Imagination and reality

modernist fiction in the light of Wallace Stevens’ poetics of abstraction


  • Jørgen Veisland


abstraction, ontological congruity, imagination and reality, possible poet


To Wallace Stevens the artist is determined by his relation to the "pressure of reality." When the artist erases or evades the pressure reality is absorbed by the imagination so that the interdependence between reality and imagination is aesthetically metamorphosed by a process of abstraction, and the artist's power is measured by his ability to abstract himself and to withdraw reality with him into his abstraction. Here, Stevens has formulated nothing less than a poetics of abstraction. In this essay the significance of his poetics will be examined by applying it to modernist fiction, embarking from a reading by Stevens' own poem "The Snow Man” (1921), where the aural sense, listening, prevents and excludes a fanciful attachment to the unreal and allows for the interdependence and the merging of imagination and reality, a poetic abstraction that is embedded in nature itself. In Alain Robbe-Grillet's novel Jealousy (1957), Haruki Murakami's short story "TV People” (1993), and Paul Auster's novel 4321 (2017) we find a problematising, even a denigration of vision as the characters are drawn to petrified images that obviate perception and insight. Bruno Schulz' novella "Cinnamon Shops” (1934) forms an exception in that the experience of illumination and expansion, taking place in winter, is precipitated by a unifying of the senses, aural, visual and tactile. The first-person narrator abstracts himself and abstracts reality by placing it in the imagination, to use Stevens' phrase.


Auster, Paul. 4321. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2016.
Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities. Trans. William Weaver. London: Harcourt, 1974.
Murakami, Huraki. “TV People.” In The Elephant Vanishes. Trans. Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin. London: Vintage 1993.
Pissaro, Camille. “Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon. Effect of Rain,” 1897. Oil on canvas, 81 by 65 cm. Madrid, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza.
Robbe-Grillet, Alain. Jealousy. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Riverrun Press, 1995.
Schulz, Bruno. “Cinnamon Shops.” In The Fictions of Bruno Schulz. Trans. Celina Wieniewska. London: Picador 1963.
Stevens, Wallace. “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words.” In The Necessary Angel. Essays on Reality and the Imagination. New York: Vintage Books, 1942.
------. “The Snow Man.” In Harmonium. New York: Poetry 1921.