4) “One of the Inhabitants of the West”
“III. Wayward Scepticism”
“One of the Inhabitants of the West” is, in my opinion, an unsuccessful poem. Its meaning remains obscure because the poem requires an extensive familiarity with Stevens’ lexicon, a knowledge of his stock-in-trade imagery that comes from reading a considerable number of his poems. In fact, “One of the Inhabitants of the West” provides a good example of the usefulness of Santayana’s book because without reference to Scepticism and Animal Faith, the poem would scarcely be intelligible even to the expert. With that book in hand, however, we can gather what Stevens’ intentions were and recognize the poem’s shortcomings.
While in his previous chapter Santayana argues that scepticism can only go so far (in its effort to abandon belief and reach “The Plain Sense of Things”), in his third chapter he takes up when scepticism does not go far enough. The subject of this chapter is solipsism. In summary, Santayana admires the solipsist for his regimen of disbelief and for narrowing attention to the present moment. But he faults the solipsist for not being completely thorough in his disbelief, for reserving some favorite credence from sceptical scrutiny; Santayana has in mind, for example, the religious beliefs of Hinduism which are ready to dismiss everything as illusion but exempt a divinity, an all encompassing Brahma, from this critique. In the end, Santayana concludes that solipsism “is a violent pose, permitted only to the young philosopher, in his first intellectual despair” (17).
Santayana arrives at this conclusion by first explaining how ideas become beliefs when they are thought to impact the life of an individual. Ideas, in themselves, are innocent but when they evoke something like a self-interested response, those remote notions are taken as omens of something out there that may affect an individual’s wellbeing:
Ideas become beliefs only when by precipitating tendencies to action they persuade me that they are signs of things. . . . The belief is imposed on me surreptitiously by a latent mechanical reaction of my body on the object producing the idea; it is by no means implied in any qualities obvious in that idea. Such a latent reaction, being mechanical, can hardly be avoided, but it may be discounted in reflection, if a man has experience and the poise of a philosopher. (16)
The opening section of Stevens’ poem describes this situation Santayana speaks of, though it will take a bit of effort to tease out this recognition:
Mechanisms of angelic thought,
The means of prophecy,
Alert us most
At evening’s one star
And its pastoral text,
When the establishments
Of wind and light and cloud
Await an arrival,
A reader of the text,
A reader without a body,
Who reads quietly:
Without reference to Santayana, it might not be clear that Stevens is presenting a situation where ideas are being converted into beliefs. With reference to the philosopher’s words, however, we can hear the echoes and gather what Stevens is about. Ideas are converted into beliefs, the philosopher says, when ideas are taken as “signs of things” because of a “mechanical reaction” of the body. This yields the introductory phrases of Stevens’ poem: “Our divinations, / Mechanisms of angelic thought, / The means of prophecy [. . .].”
Santayana commends the solipsist, it will be remembered, for dismissing those corporeal reactions that take ideas as omens and convert them into beliefs. The ideal solipsist, he says, is an “incredulous spectator” who merely watches but does not participate in the scene he observes (15). Turning to the poem, we can see a person whose “arrival” is awaited: “A reader of the text, / A reader without a body.”
He is “a reader of the text” because Santayana offer as one example of a solipsist:
a secondary mind fed on books [and no longer in touch with] objects of sense, . . . his denial of material facts [accompanied by assertions about] the absolute reality of his knowledge of them. This reality, however, will extend no farther than his information. . . . And his personal idea of the world, so composed and so limited, will seem to him the sole existence. His universe will be the afterimage of his learning. (19)
Stevens’ “reader of the text” is Santayana’s “secondary mind fed on books,” and he is also “a reader without a body” because such a person would thereby be immune to those mechanical reactions of the body that precipitate belief.
At this point, we encounter the second part of the poem which Stevens presents in quotation marks as the text that this bodiless reader, this model solipsist, reads:
“Horrid figures of Medusa,
These accents explicate
The sparkling fall of night
On Europe, to the last Alp,
And the sheeted Atlantic.
These are not banlieus
Lacking men of stone,
In a well-rosed two-light
Of their own.
I am the archangel of evening and praise
This one star’s blaze.
Suppose it was a drop of blood…
So much guilt lies buried
Beneath the innocence
Of autumn days.”
Again, it will require some effort to tease out Stevens’ meaning in this section, but Scepticism and Animal Faith provides a Rosetta Stone.
While Santayana commends the solipsist as an incredulous spectator who fixes his attention on the present moment, he faults the solipsist for cheating in his disbelief. A solipsist, he explains, dismisses all beliefs as illusions only to exempt his favorite credence from scrutiny. The solipsist thinks himself better than the hoi polloi with their vulgar beliefs, but it is only “by lopping everything else off” that he raises his own special dogma (Brahma, Pure Being, et al.) to a specious eminence.
Stevens takes up these ideas in an impossibly difficult way by referring to the constellation Perseus in the second part of the poem. The stars that form this constellation are like an outback (“banlieus”) populated by the men who were changed into stone by Medusa.¹ In the midst of this stellar abundance, the persona of the poem singles out the evening star for special praise. Here, in all its metaphoric obfuscation, is Santayana’s solipsist who belittles the beliefs of the vulgar (the minor lights of the outback) in order to praise all the more his chosen dogma (the evening star).
All this may seem somewhat clear with reference to Santayana, but there remains a great deal more which requires a familiarity with Stevens’ lexicon to puzzle out. For instance, the mention of “angelic thought” early in the poem refers in the poet’s lexicon to the imagination (the “necessary angel”); and when the poem’s persona styles himself an “archangel,” Stevens seems to mean that the solipsist has not denied all imaginings but singled out one special fancy of his own. And when the poem mentions the evening star, this may be Stevens’ way a referring to the solipsist’s concern with the present moment since that how Stevens uses the evening star in, for example, his poem “Martial Credenza”: “Itself / Is time apart, from any past, apart / From any future [. . .] The present close, the present realized” (CP 238).
The poem’s use of the constellation Perseus also seems curious. Such a choice may have been prompted by words and phrases Santayana employs when presenting his ideas in the chapter: “legends” (11), “the ring of Saturn” (13), “Athens” (13), “denizens of the twilight” (14), “nether gods” (14), “Erebus” (14) and those that recall the myth of Perseus and Medusa–“terrible apparition” (16) and “lopping off” (18). Then, once we grasp that the intent of Santayana’s chapter is to identify the ways beliefs are superimposed upon reality, how perceptions are regarded “omens” or divinations once self-interest is implicated, we come to realize Stevens’ choice of the constellation Perseus concerns astrology more than astronomy.
It may only be with reference to Scepticism and Animal Faith that we can come to some understanding of the poem’s conclusion. Near the end of his chapter, the old philosopher offers his sage observation that solipsism is “a violent pose, permitted only to a young philosopher, in his first intellectual despair” (17). This may explain the concluding sigh of Stevens’ solipsist. His archangel praises the evening star and then adds in decrescendo: “Suppose it was a drop of blood… / So much guilt lies buried / Beneath the innocence / Of autumn days.”²
In truth, “One of the Inhabitants of the West” is a poem that stands only feebly on its own. The necessity for lexical parsing indicates that Stevens’ images are more idiosyncratic than obvious. And without reference to Scepticism and Animal Faith it might be impossible to detect that Stevens intended his third poem to dismiss solipsism as an admirable method that finally falls short.
1. Medusa, the terrible apparition, anticipates “Madame La Fleurie” in the poem by that name which appears a few pages later in The Rock.
2. I am suggesting that the “archangel of evening” is praising the Evening Star, traditionally associated with Venus. But Venus is a pale-colored planet, so if the line “suppose it was a drop of blood” refers to it, then Saturn (aka “the red planet”) might seem a better choice; and Santayana does make passing mention in his chapter to the discovery of “the ring of Saturn” (13).