Tuesday, October 13, 2009

TC: I Lied About Wallace Stevens


File:Nordsee Wellen.JPG

I dwelt in isolation, long ago, through two long strange winters, in a single room in a small cottage on an exposed coast upon the North Sea, a place where stormy nights of wild wind and rain were commonplace; even then, or perhaps especially then, it was not always simple to view things in a single aspect.

The temptation to alternative interpretations was always urgent; what an unfortunate period it was.

Opposite the feeble gas stove a horrid funereal floral wallpaper decorated the single sizeable wall of this room.

I obtained painting materials, eventually, and painted upon this wall a large representation of the Jastrow duck-rabbit picture as I had found it in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations.

I contemplate a face, and then suddenly notice its likeness to another. I see that it has not changed; and yet I see it differently. I call this experience “noticing an aspect...” And I must distinguish between the ‘continuous seeing’ of an aspect and the ‘dawning’ of an aspect.... I see two pictures, with the duck-rabbit surrounded by rabbits in one, by ducks in the other. I do not notice that they are the same. Does it follow from this that I see something different in the two cases? It gives us a reason for using this expression here. “I saw it quite differently, I should never have recognized it!” Now, that is an exclamation. And there is also a justification for it. I should never have thought of superimposing the heads like that, of making this comparison between them.... I describe the alteration (change of aspect) like a perception; quite as if the object had altered before my eyes.... The expression of a change of aspect is the expression of a new perception and at the same time of the perception’s being unchanged. I suddenly see the solution of a puzzle-picture.

This mural remained unknown to, because unseen by, the owners of this dwelling, for the remainder of the duration of my stay in this remote little seaside town.

The wind is blowing hard right now. I am reminded of a poem about a candle that is blown out by the wind, or perhaps it is only the image of the candle, in the poem, that is blown out by the wind; it is a poem about aspect issues and alternative interpretations. The poem comes from Wallace Stevens' first book, Harmonium, published in 1923.

Valley Candle

My candle burned alone in an immense valley.
Beams of the huge night converged upon it,
Until the wind blew.
Then beams of the huge night
Converged upon its image,
Until the wind blew.

I have loved this poem for fifty-two years. When I imagine it lately, though, there is a pictorial aspect change, a reinterpretation of perception whereby, when I see the letters of the Stevens poem, they become transparent and in their place, or as if through them, as the fleeting candlelight seems to pass through the living hand of the child Christ in the Georges de la Tour painting Joseph the Carpenter, I see the words of a different poem, which I have written in my mind.

File:Georges de La Tour 049.jpg

In fact this is an old bad habit, seeing poems that do not exist through poems that do.

That Stevens had not published his first book until the age of forty and that it had then been the ungodly great Harmonium, for a long time this figured him for me as a significance among significances, a phenomenon from an age of wonders.


And yet, and yet...


North Sea: photo by Muns, 2003
Philosophical Investigations: Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1953
"Valley Candle": Wallace Stevens, from Harmonium, 1923
Joseph the Carpenter (detail: hands of the young Christ): Georges De la Tour, 1635-1640 (Musée du Louvre)
Duck/rabbit (pink): image by John Schmidt
"I lied in my ad. I hate Wallace Stevens.": Mike Twohy, The New Yorker, 1995


Phanero Noemikon said...

The story starts out with a tale ( a tail) about a Wall.


Wall as


Check the OED for steven
now this is just cursory
but you can see the iconism
with his name right off

with one steven, with one voice, in accord.

Harmonium. Yes. but

Stevens, plural

the singular that is plural.

Your iconism, sir,
served back to you.

The Wall as "Loud Voice"

The Singular Plural

as a wall, a barrier?

W-all W-awl

All radiation.
All inscription.

All puncturing.
All puncta.

wail. loud voice.


The hearth of arms.


or weepin's


L eyed.

Yes, the lie
that orthography
or orthagonality
or otherography

other ogrify

is seeing.

The Picture does not see.

Language is not alive.

We's exchange zombis.

Or photons that
pass through flesh.

The motivated sign
the coherent wave

like the kdv equation


thought is very similiar
to a soliton

is like the bouncing of
light within a crystal
which we identify with

I liked

TC said...


This bit had me holding my breath:

"Zabusky and Kruskal (1965) subsequently studied the continuum limit of the Fermi-Pasta-Ulam Experiment and, surprisingly, obtained the Korteweg-de Vries equation. They found that the solitary wave solutions had behavior similar to the superposition principle, despite the fact that the waves themselves were highly nonlinear. They dubbed such waves solitons, and proceeded to devise new solution techniques for them (Miura et al. 1968). Miura et al. (1968) found nine conservation laws and Miura (1968) found a tenth, hinting that an infinite number of conserved quantities might exist (Tabor 1989, p. 288). In fact, a transformation due to Gardner provides an algorithm for computing an infinite number of conserved densities of the KdV equation, which are connected to those of the so-called modified KdV equation through the Miura transformation ..."

It's the point at which Miura found a tenth that I let out a small silent cheer.

As for photons that pass through flesh: indeed.

There would have been a lot of Wall-E for even your ambitious photon to pass through though.

By the way this piece was originally right up your alley, a meditation on candles and light optics.

It was called "Morning Glory" and began with a passage from the "Tractatus" and segued into Tim Buckley's "Morning Glory":

Morning Glory

I lit my purest candle close to my
Window, hoping it would catch the eye
Of any vagabond who passed it by
And I waited in my fleeting house

Phanero Noemikon said...

well at least we get back to the superposition thingie..

i think pasta would be nice today,
even better in Ulam bator?

Dale said...

Tom this is great. Thanks for bringing attention to this poem--and the final image of the candle (and the duckies) are terrific. I know the space in the plains south of Dallas in the darkness and the headlights of coming cars going by.

TC said...


I hear the prehistoric fish is excellent in the Dead Sea.

Howdy Dale,

Wallace Stevens told me in a dream that once you see the duck there is no going back to rabbit, it is part of the supreme fiction of things.