Sunday, May 06, 2007

"The tension is in the concept": John Ashbery's surrealism


In fact, it is little wonder that Ashbery has felt attracted to de Chirico, since they share a wide range of obsessions. Traveling and the passing of time have become major preoccupations for both, and they have associated these in a very similar way. Spatial and temporal movement are thus intrinsically connected, the traveling impulse having a cathartic function against the burden of passing time. But at the same time our wandering stands for the permanent sense of loss, the typically metaphysical anxiety. Moreover, they are equally fond of chance associations, but within certain restrictions, scarcely following the Bretonian rule of the unconscious that led to automatic writing. The effect sought by Ashbery's "logic / Of strange position" (Some Trees 74) found a consecrated poetics in de Chirico's "metaphysical aesthetic," a vague term coined by the Italian to refer to his special sensibility toward those privileged moments of random intersection between the uncanny and the mundane:

   One must picture everything in the world as an enigma, not only the
great questions one has always asked oneself [...]. But rather to
understand the enigma of things generally considered insignificant.
To perceive the mystery of certain phenomena of feeling [...]. To
live in the world as if in an immense museum of strangeness, full
of curious many-colored toys which change their appearance, which,
like little children we sometimes break to see how they are made on
the inside, and, disappointed, realize they are empty.

("Eluard Ms." 185-86)

Equally, both feel an unusual interest in the role of memory and the world of dreams, which accounts for their characteristically uneasy atmospheres. They subvert the logic of natural events, and provide an alternative of their own. De Chirico managed to "turn the realities of the seen world and the logic of traditional perspective systems into a theater where dreams could unfold" (Rosenblum 47). But despite his distortions of perspective--another technique he shares with Ashbery--de Chirico is considered a narrative painter, somewhat foreign to the spirit of formal experimentation that swept over the Paris of Cubism and Dada. Ashbery has written of Parmigianino's self-portrait that "The surprise, the tension are in the concept / Rather than its realization" (Self-Portrait 74).

-from "The tension is in the concept": John Ashbery's surrealism