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Wallace Stevens, Poetry, and France

Juliette Utard
Bart Eeckhout
Lisa Goldfarb

Part Four. Stevens and French Thought

Jacques Rancière and the Political Dimensions of Aesthetic Autonomy in Stevens’ Depression-Era Poetry

Gül Bilge Han

Texte intégral

  • 1 J. Rancière, “The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes,” p. 134.
  • 2 Ibid.

1In the opening pages of his essay “The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes,” Jacques Rancière remarks that “the notion of ‘aesthetics’ as a specific experience” entails two contradictory and seemingly antagonistic stances: it points both to “the idea of a pure world of art,” which holds out a prospect of aesthetic autonomy, and “of the self-suppression of art in life,” which affirms art’s heteronomous foundations.1 “Understanding the ‘politics’ proper to the aesthetic regime of art,” Rancière argues, means understanding this double-edged dynamic, namely, “the way [art’s] autonomy and heteronomy are originally linked.”2

2This chapter draws out the implications of this claim by examining how the particular “link” between autonomy and heteronomy is enacted and explored in Wallace Stevens’ Depression-era poetry. Drawing on Rancière’s concern to unsettle the assumed opposition between the aesthetic and political functions of art, I seek to illuminate how Stevens’ Depression-era poetry offers a participatory and socially engaged position, while at the same time developing a particular conception of aesthetic autonomy as an enabling condition for this engagement. Beyond epitomizing a privileged retreat into the protected space of the aesthetic—as it is often understood—autonomy, in Stevens’ poetry, is imagined in distinctly relational terms. And by “relational” I mean specifically the lines of interconnection between his poetry and its wider material conditions.

  • 3 For influential considerations of autonomy as ideology, see T. Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthe (...)
  • 4 A. Goldstone, Fictions of Autonomy, p. 1.

3The doctrine of aesthetic autonomy constitutes a significant part of the historical legacy of literary and artistic Modernisms. The conception of art as an immanent formation governed by its own internal logic underpins a set of interrelated issues concerning artistic agency, textual meaning, mode of production, reception, and formal innovation that are all central to Modernism’s self-definition. In the field of Modernist studies, in particular, the claim to autonomy is often understood in terms of art’s programmatic withdrawal from external imperatives (socioeconomic, political, cultural, etc.). The idea of the art object as an autonomous entity, independent of extraneous concerns, has long been critiqued as perpetuating an ideological mystification that obfuscates art’s historical origins and determinants.3 To put it succinctly, within the general thrust of contemporary critical discourse, the notion of autonomy has frequently been derided for representing an elitist and exclusive view of art, or regarded as a topic whose time is past.4

  • 5 Ibid., p. 11.
  • 6 By focusing on Paul de Man’s conceptualization of tautology, Goldstone devotes a whole chapter to t (...)
  • 7 A. Goldstone, op. cit., p. 15.
  • 8 Other recent reevaluations of aesthetic autonomy include G. Jusdanis, Fiction Agonistes; J. Hess, R (...)

4This perception has only begun to change in recent times, as several commentators have embarked on analyzing the shifting notions of art’s autonomy and their relation to broader historical phenomena. Over the past few years, critics such as Lisa Siraganian, Andrew Goldstone, and Michael Kelly have highlighted previously overlooked interactions between aesthetic autonomy and sociopolitical signification in the arts and literature. In Modernism’s Other Work (2012), Siraganian, for example, explicates the concept of Modernist autonomy as the art object’s freedom from external ascriptions of meaning, rather than its withdrawal from the world. In so doing, she draws out the political implications of what she calls “meaning’s autonomy” in Modernism’s deeper commitment to classical liberal ideals and to questions of artistic agency and freedom.5 Kelly, in A Hunger for Aesthetics (2012), on the other hand, sees in Modernist and contemporary artistic configurations of autonomy the potential of art’s political recalibration to enact public engagement in ways free from subject-oriented notions of intentionality. Goldstone’s Fictions of Autonomy (2013) explores the contextual motivations behind Modernist commitments to autonomy across multiple genres and writers, including Stevens.6 Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological approach to the literary field, Goldstone’s study rewrites the critical implications of the term for issues as diverse as domestic labor, expressions of personality, political community, and linguistic non-referentiality.7 Despite the apparent differences, what these critics have in common is the understanding of autonomy as a socially and historically embedded concept with political and aesthetic ramifications. Their reassessments open up a discursive terrain by challenging the established designation of the term as merely the theoretical pretext for art’s (and the artist’s) immunity from pressing cultural currents and worldly concerns.8

  • 9 L. Lisi, Marginal Modernity, p. 7-9.

5This renewed polemical interest in the concept of autonomy within the scholarship of the last few years is intimately linked to a wider call for a return to aesthetics. Recent claims for the recovery of aesthetics call into question postmodern theory’s concern with displacing the notion of the aesthetic as merely an ideological category, one that is, moreover, integrally complicit with forms of socioeconomic and cultural domination.9 One of the most influential accounts of such challenges against what is commonly denominated as the “anti-aesthetic stance” in literary and art criticism is to be found in Jacques Rancière’s reevaluation of the relationship between aesthetics, politics, and art.

  • 10 J. Rancière, op. cit., p. 134.
  • 11 Ibid., p. 150.
  • 12 J. Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, p. 20.

6A central tenet of Rancière’s discourse on aesthetics, and one that I would like to explore here in relation to Stevens, is his claim that the political potential of art lies not in the messages or sentiments it seeks to convey but in the possibility of enacting and sustaining a symbiotic relationship (or tension) between two contrasting paradigms: one paradigm affirms art’s separation from life, which differentiates it from other forms of activity and thereby asserts its singularity, while another amounts to its “self-suppression,” or its merging with other modes of existence, which renders art as a form of common life.10 Going back to Schiller’s writings, Rancière claims that it is by virtue of staging a “free play” between these conflicting scenarios of “art becoming mere art” and “art becoming mere life” that the aesthetic regime of art presents an autonomous realm of experience vis-à-vis the existing social fabric.11 In this setting, aesthetic separation and distance are presented as an enabling condition for art to demarcate a space of its own, which carries the capacity for the “invention of new forms of life,” and the promise of a collective subjectivity for social change.12

7Rancière’s theory offers a productive vantage point from which to explore the political and aesthetic dimensions of Stevens’ commitment to the autonomy of poetry. In Rancière’s thought, as in Stevens’ poetry, aesthetic separation is presented as a condition of possibility for art, rather than a limitation on its societal relevance and political potential. Furthermore, Rancière locates the political meaning of aesthetics on a continuum between the poles of autonomy and heteronomy, a strategy that Stevens’ poetry consistently enacts with the ability to articulate multiple responses to the historical and cultural pressures deeply rooted in the Depression and the following outbreak of World War II.

8Stevens’ poetry, especially from the 1930s through the 1940s, incorporates positions that imply both its inclusion of, and exclusion from, the larger historical forces. His poetics articulates in concert the seemingly antagonistic stances of aesthetic autonomy and social engagement—the solitude of poetry and its commitment to general sociopolitical objectives. It presents these stances not as polarized extremes but as mutually implicated elements for constructing a force field that enables new nodes of social, aesthetic, and political transfers. Stevens’ poetics, in other words, operates with an aesthetic strategy that, by separating and distancing itself from social reality, imagines and stages different potential forms of relationality between poetry and collective life. In this strategic enactment of separation, the idea of autonomy is discursively developed as a primary force for negotiating the points of interaction that spin out from the domain of his poetry to its wider historical situation.

9It is possible to discern this particular aspect of Stevens’ poetics most distinctly in his Depression-era poem “Mozart, 1935,” from Ideas of Order (1935). The poem provides a compelling case for Stevens’ responses to the fluctuating sociopolitical and cultural climate, and, in particular, an understanding of the autonomy involved in his responses. In the poem, Stevens imagines his poet-figure in a room in the house to examine, as he wrote, “the status of the poet in a disturbed society, or, for that matter, in any society” (Letters, 292). The poem begins with an imperative voice, addressing the poet:

Poet, be seated at the piano.
Play the present, its hoo-hoo-hoo,
Its shoo-shoo-shoo, its ric-a-nic,
Its envious cachinnation.
CPP, 107

10 The confined space in which Stevens imagines his poet-figure making music is situated in proximity to the collective space of a riot taking place outside: “If they throw stones upon the roof / While you practice arpeggios, / It is because they carry down the stairs / A body in rags” (CPP, 107). The pelting of stones on the roof, the clamor of the people carrying the dead body, and the musical notes of the piano played by the poet make up the thematic substance of the poem that is alternately sounded and visualized. The historical background echoing throughout Stevens’ lines captures the generally disruptive effects of the Depression (on “any society,” and thus, both locally and globally). A less audible but equally important context, however, which is often brought into discussions of the poem, is the state of the cultural spectrum in the US at the time. The year in which Stevens sets the scene and in which the poem was published, 1935, was stirred by debates crystallizing around the issue of art’s social and political efficacy. Throughout the 1930s— “the red decade,” “the angry decade”—artists and poets were called upon to engage in conversation with the masses facing the economic hardships caused by the capitalist crisis.

11In “Mozart, 1935,” the secluded space of artistic activity, where poetic expression is identified with Mozartian music, is unsettled by the outrage of the masses, whose voices are intruding into the poet’s segregated territory. But the unidentified speaker instructs the poet who is practicing “arpeggios” to remain “seated at the piano” despite the upheaval that has taken over the street. At the same time, he urges the poet to “Play the present,” and later, to transform his “voice” into the collective “voice” of the masses by abandoning the private personal “you” for the intersubjective and impersonal inflections of “thou”: “Be thou the voice, / Not you. Be thou, be thou / The voice of angry fear, / The voice of this besieging pain” (CPP, 107). No longer affirming a simple contrast between angry voices outside and artful arpeggios inside, the pianist is recruited to sound the riotous sentiments—that is, the intrusion is only a first moment, the adoption of the outside voice is next.

  • 13 A. Filreis, “Selecting Three Poems by Wallace Stevens: A Roundtable Discussion,” p. 253.
  • 14 J. Longenbach, Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things, p. 154.
  • 15 M. A. Cohen, Beleaguered Poets and Leftist Critics, p. 59.

12Previous commentators on the poem have viewed this suspension, or the interruption of the poet’s aesthetic interior, as evidence for Stevens coming to terms with the awareness that, amidst the actual exigencies of the times, he could no longer speak coherently from the position of a pure aestheticism shut off from the world. “Few Stevens poems,” Alan Filreis writes, “convey as much fear of the personal poetic dead end as ‘Mozart, 1935,’ or present as anxiously the risk of accusations of aestheticism in the face of crisis.”13 The poem expresses, according to James Longenbach, Stevens’ recognition that “the old music played in the old way will no longer suffice, no matter how much we mourn its passing.”14 Milton A. Cohen similarly argues that Stevens displays a sense of “regret for the lost Mozartian past, a past when art could be ‘pure’ and the artist untroubled by his times.”15 The staging of such anxiety, mourning, and regret, as proposed in these readings, became also the driving force behind Stevens’ renewal of his poetics in order to respond to the cultural demands and pressures of the 1930s. For these critics, the poem contests the aesthetic interiority of a “pure poetry” and acknowledges the need to replace it with a more socially responsive artistic model.

13In “Mozart, 1935,” Stevens does indeed respond to the new political demands placed upon poetry under the changed cultural atmosphere of the Depression. Yet, the overall rhetorical direction of the poem goes far beyond lamenting the insufficiency of aesthetic enclosure for a socially engaging poetics. The poem’s tone and imaginary setting provide at once the basis of a separate poetic territory that is epitomized by the poet’s demarcated “practicing” room, and a claim to relevance to the collective struggle that is taking place outside. Stevens makes the sound, or the musicality of poetry, a central subject of the poem. The relationship between sounds and images points to a latent tension, woven into the poem’s texture, between the people’s “cries” and the poet’s notes, in their competing sounds—a double emergence of the site of autonomy (the carefully delineated space of poetic practice) and of heteronomy (the street). The aesthetic interior is pointedly conjured up in the poet’s room while the social exterior, the violence of the street, impinges from without.

14The speaker’s address to the poet suggests a double-edged poetic ambition. On the one hand, it involves the task of adopting a civic voice to become the collective “voice of angry fear” and of the “besieging pain,” that is to say, to speak for the masses. On the other hand, it sets up the task of maintaining a model of aesthetic territoriality by preserving the boundaries of artistic space and remaining there, making music: the imperative phrase by which the speaker addresses the poet, “be seated,” is repeated three times in this short poem, including the final line. The ambivalent juxtaposition of these tasks—of poetry as a self-legislating procedure of mere musical sound, occupying a space of its own, and of poetry as a politicized expression of social flux and communal needs—is paradigmatic. It is not a matter of elevating one task over the other but of staging the interplay between these ostensibly differentiated logics of commitment to collective solidarity and commitment to separation and self-determination as the creative nexus of aesthetic production.

15Thus, the poem sets out to envision the invention of artistic forms without external function (the poet’s music), while deliberately identifying such forms with a site of collective mobilization and an expression of social dissent—giving voice to the crowd’s anger, fear, and pain. The perspective that emerges from this arrangement suggests a compound of social reciprocity and autonomy of poetic practice. It is not the personal autonomy of the individual poet that the poem holds up, but the autonomy of the poetic process and, crucially, of the space in which this process is carried on. The speaker’s invocation of “thou,” by which the poet’s voice is supposed to take on a collective character, seeks to establish a mode of artistic subjectivity that requires abandoning the personal private “you” (CPP, 107).

  • 16 J. Rancière, “From Politics to Aesthetics?” p. 15.
  • 17 J. Rancière, “The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes,” p. 143.

16According to Rancière, the political meaning of aesthetics depends precisely on this complicated, paradoxical link between art’s separateness and non-separateness, between its autonomy and commitment to collective life, which constitutes its heteronomy. The simultaneous invocation of social reciprocity and aesthetic separation has political significance: it reveals a contradictory logic that is inherent to the aesthetic regime of art but is repressed in discourses that either reinforce art’s total deployment for political or moral ends or else assert its formally conceived, intrinsic properties alone. For Rancière, neither of these perspectives leaves room for understanding the politics of aesthetics, which lies in “the paradoxical link between the ‘separateness’ of aesthetic experience and the framing of a [collective] political subjectivization.”16 It is through the embodiment of this intimate and paradoxical link that the aesthetic regime of art obscures and dynamically displaces “the straightforward scenarios of art becoming life or life becoming art […] replacing them with scenarios of latency and re-actualization.”17

17In “Mozart, 1935,” Stevens engages actively and consciously in this process of dynamic displacement that Rancière sees as constitutive of the political meaning of aesthetics. This becomes tangible in two distinct ways. First, while imagining poetic expression as a distinct or separate category in itself, Stevens’ poem postulates at the same time its imaginative intervention for the expression of a politically oriented collective subjectivity, namely, the collective “voice of angry fear” and “of this besieging pain”—the masses outside. Second, in a move that incorporates both the positions of aesthetic separation and of social commitment, Stevens’ poetics poses a constructive challenge to the heavily dualistic view that would see the opposition between autonomous and heteronomous forms of art as a simple antinomy. And it does so by transforming the space of poetry into an effective site for negotiation between heteronomy (the complete integration of poetry into collective life) and autonomy (the self-sufficiency of poetry). The poem enacts the ways in which these two positions are intricately imbricated rather than diametrically opposed.

18The coexistence of these positions (social reciprocity and autonomy) in “Mozart, 1935” allows for an alternative production of singularity with a strong collective dimension that is predicated on musical/poetic form and activity. The sound of the piano played by the poet does not translate into a song of the street as such, with an instrumental political function. But it evolves nevertheless in tandem with the historical matrix of social change that marks the streets of 1935. The potential evolution of the poet’s music is registered at the level of a movement between different musical styles: “arpeggios,” “divertimento,” and “concerto” (CPP, 107). The trajectory between these forms adds a new dimension to the tension the poem displays between aesthetic autonomy and social engagement.

19The first musical style with which the speaker identifies the poet’s music is that of the “arpeggio,” which consists of individual notes played sequentially rather than simultaneously. The restricted scope of this form of musical performance cannot accommodate the multiplicity of cadences and voices of “the present,” which the poet is urged to incorporate into his music. “[P] ractic [ing] arpeggios” is presented as a preparatory phase from which the poet is expected to develop and expand. The speaker introduces two different possibilities for the anticipated transformation of the poet’s music: the “divertimento,” described as a “lucid souvenir of the past,” and the “concerto,” seen as an “airy dream of the future” (CPP, 107). Diverting, or turning away from social crises, was part of the aesthetic function of the eighteenth-century divertimento, a form of composition primarily composed for entertainment in intimate social settings (aristocratic as a matter of course). This stylistic model stands in stark contrast to the violent context of the 1930s, where the poet is exposed to the outside voices of terror and chaos.

20The second form is the “concerto,” which is linked to the “future” with a utopian drive for reconciliation. Stevens’ reference to Mozart acquires an additional tropological significance here. Just as Mozart’s twenty-seven piano concertos brought together the singular instrument and the collective orchestra, the poem calls into play the poet’s solo “piano” and the collective voices of the street simultaneously. Inasmuch as the “concerto” bears the potential for sustaining both the singularity (the poetic/musical) and the plurality (the collective) in a reciprocal process of competition and harmonization, the poem finds the present an inauspicious time for the kind of harmonious dialogue upon which this form of music was originally founded. The concerto seems like an “airy dream” in dire political trouble (CPP, 107). The speaker, nevertheless, presents an instance of this “airy” fantasy in the fifth stanza. The artistic reconciliation of social conflict within the realm of the aesthetic facilitates a cathartic resolution. Voices of anger and pain are replaced by the abstract “wintry sound /… / By which sorrow is released, / Dismissed, absolved / In a starry placating.” This harmonious resolution of socially inflicted “sorrow” seems excessive and untimely. So it is significant that the speaker ends by pinpointing the persistence of the present turmoil that awaits a response: “The snow is falling / And the streets are full of cries. / Be seated, thou.” The poem does not, however, indicate a rejection of Mozartian music, but calls for renewing its existing forms for the present: “We may return to Mozart. / He was young, and we, we are old” (CPP, 108; emphases added). The call for a shift away from the personal “you” to a more socially oriented voice is emphasized by the integration of the speaker’s voice into a collective “we.” The mode of aesthetic renewal that is explored in the poem is not a completed event but an ongoing process, which would continue to fuel Stevens’ writing as the decade unfolded.

21Thus, in “Mozart, 1935,” Stevens sets in motion the process of negotiating a politically inclusionary and responsive poetics, which requires reinventing poetic expression under the new social circumstances brought on by the Depression. In the course of exploring its formal and artistic conditions of possibility, the poem foregrounds a perspective that disallows the total immersion of aesthetic “practice” in the systemic crisis of social reality. It stakes out and negotiates the boundaries of poetic space through an open-ended strategy of self-differentiation and distantiation. The rhetoric of the poem indicates the necessary link between poetic production and collective experience, while at the same time asserting the separation and the self-transformative potential of poetry, which is imagined as both shared and distinct. The condition of separation constitutes not a secure space for the poet to inhabit but a precarious and discursive arena that fosters a self-questioning relationship to social order.

  • 18 Modernist and radical poets who clearly responded to the cultural shift from the 1920s to the 1930s (...)

22 The double bind of autonomy and social relevance that is dramatized by the poem suggests an attitude of resistance to the cultural demands of the 1930s whereby the placing of art at the service of an explicit political message became a burning issue for many Modernist and radical poets alike.18 Poetic expression, as attested by the poem, refuses to comply with a predetermined artistic model of social participation and collective relevance. Instead, the poem maps out an alternative route to actualizing social responsiveness with a capacity for testing the possibilities and limits of poetic discourse for collective enunciation. Separation and autonomy are constitutive of the very process of negotiating the transformation of poetic discourse, rather than indicating an escape from the site of political action and conflict.

23In the context conjured up by the poem, in other words, aesthetic autonomy becomes manifest through the acknowledged presence of the external social fabric. The poem does not demarcate a separate territory except on the basis of the external social reality it interacts with. The claim to autonomy, within this frame, heeds the call for relationality and is guided by the quest for a solidaristic bond with collective experience, while it sweeps aside received notions of social engagement. The conceptual knot of separation (autonomy) and engagement (heteronomy) constitutes not a confused tangle of poetry and its extra-aesthetic allegiances but the tying together of mutually defining, irreducible positions by which the social and political implications of Stevens’ poetics become visible.

  • 19 J. Rancière, Aesthetics and Its Discontents, p. 46.

24Ultimately, in “Mozart, 1935,” the process of aesthetic renewal demonstrates a compelling negotiation between “the logic of art becoming life at the price of its self-elimination and the logic of art’s getting involved in politics on the express condition of not having anything to do with it.”19 Rather than interpreting the strain between these logics as evidence that politics and aesthetics are antithetical, it is possible and more productive, as Rancière’s framework suggests, to identify in it the way the sociopolitical ethos and the autonomy of art exist in a dynamic and complementary relationship.


1 J. Rancière, “The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes,” p. 134.

2 Ibid.

3 For influential considerations of autonomy as ideology, see T. Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic; F. Jameson, A Singular Modernity; T. Reiss, Against Autonomy; and F. Lentricchia, After the New Criticism and Criticism and Social Change.

4 A. Goldstone, Fictions of Autonomy, p. 1.

5 Ibid., p. 11.

6 By focusing on Paul de Man’s conceptualization of tautology, Goldstone devotes a whole chapter to tracing the social implications of Stevens’ commitment to poetic autonomy, which, in his reading, is expressed in the tautological and self-referential qualities of his verse (Goldstone, op. cit., p. 149-185).

7 A. Goldstone, op. cit., p. 15.

8 Other recent reevaluations of aesthetic autonomy include G. Jusdanis, Fiction Agonistes; J. Hess, Reconstituting the Body Politic; J. Loesberg, A Return to Aesthetics; F. Erfani, Aesthetics of Autonomy; and P. Kalliney, Commonwealth of Letters.

9 L. Lisi, Marginal Modernity, p. 7-9.

10 J. Rancière, op. cit., p. 134.

11 Ibid., p. 150.

12 J. Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, p. 20.

13 A. Filreis, “Selecting Three Poems by Wallace Stevens: A Roundtable Discussion,” p. 253.

14 J. Longenbach, Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things, p. 154.

15 M. A. Cohen, Beleaguered Poets and Leftist Critics, p. 59.

16 J. Rancière, “From Politics to Aesthetics?” p. 15.

17 J. Rancière, “The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes,” p. 143.

18 Modernist and radical poets who clearly responded to the cultural shift from the 1920s to the 1930s include, among others, Archibald MacLeish, Isidor Schneider, Langston Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, and the Objectivists. For detailed accounts of American poetry in the 1930s, see for example, C. Nelson, Repression and Recovery; J. Lowney, History, Memory, and the Literary Left, 1935-1968; and M. Thurston, Making Something Happen.

19 J. Rancière, Aesthetics and Its Discontents, p. 46.


Postdoctoral researcher and lecturer at Stockholm University, Department of English. She has recently completed her doctoral dissertation on Wallace Stevens and the poetics of modernist autonomy. Her current research interests include world literature, global modernism, transnational solidarity, and the politics of aesthetics.

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