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A Quest for Order: Wallace Stevens and Emile Durkheim

Essay by review  •  February 12, 2011  •  Research Paper  •  1,469 Words (6 Pages)  •  1,107 Views

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To more fully understand Stevens' poem "The Idea of Order at Key West," one can look at the ideas of the poem in context of social-philosophical thought. Emile Durkheim's theories on religion closely parallel those of Stevens. Both men believe that there is no supreme greater being, or God, that gives things order and meaning. But both men also believe that humans need to read order and meaning into the world to understand it, even if the meaning humans imply is false because there is no God. Since this aspect of both men's ideas is so similar, Durkheim's outline of ideas on religion can form a model by which Stevens' poem can be analyzed. Furthermore, although there is no way to prove that Steven's poem is based on Durkheim's ideas, there are enough similarities that the two sets of ideas can be compared.

Both Stevens and Durkheim believe that humans read order into the world to aid in understanding. In general, Durkheim believed that humans create religion as a way to give events meaning and explain why things happen. In "Origin of the Idea of the Totemic Principle," Durkheim elaborates on these ideas.

Men know well that they are acted upon, but they do not know by whom. So they must invent by themselves the idea of these powers with which they feel themselves in connection, and from that, we are able to catch a glimpse of the way by which they are led to represent them under forms that are really foreign to their nature and to transfigure them by thought. (172)

The idea that society, which is created by people, can in turn act upon people is a difficult concept for humans to grasp. Instead, it is easier for humans to realize that actions happen by forces external to themselves and attribute these forces to a supreme being or a god.

Stevens also establishes that humans naturally read order into the world and that it is inevitable because it is necessary for understanding. Like Durkheim stated, the human mind better grasps things that are reflected through symbols. Lines 18-20 of "The Idea of Order at Key West" state, "Whose spirit is this? we said/ It was the spirit we sought and knew/ That we should ask this often as she sang." These lines express Stevens' idea that humans long for explanations to why things happen. In this particular poem, the explanation of the essence of the sea is discussed. The people asking, "Whose spirit is this?" realize that there seems to be a "sort of external power" (181), as Durkheim says, but cannot explain it. The people see the sea is "more than that, more than even her voice" (36-37).

Because the sea cannot just be "more," it has to be put in concrete terms, and Stevens says that humans inevitably personify nature to put it in forms that they can understand. Stevens' personification is a different method than what Durkheim suggests, which is that humans create religious projections of society and nature in order to understand them. While these methods differ, both men acknowledge that humans have to find meaning on a personal level of individual conscience.

Stevens supports that, in trying to make the essence of nature understandable, the people in the poem inevitably personify the sea. It is almost impossible for humans to see things in inhuman terms. For example, the sea has a "body" (3) and a "cry" (6), both human attributes loaded to the sea. Durkheim explains this by stating, "This force (understanding) must also penetrate us and organize itself within us," (172). Due to the sea having to be understood by the human mind, it must be put in human terms. The people in the poem who are watching the singer explain that "when she sang, the sea,/ Whatever self it had, became the self/ That was her song," (45-47). The sea is personified as being a "self," and as so, has a connection to the woman and her song. The sea is seen not just as some random, natural occurrence; it is there for a purpose and is a "self." The sea is given meaning both by being a "self" that exists in its own right as a creation of God and also as being personified by the singer's song.

Unlike Stevens' belief that humans personify to create understanding, Durkheim believed that religion served as a human projection of society to aid in understanding. In "Elementary Forms of Religious Life" he wrote, "Religion, far from ignoring society and making abstraction of it, is in its image," (193). Durkheim realized that since humans have to understand things "through individual conscience" (172), things have to be given meaning in relation to what humans can comprehend. Therefore, because society is too complex and difficult for people to understand, individuals must project these things into a religion to gather the meaning of them. Through religious projections certain aspects of reality are seen as being symbolic, not occurring chaotically or scientifically but being planned and enacted by God. For example, people realized that, when in groups, individuals were likely to get carried away by some festive "spirit" and behave in ways that they would not if alone. At religious revivals, an individual might get up and claim to be possessed by the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues. Durkheim explained these events not by attributing them to a god, but by attributing them to society's power. He explains, "This exceptional increase of force is

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