Originally published on Metapsychosis.com.
Wallace Stevens’ “A Postcard from the Volcano” is a beautiful poem about matter and memory. It brings the philosophy of Henri Bergson to mind. It is a poem about the memory of objects, or more precisely about how a memory is not information contained in the mind; rather, it must be imagined as expansive, material, atmospheric. Memory is something that contains us, not something we contain. It is not information. The past is the setting of the present and future.
The narrator in the poem reflects on the mansion he lives in and in which he will die:
We knew for long the mansion's look And what we said of it became A part of what it is ...In the future, the mansion as an entity will include all that the narrator has said and thought about it. Which is to say: the experiences through which an object manifests are constitutive of the object itself as an autonomous entity. Objects are constituted in experience (human experience is just one variety). But they do not exist “within” our experience, “within” us as subjects; rather, each experience of an object expands it, allows it to express its being objectively.
All of the elements that make up the mansion exist on their own, experienced or not. Stevens is not an idealist. But the elements only constellate as a mansion — a homely mansion for the narrator, a haunted one for the children of the future — through encounters with human beings which are themselves similarly constituted.
In other words, all things substantiate themselves in encounters, in meetings, as Martin Buber wrote. It is through human experience that a mansion learns to be a mansion, that it learns to be homely or haunted as the case may be.
A new house feels cold and dead because, as an object, it hasn’t yet learned to be a house. It is a house in form only, that is to say, it is a design, an intellectual ideal, the concept of a house given material consistency. When we say that a house feels lived-in, we are saying something about the house itself, not just about our impression of the house. The house has come to life as a house, it knows itself as a house. It has a genius loci, a spirit of place that is indistinguishable from it.
Later, having been abandoned and then occupied anew, the mansion in the poem will hold as part of its being all of the memories formed in conjunction with it. My guess is that nine times out of ten, this is what we mean when we speak of ghosts. “Children,” Stevens writes, “[will] speak our speech and never know,”
Will say of the mansion that it seems As if he that lived there left behind A spirit storming in blank walls ...The mansion confronts us with all of its past, which is real and in a sense, ever-present. Stanley Kubrick's film The Shining reveals this with a force equal to Stevens' poem.
“Orders from the House, Mr. Torrence.”
There is no interiority whatsoever. Belief in interiority, in private unextended subjectivity, is a modern conceit. It is a human attempt to reclaim the centre that humanity has lost. In fact every private feeling, every “mental impression,” is an objective material event. Matter is spiritual. Matter is a thinking substance through and through. Everything is alive. “All things shining.”
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