“ ‘Not a Piano Key:’ Reflections on Socialism and Art”

by Sam Buntz

To argue against Marxism or Communism, at this point in time, might not seem to be the most relevant way of chipping away the hours.  No actual Communist nation exists on earth, if one ever has or even could: the supposedly Marxist nations have either, like China and Vietnam, retained their authoritarianism while joining the free-market (demonstrating that economic liberty doesn’t, somehow, manage to create civil liberty), or become a military-based kingdom of fear, like North Korea, aping Orwell.  Yet, I would like to indulge a passing whim, and argue against the Marxist perspective, since it seems to be an enthusiasm (often in altered forms) of many students and professors at the institutions to which I’ve belonged.  But at the same time, I plan on arguing for an older form of socialism—as an exercise, though I do partially agree with this political philosophy—and show how socialism is not necessarily, as it so often appears be, a matter of collectivist brainwashing, but can be an imaginatively gratifying and individualistic philosophy, although no one today is willing to portray it as such, including its supposed advocates.

Now, practically all of the Neo-Marxists I know would be incapable of bringing off a violent or non-violent Communist revolt—but they are sitting in what should be “the engine room of society” (the university—somewhat laughably, I know), and hence should be responsible for coming up with ideas that matter, in one way or another, and which go somewhat beyond the absurd project of criticizing Shakespeare for being sexist or a capitalist, or what have you.  Now, I actually feel very friendly towards a certain kind of socialism (though I wouldn’t call myself a socialist, when there are so many more important things to be), advocated by such British prophets as Shelley, Morris, Wilde, and others.  That form of socialism was fundamentally democratic, involved no “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and sought to free the human imagination from the chains into which limited economic opportunity had forced it.  The goal of this kind of socialism was to liberate human beings into a new state of creative participation—in which, rather than being the tools of our tools, we could switch the game around, and apply the fruits of technology and progress to re-envisioning the world around us in terms more suited to our humanity.  This kind of socialism was not at odds with individualism or spirituality, and would not have accepted Marx’s awful dictum that “the smallest human unit is two people.”  Rather, in line with Blake and Shelley, this kind of socialism saw the individual’s right to clarify his or her own vision of the world through art and religion as pre-eminent.  In Blakean terms, art is the true religion, since it allows us to picture the world as we would like it to be, ideally—a City of God in which every citizen sees things as they are, “infinite,” rather than in the “stiff and stubborn, man-locked set,” our current modes of perception have forced us into (though this kind of religion has nothing to do with the “opiate of the masses” kind of religion—hypnotic rituals and priest-craft).  But I am continually disheartened to find that not only do (virtually) no American students and professors who think of themselves as socialists see socialism in these terms—in fact, they view it in almost diametrically opposed terms.

Now, if one were to embrace “Scandinavian” socialism—given that one had the resources and the economic stability in one’s own country to pull it off—who could really argue?  The Swedes evidently aren’t suffering culturally or in terms of human rights as a result of their “socialism,” and it seems to further, rather than repress, individuality.  But when it comes to actual academic Marxist critics (or Marxian critics, as we now usually say, for some reason) the situation is far more depressing.  The critic Terry Eagleton —one cannot properly say “literary” critic, since what he does cannot, by my standards, be called literary criticism—is one of the most popular public intellectuals and most cited scholars in Britain, and yet he has said things that to my mind are absolutely reprehensible, and offensive to any advocate of humane thought.  For instance, predicting a Communist golden age, he once said that there may come a time when, “Shakespeare would be no more valuable than much present-day graffiti.”  To my mind, if we were to live in a civil libertarian socialist country (like Sweden), where everyone had just enough, in material terms, the only goal we could really pursue—if we weren’t going to wreck the quasi-Utopia we had managed to create—would be a cultural paradise, a place where we would perfect our spiritual and artistic powers of realization to their utmost.  Shakespeare, therefore, would not only be relevant, but supremely relevant, in such a society—and Scandinavia, at the present moment, and given its small size, seems to me to be a place unusually open to the arts and to cultural freedom.  Yet, for Eagleton, culture and art are only relevant insofar as they can help agitate for universal equality and redistribution of the wealth—they cannot be a vision of reality, springing from the poet’s imaginative re-working of Nature, but need to be hectoring and didactic screeds, launched specifically from the authoritarian Marxist-Catholic viewpoint espoused by Eagleton (by which I intend no offense to Catholics—only to Eagleton’s totalitarian brand of Catholicism).

I pick on Eagleton not only because he is a popular example of something ideologically abhorrent (to me, at least), but because I know plenty of people that basically think the same thoughts.  Sure, they’ll probably be ineffectual on a grander social scale—but they will succeed in doing damage to others by enshrining themselves as inscrutable Sphinx-like authorities in any number of university departments, if they haven’t already done so.  Eagleton and his ilk seem to think that, once we’ve attained the basic goal of equality, we will simply have “enough,” and will treat each other like angels, henceforth, content not to vie with one another for wealth and position.  This is a remarkably naïve view—the idea that equality, in and of itself, forms the sole goal of human progress, seems perverse.  Equality is, to me, only valuable because it affords everyone the opportunity to then develop their individuality, which necessarily occurs through the imagination—that is, through the cultivation of spiritual and artistic goals.  It’s a starting point and a means—not an end.  If anyone thinks that the mere fact of everyone having the exact same amount of stuff will automatically eliminate domestic abuse and alcoholism, for example, I think they’ll be shocked.  Now, I don’t consider a reactionary like Dostoevsky to be a great authority on political matters (though he is a great authority on human character and behavior, and on certain aspects of spirituality), but he critiqued the Utopian Communism of Eagleton and others when he said that a human being would willfully pursue the most perverse ends and desire the most impossible desires just to prove that he or she was not the mere pawn of material circumstances, “a human and not a piano key.”

The demand for equality is laudable when we actually believe that equality is useful, and forms a means to the higher end of re-imagining the world.  But when we can only re-imagine the world as a place where everyone has the same number of loaves of bread, we immediately are headed down the course to Stalinism.  I had a class recently where some of the far-left-wing students were arguing against the mystical philosophy of the great Christian mystic, Pseudo-Dionysus, on the grounds that it would not be accessible to everyone—since, as Pseudo-Dionysus observes, the mystical quest for God, pursued with ceaseless rigor and asceticism, would not be a goal that would seem desirable to the vast majority of human beings, caught up in the distractions of worldly life.  Now, to my mind, Pseudo-Dionysus seems undoubtedly in the right—most human beings won’t pursue mysticism, but can probably find another genuinely creative way of fulfilling themselves and aiding those around them, in a hopefully non-disastrous fashion.  The fact that the mystical goal is infrequently accepted is not an argument against it, but an argument against the whims of human beings and their propensity for distraction.  Yet, the aforementioned students in the class were arguing as though Pseudo-Dionysus’ goal were wrong for the reverse reasons—that only a form of spirituality accessible to literally everyone should be practiced or allowed.  This kind of spiritual-leveling strikes me as insane: there are as many ways of serving humanity and God-in-humanity as there are human beings.  To attack one method because of its supposed “elitism,” is the opposite of what it purports to be—it is intolerant, rather than a movement for tolerance.  Oscar Wilde made this beautiful point in his essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” arguing for the kind of socialism I have been defending (if not exactly endorsing):  “And so he who would lead a Christlike life is he who is perfectly and absolutely himself. He may be a great poet, or a great man of science; or a young student at a University, or one who watches sheep upon a moor; or a maker of dramas, like Shakespeare, or a thinker about God, like Spinoza; or a child who plays in a garden, or a fisherman who throws his net into the sea. It does not matter what he is, as long as he realizes the perfection of the soul that is within him. All imitation in morals and in life is wrong… There is no one type for man. There are as many perfections as there are imperfect men. And while to the claims of charity a man may yield and yet be free, to the claims of conformity no man may yield and remain free at all.”  This is not only profound, but the exact prescribed dose of medicine these supposed leftists require.

To argue against mysticism as these students did or against Shakespeare as Terry Eagleton did betrays the same great Error—mistaking equality for brotherhood and sisterhood, and a leveling of all minds to the same lowest-common-denominator for religion.  The liberation into artistic-creation recommended by the non-Marxist, British socialists of the 19th Century is really the opposite of their approach, and I think the Swedish socialists understand this point, as well.  Socialism, if it is to be pure, cannot be a rigid conformity of aims masquerading as something mild—it must be a way of freeing people to see the world with clear eyes and to get their renewed vision down on paper and in the flesh.  By liberating people from servitude to currency, the British socialists were trying to free them from base interests, allowing them to pursue Creation for its own sake, as itself the attempt to repair the broken image of God in Man.  The freest spirits have always managed this—from Shakespeare and Blake, to Emerson and Whitman—yet (in theory at least) the same creative freedom would be made accessible to more and more people by an increase in equal economic opportunities.  Yet since the people who advocate such equal economic opportunities view them as the ultimate and definitive end goal, and usually spurn artistic, spiritual, and literary projects as secondary, they are doomed to be ineffectual.  Countless minds have thrown themselves in the waste-basket.

I personally think that some kind of free-enterprise will always be necessary—though one tempered away from savage impulses, as the Scandinavians have attempted to do.  But the dream of  “a poet’s paradise” still more than tempts me—such a paradise would be valuable not because of its own physical and earthly reality, but because of the ideal of spiritual vision it inspires, the Jerusalem that Blake could see, built among the same “dark Satanic mills” that crowded the British landscape.  Today, we have our own “dark Satanic mills”—literally and metaphorically—and few to oppose them.  But if even a few strike and stand under the imagination’s banner, it’s possible a fighting chance still exists.  One thinks of the Biblical Book of Esther, in which, at the last moment, the evil Persian counselor who seemed to be on the cusp of victory, poised to slaughter the Jews, loses, and the world is turned upside down in Hebraic triumph.  Even if no one ever attains a physical, earthly version of what Percy Shelley predicted as the final goal of human development, its reality as a vision can still inspire, and cannot fail to have a beneficial and fortifying effect on the imagination: “MAN, one harmonious soul of many a soul, / Whose nature is its own divine control, / Where all things flow to all, as rivers to the sea; / Familiar acts are beautiful through love; / Labour, and pain, and grief, in life’s green grove / Sport like tame beasts, none knew how gentle they could be.”

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“Aldous Huxley and the Limits of Happiness”

by Sam Buntz

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is a book that has had an unusually prolonged shelf life.  There is something uncanny about the book—no one would’ve expected that a satire on contemporary political, social, and technological trends from the ’20s and ’30s would somehow seem to continue to predict the future lying ahead of us, well into the 21st Century— but that still seems to be the book’s effect.  Its satire has proven to be continually relevant in ways that Huxley probably didn’t fully anticipate (though he anticipated plenty).  Some readers—not the brightest bulbs in the bunch—have argued that Brave New World really isn’t that bad, and that it would be, more or less, something like the ideal state.  But this isn’t a very subversive statement to make, and satirizing the sort of people who would make it was really a central part of Huxley’s purpose in writing the book in the first place.  His dystopia is the straight-up utopia of enlightened techno-fascists like H.G. Wells and Edward Bellamy, seen from a different angle, as the Canadian critic Northrop Frye pointed out.  That certain people should find the lineaments of a utopia in BNW is therefore unsurprising.

What’s primarily valuable about the book isn’t so much the specifics of its predictive power—although those are impressive, particularly with regard to virtual reality (the “feelies”), the widespread prescription of anti-depressive and anti-anxiety meds (“soma”), sexual liberation, and the evolution of mass entertainment (there are roughly two copies of Shakespeare left in the world)—but rather its satire on the pursuit of happiness, which encompasses and guides Huxley’s most accurate predictions.  The way we approach happiness is still the same, and the methods we’ve devised to attain it, through various scientific and social innovations, are skewered by Huxley, in order to expose the desperation of the pleasure-seeking impulse underlying those innovations.   BNW takes the search for worldly happiness to its logical conclusion, as Dostoevsky attempted to do in “The Grand Inquisitor.”  Dostoevsky knew that if temporal happiness really was the primary goal of humankind we might as well surrender ourselves to a more benign version of Kim Jong Il, since our insistence on imaginative freedom and independence would never allow us to be fully satisfied.  Thus, imagination and freedom are the first two things that need to go for the Brave New World-ers and for scientists like B.F. Skinner, who believed that, in order to attain “happiness,” we needed to go “beyond freedom and dignity.”  Brave New World has utterly transcended both, and to say that it “might not be so bad” is just to say that you believe temporal happiness is all we can hope to achieve.

This sort of utopianism may be understandable—more comprehensible than the mindset that would create the world of 1984—but for those who really believe in it (and they’re out there) a technocracy that has gone utterly beyond any notion of human liberty or dignity, needs to be the end of the road, rationally.  The controllers (like the archons of Gnostic myth) who govern Brave New World know that most people can’t or won’t grow up—that is, they won’t use their freedom effectively or rationally.  There is no need for 95% of the population to read great books or study philosophy or lead an “examined life”, because it won’t make a damn bit of difference.  And there is a sad edge of accuracy to all this: it is disconcertingly hard to argue with the suggestion that the great mass of human beings require only a hand that can feed them—and feed them in a slightly more than merely nutritional sense—with maximum care and efficiency.   People worship that hand like God, as evidenced by the popularity of certain institutions, from the all-encompassing Medieval Church to the Apple Corporation, and of certain personalities, like Steve Jobs.  That is exactly what Brave New World provides—a God who offers you tangible benefits, who dispenses earthly bread like heavenly bread.  In fact, the role played by Henry Ford in Brave New World would, more sensibly, be filled by Steve Jobs today, since he was a perfect personification of the hand that feeds, that dispenses the nutritive substance of earthly life in its electronic form.  If Huxley had written his book today, he would doubtless envision us chopping crosses into “i”-shapes instead of into Ts—which would be a bit less elegantly simple, but still manageable.

Though it doesn’t seem that “narco-hypnosis” has yet been used by the government—which has not, presumably, raised up collectivized nurseries of drugged and hypnotized infants, in a more than metaphorical sense—to further any agenda of enforcing temporal happiness from the top down, and so Huxley’s predictions, taken literally, aren’t totally accurate, we can draw limitless analogies with advertising and consumerism.  But this is what informs everyone’s analysis of Brave New World, so I see no reason to dwell on it.  What’s most crucial, for our purposes, is to understand that which is repressed in order to pursue this agenda of perfect temporal happiness, since this is the same in our society as it is in the fictive dystopia, though differing by degree.  What’s repressed is really the whole battery of literature, imagination, religion, spirituality, art, and the feelings associated with them.  Since these things entail a quest for imaginative freedom, and spur dissatisfaction with the happiness provided by everyday existence, they lead to unhappiness, to the frustration and despair common to artists everywhere and to some novice saints.  Ultimately, religion and art—for I take the two to be part of the same creative human phenomenon—always aim for more than temporal happiness and for more than dissatisfaction in the wake of the departure of said happiness, though they probably involve the latter, inevitably, at some point.  They aim for bliss or joy—a state notably different from that of mere happiness.  This is the distinction between the feelings experienced while zoning out on your iPod for a few hours and those experienced when being reunited with your beloved family members after twenty years alone on a desert island.  Advocating a Brave New World-style idea of happiness—which millions of people do, unwittingly—is to fail to grasp this distinction.

For John, “The Savage,” in Brave New World, it is reading and re-reading one of the few remaining copies of Shakespeare’s plays that kindles his sense of imaginative possibilities beyond the temporal and the given.  The power of the literary imagination intimates a religious understanding of reality in him, as well, hinting at Huxley’s future development into an adherent of Hindu Vedanta.  Huxley later said that, rather than concluding the book as he once did, with its rather nasty ending, he would’ve attempted to depict the Savage finally pursuing the goal of ultimate union with God, Brahman, the Tao—“The Ground of All Being,” described in his book The Perennial Philosophy.  Yet it is interesting that Shakespeare is the figure whose writings would spur this quest, initially.  It suggests that imagination, applied as thoroughly as it can be, leads one onward, ceaselessly, to a spiritual understanding of reality.  The limitless creative power of Shakespeare provides a figure for the Infinite.  But it is the failure of the imagination both at the social and the individual level and the perversion of the energies that would have driven it on to such a spiritual goal, which form the real theme of Brave New World.  It is a problem that we will, no doubt, wrestle with—resolving it in scattered personal instances—well into the 21st Century and beyond.

“An Old Chaos of the Sun: Wallace Stevens’ Cosmos”

by Sam Buntz

“Divinity must live within herself, / Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow…”

“Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens is a poem that seeks to answer the “Blank misgivings of a Creature / Moving about in worlds not realized,” earlier expressed by William Wordsworth.  It is not exactly what some scholars have described it as being, a work advocating hedonism and a total surrender to sensory pleasure—although it certainly doesn’t shy away from the senses.  Stevens always believed that it was better—in a sense, more spiritual—to live in a world comprised of the senses and the intellect brought to total life, together, than in one made up entirely of cramped thought.  His argument has more subtlety than it would if he actually were advocating a “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” philosophy—as reasonable, if shallow, as such a philosophy might seem to be.  On the surface, Stevens seems to advocate a sort of agnostic Neo-Paganism, but, in reality, when one digs into the precise nature of the metaphors and images of the poem, one sees that he is not giving into quite so fashionable a form of despair: he is merely scouting out the territory.  His trumpet-blast for the imagination’s spiritual victory over the uncertainties of time and chance would resound most fully in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” but in “Sunday Morning” all the notes that will be played later are present.  They are written on the staff, so to speak, but are not actually articulated, as they eventually would be.  In this poem, it is Stevens’ sense of a difficult, chaotic, yet ultimately worthwhile natural world that serves as the matter of central concern.

“Sunday Morning” begins with a woman skipping church, opting instead to enjoy coffee and oranges, while a green cockatoo fools around nearby on a rug.  Harold Bloom states, quite correctly, that this female figure is one whom Stevens will later come to call his “interior paramour,” the muse-in-the-mind that forms the addressee of so many of his later poems.  After the first verse, the woman poses scattered questions and Stevens answers them.  His voice speaks everything that isn’t in quotes, and also possesses direct access to the woman’s thoughts, as it were, being able to answer her doubts and fears without her directly stating them—since she is, of course, a creature dwelling in his imagination.  But, to begin interpretation in earnest: while attempting to lose herself in the comforts of a nice breakfast, the woman is suddenly overtaken by a spell of religious anxiety—the things she’s enjoying become part of “some procession of the dead / Winding across wide water without sound… / Over the seas, to silent Palestine / Dominion of the blood and sepulchre.”  In other words, overcome by her lingering religious consciousness, she feels guilty about missing church, and the secular world around her consequently loses its joy, sapped of its native life-force.  The claims of suffering and blood—grim realities, represented by the Crucifixion—make it impossible to continue with breakfast in good conscience, before all of this can be sorted out.  Thus, the second verse begins with the anti-religious retort, “Why should she give her bounty to the dead? /  What is divinity if it can come / Only in silent shadows and in dreams?”  “Her bounty” is simply what Wordsworth (the English poet with perhaps the most affinities to Stevens) would call “the produce of the common day”: it is that set of consolations with which the natural world, in collusion with the human imagination, provides us.  The speaker is asking why the woman should cease to find joy in these simple and blameless delights, if God—principally, the orthodox version of God as a giant old man in the clouds or, in a more refined sense, as a benign yet distant spirit—only visits her in those vague, interstitial spaces where thought seems to slip towards a hazy world slightly outside of the physical.

But Stevens doesn’t reject the idea of divinity, and doesn’t admit that divinity, in any meaningful sense, actually can only come in shadows and dreams (in hallucinations, basically).  Rather, he only rejects the idea of a “pie in the sky” heaven and the external deity whom Blake called “Nobodaddy.”  Stevens returns the sublime answer: “Divinity must live within herself,” and then catalogs those experiences of natural reality—the “gusty emotions / On wet roads on autumn nights”—which speak to this internal divinity, and its capacity both for being surprised by and for generating wonder and joy.  It is not just the odd dreamy moments when divinity visits the human mind: rather, it is every experience strung between the entire cyclic order of nature, from “the bough of summer” to “the winter branch.”  Every moment speaks to the internal divinity, which creates and recreates life and joy from the surrounding chaos.

The woman, here, is facing and winning a contest against the figure Blake identified as “The Accuser who is the God of this world.”  This is the part of the human mind that constantly attempts to pick apart reality with negative judgments, and divide every aspect of life into somber and empty duties—a part of the mind that expands into the deity enshrined by too much of Western Monotheism as a perpetually angry and jealous law-giver god.  But she wins by attaining to “innocence,” that state where the world seems charged with life, provided by the real divinity, ensconced within the innermost chamber of the self, the imagination.  It is not participation in a blood rite that characterizes Christianity for Stevens, but a mode of enlightened human perception, one that he proceeds to detail in the next stanza.

Stevens discusses the evolution of Christianity out of older conceptions of deity.  He sees the older, classical gods of the Greek and Roman traditions as being personified natural forces, and thus of “inhuman birth.”  Divinity at this stage is perceived, fearfully, as something inherently “other” than humanity, until “our blood, commingling, virginal, / With heaven, brought such requital to desire / The very hinds discerned it, in a star.”  Finally, God becomes human, incarnates as Christ, ceases to be a dreadful presence, and is instead a brother and a friend.  Yet Stevens asks whether the dream that our blood is truly divine in origin will ultimately prove correct: “Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be / The blood of paradise?”  I think too many scholars see Stevens as readily dismissing the possibility of immortality.  He certainly questions it, and would sometimes like to dismiss it, and often does imagine death as being the absolute end.  But this is by no means a final position.  He constantly crosses his affirmations with negations and then performs the reverse.  After asking this question, he seems to suggest that paradise is a state of mind, brought about by the enlightened or innocent vision, earlier mentioned: “The sky will be much friendlier then than now… / Not this dividing and indifferent blue.”  I take this statement to mean that the sky of paradise is the “same” sky as that which we perceive everyday, except charged with imaginative life—it is not something alien to the imagination, but something that participates in it.  Paradise is not so much a “different” world, but the real world re-imagined, purified by a new way of seeing it.  This alteration of reality through poetic perception, may, in fact, be a radical one, akin to Blake’s.  One cannot assume that Stevens thinks this imaginative recreation of the world into a “poet’s paradise” is altogether mundane.  He doesn’t know precisely what it is, but he’s beginning to get an idea—and he’ll have a very good idea by the time he pens “The Idea of Order at Key West.”

Yet, the imaginary woman continues to ask sharp questions.  She wonders whether perceiving this world in a more immediate and lively fashion is enough: “I am content when wakened birds, / Before they fly, test the reality / Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings; / But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields / Return no more, where, then, is paradise?”  In this lovely and haunting metaphor, we are the birds, who search for an answer to the implacable question of what place it is that we have come to call our home, momentarily.  Stevens responds by saying that no religious and mythological conception of an afterlife “has endured as April’s green endures.”  This is, indeed, a significantly skeptical response, but it highlights something admirable in Stevens—he is confident that his own imagination’s interchange with reality, with “April’s green,” is enough to show the way.  To rely on the past and its traditions as an authority instead of as a source of individual poetic inspiration is to fall into that “procession of the dead,” mentioned earlier.  Like Emerson or Whitman, he believes that any person alive today can be, possibly, more of a spiritual authority than St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas were.  There is no need to appeal to an idea outside of experience to get at “paradise.”  This may seem to many to be, in and of itself, far too skeptical and naturalistic of a perspective.  But it is not utterly cut-and-dried, even though it is here spoken in tones of definite authority—whether life will prove to be completely eaten up by death or not, in the end, is not something Stevens has yet addressed directly—though he will do that, immediately.

In response to this statement about “April’s green” being more enduring than any “golden underground” or “isle melodious,” the interior paramour says, “But in contentment I still feel / The need of some imperishable bliss.”  This provokes Stevens majestic response, “Death is the mother of beauty.”  This seems to be a straightforward denial of immortality: it may be that, but it might be something else, though not exclusively.  Stevens means, first of all, something akin to Thomas Mann’s, “Life grows from the soil of time”: it is impermanence that lends things their beauty and splendor.  Stevens rejects the definition of “imperishable bliss,” and hence of paradise, as a static world, frozen in space and time, where everything is trapped in an ageless amber—like our own world but permanent—with “the same receding shores / That never touch with inarticulate pang.”  He laments the fact that people imagine heaven as a place where they will “pick the strings” of the same “insipid lutes,” that we now play on earth.  Slightly earlier, he states that death “strews the leaves of sure obliteration in our paths,” but still renders up plates of fruit that maidens might taste and “stray impassioned in the littering leaves.”  That does seem to be no more than the usual “gather ye rosebuds” kind of spiel, though in order to see it that way, one may need to read it out of context somewhat.

Yet, in the final part of this stanza (we’re now at stanza VI), he provides a curious summation: “Death is the mother of beauty, mystical, / Within whose burning bosom we devise / Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly.”  The “earthly mothers” we imagine waiting for us are representations of the illusion that heaven will be but an improved version of earth.  Yet there is something mysterious about death—the sure obliteration it leaves us with may very well have something on the other side of it, or it may not.  The earthly mother is not only an illusion but a figure for something else, potentially–though she may be a figure for the “comfort” of pure oblivion.  Death is “mystical” because it is so unknowable and difficult.  It’s “burning bosom” may eat up everything, sending all to eternal rest—or the imagination may prove to be made of the same, unquenchable and consuming fire as that fiery bosom, as in Blake.  Stevens doesn’t know—though I admit that, in “Sunday Morning” at least, he seems generally quite skeptical, though not skeptical in the unimaginative fashion of a Richard Dawkins or a Daniel Dennett.  This is the skepticism of a poet, which is usually much more refined and comprehensive than the skepticism of a philosopher or a scientist.

Stevens then imagines a kind of religious ceremony that might take the place of institutional Christianity, in what is probably the most widely criticized part of the poem.  Yet, it is also a part that offers one of the most interesting hints about death in it.  A group of men all gather together to “chant… / Their boisterous devotion to the sun, / Not as a god, but as a god might be, / Naked among them, like a savage source. / Their chant shall be the chant of paradise, / Out of their blood, returning to the sky.”  Now, obviously, this is a pretty piece of Neo-Paganism—and there’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily.  It inaugurates the weird sun-worship that continues throughout Stevens’ poetry: he will later say that he has no spirit except that it comes from the sun, for instance, and he sees the rising sun in early spring as signaling a “new knowledge of reality.”  It’s strange that “paradise” is made present in this bizarre hymn of sun-worship—a meditation on the destiny of the spirits of the chanting men is contained in the lines “And whence they came and whither they shall go / The dew upon their feet shall manifest.”  Does this mean that they’re utterly annihilated at death?  Ambivalence seems to be the dominant note: dew when it evaporates before midday doesn’t, strictly speaking, cease to exist—it is transmuted to a higher clime.  The fact that Stevens has denied the existence of melodious isles of the blessed and so forth, earlier in the poem, may suggest that this is another motto of annihilation—but I believe he aims for a tone of joyous agnosticism, healthy and honest in its ambiguity.  The images the sun spits out (which comprise all that we see and are) are dissolved back into the sun–and Stevens is seemingly content to not know what this means or might represent, figuratively.

In the final stanza of the poem, the woman hears “a voice that cries, ‘The tomb in Palestine / Is not the porch of spirits lingering. / It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.”  I used to read this primarily as a denial of the resurrection—now, I realize that that isn’t Stevens’ primary aim.  The resurrection of Jesus, after all, was not a matter of reviving a number of plural, disembodied spirits, who would then all hang around the front of the cave.  Those spirits are, I think, that same “procession of the dead,” the things of the world made phantasmal by the accusing, judging side of the mind, identified with conventional religion.  But the voice affirms that the cave is simply the place where Jesus was laid to rest—it doesn’t really say that he didn’t attain a kind of spiritual resurrection or enlightenment, in however qualified or earthly a sense.  Yet Stevens does give the vagaries of Nature the last words in the poem, beginning with the great lines, “We live in an old chaos of the sun / Or an old dependency of night and day…” Chaos is what precedes creation—it is the void of the external world in which the imagination then creates what we call reality.  The poem ends with the famous image of “casual flocks of pigeons” making “ambiguous undulations as they sink / Downward to darkness, on extended wings.”  Considering that birds earlier served as a trope for humans, this is not a very hopeful last line, and it does seem to imply that our final destination lies in a return to the dust from which that “colossal sun” somehow managed to call us up.  If we have a spirit, it returns to the creative power of the sun that somehow zapped it into the world–or to what the sun’s creative power signifies.

All of this serves to show that “Sunday Morning,” while at first affirming the divinity within (with however many grains of salt thrown in), is really more of a poem about Nature—about the environment into which we are thrown, albeit as filtered through the lenses of the self.  Stevens sees Nature as being quite beautiful and powerful, though, often enough, the sky is “dividing and indifferent,” rather than charged with imaginative power.  The poem focuses more on Nature as a foreign quantity, un-tempered by the human presence within it, “a place that is not our own / And what is more, not ourselves,” as he would come to write later.  Despite his skeptical tendencies, Stevens can’t shake the feeling that Nature isn’t our home.  William Blake thought that Nature was just the imagination on a bad day, frozen at a low level—it could be raised up to Paradise (or “burned up”) as soon as an enlightened vision fell upon it.  Stevens, on his better days, seems capable of believing this—and his somewhat shaky faith in the imagination’s power was to receive a permanent and not-at-all shaky monument in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” and in some shorter poems like “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon.”   He always believed that life without imagination, without an active human contribution, was numb and void, occasioning such reflections as “The world is ugly / And the people are sad.”  But he also believed that Nature provided us with the material on which the imagination built—the imagination could never have arrived at a blue jay on its own, without the prior existence of the avian world to first furnish inspiration.  Thus, “Sunday Morning” is the poem of both the chaos and the consolations offered up by Nature.   But “Key West”—which I hope to address in another essay and close-reading, very soon—is the poem about what you really can do with that base-level of natural material, describing how the divinity dwelling within the self manages to manipulate it into a form more beautiful and human than that which the material possesses in its basic state.  Yet the earlier poem remains a testament to those “misty fields” we call reality—the place where the birds stop to offer up some of Wordsworth’s “obstinate questionings,” before continuing on their irretrievable way.