Friday, May 24, 2019

A thought on "The Rock" by Wallace Stevens

Reading the pages on "The Rock" in Harold Bloom's Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, I found the florid one's commentary illuminating but--as usual for the works of Bloom's 'theoretical' middle years--too hermetically literary. Like Cleanth Brooks (an old Bloom bĂȘte noir) figuring Keats's urn as an ideal New Critic, Bloom tends to trope (to use a favorite Bloomverb) every poet he writes about as a version of himself, a revisionary reader of poetry. This can be a fruitful critical line, but Bloom hews to it too exclusively. He thus, unsurprisingly, reads 'The Rock' as metapoetic statement; I read it as an existentialist aesthetic crisis poem; others might read it as a deconstructionist drama, or even as religious allegory--and all four readings might well be compellingly supported by Stevens' text. Although I--and this may merely be my bias speaking--suspect that an existentialism-inflected reading that understands the poem as dramatizing a dialectic of being and/from nothingness might subsume all the others.

My reading, nutshelled: The rock is a symbol of the existential nothingness that underlies reality, the nothing on the other side of Ahab's "pasteboard mask." Upon this vertiginously terrifying nonfoundational foundation, the mind projects Being (leaves, lilacs) as a protective barrier, a prophylactic, a shield. This Being, an imaginary creation--like a work of art, a poem--so enraptures us that our act of creation is repressed and we reify our projection as the Real, the cure, the panacea for our existential angst. And, ecstatically, if only for the duration of the poem, the medicine works.... Something like that seems to be the through-line of "The Rock."

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