Wallace Stevens and the Demands of Modernity: Toward a Phenomenology of Value

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Charles Altieri, one of our foremost analysts of modernism, has in his recent work argued for the importance of the affects, which philosophy has too long subordinated to cognition and ethics. In Wallace Stevens and the Demands of Modernity, Altieri focuses his attention on modernist poetry, especially that of Wallace Stevens. He argues that critics have failed to appreciate the degree to which modernist poetry, like modernist art, breaks from the epistemology that arose from cultures of empiricism. If we recognize the limits of that authority we can also recognize the close positive affinities between how we feel and how we value. Nineteenth-century writing wanted to build values out of ways of looking at what could be established as fact. Early modernist poetry, particularly that of Stevens and Pound, labors to adapt Nietzschean attitudes toward poetry. Then Stevens embarked on an imaginative journey to find in linguistic activity itself a sufficient model for how we compose values. In both stages of his career facts must be respected, but they will not bear values simply by virtue of their connectedness to the world. We have to understand the constructive power taking place on intimate levels as we pursue that connectedness. Stevens matters, Altieri argues, because of the range and depth and intelligence by which he explores what such connectedness might involve. Stevens offers elaborate and moving experiments exploring how imaginative writing can help human beings grapple with questions about values that are at the very heart of our common experience.