The Difference Between Creative Anticipation & Enduring Hope: More Notes on Simone Weil & Wallace Stevens

From an interesting email response to my previous post concerning Simone Weil and Wallace Stevens:

I hope this won’t seem tediously contrarian, but I must say that in some respects I find Stevens more of an ascetic than  Weil.  True, it’s a peculiar kind of opulent asceticism, but in his poetry the real world is consistently devalued for the realm of pure imagination. When reality does make an appearance it’s usually as a rude intruder, the  source of horrible sorrow, as in the great short poem “Gallant Chateau.”  Elsewhere, as in “Arrival at the Waldorf,” he actually seems to mock this world with all its supposed wonders and adventures, suggesting that they’re all basically interchangeable and equally banal.  At best the world may be a source of imagery for his solitary meditations.

I read Stevens most deeply during a time of acute loneliness; he was a great solace.  His poetry teaches you how to be alone.

It was around the same time that I was reading Weil, and her effect was almost the opposite. [. . .]  They represent two distinct spiritual practices.  Even when she is most abstract, and seemingly pure, I can never forget the world with which she was passionately engaged til the horrible end.

It delights me to no end to get such responses. I responded in kind, via email, but thought I might extend the reflections here as well.

* * *

Though I see & sympathize with what my friend says about Wallace Stevens as more ascetic than Weil, I cannot help but continue to resist. I see Stevens, like Paul Valéry, as rather being invested fully in creation itself. The use of this creation may be maligned by the crude vulgarities to which it is put to use or that are its settings, but this, it seems to me, is all the more reason to keep creating. The Creator, Stevens says in one of his Prefaces of Valéry’s Dialogues, thus puts himself in the place of God (“not meaning that he becomes God”) — who, I might note, was so disappointed in His creation He quite willingly allowed himself to be killed off by it. (Pardon the gendered divinity, but I’m more content having a dead Father than Mother.)

In contrast, though Weil is inextricably enmeshed in the world, she is so in such a way as finally to lose the world. Her desire, as it were, is de-creation/un-creation — there’s probably an appropriate French term eluding me at the moment. Unlike the creator, her terminal declaration can never be “it was good,” with its attending “be fruitful and multiply,” etc.; but, rather, an exhausted “at last,” collapsing into “it is finished.”

Though my friend does not pursue this, I would affirm that Weil perhaps seeks a grace that is arguably more creative for its being on “a higher plane” — a higher plane, we should note, that is achieved only by one’s embodiment in the depths of the “lower plane” of existence. There is something beautiful and seductive about this kind of mysticism, and I do not necessarily regard as fruitless the pursuit. Quite simply, I remain wary of the achievement that abides in all its fleshly frustrations. Her Messiah, we’ll recall, has already come.

Here I will venture a claim with which  my friend (and perhaps many of you) will disagree: in Weil I, quite plainly, find too much hope (namely, her sense that there is a point to pain, and that this point makes possible one’s knowing endurance), and far too little creative anticipation. By the latter I mean an anticipation without hope: that is, a creation of the conditions for which it awaits, and thus a creation that in fact never stops. (I am prepared to be called on the carpet for an over-emphasis, or rather an assertion wholly of beginnings — of beginnings that are wholly beginnings, pregnant with ends, perhaps, but never pointed to a single one — of possibilities.)

As is no doubt clear, I align Stevens with the “creative anticipation” perspective. As such, it could very well be that my friend has a point concerning loneliness. It seems to me, though, that loneliness can ever only goes so far, particularly when it is invested in somehow animating the possibility of (&, I would add, the continuance of) creativity. One need only read Genesis 1 & 2 to see that the articulation of beginnings & possibilities can be a lonely affair, and indeed many a starry-eyed romantic sentiment has been stirred such — but the effects of these lonely articulations and sentiments, because they are ultimately experienced in the world, are never so nakedly individual. In effect, could we then say that Stevens, like YHWH (?), moves from the loneliness of creation to the experience of a world itself?

For her part, Weil seems immersed within a world that because it is created but once, and poorly at that, can only result in abject loneliness. For her, grace brings creation to its end — it hard to tell, at least for me, whether this means it is creation’s purpose (which I think assumes a lot, but fair enough) or creation’s actual cessation (which sounds more reasonable in a way, if ultimately stifling).

By my eyes– heavily influenced as I am by a man who wrote the book (well, a book) on the subject — we would do better to identify Weil as the ascetic, and Stevens the aesthete. As my friend rightly notes, two distinct practices, each with significant overlay, both sharing, I would add, a retrograde quality we perhaps should never completely abandon.

4 thoughts on “The Difference Between Creative Anticipation & Enduring Hope: More Notes on Simone Weil & Wallace Stevens

  1. This is a great post. I know almost nothing of Weil, but the Stevens stuff is really interesting (I’d love to read an elaborated account of why you are so drawn to Stevens, especially with regards to the theological/religious). Is “creative anticipation” another name for “supreme fiction”? I’m not entirely sure why, but this passage from ‘Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction” came to mind:

    We reason of these things with later reason
    And we make of what we see, what we see clearly
    And have seen, a place dependent on ourselves.

    There was a mystic marriage in Catawba,
    At noon it was in the mid-day of the year
    Between a great captain and the maiden Bawda.

    This was their ceremonial hymn: Anon
    We loved but would no marriage make. Anon
    The one refused the other one to take,

    Foreswore the sipping of the marriage wine.
    Each must the other take not for his high,
    His puissant front nor for her subtle sound,

    The shoo-shoo-shoo of secret cymbals round.
    Each must the other take as sign, short sign
    To stop the whirlwind, balk the elements.

    The great captain loved the ever-hill Catawba
    And therefore married Bawda, whom he found there,
    And Bawda loved the captain as she loved the sun.

    They married well because the marriage-place
    Was what they loved. It was neither heaven nor hell.
    They were love’s characters come face to face.

  2. Hi David. Sorry it’s taken so long to reply. WordPress did not alert me that there was a comment, and your comment got lost amidst the shuffle of other conversations.

    I may return in more detail to my comments here about Stevens. For now, I will address quickly your question concerning Supreme Fiction. You would probably not be very far aligning it with what I call “creative anticipation.” would hesitate aligning it entirely, though, because where I tend to emphasize a creativity unending, Stevens (ever the Modernist) appears to have a more classical sense of pure beginning (what he calls in The Notes the “first idea”), as that which we can occasionally (“for a moment”) experience. (I would press Stevens on this point, and insist that he stay true to the fiction all the way down — that the “first idea” is, as it were, always first a verb.)

    Now that I type all that, I am compelled to go back and re-read The Notes — it has, I confess, been quite some time. Few people will actually read this comment, but perhaps I will issue an invitation for a short reading group on the poem! Surely we could manage a twenty page piece?

    As to your more broader question . . . Pure beginning or not, I’m drawn to Stevens my thinking about theology because I am drawn to a theological thinking that is stripped — which sounds more violent than I intend, perhaps best to say “that is naked” — of its foundational material (namely, a self-sufficient God). Poets like Stevens (& I would add Paul Valéry, who I’ve been eagerly re-reading the past couple of weeks) give voice to what such a thought might sound like (& I dare say a form to what it might look like).

  3. Thanks for this reply, Brad (now I’m the one apologizing for a delayed reply!). I agree on Stevens being caught in a sort of limited access to the pure beginning–something that for him seems to occur only on an individual or private basis as well–and I too want to go beyond Stevens at this point. I still want to hold on to the possibility that Stevens can still get us to a place where ‘the first idea’ becomes a verb, as you say. Rather than being an instantiation of that momentary experience, might Notes be read as a prior framing of the conditions in which one might come to imagine the possibility of a supreme fiction or a created novelty that goes beyond a mere moment? Poetry for Stevens is the necessary verb that is always creating the world ahead of itself, a task that is never finished–and never fully captured by a ‘moment’–because it must perpetually be discovered over and over again.

    Anyways, I’d definitely be up for a reading of Notes. And I’ll definitely have to check out Valery. Again, thanks for the post.

  4. Yes, I think you’re very right — or, I should hope you are very right — to read the Notes “as a prior framing of the conditions . . .” This is a good way to express it, and I very much want to look closer at the details soon.

    In the meantime, if you find yourself looking for a place to start re: Valéry, locate a copy of his “Eupalinos” dialogue. I’ve been going through it very slowly the past week or so. It is a treasure trove.

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