Wallace Stevens and the Limits of Reading and Writing

By Bart Eeckhout | Go to book overview

Chapter 8

Between Matter and Mind

"NOTHING IS ITSELF TAKEN ALONE. Things are because of interrelations or interactions, ” Stevens famously mused in his Adagia (OP 189). The idea for this epigram may have originated with Emerson, in particular with the poem “Each and All, ” where Stevens's literary father pondered how “All are needed by each one; / Nothing is fair or good alone.” 1. But the intellectual ramifications of the epigram extend far beyond this single intertextual connection. One of the possible ways of understanding the statement is by reformulating it as follows: no thing is “the thing itself.” Things are differential and relational; they can come to exist only through interrelations and interactions with their environments, including, above all, the interested minds that perceive them. This wider idea, arguably, is the point of departure for what has come to be constructed as Stevens's near-compulsive involvement with “the thing itself.” The intellectual antecedents of that involvement are so easily traced that they have been summoned onto the stage time and again in Stevens criticism. As a philosopheme, “the thing itself” is shopworn; it has been around since Kant's Ding an sich, and in fact for some time longer: since Berkeley's “things in themselves” and since the birth of modern science, which based its ideal of objectivity precisely on forsaking all human intentionality and surrendering to the thing itself.

Almost too conspicuously, the so-called thing itself makes a couple of literal appearances in Stevens's work. It is even referred to pontifically in its German format when Crispin, the verbal prankster, sheds his old self in the first stage of his poetic voyage from an Old to a New World and marvels, “Here was the veritable ding an sich, at last” (CP 29). Thirty years

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1.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Each and All, ” 258.

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