Lead in the Looking Glass: A Lacanian Approach to
John Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror"

Jack Bedell


There is but one world, and it is false, cruel,
contradictory, seductive, and without sense. . .
We are in need of lies to rise superior to this
reality, to this truth.    Friedrich Nietzsche


In his seminal essay, "On Narcissism," Freud defines the narcissistic personality as one obsessed with "a) What he is himself (actually himself). b) What he once was. c) What he would like to be. d) Someone who was once a part of himself" (71). No list of concerns could better describe the mature work of John Ashbery. From Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror through Shadow Train, Ashbery's poetry exhibits a curious fascination with examining the self. Poems such as "As One Put Drunk into the Packet-Boat," "Wet Casements," "Daffy Duck in Hollywood," and the masterwork "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," traffic constantly in reflective imagery, looking glasses, and the pure narcissism of self-portraiture in an effort to establish the true identity of the self. As Edelman points out in "The Pose of Imposture: Ashbery's 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,'" "Because this desire manifests itself in Ashbery's 'Self-Portrait' as an attempt to reassert selfhood by submitting the self to dispersal, to differentation, one could. . .name as narcissism the distinctive eros that motivates the text's implicit reconstruction of this presence or identity that it explicitly disavows" (108). It is precisely this reliance on self-imaging and mirrors, art and mimesis, which characterizes Ashbery's work over the last twenty years and which pushes the reader toward both Freud and Lacan to add depth to any reading of this work.

Drawn from Freud's theories on narcissism, Lacan's "mirror stage" seems a natural extension of the Romantic ideal of searching for the self (both in childhood and adult experience). Simply stated, the mirror stage involves the moment during which the human being first recognizes himself as Self, as Other, possibly even as others see him. This moment marks the true beginning of history for the individual by establishing his separate identity. By establishing the "I," the individual verifies the context of his personhood (which includes the context of his universe) and provides some form of meaning for experience. As Jane Gallop defines the stage in Reading Lacan, "The mirror stage is a decisive moment. Not only does the self issue from it, but so does 'the body in bits and pieces.' This moment is the source not only for what follows but also for what precedes. It produces the future through anticipation and the past through retroaction" (80-81). In Lacan's own terms, "'this development is lived like a temporal dialectic that decisively projects the formation of the individual into history'" (qtd. in Gallop 82). There can be no denying the individual's place in the universe once this moment of recognition is achieved.

It is important to note that the self discovered in the mirror is a platonic ideal warranting, if you will, obsession and praise. The artist, then, would gravitate toward this perfected vision. In other words, the mirror offers the artist a glimpse of the self (the world) becoming. As Lacan phrases it, during the mirror stage "'what realizes itself in my history is not the past definite of what was since it is no longer, nor even the present perfect of what I will have been in what I am, but the future perfect of what I will have been for what I am in the process of becoming'" (qtd. in Gallop 81-82). This vision provides context, a comfort zone, for the artist to create and meaning for the art (artifact) left behind.

The subliminal goal of the "mirror stage" exposes itself readily–to secure the SELF in a crumbling, chaotic universe. Heinz Kohut makes this goal quite clear in his commentary on Lacanian theory:

What is called the mirror transference is of course very clear. Why do schizophrenics stare into the mirror? What are they trying to do? The answer is obvious. They feel themselves crumbling and disappearing.

By vision they are trying to see "No, I'm still there. I can see myself."
But the mirror is cold; it is only a mirror visually. (39)

A fundamental problem inherent in this self-discovery, the illusory quality of the mirror, also makes itself apparent. As Gallop expresses it, "The self is an illusion done with mirrors" (83) requiring faith and (simultaneously) continual verification. Lacan himself recognizes this danger, "This illusion of unity, in which the human being is always looking forward to self-mastery, entails a constant danger of sliding back again into the chaos from which he started" (Gallop 84). The artist much wage the battle against chaos and nihilism to ensure relevance and value for the Self and for its creation. As Hoeppner characterizes Lacan's position, "In Jacques Lacan critique of psychological growth, for example, the 'mirror stage' describes 'a particular case of the function of the imago which is to establish a relation between the organism and its reality.' This is also the task of self-portrayal" (312).

Such groping toward the definition of the Self and the framing of reality provided by the mirror would seem to push a poet such as Ashbery away from the negative capability readily attributed to him by critics such as David Shapiro. Like several of his contemporaries–Lowell, Jarrell, Bishop, Chappell, and Duncan to name a few–Ashbery engages in a poetic narcissism seeking to establish identity. For Ashbery, however, Lacan's mirror is a means to a dialectic. To turn to Hoeppner again, "Difference is so instituted in self-representation, in what Lacan calls 'social elaboration' of an identity which marks the 'rigid structure of the subject's entire development,' that language holds forth over-and-against its user. Self-construction becomes self-defeat insofar as it cannot escape the irony which is grounded in any gesture toward representation, any description of the 'I'" (319-20). The poem (in Ashbery's mature work) becomes a battleground where the Self is proven ineffable, not verified, while the quest for Self, for the poem as mirror, is proven absolutely necessary. As Shapiro surmises, "Ashbery's abilities are thus beautifully negative, in the line of Keats's grandest remarks on the Negative Capability of the poet who does not reach out after dogmatic uncertainties. Ashbery, like Stevens, is master of those who know they do not know" (1-2). Ashbery's fascination with the illusion of SELF, with the mirror, is self-defeating in that the duplicities inherent in the mirror's illusion always return the artist to his awareness (which according to Lacan and Freud means Fear) of chaos and anonymity of being.

This duplicity points to the goal of Ashbery poetic narcissism. In poems such as "Wet Casements" and "Daffy Duck in Hollywood" Ashbery is so aware of the inadequacy of the mirror image to establish an accurate self that the reflection becomes humor. The narcissism becomes a waste of time that carries with it all of the dangers inherent in Ovid's original myth–to gaze too long at the reflection of Self will sap the individual through mislaid energies. As Anita Sokolsky points out in Harold Bloom's John Ashbery, "Narcissism demands self-punishment because it still operates within a system of yearning for other" (238). It fails then to establish, or locate, the Self because the reflection is in fact only an illusion of depth. Even more telling is Sokolsky's assessment of the narcissistic experiment, "Rather than creating a lucid transparency of meaning [Ashbery's work] reveals the intractability with which its language transforms derivation into tautology, converting the equation 'I=I' into an endlessly insufficient and approximate asymptote" (Bloom 239). Perhaps it is this realization that troubles Kohut's schizophrenics as well.

Nowhere is the battle between searching for Self in Lacan's mirror and the realization of the illusion's inadequacy more prevalent than in Ashbery's masterwork, "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror." As Shapiro points out, "The poem enacts, moreover, a criticism of mimesis, because the mirror in both painting and poem is the one of difficulty and convexity. The reader is given the laborious Penelope-task of dealing with this web of unweaving" (4). Clearly, the reader must stand apart as Ashbery does to examine the value and meaning of the self-portrait. What is unwoven, the definition of Self found in the mirror's reflection, drives the dialectic and eventually establishes Ashbery's uneasy acceptance of chaos and impermanence.

Given the fact that,"The problem [in Ashbery's poem] is that the American self is hardly content to understand either self or world as an incomplete picture" (Lehman 56), "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" takes on the Lacanian task of defining the self from the particulars of Parmigianino's painting. To an extent, the poem is freed from criticisms of its narcissistic tendencies because it represents a search for Self as established by Other, by image. As Shoptaw phrases it, "Though the self-protective secretiveness of "'Self-Portrait' has a homo-textual dimension, Ashbery is not simply closeted within his nonaffirming poem. The duplicities of the mirror place Ashbery outside with us . . . gazing at his speculative, narcissistic twin in an 'enchantment of self with self'" (181). In fact, the poet is less interested in the image than he is with the possibility of capturing (or realizing) it; it is the argument against this possibility that saves the poet from pining away a la Narcissus.

The six movements of "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" represent a six-tiered, recycling argument in which the poet debates the capture of the soul, or Self. In Bloom's John Ashbery, David Kalstone holds that "the poem becomes, as Ashbery explains it in a crucial pun, 'speculation / (From the Latin speculum, mirror),' Ashbery's glass rather than Francesco's. All questions of scientific reflection, capturing a real presence, turn instantly into the other kind of reflection: changeable, even fickle thought. The whole poem is a series of revisions prepared for in the opening lines" (96). These revisions take the reader through acceptance and denial repeatedly, until Ashbery's point is driven home.

Movement 1

The poem begins by describing the distorted perspective of Parmigianino's portrait giving the reader a taste of the painting's surreal quality–"the right hand / bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer / and swerving easily away as though to protect / what it advertises" (188). The image approaches and retreats just as any rendering of reality would. From these opening lines the premise of the paradox is set. Ashbery then goes on to detail Parmigianino's sequestering of his own image:

     . . ."Francesco one day set himself
To take his own portrait, looking at himself for that purpose
In a convex mirror, such as used by barbers. . .
       . . . .he set himself
With great art to copy all that he saw in the glass,"
and later:
The glass chose to reflect only what he saw
Which was enough for his purpose: his image
Glazed, embalmed, projected at a 180-degree angle.

Within the outline of this task the artist verifies in one stroke the quirkiness of point of view and the Lacanian uniqueness of the individual as he sees himself. From this personal perspective, "The soul establishes itself."

As Ashbery conceives it, "the soul is captive, treated humanely" in this convex environment because it is allowed to swim freely toward the viewer without actually braking the surface of the glass in its approach. The image that is created, though obviously distorted, is somehow more accurate and true to the nature of the soul. In Lacan's terms it is truly the image of self as other that stupefies and entrances the viewer with possibility. Like the image of Narcissus on the pond, though, the image can never leap beyond its reflective limits, and the fact of its dimensionality and illusion is made all to clear:

       . . .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. It must move
As little as possible. This is what the portrait says.

And the dialectic is begun. Either the portrait is "life englobed" or it is a cruel twist of perspective that hints but can never deliver. Looming in the painter's enlarged hand is the possibility of the living Self, but the "eyes proclaim / That everything is surface" (190). The first movement resolves itself with quandary:

       . . .The whole is stable within
Instability, a globe like ours, resting
On a pedestal of vacuum, a ping pong ball
Secure on its jet of water.
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.

The poet holds to the possibility of the image as reality because there is no definitive proof that it is not what it appears to be. Almost as a compromise, the movement ends with an "Affirmation that doesn't affirm anything."

Movement 2

The second movement begins with a disintegration of the mirror's image, as if someone has dropped a rock in Narcissus's pool destroying the image momentarily. Out of pure dismay "the attention / turns dully away. Clouds / In the puddle stir up into sawtoothed fragments" and the image of SELF begins to give way to doubt. The flux of experience–the transience of days, visits from friends, the arbitrary nature of the artist's creation–begins to preclude the possibility of capturing genuine reality or of defining it in any accurate way, "until no part / Remains that is surely you" (191). The complexity of reality leads to questions that cannot be answered by the portrait and creates an almost schizophrenic anxiety in the poet:

       . . .Whose curved hand controls,
Francesco, the turning seasons and the thoughts
That peel off and fly away at breathless speeds
Like the last stubborn leaves ripped
From wet branches? I see in this only the chaos
Of your round mirror which organizes everything
Around the polestar of your eyes which are empty,
Know nothing, dream but reveal nothing.

Obviously the poet here is seduced by the freedom of anarchy as it pushes away the possibility of defined reality. The empty eyes of the painting betray its illusory nature. And no amount of talent or detail can restore the properties of life in the silver blur of the portrait. The painting is simply two-dimensional no matter how it approximates the third dimension. However, the movement closes with a statement that begins to turn the argument on itself again: "In the circle of your intentions certain spars / Remain that perpetuate the enchantment of self with self" (192). As Lacan points out in his assessment of temporality, the past and the future are anticipated in the portraits images of today, in the realization of the Self's image.

Movement 3

The third movement begins with the realization that chaos cannot destroy all the power of the artist's creation–"Of course some things / Are possible, it knows, but it doesn't know / Which ones" (192). There remains the irritable groping to "try / to do as many things as are possible." For a moment in this movement, Ashbery abandons the need for proof of identity–"Even stronger possibilities can remain / Whole without being tested" (192-93)–which would seem to imply a turn toward faith. The ideal of reality is expressed as a dream which replenishes itself, just as the image of Narcissus would return to the surface of the pool after the concentric rings of a splash (Freud's chaos) have dissipated.

It is at this point that Ashbery invokes the words of the art critic to establish the underlying rightness of harmony of Parmigianino's piece:

       . . .Sydney Freedberg in his
Parmigianino says of it: "Realism in this portrait
No longer produces an objective truth, but a bizarria. . . .
However its distortion does not create
A feeling of disharmony. . . .The forms retain
A strong measure of ideal beauty." (193)

The critic's words here should echo Freud and Lacan's descriptions of Narcissism and the "mirror stage" in the sense that the image of Self achieved is not real in any fashion; it is an ideal image to be yearned for. Clearly, art has a purpose during this realization of reality that exceeds meaning. The portrait's insistence that it contains the real, the soul, and the forms of creation break continually over the viewer (or poet) like waves, coming and going while retaining enough power in their insistence to come again in the dialectic. According to Ashbery, this ebb and flow seems a suitable arrangement:

Why be unhappy with this arrangement, since
Dreams prolong us as they are absorbed?
&Something like living occurs, a movement
Out of the dream into its codification. (194)

This closing stance to movement 3 marks a turning point in the poem, however. It is the last firm foothold for the notion of a defined self, a codified reality. In the final three movements Ashbery seems to relinquish the urge to establish identity beyond a shadow of doubt and gives over to the chaos found all to readily in daily experience. This is not to say that the poem ceases to reach anxiously toward identity; more accurately the success of the narcissistic experiment begins to unravel even as the poet realizes the experiment must continue.

Movement 4

In the fourth movement, the turn in the poet's attitude toward the portrait comes with the realization that that the reflection of Self is actually a reflection of Other. While the obvious premise of the poem has been (up to this point) an examination Parmigianino's self-portrait, Ashbery has carried out the subtle implication that the Self captured could very well have been the poet's, or the viewer's for that matter. Staring into the reflection in the convex mirror, "you could be fooled for a moment / Before you realize the reflection / Isn't yours" (194). With this realization of Other comes the implication that the portrait is a hoax of sorts:

       . . .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.         (194-95)

The poet realizes the fiction of the mirror at this point, and feels isolated and separate from that with which he once identified. In Lacanian terms, the poet now reaches a point where experience forces the illusion of the mirror into the forefront and calls into question the existence of any true identity and the validity of any search for that identity. This, according to Lacan is the mature person's anxiety over what Ashbery calls the battle between pathos and experience.

Movement 5

In the penultimate movement, chaos injects itself into the equation to irradicate any reaching toward identity. The security of the artist's place in the world, his studio, that he has meticulously established in the self-portrait is slowly consumed by the reality of experience:

       . . .Our landscape
Is alive with filiations, shuttlings;
Business is carried on by a look, gesture,
Hearsay. It is another life to the city,
The backing of the looking glass of the
Unidentified but precisely sketched studio. It wants
To siphon off the life of the studio, deflate
Its mapped space to enactments, island it.

Real life tries to blot out the artist's creation with its noise and meaningless activity. Whatever life, or soul, is to be found in Parmigianino's work is "siphoned off" by this chaos, and whatever identity is established becomes a mere face in the crowd of the city's movements.

A truer self-portrait comes in the shape of the wind which "has no notion / Of itself" (196). This freshness and vitality of this wind makes Parmigianino's narcissism "look willful and tired, the games of an old man." Ashbery finally presents the abandonment of the quest to close out the movement:

. . .Your argument, Francesco,
Had begun to grow stale as no answer
Or answers were forthcoming. If it dissolves now
Into dust, that only means its time had come
Some time ago. (196)

Because of the endless cycle of this debate, and the constant need for reassurance that Lacan's "mirror stage" requires, Ashbery abandons the quest for identity and accepts the impossibility of establishing the Self (or any definite reality). Rather than a existential dilemma, Parmigianino's portrait becomes less than an annoyance:

Only leaving our minds bare for questioning
We now see will not take place at random
But in an orderly way that means to menace
Nobody. (197)

Again, Ashbery's relinquishing of the argument does not stop the cycle; it only puts it in its proper perspective. As Edelman suggests, "The poet, throughout the first five sections of the poem, willfully attempts to reassert that the painting is a privelaged realm of meaning, a domain of interiority linked to presence, fullness, and truth" (103).

Movement 6

The final movement of the poem proves the most complicated due to Ashbery's modulation of moods from confusion, to anger, to acceptance, and finally to admission of hope. As the poet carries the reader through these emotions, he presents wave after wave of justification and counter-intelligence in order to represent (as accurately as possible) his own self-portrait as distorted by personal perspective as Parmigianino's.

Even with the knowledge that "What is Beautiful seems so only in relation to a specific / life" (197), that no ideal Self exists as a universal, the poet opens this final movement with a momentary confusion staring at the portrait as if an answer will come despite all fact:

       . . .I go on consulting
This mirror that is no longer mine
For as much brisk vacancy as is to be
My portion this time.

The poet seems to gain an understanding here that behind the mirror rests the elements of life–love, mortality, hope–that "cannot be sandwiched" into the painting. No moment can hold up as universal in face of the transience of time–"That is, all time / Reduces to no special time" (199-200). And the necessity of the quest for identity does not assume the necessity of art:

We don't need paintings or
Doggerel written by mature poets when
The explosion is so precise, so fine.
Is there any point even in acknowledging
The existence of all that?

Life precludes art in this respect, especially that art which holds itself up as real:

       . . . those assholes
Who would confuse everything with their mirror games
Which seem to multiply stakes and possibilities, or
At least confuse issues by means of an investing
Aura that would corrode the architecture
Of the whole in a haze of suppressed mockery,
Are beside the point. They are out of the game,
Which doesn't exist until they are out of it.

The poet's anxiety over the issue erupts into anger in these lines in which hope seems an expensive, and useless, detour. By this point in the poem, Parmigianino's self-portrait becomes a tease, peeling away just before it approaches enough to grasp, promising answers it simply cannot supply. In fact, the poet dismisses Parmigianino's narcissistic detour as an irrelevant hindrance to the real issue, which cannot begin to be understood until the fiction of the "mirror stage" is removed/destroyed. Lacan's process is a necessary step, but it can lead this poet nowhere:

       . . . This otherness, this
"Not-being-us" is all there is to look at
In the mirror, though no one can say
How it came to be this way.

And later:

       Aping naturalness may be the first step
Toward achieving an inner calm
But it is the first step only, and often
Remains a frozen gesture of welcome etched
On the air materializing behind it,
A convention.

No clearer reconciliation of the security of the Lacanian "mirror stage" and Ashbery's acceptance of disorder is possible. The narcissistic cycle that captures the poet in "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" is inevitable. Ashbery must vacillate between these two poles to capture his own vision of reality and Self which clearly incorporates both sides of the argument and goes further to anticipate those elements of reality that cannot be fathomed much less phrased (or painted). This reconciliation of sorts leads to the "hope" and acceptance found in the closing lines:

       . . .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 remembrance, whispers out of time.

The artist, whose "hand holds no chalk," is not creating here; he is observing–rapt in the confusing duplicities of the mirror, drawn and repelled by the convex glass which seduces and scorns him. For Ashbery, this participation in the cycle is unavoidable as one tries to place himself not only as an individual but also as an artist in the world. And in the end, Lacan's "mirror stage" proves itself a necessary, if insufficient, first step in this process.


Works Cited

Ashbery, John. Selected Poems. New York: Penguin, 1985.

Bloom, Harold, ed. John Ashbery. New York: Chelsea, 1985.

Edelman, Lee. "The Pose of Imposture: Ashbery's 'Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.'" Twentieth Century Literature: A Scholarly and Critical Journal. Albany, NY (TLC). 1986 Spring, 32:1, 95-114.

Freud, Sigmund. "On Narcissism: An Introduction." InGeneral Psychological Theory, Ed. Philip Rieff. New York: Collier Macmillan, 1963. 65-85.

Gallop, Jane. Reading Lacan. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1985.

Hoeppner, Edward Haworth. "Shadows and Glass: Mirrored Selves in the Poetry of W.S. Merwin and John Ashbery." Philological Quarterly, Iowa City, IA (PQ). 1986 Summer, 65:3, 311-334.

Kohut, Heinz. The Kohut Seminars. Ed. Miriam Elson. New York: Norton, 1987.

Lehman, David, ed. Beyond Amazement: New Essays on John Ashbery. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1980.

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

Shoptaw, John. On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery's Poetry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1994.