Does the World Itself Mentor us?

I’ve been wondering about this question for a few weeks now.  It seems in keeping with this idea of “Inhuman Mentors,” i.e. the theory that the world outside us, whether it be the natural or cultural world – a river, the wind, a meadow, an advertisement, an alley, an elevator – guides us somehow, not explicitly – the world does not speak – but still somehow serves as a picture that we draw from, learn somehow from, take as an example.  Yet I’m not sure exactly how to talk about this, and am wary of attributing qualities to the world that I don’t believe it contains.  For example, Richard Rorty writes in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity that

“We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there.  To say that the world is out there, and it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states.  To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations.”

I’ve never really doubted this passage, and I don’t doubt it now; and yet I wonder how to make sense of passages in poetry that involve intense moments of observation of the world – I’m thinking of Wordsworth, or Elizabeth Bishop, or Wallace Stevens – without reducing these observations to the pathetic fallacy, without simply saying, “You see this because you are human, and are investing what you are seeing with human qualities.”  In other words, anthropomorphism only goes to far; how does it make sense of the thing, the object, seen, witnessed, observed, taken into perspective?  I’m not interested in recreating the old materialist vs. idealist arguments, but I am interested in trying to puzzle out, through poetry, some questions and answers about the relationship between mentorship and the inhuman.  And yet I’m worried that, because of the terms I’m using (“mentorship,” “inhuman”), I’m just recreating the debate.

How is it possible to talk about significant moments in poetry that involve real or imagined observations, without falling into talk about idealism and materialism?  In other words, for the intense moment to happen in the poem, there is often a confluence between something that happens outside the poet and something that happens inside the poet.  A mountain is glimpsed, or illustrations in a book are imagined into words; pears or peaches are observed, or a particular bird is described.  In those moments, it seems stupid to say that what is experienced is all mind, just as it seems stupid to say that it is all world.  Of course it is a combination of these things….but how to get at the way in which the representation of the world carries significance, as if hoping against hope that the world itself would, too?  Is this basically a scenario of poets hoping for the impossible?

Let me give an example.  Here are the opening and closing stanzas from Wallace Stevens’ “Six Significant Landscapes.”  Stevens is notorious for his love for, even obsession with, the weather – another beguiling example of a poet who seems to have believed to a certain extent that one learns things, is guided by, psychagogically led by, the world, or a world.  Here are the stanzas:


An old man sits

In the shadow of a pine tree

In China.

He sees larkspur,

Blue and white,

At the edge of the shadow,

Move in the wind.

His beard moves in the wind.

The pine tree moves in the wind.

Thus water flows

Over weeds.


Rationalists, wearing square hats,

Think, in square rooms,

Looking at the floor,

Looking at the ceiling.

They confine themselves

To right-angled triangles.

If they tried rhomboids,

Cones, waving lines, ellipses –

As, for example, the ellipse of the half-moon –

Rationalists would wear sombreros.

The poem is called “Six Significant Landscapes,” although it is unclear if Stevens means the title ironically.  I tend to think that there is a subtle self-deprecating irony in the title, but for the most part read it as conveying an immensity of weight, even if that weight contains some cracks of irony within it.  At any rate, in the first stanza we are nearly accosted by the repetition of the image and phrase of things that “move in the wind.”  The larkspur moves in the wind, the old man’s beard moves in the wind, and the pine tree moves in the wind.  This much is clear.  What isn’t clear is why Stevens has decided to open “Six Significant Landscapes” with this image.  What are to take from the phrase and imagery?  What is connoted or evokes by various natural and human objects moving in the wind?

Is it fair to say that, in dwelling or brooding upon something that is moved, Stevens is attempting to articulate a kind of law of poetry, which is its attempt to move the reader?  Are we to take this first stanza as an ars poetica?  Or is this some sort of bare, sad commentary on the bare sadness of the world – a world that is endlessly and thoroughly empty, chaotic, and without purpose?  But aren’t these two readings basically incommensurable?  If we read the first stanza as articulating the way in which a reader is moved by poetry, we are taking up meaning, we are talking about signification, intentionality, subjectivity.  If we read the first stanza as articulating the (comic? tragic?) meaninglessness or nothingness at the heart of the world, then we are taking up something beyond signification, something without intentionality or subjectivity.

Whatever the case, though, it is clear that we are intended to be guided somehow, to learn something in a non-didactic way about this representation of the human and natural world.  But the frustrating and interesting thing about the passage is that it is never clear just what we are supposed to take from the representation.  Thus we are looking at a “Significant Landscape” whose significance is not apparent.  This is, to put it mildly, absolutely infuriating and (also) compelling.

Does the last stanza of the poem help us to come to any conclusion about whether or not the world itself teaches us anything?  In other words, does anything psychagogic happen outside intersubjectivity?  (A part of me feels this question is obvious – I mean, of course we can be moved by nature.  Not everything that is beautiful is confined to solidarity, to the human community.  But can we then say that nature mentors us?  Is there any sense in that formulation?)  The last stanza is, in some ways, an extension of the minute peeping hints of humor that color the first stanza.  Here we see a satire of the poor “Rationalist” who is only able to think rationally, and therefore cannot conceptualize anything beyond their rational scheme.  (Now I’m worred that I’m a Rationalist!)  But what is interesting to me is that the ultimate image, in the poem, for the thing that bewitches the rational intelligence of the Rationalist, is an image of the “half-moon” – an image of the natural world, as if Stevens were arguing that the perceived and observed natural world is a kind of inhuman mentor, that disrupts reason and gives us different ways of being, thinking, feeling, imagining, etc.  Of course, anyone who appreciates the natural world would not be surprised by this conclusion, but doesn’t it in some ways – I mean the idea that the natural world does guide us in some ways, does serves as a mentor – flatly contradict our Rorty quote above?

Perhaps we just need to drop out of the conversation the word “truth.”  Because Rorty (I think at least) is right – the world itself is not true.  Truth is a human creation.  But if we are to theorize about the world guiding us, doesn’t guidance itself involve truth?

Sheesh!  More on this later…..


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