B.J. Leggett: On "The Snow Man"

One of the most frequently cited of the early poems of epistemology, "The Snow Man" (CP, 9) asks whether a world could remain over if point of view were canceled or what the features of a perspectiveless world might he. "The Snow Man" has been cited in support of any number of disparate interpretations of Stevens, although it has most frequently been given a realist reading, as an "affirmation of primal reality" (Litz, 100) or a "'plain reality' which harbors no mystical . . . element" (Leonard and Wharton, 65). In an influential early essay J. Hillis Miller identified the poem's "nothing" with being and argued that for Stevens nothingness is the underlying reality, "the source and end of everything" (Poetry of Being, 155). In Paul Bové's more recent Heideggerian reading the poem is said to record the process by which its speaker "sees the primordiality of Being-in-the-World" and learns that "he is ontologically identical with the other insofar as they are both part of 'what-is' existing in and by virtue of 'nothing'" (Destructive Poetics, 191). Against Miller and Bové I will argue that the "nothing" of the poem may be read with less strain as Nietzsche's featureless becoming, the ground upon which we construct our worlds. . . .

The spare form of the poem evidently invites us to fill in its blank spaces with our own conceptions even as it indirectly warns us (in my Nietzschean reading) that the only mind that could match up with it perfectly would be a blank mind free of preconceptions, which would then comprehend nothing. This is not because the text would disappear any more than the landscape of the poem does--its presence is not i9n question--but because of the poem's implication that the reader, like "the listener, who listens in the snow," can make distinctions, identify features, "behold" the text meaningfully only through perspective, point of view. To state this in a more positive light--as a truly Nietzschean text, the poem is both an affirmation and a denial--we may say that the poem invites the imposition of its readers' perspectives since its epistemology denies that in the absence of perspective there can be any reading of a text or a landscape that produces anything other than "nothing."

For fourteen of its fifteen lines 'The Snow Man" appears to hold a very different epistemology. It suggests an operation by which a perceiver might truly behold a winter landscape. He "must have a mind of winter"; he must "have been cold a long time"; he must not "think / Of any misery in the sound of the wind. . . ." He must in short divest himself of any perspective that would interpret the scene. Once he is "nothing himself," devoid of any human perspective, he "beholds / Nothing that is not there," but here, five words from the end, an ideology hidden to this point asserts itself, one that if strictly observed would make problematical the imagery of the first fourteen lines. What he would then behold, the poem concludes, is "the nothing that is." Stripped of all human seeing and conceiving, rendered a part of the winter landscape as a "snow man" with a bare mind that is attuned to the "bare place" in the blank snow, he beholds nothing. Significantly, however, this is a nothing "that is." The poem does not deny the existence of its blank world; it simply assumes that any feature it might exhibit must be imposed on it by the perceiver. A perceiver who willed himself to impose nothing on the blank (if that were possible) would confront only the blank.

At this juncture, however, in the and of the last line ("Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is"), we uncover a disruption that is akin to (but not identical with) the gaps or seams that Pierre Macherey has theorized in texts that incorporate conflicting ideologies. And Macherey's model is of use here primarily in suggesting the manner that literary texts unmask ideologies that in other forms may seem "natural" and hence invisible. The conflict in "The Snow Man" is one that is endemic to perspectivist texts--texts that adopt the implications of point of view as a theme or assume that the words of the text create things that do not exist without the words. Once we are alerted to its presence, it is a conflict that may be found in various forms in Nietzsche's texts, in those of his commentators, and in my own formulations of perspectivism.

The form this contradiction takes in "The Snow Man" is that its desired world of a perspectiveless beholding is given as the perspectival world that is to be surrendered. Or, to state the contradiction more sharply, it is the very world the, man in the snow is asked to obliterate that, he is informed, he will then regard once it has been erased. The poem begins:

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....

But of course we learn eventually that if a mind of winter were achieved, the snowman would not in fact regard pine trees, junipers, or spruces, since these designations are the most elementary examples of human abstraction and classification. Neither would he behold objects that are crusted, shagged, or glittering--all metaphors imposed on the scene. He would not see these objects in the light of a January sun, time and its divisions constituting another human ordering. He would not be aware that the spruces are being observed in the "distant glitter," since the concept of distance assumes a point of view. In brief, the qualities of the scene that interest us, that are described in such a way that they constitute the motive for assuming a particular kind of mental state, are precisely what are lost when this state is realized. The argument of the poem may thus be reduced to this form: in order to realize x, surrender the faculties by which x is realized.

This is not to suggest that the poem is unnecessarily muddled and could have been constructed in such a way as to escape its dilemma. It is not even to suggest that it falls into its trap unwittingly (and here my manner of interpretation differs slightly from Macherey's). My assumption is that the poem directly confronts the ironies of perspectivism, plainly exposing its paradoxes for all to see. . . .

The poem attempts to get rid of a manmade world but its language keeps reasserting what it relinquishes and thereby reveals what a much later text says outright: "the absence of the imagination had / Itself to be imagined" (CP, 503). . . .

We might then ask: how are e to understand a vision of the uninterpreted nothing the poem seems intent on giving us if we must read it always as an interpreted something? And to take the argument back a step, how can we know such a poem's intent? If it asks us to understand in a way that is inaccessible to us, how are we to recognize even the nature of its requests? And would not such considerations guarantee that "The Snow Man" has never been understood? These questions raise the issue of whether any truly perspectivist text--because of its assumptions about the nature of understanding--could ever be understood on its own terms. If we take "The Snow Man" on its own terms, I would suggest, our only "understanding" could be comparative, in relation to different texts by Stevens and others. Our understanding of all texts is, in this broad and perhaps trivial sense, intertextual; we interpret texts in their relations to or in their differences from other texts. . . .

"The Snow Man" at least implicitly makes the same claim that nothing in the world has any intrinsic features of its own. But if that is the case, bow does the poem expect us to understand such a featureless world? The poem does not go on to suggest overtly that each thing is constituted solely through its interrelations with, and differences from, everything else, but that in fact is the way it defines its vision of "the nothing that is'"--by setting it against a view that projects human qualities onto the landscape, that hears "misery in the sound of the wind." Similarly, we may say that "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" assumes that the blackbird has no intrinsic features of its own, that each way of looking at it defines it, and, we now see, that each way of looking at it is understood in its difference from every other way. To apply Nietzsche's textual metaphor to these poems about the nature of interpretation, we could say that they must describe their worlds intertextually, characterizing each interpretation (of a text that is itself unknowable) as it differs from another. "Thirteen Ways" gives us a set of interpretations that "mean" in their differences; "The Snow Man" implies that we can have a sense of the primal text from which interpretations are derived by thinking of it in opposition to the interpretations themselves, the texts we create and project onto it. If all our interpretations were erased, what remained would be the text itself, except of course the metaphor falls apart at this point, since the assumption of the poem is that the text would be blank if its interpretations were erased., and a blank text is a form of the contradiction (to posit nothing as something) that haunts all strict formulations of perspectivism.

"The Snow Man" raises issues such as the one above--that is, by what mode may perspectivist texts be understood? how may they imagine a world without imagination? how do they escape their own textuality?--because it unmasks so successfully perspectivism's internal conflicts.

Excerpted from a longer analysis in Early Stevens: The Nietzschean Intertext. Copyright © 1992 by Duke University Press.


Title B.J. Leggett: On "The Snow Man" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author B.J. Leggett Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Dec 2015
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