurd perhaps, but at least a purpose.”

Subjective life has value for Santayana. In our subjective life, we turn our vision into a version. We rescue feelings from oblivion. We weave coherencies out of miscellaneous sentiments. We re-envision the world in our own terms and imagine each “object afresh . . . on the scale and in the style of my present discourse.” This is “poetry,” Santayana enthusiastically observes, “poetry about facts” (261). Indeed, as the chapter comes to an end, the reader can almost hear a soundtrack swelling to a crescendo as the philosopher celebrates subjectivity and encourages us not to have misgivings but feel confident when giving expression to our past feelings and sentiments which were, no doubt, even more eloquent when living than they are now!

Stevens’ own response to this in the conclusion of his poem is fascinating because it offers a kind of guarded endorsement of Santayana’s ideas:

Certain and ever more fresh. Ah! Certain, for sure…

Stevens does echo Santayana’s enthusiastic conviction that we shouldn’t shrink from offering our subjective transcripts because they can convey our accurate (i.e., “certain”) and fresh descriptions of objective circumstances. But the very last words (“Ah! Certain, for sure…”) seem a tongue-in-cheek or almost desperate act of self-persuasion. These words seem, as Richard Rubin has observed, “a shield against doubt that is creeping in.”⁸

Notes.

  1. Cf., for example, The Rock’s “Madame La Fleurie” where someone who pays attention to the subjective (the reflection of the world in a mirror) rather than the objective (the world itself) is said to suffer “the sleepiness of the moon” (CP 536).
  2. Compare, again, “Prologues to What is Possible” (CP 545):
    What self, for example, did he contain that had not yet been loosed,
    Snarling in him for discovery as his attentions spread,
    As if all this hereditary lights were suddenly increased
    By an access of color, a new and unobserved, slight dithering,
    The smallest lamp, which added its puissant flick, to which he gave
    A name and privilege over the ordinary of his commonplace —
  3. In Zen Buddhism, this idea is conveyed by the expression “a finger pointing at the moon.” Here, attention is directed to the finger instead of the moon.
  4. I take “the arbors that are as if of Saturn-star” as a dramatic flourish that concludes the sentence and nothing more than sublime decoration. Others, however, are intent on decoding the phrase. If pursuing the latter, I would suggest that the “arbors” echoes the concluding stanza of “Vacancy in the Park” where the winds blowing in the arbor from various directions is offered as a symbol of the arbritrariness of different beliefs (vide Santayana’s Winds of Doctrine). And “Saturn-Star” is a possible allusion to the planet in “One of the Inhabitants of the West” (see note #2 in my discussion of the poem). Both of these echoed poems deal with subjectivity: in one, how it is arbitrary; in the latter, how it is errant.
  5. See also: “Clouds”: CP 540, 542, 547. “Looking-glass”: CP 531, 535, 536, 549.
  6. See also: “Color”: CP 543, 546, 548, 557, 560. “Plain”: 530, 531.
  7. See also: “Night”: CP 532, 553, 559. “Silence”: CP 531, 535, 539, 548. “Sound”: 537, 539, 548, 553, 556, 565.
  8. I am grateful to Richard Rubin for his extensive comments on the poem and the chapter which occurred in our regular, online group discussions of Stevens and Santayana sponsored by the Santayana Society. For nearly two hours (August 8, 2021), Richard led a lively and insightful discussion of the poem and chapter to which others contributed. I gathered much from this digital symposium.

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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)