There is a terrible nihilism in Wallace Steven’s poem, “The Snow Man,” which I re-read today. He begins:
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
It is a very strange mind here. One cannot regard this winter without a mind of winter, a mind without any other season.
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves
Which is sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
This very early Stevens poem is nihilistic. It denies that there is anything in nature that speaks to us or though us. The mind here is completely neutral, and beholds the nothing that is not there and the seemingly paradoxical the nothing that is. The appearance of nothing, if we can say something like that, here is not the nothing of the Daoist or Buddhist, for example. It is the nothing of the moderns, total meaninglessness whose appearance is the world itself apart from man.
Nature here is something that has no real connection to man and man here is not a part of nature. The mind here is quite Cartesian in character. There is the winter mind, and there is the lifeless extension of the winter.
Nihilism begins when the whole of things is no longer regarded as interdependent. As we see in this poem, there is no interdependence between the wintered mind and the winter nature around them. By removing a single link in the unity of all things means there is no whole and when men live without a whole they become atomic and completely isolated from everything else. What is also very strange is how emotionless this poem is. There is no sadness about the condition of the world, and because everything is frozen there isn’t much of a hint of anxiety either.
What this poem has is peace, but at what price? This peace is achieved truly by having a mind of winter, a mind that is itself nothing. Nothing comes of nothing. This is even the nothing negates itself into something as we find in the beginning of the Hegelian dialectic. This nothing is an absolute one.
The rejection of the notion that nature speaks to us or that it has a unity with us is a necessary part of modernity. The question we must ask ourselves whether it is true. In great part, this belief of nature is grounded in modern natural science, especially physics and biology. There is a big bang, but it is thoughtless. There is evolution, but it is mindless and totally deterministic. Our own minds, in their Cartesian separateness, can only measure the motions of nature with mathematics, a nature that is basically lifeless, a nature to be conquered for the relief of man’s estate.
In the ancient world, we know, people believed themselves to be a part of nature which was all alive and they were part of that greater life that constituted the whole of things. But modern natural science has apparently made that view not just dubious, but stupid. One way we can return to that older pre-scientific view doubted by Descartes is to be able to demonstrate that modern natural science is wrong both about the physics and about evolution. However, we live in terribly uncritical times and we accept everything too readily, including that there is nothing, nothing at all. The beginning of this critique must begin with the rejection of the Cartesian mind and Cartesian duality. Without that duality, modern natural science would have to alter the way it understands things. The truth is that Descartes was wrong. If he is wrong, then Stevens could not write a poem truthfully where the mind is in anyway apart from the winter, even if his mind is wintery. The very creation of his poem would make him one with nature, and he would be expressing not an absolute nothingness that negates everything, even if peaceably, but a nothingness that is wholeness, an expression of being one with the world in its life, not death.