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The Poetics of Vision and the Redemption of the Subject  in John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror


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1In the “Final Note” to his 1977 study of Five Temperaments: Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, James Merril, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, David Kalstone wrote that on “reading Ashbery’s work, I often have the feeling that he speaks not only to his moment but to the condition of much postmodernist poetry.” A condition that is to do, in Kalstone’s terms, with the ways in which postmodernist poetry explores the relation between language — the medium of poetry — and the self: Ashbery, Kalstone goes on, “is not simply reminding us that poetry gives us access to the inner life; he is emphasizing the unique power of language to reveal how much of external life, the inner life displaces.” (200)

2Two years later, in his 1979 introduction to Ashbery’s poetry, David Shapiro also posited the preoccupation with the ways in which language shapes our relation to both the inner and external realities as the defining aspect of postmodern writing. Shapiro described Ashbery’s writing as “an homage to consciousness and a love song to language inside language.” (2) In the light of poststructuralist theories of language and postmodernist experiments with form, namely parody and pastiche, Shapiro wrote that Ashbery anticipated Jacques Derrida’s critique of the “metaphysics of presence […] by giving us again and again the playful zone of deferred sense.” (1) At the same time, he stressed that, although engaging with the poststructuralist exploration of how language is constitutive of reality, and with the critique of the authenticity of our experience of reality,  “Ashbery is also interested in creating the most autonomous of worlds, a Schoenbergian systemics with a bare nostalgia for the high orders.” (3)

3Almost contemporary to Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, both Kalstone’s and Shapiro’s readings highlight how Ashbery’s poetry is anchored in a dialogue with the modernist tradition, and at the same time reflects the theoretical questions of his time. His “Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror’ is one such subtle dialogue in which the postmodernist vein looks back on modernity by addressing the relation between subjectivity, representation, and reality. In a text that consistently unravels its own making and crosses over the boundaries of poetry, narrative, historical anecdote, and introspection — taking in fragments of art history, visual and poetic theory — Ashbery reflects on the crisis of forms and on the subject’s position within language. This is implicit in Ashbery’s gloss on the inescapability of language and representation and on the distance separating reality from both visual and verbal forms, in the following allusion to Parmigianino’s 1523 painting and to his own poem:

And just as there are no words for the surface, that is,
No words to say what it really is, that it is not
Superficial but a visible core, then there is
No way out of the problem of pathos vs. experience. […]
But it is certain that
What is beautiful seems so only in relation to a specific
Life, experienced or not, channeled into some form
Steeped in the nostalgia of a collective past. (70, 77)

4In what follows I will look into how Ashbery unfolds the paradox of much postmodern writing. A writing which criticises the faith in the power of forms to capture and transform reality; a writing which thematises the deceptive ability to capture a reality beyond the image, while at the same time regretfully discrediting the very existence of this reality. The relation between vision and language is the catalyst for the self’s awareness of the loss of the authenticity of our experience of reality; an awareness which questions and redeems forms which may restore a lost, meaningful relation between the inner self and the external world.

5The poem opens with an implied, elliptical parallel between the poem and the painting. The dissonance in scale brought about by the distorting effect of the convex mirror in Parmigianino’s “self-portrait,” becomes a metaphor for the arbitrary relation between the word and the image, as well as a metaphor for the arbitrary relation between reality and form; a relation that may also take on an antagonistic guise. Ashbery stresses how the dissonance in scale isolates the face from the rest of the image; in the context of a poem that ambiguously names itself a “self-portrait,” Parmigianino’s “mirror image” becomes a metaphor for a self uneasily fixed in its environment. The poem stages a self uneasily caught up inside the text, a self almost dispossessed of its interiority and ironically taken over by “the movement” which was meant to substantiate and support it:

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old beams,
Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run together
In a movement supporting the face, which swims
Toward and away like the hand
Except that it is in repose. It is what is sequestered. (68)

6Shifting from text to context, from description to narrative, our introduction in medias res is followed by an excerpt from Vasari detailing the anecdote of the making of the painting:

Vasari says, “Francesco one day set himself
To take his own portrait, looking at himself for that purpose
In a convex mirror, such as is used by barbers […]
He accordingly caused a ball of wood to be made
By a turner, and having divided it in half and
Brought it to the size of the mirror, he set himself
With great art to copy all that he saw in the glass,”
Chiefly his reflection, of which the portrait
Is the reflection once removed. (68)

7By addressing a reflected reality which is twice, rather than once removed from its origin — Parmigianino paints his “mirror image” which is also an image of himself looking at himself in the glass — the poem becomes a gloss on the role and the positioning of the subject in representation. The self assumes the positions of both the creator-subject and of the object of representation. Parmigianino’s “self-portrait” reveals that in its power to capture our experiences, the image can confine its maker. The “self-portrait” makes us wonder “how far [the soul] can swim out through the eyes / And still return safely to its nest.” (68) Because the image can capture the fleeting moment — “the time of day or the density of the light,” (68) the soul on the other hand, “has to stay where it is” despite its “longing to be free, outside.” (69) Parmigianino’s enigmatic and ironic expression in the portrait — “there is in that gaze a combination / Of tenderness, amusement and regret” (69)— speaks of the realisation of the dual power of the image.

8Just as Parmigianino’s “self-portrait” divests reality of its enigmatic essence and at the same time assumes a new reality all its own, the poem lays bare the relation between reality and language. The poem too, also takes on a life of its own independently of its dialogue with the inner self; the poem contains the self, just as it is reality that comes to fit the image and not vice versa: the “soul [..] has no secret, is small and fits / its hollow perfectly.” (69)The convex mirror reveals a reality which is not identical, yet not different from its origin. The distorted reflection is still a portrait of the self, just as the poem assumes and transforms the inner voice. Implicitly, the same goes for the dialogue between the poem and the painting; they reflect each other and on each other in an equally distorting way: “the postures of the dream” and of the imagination are suggestive of a motion “with no / false disarray as proof of authenticity.” (69) In fact, if an authenticity was ever there to be recovered, it lies in our awareness of the discrepancy between reality and the image.

9In Ashbery’s “self-portrait,” we are recurringly reminded that both the poem and the painting hesitantly reach out to merge with the life outside. Yet like language, the visual image seems to fail to capture the authentic moment: “The words are only speculation / (From the Latin speculum, mirror) / They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music.” (69)The double-edged urge to contain and to exclude the contingent, the urge to remind us that the reflected image is not identical to reality, Ashbery writes, must have led Parmigianino to “make the hand loom large,” “roving back to the body of which it seems / So unlikely a part.” (69) It seems that Parmigianino represented his hand in this way in order to highlight the gap between the painting and the reality outside it. The hand is wavering, in its attempt to assume its own reality beyond the image:

Francesco, your hand is big enough
To wreck the sphere, and too big,  
One would think, to weave delicate meshes
That only argue its further detention. (70)

10The represented image becomes more real than reality because as the convex mirror reveals, “the surface is what’s there / And nothing can exist except what’s there.” (70)

11Ashbery’s address to the painting dissolves into a subtle identification with Parmigianino’s attempt to contain the contingent within an image which, like the text, is defined by its distinctness in relation to the reality that went into it. Ashbery at this point, begins to wonder whether the ability to represent is symptomatic of the subject’s inability to alter what it can ultimately only represent: “whose curved hand controls, Francesco, the turning seasons and the thoughts / that peel off and fly away at breathless speeds.” (71) Again, this triggers the anxiety over the expressive power of language, as the experiences that went into the poem get together and begin to lose their particularity: like “the chaos” of Francesco’s “round mirror […] organises everything / around the polestar of [his] eyes which are empty,” the self’s experiences also seem to “merge”:

in one neutral band that surrounds
Me on all sides, everywhere I look.
And I cannot explain the action of leveling,
Why it should all boil down to one
Uniform substance, a magma of interiors. (71)

12It is unclear what brings about such a levelling effect, and this indecision is yet again dramatised through the encounter with Parmigianino’s painting: just as Parmigianino’s hand seemed to reach out beyond the painting, Ashbery’s “self-portrait” is also an attempt to leave out and contain the contingent. To Vasari’s anecdote, which is now rephrased as an address to Parmigianino — “you” is substituted for “he” — Ashbery adds: “with great art to copy all that you saw in the glass” / So as to perfect and rule out the extraneous / Forever.” (72) The effects of form — “the velleities of the rounded reflecting surface” (74) — again dramatise the dissociation between reality and the represented image. Overall, in Ashbery’s “self-portrait”, the relation between the self and its mirror image, can be mimetic, only in a distorting, ironic and evasive way. At the same time, Parmigianino’s self-portrait, in conveying a sense of an enigmatic and unspecified urgency, becomes prescient of the Sack of Rome, where “Francesco / Was at work during the Sack.” In seeking to convey and leave out the contingent moment, the poem’s reflecting on itself, and the painting’s formal and historical components are caught up in a cycle of “inertia”: an “inertia” that “once /Acknowledged saps all activity, secret or public: /Whispers of the word that can’t be understood  / But can be felt, a chill, a blight.” (75)

13The varied guises of the relation between the self, the convex mirror, the poem, and reality, are all metaphors of the deficiency of our means of expression to break through “the present we are always escaping from / And falling back into.” (78) Towards the end of the poem, Parmigianino’s “unidentified but precisely sketched studio” (75) becomes a reminder of “another life”, different to the life of the painting itself, and different to the life of the poem too. Owning up to the imperative of reminding ourselves of the existence of “another life”, (76) Ashbery concludes by “beseeching” Francesco to “withdraw that hand”, (82) because there will always remain a segment of life beyond its reach:

each part of the whole falls off
And cannot know it knew, except
Here and there, in cold pockets
of remembrance, whispers out of time. (83)

14Throughout, Ashbery projects the anxiety over the reflexive nature of language onto the visual image: like the words on the page, the image is also a space that speaks of its distance from reality. The convex mirror is a device that dispels the illusion that our representations are identical to their model, just as it suggests that the distorting effect of the mirror arrests the essence of the model. As discussed, in the context of the poem, Parmigianino’s mastery of his own image in a convex mirror reveals the paradoxical position of the subject caught up in the power of forms. Parmigianino’s experiment in pictorial illusionism is suggestive both of the impossibility of forms to capture experiences just as they may take over experience altogether: “the figment of “art” has “its lair / In the present we are always escaping from/ And falling back into, as the waterwheel of days/ Pursues its uneventful, even serene course.” (78-9) By putting forward the relation between reality and form in a web of reflections, the dialogue between Ashbery’s poem and Parmigianino’s painting fits into Jean-François Lyotard’s paradigm for the condition of the postmodern work. In Lyotard’s words:

The postmodern would be that which in the modern, puts forward the un(re)presentable in (re)presentation itself; that which denies itself the solace of good forms, the consensus of a taste which would make it possible to share collectively the nostalgia for the unattainable; that which searches for new (re)presentations, not in order to enjoy them but in order to impart a stronger sense of the un(re)presentable. (81)

15The poem is a “self-portrait” infused by the “nostalgia for the unattainable”, to use Lyotard’s words. A nostalgia which is also intended to remind us that Parmigianino’s distortions may be offering a glimpse of the authenticity of a lost moment; the moment in which the self simultaneously recognises itself in the mirror image while realising that “the present” is no longer there.In the enigma of Parmigianino’s wilfully distorted “self-portrait”, the sense of the unrepresentable redeems and excludes the inner self at once:

It may be that another life is stocked there   
In recesses no one knew of; that it,
Not we, are the change; that we are in fact it. […]
Today has no margins, the event arrives
Flush with its edges, is of the same substance,
Indistinguishable. (76, 79)

16As Parmigianino’s “self-portrait” reveals, in grasping the effect of reality on us, we also come to realise that, rather than encompassing reality through our ability to represent it, it is “us” who are shaped by reality, as well as by our representations of this reality. Moreover, the “event” is just as ambiguous as the intimation of “another life.” The reality of the event is irreversible yet elusive; it is ironically experienced as a lag, as the gap between life and the self’s attempt to contain and convey life. The “postmodern work”, in Lyotard’s terms, is premissed on this paradox:

Hence the fact that work and text have the character of an event; hence also, they always come too late for their author, or, what amounts to the same thing, their mise en œuvre always begins too soon. Post modern would have to be understood according to the paradox of the future (post) anterior (modo). (81)

17The lag implicit in the “event”, which is posited here as particular to the condition of the postmodern work, is dramatised in the encounter between the “self-portrait” and the poem’s inner voice. The text of the “self-portrait” is an exploration of the power of the vision on the one hand, and of the power of language on the other, to convey the “sense” of unrepresentable; throughout, the limits of vision become interchangeable with the limits of language. The poem rests on the parallel between a voice which is productive of language and which is made up of language, and a “self” which simultaneously occupies the positions of the seeing subject and of the object that is being seen.

18With regard to this, much contemporary art theory has drawn links between baroque and mannerist experiments and the postmodernist emphasis on the power of the returned gaze to destabilise and undermine the seeing subject. In his discussion of the “Scopic Regimes of Modernity”, Martin Jay, following on from Christine Buci-Glucksmann’s and Rodolphe Gasché’s analyses of baroque experiments in the structures of vision, draws our attention to how baroque painting questions the effect of reality itself. By intensifying its formal elements, baroque painting intensifies its own materiality at the expense of the evasive, mobile reality it is supposed to represent. As Ashbery’s “self-portrait” suggests, the effect of reality — the intimation of “another life” inside and beyond the painting — is taken over by the fact of the painting itself; it is the fact of the painting, its mise en œuvre, which sheds ambiguity on the distinction between seeing and being seen, as well as on the distinction between the model and the reflection. As Martin Jay puts it: “the anamorphosistic mirror, either concave or convex, […] distorts the visual image — or, more precisely, reveals the conventional rather than natural quality of “normal” specularity by showing its dependence on the materiality of the medium of reflection.” (Jay, 17)

19In the poem, the baroque sense of “dependence on the materiality of the medium of reflection”, works as a metaphor for the disjunction between signs and referents. The relation between reality and its distorted mirror-image also becomes an allegory of the opacity of language. The dialogue between the poem and the painting draws our attention to the very texture of language, and, in doing so, it ironically heightens our feeling for reality. Just as in Parmigianino’s “anamorphosistic” mirror, it is the materiality of the medium that transforms our sense of reality, in the verbal text, it is the very immateriality of language that blocks and opens up our relation to the world. This is suggestive of yet another effect of mirroring between language, vision, and reality, from a poststructuralist perspective. Michel Foucault, whose critique of the philosophical foundations of modernity rests on exposing the relation between seeing, knowledge and power, was also fascinated by how vision and language are intertwined in the writings of Raymond Roussel. For Foucault, despite the fact that Roussel’s language bears no referential illusion and despite Roussel’s shutting off the world in order to recreate reality through language alone, language, reality and experience merge. For Foucault, Roussel’s obsessive anxiety over the signifier stems from the fact that “things are perceived because words are lacking; the light of their being is the fiery crater where language breaks down. Things, words, vision and death, the sun and language make a unique form, the very same one that we are.” (Foucault, 166)

20Ashbery on the other hand, in a 1961 essay which was published as a preface to the English translation of Foucault’s study of Roussel, distinguishes between the Surrealists’s fascination with Roussel, and Foucault’s reading. Unlike the Surrealists, Ashbery does not seem to seek a hidden order of experience behind Roussel’s writing; yet like Foucault and the Surrealists, Ashbery implies that the fundamental thing about language is not only its opacity, but also the fact that this very opacity points towards what lies beyond language and beyond the illusion of the subject’s mastery of reality through language. Ashbery concludes that for all “the inhuman beauty” of a writing in which an imaginary, self-referential world shuts off reality, “we can still be stirred by a language that seems always on the point of revealing its secret.” (Ashbery in Foucault, xxvii) This brings us back to the relation between reality and language in the poem: in encountering the formal and allusive qualities of Parmigianino’s “self-portrait”, the inner voice realises that forms take on reality, often by excluding the “light of things” that went into them — to paraphase Foucault. Ultimately, what the poem seems to suggest is that we need language and form in order to sense the “indistinguishable event.”

21In discussing how Ashbery’s addresses the unresolved relationship between life and art, Ross Leckie examined how Ashbery, in “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”, sets up “the aesthetic assertions of a postmodern humanism [which] results not so much from the desire for a connectedness to the world both of the present and the past, but from a sense that there may be an art that can achieve such a form of connectedness.” (Leckie, 124) As discussed, in Ashbery’s “postmodern humanism”, the forms which, without being deceptively cohesive, may achieve a new connectedness to the world, also dramatise the loss of the self’s sense of a substantive relation to reality.

22From a poststructuralist perspective, by exploring how vision is patterned on language, Ashbery’s “self-portrait” inflects a critique of the subject’s illusory mastery of reality. This is why Parmigianino’s painting, in Ashbery’s poem, contains both a reflexive and a mimetic moment; as a reflexive form, it becomes an allegory of the opaque and intransitive nature of language; Parmigianino’s and Ashbery’s own “self-portrait” become allegories of how language constructs reality and of how representation may take over reality.  As a mimetic moment, on the other hand, the “self-portrait” points to the loss of the “present” which, however, is the token of our sense of reality. The mimetic moment, no matter how distorting it might be, offers a glimpse of a reality beyond the image and redeems the possibility to restore a lost, reciprocal relation between reality and the self.   

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Ashbery, John. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. 1975. Manchester: Carcanet New Press, 1985.

Foucault, Michel. Death and the Labyrinth: The World of Raymond Roussel. 1963. Charles Ruas, trans. London: Athlone, 1987.

Jay, Martin. “Scopic Regimes of Modernity,” in Hal Foster, ed. Vision and Visuality. Seattle: Bay Press, 1988. 3-23.

Kalstone, David. Five Temperaments: Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, James Merril, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Leckie, Ross. “Art, Mimesis, and John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” Essays in Literature. 19.1 (Spring 1992): 114-31.

Lyotard, Jean-François, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. 1979. trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984.

Shapiro, David. John Ashbery: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press. 1979.

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Stamatina DIMAKOPOULOU, « The Poetics of Vision and the Redemption of the Subject  in John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror », E-rea [En ligne], 2.2 | 2004, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2004, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.436

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Royal Holloway, University of London
Stamatina Dimakopoulou completed a PhD thesis on the reception of Surrealism by American artists, critics and poets from the 1940s to the 1960s, at University College, London (2002). She has written articles on Max Ernst and Joseph Cornell (forthcoming). She researches on Franco-American artistic and literary relations in the twentieth century and is currently teaching at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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