As I was thinking over the writing of this paper in a coffee house, an argument was going on between the couple at the next table. As I became aware of the conversation, the woman was shouting, “What does that mean?” He said, with exaggerated patience, “It’s Shakespeare.” And she followed, “I know it’s Shakespeare, but what did you mean by it?” I lost track of the argument while thinking of the use of quotations and the trickiness of analyzing their use by another. Shirley Ann Grau begins her 1977 novel, Evidence of Love, with a quotation from Wallace Stevens’s “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle:”
. . . I pursued,
And still pursue, the origin and course
Of love, but until now I never knew
That fluttering things have so distinct a shade.1
I cannot really tell what she meant by her choice of this epigraph, but can only look at the parallels I see between the poem — including the quotation — and Evidence of Love. Intertextuality has many definitions, and I am not going to explore them; but it is a flexible concept and anyone can appropriate it. My way of looking at it is to consider it the reading of two texts in each other’s light, not looking at “influence” or even considering which came first. For me, intertextuality is looking at two texts at the same time, trying to see what comment each makes on the other. It is like seeing different scenes through the two lenses of one’s glasses, while straining to create a single image.
“Le Monocle de Mon Oncle” is one of the major long poems in Stevens’s first collection, Harmonium (1923), the other two being “Sunday Morning” and “The Comedian as the Letter C.” “Monocle” is one of his poems of sexual disappointment and spiritual malaise. His first collection came some years after his long-delayed marriage to Elsie Kachel, and shows a giant leap forward in sophistication, but it does reflect his disappointment in the marriage. The magic world he invented for himself and “Bo-Bo” or “Bo-Peep,” as he called her during their extended engagement, could not endure the relentless prolonged contact that marriage entails. His early poems written expressly for her were playful exercises in imagination; they are romantic, gentle, following in the tradition of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century popular poetry. The Harmonium poems, published in book form fourteen years after the marriage, are heartfelt explorations of human limitation weighed against the boundlessness of desire.
Some critics have attributed his change in style and subject mainly to his experience of disappointment. To me, it makes sense to attribute Stevens’s startling growth to the many components of his whole life in New York, including the realization that his imagined life with Elsie was not going to translate itself into reality, to his friendship with the most advanced artists and writers in New York, and to his reading of everything that was on the ‘cutting edge’ of art and literature in that exciting time. Whatever the cause, the work leapt into the twentieth century, and landed in the middle of the modernist period.
A number of poems carried a breath of fin-de-siècle with them, expressing loss, sadness, the conclusion that the country of the imagination was bankrupt and empty. It was necessary to be a person of the sun, identified with “reality,” not of the moon.
Stevens’s subjects were now distanced. Whatever was personal in them was effaced and transformed. “Le Monocle” begins with a distancing device in the title. This is the point of view of the uncle, not of the speaker. The monocle itself is an odd image, a lens that suggests affectation and that provides still more distancing, even distortion. The poem describes two people whose love has been eroded by age and perhaps by familiarity. It begins with an apparent address to a divine mother, which quickly deflates to argument and insult. The opening salutation, “Mother of heaven, regina of the clouds,” (I.1) soon unveils itself as mockery, as the speaker talks of his disagreement with the female “you” of the poem: “There is nothing . . . / Like the clashed edges of two words that kill.” (I.3-4) We do not find out the exact subject of their argument, but only that their bliss is in the past. Remembering her beauty and their love, he continues with a series of questions and parables about aging and death. The “older” uncle has many of Stevens’s characteristics. He is disenchanted, world-weary, undirected. “If men of forty will be painting lakes” (VI.1) the poem offers; and it is Stevens himself, in his early forties, who is trying to paint lakes.
This poem segues from disappointment in love to yearning for the infinite. If, as the poem suggests, desire is to last, it needs to be without a specific object. But is such a desire, or a love, as that a failure or a fraud? The poet knows not whether to trust metaphysical desire; and physical desire is disappointing and limiting. He sees himself as a scholar of love, but finally, all he can see is its limits. The last line is a conclusion that focuses on limitation and not on possibility. Disappointment in reality is merged with nostalgia for lost, imagined beauty — “The sea of spuming thought foists up again / The radiant bubble that she was.” (I.8-9) The poet mourns the lost longing more than the reality, as the bubble suggests insubstantiality, illusion. The “you” of the poem appears to be the woman’s present self, although she is also referred to as “her.” The poet widens his personal exhaustion and disillusion into the generalization that nothing lasts, that everything is physical, cyclic, transient.
“Mon Oncle” declaims, “No spring can follow past meridian.” (II.9) The speaker looks at the new generation coming after him and feels that he is already finished, over: “I am a man of fortune greeting heirs; / For it has come that thus I greet the spring.” (II.6-7) The woman, however, wants to believe otherwise, wants to believe that the actions of human beings are known and recognized: “You persist with anecdotal bliss / To make believe a starry connaissance.” (II.10-11) The male speaker makes the obvious failure of sexual bliss a reason to believe in the impossibility of permanent happiness. And yet, alas, the human creature still has desire, desire without the possibility of fulfillment. The narrator slips back and forth from desire for the physical joys to desire for metaphysical joys, which are comparable to the physical. He pictures angels coming slowly down toward earth while “centurions guffaw and beat / Their shrilling tankards on the table-boards.” (VII.5-6) He translates his parable: “The honey of heaven may or may not come, / But that of earth both comes and goes at once.” (VII.8-9) He wonders what would happen if the angels brought “A damsel heightened by eternal bloom” (VII.11); but does not go on. He is suggesting that, if only he could see immortality, might it be possible for him to believe in it.
Stevens glosses this section of the poem in a letter to Hi Simons, one of his favorite commentators on his work. “. . . would the honey of heaven be so uncertain if the mules that angels ride brought a damsel heightened by eternal bloom, that is to say, brought a specifically divine revelation, not merely angelic transformations of ourselves. The trouble with the idea of heaven is that it is merely an idea of the earth. To imagine a heaven that is what heaven ineffectually strives to be.”2 “Sunday Morning” and “Monocle” agree that the delights of earth are all we can count on, but “Sunday Morning” claims that they should be sufficient, where as “Monocle” finds that they are not.
The pigeons at the end of “Monocle,” metaphors of the dark rabbi and the rose rabbi, bring back the “casual flocks of pigeons” at the conclusion of “Sunday Morning;” but the last lines are teasing, less easily deciphered than the breathtaking ending to the earlier poem. They are Grau’s epigraph, quoted above. The speaker is a student of love, even as one who has not the flush of youth. The distinct shade suggests evidence, the visible shape of the invisible and indefinable feelings of love, and the shape of love’s limits. The tone of the poem is valedictory. Yet there is promise in it. But this promise is not of “the damsel heightened by eternal bloom.” What remains is the basic, underlying premise of human existence, which cannot be understood. “There is a substance in us that prevails.” (VI.4) Joseph Carroll cites Stevens’s old mentor George Santayana in his Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (1900), which claims that sex is the wellspring of creativity.3 Thus the decline of sexual passion would leach away the ability to create.4 Stevens seems actually to take issue with this position in the poem, as he did with others of Santayana’s pronouncements. There is, he would claim, a substance in us that outlasts the ephemeral and that feeds the perennial; and this outlasts the sexual as well, or transcends it.
So “Monocle” explores the meaning of desire, and its speaker considers himself a scholar of love. It counters the conclusion of “Sunday Morning,” in which the woman apparently accepts the proposition of the disembodied voice with which she has been arguing that things of the earth are more to be cherished than the illusions of religion. “Mon Oncle” finds only love’s limits. “Sunday Morning” urges satisfaction with the physical. The opposing conclusions show that Stevens was struggling with two diametrically opposed positions — as he always was. The delights of the world are sufficient, and the delights of the world are not sufficient. The uncle, the scholar of love, would constantly seek some proof of love’s existence — the shade of it, its visible form on the earth. “Monocle” is a sequence of parables that the speaker unfolds or “uncrumples” one after another, beginning and ending in a disappointment. He has posited the metaphysical as a possible substitute for the physical, but he has not made the jump. He segues from romantic love to metaphysical love and back again, but he cannot connect them. The finitude of human relationships does not open up possibilities of transcendent love. Rather, their susceptibility to “exhaustion” in both senses suggests a cosmic weariness. Of course there is a whole history of the merging of corporeal and divine love, from The Song of Solomon, through St. John of the Cross, Richard Rolle, John Donne, and others. But the poets used the imagery of human passion to metaphorize the notion of divine passion. The language of eros is the only medium we have with which even to begin to describe the ineffable. Through the pure physical and mental love of one human being for another, we can obtain a dim sense of what it is to be loved by God and to love him. This is not what happens in “Monocle.” The speaker is unable to enjoy the flawed human relationship for what it is, nor can he pass beyond it to the possibility of faith in other kinds of love.
Shirley Ann Grau’s 1977 novel Evidence of Love recalls Stevens’s work in its themes and characters. Her characters in this novel are detached people looking for evidence of love, for something they can use as proof that they have been loved and have loved. They think they find it, occasionally, but they do not know what it is. Neither blood-kinship, nor sex, nor money equates with love, though, in these things, the characters try to find their reason for being. They never really find love, because evidence of its presence is interior and casts no shadow.
Shirley Ann Grau is perhaps best known for her novel Keepers of the House (1964), which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1965. She is also acclaimed as an extremely skillful writer of short stories, many of which reflect her Southern heritage. Often viewed as a Southern writer, her work is included in essays and anthologies concerning the South. The distinctively Southern version of the family myth is represented in much of her work. But Evidence of Love is not set in the South; and its mythic family, with residents in Philadelphia, in New Jersey, and elsewhere, is almost placeless. The story is loosely region-related, with suggestions of old Philadelphia aristocracy, but the family could as well reside in any Eastern or Northern city.
The issue of race, so significant in Southern novels, is not taken up in this story, although the same base motivations that appear as racial attitudes in other works now become issues of class. In Evidence, class is a tremendous obstacle to love. The snobbery of the upper-class characters prevents them from seeing others as individuals with needs and desires similar to their own, and it allows them to perceive the economically disadvantaged as property to be exploited and to be disposed of at will.
It is part of Grau’s style to present multiple narrators, provoking critics to say that she does not judge her characters.5 Certainly, no one with humility would judge himself, and humility is a trait the characters in Evidence have in very short supply. But others’ reactions lead us to judgment, as do the cold, precise descriptions of their lives and actions given by the main characters themselves. Their interactions show us that they are unable to grasp their own natures, however intelligent and analytical they are. And we do not pity them, because it seems that their misunderstanding is caused by their hard-heartedness — even if this too seems determined. There is a Southern sense of fatalism even in this novel set in the East. This fatalism, linked to the family myth, is another Grau trademark. Another Grau technique is the motif: objects, phrases, patterns recur throughout her novels, providing a sense of continuity and providing for layers of interpretation. In this novel, the title phrase is one such motif.
Not much criticism has been devoted to Evidence, perhaps in part because some critics seem to want Grau to be a Southern writer, and they give attention to her books to the extent of their fitting the category of Southern literature. But even Grau’s Southern books do not neatly fit into this group, as the multiple narrators, the emphasis on the family myth, and the sense of detachment or alienation many of her male creations have are beyond regionalism. She has frequently been compared with Faulkner for her creation of an imaginary place that stands for the South. This practice, shared, however, by other novelists, does help to mythologize characters and events. She has also been compared with Albert Camus, for the detachment of her characters and the philosophical issues that underlie her work.6 Grau’s drama seems even more stark and more basic without the Southern setting. At times we seem to be looking at stock characters in a medieval morality play; and yet these characters never stop being genuine enough for the reader not to wish to interfere in their affairs.
Sexual disappointment is a significant theme for Grau, as also in the poem by Stevens, and her male characters, like the uncle, believe themselves to be scholars of love. The character may totally divorce sexuality from love, even from romance, and then be disappointed that his encounters have little to offer without these enhancements. Perhaps he believes there was a true love-relationship once; but it is in the past, hallowed and mystified by time. The lover perhaps would like to transfer his drive to a higher level, but cannot. Evidence is full of sexual detachment. Sexuality has little to do with love, is enjoyed ad hoc as a kind of sport, or is not enjoyed at all. The parents of Edward Milton Henley, the main character, have put sex aside. And Edward believes that his mother is very happy to be relieved from sexual duties, while his father is very discreet about any other companion. Edward himself is openly promiscuous. His son Stephen is repressed; but one of Stephen’s sons is promiscuous. The young men have chosen the most superficial ways to rebel against their fathers, and the underlying similarity between these fathers and sons is, quite ironically, much more obvious than their differences.
Both Edward and Stephen, father and son, are incapable of real love. The parent-child bond is one form of secular love that could be seen as purer than other forms but they, both father and son, are unable to feel for their children a normal, straightforward affection, much less to attempt the complicated and exhausting business of helping mold their characters for good. Instead of concerning themselves with the opportunities provided to offer love, they are seeking to find evidence they have received it. They ask if they have been loved, looking for a sign. They fail to provide any sign towards those who are seeking love from them. They don’t realize that if they love, they themselves are evidence of love. They live in the illusion that they are scholars of love, interrogators of desire. But they are frequently obsessed with trivialities and unable to see beyond their obsessions. Incapable of compassion, even of pity, they collect people and things because they have the money to do so. They feel unseen, overlooked, but they do not see others. They are studying love from outside, without willing to entertain it.
The three main characters whose first-person perspectives we are given are Edward Milton Henley, Stephen Henley, and Lucy Henley. The two men are detached and wounded, but they see themselves as in control; and, indeed, control seems to be the major motivation for the father and son. Love involves loss of self; the two cannot allow lack of control over any part of their world. The father, Edward, feels he was never there for his parents. They had him and ignored him. One of his strongest early childhood memories is of being very ill and hearing his mother directing the preparation of his house for the funeral. His father sent him abroad for much of his youth, apparently happy to be rid of him. The letters the father sent, his son suspected, were composed by someone at the office. His parents had two children. His sister and her husband went down on the Titanic, leaving Edward more bemused than grieving. His parents seem to him “happy” with each other and with their sexless world ruled by order and propriety; they seem to him just parts of the pattern of family, and have nothing really to do with him.
Patriarch Edward Milton Henley begins and ends the novel, which begins with his birth in 1883 and ends with his death. He is the most powerful figure, and perhaps the most damaged. He “remembers” his birth to a remote father and detached mother, as part of their plan for a family, not as a fruit of love. “I remember mostly boredom,” he says of his childhood. Educated according to his parents’ class and without concern or affection, he defines the primary motivation for his parents’ lives as being propriety. He recalls his mother lecturing him about moral behavior, in a dutiful, detached sort of way rather than out of love. “I have always known the Christian thing to do in any given situation,” he says,7 “I have simply chosen not to do it.”As a result he rebels against propriety in every possible way, beginning with sexual plundering. He wants his father’s notice, but he never gets it. He defines himself as someone “improper” therefore different from his father, and when he finds a social rule or expectation, he deliberately violates it. But he has little distinctive identity aside from that rebellion. His parents have opinions rather than feelings, and so does he. When his parents die, he takes over his father’s business, but without interest beyond the monetary; he wants to gain his ends, which include family, without any investment of feeling. Therefore, although he is married, he hires a woman to bear his child — “She met all my requirements — she was quite young, sixteen, intelligent, a virgin.” This way the child will be entirely his property. Edward operates entirely on a financial basis, and his goal is total control. He sees himself as having rebelled against his father but he, in fact, is very like him. For him money is control, but ironically he cannot control his only son through money.
In an effort to maintain control of his son, Edward has reared Stephen with no mother but, instead, with a series of wives and others who served as caretakers rather than as parents.
Stephen sees that for his unloving father money is control, so he chooses a life that gains him little money. A minister without belief, he goes through the years preaching sermons and providing moral guidance. He exerts his drive to control though scheduling and planning. He considers himself an honest person who always tells the truth, no matter who is hurt. This honesty is ironic considering the duplicity of his basic position. He believes brutal honesty is high morality. The code of absolute honesty by which he lives is poisonous to his family, especially to his son Paul, to whom he explains, when Paul is only a child, that he loves his other son Thomas more, and that it is perfectly reasonable to feel this way.
Paul reacts to his rejection by trying desperately for his father’s love even as an adult, collecting the paintings of the woman he believes to be Stephen’s natural mother, a woman whom Paul believes was redeemed from poverty by Edward’s “largesse,” or birth-payment, to become a fine artist whose works are appreciating in value. She is now deceased. Paul is hoping at last to find a hook that would pull love from Stephen, but Stephen drops his recently developed interest in his natural mother immediately. “Poor Paul. Was the presence of blood so important to him? What strange evidence of love was this?” (161) Stephen cannot summon any interest in making an emotional connection. “I was bored. Even if the woman were my mother, well, it was not so important as all this. . . . My recent concern with her was merely the instinctive neatness of an organized man.” The mere possibility of feeling terrifies Stephen back into his calculations. Stephen is no sensualist, and his one experience of true desire, as an adolescent, was his last: possession of the object of desire cancels desirability. Stephen envies his own father’s vitality, and tries constantly to fill the void in himself with his routines, plans, and methods. But he misunderstands control, exerting his limited power over the wrong things. He dies of diseases that he could have controlled but did not.
Stephen has reacted to his own lack of parenting by marrying carefully and by deliberately having two children. He too wished to keep everything under his own control, but he did this through planning everything out. He believes he is rejecting his father by being moral and proper, just as Edward rejected his father’s propriety by becoming a libertine. Stephen became a Unitarian minister, out of a generalized moral imperative. Stephen believes he has everything in his life mapped out, including his two children, both sons, and his retirement. Thus he believes he has escaped from his father.
Neither man, Edward or Stephen, is capable of any kind of fulfillment; for both, fulfillment is infinitely deferred. The series of women does not fulfill Edward any more than the proper marriage is fulfilling to Stephen, because they most literally long for the infinite. They control all, though differently, but anything they control is not worth having. The novel hovers at the edge of the unreal, and is almost supernatural. The uncontrollable, the imponderable lurks at the edges of scenes. Edward and Stephen, for instance, observe their own deaths. The narrative is less important than either the character or the presentation of the human dilemma that the novel makes. These characters are trapped by desire, but they cannot love.
The one woman through whose eyes we look is perhaps less selfish but, in other ways, she is similar to the men. Stephen’s wife Lucy had a first marriage dominated by sexual passion but, with Stephen, she settles for domestic tranquility. She allows herself to become the facilitator for Stephen’s life and, when she says at one point that the “wife” thinks of nothing at all, we believe her. When Stephen’s death sets her free, she is without goal. She might marry again, but she likes being independent. She, too, at the end, seems detached, without mooring, although she is not cold and calculating like her father-in-law or rigid and controlling like her “proper” husband. Ultimately, she is willing to provide the ancient Edward with his desired quietus by handing him the pills he can no longer reach. In the surreal ending he remembers his death as he remembers his birth. He is in the vestibule of death, waiting for the glory he feels must be coming — a burst of light, as if in a conversion narrative, that is based on the memory of a ‘trip’ he once took on an unknown drug. Some readers have complained that Lucy is too much like the others, but, in fact, she has become like the others. Her first marriage took too much out of her; and her first husband committed suicide. She remembers the rampant sexuality of that marriage, and thinks of her aching loins as evidence of love. But, clearly, she is relieved no longer to be under the demands of sexual loving. At the last, we have the sense that, if she does marry again, it will be a sensible choice. She will not be swept away by passion. “God save me from love. And the proof of love” (204), she says.
The characters in Evidence are precise and accurate in their analyses of their own lives, but are incapable of using this knowledge to make the changes that would save them. Edward has found no evidence of love in how he was treated by his father. Rather than setting himself to learn love as one may a foreign language, he decided that no one will ever be able to control him through love or any other means — deliberately distancing himself from everyone who might do him the disservice of affection. His son, equally unloved but well provided for, decides that he will reject his father and whatever he stands for and will thereby control his own life. He cannot love the son who loves him, only the other one, Thomas, who appears selfish and licentious — like Stephen’s father. Stephen’s wife has decided that passion is wearing and destructive, and she prefers freedom from feelings and obligations.
The curiously flat affect of the characters makes the reader feel their total alienation and ask, constantly, what is missing from these characters’ lives that they can be so cold, so calculating, so careful to avoid any kind of entanglement. What they are most careful to avoid is the demands on them made by others, or, one could say, the Other. Seizing control in areas where they can, they yet want desperately for control to be taken from them. They want to be yanked from themselves and their preoccupations and to be engulfed by another reality. They approach this conflicted goal in indirect, convoluted ways. The atheistic minister, for instance, delivers Sunday sermons week after week; and the magnate seeks release through sex with those whom he does not love but, approaching death, he recalls the wonder of getting high on some unknown drug in Mexico. The minister, again, wonders who his mother is, but rebuffs his son who hopes to gain affection by telling him. The minister’s wife, who has had marriage with and without sexual passion, is finally thinking whether to marry again or not, without much desire either way. They are ignorant of the most important, basic human truths, while they chase illusions. They bring to mind some of Flannery O’Connor’s characters, for instance, Joy/Hulga in “Good Country People,” who knows all about nihilism and nothing about human deception.
These characters tend to displace sexuality and to use it for some other purpose, which leaches it of its passion and its power. At least when sexuality and spirituality are linked, there is the likelihood of passing from one to the other. When they are divorced, yearning is cast adrift with no means of fulfillment, and is replaced by some such obsession as that for control or for collecting, itself another form of the desire for control. Again and again, the characters are offered a chance for love, but they do not recognize it, and they avoid or evade it. How easy it would have been for Stephen to accept Paul’s offering of his mother’s identity and of her work, to allow himself to be a part of the puzzle that is a human family, and to be an enlarged, more complete person. Paul, too, suffers from not having been loved. Bonding with his father would have been a healing force for him as well. How Paul will handle his own wound is beyond the scope of the novel. The metaphors in Evidence are the inverse of those symbols of the mystics concerning human and divine love. Because the characters cannot love each other, they cannot experience God. Because they put up impenetrable walls, they cannot be embraced.
All the male characters feel the lack of love, the missing father. They make the great mistake, trying to remake the world to suit their needs. The conclusion that one learns love by loving never occurs to them. When Stephen dies, his experience of death is that his flashlight does not penetrate the darkness or reveal his face in the glass. His father dies expecting illumination.
So we can look at the two works together again. The novel of Grau places the verse of Stevens in a new light. To what extent is the uncle wrong about basic truths, living for unworthy goals, as Grau’s characters often are? The title “Monocle de Mon Oncle” may well be a deliberate attempt to avoid identifying the speaker as Stevens but, of course, his own disappointment at the collapse of his dream-world with Elsie figures in his portrait. His disappointment is universalized: it is human to create fantasy worlds and to be crushed by the inability to make them real. But what we long for, the poem suggests, is not our small human connections, it is connection.
Imagination is beyond our imagination. “Monocle” experiments with these ideas, which Stevens arrives at more fully and directly in his late work. The speaker in “Monocle” is exploring, uncertain. His ideas probably coincide with those of Stevens himself at the time. Stevens’s explication of the poem to Simons suggests this identity. Grau’s characters, however, appear likely to be wrongheaded in the sight of their creator, though she does not judge them directly. The reader is not likely to look with favor on the buying and selling of all life’s commodities by the father, or on the brutal honestly and frantic self-serving arrangements of the son. The only sympathetic male character is the grandson Paul, who allows his neediness to show, and who attempts, however ill-advisedly, to give and to receive love.
As for the epigraph, the distinct shade is evidence. The “fluttering things,” adventures of the heart, have a visible shade, that is, they have definition. They are not infinite. To pursue the origin and course of love is to define the shapes it produces. The negativity that I find in the passage from Stevens may be reflected in the sad diminution of the shapes we are left with, as compared with infinite hopes. The distinct shade is also death, completion, a finished life, where no further changes can be made to the pattern of living. Intelligence does not bring understanding. I noted that some commentators found “evidence of love” in Lucy’s gift of death to her father-in-law, but it does not seem to me to be so. The gift is made too coolly, almost like another household chore done for the good of the family. The nurse weeps, but Lucy does not. She has performed this task capably and competently, as she has done everything else. Lucy has always taken care of everyone’s needs, and now she is taking care of her father-in-law’s. She is not doing it because his death will supply her with a trust fund that will free her from those needs. She seems to be doing it because she believes it needs to be done.
The distances in these two works make us look at the characters as being something beyond real — somewhere between actuality and allegory. They represent ways of living that do not succeed.
The characters show us highly intelligent and well-read characters who can think very precisely and rationally about love but who cannot feel it. Reading Stevens in the light of Grau throws the element of disappointment into relief. His is the complaint of a man who finds that human relationships, human love, even the human body fail him, and he looks without real hope to other kinds of satisfactions. It is only later that Stevens will entertain the possibility of love in the form of religion: eros replaced by caritas. He is not yet ready to read the finite in terms of the infinite, and yet he has the “Oncle” think about this, to find himself frustrated at the limits of his imagination. When we read Grau, and then reread the poem, “Mon Oncle’s” ponderings become more sympathetic. He too is floundering in a world where sexuality, creativity, and possibly divinity are all interconnected. The first of these is failing him, he is not sure about the second, and the third is beyond him.
When we read Grau after reading Stevens, the novel becomes more spiritual; it is recast in the light of Stevens’s tentative metaphysical speculation. What are Grau’s sexually repressed or promiscuous characters looking for, but ultimate hope, and what do they desire, finally, except the infinite? Reading Grau in the light of Stevens helps the reader empathize with her characters, who are flawed and obsessed people with, however, the shared basic human desire for transcendence. This they fail to recognize, as they deny all values except the definition of self — a definition that exists solely in the separation of son from the father and, if one is looking at Evidence with reflections of Stevens, in denial of the Father. The powerful grandfather and “Mon Oncle” are both cynics and, as a result, they can see only shadows. And yet they are both teased by the light. For “Mon Oncle,” the light is unimaginable and, for Edward, it is a will-o’-the-wisp of his own delusion.
1 Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), 13. Other quotations from this source are identified in the text.
2 Wallace Stevens, Letters of Wallace Stevens, Holly Stevens, editor (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 464.
3 Janet McCann, Wallace Stevens Revisited: The Celestial Possible (New York: Twayne/Simon and Schuster, 1995), 15.
4 Joseph Carroll, Wallace Stevens’ Supreme Fiction: A New Romanticism (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 36.
5 See Paul Schleuter, Shirley Ann Grau (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1981), 141 and his notes for critics’ comments on Grau’s objectivism.
6 Linda Wagner Martin, “Shirley Ann Grau’s Wise Fictions,” in Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, Tonette Bond Inge, editor (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1990), 143-60.
7 Shirley Ann Grau, Evidence of Love (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1977), 20. Other quotations from this source are identified internally.
Carroll, Joseph. Wallace Stevens’ Supreme Fiction, A New Romanticism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.
Grau, Shirley Ann. Evidence of Love. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1977.
McCann, Janet. Wallace Stevens Revisited: The Celestial Possible . New York: Twayne/Simon and Schuster, 1995.
Schleuter, Paul. Shirley Ann Grau. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1981.
Stevens, Wallace. The Collected Poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972.
Stevens, Holly, editor. Letters of Wallace Stevens. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
Wagner Martin, Linda. “Shirley Ann Grau’s Wise Fictions,” in Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, Tonette Bond Inge, editor. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1990, 143-60.