Law Day 2001:
The Devil and Wallace Stevens

by Steven H. Cullinane on May 1, 2001

Text I:

From "The Archangel of Evening," Chapter 5 of Wallace Stevens: The Intensest Rendezvous, by Barbara M. Fisher, The University Press of Virginia, 1990, pages 71-72:

"Homunculus et La Belle Etoile" shows Stevens sharply dividing the fleshly passion from the intellective. In "Homunculus" Stevens pays ironic tribute to Aphrodite Pandemos, the fleshly passion, and then his respects to Aphrodite Ouranos, the philosopher's passion -- and to the divine Plato who differentiates them.

Text II:

From "A Device Worthy of a Gothic Novel," Chapter XVI of The Club Dumas,
by Arturo Perez-Reverte (1993), Vintage International, April 1998....
the basis of the 1999 Roman Polanski film The Ninth Gate:

"Aren't you going to give me a document to sign?"
"A document?"
"Yes. It used to be called a pact. Now it would be a contract with lots of small print, wouldn't it? 'In the event of litigation, the parties are to submit to the jurisdiction of the courts of...' That's a funny thing. I wonder which court covers this."

Text I Revisited:

From "The Archangel of Evening," by Barbara Fisher (op. cit., pages 72-73):

...a meditation follows in which the "vulgar" Aphrodite gives place to her loftier twin....
"La Belle Etoile" concludes rather more seriously than its opening would lead one to expect. The contrast between the sufferings of love and philosophic calm is underscored, while the notion of heavenly love diminishes to an effective tranquilizer:

It is a good light, then, for those
That know the ultimate Plato,
Tranquilizing with this jewel
The torments of confusion.

The luminary that appears in the high west is, of course, the planet Venus, the subject of hymns and odes from Sumerian times to the English romantics. Stevens recognizes this relation of the planet to antiquity when, in a late poem, he refers to it, ceremonially, as "The most ancient light in the most ancient sky (Collected Poems, 481). When Stevens summons up the evening star, he cannot help recalling "nuances" of a history that stretches back in poetry and myth to the most ancient of the known religions and to equally ancient astronomical tables. The evening star's erotic significance has remained constant, however. Whether the planet shines forth as Inanna, Ishtar, Ashtaroth, Aphrodite, or Venus -- or as Blake's fair-haired angel of the evening -- it has continued to presage the act of love.

But the star shines in Stevens's poetry, as elsewhere, with a double nature of a far darker sort than that imparted by the classical division of earthly and heavenly love. The evening star, Hesper, is also the morning star, or Phosphor the light-bringer. In Scripture, the "light-bringer" is the Archangel Lucifer, who becomes the Prince of Darkness. Stevens, familiar with Scripture from childhood, will have known the passage from Isaiah (14:12-15): "How art thou fallen from Heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!... for thou has said in thy heart... I will exalt my throne above the stars of God... Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit." Thus the star that rises in the evening as the amorous beacon of love becomes the fallen archangel at night's end, headed for the blackest pit of hell.

The appearance of the evening star brings with it long-standing notions of safety within and danger without. In a letter to Harriet Monroe, written December 23, 1926, Stevens refers to the Sapphic fragment that invokes the genius of evening: "Evening star that bringest back all that lightsome Dawn hath scattered afar, thou bringest the sheep, thou bringest the goat, thou bringest the child home to the mother." Christmas, writes Stevens, "is like Sappho's evening: it brings us all home to the fold" (Letters of Wallace Stevens, 248).

Discussion Question:

For purposes of discussion, Text II above may be regarded as a contract, while Text I, in keeping with Stevens's area of legal expertise, may be regarded as a surety bond. How might any conflict between these two documents be resolved?

Discussion Question:

Fisher cites passages from both Jew and Greek. Which makes more sense?

Discussion Question:

Discuss the historic conflict between Jewish law and Greek freedom as set forth in the Bible and in the Greek poets. Which makes more sense? What would Jesus do?

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