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The Quest for the Fiction of an Absolute: The Mystic's Movement from Ancient Sacrifice to Supreme Fiction in Wallace Stevens


Stevens' "Sunday Morning" represents a struggle with the loss of belief in the Christian God. Here, perhaps, David Jarraway's deconstructing Stevens can be seen most clearly. Whereas the search, in "An Ordinary Evening," of Professor Eucalyptus for "god in the rainy cloud" (Palm 339), and "God in the object itself" (Palm 340), and the insistence--early in "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction"--on "perceiving the idea / Of this invention . . . . / Washed in the remotest cleanliness of a heaven / That has expelled us and our images" (Palm 207) certainly lend themselves to being read as attempts to dismantle logocentric models of belief, "Sunday Morning" presents the loss and/or emptying of the Christian God in terms that do not require a familiarity with poststructural theory to grasp.

The poem begins with a woman (a female consciousness present in many of Stevens' poems, one that often seems to function as a kind of anima figure) luxuriating in "complacencies of the peignor, and late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair," while "the green freedom of a cockatoo" mingles with the coffee and oranges "to dissipate / The holy hush of ancient sacrifice"; her luxury is tinged with a pensive quality, however, as she "feels the dark / Encroachment of that old catastrophe" and passes with "dreaming feet / Over the seas, to silent Palestine, / Dominion of the blood and sepulchre" (Palm 5). The failure-or refusal-of the woman to attend church on a Sunday morning, but to instead stay home and enjoy the ordinary, yet somehow transcendent pleasures of an ordinary, yet somehow transcendent morning signals the break with the God of Palestine; the dreaming return "to silent Palestine" manifests the internal struggle over such a break.

The second section portrays the argument with a second, probably masculine voice (a figure that may be seen as a kind of animus figure, as both anima and animus, feminine and masculine voices in the poem may be seen as different aspects of a single consciousness) that asks, "Why should she give her bounty to the dead? / What is divinity if it can come / Only in silent shadows and dreams?" (Palm 5) Indeed, what good is a divinity that is only an image? If the divine cannot answer the demand of Thomas, if Christ will not or cannot show the "mark of the nails in his hands" (John 20:25), then "what is divinity?" Instead of embracing such a cipher of divinity, she should embrace herself: "Divinity must live within herself: / Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow . . . . / All pleasures and all pains" (Palm 5).

The third section moves on to a kind of abridged history of Western notions of the divine: "Jove in the clouds had his inhuman birth"; "He moved among us . . . . / Until our blood, commingling, virginal, / With heaven, brought such requital to desire / The very hinds discerned it, in a star" (Palm 6). Moving from Greece to Palestine, from the many gods of polytheism to the One God of monotheism, in two sentences, the poem then asks whether our blood will fail: "Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be / The blood of paradise? And shall the earth / Seem all of paradise that we shall know?" (Palm 6) What, asks the poem, will happen once we leave the God of Palestine just as we once left the gods of Olympus? Shall our blood fail? Shall our "fiction of an absolute" wither away and we prove unable to replace or reconceive it? Or shall our blood "come to be the blood of paradise?" Shall we move into the central position to which we have previously assigned our gods? If the answer to this latter question is yes, "The sky will be much friendlier then than now, / A part of labor and a part of pain, / And next in glory to enduring love, / Not this dividing and indifferent blue" (Palm 6). The sky will no longer divide, but join heaven and earth, becoming fully our own as the microcosm and macrocosm are united in us as ours becomes "the blood of paradise."

The fourth section returns to the feminine perspective as questions of impermanence disturb the perhaps too-idyllic and too-romantic notions of apotheosis of the previous section. "When the birds are gone, and their warm fields / return no more, where, then, is paradise?" (Palm 6) The masculine voice responds with assurances of a permanence that transcends the personal: "There is no haunt of prophecy, / Nor any old chimera of the grave,/ . . . . nor cloudy palm / Remote on heaven's hill, that has endured / As April's green endures; or will endure" (Palm 6). No religious or metaphysical idea has lasted, or will last, as long as the cycles of April's annual greening of the earth; no haunt of prophecy or chimera of the grave or cloudy palm (all of which are, or can easily be read as, Judeo-Christian images) will last as long as the ordinary yet transcendent reality of the earth itself.

This fails to comfort the feminine voice, however, as the fifth section professes "The need of some imperishable bliss" (Palm 6). The masculine response is a praise of death: "Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her, / Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams / And our desires" (Palm 7). Death may strew "the leaves / Of sure obliteration on our paths," but it also "makes the willow shiver in the sun / For maidens" and "causes boys to pile new plums and pears" before the maidens who "taste / And stray impassioned in the littering leaves" (Palm 7). Death and desire are intimately related; Eros and Thanatos together weave the tapestry of transience and impermanence that is the cycle of life. Death clears away the withering remnants of the old and, through desire, provides the replacement in the new in a continuous cycle that is ultimately the cause of all beauty and all ugliness, all pleasure and all pain, all life.

The cycle of change, the whirling wheel of ripening fruition and decay, is shown as necessary by the portrayal of stasis in the poem's sixth section. "Is there no change of death in paradise?" asks the masculine voice. "Does ripe fruit never fall?" The image of "rivers like our own that seek for seas / They never find, the same receding shores / That never touch with inarticulate pang" (Palm 7) presents death as a consummation devoutly to be wished, a return to the ultimate mother Death, "Within whose burning bosom we devise / Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly" (Palm 7).

This idea of death as a return, a reunion, is one of our most common religious/mystical ideas. Christianity gives us the figure of Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham, a clear symbol of the return of offspring to its source; Taoism, in the famous story of Chuang Tzu's reaction to the death of his wife, gives us a picture of the return of form to formlessness, of birth transformed into death like the rotation of seasons; the Bhagavad Gita (II.22) shows us death as a man abandoning a worn-out suit of clothes in preparation for acquiring a new one; the Upanishadic equation of Atman (roughly, the individual divine within) with Brahman (roughly, the divine in all) figures an entire cosmos constructed on the principle of periodic return. B.J. Leggett, in his Early Stevens: The Nietzschean Intertext, puts this notion of return in the context of Nietzsche's idea of eternal recurrence. Calling the view of the poem's sixth section a "sarcastic view of immortality," Leggett compares this section of "Sunday Morning" to the Vom Freien Tode (Of Free Death) section of Also Sprach Zarathustra, with its proclamation, Stirb zur rechten Zeit! (Die at the right time!) Holding on stubbornly to the withering manifestations of individual life simply will not do: "Viel zu viele leben und viel zu lange hngen sie an ihren sten. Mchte ein Sturm kommen, der all dies Faule und Wurmfreßne vom Baume schttelt! (Far too many live and far too long they hang on their branches. I wish a storm would come and shake all this worm-eaten rot from the tree!)" It is precisely the concern of the masculine voice in section six to affirm death as an agent of necessary change, a storm that shakes the worm-eaten rot from the tree, returning that rot to the earth from whence it came.

The final two sections of "Sunday Morning" seem to suggest two different replacements for the Christianity that has been by now rejected. Section seven describes a pagan scene, "a ring of men" chanting "in orgy on a summer morn" (Palm 7). These men are "boisterous" in their "devotion to the sun, / Not as a god, but as a god might be, / Naked among them, like a savage source" (Palm 7). Here the notion of divinity-or that which stands in the place thereof-as a source is explicit. The chant of these men, boisterous in devotion to their "savage source" (or that which acts like a savage source-recall that for Stevens, "It is the belief and not the god that counts") "shall be a chant of paradise, / Out of their blood, returning to the sky" (Palm 7,8). These images recall the questions of the poem's third section: "Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be / the blood of paradise? And shall the earth / Seem all of paradise that we shall know?" The chant of these men is "out of their blood," and it returns "to the sky." These images mix with later images of the transience of life to form a complete picture of the cycle of birth-death-birth: "They shall know well the heavenly fellowship / Of men that perish and of summer morn. And whence they came and wither they shall go / The dew upon their feet shall manifest" (Palm 8).

The images of a "summer morn," and of "dew" are images of ephemerality: James 4:14 compares humanity to "a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes"; Psalm 110:3 speaks of youth like "dew" that comes from the "womb of morning." The image of males can itself serve as a symbol of ephemerality; masculinity is often figured as transient in relation to the permanence that is figured by femininity. The union of bíoV (bios)--the Greek term for the "Masculine" principle of that individual life which begins and ends--with zwh' (zoe)-the Greek term for the "Feminine" principle of regeneration and the life principle which has no death-is reflected in numerous Bronze Age myths of the union of Goddess and God/Son-Lover. The dying god motif found in the myths of Adonis, Attis, Tammuz/Dumuzi portrays the masculine half of a god/goddess pair as that which undergoes (and embodies) the birth-death-birth cycle; in contrast, the feminine half figures the permanent principle of life that infuses the individual manifestations of that life.

This section offers a sense of mystical union, a sense of what Lucien Levy-Bruhl called participation mystique in "the heavenly fellowship" and in the men's ability, through their chant, to "enter, voice by voice, / The windy lake wherein their lord delights, / The trees, like serafin, and echoing hills, / That choir among themselves long afterward" (Palm 8). The ephemeral males of section seven have entered (or perhaps have always existed in, since the chant comes "out of their blood") a state "where man and the world, man and group, ego and unconscious are intermingled" (Neumann 378). The participation of these men in their environment, in "the windy lake wherein their lord delights" is not merely mystical; it is concrete as well. The combination of concrete and abstract, of actual and mystical union of all with all represents, I believe, an early formulation in Stevens' poetic search for the "fiction of an absolute," "absolute," central," and "essential" poem, and the "central" mind.

The poem's eight and final section retreats somewhat from this sense of closure. Images of Palestine and Jesus return, though in a context that denies them any symbolic, transcendent power. "The tomb in Palestine / Is not the porch of spirits" but merely "the grave of Jesus" (Palm 8), the grave of a man like any other, like the ephemeral men of the previous section. We live collectively as part of a lasting cycle from which we are unable, as individuals, to escape: "We live in an old chaos of the sun, / Or old dependency of day and night, / Or island solitude, unsponsored, free, / Of that wide water, inescapable" (Palm 8). The sense of being on an island, of being unsponsored, of being unable to escape, is in direct contradiction to the sense of mystical and actual participation of all with all described by the previous section. From this sense of isolation, the poem moves on to a final summation of the birth-death-birth cycle: "Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness; / And, in the isolation of the sky, / At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make / Ambiguous undulations as they sink, / Downward to darkness, on extended wings" (Palm 8). "Isolation" and images of evening, downward motion, and darkness work together to complete "Sunday Morning" and its rejection of the Christian concept of divinity with its "holy hush of ancient sacrifice." The poem's ending seems even to repudiate the "natural" model of divinity of the "ring of men . . . . on a summer morn." The "green freedom of a cockatoo" of the poem's beginning has been transformed into the "Ambiguous undulations" of pigeons "as they sink, / Downward to darkness."

What is repudiated by "Sunday Morning" seems clear enough; the question of what, if anything, this poem affirms is not so clear. Is this, as Leggett claims, a Nietzschean affirmation of death, of Dying at the right time? If this poem considered in isolation, perhaps the most convincing answer to this question is "yes." Considering "Sunday Morning" in the context of a later poems like "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" suggests, I believe, a similar, but more complicated answer. "Sunday Morning" appears, in this context, as a brushfire, a destruction that serves but as the prelude to a new creation, the death that leads to new life, new possibilities. The death is not of that which is fertile, fecund, and active, but of that which is withered and no-longer-serviceable (the sense in which both Nietzsche's Stirb zur rechten Zeit! and his infamous Gott tot ist! can perhaps be best understood); the celebration, the affirmation in "Sunday Morning" is of death as an agent of change and renewal, and the death of God is the death of a particular idea of God, but the affirmation is unsettled, replete with images of darkness and isolation.