John Ashbery’s Humane Abstractions

By | 1 May 2018


Ashbery’s high risk word ‘banality’ is crucial to the poetry of The Double Dream of Spring; it points us to a flatness – ‘the flatness of what remains’ as ‘Sunrise in Suburbia’ has it – that is one of its defining effects. It is important, therefore, in this context, that we have an understanding of what ‘banality’ implies. To arrive at such understanding I want to make an un-Ashberyan, non-banal move. As the dictionary has it, the word banal means ‘lacking force or originality; commonplace’. It is the first part of this definition, clearly, that constitutes the risk of ‘banality’. By contrast, it is as the commonplace – that lovely idea – that ‘banality’ might be regarded as ‘our most precious possession’. Considered etymologically (and this is the non-banal move) the word has its origin in the eighteenth century, relating to feudal service, in the sense of compulsory service, hence ‘common to all’. The term entered English through French, and derives from the word ‘ban’, to which the dictionary definition of ‘banality’ refers us.

‘Ban’ itself is a most interesting, because deeply ambiguous term. In Feudal English it constituted a positive command, being the summoning of vassals to perform their military obligations. In this sense it reached back through old French to the Old High German word, meaning ‘command’. This meaning is preserved in the term’s modern legal usage, being, in English, an official proclamation or public notice. The meaning is also retained in the ‘banns’ by which an intended marriage is proclaimed in church. Where the word turns on itself, in its modern application, is in the sense that the proclamation of a ban is characteristically, now, a prohibition. That which is banal, in other words, in its insistence on the commonplace, points us to a meaning of the ‘ban’ that has become all but lost. Or rather, and to recognise the real subtlety of the term, the ban is a pronouncement applicable to all according to which some part of the whole is separated off. Following the title of the long poem with which The Double Dream of Spring concludes, we might think of that part of the whole that the ban prohibits as a ‘Fragment’. In which case we might notice that the first of that poem’s ten-line stanzas opens with an act of closure, ‘The last block is closed in April’, and ends with a command:

Never mentioned in the signs of the oblong day
The saw-toothed flames and the point of other
Space not given, and yet not withdrawn
And never yet imagined: a moment’s commandment.
(DDS, 78)

The ban so conceived, as making a proclamation to the whole that separates out a part, takes us to the heart of a narrative of Twentieth-Century political geography that predicates itself not on the primacy of locality, but on the fact of human movement through and across political space. The major commentator on the ban is Giorgio Agamben, for whom the ambiguity of the term constitutes the intellectual mechanism by which ‘the state of exception’ is produced.1 The term ‘state of exception’ is well established, now, in contemporary thought, but to recall its designation, what it points to for Agamben are those circumstances, spatially constructed, in which the force of the law is applied but the law’s accountability is suspended. The ‘state of exception’ is thus the political condition in which displaced persons can too often find themselves.

The larger narrative at work here, to which Agamben’s examination of legal procedure and language is an important contribution, is the narrative of human displacement which, from one point of view, is the defining story of Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century political space. That narrative, as Agamben observes, was given brilliant and lasting expression by Hannah Arendt in 1957, in a chapter she included in the second edition of her study of The Origins of Totalitarianism. Entitled ‘The Decline of the Nation State and the End of the Rights of Man’, what that chapter established was the necessity for a vision of political geography that acknowledged the fact of human movement. As Arendt saw it, the defining problem of the postwar period was what she called ‘statelessness’, ‘the newest mass phenomenon in contemporary history’ being ‘the existence of an ever-growing new people comprised of stateless persons, the most symptomatic group in contemporary politics’.2 It was a phenomenon, as she argued, that defined the inadequacy of national jurisdiction:

Suddenly, there was no place on earth where migrants could go without the severest restrictions, no country where they would be assimilated, no territory where they could found a new community of their own. This, moreover, had next to nothing to do with any material problems of overpopulation; it was a problem not of space but of political organization.3

To qualify Arendt’s argument slightly, it was a problem of space. What she means here is that space in the sense of room, was not the issue; it was not, she means, because there was not sufficient room that displaced persons could not be moved from one territory to another. Statelessness precisely was a problem of ‘space’, then, in that it was the conception of space in terms of locality that prevented, or prohibited movement. What was required, as Arendt saw it (writing from the USA) in 1957, was a way of thinking that altered the rules of space.

All of which brings us back to Ashbery’s de Chirico, a painter in whom elements were not drawn into familiar relation, but were allowed to exist in their strangeness, all predicated, as Ashbery saw it, on the fact that de Chirico, like the major artistic figures of his time, was a displaced person. It was this, as he argued, that constituted de Chirico’s greatness, the quality of composition that, in his eyes, made him equal if not superior to Picasso and Matisse. De Chirico, in other words, permitted a vision of the space in which, as Ashbery saw it, ‘we now live’.4 Which is not to argue that Ashbery addressed the politics of human movement directly, any more than de Chirico, in any simple sense, created an art of the displaced. It is to suggest, however, that in both Ashbery’s poetry and de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings one is given a sense of space that is cogniscant of the characteristic dislocations of the twentieth century, a sense of space that, in our own geographically fraught moment we can think with and through.

The question Ashbery’s recourse to ‘banality’ raises, is what kind of language might such a revised sense of space imply? The beginning of an answer, I want to suggest, lies in Ashbery’s broken English, the English, that is, of The Double Dream of Spring that refuses customary word patterns and associations and which in turn permits a syntactically driven poetics of space. What that relentless syntax achieves, in its refusal of association, is a language founded on momentum, on the primacy in human existence of movement itself. From which it follows, in The Double Dream of Spring, that everybody is in a state of arrival, that everything is always just coming into view. At which point one might observe that, just as one finds in certain of Ashbery’s contemporaries an echo of a Heideggerean sense of belonging, so in the sense of arrival that shapes Ashbery’s syntax, one finds an echo of Arendt. Thus whereas in Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt could not articulate the form of movement through space that might counter the modern sense of territory she had so accurately described there, in her subsequent work, The Human Condition, freed of historical constraint, she outlined a concept in which some sense of the necessary freedom to move and arrive might be discerned. As she oberves, articulating her key term, ‘natality’ (itself understood as a departure from sense of loss she found and rejected in Heidegger):

Labour and work, as well as action, are also rooted in natality in so far as they have the task to provide and preserve the world for, to foresee and reckon with, the constant influx of newcomers who are born into the world as strangers.5

In her commitment to the ontological principle of natality, Arendt inscribes the virtue of the newcomer, and in the newcomer she identifies the stranger’s relation to the world.

None of which is to argue that Ashbery drew explicitly on contemporary formations in philosophy in shaping his poetic. It is to argue, however, that in a moment in which Olson was a prevailing influence on American poetry, and in which Olson’s spatial poetics, (however much the detail of his practice might complicate the view) was identified with a connection to place, so in The Double Dream of Spring Ashbery articulated a counter understanding of spatiality, one in which dislocation, displacement and movement were the defining effects. What results is a shifting series of environments characterised not by specific topographical references but by semi-abstract ones: rivers, mountains, urban centres, the sun. Such semi-abstract language, as the poetry’s journeying constantly shows, is the language by which people move. In full awareness of the risk of banality, Ashbery’s Double Dream of Spring presented a poetry of humane abstractions, a poetry of commonplaces through which, in Stevens’ great phrase, persons might have the pleasure of merely circulating.6

  1. Agamben, introduces his discussion of the ban as part of his exctended consdideration of the concept of ‘bare life’ in Homo Sacer; see Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, tr. Daniel Hellerzoan (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 181. His discussion of the implications of the term is continued through State of Exception, tr. Kevin Attell (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2005).
  2. Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, new edition (London, George Allen and Unwin, 1960), 277
  3. ibid., 294
  4. Ashbery, Reported Sightings, 12.
  5. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, second edition, intro. Margaret Canovan (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press), 9
  6. Wallace Stevens, Colllected Poems (London: Faber & Faber, 1990), 149-150.
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