Arts, Media, and Entertainment

‘A New Knowledge of Reality’

In a way, you might say Wallace Stevens had the best of both worlds. He was a successful insurance executive—but best known as one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century. Yet Stevens found neither of those worlds truly satisfying, as I explain in my new book, The Good Life. As a poet, Wallace Stevens was part of the modernist movement. Modernists attempted to create artistic works that did not imitate real life, but were worlds unto themselves. It was their way of imposing meaning on what they saw as a random, meaningless world. Modernism relied on materialism—the assumption that the universe is a closed system, and that the things we can perceive through our senses are the only things that exist. But there was a problem, the major conflict between this philosophy and the work that took up most of Stevens’s time. In the poetry he composed while walking to the office, he expressed the view that the only order in life came from the human mind. Human life was a random, unpredictable thing shaped by our perceptions. But upon reaching the office, he helped administer an insurance company that ran on actuarial data that assumed human behavior is highly predictable—a sure sign of a reality that we all share, not one that we make up. It doesn’t get much more ironic than that. Stevens’s double life shows just how powerful intellectual fashions can be. The truth can be staring us right in the face, but with our ideological blinders on, we don’t even see it. Stevens, however, gradually did begin to see it. Lonely in an emotionally distant marriage, isolated from most of his family, he started to recognize the importance of human relationships. As he worked on his relationship with his daughter, and forged new ones with other family members, he found more satisfaction in their shared bonds than he ever had in trying to create a reality for himself. Stevens came to realize that it was shared humanity, the real world, that truly mattered. This shift in worldview can be seen in Stevens’s poetry. He had grown so dissatisfied with his own views that he went through a seven-year period of writing almost no poetry at all. Then later, he wrote poems that displayed a new awareness of the world around him. They point to a greater imagination than his own at work in the world. One of those poems is titled, “Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself.” The narrator hears a bird’s cry and realizes that it came, not from his own imagination, but from outside himself. He says the cry “was like/ A new knowledge of reality.” This new awareness finally led Wallace Stevens to the ultimate relationship—a relationship with God. Shortly before he died, this man, who had used his considerable gifts to oppose traditional faith, was baptized and received into the Catholic Church. Wallace Stevens’s work is still being held out on campuses today as a supreme example of anti-Christian modernist art. But the real story, largely untold, is that Stevens found his own worldview to be unlivable—and that only the Christian worldview could be true.


Chuck Colson


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