Open Journal of Philosophy
2012. Vol.2, No.1, 64-73
Published Online February 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
The Post-Modern Mind. A Reconsideration of John Ashbery’s
“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (1975) from the Viewpoint of
an Interdisciplinary History of Ideas
Roland Benedikter1,2*, Judith Hilber3
1University of California, Santa Barbara, USA
2Stanford University, Stanford, USA
3Technical College Bolzano, Bolzano, Italy
Email: *,
Received December 10th, 2011; revised January 12th, 2012; accepted January 22nd, 2012
Figure: Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola): Self-Portrait in a Convex Mir ror, c. 1524;
Oil on wood, diameter 24.4 cm; Kunsthistorische s Museum Vienna.
This paper gives a short description of basic features of the dominating mindset in the Western world
between the 1970s and today, often called “post-modern”, through a re-reading of John Ashbery’s poem
“Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (1975). In doing so, it applies the viewpoint of an interdisciplinary
history of ideas. Since collective mindsets have become the most important contextual political factors,
the implications are multiple.
Keywords: Postmodernity; Social Psychology; Poetry; Mindset; Contextual Political Analysis
*Corresponding author.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 65
Introduction: Literature and Philosophy
Anticipating the Post-Modern Mind The Epistemological Aspect in the Poem
The Mutual Influence of Thing and Perceiver
All media are extensions The opening of the poem outlines the genesis of the painting,
and here Ashbery introduces the leitmotif of “Self-Portrait”:
complementarity and reciprocation. The first reciprocal de-
pendence captures and reveals the writer’s theory of the rela-
tionship between subject and object. His epistemological notion
is deeply rooted in, and originates from the principle of rela-
tiveity, according to which events and items, abstract or spe-
cific, “are perceived with reference to a certain frame.”3 From
the outset, a universal validity is undermined, if not rendered
virtually inexistent. For Asbery, not even the soul exists in its a
priori purity, without the sensory and tactile perception of the
of some human faculty—
psychic or physical
Marshall McLuhan
Four years before the publication of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s
seminal treatise “The Postmodern Condition” (1979)1—which
provided the name to the “post-modern” movement in literature,
philosophy and the arts, and in this way branded a mindset that
was to dominate the cultural paradigm of the West throughout
the following decades—American poet John Ashbery antici-
pated most of the decisive traits of this worldview and attitude
in an epochal poem, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (1975).
This prescient vision confirmed the close relation between the
literature, philosophy and social psychology of his time. In fact,
Ashbery’s poem is not only a meditation on art, but also an
early and most lively description of the “post-modern” mindset,
destined to remain valid for decades, up to the present day. In it,
painting and writing are closely examined, while the gestalt of
a passage in the history of the Western mind is taking shape.
The soul has to stay where it is,
Even though restless, hearing raindrops at the pane,
The sighing of autumn leaves, thrashed by the wind,
Longing to be free, outside, but it must stay
Posing in this place.4
Indeed, the soul is treated as if it were some matter, some
material fenced in by the look of the perceiver, who accepts
natural borders and material limits, but cannot apply those that
are imaginary or virtual. Our concept of space, if experienced
directly, is always both limited by and extended through sight,
which intercepts the borders of physical surroundings. This
limitation is defined either by the objects or walls within a
room; outside a room, i.e. outdoors the borderlines are the con-
tours of buildings, plants, etc., the skyline, a cloud, etc. Theo-
reti- cally speaking, we can discuss “space” in abstract terms,
but in practice we lack the ability to experience this metaphysi-
cal unity of going beyond our material world.
As appropriate for—and consistent with—the structural dou-
blefacetedness of the post-modern mind, the author plays a
double role in his poetical endeavor. As the writer of the poem
he is an artist; whereas in discussing Parmigianino’s painting in
the poem he becomes an art critic. The unusually long poem
(over 500 lines long2) begins with a very neutral language, a
catalogue of descriptive facts about Parmigianino taken from
Giorgio Vasari. Consecutively Ashbery’s examination drives
both the author and the reader backwards on a journey to Par-
migianino’s self-portrait, into which one enters as if it were a
self-projection of the author, to which the reader must witness.
In fact, Parmigianino’s painted ego manifests itself as Ashbery’s
psychic extension. Drawn closer and closer, the extension is
overcome and Ashbery’s identification takes place, until he
once again frees himself and retreats back to his original posi-
tion. The dual aspect, extended to numerous subjects, becomes
important for an appreciation of the entirety of poem. The po-
etic flow feeds upon such dualities, and creates dichotomies,
only to unify them later.
The surface is what’s ther e
And nothing can exist except what’s there.” (70)
Thus the soul must adhere to the surface of the picture.
The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept
In suspension, unable to advance much farther
In this essay we attempt to identify and investigate some of
these dualisms and ambivalences in the poem, with special
regard to Ashbery’s position in the post-modern movement. In
particular, we seek to elucidate the interdependence of con-
trasting and divergent factors as a principle of complementarity
that Ashbery—representative of the post-modern worldview—
elevates to the level of a philosophy of life. In addition, a gen-
eral view of self-portraiture, using the example of Parmigianino,
will be given.
Than your look as it intercepts the picture. (68-69)
It is a captive of two powers, the piece of wood or canvas
that has a clear-cut shape, and of our visual discrimination de-
fined by this very shape. Hence the thing and its human percep-
tion cannot be separated and examined individually. They are
so tightly linked that one presupposes the other and vice versa
(determiners are intentionally used, instead of the names in
order to avoid giving priorities). In fact, a compromise between
a priori and a posteriori theories is suggested, as a potential—
and equalizing—solution. The equipment, human and material,
created at the same time, equally presuppose and influence each
1J.-F. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, University of Minnesota Press
2Charles Molesworth, The Fierce Embrace:
Study of Contemporary
merican Poetr
, Columbia and London: Missouri UP, 1979, 177.
3Jerome Klinkowitz, Rosenberg, Barth es, Hassan: The Postmodern Habit o
Thought, At hens and London: Georgia UP, 1988, 12 8.
4John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, New York: The Viking
Press, 1975, 69. All further references are to this edition and will occu
parenthetically in the text; the poem will hereafter be abbreviated as SP.
5Klinkowitz 1988, 124.
6Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music and
The Genealogy of Morals,” trans. Francis Golffing, New Yo rk: Doubleday
Anchor Pre ss, 1956, 98f f.
In comparison, Nietzsche’s early attempts at distinguishing
between the essence and appearance of a thing, for instance, is
contrary to Ashbery’s. In Ashbery’s and the postmodernists’
view “the art medium’s being [is] an extension of the physical
world,”5 that is to say, all works of art, including musical com-
positions, which are, according to the early works of Nietzsche
(and which he later criticized himself) the representation of the
thing-in-itself,6 they are the “things” themselves as perceived
by the reader, spectator, and/or beholder. In different percipi-
ents a work of art, e.g. a symphony, can evoke different reac-
tions and kindle dissimilar emotions. The symphony is all the
interpretations it evokes in the listeners; it could not exist
without a composer having written it. Furthermore, it would be
worthless without people listening to it. The evoking of feelings
in the listeners on the one hand, and their reception on the other
hand, exemplify the mutual dependence of the thing and the
sensory apparatus and perceptual response of the human being.
The Giving and Taking of the Individual in His/Her
Surrounding World
Ashbery touches upon a highly philosophical explanation of
the self and of character in general. A person can never be a
single type, but instead corresponds to the potpourri-thinking of
postmodernism. Various cooks add herbs and spices to the stew
and thus either contribute to or spoil the quality of the taste.
This metaphor demonstrates that an individual can never be
seen in isolation of his/her milieu, because an individual as
“pure” or disembedded as this cannot even exist. To be sure,
the human being—in being human—is inextricably nested
within her/his time, place and circumstances, and s/he can be
positively or negatively influenced by these forces. “The tine
self-important ship/On the surface” (70) has to be aware of the
“dozing whale on the sea bottom.” The same picture of the
apotheosis of the individual was employed by Nietzsche in The
Birth of Tragedy, in which the individual sits “quietly in his
rocking rowboat in mid-sea, absorbed in contemplation,”7 and
dreams as the Apollonian principle of individuation, half-
awakened by Dionysiac intoxication, amidst the outer restless-
ness of the waves.
A human being cannot, under normal circumstances, escape
social contact, either directly nor indirectly. In association with,
and engaging our fellow human beings, and in our entangle-
ment with all kinds of media—ranging from the most tradi-
tional, such as newspapers and books, to the more progressive
audio-visual and electronic means of communication, such as
television, computers and the internet, respectively—we per-
ceive both consciously and unconsciously. As Wordsworth
claimed, well before the age of electronic communication,
The eye it cannot choose but see;
We cannot bid the ear be still;
Our bodies feel, where’er they be,
Against, or with our will.8
All data, as if liquid sucked up by a sponge, are partly ab-
sorbed and kept and partly dropped off again. This is the proc-
ess of what we herein refer to as humans’ “psychological me-
tabolism”. The human persona is influenced by (and of course,
influences) its environment. Not only does this milieu theory
apply subjectively, as expressed by Wordsworth, but this is also
an objective event. This means that in the former way the indi-
vidual is shaped by the outer forces and undergoes an active
change as the subject.
Moreover, it can also function as the object, and in this way
an individual is passively moulded by the definitions of his/her
fellow people. Applying adjectives and attributes to the “object” of
how other people perceive and judge this very character, and
how they form descriptions and opinions can vary drastically.
Contradictory opinions about someone are in accord with the
liking and disliking of this person, taking into account friends
and foes as authorized critics. Although such criticisms might
not effect an all-out change of one’s disposition, it can never-
theless be seriously regarded as a potentially powerful force of
influence. Such suggestive manipulation is quite often underes-
timated, causing an alleged indifference. However, in one way
or another, consciously or subconsciously, we do react to
statements and utterances about ourselves: we try to assert and
defend ourselves, justify our behaviour, take pride or offense,
As Ashbery notes, Parmigianino too, is influenced by other
people—the changes taking place in him are painted into the
picture and become part of his nature. The painting freezes the
positive and negative phrases, the “light” and “dark” speech of
his friends and acquai ntances:
How many people came and stayed a certain time,
Uttered light or dark speech that became part of you,
Like light behind windblown fog and sand,
Filtered and influenced by it, until no part
Remains that is surely you. Those voices in the dusk
Have told you all and still the tale goes on
In the form of memories deposited in irregular
Clumps of crystals. (71)
The Self-Portrait and Its Purose
Its Intrinsic F unc tion Regardi n g Parm igianino
In traditional self-portraiture a self-representation usually
portrays the bust, focusing upon the head, and especially the
face and its expression. The rest of the body is left out, cut off
so to say, because it is not considered expressive enough of the
character. Ashbery takes a painter’s perspective of self-image
to his, plot “of the poem. At first, his dramatization of Par-
migianino’s painting seems a random and eccentric decision, a
game played for its pleasure without any deeper motivation.
Ashbery plays a game indeed, but at the same time he opens
fertile ground by conveying his thought associations arising
from the painting. Ashbery’s fascination for the portrait can be
ascribed first to its fragmentary appearance, a key word of the
postmodern period (which will be discussed later), and second
to its idiosyncratic presentation on the surface of a round con-
vex piece of poplar wood as its panel.9 The painting shows
Parmigianino’s angelic face and his huge but tender, delicately
formed hand,
…big enough
To wreck the sphere, and too big,
One would think, to weave delicate meshes
That only argue its further detention. (70)
The face, taking up the geometrical centre of the circle, is
partially diminished as an optical centre by the counterbalance
of the hand as another optical attraction. The hand at the bottom
of the picture arouses an alienating effect that is further height-
ened by its immensity. Usually portraits omit the hands and in
this way might be considered to be severing; but Parmigian-
ino’s painting the right hand into the picture is deliberate and
therefore assumes a significant function, by speaking more
7Nietzsc he 1956, 33-34.
8William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Expostulation an
. Lyrical Ballads (1805), ed. Derek Roper, 3rd ed., Plymouth: North-
cote House, 1987, 5.
9Lili Fröhlich-Blum, Parmigianino und der Manierismus. Wien: Anton
Schroll, 19 21, p. 6.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
inclusively through a language conveyed by the body, as well
as the face.
Self-portraits very often depict and summarize an artist’s life,
reflecting his philosophical evolution. A good portrait reveals a
synthesis of the psychological structure of the painter (likewise
an autobiography, viz. a self-portrait in literature).10 In this way,
character is conveyed as trying to break free through the eyes,
thereby allowing the artist’s soul to open up and displays the
inner truth of the self-portraitist,
The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? (68)
In order not to let his soul, and inner secrets extend too far,
Parmigianino holds up his right hand, which is
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
what it advertises.
Your gesture which is neither embrace nor warning
But which holds something of both in pure
Affirmation that doesn’t affirm anything. (68…70)
The hand is significant insofar as it discloses a double func-
tion. It is there, offered to the viewer as a greeting and wel-
coming sign. But at the same time Parmigianino is careful not
to fully expose himself to the onlooker, and uses his hand as a
shield to hide his private exhibitionism. Thus, the hand sym-
bolizes both a link and a wall to other people, in other words an
expression of the painter’s extroversion and inner privacy.11
The creation of the self-portrait is the creation of the artist
himself. A constant dialogue underlies the act of painting, an
argument between the painter and his reflection in the mirror
and his evolving image of the reflection on the painted surface.
An antagonistic analysis of the spiritual and psychological do-
mains of the artist is performed that scans and generates a rep-
resentation of his “self”. Investigating his inner plurality, the
artist embarks on the quest for his own myth of his past,12 try-
ing to come to terms with his duality. The dichotomy of the
artist and his reflection, his ego and super-ego is balanced in a
synthesis of the reflection of the reflection, in the result of a
long “process of psychological self-exploration.”13
Its Exterior Influence on Ashbery
Thus the genesis of the work is given great emphasis,
whereas the end product, the concluded painting, is fixed and
immobile; “It must move/As little as possible.” (69) A whole
personality is reduced to one image, one picture, frozen into
one specific time, at one specific place. A levelling out and
boiling down to a single representation of the “magma of inte-
riors” takes place at the expense of all of a life’s ups and downs
of myriad moments.
The secret is too plain. The pity of it smarts,
Makes hot tears sp u r t: that the soul is not a soul,
Has no secret, is small, and it fits
Its hollow perfectly: its room, our moment of attention. (69)
Although Ashbery feels compassion, if not pity, for a person
who was complex, even rich in the meaning and manifestation
of daily banalities, but is now reduced to one single image:
Long ago
The strewn evidence meant something,
The small accidents and pleasures
Of the day as it moved gracelessly on,
A housewife doing chores. Impossible now
To restore those properties in the silver blur that is
The record of what you accomplished by sitting down
“With great art to copy all that you saw in the glass”
So as to perfect and rule out the extraneous
Forever (71-72),
Ashbery must admit to himself that “Something like living
occurs, a movement/Out of the dream into its codification.” (73)
This mystification so utterly captivates him that his own self
becomes a replacement of Parmigianino.
What is novel is the extreme care in rendering
The velleities of the rounded reflecting surface
(It is the first mirror portrait),
So that you could be fooled for a moment
Before you realize the reflection
Isn’t yours. You feel then like one of those
Hoffmann characters who have been deprived
Of a reflection, except that the whole of me
Is seen to be supplanted by the strict
Otherness of the painter in his
Other room. (74)
Being completely absorbed in the painting, Ashbery identi-
fies with Parmigianino for a short time. This act of supplanta-
tion and exchangeability prove again the liveliness and perti-
nence of the sixteenth century mannerist painting for Ashbery
and his (i.e., our) age. The powerful radiance as Ashbery’s
mentor stands in direct contrast to the pity he feels for both
Parmigianino the person, and his reduction to a single moment
of representation. The two opposite poles of the relationship
between poet and portrait and the former’s perception of the
latter have now crystallized as Ashbery concomitantly shows
admiration for and sympathizes with Parmigianino.
10 Manuel Gasser, Das Selbst bi ldnis. Zürich: K i ndler, 1961, p. 9.
11Peter Weiermair: Introduction. In: Peter Weiermair: Selfportrait als
Selbstdarstellung, ed. Gallerie im Taxispalais, Innsbruck: Hörtenbergdruck
1975, n. p.
12John Ashbery: “An Interview By Rose Labrie,” The American Poetry
eview May-June 1984: 30. Ashbery points out that Marcel Proust’s mas-
terpiece Remembrance of Things Pastis one of his favourite books. It is
obvious that he was influenced by the main subject of the book, which is
time. Past and present with Parmigianino’s painting and Ashbery’s poem
respectively are prevalent themes in SP and in his other works as well.
13Dieter Schmid t, Ich war, ich bin, ich werde sein! Selbstbildnisse deutscher
ünstler des 20 . Jahrhunderts. Berlin: Henschel Verlag, 1968, 7.
14Raymond Federman, “Federman on Ferdeman: Lie or Die: Fiction as
Autobiography/Autobiography as Fiction,” lecture held at Innsbruck Uni-
versity, 26 M arch 1992.
The Truth Stripped of Its Abstract Value to
Concrete Contingency
The Truth Painted into the Portrait
While on his odyssey in search for his identity , Ashbery t ra ce s
his own split and contradictory character. When compareing
Parmigianino and himself he has comes to realize and affirm
the paradox of stasis vs. dynamics, prevalence vs temporality.
“Lie or Die,”14 as Federman entitled his seminal lecture on
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 67
autobiography held almost two decades ago at Innsbruck Uni-
versity which can be extrapolated to address self-portraiture in
painting. Lying, defined in the broadest and most abstract way,
means not to tell the truth or not to tell the entire truth, to distort
by being restrictive. Specifically speaking, by being reductive
Parmigianino’s portrait does not tell the whole truth, but only a
bizzaria”. Sydney Freedberg, in his work Parmigianino says
of it:
“Realism in this portrait
No longer produces an objective truth, but a
However its distortion does not create
A feeling of disharmony” (73)
As such and exclusively as such it lives on.
The divergence between image and reality simultaneously
distorts and sums up the artist’s life and presents itself to the
spectator regardless of time and generation;
The record of what you accomplished by sitting down
“With great art to copy all that you saw in the glass”
So as to perfect and rule out the extraneous
Forever. In the circle of your intentions certain spars
Remain that perpetuate the enchantment of self with self:
Eyebeams, muslin, coral. It doesn’t matter
Because these are things as they are today
Before one’s shadow ever grew
Out of the field into thoughts of tomorrow. (72)
The objective truth is stripped of its meaning in favour of the
forms which take precedence over the content (cf. Mannerism)
and yet communicate t h eir own tenor,
Like a wave breaking on a rock, giving up
Its shape in a gesture which expresses that shape.
The forms retain a strong measure of ideal beauty
As they forage in secret on our idea of distortion. (73)
Subject and object—that is, painter and “paintee”—are iden-
tified as identicals. Nonetheless, their juxtaposition in one sin-
gle equation, decreases its correctness. Therefore, a variable
must be added in order to rectify the equation: the subject’s (the
artist’s) interpretation of himself. Correspondingly, the “leav-
ing-out-business” precedes a long period of reflection and pon-
dering in order to control of the artist’s variable such that it can
later be substituted by a constant. As a study of a particular ego,
of the artist’s personality, the portrait delineates the character
per se with its most distinctive particularities and private, indi-
vidual features. These must be created, interpreted and analyzed.
Once worded and recorded they are used as labels to describe
the self-portraitist and thus function as generally accepted con-
cepts. Being categorized, the artist’s image adopts a stereotypi-
cal tinge;
It presents its stereotype again
But it is an unfamiliar stereotype, the face
Riding at anchor, issued from hazards, soon
To accost others, “rather angel than man” (Vasari). (73)
At this point the question of sincerity arises and leads back to
the distortion and lies involved in self-portraiture. Does vanity
play a role in the dialogue between painter and his reflection?
To what extent does idealization and the artist’s wish-to-be
infiltrate his characterization? And finally, what effect does this
wishfulness have on the portrait itself?15 Can it still be taken
seriously at all, or is it to be dismissed as mere sham and “fig-
A portrait always has a double function. First it is an art
genre and as such has representational intent. Representation is
solely public, primarily focusing on the physical projection of
the artist’s appearance. The physiognomy aids the beholder’s
memory, whereas the counterpart reveals the self-portraiture as
a means of a purely private purpose: an intimate confession of
the artist’s inner desires. Yet, the observant eye can also sense
and trace these intimacies.
Whispers of the crowd that can’t be understood
But can be felt, a chill, a blight
Moving outward along the capes and penpinsulas
Of your nervures and so to the archipelagos
And to the bathed, aired secrecy of the open sea. (75)
When seen from this dual aspect perspective, the distortion-
as-interpretation derived from, and provided by the artist him-
self can be considered to augment the meaningfulness, value
and relevance of the self-portrait as a work of art, since,
Aping naturalness may be the first step
Toward achieving an inner calm
But the first step only, and often
Remains a frozen gesture of welcome etched
On the air materializing behind it,
A convention. and we have really
No time for these, except to use them
For kindling. The sooner they are burnt up
The better for the roles we have to play. (82)
The Truth Implanted in the Individual
Each person
Has one big theory to explain the universe
But it doesn’t tell the whole story
And in the end it is what is outside him
That matters, to him and especially to us
Who have been given no help whatever
In decoding our won man-size quotient and must rely
On second-hand knowledge. (81-82)
Each person can only have a restricted knowledge of life and
of the universe, preconditioned by his/her self, composed of
genetic information and environmental influences. “What de-
fines the human is this process of surrounding the world with
meaning”16 and his/her “concentric growing up of days/Around
a life.” (76) Each and all of these circles that expand and enrich
one particular life are unique, even though they overlap and
intersect with the rings of other lives.
Such interconnections build up the universe as a network, in
which each knot is an individual life, containing a partial truth,
“portions” and “slivers” of the whole. No one and nothing is
endowed with the absolute truth, “What is beautiful seems so
only in relation to a specific/Life” (77, emphasis by J. H. and R.
B.). The entanglement and connection with the whole struc-
ture makes possible shared experiences and knowledge. As a
consequence of the principle of individuation,each day of one
specific life becomes singular, personal and unrepeatable. The
vacancies of one day are filled with an incomprehensible amount
15Manuel Gasser 1961, 14.
16Klinkowitz 1988, 130.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
of interpretations and meanings.
Today has that special, lapidary
Todayness that the sunlight reproduces
Faithfully in casting twig-shadows on blithe
Sidewalks. No previous day would have been like this. (78)
Ashbery rejects the notion of universal comprehensibility,
because we all tune into our own present, into our own reality.
We cannot help being ego-centric and relating what surrounds
us to ourselves. Only in doing so can we comprehend and ex-
plain the world, in shaping it to our needs and horizon of ex-
I used to think they were all alike,
That the present always looked the same to everybody
But this confusion drains away as one
Is always cresting into one’s present. (78)
The Portrait as a Symbol
The Portrait as Source and Inspiration
Parmigianino’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” is the
main source for the poem with the identical title. The insertion
of the painting and its criticism into the poetic discourse initi-
ates and contributes to the flow of Ashbery’s thoughts. Igniting
his reflections, Parmigianino also presents the vehicle that car-
ries the poet through his odyssey of self-exploration and self-
knowledge. Meditating on Parmigianino’s self, Ashbery’s con-
sciousness moves to a contemplation of his own life to a con-
sideration of the nature of poetic and pictorial representation
and back to the painting once again, where the meditation starts
The journey on which Ashb e ry goes,
Rome where Francesco
Was at work during the Sack…
Vienna where the painting is today…
New York
Where I am now… (75)
And thus draws a circle enclosing all contradictions of his
life, similar to the round painting that encircles Parmigianino.
The Circular Shape
There are two ways that the circle becomes symbolic for the
painting and as a consequence for the poem: one, which is re-
strictive, and the other that represents continuity.
First, the roundness of the painting, which is actually a
spherical segment, geometrically speaking, stands for the glo be
with its boundaries. The gravitational field and force of the
earth ties us to its surface, restricting life to stay within its con-
But it is life englobed.
One would like to stick one’s hand
Out of the globe, but its dimension,
What carries it, will not allow it.
There is no way
To build it flat like a section of wall:
I must join the segment of a circle. (69)
As a symbol the painting, the wooden globe, acquires uni-
versal meaning, reminding us of our limitations, and therefore
radiating a sad and melancholic mood.
One feels too confined,
Sifting the April sunlight for clues,
In the mere stillness of the ease of its
Parameter. the hand holds no chalk
And each part of the whole falls off
And cannot know it knew, except
Here and there, in cold pockets
Of rememberance , whispers out of time. (83)
Second, the circularity epitomizes continuity, since it neither
marks a beginning nor an end. This is the image of the earth
with its life-giving and progressive characteristics. The rotation
of the earth around its axis, as well as its orbital course around
the sun are emblematic of this universal perpetuity. The the
daily succession of day and night, the recurring cycle of the
seasons, have a calming effect upon life, giving the sense of
stability, “The whole is stable within/Instability… and… changes
are merely/Features of the whole.” (70)
And yet, the stabilizing continuum is not one-dimensional in
its effect. Synchronically to the subduing influence it equivocally
makes us aware of time and its passing. The seasons change
and these change the weather, “which in French is/Le temps, the
word for time.” (70) Movement is bound to time which is tem-
porary, flowing “like an hourglass.” (73) Moments are fleeting
never to return again.
The waterwheel also represents timelessness and eternity,
and at the same time temporariness and transience:
Hasn’t it too 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? (79)
We are reminded of today, of that particula r moment in time
that ceases in favour of the next, which again has to give way
for the consecutive instant. We live from one particular moment
to the next. Our days are organized, divided into periods, since
“we must get out of it even as the public/Is pushing through the
museum now so as to/Be out by closing time.” (79)
Continuity Disrupted by Mirror-Opposites
Nonetheless, ambiguity and contradiction infiltrate such a
single hypothesis. Being a child of the postmodern period of
contradiction and opposition, Ashbery in his thinking and writ-
ing is branded by a dialectical and antithetic argumentation. Not
only is today planned and transparent, but it is often veiled and
incomprehensible, bec a us e it i s unknown.
…today is uncharted,
17Richard Stamelman, “Critical Reflections: Poetry and Art Criticism in
Ashbery’s ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’,”
ew Literary History: A
ournal of Theory and Interpretation 15.3 (1984): 607.
Today has no margins, the event arrives
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 69
Flush with its edges, is of the same substance.
Indistinguishable. (72…79)
The ambiguity is raised to a further level, when Ashbery in-
troduces the day after today—tomorrow—and claims that
Tomorrow is easy, but today is uncharted,
Desolate, reluctant as any landscape
To yield what are laws of perspective
After all only to the painter’s deep
Mistrust, a weak instrument though
Necessary. (72)
Due to the physical law of rotary motion of the earth, every
today passes into yesterday where “you can’t live.”
The gray glaze of the past attacks all know-how:
Secrets of wash and finish that took a lifetime
To learn and are reduced to the status of
Black-and-white illustrations in a book where colorplates
Are rare. (79)
Consistently every tomorrow is outstripped by today. As a
result, the properties of the chronological succession of days
can be regarded in reverse order. Ashbery’s original words
swap places: Today is easy, but tomorrow is uncharted, because
“Today has that special, lapidary/Todayness,” is unique and
therefore easy and pleas ant.
Stating one thing and then inverting it to look at it from
various perspectives, “We have surprised him/At work, but no,
he has surprised us/As he works,” (74) until finally its comple x
structure becomes visible and displays its antitheses, like two
opposing poles mutually attracting each other to form a unity,
without one excluding the other, is a favourite technique used
by postmodernists.
The network theory is extended to the idea of knots them-
selves, as being “resumed within.” In this way the knots can be
pictured as atoms with their inner structure. What seems to
“take place at random” (76) does not happen arbitrarily, but “in
an orderly way, “based on stringent laws, and… things do get
done in this way.” (80) Like the concentric progression of days,
this argument leads to the assertion that all contrasts are mere
appearance, with all oppositions existing only in relation to
their counterparts, through which they are perforce dissolved,
“the one pole becoming indistinguishable from the other.”18
The principle of polarity is balanced, and made realtive by the
principle of complementarity.
Painting and Poem
We have by now sensed the liveliness, the moving back and
forth, up and down, inside out and outside in of Ashbery’s body
of thoughts in this poem. The work abounds with a kinetic en-
ergy, moving from one point to the next, from one thought to
innumerable associations and counter-associations; time and
moment are key words. The present alternates with flashbacks to
and from the past, which are actualized as being in the present
and then dropped again as being in the past. As already men-
tioned, a characteristic feature of movement is that it presup-
poses time as a medium. The unities of the fourth dimension—
the moments—are transitory. Time is irreversible, and ac-
cordingly its content ceases to exit.
Today has no margins, the event arrives
Flush with its edges, is of the same substance.
indistinguishable. (79)
Being so indistinguishably connected, time and event also
depart together.
Not only is this poem regarded as temporal, but so literature
in general. It is read sequentially from the beginning to the end,
even if the pagination, for instance, is applied in reverse or-
der.19 “Words and consciousness enjoy a rare and short-lived
intimacy,”20 whereas the visual arts are categorized as being
atemporal, they exis t regardless of sequence and time.
According to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, a German poet of
Enlightenment, painting and sculpture are subject to a spatial
principle.21 This augments the work of art with a prevailing and
lasting quality, but reduces it to a rigid and immobile object.
Consequently, the two different means of artistic expression,
language and visual arts, have their own individual criterion for
judgement and criticism. Dynamism or stasis is attributed to
one at the cost of the other. Nevertheless, the two standards of
judgement typical of distinction types of art are not mutually
exclusive. All values with opposing signs can be neutralized on
the next higher ring of concentric circles.
Exphrastic Unification
To overcome this dilemma of dynamism vs stasis, literature
picks up an object of art and integrates it within the substance
and focus of literary discourse. Through the espousal of the two
different art media, the fusion of the two seemingly contrasting
parameters of time and space is accomplished. Two dissimilar
semiotic systems—picture and language—merge. This rhetoric
device where literature incorporates the description of a mute
artefact is termed ekphrasis. Tom Mitchell defines it as “a ver-
bal representation of visual representation.”22
By employing rhetorical devices in the poem, the portrait’s
“will to endure” is transferred to Ashbery’s own portrait, to his
text’s will to endure, “its desire to escape the pervasiveness of
temporal contingency.”23 The poem’s temporal, unrepeatable
flow is stilled by the spatial component of the painting. The
spatial work freezes the temporal work and transforms its fleet-
ing nature into a permanent quality. Conversely, the painting
undergoes a metamorphosis through the dynamics of language.
The mute portrait presenting Parmigianino, “speaks out” in the
literal sense of the Greek word ekphrasis. It speaks through the
verbal depiction of the painting in the poem. Parmigianino is
revived; the literary discourse animating his static, enclosed
18Laurence Lieberman, “Unassigned Frequencies: Whispers Out of Time,”
The American Poetry Review March-April 1977: 16.
19There are, of course, experimental poems which are structured very visu-
ally (e.g. the literary forms of Bildgedicht or Illustrati on).
20Stamelman 1984, 618.
21Murray Krieger, “Ekphrasis and the Still Movement of Poetry; or Laokoon
Revisited,” The Poet as Critic, ed. Frederick P. W. McDowell, Evanston:
orthwester n UP, 1967, 5.
22W. J. T. M it chell, “Ekphrasis and the Other,” unpu bl ished essay.
23Lee Edelman, “ The Pose of Imposture: Ashberys Self-Portrait in a Con-
vex Mirror’,” Twentieth Century Literature: A Scholarly and Critical Jour-
nal 32.1 (1986): 113.
The time of day or the density of the light
Adhering to the face keeps it
Lively and intact in a recurring wave
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Of arrival. (68)
Both the painter’s face and hand, which “retreat[s] slightly…/
Roving back to the body,” and his soul, drift toward and away,
“in a recurring wave of arrival.” (69) This oscillating movement,
articulated through the temporal medium of language, is essen-
tial to defrost Parmigianino’s frozen globe. The coalescence of
temporal discourse and spatial work of art is the simultaneous
result of stasis and dynamics, an espousal of a couple that gives
birth to a unique descendent, a dyad that Krieger has called the
Postmodern Techniques Transferred from
Painting to Literature
The first ekphrastic representation was dramatized by Homer
in the XVIII book of the Iliad, in which the genesis and ap-
pearance of Achilles’ shield, created by the blacksmith god
Hephaestus is described.25 Beside the ekphrastic incarnation of
Parmigianino, Shakespeare, Mahler, Berg, Hoffman, Vasari and
Freedberg become further “percipitates” in Ashbery’s poem,
merging into his literary context. His rummaging in the attic of
the literary past, the taking down of the most extravagant arte-
facts,is reflective of the postmodern spirit. In isolating such
unique pieces from their original surrounding, the artist often
negates their original purpose and/or function, and gives them a
new interpretation. That is to say they acquire an entirely dif-
ferent meaning in the postmodern context. Bits and pieces are
eclectically selected and pieced together in a collage. The
dadaistic technique of cutting and pasting applied to the me-
dium of language results in a “verbal collage”26 by means of
intertextuality. Similar to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose
—to mention just one example—Ashbery’s poem is rich in
allusions to, and selective quotations from earlier fiction or
descriptive works. Eco’s The Name of the Rose cites Voltaire,
Shakespeare, the Bible and other books. In SP Ashbery quotes
Vasari, Freedberg, Berg and Shakespeare.
Vasari, “Francesco one day set himself
To take his own portrait, looking at himself for that
In a convex mirror, such as is used by barbers…
He accordingly caused a ball of wood to be made
By a tuner, 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,”
Freedberg, … “Realism in this portrait
No longer produces an objective truth, but a biz-
However its distortion does not create
A feeling of disharmony…. The forms retain
A strong measure of ideal beauty,” (73)
Berg, The locking into place is “death itself,” (76)
Or, to quote Imogen in Cymbaline, There cannot
Be a pinch in death more sharp than this” (76)
These fragments are borrowed from exterior texts and are
extracted from their original surrounding, only to be fully inte-
grated in a novel milieu, where they serve a newly adopted
function, namely Ashbery’s reflection in his self-seeking proc-
These borrowed pieces are smoothly blended and yet they
retain a loose structure. Moreover, not only do the importations
have fragmentary character, but the whole poem is composed of
such fragments, jumping from association to association, from
connotation to connotation, from painting to poem, from Par-
migianino to Ashbery, and vice versa. The poem’s message
cannot be isolated or restricted to a single or absolute definition.
Its de-centered structure, open-ended constitution and disconti-
nuity in the flux of thought transform the poem to a sheer chal-
lenge for both the art critic, and for the postmodern-minded
reader in general. Its complexity and abundance of topics and
countertopics account for divergent interpretations or—per-
haps more accurately—attempts at interpretation.
Rejecting the idea of a single style or a single truth, the artist
of the postmodern age champions the richness, rather than the
clarity of meaning. The multiplicity of meaning and truth un-
dermines reality, homogenizes incongruities, and at the same
time contributes to the complexity and diversity of the being.
Art is dressed in the latest style which paradoxically consists of
an assemblance and conglomerate of historicist garments, “it
carries/The moment of a conviction that had been building,”
(76-77) in the course of history, and the “conviction” of our age
and its Zeitgeist. The endorsement of pluralism, opulence and
classical grandeur is the embodiment of “the cumulative wis-
dom and sagacity of a legion of forerunners.”27
The postmodern soil in which the accumulation flourishes
“like a rose cabbage” (73) also fertilizes Ashbery, who, for his
part, irrigates the ground in return with his own individual,
personal style as an artist. It is a giving and taking, a cross-
fertilization, and thus a cultivation of new species of valuable
works of art. SP is one of the hybrids that grew out of the
metaphorical gene pool from which postmodern literary style
evolved, and since it was written, Ashbery’s poem has consis-
tently been seen as having potential to further evolve the genre.
Action Painting
Fragmentation of thoughts and content is not the only post-
modern element of the poem. The form too, or rather the proc-
ess of creating the form is typical of an epoch which despite
9/11 and the subsequent paradigmatic changes (including the
“return of essence” and the global “renaissance of religion”) is
still contemporary. In an interview with Ross Labrie, Ashbery
comments on his act of writing,
24Murray Krieger 1967, 5ff.
25Mario Klarer, “Die Amalgamierung von Zeichensystemen: Ekphrasis,
Pronography und alchimische Suche,” Semantische Berichte 1992, spring
26Philip Stevick, “Literature,” The Postmodern Moment: A Handbook o
Contemporary Innovation in the Arts, ed. Stanley Trachtenberg, Westport:
Greenwood Press, 1985, 144.
27Laurence Lieberman 1977, 17.
28John Ashbery, “John Ashbery: An Interview by Ross Labrie,” The Ameri-
can Poetry Review, May-June 1984: 30.
… my poetry is not a poetry of ideas treated in a regular,
prosodical way… I don’t know what the content of my po-
ems is or what their form is either. It seems to be a question
which doesn’t exist for me. I begin writing without knowing
what I’m thinking, and stop once I feel I’ve finished. The
form seems to be the content and vice versa for me.28
This method of creating literature is subject to the moment of
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 71
the writing process, and therefore is influenced by the author’s
psychological state, his mood at the time of writing, as well as
by the physical surrounding that affect his literary work. As
Ashbery has noted,
Whatever things are on my desk or in the room or outside the
window seem to get sucked into the poem as though a vac-
uum cleaner was at work.29
The genesis of the poem, its “act of creation”, thus becomes
extremely important.
This always
Happens, as in the game where
A whispered phrase passed around the room
Ends up as something completely different.
It is the principle that makes works of art so unlike
What the artist intended. Often he finds
He has omitted the thing he started out to say
In the first place. Seduced by flowers,
Explicit pleasures, he blames himself (though
Secretly satisfied with the result), imagining
He had a say in the matter and exercised
An option of which he was hardly conscious,
Unaware that necessity circumvents such resolutions.
So as to create something new
For itself, that there is no other way,
That the history of creation proceeds according to
Stringent laws, and that things
We set out to accomplish and wanted so desperately
To see come into being. (80)
This particular technique of producing a work of art, with its
unknown outcome, its development and evolutionary coming
into existence is rooted in the concept of Action Painting, a
term coined by the American poet and critic Harold Rosenberg. 30
“With the intention becoming less important than the sur-
prise,”31 the act of painting outweighs the importance of the
finished painting. The gesture on the canvas becomes an act of
liberation, and so does the procedure of writing.
The paper that records the flow of thoughts that seeps
through the mental sieve is analogous to the dripping technique
used by Jackson Pollock, to whom Rosenberg principally refers.
What seems to be wholly random, as far as such dripping is
concerned, can be influenced and manipulated by the artist’s
will and wish. He can decide upon the colours and their com-
bination. Additionally, he can define the size of the holes in the
receptacle, through which the colour is to drop or flow. Like-
wise, Ashbery does not surrender to his own mental conquest of
I don’t think that my poetry is completely free association.
There is a sort of monitoring or editing activity that goes on
as I’m writing, merely because I don’t want to get too far
from what other people’s free association might be, but in-
stead in a way to echo them, and I hope, illuminate them.
That’s why, although I’m frequently accused of being a very
private poet, I don’t write about my own private experiences
very much, but try to write about paradigms of common ex-
periences which I hope other people can share.32
The multiplicity and complexity of Ashbery’s poem “Self-
portrait in a Convex Mirror” is not only due to its treatment and
dramatization of a variety of subjects, but also to their structure.
They overlap and interfere with each other and thus make a
linear discussion impossible. The tackling of art within art takes
such complexity steps further. Like an endless set of Chinese
boxes, each step opens up new vistas, and contains a variety of
new items and new surprises.
The comparison of two self-portraits, expressed using two
different artistic means with one finding itself in and identifying
with the other, yet after a while rejecting it again as self-image,
gives rise to an abundance of movement and action in the
course of the poem. However, activity and movement do not
follow the principle of linearity. Instead, the poem is character-
ized by discontinuity, disruption and fragmentation.
Both the painting and the poem are fragments. Parmigianino
is deflated to a surface existence upon his easel, his body reduced
to his head, bust and hand, the latter colossally depicted a nd hel d
up to fulfil an equivocal purpose of both inviting and keeping
the beholder at a distance. One function being reversed to its
opposite, its counter-function a 180 degree mirror image, in one
and the same moment becomes indistinguishable from its deri-
Thus unified, all opposites and oppositions become equal,
although they do not give up their original characteristic. Correla-
tion is the key to their concomitantly intrinsic and extrinsic na-
ture. Being inwardly complete, furnished with their own inte-
gral qualities, they also serve an outer function. Their comple-
tion is heightened through the harmonization of their inward
and outward complementarity.
The fragments in the poem range from a variety of subject
splinters and quotations of art criticism, and from narrative
elements to an alternation between painting and poem, Par-
migianino an d Ashbery, past and present, spa tiality and tempo-
rality, all of which amalgamate within Ashbery’s masterpiece.
This fragmentation is eventually extended to a philosophy of
life. The universe itself is built up of “sawtoothed garments.”
Human beings, seen as parts, “clumps of crystal,” are bound to
their individual knowledge and experience, and as a result, are
restricted in their possibilities and limited in their action. How-
ever, life is open-ended like the poem, and the concentric ad-
vancement of days permanently expand a life, broadens its
horizon and endows it with new experiences.
And this, in essence, is the life of the post-modern mind itself
in our times.
The authors gratefully acknowledge the intellectual contribu-
tion and review of Prof. Dr. James Giordano, University of
Oxford, UK, on an initial version of this essay.
29ibid. 32.
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