Review of: Wallace Stevens and the Question of Belief: Metaphysician in the Dark by David R. Jarroway

Wallace Stevens and the Question of Belief: Metaphysician in the Dark By David R. Jarroway. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993

It is one thing to say vaguely that "matters of faith were a perpetual source of creative inspiration through [Wallace Stevens's] lifetime" (1), and quite another to take an strong interpretive position one way or the other on this point. The statement just quoted can also be said of someone who spends a lifetime issuing invectives against all forms of belief--one's conviction that God is dead can surely "inspire." Clearly David Jarroway in Wallace Stevens and the Question of Belief means to say, but for some reason is not quite up to saying, that Wallace Stevens's much-assumed anti-Christianity is really often a form of anti- anti-Christianity. Readers will reasonably ask: Is "Stevens's entirely deinstitutionalized concept of faith" (5) still a "faith" specific enough to require an argument as counter-intuitive as the one presented in this book? Jarroway argues that Stevens's "spiritual project" is based on his continuous "resistance" to transcendence (5). This critical task requires the shrewdness necessary for interpreting the following passage as actually "reopening the question of belief":

To see the gods dispelled in one of the great human experiences. It is simply that they came to nothing. At the same time, no man ever muttered a petition in his heart for the restoration of those unreal shapes. There was always in every man the increasingly human self, which...became constantly more and more all there was or so it seemed; and whether it was so or merely seemed so still left it for him to resolve life and the world in his own terms. (9)
Jarroway asks us to hear in this passage a "however" after Stevens's "At the same time" (he inserts one editorially--as I have not in reproducing the passage), even though the assertion that follows (that "no man ever" wanted the gods back after they were "dispelled") does not logically reverse the trend of Stevens's thought. Jarroway also believes he has sufficiently deconstructed the endorsement of the God-is-dead position here by italicizing "or so it seemed" and "or merely seemed," even though the "seeming" refers first to the degree to which humanism became apparent to humans and secondly to the accepted fact that humans would now have to understand life in human terms. There is no convincing "alterity suggested by his 'seeming' self" in the passage, and one has to go a very long way against the common sense of the passage to see that it "appears to reopen the question of belief." If one italicizes "appears to" the critic's phrase just quoted, the contention disappears into the seeming he, not Stevens, invented.

Jarroway makes his often counter-intuitive arguments best when he is reading poems, not when he is generalizing about belief. His reading of "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman," while finally unpersuasive, is at least clear as an interpretive provocation. Jarroway wants to oppose the usual reading of the poem as "a fairly broad satire of the doctrinaire Christian." He sees satire extending equally to "those disaffected flagellants who cling blindly to a faith in the opposing law...built around an unpurged bawdiness." The poem does not strike most readers as nearly so even-handed, but at least it is apparent how Jarroway's reading supports his general contentiousness in favor of belief-centered interpretations of otherwise obviously anti-theological poems. The problem may be in the way such "alternative" readings are introduced: in this instance the counter-satirization is clinched only after Jarroway has announced that his reading is based on an aspect of the poem "less often noticed." But he is surely cheating himself a little here, since he has much stronger reasons for presenting this reading than that Stevens's anti-anti-Christianity is merely "less often noticed."

Too often in this book one finds merged the operative "question of belief" (which I take Jarroway as saying includes at some point an actual affirmation) and the "questioning of belief" (which surely suggests doubt and negation). As an interpretive category or limit, "questioning of belief" is gratifyingly more specific than "question of belief." Does the poem "Examination of the Hero in a Time of War" raise a "question" or make a "questioning"? The answer lies under layers of Jarroway's (not Stevens's) logical indirection: "His whole 'Examination of the Hero in a Time of War' is thus a searching attempt to affirm that the wellsprings of faith . . . must continue to remain 'unaccountable' . . . in spite of the 'sudden sublimations' of what the consciousness of man in the sight of God might dictate" (137). One is hard pressed to see anything affirmed in what follows the word "affirm" here; so affirmation (used in the context of belief never quite avowed) is merely tantalizing. It sends us forward, in Jarroway's argument and in Stevens's career, looking further.

One does have a feeling all along that the logical zigzagging will straighten out at the end. Do Jarroway's final chapters bear out the uncharacteristically direct claim in his introduction that Stevens felt an "extraordinary commitment to the renewal of faith"? (12) It is hard even to know this much. In the end we mostly get more on "Stevens's a/theological discourse" (245; emphasis added). Accordingly we find poems as "a discontinuous series of attempts or random wagers at moments more or less fraught with spiritual insight" (174). "More or less" can sometimes mean "more," but "fraught" problematizes the "spiritual insight" Jarroway's readers have a right to expect they will reach. We do finally approach "reverence" in relation to "The Auroras of Autumn." Here Mark Taylor is helpfully cited as "one of several contemporary a/theologians who attach a definite religious reverence to the kind of writing Stevens puns on." Jarroway adds that in "Auroras" Stevens "comes very close to this sense of reverence," but the reading never nears Taylor's standard of "definite" (249). Is there any theology in "the posttheological discourse"? Here is Jarroway's explanation: "In the a/theology of belief's text-event, we are given in Stevens's final volumes a highly volatile discourse, one full of assertions and reversals, feints and low blows [sic], tackings and doublings and tracings, and, always, qualifications, intensifications, supplementations, and multiplications" (287).

Fortunately, Jarroway ends with a relatively explicit reading of a poem about a religious institution--the remarkable "St. Armorer's Church from the Outside." The reading displays Jarroway's interpretive technique at its best. But even here the "question of faith" itself disintegrates: the poem that "would have done completely with the inner sanctum of universalizing faith"--a text about a church, once successful, now ruined--still contains the Church's "only hope for keeping its truth alive . . . for a better health" (299, 301; emphasis added). We seem to be back, finally, to the renewal promised. Here Jarroway notes (but does not explain or interpret) the biographical information which some scholars would say is still unconfirmed--that Stevens converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. Fine, if Jarroway fully accepts or works with the significance of the fact. But these near-final pages have suggested a fairly specific and specifically affirmative ending to the story--potentially meeting Taylor's good standard of "definite reverence." Such definiteness in itself, to which this reviewer is favorably disposed, only serves to call into question the hundreds of pages of equivocal post-theology.


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