The Realization of the Four Noble Truths 
through Wallace Stevens’ Esthétique Du Mal

by: Blake Unis



He who sees suffering, sees also the arising of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path leading to the cessation of suffering.
Saṃyutta Nikāya volume 437

Siddhattha 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 suffering.  

 
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 appreciate living.  


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. 


Stevens speaks of the initial panic associated with this realization in canto nine. He writes: 


Panic, because 
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 nirvana.  


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.  

 
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 the
m 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, nirvana.   


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 concentration.  

 
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 Path. 


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.