Wallace Stevens and the Demands of Modernity: Toward a Phenomenology of Value

Wallace Stevens and the Demands of Modernity: Toward a Phenomenology of Value

by Charles Altieri
     
 

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Charles Altieri, one of our foremost analysts of modernism, has in his recent work argued for the importance of the affects, which philosophy has too long subordinated to cognition and ethics. In Wallace Stevens and the Demands of Modernity, Altieri focuses his attention on modernist poetry, especially that of Wallace Stevens. He argues that critics have

Overview

Charles Altieri, one of our foremost analysts of modernism, has in his recent work argued for the importance of the affects, which philosophy has too long subordinated to cognition and ethics. In Wallace Stevens and the Demands of Modernity, Altieri focuses his attention on modernist poetry, especially that of Wallace Stevens. He argues that critics have failed to appreciate the degree to which modernist poetry, like modernist art, breaks from the epistemology that arose from cultures of empiricism. If we recognize the limits of that authority we can also recognize the close positive affinities between how we feel and how we value.

Nineteenth-century writing wanted to build values out of ways of looking at what could be established as fact. Early modernist poetry, particularly that of Stevens and Pound, labors to adapt Nietzschean attitudes toward poetry. Then Stevens embarked on an imaginative journey to find in linguistic activity itself a sufficient model for how we compose values. In both stages of his career facts must be respected, but they will not bear values simply by virtue of their connectedness to the world. We have to understand the constructive power taking place on intimate levels as we pursue that connectedness. Stevens matters, Altieri argues, because of the range and depth and intelligence by which he explores what such connectedness might involve. Stevens offers elaborate and moving experiments exploring how imaginative writing can help human beings grapple with questions about values that are at the very heart of our common experience.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Altieri provides the most authoritative treatment of Stevens in more than a decade. . . . He combines aesthetics and philosophy in a rigorous manner that is nonetheless resolutely literary. Wisely eschewing a commentary on all of Stevens's poems, Altieri extracts original interpretive insights from close reading, as seen in his discernment, in 'Farewell to Florida,' of a flight from the female that is as much wishful thinking as renunciation, and a reading of 'Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird' in which he emphasizes how the different perspectives ‘fuse’ over the disjunction emphasized by critics such as Harold Bloom. Altieri's detailed explication . . . reveals him as a dazzling reader of this difficult poet. Summing Up: Highly recommended."—Choice (December 2013)

"Wallace Stevens and the Demands of Modernity is an enormously stimulating book. Charles Altieri is remarkably ambitious, marvelously learned, and an intensely thoughtful reader of Stevens (and many others). He is the rare critic who is speculative, theoretical, and interpretive, but who also recognizes that the practice of criticism usually begins in strong affection and an urge to celebrate."—Robert Chodat, Boston University, author of Worldly Acts and Sentient Things: The Persistence of Agency from Stein to DeLillo

"Wallace Stevens and the Demands of Modernity alters what we think of as philosophical approaches to poetry and, more crucially, philosophical approaches to the poetry of Wallace Stevens. Charles Altieri does not simply apply philosophical models to Stevens's work nor does he simply address questions of influence. He succeeds in brilliantly capturing Stevens's underlying and insistently philosophical spirit, demonstrating how Stevens uses the imagination and feeling dynamically to 'respond to the world of fact' to establish value. Altieri works his way through Stevens’s early to late poems—from 'Earthy Anecdote’ and 'The Latest Freed Man’ to ‘The World of Meditation’ and ‘The Plain Sense of Things’—showing philosophical affinities (Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein) and at the same time offering groundbreaking close and careful readings. He illuminates how Stevens’s poems—their structure, grammar, and rhythms—invite us to participate in and value the world. Wallace Stevens and the Demands of Modernity will have a profound impact on and long resonance in Stevens criticism. It is a book that serious readers of Stevens and of modern poetry will return to again and again."—Lisa Goldfarb, Associate Professor and Associate Dean, Gallatin School of New York University, author of The Figure Concealed: Wallace Stevens, Music, and Valéryan Echoes, and president of the Wallace Stevens Society

"Can poetry establish values? This brilliant, learned, subtle, and original book argues persuasively that Wallace Stevens is a philosophical poet. Charles Altieri supports this claim through detailed readings of selected poems from all Stevens' poetry books taken up in sequence. Nietzsche is shown to be a major resource for Stevens, as Nietzsche and Wittgenstein are for Altieri. Stevens, Altieri demonstrates, investigates tirelessly, through the practice of poetry, ways poetry can actualize values. 'Stevens,' Alieri asserts, 'provides a brilliant way of reconciling experience and world by defining imagination as involving the theory of values because it provides images of the mind's power over the possibility of things.'
Altieri persuasively demonstrates that the sequence of Stevens’s books makes a story. It is the story of Stevens’s progressive movement toward solutions for his search for values through poetry-making. This movement proceeds through the development of what Altieri calls 'aspectual thinking' in poetry and through an exploitation of the grammar of 'as.' Stevens in one place calls this process 'the intricate evasions of as'; in another, 'the edgings and inchings of final form.' Wallace Stevens and the Demands of Modernity is also, covertly or indirectly, a record of Altieri’s own search for a phenomenology of value that will satisfy him. A major book for all those interested in Stevens and in the uses of poetry and criticism in our time."—J. Hillis Miller, UCI Research Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature and English, University of California, Irvine

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780801478727
Publisher:
Cornell University Press
Publication date:
05/14/2013
Pages:
304
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.80(d)

Meet the Author

Charles Altieri is Stageberg Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of many books, including The Particulars of Rapture: An Aesthetics of the Affects, also from Cornell, and Postmodernism Now: Essays on Contemporaneity in the Arts.

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