The following is taken from White’s excellent book The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves (2003 HarperCollins) (reprinted with permission):
“Wallace Stevens’s little book of essays, The Necessary Angel (1942), deserves far more relevance than it seems to have in the present. Stevens’s book is intelligent, humane, and inventive in a way that we should want to value in the present and ever other future moment. The subtitle of this slim book is ‘Essays on Reality and the Imagination.’ What is extraordinary in Stevens’s perception is his certainty that reality and imagination do not stand different from and opposed to one another. They are in fact the same thing. Imagination ‘has the strength of reality or none at all.’ (7)
“The reality that we refer to as our daily reality is simply the work of the human imagination that has become ossified, cofidied, and generally naturalized. It is imagination that has achieved such consensus that it is an ‘of course.’ This is so in both a good and bad sense. We need a shared reality because we live together, we need to be able to communicate, and we need to be able to trust that we’re part of a shared world. This is ideology, or a shared imaginative understanding of the world, in its weak (meaning ‘neutral’) and most inescapable sense. The authority to manage this shared understanding is what politics is about at its most basic level. Who will have the authority to say what kind of world we will all live in? Who will have the authority to answer Wallace Stevens’s question about ‘how to live, what to do’? This is ideology in its strong and most threatening sense. This ideology is about insisting on one human world as the true and only proper human world, and the first gesture of this ideology is always, of course, to say, ‘I’m not ideology. The world is a collection of static objects and behaviors arranged in space. nature is stable and unchanging. The imagination is fantasy and if it has a place in our world it is a place like Fantasyland, carefully circumscribed by the walls of Disneyland. I won’t utterly deny it, though I don’t like it much, but I will limit its province.’ Limit and carefully monitor.
“We’re not much in the habit of poking at these dominant realities that are so much the ‘of course’ of our lives. We’re delicate. We’re used to deferring. What parents, teachers, presidents, and media spokespeople like Dan Rather (the bosses in our social factory) say is good enough for us. We demur out of habit and fright over what not demurring might require of us. We sacrifice our lives out of a feeling that there is some sort of comfort in deferring. Do I dare to eat a peach, indeed.
“For Stevens, the problem was one of equilibrium. ‘The relation between the imagination and reality is a question, more or less, of precise equilibrium.’ (9) That this relation was at the time he wrote a ‘failure’ was not, for Stevens, a question. The only question was to ask why and to what degree it was a failure. The failure was due to ‘the pressure of reality.’ (13) As Stevens wrote, ‘By the pressure of reality, I mean the pressure of an external event or events on the consciousness to the exclusion of any power of contemplation.’ (20)
“On the other side, for Stevens, the figure of the poet, standing in confrontation with reality, achieves near revolutionary stature. Even though he was an insurance executive, Stevens had a vision of the real that was politically radical. He argued, in words that describe our present moment to a frightening degree:
In speaking of the pressure of reality, I am thinking of life in a state of violence, not physically violent, as yet, for us in America, but physically violent for millions of our friends and for still more millions of our enemies and spiritually violent, it may be said, for everyone alive…. A possible poet must be a poet capable of resisting or evading the pressure of the reality of this last degree, with the knowledge that the degree of today may become a deadlier degree tomorrow. (27)
“But how emasculated and domesticated Stevens has become in the American literary canon. He is remembered for cute, metaphysical poems such as ‘The Emperor of Ice Cream.’ Practically something for children. This Stevens may cause us to smack our ‘muzzy bellies’ in delight, but he won’t cause us to change our lives. He is safely domesticated, made a friend to the quotidian, someone you read at the school-factory in the museum of the safely established canon. He is read now, if he is read at all, as an example of literary greatness, another culture hero, quite irrelevant to what happens when we get in our cars, go to work or the mall, turn on our TVs or computers. And this when what he wanted to say to us was, ‘You’re being murdered’!” (3–5)
Curtis White is a novelist and social critic living in Normal, Illinois. His many other books include The Idea of Home (1993/2004), Memories of My Father Watching TV (1998), Requiem (2001), America’s Magic Mountain (2004), The Spirit of Disobedience (2006), and The Barbaric Heart (2009).