Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Socrates of Snails

This title is made up of words of Wallace Stevens, appearing in his poem The Comedian as the Letter C which in turn appears in his book Harmonium.  The title "Socrates of Snails" is given in the poem to man; that is, to human beings considered as a whole.  What, I wonder, is a group of snails called?

It is a belittling title, to be sure.  What is it to be the Socrates of snails?  The wisest, the best of snails?  A snail others look up to?  Perhaps he mocks the pretensions of our species, and there are enough of them, certainly; though it may in that case be more appropriate to substitute some great religious figure for the great philosophical figure, our colossal conceit being more evident in religion even than in philosophy.  Mockery runs throughout the poem, particularly in its descriptions of its hero, Crispin, who is "the auditor of insects" among other silly things.

There are interpretations enough of the poem, but I can only speak for myself, as one of the snails.  Crispin seems to go on a journey, France to the Yucatan to North Carolina.  He also seems to commence his journey with grand ambitions, full of expectations of achievement, in understanding and knowing and doing, only to gradually lose them--while being mocked, repeatedly, by the words of the poem.  He goes from the sublime not to the ridiculous (Napoleon's words while stopping in Warsaw on the retreat from Moscow) but to the mundane.

The poem appears in his first book, so one wonders why he would write something which seems to portray life's rise and fall and most ordinary end.  But he came late to poetry, having practiced law as an insurance lawyer for many years before he became known as a poet.  I can attest that the practice of law can be wearisome and can tell us much of our similarities to the snail.

Stevens, most annoyingly, wrote extensively about poetry generally if not his own poems in particular, and so assured that it's difficult to interpret his poetry as being anything but what he claimed poetry to be.  It may be this was a clever anticipation of criticism and a means of addressing it, a tactic a good lawyer might employ, similar to drafting an agreement with an eye towards potential disputes.  But there's no reason to think that by writing of poetry, he was being insincere.  However, he did call poetry the supreme fiction, and it's interesting to consider whether an analysis of the supreme fiction would of necessity be fictive itself.

Again, I speak only for myself.  But for me, for all his word-play, for all his concern with great philosophical matters, for all his undoubted sophistication, he intended to express that we live only in the mundane, can only know the mundane, are only content when we live a mundane life, when we become content with the mundane.  Our pretensions befuddle and confuse us as a result.

The question we snails must address and answer is whether we are content to be snails.  We must first, of course, recognize we are what we are, and this would seem to be what living can teach us, if we're not deluded by our conceit.  But isn't it disappointing, at best, to be snails, to be humans? 

As I noted, Stevens was no adolescent when he wrote his poetry, and so cannot be considered, presumptively, filled with angst.  And the cool, precise, complicated beauty of his poetry indicates he was not one of the adult adolescents who fail to accept that they were not born for a special purpose, are not God's favorites, are not the highest concern of the universe, and spend their time telling us they resent this is the case and insisting we share in their resentment. He was a man.

 I think he accepted that we are not what we pretend to be, but simply are what we are, seeking a means by which to do the best we can with what we have and take the rest as it happens, to paraphrase Epictetus (I'm not the first to think that Stevens was in some respects, at least, a Stoic).  But doing the best we can with what we have can be significant if we have the necessary strength, intelligence, patience and humility to know ourselves and use those qualities we possess secundum naturam.

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