More on Wallace Stevens’ Concept of the Pressure of History

As I previously wrote here, I intend to follow up on the ideas I wrote about in the Introduction to Wallace Stevens Encounters. This is that post.

In that post, I mentioned that Pattiann Rogers expands Stevens’ ideas in her essay “Cosmology and the Soul’s Habitation”; however, although her ideas line up and extend Stevens’, she does not specifically mention his name. Perhaps Stevens’ theory has become so ingrained as to be an accepted part of the modern condition of humanity; in Rogers’ words, a piece of our contemporary cosmology.

Let’s take a look at the paragraph that I see as relating to Stevens’:

To further complicate the story, we have experienced in this century a sudden and continual influx into our culture of massive amounts of information, information that affects the story our cosmology tells, new information published constantly concerning the heavens and the evolutionary processes of stars, the discovery of new elementary particles, information redefining time, detailed and profuse information on the processes by which animal and plant species function and survive, information about the geological history of the earth and extinct species, information about other human cultures past and present, about the human body, the human brain, the human psyche, information about new technologies that radically alter forms of communication, vigorous exploration of both the very large and the microscopic, even invisible neutrinos, books and books on just the history of the violin, for instance, the history of bread the history of locks and keys–the history of paperweights, for heaven’s sake. Rogers, “Cosmology and the Soul’s Habitation,” 5-6.

and now, Stevens’ paragraph:

For more than ten years now, there has been an extraordinary pressure of news—let us say, news incomparably more pretentious than any description of it, news, at first, of the collapse of our system, or, call it, of life; then of news of a new world, but of a new world so uncertain that one did not know anything whatever of its nature, and does not know now, and could not tell whether it was to be all-English, all-German, all-Russian, all-Japanese, or all-American, and cannot tell now; and finally news of a war, which was a renewal of what, if it was not the greatest war, became such by this continuation. And for more than ten years, the consciousness of the world has concentrated on events which have made the ordinary movement of life seem to be the movement of people in the intervals of a storm. The disclosures of the impermanence of the past suggested, and suggest, an impermanence of the future. Little of what we have believed has been true. Only the prophecies are true. The present is an opportunity to repent. This is familiar enough. The war is only a part of a war-like whole. It is not possible to look backward and to see that the same thing was true in the past. It is a question of pressure, and pressure is incalculable and eludes the historian… We are confronting, therefore, a set of events, not only beyond our power to tranquillize them in the mind…but events that stir the emotions to violence, that engage us in what is direct and immediate and real…and these events are occurring persistently with increasing omen, in what may be called our presence. These are the things I had in mind when I spoke of the pressure of reality, a pressure great enough and prolonged enough to bring about the end of one era in the history of the imagination, and, if so, then great enough to bring about the beginning of another. Stevens, “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” 20-22.

What I find most interesting about these two paragraphs is the extension Rogers applies to Stevens’ concepts. In this passage, Stevens writes purely about news as it relates to human society. From his perspective in the 1940s, Stevens contemplates the effects of ever-faster modes of communication, from overland letters, to telegraph, to telephone, to teletype; from horse-and-rider or stagecoach to trains to airplanes; from sail ship to steam ship to airplane. These technologies shrank the world for the average person at a pace never before seen. In one lifetime, humans recognized the capability to transfer information from the farthest reaches of the globe from the previous state of only really knowing what was happening within the county. Even newspapers evolved from printing last week’s news to yesterday’s. This is the pressure Stevens writes of.

While this certainly added to the average human’s awareness of other humans, the great expansion of knowledge that Rogers writes of did not really begin to occur (at least in the United States) until the post-war period, when adoption of television in the population offered fantastic dissemination of knowledge across a broad range of the population.

But the pressure is the same. History has begun to shrink, and the studies of post-colonialists, critical-race-theory, and others have – depending on whom you talk to – either begun or finally realized the potential to deconstruct the Western-centered history my generation grew up with in grade school. So, as Stevens discusses, history has not only become smaller and smaller, but also multi-valent, exhibiting co-existing narratives. As history has moved in this direction, so has Truth.

I think that Rogers explanation of our contemporary cosmology, though she was writing eleven years ago at this point, reflects this movement toward uncertain, unstable, shifting reality. The pressures of the Reality of our contemporary moment depend on perspective one decides to stand on. But with equally valid, ever-shifting perspectives, it can be like trying to maintain one’s balance during an earthquake – a difficult venture. The pressure of history and the pressure of knowledge mean that the most successful people will be those able to dance across shifting ground without stumbling.

The problem is – as with the printing press, or the automobile, or industrialization – that such a drastic shift in world view, such a change in our cosmology, requires that nimbleness to move forward, not just for individuals, but for society as well. The history of the last ten years in the U.S. will be written as a mass attempt at preventing the proven validity of the pressure of history and knowledge. The minority push towards ludditism and refusal to acknowledge real steps forward in our knowledge only retards the forward movement of society. It does not, and has not, and will never, prevent it. The push toward restricting knowledge and arts taught in our schools is only a disservice to our children and grandchildren, because it results in an unprepared population for the reality of the rest of the world.

At this point, a valid question you might be asking is what all this has to do with poetry. Well, here is a first stab at an answer:

The pressures of our contemporary cosmology have created a backlash against Truth and Reality, and there are those who would utilize that backlash to gain power for themselves, and they already have. Fortunately, though, there still exists the poet, that creature whose sole job is to broadcast Truth and Reality – not just as he or she sees it, but in recognition of the current cosmology, which includes all of those varying perspectives which are all valid.

More on this last thought to come…

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