On thirteen or more Blackbirds and Spinoza's God-or-Nature

A Blackbird bathes in the church garden

Review of The Poetry of Dasein: Martin Heidegger's Existential Phenomenology as an Interpretive Model for Wallace Stevens by Mark Price

In his book “The Later Poetry of Wallace Stevens”, Thomas Hines says “the development of the middle and later poetry of Stevens can be profitably explained through comparisons with the phenomenological methods and concepts of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger.” Wallace Stevens’ poetry is notorious for its complexity and philosophical overtones. Academic works abound explaining his beautiful but often puzzling poetry. If Hines is correct, then one might be tempted to admit defeat and move on to another poet. After all, how profitable could it be to use two of the more opaque philosophers in the western tradition to understand one of the most opaque poets? And yet, as hard as it might prove, the effort is justified due to rich rewards of beauty, sublimity, and insight into what it means to be a human being.

“Adlestrop” by Edward Thomas

Yes. I remember Adlestrop —
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird — Wallace Stevens

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.


On thirteen or more Blackbirds and Spinoza's God-or-Nature

There is little doubt that Wallace Stevens’ poetry is perceived by many people to be impossible to get to grips with. If you add to this the idea that his poetry may be better understood with the help of Heidegger’s philosophy them, at that point, most folk will definitively give up on Stevens. I mean, what an insane strategy to pursue — to delve into one of the most difficult poets with the help of one of the most difficult philosophers — madness!

Perhaps it is, but I think that neither Stevens nor Heidegger are as difficult as they are often painted by their naysayers. Whilst it is true that both of them explore the world in unexpected ways — but what’s wrong with that? — I hope that today I can help you catch at least a glimpse of the essentially simple life-affirming message that their work contains . . . or so it seems both to me and Mark Price who, as you heard earlier, felt that “the effort is justified due to rich rewards of beauty, sublimity, and insight into what it means to be a human being.”

Such rewards are important at the best of times but all the more so in the existentially difficult and challenging climate we find ourselves in at present — a time when so many of us are struggling to orientate ourselves and to find meaning in our lives as well as ways to proceed with full pathos (belief) and a clean heart.

So let’s start with Heidegger. He thought that

“When we live in the firsthand world around us, everything comes at us loaded with meaning, all over the place and all the time. Everything is within the world [of meaningfulness]: the world holds forth” (“What, after all, was Heidegger about?”, Thomas Sheehan, 2014 p. 8),

He also felt that,

“Even the most trivial thing is meaningful (even though it remains trivial nonetheless). Even what is most lacking in value is meaningful” (ibid p. 8).

In short, Heidegger’s thinking revealed to him a simple truth (beautifully summed up by Thomas Sheehan) that “there is nowhere else for a human being to live except in meaning” (ibid. p. 8) and that even when the world feels as if it has become meaningless we can only feel this in the first place because the very concept and/or feeling of meaningless is itself continually buoyed-up by a limitless and, for the most part, invisible sea of meaning. To reiterate, “there is nowhere else for a human being to live except in meaning.” The basic point I’m making here via Heidegger is that there is always-already something to be apprehended and also something that is always-already helping us to see or to feel something as being meaningful or meaningless.

Another way of talking about this is to say we are always in the middle of everything, in the middle even of ourselves. This primordial something, this continuously creative middle allows the world to be disclosed to us in an almost infinite variety of ways — all of which have meaning for us, from the most important to the most trivial.

Glimpsing this also helps us see that although there almost certainly doesn’t exist another, supernatural, world there are, in fact and possibility, always-already many different worlds of meaning coming into, and going out of being as this single natural world is disclosed to us differently, now this way and now that and, potentially at least, this can open up for us new vistas and possibilities for thought and action that we had never imagined were possible before. Indeed, Heidegger thought that what made us most distinctive as the kind of beings is that (when we live in the firsthand world around us) we are able to draw forth from the it almost countless new worlds of meaning and practice.

To help illustrate this world-disclosing ability we possess let’s consider, as Jesus advised, the birds of the air; specifically today, the wonderful common blackbird.

The blackbird flutters and sings around us always-already loaded with meaning, all over the place and all the time but what kinds of world does it disclose to us? Is it the world of the natural sciences with it’s analytic methods and tools where the blackbird stands before us stuffed in a glass case in a natural history museum or dissected and bottled in formaldehyde in a biology lab? A certain kind of world is undoubtedly disclosed to us through each of these ways of looking at a blackbird — to which we may add, of course, countless other scientific ways of looking concerning its breeding, feeding and migratory habits. But one thing we can be sure of is that these ways of looking do not exhaust the possible worlds of meanings that might be disclosed to us by this humble bird. What world of meaning might be being disclosed by this well-known rhyme? 

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye;
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie!
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing,
Oh wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?

Or what about the worlds of meaning that might be disclosed by the blackbird Edward Thomas heard on Adlestrop station?

And then there is Wallace Steven’s extraordinary poem published in 1917, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Each stanza discloses to the sensitive, patient reader a little, momentary, new world of meaning which can gift the reader with rich rewards of beauty, sublimity and insight into it what it means — or might mean — to be a human being. Here some of my own possible readings of just the first three stanzas:

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

What would it feel like to be alone in such a huge, snowy landscape where everything is still, utterly unmoving — even this blackbird and myself? And then, to be so stilled, that the smallest movement of the bird’s tiny eye should catch my whole attention and draw me away from the awesome expanse around me into the awesome expanse that is seen in any other living creature’s eye!? This thought provokes in me a profound sense of connection with this bird which, in turn, discloses to me a world in which I am not alone and in which I am companioned on my way even through harsh, if beautiful, landscapes. 

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

I can imagine myself in a state of confusion about some intractable matter, seeing before me three possible but seemingly conflicting ways to proceed when, suddenly, I catch sight of three blackbirds in a tree. In the blink of an eye the scene discloses to me a world in which I can see that, whatever I do, these contradictory options all rest in one reality as do I. I relax and allow them all sit there for a while until one, the right one for me in this time and place, takes to the wing and leaves the others behind.

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

Walking out into the windy confusion of the world with autumn leaves blowing around my feet and scudding clouds above my head my eye suddenly alights on a blackbird and I marvel at how it skilfully allows itself to be whirled and unselfconsciously play it’s part in the world’s pantomime. It’s ease and naturalness encourages me to imitate this way of being and suddenly a world is disclosed in which I find life and meaning by acting as a veritable “pantomimos”, literally an “imitator of the all.”

During the musical offering, in the conversation which follows this address and during the coming week I’d like to encourage you patiently to sit with the other stanzas and see what little worlds of meaning are disclosed to you as you consider these thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird.

But why do I tell you all this? What practical purpose does it serve?

Well, let me tell you a little, personal, confessional religious story to bring us to a close. Once-upon–a-time a Oxfordshire blackbird used daily to sing on the pinnacle of the Arlosh Hall in Harris Manchester College just outside my second-story room overlooking the quad. I recall many, many occasions when, lost in thought as I poured over my books, the blackbird would suddenly call me forth from my reveries and out into the early evening or morning. I’d fling open my window better to hear him sing and breathe deeply in the chill, but refreshing air. As Heidegger put it, this always helped me to be led

“. . . back from the apprehension of a thing [this blackbird] . . . to the understanding of the being of the thing [this blackbird]: understanding the thing in terms of the way it is disclosed [to us]” (ibid. p. 5).

In other words, on these occasions — of which there were many — I realized I was no longer apprehending this blackbird as a merely a discrete thing because my encounter with it simultaneously disclosed a world of meaning in which I was able viscerally to sense the primordial something, the continuous creative middle, that gifted this bird its being, that gifted me my being, that allowed its singing and being to disclose meaning for it, its mate and for me, for Edward Thomas and, of course, for Wallace Stevens. I began powerfully to experience and understand the blackbird and myself primarily in terms of the way we were disclosed.

It was in that room in Oxford responding daily to that Blackbird that I finally lost my conventional faith in the Christian God and began, after Spinoza, to call God "Nature" and Nature "God", deus sive natura. It’s not precisely that God became for me all natural things (natura naturata — nature natured), whether blackbirds or myself, but I began to intuit that by God I meant the way nature continually does what nature does (natura naturans — nature naturing), always already allowing things to be and, thereby, continually allowing for the disclosure of new worlds of meaning, now this way baked in a pie, now that way on Adlestrop Station, now this way on the pinnacle of an Oxford College, now that way singing on the roof of this Cambridge church, now in March, now in June.

As I see it, after having considered the (black)birds of the air in this fashion for twenty years, my task as an individual and as your minister, is to proclaim out loud a religious naturalist gospel that we can (must, in fact) trust the reality of this natural process — natura naturans — and that it is always-already gifting us with countless opportunities (way more than thirteen!) to disclose other, more beautiful, fruitful, creative worlds of meaning and practice than the utterly dysfunctional and destructive ones that are currently being offered by so many of our religious and political traditions.

So, my friends, please continue to consider the Blackbirds of the air, I have faith that in so doing you will find the freedom and the understanding and meaning for which you have always been seeking.