“On Faith and Imagination and the Mind of Winter, Thawing”

In his 1929 lecture “What Is Metaphysics?” Martin Heidegger laid out a series of propositions regarding scientific attitudes, and specifically how the sciences assess their objects of study. “What should be examined are beings only, and besides that—nothing; beings alone, and further—nothing; solely beings, and beyond that—nothing.” Science, that is, should take up only those things, those “beings,” that possess some kind of material existence, leaving comparatively immaterial complexities of mood and value (and speaker and implication, to say nothing of goodness and beauty—all those chimeras of human being) to philosophy, and more generally the humanities. “[O]ne thing is sure,” Heidegger remarked, a little derisively: “science wishes to know nothing of the nothing”—nothing, that is, of these ethereal concerns that make our engagement of matter meaningful.

But “[h]ow is it with [this] nothing?” Heidegger asks.[1] In other words, what are we to make of the immaterial matter, the human variables, that inflect the universe of objects? These are the questions that should most occupy our attention and take first priority in our universities, Heidegger believed, for human factors color our understanding and leave their imprint on everything we perceive, think, or even imagine.

That said, might it be otherwise? The American poet Wallace Stevens had posed this question a few years earlier, in 1921, in his poem “The Snow Man”:

 

One must have a mind of winter

To regard the frost and the boughs

Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

 

And have been cold a long time

To behold the junipers shagged with ice,

The spruces rough in the distant glitter

 

Of the January sun; and not to think

Of any misery in the sound of the wind,

In the sound of a few leaves,

 

Which is the sound of the land

Full of the same wind

That is blowing in the same bare place

 

For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is[2]

 

“One must have a mind of winter,” to have become cold and hardened and (almost) of a different substance, to gaze on a landscape stripped of its former vitality and “not . . . think / Of any misery” in the scene—not to project something like memory and desire and the affect of warm familiarity onto “junipers shagged with ice” and “spruces rough in the distant glitter.” Might one become this thing? If one did, might one not discard former miseries? Then again, the poem invites us to ask, might it be best not to acquire such a mind? Might such a frosty existence prove incompatible with our raw humanity, to say nothing of the conditions of human flourishing?

Such thoughts provide something of a backdrop for these observations of Matthew Mutter’s regarding habitual interpretations of Stevens’s work:

 

Scholars . . . have long recognized that [Stevens’s] poetry is bound up with the loss of his religious faith. The standard critical picture is that, like many Victorians before him, Stevens gave up certain consolatory beliefs in the supernatural and looked to poetry to fill the vacuum of values or meanings. Stevens himself wrote bluntly in a letter of mid-career: “It is a habit of mind with me to be thinking of some substitute for religion.” These scholars have usually written, however, as if Stevens’s secularism were unproblematic. They assume that terms like “religious” and “secular” are transparent, and that the transitional movement between religion and poetry—substitution—is a straightforward process. Secularism is not, for these critics, a distinct and contestable account of the world or mode of inhabiting it. It is merely what we call the awareness of the real world that emerged once we abandoned our metaphysical illusions. It is, to adopt a phrase from Stevens, “the plain sense of things.”[3]

 

“[P]lain sense”; a “mind of winter,” we might say. But for Mutter, and as intimated by a poem like “The Snow Man,” the secularism of Stevens and such contemporaries as Virginia Woolf and William Butler Yeats was hardly so “transparent,” so “unproblematic.” “Stevens knew that a secular world is not simply what is left over after the gods depart, but a new imaginary that competes with the old one” (742). And he was

 

unsure as to what a transition from a religious to a secular imaginary entailed. But his uncertainty is enormously fruitful, for in exploring the different strategies of that transition, he provides a way into an entire cultural problematic that many have simply forgotten. His poetry helps clarify the stakes of the religious—in particular, the Christian—and the secular, as well as the consequences of any movement from one to the other. It shows us how this movement may involve the relinquishment of entire frameworks associated with God: all of the attitudes, dispositions, values, concerns, desires, expectations; in short, all the habits of thought, feeling, and imagination that were only intelligible and coherent within that framework. But it also shows us how such a relinquishment might be undesirable or even impossible. [742]

 

Mutter thus lays the groundwork for his compelling project examining the secular imaginary, and residual religiosity, of a group of influential early twentieth-century writers. In his account, this new imaginary was less a straightforward enterprise than one that was conflicted, halting, and tendentious if also determined, hopeful, and ambitious—and thus, in its way, idealistic, believing, even faithful (and therefore, and on that recursive score, conflicted, halting, and tendentious . . .).

Mutter’s reference to Stevens’s “fruitful” “uncertainty” captures the spirit of the lecture series for which he is our guest this week at the BYU Humanities Center. These lectures, titled the Faith and Imagination series, bring scholars to campus whose work takes up questions of faith/belief/religion/spirituality/choose-your-favorite-post-secular-noun in creative ways. That last qualifier is important, for religion and secularity are inscribed within the mission and aims of BYU, inspiring cross-fertilizing insights but also risking a kind of artificial or symbolic rigidity in enforcing distinctions (e.g., “beings only, and besides that—nothing”). One might say, jokingly but with a dash of cayenne, that such a charter to think the elusive, perpetual “nothing”—the religious in the secular; the secular in the religious—resembles something out of Stevens’s dreams, or perhaps his nightmares. Admitting a tension that some (and perhaps Stevens himself) would prefer to abolish, this negotiation of religion and secularity is a challenge requiring open-mindedness and imagination, sometimes in large quantities. The Faith and Imagination lecture series thus represents a kind of thoughtful (and playful, even self-reflexive) exercise that evokes this everyday challenge by way of scholarship from the long humanistic tradition that defamiliarizes it.

“Beings” need “nothing” or else there is no reflection on what things mean. Imagination adds “nothing” to faith in lending form (literally, image) to what Paul calls “the substance of things hoped for.”[4] To live without it one would need a mind of winter.

This post is written by Matthew Wickman, Founding Director of the BYU Humanities Center

[1] Heidegger, “What Is Metaphysics?” trans. revised by David Farrell Krell, Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993), 95-96.

[2] Stevens, “The Snow Man,” The Poetry Foundation (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45235).

[3] Matthew Mutter, “Wallace Stevens, Analogy, and Tautology: The Problem of a Secular Poetics,” ELH 78 (2011): 741-768 (741).

[4] Hebrews 11:1

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