Gotama was born in northern India over 2,500 years ago. His mother died seven
days after his birth, and his father was left responsible. For many years,
Gotama was sheltered in the family palace. His father felt compelled to shield
his son from evils and sufferings. Regardless, over time Gotama caught glimpses
of suffering in the outside world; Buddhists call these occurrences “the four
visions.” With these four visions, Gotama learned that life unwinds through the
interplay of happiness and suffering. It was with the fourth vision that Gotama
vowed to discover a way to rise above the duality of happiness and suffering.
It was then, at the age of twenty-nine, that Gotama embarked on his quest
toward nirvana, or Supreme Enlightenment.
Six years and many trials later, Gotama seated himself under a tree. He vowed
that he would remain in that position until he attained full enlightenment.
Under the full moon of May, Gotama finally attained Supreme Enlightenment. He
achieved his Supreme Enlightenment by realizing the Four Noble Truths during
his meditative period underneath a Bodhi (the Buddhist name for the tree under
which Siddhattha Gotama attained Supreme Enlightenment).
These Four Noble Truths are now the main tenets of the Buddhism. It is through
these tenets that any being is able to enter into the same enlightened state
that Siddhattha Gotama realized over 2,500 years prior. These truths and
general Buddhist thought have relatively recently matriculated into western culture.
Yet one sees with the Modernist writers, especially poets, an understanding and
appreciation for the Buddhist philosophy. Many writers, such as Wallace
Stevens, create pieces that overlap or coincide with Buddhist philosophy. In “Esthétique
du Mal”, Stevens investigates the concept of pain, evil and suffering and their
roles in the shaping of the human condition. Through his musings in the poem,
Stevens indirectly explains The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. In this sense, “Esthétique
du Mal” is an excellent lens through which we can appreciate The Four Noble
Truths and the path toward nirvana.
Stevens opens “Esthétique
du Mal” with an ephebe musing over notions of the sublime. He purposefully
places this young man in the vicinity of Mount Vesuvius, a point of reality
which draws the ephebe back from the boundless ether of the sublime. Yet the
young man does not seem to truly appreciate the potential for pain or suffering
that Vesuvius can instill in conscious beings. We see this lack of appreciation
when Stevens writes:
He could describe
The terror of the sound because the sound
Was ancient. He tried to remember the phrases: pain
Audible at noon, paint torturing itself,
Pain killing pain on the very point of pain.
Stevens exposes this young man’s lack of understanding of what pain truly is.
He references pain through a frame of phrases he can “remember.” These are not
direct experiences. In this sense, the young man has a very tenuous grasp on
the meaning of pain.
This is much like the young Siddhattha Gotama. Both fail to truly understand
pain because it is not something they have directly experienced. Gotama is
unable to comprehend pain because his father sequestered him in the family
palace while it seems the ephebe only understands life through literary
reference. Each sees life through an artificial filter. Yet, Stevens (similar
to Siddhattha Gotama after he realizes Supreme Enlightenment) does not
completely fault this young man’s inability to understand pain.
Instead, Stevens uses the second stanza of the first canto to explain the
complex relationship man has with pain. He writes:
It was almost time for lunch. Pain is human.
There were roses in the cool café. His book
Made sure of the most correct catastrophe.
Except for us, Vesuvius might consume
In solid fire the utmost earth and know
No pain (ignoring the cocks that crow us up
To die). This is a part of the sublime
From which we shrink. And yet, except for us,
The total past felt nothing when destroyed.
In this section, Stevens asserts that pain is a human characteristic. He
eloquently but simply explains that without human existence, there would be no
record or conception of pain because the earth or the cosmos is unable to rationalize
or conceive any notion of feeling. As he explains, “pain is human”; this
explanation is simply stated and slotted between two very short sentences that
portray very mundane nuances of life. By doing this, Stevens seems to suggest
that although pain is a very complex notion that only humans are capable of
conceiving, it is a rather basic component of human life.
The Buddha echoes this profound simplicity when he speaks of the First Noble
Truth, dukkha. Buddha describes dukkha as encompassing but not limiting itself
to the following:
Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is
suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are
It is apparent that to Buddha, suffering is a quality experienced by every
sentient being. He associates birth with suffering, which also suggests that it
is universal phenomenon. Yet both Buddha and Stevens realize the difficulty in
truly appreciating or understanding this notion. If we are to consider the two
philosophies in question (Esthétique du Mal and The Four Noble Truths) it seems
worth emphasizing that both begin with an attempt to establish the power of
pain and suffering in the realm of sentient existence. Buddhism explains the
most important point of being is to understand the First Noble Truth because
from an understanding of it comes an ability to reach Supreme Enlightenment.
Stevens suggests the same thing in “Esthétique du Mal”. This poem is his
attempt to make mankind conscious of the importance of the Mal side of life,
the painful side of existence. The Buddha and Stevens each realize the
necessity of acknowledging the painful, suffering or Mal side of life in order
to truly enter into a realm of Supreme Enlightenment or Supreme Consciousness.
Yet, each is quick to realize that this is only the first step toward reaching
these supreme states of being.
The Buddha and Stevens each recognize the next step
toward proper consciousness is to realize the root of suffering. Each of them
suggests that suffering is the result of an improper attachment to certain
“realities” of life. Stevens explores this when he writes:
The genius of misfortune
Is not a sentimentalist. He is
That evil, that evil in the self, from which
In desperate hallow, rugged gesture, fault
Falls out on everything: the genius of
The mind, which is our being, wrong and wrong,
The genius of the body, which is our world,
Spent in the false engagements of the mind.
Stevens posits that man improperly attaches himself to the world that surrounds.
He is arguing against the notion of centrality. Man has a propensity to center
his self, or ego, to the energies of the world that surrounds him. When man
attaches to an ego, the ego acts as a filter that limits him from truly
resonating with all energies that surround him; the ego attaches the individual
to one feeling or another. It is man’s propensity to assign emotion and reason
that causes the arousal of the mal side of life.
Stevens exposes man’s tendency to substitute reason for experience. Buddha once
again echoes Stevens. Buddhism categorizes what Stevens is getting at in canto
four as samudaya. Buddhist text describes samudaya as:
It is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and
lust, seeking delight here and there, that is, craving for sensual pleasures,
craving for existence, craving for extermination.
Man tends to connect life through his “becoming” at birth and his “destruction”
with death. Instead of living in the moment, man experiences through references
of past and future. It is this deference to moments outside of the “now” that
causes suffering. We suffer as a result of comparison. The more one is able to
live within and of the moment, the less inclined he is to suffer. As Stevens
suggests we must resist the “false engagements of the mind.” We must resist the
propensity to attach ourselves to moments of past and future in order to truly
It is important to realize that both men are proffering advice as to how to
“temper” one’s ego in order to fully appreciate everything that surrounds him
at a given moment. Some may argue that this approach is impractical. The simple
response is that neither solution proffered by the Buddha or Stevens is
“practical.” Each discussion (Esthétique du Mal and The Four Noble Truths)
provides an individual an avenue in which to live that allows him to realize
the maximum amount of beauty in a given moment. Yet, this beauty can initially
be somewhat disturbing or upsetting. Living in the moment devoid of
attachment requires an individual to remove himself from abstraction. In these
moments abstractions cease to exist because there is no point of reference to
associate it with; it is a moment attached to nothing but itself.
speaks of the initial panic associated with this realization in canto nine. He
The moon is no longer these nor anything
And nothing is left but comic ugliness
Or a lustred nothingness. Effendi, he
That has lost the folly of the moon becomes
The prince of the proverbs of pure poverty.
To lose sensibility, to see what one sees,
As if sight had not its own miraculous thrift,
To hear only what one hears, one meaning alone,
As if the paradise of meaning ceased
To be paradise, it is this to be destitute.
The moon ceases to be “the moon.” The word “moon” is an abstracted thought
which is meant to assign some sort of meaning to that object in the sky. In
this section of the canto, the word “moon” ceases to hold relevance and the
moon becomes no more important than anything else in the scene surrounding the
young man. The beauty comes from Stevens’ suggestion that to be in this moment
a man becomes “prince of proverbs of pure poverty.” Poverty normally carries a
negative connotation but in this case it is what one should “strive” for. To be
impoverished in this sense means to be devoid of attachment to anything; there
is ownership of nothing. This is beauty. This is the Third Noble Truth. This is
The Buddhists call the Third Noble Truth nirodha. In the sutras, the Buddhists
describe nirodha as:
The remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up
and relinquishing of it [attachment], freedom from it, nonreliance on
It is through nirodha that one flows into a nirvanic state of being. As Stevens
posits one must devoid himself of an attachment to their senses. That is, one
must let his control over the senses fall away; appreciate the moment in which
the eyes see, the ears hears, the nose smells and skin feels without thought.
Let one’s self become one with the symphony of energies that surround. Using
one’s senses to think creates that “paradise of meaning,” it which “meaning”
becomes a crutch to existence.
In the state of nirvana that Stevens and the Buddha describe there is no
meaning; it simply just is. We see Stevens reinforce the necessity to flow into
this state of being in the latter part of canto nine:
Here in the west indifferent crickets chant
Through our indifferent crises. Yet we require
Another chant, an incantation, as in
Another and later genesis, music
That buffets the shapes of its possible halcyon
Against the haggardie…A loud, large water
Bubbles up in the night and drowns the crickets’ sound.
It is a declaration, a primitive ecstasy,
Truth’s favors sonorously exhibited.
The crickets seem to represent the ceaseless chatter that results from those
who reason. They live to speak and write. There are no points in time in which
those people exist purely for that moment. Stevens then calls for a new “chant”
to drown out the old chatter of reason. This sound interestingly enough comes
from an aqueous bubble. Water is amorphous. It takes the shape of whatever it
flows into and becomes one with it. It is the embodiment of non-attachment. All
water flows into the ocean that is nirvana.
It is with canto twelve that we see Stevens successfully sum
up the progression of understanding The Four Noble Truths. In the first two
stanzas of the canto we see Stevens revisit the moment when one realizes the
first three of The Four Noble Truths:
He disposes the world in categories, thus:
The peopled and the unpeopled. In both, he is
Alone. But in the peopled world, there is,
Besides the people, his knowledge of them. In
The unpeopled, there is his knowledge of himself.
Which is more desperate in the moments when
The will demands that what he thinks be true?
Is it himself in them that he knows or they
In him? If it is himself in them, they have
No secret from him. If it is they in him,
He has no secret from them. This knowledge
Of them and of himself destroys both worlds,
Except when he escapes from it. To be
Alone is not to know them or himself.
We come to understand the futility of reason and abstraction. When one divides
and organizes the world, he merely further separates himself from that world.
As Stevens adeptly points out, in both the “peopled” and “unpeopled” worlds
there is “knowledge” of something. This knowledge is the separating component
between man and the present moment; thought creates distance between the
thinker and the world he is observing. Stevens finally asks the reader which
world better suits a man. The answer, which comes in the following stanza, is
that neither world is better suited for man. Instead, “will” and “knowledge”
must fall away in order for man to truly appreciate the beauty of life at any
given moment. If he attaches himself to either “will” or “knowledge” he mires
himself in a realm of an ego which is the realm of unreality and of disillusionment.
He must neither “know them or himself;” the ego must absolve itself. When the
ego absolves itself, he enters in the realm of Supreme Enlightenment,
In the next stanza of canto nine, Stevens alludes to the
last of the Four Noble Truths. In this stanza, the man in observance no longer
dwells in the world of attachment in which “knowledge” is a necessity:
This creates a third world without knowledge,
In which no one peers, in which the will makes no
Demands. It accepts whatever is as true,
Including pain, which, otherwise, is false.
In the third world, then, there is no pain. Yes, but
What lover has one in such rocks, what woman,
However known, at the centre of the heart?
It is apparent that Stevens realizes as does Buddhism that one is surrounded by
a non-enlightened world. As a result of this, an individual must be ready to
deal with any situation that presents itself. The Buddhists call this the
Middle Path. It is navigation through life that avoids both indulgence in
sensual pleasure because it (the sensual pleasures) is low, worldly and lead to
harm while at the same time avoids self-torture in the form of severe
asceticism which leads to harm. In order to walk the middle ground, one must
acknowledge the last of the Four Noble Truths. Buddhists describe the last
truth, mārga, in the sutras as:
It is the Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right
speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right
It is through these eight factors of life that one is able to maintain the
Middle Path and therefore remain in the realm of nirvana. The individual no
longer attaches himself to an ego entity. He is able to exist within each
moment; the “will” no longer forces the individual to create points of
reference to contextualize the moment. It is a moment purely unto itself. In
this “third world,” this middle world, all things hold equal; each “stimulus”
equally affects the individual.
As Stevens writes in the last canto:
The greatest poverty is not to live
In a physical world, to feel that one’s desire
Is too difficult to tell from despair. Perhaps,
After death, the non-physical people, in paradise,
Itself non-physical, may, by chance, observe
The green corn gleaming and experience
The minor of what we feel.
Stevens summarizes his views about consciousness very simply: the best way to
navigate life is to refrain from distinguishing between its “highs” and “lows”.
This is the Middle Path. Stevens contrasts the Middle Path with a life lived in
hopes of achieving a positive “existence” after death. To live an expectant
life is absurd to Stevens; tomorrow’s paradise is merely an abstraction. By
living for tomorrow, one does not appreciate something as simple as “green corn
gleaming.” Those who long for a paradise constantly forsake the beauty of the
given moment. They ignore the present in hope that future moments, especially
those after death, will bring the beauty. Stevens suggests that “by chance”
they will experience the beauty of moment attached to nothing but itself.
Enjoying the “green corn gleaming” gives these individuals a “minor” taste of
the vast and indefinable beauty one can experience by navigating the Middle
In the Japanese language there is a word, ensō, which
translates to circle in English. The term, although rather basic, embodies the
aim of Zen Buddhism, a sect practiced in Japan, and its practice. The word
symbolizes enlightenment, the universe and the void. One may see this
symbolization as paradoxical as it represents both everything and nothing. Yet
when investigated further, ensō’s symbolism is less paradoxical. In essence,
through reduction of the world one may gain an expansion of understanding and
connection with that world. Throughout his career, Wallace Stevens takes
himself on a journey within the world of ensō. The progression of his career
sees Stevens teetering on the threshold between an egotistical existence and
what Zen Buddhist’s would call satori or nirvana. It is with Esthétique Du Mal
that we see Stevens make the case that one should strive to ascend into the realm
of satori or nirvana. It is through the simple beauty of ensō, the simple
beauty of the current moment, which allows one to achieve incomparable
enlightenment. It is through appreciation of something as simple as “green corn
gleaming” that allows one to tap into the symphony of energies flowing
throughout the world. Following The Four Noble Truths allows one to appreciate
the boundless beauty of a simple moment. One must simply avoid attachment to
the polarities of the world and navigate the Middle Path. From the middle, one
is able to see the complete beauty of the surrounding world.