March 9, 2009

The Snow Man

Recently the most-excellent Paul Griffin, who writes as miliman for the amazing blog One City, put up a couple of posts relating to Wallace Stevens's poem "The Snow Man" that grabbed my interest.

In the first post, on 2/27, "Emptiness and Wallace Stevens" Paul presents the poem and then walks us through it, splendidly showing how it relates to Buddhism's take on emptiness and how it mostly doesn't relate to existential nothingness. The nil/nothing/emptiness concepts are rather difficult for we Westerners who are completely wrapped in modernity [mostly a good thing], rather full of our self, and filled with ideas of filling our lives with stuff and accomplishment while fleeing boredom and fleeing being quiet or alone with ourself.

I don't have any great argument with Paul's understanding of the poem and his insights, but I'm inspired to walk through the poem, myself, sharing an understanding I come away from it with, completely ignorant of the voracious study of this famous poem I had never before heard of.

Here, first, the short poem and, then, Wallace Stevens reading it in a viddy:

The Snow Man
by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

I, likely, have gone totally fruit loops, but from my listening, Wallace is talking about crossing the bridge of pantheism.

Perhaps foundational is whatever a reader makes of the idea of winter [or cold], so prominent in the poem.

Paul writes, quoting essayist Pat Righelato, "One must have a cold, precise, disciplined mind: this imperative is the poem’s subject."

I think the central idea in the poem is not about "the cold," per se, or even mind, and certainly not one that is precise and disciplined, but being open and available to whatever is there -- even if it is, on first encounter, something alien and harsh.

The poem is about traveling the bridge to what's other. One must have a mind of winter to regard winter, to understand winter, to be winter. If this had been a poem of summer, then a mind of summer would have been what was necessary. It's not about the cold, except that surmounting the challenge of being the other can seem difficult.

We must lose our self to conjoin an other's experience. The seeming irony is that that other is likely to be only fully us! So, the nothing, if we fully lose our self, is the self-same nothing that we encounter in an other. Eureka!

Thus, in the end, I fully agree with Paul (I think.). Here, Nishitani from Religion and Nothingness:
It has often been pointed out that the subjectivity of the ego resolutely refuses to be viewed objectively. And yet, the self shows a constant tendency to comprehend itself representationally as some “thing” that is called “I.” This tendency is inherent in the very essence of the ego as self-consciousness. Therefore it marks a great step forward when the standpoint of Existenz-in-ecstasy, held suspended in nothingness, appears as a standpoint of truly subjective self-existence. Nonetheless, traces of the representation of nothingness as the positing of some “thing” that is nothingness are still to be seen here. The standpoint of sunyata, however, is absolutely nonobjectifiable, since it transcends this subjectivistic nihility to a point more on the near side than the subjectivity of existential nihilism.

As a valley unfathomably deep may be imagined set within an endless expanse of sky, so it is with nihility and emptiness. But the sky we have in mind here is more than the vault above that spreads out far and wide over the valley below. It is a cosmic sky enveloping the earth and man and the countless legions of stars that move and have their being within it. It lies beneath the ground we tread, its bottom reaching beneath the valley’s bottom. If the place where the omnipresent God resides be called heaven, then heaven would also have to reach beneath the bottomless pit of hell: heaven would be an abyss for hell. This is the sense in which emptiness is an abyss for the abyss of nihility.

… even in Buddhism, where we find the standpoint of emptiness expounded, a transcendence to the far side, or the “yonder shore,” is spoken of. But this yonder shore may be called an absolute near side in the sense that it has gone beyond the usual opposition of the near and the far. Indeed, the distinguishing feature of Buddhism consists in its being the religion of the absolute near side.

1 comment:

Ryan Garou said...

I like this interpretation.