Review of: Mind of Winter: Wallace Stevens, Meditation, and Literature, by William W. Bevis

Mind of Winter: Wallace Stevens, Meditation, and Literature. William W. Bevis. Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press. 1988. xi, 343 pp. $29.95.

By asserting repeatedly that Stevens' nothingness entails a meditative practice based on or akin to Buddhism, William W. Bevis reconciles asceticism with Stevens' theory of the poetic mind. If one finally disagrees that Stevens neared a meditative consciousness, one cannot but admire the argument of this book as adding force to a general project in recent Stevens criticism, namely that of remaking the tired distinction between imagination and reality. Bevis' Stevens, keen to the physiological features of detachment, helps present a genuinely new sense of the real in the poetry. Following the implications of this revisionist strategy, Bevis also tries to reconcile Marjorie Perloff's "'constructionist'" poetics ("impersonal and modern," in the tradition of vorticist "geometry") with Helen Vendler's "'expressive'" model (a "Stevens of feeling"); Bevis accomplishes such a maneuver by taking up Perloff's "topic of impersonality," which she has used against Stevens, and turning it on its head, so that in the end Bevis' Stevens has become Perloff's Pound. This last point might have been more convincing, if the argument moved toward it straightaway. But Bevis sees Stevens' meditative consciousness as consorting with the whole history of Eastern practice. In sections amounting to more than a third of the book, the reader finds disquisitions on Thomas Colebrooke's expertise in Hindu law, EEG studies of meditating Zen masters, Admiral Byrd's "enforced evenness" in the polar dark, Arthur Deikman's psychoaesthetic experiments in which his friends stared at a blue vase, Wilder Penfield's project of locating "uncommitted" cortex, "contact improvisation" in New York's Judson Dance Theater, the Buddhist revival in Ceylon ignited by the visit of Madame Blavatsky in her orientalist phase, and MTV as surrealist technique triumphant. Balancing a revisionist reading of Stevens against all this is a burden too great for Bevis' method and evidential standard to bear. The vast accumulation does help us see, for instance, that "Knowledge of the Orient was widespread when Stevens was at Harvard in 1900"; but it is also claimed that "a great deal of knowledge of the Orient could accompany very little knowledge of meditative practice." This distinction would seem to move us away from recited particulars of Western orientalism; yet what follows is an elaborate history of "new [Buddhist] texts . . . enthusiastically circulated"; more than a page later, we advance no further than 1814 (Schopenhauer at Weimar); still another page and we reach 1880 (Blavatsky in Ceylon). Did Stevens know Buddhist texts or not? "Stevens seems to have arrived at his knowledge without significant help from Buddhists, scientists, or orientalists . . . ; very probably the meditative state of consciousness itself . . . was his mentor" (emphasis added). If meditation itself taught Stevens meditation, then one would not need to know about orientalist scholarship of his day. And yet evidence that Stevens knew Buddhism is readily available: Stevens not only read orientalist writings but at least once read those of a practicing Buddhist teacher. In 1940, Stevens described his orientalist background for his Ceylonese correspondent, Leonard van Geyzel: "When I was young and reading left and right, Max Mller was the conspicuous Orientalist of the day." Van Geyzel then mailed Stevens "The Essence of Buddha's Teaching," a pamphlet prepared by Nyanatiloka, the eminent scholar-monk. The sustained access to Buddhism through van Geyzel is never mentioned in Bevis' lively account that speaks often of Ceylon; nor is Stevens' reading in Mller ever at issue, though the fact of it is available in the published letters. The ubiquitous phrase "very probably," used in attempts to connect Stevens precisely to meditative traditions, stresses a methodological confusion. One wants the revisionist real more directly, signalling as it does an important shift in the way we read Stevens.


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