Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

A Future Not My Own: Thinking Aging in Two of Stevens's Winter Lyrics

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

A Future Not My Own: Thinking Aging in Two of Stevens's Winter Lyrics

Article excerpt

I grow old ... I grow old ...

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

--T. S. Eliot

This sigh leads to a more difficult question: is living something that can be learned? or taught? Can one learn, through discipline or apprenticeship, through experience or experimentation, to accept or, better, to affirm life?

--Jacques Derrida

And years from now, when this old light isn't ambling anymore Will I bring myself to write?

--The Decemberists, "June Hymn"

In his late essay "A Collect of Philosophy" (1951),Wallace Stevens turns to the long and embattled relation between poetry and philosophy not in order to resolve it but, more modestly, "to consider the poetic nature of a few ideas" that give "the imagination sudden life" (Opus 267).The preparation for this essay, which he would deliver as a public lecture in November 1951 (in New York and in Chicago), makes him particularly sensitive to the fact that he has little time to devote to reading in his everyday life, especially now that he finds himself more exhausted than usual after a day at the office. Indeed, when one reads his letters of this period, it is clear that Stevens most feels his age not so much in illness or in weakness but in a weariness that keeps him from doing what he would still love to do: to learn, to read, to study. (1) For this reason, I read "A Collect of Philosophy" not only as a project Stevens wishes he had more time to bolster with more reading, but also as a project that looks back reflectively on a time of life during which he did have the energy, the time, and the space he would now have liked to devote to reading and relishing the thinkers he gathers together here: Plato, Leibniz, Nietzsche, Bergson, Whitehead, James, and his old teacher Santayana. I find no "readings" here, to compare with my own account of these philosophers, but what I do discover is a "collect" that brings to mind Gilles Deleuze, not only because his life and work were also influenced by most of these thinkers but, moreover, because he was a "poetic" philosopher, who late in his own life, turned like Stevens to matters of philosophy, of art, and of weariness, that is, of feeling his age.

Indeed, a few pages away from the end of What Is Philosophy?, Deleuze and Felix Guattari briefly conceptualize "an immense weariness" that overtakes an artist or a philosopher who "can no longer bear" the "vibrations" or the "speeds" that have sustained his or her life and work (214). Having reached "old age," they write, one either "fall[s] into mental chaos" or "fall[s]-back on ready made opinions ... no longer ha[ving] anything to say." Though What Is Philosophy? was relatively well received upon its publication in 1991, (2) Isabelle Stengers recalls a group of disappointed readers who identified the authors themselves with this image of "weariness," particularly with the image of "falling-back" or back-sliding. Such readers, according to Stengers, having admired both volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, had "anticipated a joyful celebration of experimentations" in this long-awaited text "that [would] subvert the very identity of philosophy" itself. They witnessed, instead, a seemingly catastrophic regress, a devotion to a canon of "Dead White Males" that the co-authors had purportedly overthrown long ago, and an abandonment of "deterritorization allies" who had sustained and inspired their work of the 1970s and early 1980s. Perhaps there is something self-reflective in this late reference to old age; perhaps in addressing it within a conclusion that insists upon the creative resistances of which art, philosophy, and science are capable, Deleuze and Guattari strive to hold off an inevitable closure to their careers and lives together. (Both were quite ill at this time, after all, and Guattari would die less than a year after the book's publication.) Perhaps as that volume puts it What Is Philosophy? "cast[s] a plane[] over the chaos" (202) one last time only to succumb, in the end, to "old concepts to which" the authors "remain[ed] attached so as not to fall back completely into chaos" (214). …

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