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The Supreme Fiction: Fiction or Fact? Author(s): Gregory Brazeal Source: Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 31, No.

1 (Fall, 2007), pp. 80-100 Published by: Indiana University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30053254 . Accessed: 27/09/2013 16:07
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The Supreme Fiction: Fiction or Fact?
Gregory Brazeal
Cornell University

A case is madefor giving up the quest to identify WallaceStevens' "supremefiction." The poet hoped to usher in the creation of an idea that would serve as afictive replacement for the idea of God, known to befictive but willfully believed. His hope has remained unfulflled. By the poet's own explicit standards, the supreme fiction does not appear in any ofhis poems, nor in his poetry as a whole, nor in poetry in general. Thevery idea of a supremefiction may depend, at least in part, upon a problematic conceptionofbelief drawn from a popular misreading of William James' "TheWill to Believe."

Keywords:Wallace Stevens / supremefiction / criticism/ philosophy/ William James

"Afterall, I like Rhine wine, blue grapes, good cheese, endive and lots of books, etc., etc., etc., as much as I like supreme fiction."
WALLACE STEVENS,
8, 1942 DECEMBER

f, as Foucault says, the author is the principleof thrift in the proliferationof
meaning, then it is in the spirit of interpretive thrift that this essay will draw

upon Wallace Stevens'writings.The author'swords will be used to make the case, as simply and sparinglyas possible, for giving up the quest to identify the "supremefiction,"Stevens'most ambitiousphilosophicalobject.The poet hoped to usher in the creation of an idea that would serve as a fictive replacementfor the idea of God, known to be fictivebut willfullybelieved.His hope has remained unfulfilled. By the poet's own explicit standards,the supreme fiction does not appearin anyof his poems,nor in his poetryas a whole, nor in poetryin general.Is it possiblefor such a long-standingcriticalquestto be abandoned, or at least qualified as a lesser priority? The case of Oedipus and the "tragicflaw"offers a hopeful parallel.At one time, it might have seemed inevitablethat readersof Oedipus Rex would alwaysaskof Sophocles'play which of Oedipus'negative character traitshad broughtabouthis tragicdownfall.' It might have seemed a profound,challenging andworthwhilequestion,posed but left unresolved by Aristotle in his definitionof
tragedy. But once the "tragic flaw"was recognized as a Victorian mistranslation of

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Stevens read widely in philosophy.Today.or the equally taunting "failure in the relationbetween the imagination and reality" (WS 649). Lucretius. As an undergraduate at Harvard. Berkeley:the list could go on.." the impetusbehind the hunt lessened." sayingthat he "shouldbe bored to death at the mere thought of doing so.128. I arguethat the veryidea of a supremefiction may depend. In doing so. Stevens himself confessed. I ventureinto slightly more speculativeterritoryin orderto proposea possibleexplanationfor the failure of Steven'ssupremefiction to arrive. He struggledand toyed.175).or even that it exists at all."3 FrankDoggett. such asJeanWahl. Nietzsche.The philosopher Simon Critchley calls Stevens. Descartes.Finally.upon a problematicconception of belief drawnfrom a popularmisreadingof William James'"The Will to Believe. I think the little philosophy that I have read has been readvery much in the spirit of. He corresponded with philosophers of his time.the hunt seemed less worthwhile.at least in part.when the poet was alreadyin his fifties (WS 966.througha long poetic career.and his poetry.36 on Fri.Kant."2 whether the epistemologicaldistancebetween knowersand things in themselves."thephilosophicallymost interestingpoet to havewritten in English in the twentieth century" (15). Bergson.andfrom the startof his career.James. Numerous essaysand book-length studies attest to the philosophicaldepth and complexityto be found in Stevens'works. This content downloaded from 146.in a letter toward the end of his life.essays and letters aboundwith referencesto Schopenhauer. Later170-1. he gave poetic expressionto perhapsthe centralphilosophicaldrama of the modern era. a substitutefor fiction. 27 Sep 2013 16:07:08 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . and make points that may seem obviousto manyreaders of Stevens.but without Aristoteliansanction. If I covera good dealof verywell-troddencriticalgroundin what follows.96.in a brief concluding note..Criticswere still free to follow the tragicflaw'strail.Plato.The Supreme Fiction: Fiction orFact? 81 Aristotle's"hamartia. and a collection in one place of the most relevantevidence. On the other hand. one of the earliest and most respectedphilosophicalinterpreters of Stevens'poetry. his poetryis sprinkled with philosophical-sounding terminology and ruminations.Stevens offerslittle or no sanction for the idea that the supremefiction can be found there.or at the earliestthe mid-1930's. Richardson.To reador teach Stevens as though the creationof a supremefictionwere the culminationof his careeris to be set up for an unnecessary disappointment. against great competition.Hegel.it has largelyrecededfrom scholarlyview." To what extent did Wallace Stevenslay claim to the title of philosopher? Did he see himself as an inventorof fine philosophicalideas? On the one hand.suggests that the "conceptsthat emerge from long reading of the poetry of Stevens are so slight and so basic that any elementarycoursein philosophy or even a few yearsof interestedreadingcould yield all of them.it will be in the spiritof offeringa summarizing reminder:a presentationof what seem to me the most salient argumentsin favor of not reading Stevens for a supremefiction.Santayana. So might scholarsone daygive up attemptingto identifythe "supreme fiction" in Stevens'poetry. to having"never studied systematicphilosophy.As I will argue.Vico."4Stevens' most concertedphaseof philosophicalreadingdoes not appearto havebegun until the early1940's. with various forms of "the dumbfounderingabyss/ Between us and the object.

a "literaltext" (L 443) to complementhis poetry. he writes.not with philosophy.A Student's Historyof Philosophy."(L 431). in 1952.apparentlynever saw Santayana lecture." includes the definitiveand uncharacteristically unqualifiedstatement.Stevens laterdeclined to have it publishedin any form. one of the friends Stevens quotes in the lecture. If Stevens everconsideredwriting a theoretical treatmentof the supremefiction in philosophicalor criticalprose. I could very well do a THEORY OF SUPREME FICTION.The lectureitself lends some credenceto Stevens' disavowal."My object is to write estheticallyvalid poetry. Not only does the "Collect" deal exclusively with the "poetic" ratherthan logical.The young Stevens took no philosophy courses."Stevenswrites in 1942 to his wealthyexpatriate friend Henry Church. In the introductionto The Necessary Angel.he remindsthe readerthat the essayswhich follow "arenot pages of criticism or of philosophy"(WS 640).the ambitionpassed."and began writing the highly theoreticalessayson realityand the imaginationthat would eventuallybe collectedas The NecessaryAngel.96."I am not a philosopher" (WS 860).in the wake of his increasedattention to philosophyin the early 1940's. This content downloaded from 146. he eventuallyretractedthe offer and returnedthe manuscript. etc.5 In his final years. systematicdoctrine.and concentratedinstead on literarystudy andjournalism. ratherthan philosophical discussion. doctrinal or systematicaspects of philosophy.when Stevens at least flirtedwith the idea of attemptinga more systematicand orthodoxwork of philosophy. to an aspiringreviewerin 1954: "[W]e are dealing with poetry.he repeatedlymade clear that he did not view his poetry as a philosophicalsystemdisguisedin symbol and sound.He may even have seen his prose in this light. Later385.but it seems to have been collected largelyfrom letterswritten by Stevens'friends and from the summaries containedin Arthur KenyonRogers'1917 introductorytextbook. Stevens came to insist that even his most philosophy-laden poetryshouldnot and could not be readfor a paraphrasable.The last thing in the world that I should want to do would be to formulatea system" (L 864). Thereappearsto have been a brief period. It was duringthis time that he createdhis longest and most philosophically ambitiouspoem. Though the philosopherPaulWeiss.". He soon abandoned the idea. and I could try to do a BOOK OF SPECIMENS. Throughout his life.. "[I]fI had nothing else in the world to do exceptto sit on a fence and think aboutthings. Especiallyafter his intensifiedinterestin philosophybegan to wane. but their meetings seem to have revolvedaroundpoetry and the exchangeof poems.36 on Fri. 27 Sep 2013 16:07:08 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .invited Stevens to submit the final version of the essay for publication in the Review of Metaphysics. Perhapshis most strictlyphilosophicalwork. Again.however.I am not so much concernedwith philosophicalvalidity"(L 752). he confessedan intermittentinsecurityabouthis philosophical skills (Richardson. L 476)..proposingit insteadas a projectto "occupy a school of rabbisfor the next few generations" (L 435). the 1951 lecture"ACollect of Philosophy.To SisterBernettaQuinn.orjoked about doing so.128.82 Journal ofModern Literature Stevens met with the philosopherGeorge Santayana.whom he admiredfor spending his life in precisely this way. "NotesTowarda SupremeFiction.

Stevens presents his central achievement not as the creation of a supremefiction. the poet suggests." Had he wanted to leave his own accomplishmentmore ambiguous. But he chooses instead to say. poetry wouldhavea vital significance."thiscentral theme.to the mere"suggestion" of such a grand"possibility. less than a yearbefore his death: Theauthor's worksuggeststhe possibility of a supreme fiction.96.128.does not presentus with any examplesof supremefiction. poetry has a vital significance. Therearemanypoems relatingto the interactions betweenreality andthe imagination. In the creation of any such fiction. Stevens could have written."In the creationof any such fiction.but stops short of the promisedland. whichareto be regarded as marginal to this centraltheme. in which men couldproposeto themselves a fulfillment.rather."The conditionalmood suggeststhat Stevens refersto somethingthat.and its title leads us towardwhat seems a tantalizinglycomplex and elusive idea. and on the other hand.(L 820) After a lifetime of poetic effort.either in the early1940'sor later. preciselythe sort of implicit profundity that literarycriticismexcels at haulingup from the depths. Stevens does not claim to have invented or discovereda supremefiction. As late as 1954. "In the creation of any such fiction." we should pause for a moment on the wording of his biographicalnote.as if to say:whether or not I have createdsuch a fiction."poetrywill have a vital significance".The poetry and the projectkeep a certaindistancefrom each other. He suggeststhat men could proposeto themselvesa fulfillmentin such a fiction--not that men can so propose.in his opinion.he could have written.The Supreme Fiction: Fiction orFact? 83 And yet.Of course.making it possible for one to standwhile the other falls. Before turningto a closer look at what Stevens meant by "asupremefiction. It would be extremelymisleading to suggest that Stevenswas without philosophicalambition. any future creationswill necessarilybe poetic. less than a yearbefore his death.as we would tend to say if the fiction were alreadyrealized. Stevens summarizeshis projectin an importantbiographicalnote written in 1954. there This content downloaded from 146."Thepoem attractsour attention." The remainderof this essaywill attemptto maintainas cleara line as Stevens does here between the project for a supremefiction and the poetrythat suggestsits possibility. and yet-there is the supremefiction. but the "suggestion" of the "possibility" of such a creation.What has appearedto many critics to be the centraltheme of Stevens'poetry-the "interactions betweenrealityand the imagination"-is in fact peripheral.the idea of a supremefiction owes its prominenceto Stevens'"Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.has not yet arrived. had he believedthe supremefiction to exist.36 on Fri.But it was an ambitionof a very particular kind. it offers some preparationof the grounds for the arrivalof one.Again.poetrywouldhave a vital significance." as the title suggests.If realityand imaginationaremarginalto the supremefiction.recognized as a fiction.Yet"Notes. 27 Sep 2013 16:07:08 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions ."then the centraltheme is itself marginalto the poetry. On the one hand.there are many poems about reality and the imagination. It leads us in a series of peregrinations towarda supremefiction.

they might compensatefor whateverhas been lacking since the generallyproclaimed loss of belief in God.It is as though Stevens hopes to reject Christianityfor himself but to defend its legitimacy for others. that he is "not in the least religious. 62). The ostensibly unreligiousStevens then goes on to note that he continues to say his prayers "everynight.so that it is difficultto locate any single. His waveringorthodoxyin this period can be detected in his journals."though he adds.settling insteadupon a tense balancebetween his religiouscommitments. and which people could will themselves to believe. Soon.The younglaw studentof 1902 remainsunwillingto rejectthe churchor the idea of God outright. "I hate the look of a Bible"(L 102).His poems exist.In a passionatelyconflicted letter of 1907.where he writes of an "oldargument" in his mind accordingto which "thetruereligiousforcein the world is not the churchbut the world itself:the mysteriouscallingsof Nature" (L 58).perhapsso that he can avoid seeing its adherents--including the woman he courts. but it is possible.128.the ancestorshe admires.Stevenshad already expandedhis notion of God in a generallyromanticand mysticaldirection.96."opened the way to the invention of such an idea. By willfully believing in this fictive idea. that would be as valid and fulfillingas the idea of God.or that they areanythingmore than a habit. Elsie Moll. The earliestroots of the supremefiction seem to lie in Stevens'rejection of the Puritanfaith of his childhood. What. By the time he left Harvard in 1900."worshipped one God at one shrine. known to be a fiction.followingJoan Richardson.A supreme fiction would be a specific idea. Early 60.organizedreligion.the divinities'truce begins to unravel. In a 1909 letter to Elsie Moll. defining moment of the loss of faith. very glad"to hear of her growing involvementin a church (L 96). which revealor betoken "theInvisible" (L 59). Stevensdeclaresto his futurewife. Stevens truly seems to have hoped that his poetry.and adds.the supreme fiction does not.These two "deities" presentno "conflict."he writes. is a supremefiction?The notion is grandin scalebut surprisingly simple in structure. he speaksof the contemporary Christianchurchas "largelya This content downloaded from 146. When Stevens writes a month laterthat he has thrownawayhis Bible duringa bout of springcleaning.the poet anotherGod at anothershrine" (L 59). But even in subsequentyearsStevens maintains an ambivalentrelation to the terms of his childhood faith.but also unableto rejectits validity. almost offhandedly. namelyin the natural world of his long weekend rambles. however.36 on Fri. at the age of twenty."Thepriest in me.halfunconscious" (L 96).he seemsunwillingto concedeanytruth to revealed.84 Journal ofModern Literature wouldbea vital role for poetryin anysupremefiction. a willed replacementfor religiousbelief. even fitfully.and in particular "Notes towarda SupremeFiction. but remainedrespectful of piety as an ideal (Richardson.and much of his living family-as mere dupes of an illusion from which he has freed himself.an apostasythat proceededgradually. as evidenceof a "religious crisis" that reachedits meridianin the springof 1907 (Early253). and Stevensgives little indicationof experiencingthe evolution in his religiousbeliefs as a crisis."notthat I need them now." but at the same time that he is "very. we might interprethis words.Throughout the letter." only a "contrast" (L 59). 27 Sep 2013 16:07:08 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . then.

The Supreme Fiction: Fiction orFact? 85 relic" and presentsthe miraculousevents ofJesus'life as open to doubt.on EasternSunday.now dulled and cadaverous.the poet implicitly sets forth a competing value:the pagan. whether romantic. Even in this seemingly bitter denunciationof religiousritual. In the earlierletter.a mystical Invisibleor an enchantedlove-took the place of the earlierorthodoxdogma. Severalmonths later. If men have nothing external to them on which to rely."Anglais Mort i Florence" takes as its subjectthe reminiscencesof a once spirituallypowerful.as the poem upon which the commentaryis based suggests.then Stevens'troublewith humanismwould seem to be its fragility.. religion and one thing or another.but the more I see of humanismthe less I like it" (L 348).this habit of mind has metamorphosedinto the beginnings of a project. or at least closely related to.Stevens notes. but a strong spirit . in the event of a collapse of their own spirit.but finishes by saying that "everyoneadmits in some form or another" the existence of God (L 140). somehow inadequateto the task.128.it becomes necessary to believe in something else"(L 370). 27 Sep 2013 16:07:08 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . Stevens might have had in mind by "humanism. The poet makes explicit the patternalready evident in his earlier journalsand letters..It is a religiousperversionof the activityof Spring in our blood"(L 193). is the loss of belief in the sort of God in Whom we were all broughtup to believe" (L 348). mysticalor pagan. Stevens writes of "thinkingof some substitutefor religion" as "ahabit of mind with me .1940 letter to the critic Hi Simons."Unfortunately there is nothing more inane than an Easter carol. Stevenswrites to his wife."it is not possible merelyto disbelieve. I suppose we have to consider new faiths with reference to states of helplessness or states of degeneration. Not until much laterin life does Stevensbegin to articulate his dissatisfactions with the alternativesto religion he has found at his disposal.36 on Fri.Given the uncertaintyof even a strong spirit'sstrength."If one no longer believes in God (as truth). Even such a spirit is subject to degeneration. specifically. still a practicing Christian.a purehumanismwould leave its bearerexposedto the possibility of helplessnessand spiritualcollapse. It is unclear what.In a January... For example. Each step of the way.1916. "Humanismwould be the naturalsubstitute [for religion]. I don't mean conventions: police."Stevens continues to Simons.contemporaneous with Harmonium.partof a commentaryon "Anglais Mort a Florence.accordingto which orthodoxyis rejected not in the name of nihilism but of some higher object of belief.then. My trouble. stands by its own strength." offersa hint: Most people stand by the aid of philosophy.96. the standing alone (without God) of a strong spirit. In his state This content downloaded from 146. What is clearfrom the progressof Stevens'withdrawal from Christianity in his twenties and thirtiesis that it did not representa devastationfor him. they must naturally turn to the spirit of others.But now he suggests that the ersatzbeliefs upon which he has hitherto relied have proved. figureof age." but a remarkablepassagelaterin the letter. (L 348) If we assumethat "humanism" is synonymouswith.and the troubleof a greatmany people.corporealvigor of springtime.other illusionsor ideals-whether of a romanticNature.in the end.

Now. The fundamentalcontours of the supremefiction arenow in place.."religious conventions.96. or logically final.By acceptingnothing conventional. Of final belief.It is a question. nothing establishedby any power apartfrom itself. no longer able to achieve the effortless spiritualcommunion he once knew. The work begins with the pivotalpronouncement: Theprologues areover.simply cannot sustainitself againstthe onslaught of age and its attendantmaladies.86 Journal ofModern Literature of perceptualdegeneration.128.perhapswith the implication"because I am a poet.with its talk of "thinkingof some substitute for religion. the less he liked it. In anotherletter to Simons. the belief that will neverbe superseded."When to be and delight to be seemed to be one. The more Stevens saw of humanism. a fiction. now taking as his target a Coleridgeanconception of the imaginationas primalcreativeforce.the belief that cannotitself be questioned." he writes. as the ultimategroundfor all otherbeliefs.he wrote. one will believe in a fiction. the figuregraspsupon the suretyof delight he knew in youth.In orderto compensatefor the loss of God.Only the name for this kind of fiction is lacking. the poem and letter seem to suggest. as what is reached after all searchinghas ended. / Before the colors deepened and grew small" (WS 120). Stevens now makesclearthat the substitutefor belief in God will be "athing createdby the imagination. but that has its difficulties. Stevensassertsthe equivalence of finalbelief andbelief in a fictioneven more clearlyin an undated notebook entry. Humanism. It is easierto believe in a thing createdby the imagination. 27 Sep 2013 16:07:08 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .the strong spirit of humanismpushes inexorablyin the directionof its own undermining. the fading spiritprops himself upon "God'shelp and the police"(WS 120). A good deal of my poetry recentlyhas concernedan identity for that thing" (L 370).and the protection of police who promise a more enduringsecurity.It is time to choose.36 on Fri.written a few months after his note on "Anglais Mort a~Florence."Logically. So." or in other words. His statementmay have had less to do with having readmore humanist philosophy than with "seeingmore of" the frail being at humanism's center."it remainedpossible to imagine the substituteas some pre-existing ritualor system of beliefs.shortlybeforehe began compositionof "NotesTowarda SupremeFiction": "Thefinalbelief is to believe in a fiction . itself.toward relianceon "newfaiths.At the time of his letter to Simons."Stevens continues his slow progress away from established replacementsfor religiousbelief. Stevenswas enteringhis sixtiethyear.saythatfinal belief Must be in a fiction. no longer able to standby his own strength.. This content downloaded from 146. The exquisitetruth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly" (WS 903). Whereas in the earlierletter.possiblyfrom the same period as the letters.""Iought to believe in essentialimagination.it would seem to bear affinitieswith the kind of belief one previously had in God. and by being.(WS 226) "Finalbelief" could mean chronologicallyfinal. now. He goes on in the letter to referto "Asideson the Oboe."a recentpoem in which the identificationbetween something like religiousbelief and fiction is made explicit. Either way.ultimately no more securethan the vulnerableflesh upon which it depends.

his insistence becomes more comprehensible. it is worth noting that poetic ideas also play a prominentrole in Stevens'lectureof a decadelater. Ideas such as these are to be themes of what Stevens calls.36 on Fri.6At the end of the lecture. but echoing the title of his by then celebrated long poem. fictional or otherwise. If we assume Stevens'use of the This content downloaded from 146."There."the "subject-matter" of poetry.accordingto Stevens. 1940 letter to Henry Church proposingthe establishmentof a chairof poetry."ACollect of Philosophy. or make it unnecessary.The Supreme Fiction: Fiction orFact? 87 But what sort of idea.identifyingthe "willingnessto believe beyond belief"with "the presenceof a poet"(WS 867). A list of poetic ideas.""the infinityof the world.96."the ultimatepoetic idea" [WS 859]). "supreme poetry"(WS 854). "theascentto heaven.Stevens drawseven closer to the languageof supremefictions. might itself be a poetic idea. The poetry that created the idea of God will either adapt it to our different intelligence." and "everything is everywhere at all times"(WS 855. or a negation of it.similarlyto the letterto Church."God." and the "inexhaustible infinityof a priori" in our minds (WS 860). All three possibilitiesrepresentmodes of substitution for the idea of God.could replacethe idea of God? What would such an idea look like? In a frequentlycited October 15.What is a "poeticidea"? Stevens illustratesby example.who would mistakethe goal of poetry for the creationof a religious sect? Yet once we understandthat Stevens hoped to see poetry offer an adaptationor substitutionfor belief in God.These alternatives probably mean the same thing." he explains. such as "allthings participatein the good. 858). all surely"lofty" ideas either in the literal sense of rising aloft to the heavens or in the more figurativesense of infinity as a transcendence of finite numbers. (WS 806) The extremeseriousnessof Stevens'ambition for poetry is evident in his distinguishing this ambition. As Stevens suggests. First. Stevens cautions that by "poetry" he does not so much mean words written in verse form as he does "poeticideas.twice in a three-page memorandum. is and always has been the idea of God.the three possibilitiesfor poetry may amount to the same thing: "adaptation" can be seen as substitutionwith an alteredoriginal.Two centuriesafterthe death of William Blake.without elaboration.and "makingit unnecessary" can be seen as substitutionwith nothing.We can readthe resultant "Memorandum" as a partialsummingup of the progression in the previoussection.Stevens offers a few hints as he attemptsto define poetry and its aims. but the intention is not to foster a cult.from a cult.would includethe following: "God" (here.""theworld is at once the best and most rationalof worlds. or create a substitute for it." except to say that any poetic idea would have to be "securely lofty"(WS 853) and would give "theimaginationsuddenlife" (WS 851). One of the visible movements of the modern imagination is the movement away from the idea of God. Assuming that a functionalreplacementfor belief in the "major poetic idea in the world. 27 Sep 2013 16:07:08 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions ."Themajorpoetic idea in the world. he offersno straightforward elucidationof the criteriaaccording to which an idea qualifiesas "poetic.128.Poetic ideas can also have the form of propositions." "allthings happenby necessity.

since what makes the poet the potent figure that he is." and so on.composedonly monthsbefore"NotesTowarda SupremeFiction"? Severalkey termsin the passage allow for very divergentinterpretations. Stevens had used the phrase"supreme fiction" years earlierin a short poem from Harmonium.no doubt. especially"poet. once one disbelievesin God and if one finds something lacking in the very earth-bound. These arethe sorts of things one might believe in."It would possess a family resemblance with the poetic ideas listed above:"the ascent to heaven."but had then abandoned it.it seems that Stevens did not decide upon "supreme fiction" as the name for his long-germinatingidea of a This content downloaded from 146. The name suddenlyre-emergesdecades later in the May." "world. I ought to say.a deferralof the grandconjunction of signifierand signified. Either way. we might conclude that the supremefiction itself. in fact." if.96.as Stevenssuggestsin "Men Made Out of Words": "Thewhole race is a poet that writes down / The eccentric propositionsof its fate"(WS 309). or "poet" as a label not only appliedto writersof verse like Wordsworthbut to all those who haveshapedour inheritedwaysof thinking.Stevens'earlier quotationof a poem byWordsworth indicates that he does. since if we did not possessthem." On the one hand.We seem forcedto take the passagenot as the long-awaitedchristeningof Stevens'philosophico-religious project. Judgingby the publishedletters and other writings. as Stevens has just said." "allthings happen by necessity. from the world in which we shall come to live.36 on Fri." then perhapswe do turn to this poet "incessantly" in our thoughts.Stevens describes"howpoets help people to live their lives": There is. 1941 lecture.128. or ought to be.but as one more step in that direction. or was. Stevens'use of "supremefictions"in "Noble Rider" would seem irreconcilable with what will soon be called "asupremefiction.we would be unableto think aswe do. unlofty constraintsof humanism. is that he creates the world to which we turn incessantly and without knowing it and that he gives to life the supreme fictions without which we are unable to conceive of it.mean "poet" to referto historically-situated individuals who wrote in verse.and the parallelphrasingregarding the idea of God suggests he did not.they "adhere to reality" (WS 662)? Perhapswe should read"incessantly" as hyperbole." There. (WS 662) What does Stevensmean by "supreme fictions" in this lecture.88 Journal ofModern Literature phrase"poeticidea" did not change substantially between his letter to Church and his lectureon philosophy. a world of poetry indistinguishable from the world in which we live."the newly formedfictionalsubstitutefor God recognizedas a fiction. or. If the whole racefrom whom our languageand ideas come is a "poet. "TheNoble Rider and the Sound of Words." "conceive" and "incessantly. "A High-Toned Old ChristianWoman." would be a "poeticidea. the subjectof "supreme poetry.He does not speakhere of a "possibility" but of (plural)fictions which we mustalready possess. 27 Sep 2013 16:07:08 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . at least partly.But in what sense do their poems give to "our" lives anythingso essentialthat we would be unable to "conceive" of life without them? Do I reallyturn to the creationsof Wordsworthand otherslike him "incessantly"? And in what sense do these poets create"worlds.

a little less than a yearafter writing of "supreme fictions"in "TheNoble Rider." Stevenswrites: We are confronted by a choice of ideas: the idea of God and the idea of man." Stevens composed the poem at an uncharacteristically brisk pace.. he explains."arethree notes by way of defining the characteristics of supremefiction" (L 407). and perhapsthe inspirationwill have had to do with the readingof Stevens'"Notes." at the same time "makingup"for the insufficienciesin humanism. or of a "state": perhapssomething like the state of all things happeningby necessity.96.that a significantgap exists in the story sketchedabove. something both possible and not yet realized. the majorpoetic idea in the world.When he was nearlyfinished.in barelythree months. of the NOTES. or state. we can saythat someone may one day dreamup an idea of"a fictivebeing. The purpose of the NOTES is to suggest the possibility of a third idea: the idea of a fictive being.from the "Collect" of 1950 (where it is describedas "acompensationof time to come" [WS 855]) to the biographical note of 1954." But Stevens neverrecordedencountering such an idea. to the idea that this substitutewould be a fiction."Combining the poet's statements.such as the following note to Henry Church.As we have seen.Fromthe vagueprojectof a substitutefor religiousbelief. in which Stevenswrites that his work "suggeststhe possibility of a supremefiction. as of this April 21.we finally arriveat the name of such a substitute:the "fiction" of the "Notes. or thing as the object of belief by way of making up for that element in humanism which is its chief defect." that is." did Stevenshavein mind the projectto invent a fictionalsubstitutefor the idea of God.8An idea of a "being": perhaps something like the being of God.36 on Fri."Thethree sections of the poem. or thing"that will "adapt" the idea of God "to our differentintelligence. 27 Sep 2013 16:07:08 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . or state. the "supreme fiction.This appearsto have happenedat some point in early1942.he wrote his publisherwith details of the project. or make it unnecessary. Someone may one day be inspiredwith such a fictive idea. assemblingall 630 lines. 1943 letter. as describedin the pages above? The identificationseems clearenough in letterswrittenshortlyafterthe poem's completion. When naming his poem andwriting of these "characteristics.the "securely lofty"poetic inventionthat Stevens seems to have admiredsecond only to that of God.Speakingof the "fiction .subjectas they are to the rebelliousdefections of age and infirmity.it seems that we have reachedthe culminationof our story.128.however. it will remainpossible and unrealizedfor the remainderof Stevens'life. In must be acknowledged.7 Whether or not we follow "AnglaisMort a Florence"in taking the "chief defect"of humanism to be the human beings at its center.In the time betweenthe compositionof"Notes Towarda Supreme This content downloaded from 146.to the idea that this fictive idea would be willfully believed.anotherpoetic idea.now (at last) entitled "Notes Toward a SupremeFiction.. nor did he leave any evidence of believing he had createdone.or of a "thing": perhapssomethinglike heaven.The Supreme Fiction: Fiction orFact? 89 substitutefor religiousfaith until he decided upon the title of his latest work. ten for each of his sixty-threeyears.or create a substitutefor it." The "supreme fiction" towardwhich the "Notes" directthemselvesis.

Stevens composed a handful of letters that have. and believedthis duringthe very period in which he composed"Notes.immediatelyafterexplainingthat the three sections of the poem "arethree notes by way of definingthe characteristics of supremefiction. In these letters.as I suggested.He saysas much in the 1954 biographical note.Stevens does not say that poetry is "thesupremefiction. perhapsas much as the "Notes"themselves. in passing." she adds. Stevens sometimes seems to identify"poetry" in some sense as the supreme fiction towardwhich the "Notes" gesture.which is after all the choreographer's trade."and "bysupremefiction."ofcourse. Stevens did believe he had identified the supremefiction." A poet who writes. fictivesuccessorto religiousbelief as somethingobviousor self-evident.For example. it would almost certainlynot be a matterof course.they left it unclearthat the spectaclewould involve(of course)the mediumof dance."Whatever Stevensmeansto equatepoetry with. Stevensuses the word "means" in a sense analogousto its use in the following scenario: A choreographer intends to createa "supreme spectacle" in an upcoming show.I mean poetry"(L 407). The firstis the absenceof an article." Here. of course. Perhapsby saying he "means" poetry when he says supremefiction."By supreme spectacle. of course.No matter what the substitutefor the idea of God might be. in spite of all we have seen.128. fueledthe questto identifya supremefictionbasedon or in Stevens'poetry.this renunciation would not negate his having identified the two duringthe compositionof the poem.nor of an "ofcourse. the "ofcourse" makesperfect sense: the three characteristics of "supreme spectacle" were so general. Instead. or as an ideal)would stand in for God.36 on Fri.and would be embodiedin poetry. and pleasure. quoted above.probablyprovidesthe ultimate groundsfor our interestin the idea of"supreme fiction"? Even if he laterrenounced the identificationof poetryas a or the supremefiction."Stevens continues. She informs the producerthat "supreme spectacle" consists of the following characteristics: abstraction.we have "thecharacteristics of supremefiction. then. The second element which might give us pause is the "of course. that any supremefiction would.a supremefiction that might fill the gaps in humanismand compensatefor the demise of the ChristianGod.also be the subjectfor poetry. cited This content downloaded from 146.96."The" or "asupremefiction" might havesuggestedthesupremefictiontoward which the "Notes" direct themselves.I mean dance." or even "asupremefiction."By supremefiction.So might Stevens have meant to note.in the letter from Stevens to his publisher. the long-sought replacement for God? Does this not provethat he believedpoetryitself (in general."Wherewas it one first heardof the truth? The the" (WS 186)-such a poet is not unawareof the semantic weight of an article." We have a term without articlethat largelydisappears from Stevens'subsequentletters.90 Journal ofModern Literature Fiction" in early 1942 and the April 1943 letter to Henry Church. 27 Sep 2013 16:07:08 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . Two aspectsof Stevens'identification of"supremefiction" and "poetry" might hold us back from proclaimingthat Stevens did. What could be more unequivocal? Does this not provethat. identify in poetrywhat he could no longer find in God. after all."It seems highly doubtfulthat at any time Stevens saw the precisenatureof a monumental. it would seem not to havebeen "thesupremefiction" that would satisfy the sense of post-theistic longing."which.change." but simply "supreme fiction.

The Supreme Fiction: Fiction orFact? 91 above:"Inthe creationof any such fiction. "Your God.As we have seen. or even somehow mystical." Why would a supremefiction appearin poetry.willfully believed idea with which to fill a God-shaped void."Afterone has abandoneda belief in god. and it may be possible to create an entertaining and otherwiseadequate fiction in prose. the "supreme" in "supreme fiction" would naturallyevoke the idea of a "supreme being."Such iconoclasm might be a little too causticeven for Harmonium. and in anotherhe states.equestriansculpture.128. madame. and "poetry" may in some sense serve as the recompensefor the loss of God." identifiesthe veryidea of "belief beyondbelief"with the "presence of a poet."The poem begins with the declaration."YourGod. Certainly. and goes on to imaginepoetry and the "fictive things"of its creationas an exuberant. But it is unclear how his respectfor the powersof poetry in these moments could constitute an identification of the supremefiction. poetry is that essencewhich takes its place as life'sredemption" (WS 901).in the teasingly blasphemous poem from Harmoniummentioned above."It maybe possibleto createa supreme ideain theology."such an assertionwould be tantamountto suggestingthat poetic fiction trumps the high-toned Christian's grave deified being. and with even more pagan mischief.but poetry is the supremefiction.96. "A High-Toned Old Christian Woman."decades earlier.the line could be read as saying.36 on Fri. the poem long predates Stevens'identificationof the phrase"supreme fiction" with his hope for a fictive replacementfor religiousbelief." Given the delight the poem takes in "fictivethings.maybe the supremebeing. Alternately. conception of the nature and importance of This content downloaded from 146.and not."Poetryis the supremefiction. and Stevens sometimes belongs among them.in philosophy.Stevens may also have had in mind his isolated first use of the phrase "supreme fiction."God is a symbolfor somethingthat can aswell take otherforms.is certainlya fiction. 27 Sep 2013 16:07:08 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .poetrywould have a vital significance.but a supremefiction-both fictive and capableof holding its own againstreligiousfaith-demands a poetic vehicle. but what. God and high poetry may both be symbols for the same lofty idea or thing. politics."in which case the line might be paraphrased.the form of high poetry" (WS 907).there have been writers who have valorized poetry to religious heights. but if we follow it.aswe saw in the closing lines of "Collect.but poetry is the supreme fiction. "fiction" could mean something like "imaginative creation" or "actof the imagination" and would need no connotation of a specific. transformative "opposinglaw"to the severe moralizing of orthodox Christianity. In associatingsupremefiction and poetry.as. so we have no reasonto readthe poem'sfirst line through the lens of the later and largerproject.or science. say. arewe to make of"poetry" in these hermetic fragments?Did Stevens see the creationof verse as afictive idea that men could will themselves to believe? What would it mean for the very ideaof poetry to be a fiction?(Does anyonenot believe that poetryexists?)Perhapswe could imagine a poet inventinga supremely lofty.fictive.he writes. specifically. cuisine or dance?Is this purelya poet's bias?Part of the explanationmay be that Stevens.for example. Or so Stevens seems to have believed. In one of his undated aphorisms. madame.madame" (WS 47).Without any furtherspecification.

Stevensdoes not assertthat he or anyone else has arrived at or even realizedin poetic practicethe relevantidea of poetry. Once again." Then. is that he does not believe this other belief to have yet been created. perhapson the way to war. Such refusalof speculationabout the location of his fictive grail settles into an officialposition for Stevens.96. Never againdoes he identify"a" or "the" supremefiction.subject:the supremefiction maybe abstract.128..A month later. Let us think about it and not say that our abstraction is this.a sourceof poetry"(L 485).36 on Fri. as fitting Stevens' standard for a supremefiction. Keepingin mind the loftiness of the poetic implied by Stevens in his treatmentof "poeticideas. Stevenshas become even less definite:"I ought to say that I have not yet defined a supremefiction .in the long run.92 Journal ofModern Literature poetry.belief.. he displacesit into a potential. He lamentshis failureto "rationalize"the "enigma.in shifting terms.of course." Stevens adds.or supremefictions in general. clearly. But on anothermatterhe is equallyconsistent:the kind of supremefiction gesturedtowardin his poem'stitle "wouldneveramount to much .poetrywould be the supremefiction.as Stevens implies in the epilogue to "Notes."could this idea of changeablypleasing poetry constitute the fictive idea that might replacethe idea of God?Yet as soon as Stevensbegins to articulate how poetry might be a supremefiction.The NOTES start out with the idea that it would not take any form: that it would be abstract. but it will alsobe specificand articulable.the essence of poetry is change and the essence of change is that it gives pleasure" (L 430)..I mean poetry").aboutthe possiblypoetic statusof a supremefiction. or with anythingelse.But Stevenshimselfgives no indicationof believing he has carriedout this project." Stevensconcludes.if recognizedas a fiction and nevertheless believed."I confess that I don'twant to limit myself as to my objective" (L 485).not actual. once again adding a provocative"of course. perhapswith as muchrhetorical precision as the older "poeticideas" of God.and in a follow-up note two weeks laterabandonssuch attemptsaltogether.now clearlymarkingout the statureof the ideawith capitals. A supremefiction must be specific.or the necessityof all things. a specific idea. 27 Sep 2013 16:07:08 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . By the end of 1942."I have no idea of the form that a supremefiction would take.in anotherof his exegeticallettersto Hi Simons. unchangedsince Stevens first began to muse on the need to believe in "somethingelse"once one no longerbelievesin God.with poetry. "butI also saidthat I don'tknowwhat it is going to be. I don'twant to say that I don't mean poetry.Then we could see this conception..and if sufficientas a surrogatefor the idea of God. "Ithink I said in my last letter to you that the SupremeFiction is not poetry. It must be the sort of thing one could hold in one's mind. heaven. that or the other" (L 438).I don'tknow what I mean" (L 435)."and will serveas an "artificial subjectfor poetry." If poetryis to become in some sense the supremefiction.the crucialfact."It will be an "arbitrary objectof belief.He This content downloaded from 146. until it has all come to a point"(L 435).Even during the period in 1942 and 1943 when he seems to speculate. Stevenshad already revisedthe ambiguous termsof his letter to the CummingtonPress("Bysupremefiction. he writes of the supremefictionin 1945.then the precise contoursof that sense must remainunclear." to make it more precise. Idea."Of course. "longrun.He writes to Henry Church.

We seem to be confronted with preciselythe kind of "equipollence" by which the ancientskepticsaimedto bring aboutepoche.96.They merelyoffer a "few" of the characteristics it would "appear""in principle" to need. conceivably."or of "the majorman.Thebiographical note of 1954 suggests he did not. and continuedhoping for its arrival. the poet also seems to distancehimself from criticswho would read a concept like the supremefiction as inherently.36 on Fri. and its gesture toward"the possibility of a supremefiction."or who say that the supremefiction is the ecstasythe poet experiences.if it occurred. Or perhapsthe best way of readingStevenswould be to adopt one. in light of his inability to find a self-made fiction that would suffice. noted above. be created. or "perception beyond reason.Nor do they constitute an exhaustiveor systematicstatement of the natureof the thing. Perhapswe should set the readingsoff againstone anotherin an illustrationof the peculiar"impossibility" of reading Stevens. 27 Sep 2013 16:07:08 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .a seriesof endlessfiguralrepetitions" (52)." It is not that anyof these interpretations fails to find supportin Stevens'poetry.though there is not. The supremefiction can. His death-bed conversionto Catholicism.128.9 Stevens thus appearsto disagreewith criticswho identifythe supremefiction as the idea in "Notes" of "thisinventedworld. Perhaps tragically." and characterizes such work as "tryingto createsomething as valid as the idea of God has been.nearlyall of them find more than adequate support."thenucleusof the matteris containedin the title. As if anticipatingthe half-century of critical controversythat would enshroud the supreme fiction of the poem'stitle.or that it is a solitary poet sublimatedinto a mortalgod."'0 At the same time.Rather.that the subjectof a supremefiction "couldoccupy a school of rabbisfor the next few generations. might even suggest that he finallydecided to adopt an older poetic idea (God).or the pluralisticrichnessof his verse.once someone thinksof a good enough idea.This would imply that Stevensrecognized the impossibilityof creatinghis supremefiction.The Supreme Fiction: Fiction orFact? 93 writes of "Notes" duringthis period.In this letterto Simons."it seems reasonableto assume that Stevens hoped a sufficientsupremefiction might appearafter his death. It is implicit in the title that there can be such a thing as a supremefiction" (L 430).necessarilyor structurally "absent. as if by a leap This content downloaded from 146. I would even have to disagreewith MarjoriePerloff'salready less-than-optimisticclaim that Stevenscomes to recognizein the courseof"Notes" that the supremefiction can exist "onlyin the 'fluentmundo'of poetic language. in one of the rarepassagesin the publishedletterscontainingan underlinedphrase. and for that matterremains" (L 435)." or a belief lying behind Stevens'final poems in "the world as inhuman meditation" or "realityas cosmic imagination."Inprinciple there appearto be certain characteristics of a supremefiction and theNOTES is confined to a statement ofafew ofthosecharacteristics" (L 435). Given the late composition of the 1954 biographicalnote." ratherthanprovisionally lackingbut capableof arriving at anymoment. He insists to Hi Simons.It is possible. or suspensionofjudgment." or "apoetic vision of the supremespirit creatingspace and time and manifestingitself in each creativeact of human consciousness. an earlierpoet's fiction.as his own. it has not. Stevensalso makeshis suggestion. Stevens emphasizesthat the "Notes"do not contain that which they point toward. Therecan be.

Even here. it is difficultto meet the poet's demandingstandardsfor what a supremefiction must be and do. ratherthan standingperpetuallyin the interpretive hallway. Simply put. if the imaginary criticknowsthatwhat he believesis not true. Does our imaginarycriticbelieve that realitytrulyis cosmic imagination?Or does he recognizethat it isn'treallycosmic imaginationany more than Jove is sitting atop a cloud in the heavens.We can imagine." he does not hold back from this step unconditionallyeither in his poetry or his letters. in fact. recognized as a fiction" to "afiction.36 on Fri. barepossibilityof the eventual concoction of some grand poetic idea sufficeto drown out "the eternalsilence of these infinite spaces"?12 In the second case." for example-not only as a theme in Stevens'poetrybut as the truth. an idea recognized as fictive but believed nonetheless.believe in the existenceof what they describe-"reality as cosmic imagination.somethinghe made up and wrote aboutin his poetry.for the sake of argument.94 Journal ofModern Literature of faith. and the fact that this alternative seems to have been the poet's own: a recognitionthat Stevens did not fully realizethe projectset out in (what he saw as) the "central theme"of his poetry. recognized as invented and yet believed. preferringlocutions such as "afiction.Yet. that at least some of the most philosophicallyor theologicallyambitiousinterpreters of Stevens'supremefiction might. A possibility we have not yet consideredis that Stevens'idea of a supreme fiction could itselfbe a supremefiction. In the first case. and offering a substitutefor belief in God.and yet believe in it anyway?Only in the lattercasewould "reality as cosmic imagination" qualifyas a supremefiction in Stevens'sense:believed though recognized as make-believe. Though Stevens tends to avoid speaking of supreme fictions in veridicalterms.or by the fiction that one identificationalone couldbe correct-to choose a door arbitrarily and enter it.which the critics mentioned abovefind in one aspector anotherof Stevens'poetry. how is it possiblefor anyoneto believein somethingshe recognizesas untrue? Those whom Stevens called the "rationalists" in their "square hats"may see such an objectionas a knock-down argumentagainstthe very possibilityof a supreme fiction. it is difficultto see how such a mere possibilitycould sufficeto fill the gap left by a departing God.though they know it to be of Stevens'owncreation. Could believing in the simple. recognized as untrue. We can distinguishbetween at least two senses of "Stevens' idea of a supremefiction" that could serve as candidatesfor supremefictionhood:the idea that there couldbe a substitutefor the old religiousideal. we can begin by wonderingwhether there are indeed any critics who truly believe in the existence of some particular supremefiction.96. though.though it does not seem to have causedhim many sleeplessnights.Shortly after the completion of "Notes.But a problemariseswhen we considerthe nature of their belief." for example. 27 Sep 2013 16:07:08 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .128.Stevensparaphrases the idea"underlying" the poem by saying This content downloaded from 146. But we can at least recognizethe possibilityof an alternative.and the specficidea that would fulfill this role. but not the poet.in what sense exactlydoes he "believe" in it?And is such a belief trulystrongenough to standin the footstepsof a perhaps outmoded but in time past very imposing divinity? Stevens was awareof the paradoxlying at the heart of any possible supreme fiction.

in some sense. however.from a square-hattedpoint of view. thatwe aredoingthatall the time." How does Stevens extricatehimself from the paradoxof belief in something known to be a fiction? He does not take the easy way out of contradiction. Thomisticdistinction.") It might also be noted that nowherein his publishedwritings."or.does Stevens speakof belief in something known to be "false. so far as I know.and not vice versa." he also reportsthe following encounterwith a student at Trinity College: I saidthat I thoughtthatwe had reached a point at which we couldno longerreally believein anything unlesswe recognized thatit wasa fiction.(L 430) As an example.Or he might attemptto squareStevens'language with Kant's Copernicanrevolution. that therewas no suchthing as believingin somethingthat one knewwas not true.128."just as he favorsthe cognitively weaker"recognized" to the epistemicallydefinitive"known. Stevensfavorsthe use of"fiction" to the more philosophically weighted "untrue" or "nottrue. references to the supremefiction areoccasionallyaccompaniedby allusionsto William James'"will to believe": This content downloaded from 146.Nor does he insist that a supremefictionwould be "neither true nor false.It is obvious. but true in another." the speakerrefers to "thenicer knowledgeof/ Belief.96.or believedin.In Stevens' letters."Thebelief in a supremefiction is of a different kind than ordinarybelief. Stevens mentions the idea of heaven:"Thereare plenty of people who believe in Heaven as definitely as your New England ancestorsand my Dutch believed in it"(L 430). that what it believes in is not true"(WS 291). as if the poet weredrawingattentionto the way that objects must conformto our knowledge." and "nottrue" to the morejarring"false.The Supreme Fiction: Fiction orFact? 95 "it might be possible for us to believe in something that we know to be untrue" (L 443). in the end?Why does Stevens' supreme fiction keep running into problems at seemingly every turn-including the final turn.36 on Fri.the sense in which what once seemed real apartfrom us is in fact.a "fiction""created by us. and in a poem collected in the samevolume as "Notes.T'he studentsaidthatthat was an impossibility.by craftinga clever." like Planck's "working hypothesis" in "ACollect of Philosophy.its apparentfailurethus far to be realized? Perhaps we should not be surprised. Stevens seems to have no categoricalobjection to saying of something that it is known as "nottrue" and at the same time that it is believed." though such a possibility would seem implied by his other statements. he confrontsthe paradoxof fictivebelief head-on and casuallydismissesit. 27 Sep 2013 16:07:08 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions ."But must we attempt to make the irrationalrationalonce again?Can we. in a sense. much less know it to be untrue?The helpless philosopher might intrude to say helpfully that Stevens must assume anyone in his time and milieu to know.higher sense"-the poet will have no commerce with such mickey-mocking. But do they recognize it as a fiction." Instead. "the supremefiction is untrue in one sense. (Stevens does not seem to draw any strict distinction between "belief"and "beliefin. heaven to be unreal. In the same 1942 letter to Henry Church in which Stevens imagineswriting a "bookof specimens" and statesthat he has "noideawhat form a supremefictionwould take.

or lifting a peculiarlyheavy mental weight. was called the will to believe . believe that Abraham Lincoln's existence is a myth.James leavesno doubtthat he does not believein the possibility of "suspending disbelief.. it seems to me that we can suspend disbelief with reference to a fiction as easily as we can suspend it with reference to anything else."If we areto discussthe question[of religious belief] at all." as Stevenssays. but we are absolutely impotent to believe them ..with referenceto somethingknown to be a fiction."and"thatwe are betteroff even now if we believe" this (731-2). But James does not speak of belief in this way.It maybe possible for us to saywe believe such a thing.and suggeststhat it can be intellectuallydefensibleand philosophically lawfulto believe"thatthe best things arethe more eternalthings."he notes at the outset. the philosophergoes out of his way to emphasize that we are only capableof believing a hypothesiswhen it strikesus as "arealpossibility.he does so on the explicitpresupposition that religiousbelief remainsa live option for his audience." and mocks the idea of attemptingto believe in somethingwhich is "dead" to us: Can we. but to believe it in fact simply lies beyond us. 27 Sep 2013 16:07:08 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . and mine.not a logical one. whether or not it is instinctive. as if we couldwill ourselvesto believearbitrarily througha kind of innerexertion-like stretchingsomething inside one'smind into an unfamiliarpose.443) The most extendedinvocationofJames'idea occursimmediatelyfollowingthe passageabout the skeptic-mindedyouth from Trinity. if there is instinctive in us a will to believe. what in your day.however..James refersto such hypotheses as "live.. If we found ourselvesunable to believe something.. coming to believe something known to be untruewould present only a practicaldifficulty.. laterin the lecture. such as a fiction known to be untrue. (719) In otherwords. If for any This content downloaded from 146. "it must involve a living option. (L 431..96 if we are willing to believe in fiction . On this view. or by any strength of wish that it were true. as well as to believein more specific religioushypotheses. (L 430) It is as if Stevens had in mind a model of belief as a sort of mental feat. or if there is a will to believe.96. in Cambridge. when Stevens was in his first year at Harvardand James had just returnedto the philosophy faculty there."thatwe are doing that all the time": There are things with respect to which we willingly suspend disbelief."3something that might very well be true.128. and that the portraits of him in McClure's Magazine are all of some one else? Can we. feel certain that the sum of the two one-dollar bills in our pocket must be a hundred dollars?We can say any of these things.known to be of our own creationand presumeduntrue." Stevens continues.Throughout"The Will to Believe.It is obvious..an appropriate responsemight be: try harder. Journal ofModern Literature the need to believe. just by willing it.36 on Fri. by any effort of our will. When James turns explicitlyto religiousbelief.the boy who insisted "that there was no such thing as believing in something that one knew was not true." the popularlecturehe publishedas partof a book in 1897. or to act as ifwe believedit..

If we follow James in rejectingthe psychologicalpossibility of believing what we know to be untrue.128. and that. but a logical one. But if Stevens took James to be saying that the suspension of disbelief is everywherepossible.or was simply exposed to the languageof its title throughconversation duringhis yearsin Cambridge.but the choicebetweenthem mustalsobe both "forced" and "momentous": that is.96.his interpretation of the "will to believe" was sharedby many at the time. 27 Sep 2013 16:07:08 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .again."Faithis when you believe something that you know ain'ttrue.'the 'will to make believe. All the critics.Jamespoints out yet againthat his argumentappliesexclusivelyto "livingoptions which the intellect of the individualcannot by itself resolve" (734). even to us who arediscussingthis matter.In fact.It may lie outside the range of human capabilityto find a replacementfor God by believing in something known to be a fiction. given enough effort or desire.religionis a live hypothesiswhich may be true"(732-3). there must be no possibilityof not choosing.'werewittily proposed as substitutesfor it" (457). After anotherparagraph.as the poet himself seems to have believed."whichI unluckilycalled the Willto Believe.The 'will to deceive. concluding the lecture.he interruptshis argument to say.The Supreme Fiction: Fiction orFact? 97 of you religion be a hypothesisthat cannot.James himself repeatedlynotes in the course of the lecturethe great potentialsfor misunderstanding. as when he warns againstidentifyingthe will to believewith "faith" as definedby the schoolboywho says.pounced upon the title. It is not so much that we as human beings lack the capacityto believe what This content downloaded from 146.then the supremefiction may not only be absent from Stevens'poetry. then you need go no farther" (732).by any living possibilitybe true."echoing a phrasewhich occurs in the lecture'sfirst paragraphand would seem to capturethe thrust of the essay much better than its actualtitle.Jamesinsists.but may representa simple.In such cases.36 on Fri. general impossibility.In lateryears. Only a paragraph later. he would have been far from alone.14Far from opening the way to belief in what we know to be false. morallyit was iniquitous. Psychologicallyit was impossible.""I can only repeatthat this is misapprehension" (734). both hypotheses must not only be living.he regretted the title of his by then most famous lecture. Stevens'apparent reliance. He suggests that he should have called the lecture instead "TheRight to Believe."I once wrote an essay on our right to believe. Whether or not the young poet readJames'lecture.on the widely sharedmisinterpretation ofJames'"willto believe" may offer a clue to the difficulties criticshave experiencedover the last half-centuryin attemptingto define the supreme fiction.James offers strict and narrowcriteria for the legitimate applicationof the will in mattersof belief. The point of James'lecture is very explicitly not that we can believe arbitrarily in whateverwe choose. in his conceptionof a supremefiction. neglecting the essay. and the stakes of the decision must be significantand irreversible (718).but that in certain cases it can be intellectuallylegitimate to allow ourselvesto believe one hypothesis over another despite the absence of decisive evidence."Allthis is on the suppositionthat it [religiousbelief] reallymay be propheticand right.we might even go a step furtherthanJamesand arguethat belief in something known to be untrueis not only apsychological impossibility." he writes.

4.as Landy argues.we talk of"deceivingoneself"or being "self-deceived": "Stoplying to yourself. Knopf.New York: The Libraryof America..we might thus succeed in establishingthe supremefiction as a theoretical possibility. 3."in Wallace Stevens. Wallace Stevens. For example. 5. 636.36 on Fri.ed."wecan say. see Jenkins 73-74." the fully consciousadoptionof a belief knownto be illusory(Landy49). and as yet unperformed. Collected Poetryand Prose. New York:Alfred A Knopf. L 736. in remaininga bachelor?) Thereare. ForWeiss'view of the episode. By assimilatingStevens'project for a supremefictionto a Proustianor Nietzschean model of willed self-deception. From "SaintJohn and the Back-Ache. 1997.. and morelike the "inability" of bachelorsto be married.ed.. and some race of aliens might possess it. He continues that they "areusually some variationof the idea of the subject-objectrelationship" (viii-ix). 27 Sep 2013 16:07:08 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions ." The model of belief implicit in such statements would seem to allow for at least the logical possibilityof a supremefiction.98 Journal ofModern Literature we know to be untrue. But the work of creatingthe supremefiction in all of its necessary." 2.In other words. but what would it look like for a creatureto believe in something it knows to be untrue? (What would it look like if a bachelorgot marriedbut succeeded. Holly Stevens.1997. This content downloaded from 146. See Dodds'"On Misunderstandingthe Oedipus Rex. our inability to will belief in fictions recognized as fictions maybe less like our inabilityto fly or see throughsteel walls."Deep down I alwaysknew . Abbreviations L WS Holly Stevens.our very concept of belief may imply that what is believedis believedto be true.128.in fact. hard-wonspecificitywould remainour own.1966.96.preciselywhat Stevens claimed for it. Lettersof Wallace Stevens. Collected Poetryand Prose.as though such belief were simply an abilitylike any other. 357.New York: The Libraryof America. New York:Alfred A. Lettersof Wallace Stevens.writerswho believein what the Proustscholar JoshuaLandy has called"lucidself-delusion.Our customary ways of using the word "belief" simply do not allow for the possibilityof believingwhat one knows to be untrue. Even in everydayspeech.We can imagine a raceof creatures with enormouswings and penetratingvision.a "synchronically split"(126) mind.1966.Marcel'scalculatedeffortsin A la recherche dutempsperdu to deceivehimself aboutAlbertine'sfaithfulnessseem to requirea simultaneousknowledgeand refusalof that knowledge. I just couldn'tadmit it to myself.through sheer force of will. as opposed to the Jamesianmodel of a right to believe.or. Notes 1. Rather.or trianglesto have four sides.

" The Act of theMind:Essayson thePoetryof Wallace Stevens.New York:Harperand Row..1977.Inc.edu/~afilreis/Stevens/conversion.If Stevens succeededin believing he would. for example. 1-12."in contrastto an "avoidable" option such as "Eithercall my theorytrue or call it false" (718). 177-188. "He saidif he got well. Hanley. Dodds.then publishedin the New World in June 1896 (ibid.128. Wallace Stevens: ThePoemsof OurClimate. 1966. 9. in supportof the earlierclaim that Stevenstrulyhoped for the eventualcreation of a supremefiction."Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction: A Commentary. James717. 1997. Jarraway 141. Doggett. Ibid. This content downloaded from 146. 1967.. Bloom.London: Routledge. 19 Mar.The Supreme Fiction: Fiction orFact? 99 6."Thegreat poetry I have projectedis a compensationof time to come"(WS 855). for example. 13. Leggett 15. 76-95. 1965. 11.Letter to Janet McCann. James. Riddel 85-86. 141.Miller 285.Ed. James suggests.26 Nov. Hillis Miller and Roy Harvey Pearce. .Baton Rouge:Louisiana State U P.but did not believe one to have alreadybeen created.96. Erich Segal. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins P. Frank. Wallace Stevens175-6. The lecturewas originallydeliveredas an addressto the PhilosophicalClubs of Yaleand Brown Universities.36 on Fri.Simon. Carroll8. Wallace Stevensand the Question of Belief Metaphysician in theDark.writing. It is worth noting."FatherHanley concludes. "Eitheracceptthis truth or go without it. See. 1993.we only succeedin choosing to go without the proposedtruth. 10. Ed. 1976.Englewood Cliffs:Prentice-Hall.WS 806. Chicago: U of Chicago P. 7. Bloom. 2005. Marie Borroff. "WallaceStevens:The Use of Poetry." Wallace Stevens:A Collection of Critical Essays.Ed."Greek Tragedy: ModernEssaysin Criticism. Ed.Baltimore: Johns Hopkins P. Heringman." Centerfor Programs in Contemporary Writing. 14.that he also says.Arthur.datedJuly24. after death.215. 212. James'exampleof a "forced" option is. On the conversion.see Bates 296-7. meet people he knew in a place called heaven.William. Al Filreis. as well as the letter from FatherArthur Hanley to Stevens scholar JanetMcCann.Bernard. 27 Sep 2013 16:07:08 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions .Stevens' Poetryof Thought. Bloom. Ithaca:Cornell U P. Quoted in Leggett 145. "On Misunderstandingthe Oedipus Rex. Heringman 11.it is difficult not to think that his successwould exemplifythe possibilityof belief in an idea recognizedas a fiction. "WallaceStevens'sallegeddeathbedconversion. 1985. "Notes" 77. See. 1987. J. Bates 234. 24Jul. 1977.html.Doggett 105. Harold. Joseph. Quoted in Bates 203. David R. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U P. Critchley. 1983.).upenn.Milton J. Carroll. R. 8. Works Cited Bates. Wallace Stevens' Supreme Fiction. E. "Le silence eternel de ces espacesinfinis m'effraie" (Pascal110). Things MerelyAre:Philosophy in the Poetryof Wallace Stevens.he would see me in heaven" (Hanley). Wallace Stevens:A Mythology of Self Berkeley:U of CaliforniaP. TheWritings of WilliamJames: A Comprehensive Edition.2007 http:// www. If we attemptto refrainfrom making a choice in the formercase. Jarraway.The same structure.appliesto religiousbelief. though also see 267-8. McCann 100."we would talk a lot more and if not . 1963. 12.

Robert Buttel and FrankDoggett. Wallace Stevens: The LaterYears 1923-1955." Wallace Stevens: ThePoeticsof Modernism." boundary 2 1. Ed. Schaum. New York: Alfred A Knopf. "Theoretical and AntitheoreticalStevens. This content downloaded from 146."Wallace Stevens: A Celebration.1976. Hillis. Lettersof Wallace Stevens. . Stevens. New York:Beech Tree Books.Janet. "Interpreting Stevens:An Essayon PoetryandThinking. Miller."Revolvingin Crystal:The SupremeFiction and the Impasse of Modernist Lyric.Holly. 1988.Oxford: Oxford U P.New York: The Libraryof America. Landy.2000.Wallace Stevens: Ragefor Order. 1986. Wallace Stevens Revisited:"The Celestial Possible. 1985. 41-64.128. Wallace Stevens and the CriticalSchools.J.100 Journal ofModern Literature Jenkins. Philosophy as Fiction:Self Deception. Manchecourt:GF Flammarion. and Knowledge in Proust.1995. Cited as "L". 1966.Melita. McCann. Albert Gelpi. Tuscaloosa: U of AlabamaP. Richardson. Quoted in Schaum 125.Joshua. Princeton:PrincetonU P.36 on Fri.Joseph.96. 2005.1 (1972): 85-86.Baton Rouge: LouisianaState U P. Late Stevens: The Final Fiction. Wallace Stevens: The EarlyYears 1879-1923. B.274-285. 2004. 27 Sep 2013 16:07:08 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions . 1980. Stevens.Marjorie.Penses. Perloff.1997. Ed.Collected Poetryand Prose.Lee Margaret. ed. Pascal.Wallace.Blaise. New York:Beech Tree Books. "New York: TwaynePublishers. Leggett. Brighton:SussexAcademic P. Riddel. 1988. Cambridge:CambridgeU P.J. Cited as "WS". Joan.