"Which i's his I?": surrealist reflections in Elizabeth Bishop's Mirror (1).
"I've had nothing yet," Alice replied in an offended tone: "so I can't take more."
"You mean you can't take less," said the Hatter: "it's very easy to take more than nothing." Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Despite the more or less general agreement over the importance of the surrealist aspects in Elizabeth Bishop's early poems, the nature and extent of this affinity remain largely unexplored. An understandable reluctance to associate her with surrealism has long haunted critical studies of her poetry. (2) Breton's techniques are so evidently removed from Bishop's renowned associative ability and endless drafting, that we run the risk of generalizing a total lack of relationship between their work. Actually, surrealism was too complex and heterogeneous to consider it the product of Breton' s mind alone. Critics have long treated it as a tuning fork, its two opposite branches sharing a common origin and needing each other. According to William Rubin, these are characterized -- with regard to Breton's doctrine of automatism -- as automatist-abstract and academic-illusionist (Rubin 36). The painters who illustrate this bipolarity most accurately are, respectively, Miro and Magritte. A genealogy of this academic-ill usionist wing would surely stem from the metaphysical period of the Italian painter and poet Giorgio de Chirico. His importance as a forerunner of the movement was not even questioned by Breton, although eventually his influence brought about a good deal of internal dissent. Rene Magritte, admittedly indebted to the Italian, also ranks among the surrealist painters who objected to automatism.
Bishop's affinities with surrealism are heavily related to these painters, and grounded upon a poetics of defamiliarization not necessarily associated to formal experimentation as we understand proper to avant-garde movements. Even though we know Bishop's dislike for radical fragmentation (she complained about the quality of Pablo Neruda' s poetry in terms of "very, very loose, surrealist imagery"), the fact is that the juxtaposition of images -- and objects -- is a principle followed by the painters she respected. (3) What she found missing in Neruda was the unity conferred to the poems by proper grammar, which she demanded for verbal art with greater insistence than for painting. (4) In Breton's poetry we may find loose imagery predominant, but a study of those images and their implicit connections shows that he and Bishop occasionally resorted to the same devices to express common concerns about visual perception and identity. Moreover, there is a link halfway between both in the figure of Rene Magritte, s ome of whose paintings are exact visual representations of several images found in Breton's early poetry. (5)
The poetics of defamiliarization followed by Elizabeth Bishop and Magritte may have a distant origin in the influence of Arthur Schopenhauer on de Chirico. The philosopher's idea that memory is the necessary evil responsible for the irreversible prosification of our world was determinant for the Italian: "Schopenhauer defines the madman as a person who has lost his memory. It is an apt definition because... that which constitutes the logic of our normal acts and our normal life is a continuous rosary of recollections of relationships between things and ourselves and vice versa" (de Chirico, "On Metaphysical Art" 450). The surrealists' attempt to restore the purity of the eye was, naturally, directly related to this idea of ridding vision of habit and prejudice. Breton originally prized the immediacy of visual perception above all other considerations, pursuing the eye's savage state; but his romantic sublimation of the unconscious leads us to think he took his utopian goal too seriously. Bishop and Magritte r ightly saw this as an ideal, and worked toward it with healthy self-irony.
This paper studies Bishop's use of mirrors in her poem "The Gentleman of Shalott" against the background of Andre Breton's early poetry, where this device is particularly recurrent. The remarkable similarities between Bishop's treatment of mirrors and the surrealist approach to this motif provide a new reading of her poem, and call for a reconsideration of her early poetry in the light of her surrealist connections.
"The Gentleman of Shalott" (CF 9-10) (6) was most likely written in 1935, during Bishop's stay in France (it was first published shortly after her return, in April 1936). The cultural context of the poem may be then safely defined as the France of the surrealist fever. It describes the mental imprisonment of a man who thinks that the symmetry of the human anatomy is caused by a mirror, his body being thus half-real and half-reflection. Bishop also illustrates the character's process toward conformity with this situation. His conviction makes him a puppet of the mirror, where all his actions are in fact half-imitation:
To his mind it's the indication of a mirrored reflection somewhere along the line of what we call the spine. He felt in modesty his person was half looking-glass, for why should he be doubled?
"To his mind" introduces the poem as a fantasy of the Gentleman, who seems to enjoy Bishop's sympathy. The whole poem is written in third person, and the Gentleman's words and thoughts are all reported, except for the final motto "Half is enough." There is not a single instance of the first person by either Bishop or the character, and still the opening line seems to pose a direct question about identity, by means of the Metaphysical pun "Which eye's his eye?"
The mirror was also a favorite device in surrealist games. It was often abused in order to explore the visual challenge it represented. As an excuse for intellectual paradoxes, it was appreciated by Magritte, who had -- like de Chirico -- embarked in a personal crusade to recover the potential poetry of ordinary events and objects. But the symbiosis between Bishop's Gentleman and the glass has a precedent in Breton. The first instance of Breton's infatuation with windows and mirrors comes from his own account of the epiphany that led him to automatic writing. In 1922 he used the following anecdote to explain the genesis of his method:
One evening in particular, as I was about to fall asleep, I became aware of a sentence articulated clearly to a point excluding all possibility of alteration and stripped of all quality of vocal sound. . . It ran approximately like this: "A man is cut in half by the window." What made it plalner was the fact that it was accompanied by a feeble visual representation of a man in the process of walking but cloven, at half his height, by a window perpendicular to the axis of his body. Definitely, there was the form, re-erected against space, of a man leaning out of a window. But the window following the man's locomotion, I understood that I was dealing with an image of great rarity. Instantly the idea came to me to use it as material for poetic construction. (Breton, "What is Surrealism?" 410-11)
In this text he mixed the human anatomy and the window into a single, autonomous hybrid. The man is not injured by the glass, and his free mobility is emphasized as an even stranger feature (just like Bishop's Gentleman: "he can walk and run / and his hands can clasp one / another"). Breton's last statement, his decision to use this image "for poetic construction," deserved verification. The possibility of an interesting Bishop connection suggested research into his poetic production until 1935, the date of Bishop's first arrival in France, in order to explore the context in which she wrote this poem, and what "lots of surrealist poetry and prose" she may have found available (Brown 297). A survey of Breton's poetry until then shows indeed a recurrence of this image and its several variations. A possible explanation for this may be found in the automatic character of these poems (favoring repetition), where scattered lines and poem titles reveal -- displaying loose imagery indeed -- to what extent it would be come a central motif in his early poetry. Of course, the horizontal insertion of the glass does not suit -- as it does in Bishop -- the symmetric play. In later examples, however, we shall see Breton's emphasis on the interchangeable features of mirrors and windows.
Although not directly related to Surrealism, there is also the possibility of interpreting the text as a revisionist version of Tennyson's poem "The Lady of Shalott." In Tennyson's poem the male poet had a female, passive character imprisoned in a tower, only partially relieved by the mirror (which worked in turn as a symbol of her imprisonment). When she finally adopted an active role, the mirror cracked and the curse led to her death. In Bishop's mock-version the female poet has a male character imprisoned inside the mirror. Within his passivity, he can be moderately active while the mirror lasts. In fact, the limited existences of both Lady and Gentleman happen to depend on their mirrors.
The gender issue, which is particularly relevant if we accept the revisionist approach, provides readings that deal with the anguish of a lesbian poet in Bishop's days. Betsy Erkkila, for instance, explains the self-division of the poem quoting Adrienne Rich's expression "lesbian writing under a false universal of heterosexuality" (120). However, with the precedent of Breton's man "cut in half by the window," that division need no longer be explained exclusively in terms of sexuality. Not only because gender is not an issue in
Breton's anecdote, but also because the degree of Bishop's identification with her character has traditionally been overemphasized. In fact, irony is the predominant mode in her attitude toward the Gentleman. To begin with, his pretension is completely unbelievable. Since the brain is believed to rule the body's motion following a chiasmic structure (as in mirror reflections), there is no possible mobility for a man whose real limbs expect orders from a reflected hemisphere; and for the same reason, the limbs reflected would remain still. While this counter-argument may seem all too evident to any reader, it should be noticed that it was intended to expose Bishop's deliberate irrationality and playfulness in writing this poem, just like Breton transcribed his dream-vision without any other pretension. Her highly detailed description of the Gentleman's imaginary illness makes the whole poem a display of Bishop's irony at its best:
There's little margin for error, but there's no proof, either. And if half his head's reflected, thought, he thinks, might be affected.
The poem's logical reasoning is entirely deficient, although it sounds coherent. While it is the character who notices this fault in his brain, he is by no means more reliable for this; actually, this is an incoherence. For the very same reason he would have to suspect his own deduction and thus fall into a vicious circle of self-challenging statements. The excess of logic here leads to a paradox, as often in Lewis Carroll. Beyond (inside) the mirror there is a sort of paradox-world. Bishop makes fun of his paranoia: such a statement could never come from the Gentleman. While the reasoning is right in itself, the conclusion is not applicable because it is deduced not by Bishop (". . . he thinks. . .") but by the character, whose mind is affected. This paradox works as a warning for the reader. The character is unreliable, no matter how sympathetic Bishop may be. This deliberate incoherence at the writer's level exposes the imaginary character of the Gentleman's illness (he is a bit of a fake, starved for atte ntion), but at the same time she makes him participate of the poetic incoherences of the mirror-world. Bishop's deliberateness is not to be questioned, given her hairsplitting verbal accuracy. The best account of Bishop's ambivalence toward her character is Bonnie Costello's: "Bishop clearly mocks him for his narcissistic self-absorption (touted as modesty), [but] ... too many lines in the middle of the poem suggest Bishop's positive identification with the Gentleman" (28-29).
Entrapped -- again the motif of imprisonment -- in a circular argumentation, the character is the prisoner to many different circumstances, both "physical" (in Bishop's mirror-poem) and mental (in his own delusion). The playfulness here is delightful, especially in her self-correction (epanorthosis) "The glass must stretch / down his middle, / or rather down the edge." (7) She is clearly mocking his illusion of self-division, while pretending to be sympathetic. Her refusal to argue with him recalls the stereotyped psychoanalytic treatment found in comedies. Taking him too seriously, however, does not help. (8)
The Gentleman's evolution toward the acceptance of his condition is another process that receives an ironic treatment. In less than thirty lines his attitude shifts several times toward an increasingly conforming position. While the first thirty lines show the character rather worried (particularly lines 16-30), he suddenly happens to be "resigned / to that economical design." From resignation he jumps to an openly celebrating attitude ("the uncertainty / he says he / finds exhilarating"). The last two lines show how he has grown self-conscious after having been given so much attention (that is, the very development of the poem): "He wishes to be quoted as saying at present 'Half is enough."' Bishop allows this reading through her choice of the language. The poem reflects the Gentleman's betrayal of his histrionic character, flattered by our interest. The final lines illustrate yet another contradiction, for his statement is very much another incoherence: a declaration of modesty, where the content is belied by the wording. (9)
Bishop's deceptive use of logic is a strategy that she shares with Magritte. In their respective defamiliarizing endeavors both resorted at some stage to this type of abuse of logic. Magritte's best example can be seen in his 1926 canvas Les liaisons dangereuses (fig. 1). In this painting he presented a woman covering her apparently naked body with a mirror, her shadow projected against the wall behind. The seeming paradox comes from the mirror's reflection of the female body it was supposed to hide. Moreover, the body reflected is turned sideways, in an impossible scorzo for the woman holding the mirror. In 1936 he painted another version where the woman's hand is absent from the shadow she projects. This makes the 1936 painting an impossible image. In the 1926 version, however, the canvas shows a perfectly possible situation, and a photo could be obtained featuring exactly the same image, since the woman behind the mirror and the woman reflected need not be the same. This is more than just a variation on th e same motif because its results are diametrically opposite: a false paradox. In painting this almost identical couple Magritte was setting a trap for those who were used to looking at his series as variations on the same effect or motif, thus not-looking because they "already knew." These two versions succeed in cheating the eye not of the unwary but of those who attend his exhibitions already conditioned by his reputation.
In more than one way this strategy resembles Bishop's deception through logic. Both she and Magritte play with our expectations. She uses step-by-step logic reasoning in order to make the trusting reader relax, and in the end achieves a totally impossible situation. Since we tend to see what we came to see -- our expectations often smothering our senses -- the surrealists felt the need to produce these false trompe l'oeil works. Magritte must have decided that facing people with the impossible in every canvas had brought about a vaccinated public, a challenge to his unpredictability; so he made these occasional returns to unconventional but possible images. Again, this must be interpreted as an effort to restore the purity of the eye, which finds an equivalent in Bishop's nostalgically evoked "infant sight" at the end of "Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance" (CP 59).
In both Breton's window anecdote and Bishop's poem there is a glass that divides the subject, the glass being inside him. But in "The Gentleman of Shalott" the situation is doubly complicated, since the mirror is said to reflect the Gentleman's other half. Thus the (looking-) glass is not just inside him, but also part of him is "inside" it. This presence of the subject inside the reflecting surface is a particularly enriching feature. In Bishop's poem
The glass must stretch down his middle, or rather down the end. But he's in doubt as to which side's in or out of the mirror.
In Breton's prose poem "La glace sans tain" [The Glass without Silvering], from the 1921 book Les champs magnetiques (co-written with Philippe Soupault), the same image is presented, in a very similar way. The piece opens with the line "Prisonniers des gouttes d'eau...." [Prisoners of the waterdrops. . . .] which also implies the physical presence of the subject inside the reflecting object (Breton and Soupault 27). (10) The reflection of the beholder--seen as "presence"--in the surface of a waterdrop is an image that dates back at least to a metaphysical conceit. Incidentally, the Metaphysical Poets were not just a favorite reading of Elizabeth Bishop's. Their daring metaphors were appreciated by the surrealists, too (for a systematic account of tear-imagery in Bishop's poetry, mainly related to the Metaphysical Poets, see Powers-Beck, 69-87). In John Donne's 1663 poem "A Valediction: Of Weeping" we find perhaps the best example:
Let me pour forth My tears before thy face, whilst I stay here, For thy face coins them, and thy stamp they bear, And by this mintage they are something worth, For thus they be Pregnant of thee; Fruits of much grief they are, emblems of more, When a tear falls, that thou falls which it bore. . . . (89)
In Donne's poem the presence inside is emphasized with the term "pregnant," developing connotations of fertility in the following "Fruits," and in "that thou falls" (which opens the possibility of several "you"). Bishop's is no love poem, and the apparent sterility of the Gentleman's narcissism offers a sharp contrast.
Where we do find many reflections in rainfall is in Rene Magritte's 1953 painting Golconde (fig. 2), now with ellipsis of the waterdrop itself. The image is exactly the same: these men are "prisonniers des gouttes d'eau" and at the same time they are reflections of the painter (who used to represent himself as a bowler-hatted man in a gray suit). The painting thus becomes not just a window to the street outside (reproducing as it does an elevated perspective) but also a mirror where the looker can see his own image multiplied -- and imprisoned -- in the raindrops.
This window-mirror ambiguity is recurrent in Breton, and best represented in his already quoted "La glace sans tain." The glace in the title respects the semantic ambiguity glass/mirror in both French and English, and thus the glass without silvering ceases to reflect and turns into a window. If his 1922 anecdote had provided the daring fusion of the human anatomy and the glass, the title of this automatic piece opened the possibility of a transparent mirror. According to Durozoi and Lecherbonnier, the glace sans tam is a rebuke to the romantic concept of poetry as self-reflection, a poetic claim that says we must see through the mirror, so that it is no longer a mirror but a window (87-88). This image of seeing through the mirror has nothing to do with the re-direction of the gaze toward the external, a therapeutic attitude Bishop skillfully manages to elude in relation to the Gentleman, since the irony she displays is enough to clarify to what extent she is concerned with balancing detachment and identifica tion.
"La glace sans tain," as a single poem, is all the more remarkable for Breton' s combination of these images within the same piece. It illustrates, however, only one of the two possible directions in the exchange between mirrors and windows. The opposite case is represented in the poem "Noeud des miroirs," from Breton's 1932 book Le revolver a cheveux blancs [The White-Haired Revolver]. The poem begins with the line "Les belles fenetres ouvertes et fermees. . ." [The lovely windows open and closed] (Breton, Clair de terre 126). This apparently innocent image suggests that mirrors (in the title) are windows both open and closed, but it is directly related to the subversive aim expressed in "La glace sans tain" of seeing through, of going beyond the limits imposed by his times. This window, like the one that opened to our heart, was not meant to "reveal an external world but instead opened 'out' to the psychic world within" (Jay 244-45). Breton connects with Bishop both at the level of imagery (in the relevance and recurrence of the sight metaphor), and the need to break with the burden of nineteenth-century literary conceptions.
Again, a highly accurate visual illustration of Breton' s image can be found in a painting by Rene Magritte: Le mois des vendanges (fig. 3). As Mary Ann Caws has noted
Month of Harvest confronts the would-be outlooker with a series of faces looking in through a window ordinarily suited to contemplation of the exterior. Their gaze, directed at ours, and all the more terrible for being a multiplication of the same look, blocks our outlook and renders us a prisoner of the room, denying us even the most ordinary of landscapes. (Caws 100)
The fact that the window becomes a mirror is not just an exercise in inversion. The view outside reproduces the same effect as in Golconde: it returns our image multiplied; only that the reflective quality of the raindrops is an accidental feature whereas windows are expressly devised to allow our seeing through them. Thus Magritte's deviation also implies breaking with object functionality (one of his favorite strategies), just like Breton's glace sans tam or, to put an example from Bishop, the window in her 1935 sestina "A Miracle for Breakfast": "A window across the river caught the sun / as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony" (CP 19). Here we can see how a window's other main function, allowing light into the room, is also subverted.
According to Rosalind Krauss, the window was already a complex image for symbolist painters and poets, who developed it "in an explicitly modernist direction":
As a transparent vehicle, the window is that which admits light -- or spirit -- into the initial darkness of the room. But if glass transmits, it also reflects. And so the window is experienced by the symbolist as a mirror as well -- something that freezes and locks the self into the space of its own reduplicated being. Flowing and freezing; glace in French means glass, mirror, and ice; transparency, opacity, and water. In the associative system of symbolist thought this liquidity points in two directions. First, towards the flow of birth -- the amniotic fluid, the "source" -- but then, towards the freezing into stasis or death -- the unfecund immobility of the mirror. (Krauss 16-17)
These lines retake the dialectic between fertile and sterile readings of the mirror motif. Naturally enough, this argument cannot be made fully extensive to all of the examples mentioned: while Donne's fluid tears are pregnant with his lover's image and Breton' s call for transparency relates to his creative position about literature, there are also images of imprisonment in the latter's gouttes d'eau. Magritte is even more ambiguous -- although that is no surprise, since his paintings often show the tension between images and titles. Golconde and Month of Harvest (especially as titles) share connotations of abundance and fecundity against the negative imprisonment of the looker. From this perspective, only Bishop's Gentleman, rejoicing in his reflection, remains a prisoner without relief, the myth of Narcissus being traditionally related to barrenness. Many critics have complained about the self-enclosure and aestheticism of Bishop's early writing in terms of sterility and barrenness. Langdon Hammer warns us that "these metaphors inadvertently but tellingly link nonliteral writing with a nonreproductive sexuality" (144). Moreover, a prisoner the Gentleman may be, but this is useful to balance his ambiguous enjoyment of the situation. In Bishop's 1938 story "In Prison," the speaker argues more or less successfully for the pleasures of voluntary imprisonment. Among these the most remarkable is "to be given one very dull book to read.... A book, moreover, on a subject completely foreign to me; perhaps the second volume ... to experience with a free conscience the pleasure, perverse, I suppose, of interpreting it not at all according to its intent... and by posing fragments of it against the surroundings and conversations of my prison, I shall be able to form my own examples of surrealist art! -- something I should never know how to do outside, where the sources are so bewildering" (187-88).
In the last examples we have seen the inversion of Breton' s initial vision through the mirror, into reflections in windows. This inversion, though, does not imply the opposite intention (a return to the romantic), but rather an ever-enriching acceptance of the coexistence of both possibilities. The continuity of this type of imagery, from Donne to Breton, along with its natural evolution, reveals a latent tradition that flourished during the symbolist period.
A final example from Breton's early poetry constitutes a most complete parade of motifs from the previous poems, describing in 1932 the same image that Magritte would paint in Golconde (1953), with great accuracy. The following is an extract from the poem, called "Non-lieu":
Partez ma chere aurore n'oubliez rien de ma vie Prenez ces roses qui grimpent au puits des miroirs ............................................... Prenez jusqu'aux fils qui soutiennent les pas des danseurs de corde et des gouttes d'eau ............................................... Je suis la fenetre tres loin dans une cite pleine d'epouvante Dehors des hommes a chapeau claque se suivent intervalle regulier Pareils aux pluies que j'amais.... (Breton, Clair de terre 109) [Leave, my dear aurora don't forget anything of my life Take these roses that climb inside the mirror pit ............................................... Take even the strings that hold the steps of the puppets and of the waterdrops ............................................... I stand at the window far away from a city full of terror Outside, several men in top hats follow each other at regular intervals Just like the rain I used to love....]
The puits des miroirs works as a reference to the reflecting surface of the well, or to the dew condensed in the roses, this being then another variation on the water (drop)-as-mirror motif. But what is remarkable is the almost immediate coupling of two elements already too familiar: gouttes d'eau and danseurs de corde. The recurrence of the puppet-motif with relation to mirror reflections emphasizes connotations of dependence. In Bishop's "The Gentleman of Shalott" there is also that feeling:
If the glass slips he's in a fix -- only one leg, etc. But while it stays put he can walk and run and his hands can clasp one another....
These movements, advertised as freedom, are in fact the typically unambitious gestures of a puppet. Moreover, the copula et linking the waterdrops and the puppets establishes a sort of equivalence between them, confirmed by the last image. Breton's perspective is, just like in Golconde, taken from a window; and the lines "Outside, several men in top hats follow each other at regular intervals / Just like the rain ..." describe exactly the same scene as Magritte's painting: a real shower of gentleman-reflecting raindrops. (11)
A look into Bishop's notebooks of 1934-35 -- roughly the date of composition of "The Gentleman of Shalott" -- offers us yet another revealing instance of her concern, even obsession, with this sort of imagery:
The window this evening was covered with hundreds of long, shining drops of rain, laid on the glass which was covered with steam on the inside. I tried to look out, but could not. Instead I realized I could look into the drops, like so many crystal balls. Each bore traces of relative or friend: several weeping faces slid away from mine; watery jewels, leaves and insects magnified, and strangest of all, horrible enough to make me step quickly away, was one large drop containing a lonely, magnificent human eye, wrapped in its own tear. (qtd. in Kalstone 14)
The window is suddenly turned opaque by a silvering of steam, reflecting faces as in Month of Harvest, and the drops contain their own "imprisoned" images, including the tears shed by several weeping faces (a drop inside another). Human beings inside waterdrops slide down the windowpane echoing the human rain in Golconde. A new feature occurs when some of these images are magnified by the drops, but most remarkable of all is the vision of that ambiguously "horrible" and "magnificent" human eye, "wrapped in its own tear." David Kalstone has brilliantly used this notebook entry to illuminate current readings of both "The Man-Moth" and "The Weed" (1420), but perhaps there is still a further connection with Magritte' s iconography in the figure of the reflecting eye. Magritte painted two versions of his Faux miroir, dated, significantly, 1928 and 1935 (the former hosted by the MoMA). The drop/tear wrapping such eye as described by Bishop would undoubtedly reflect whatever the eye saw, just like Magritte' s Faux m iroir (fig. 4) reflects the blue sky and clouds.
In the light of these surrealist experiments with reflections, one feels tempted to think that both Breton and Magritte would have been proud of creating a Gentleman of Shalott. Bishop's poem no doubt combines different features from the surrealist works mentioned, constructing a borderline situation for the Gentleman, who does not step fully into the mirror-world but refuses reality at the same time. It seems that Bishop, like her male character, is enjoying that ambiguity. Meanwhile we, puzzled readers, are certain that we are "not in Kansas any more," but can hardly explain why. (12) Still within the surrealist milieu, a sharp contrast with Bishop's refusal to recognize herself in the mirror is provided by the other main author in the France of the 1 920s. Guillaume Apollinaire, well represented in Bishop's library, published his Calligrammes in 1918. In his "Coeur, couronne et miroir" the shape of the mirror is outlined by the oval (clockwise) disposition of the syllables from the line
Dans ce miroir je suis enclos vivant et vrai comme on imagine les anges et non comme sont les reflets. (Apollinaire 197)
[In this mirror I am enclosed alive and real as one imagines the angels and not like reflections.]
The calligram is signed "Guillaume Apollinaire" precisely in the center of the oval, as if acknowledging full identification with the imaginary mirror image. The tension suggested by the word enclos (which can have in French the same connotations of imprisonment as in English) is solved by the following vivant et vrai. These seem to conjure the negative shadow, particularly since the rest of the line is not structured by juxtaposition of positive and negative aspects, but by assertion of the positive ("comme on imagines les anges") and rejection of the negative ("et non comme sont les reflets"). This defines a chiasmic scheme (as in mirror reflections) of positive and negative values. Moreover, this opposition illustrates a dialectic between the physical and the spiritual. Apollinaire' s treatment of the mirror motif is decidedly rooted in nineteenth century thought.
Through the affinities between Magritte and Bishop -- less radical than Breton while more modem than Apollinaire -- we can see how identification is not so much a matter of gender or milieu as of personal poetics. Retaking Breton' s glace sans tain -- which was a call for a new poetry through the use of vision as a metaphor -- it seems safe to propose a reading of "The Gentleman of Shalott along this line of thought. Bishop's poetry is not romantic self-reflection, but rather a denunciation of this practice. To a certain degree it is an attack on the exalted type of subjectivity that would later develop with the confessional school.
"The Gentleman of Shalott" is a representative example of Elizabeth Bishop's affinities with surrealism. Written in a cultural context marked by the systematic undermining of visual conventions, the poem shares with Breton' s poetry and Magritte' s painting the use of similar motifs to express almost identical concerns. The light shed by its surrealist precedents shows how the anatomy-glass image allows for readings that balance the general tendency to identify Bishop and her character, by stressing irony within the context of a long literary tradition. The theme of the subject's presence inside the reflecting surface can be followed as it develops from a metaphysical conceit into increasingly complex images in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As Krauss' s book implies, tradition and innovation coexist in the works of the so-called avant-garde (and we know their balance was always problematic for Bishop). Breton's glace sans tan, with its call to see "through," provides the necessary clue to this readi ng of "The Gentleman of Shalott." While he and Magritte portrayed several instances of the mirrorwindow ambiguity, none was so original as Bishop's. The Gentleman's borderline state is an apt metaphor for equilibrium: while Bishop feels a certain sympathy for him, she - unlike Apollinaire - cannot be contented with a romantic acceptance of the reflection. She skillfully manages to balance physical (and existential) imprisonment with enjoyment, empathy with irony, nonsense with depth, and faith in the innocent eye (marked by a certain naive romanticism) with mundane skepticism. Her unprogrammatic approach to surrealism allowed her to develop those aspects she shared with it, without embracing the whole cause as a constrictive aesthetic tyranny of compulsory freedom.
(1.) Research for this essay was made possible by a Beca de postgraduado para la realizacion de tesis doctoral, granted by the D.G.U.I. del Gobierno Autonomo de Canarias.
(2.) The limits of this affinity were self-imposed by her rejection of psychic automatism, as convincingly argued by Richard Mullen and Thomas Travisano, who established from a relatively early stage in Bishop studies her selective attitude toward surrealism. Later works have gradually explored different aspects. Barbara Page has researched into Bishop's Key West Notebooks for insight into the role of dreams and dream imagery. Regarding avant-garde art -- motifs, techniques, and attitude -- the contribution made by Bonnie Costello cannot be overstressed.
(3.) One Art 107. De Chirico's most famous paintings are still lives made of unrelated objects, and about these she wrote in another letter: "I did -- do -- like early Chirico" (478). See also Suarez-Toste for the affinities between de Chirico's metaphysical aesthetics and the avant-garde poetics developed by Bishop in North & South. De Chirico's writings include systematic refusals of dream transcription and dissociative techniques for inspiration -- justifying his rejection of Breton's doctrines.
(4.) Although this ambivalence must have been shared by many other poets, the most explicit statement I have found is by John Ashbery: "There was nothing in poetry that was the equivalent of painters like Pollock or de Kooning, or musicians like Cage. They were accepted in a way, but there was a feeling that you can't do that when you're writing poetry, you've got to make sense and use rhyme and meter and all the periods of order. And there is still a feeling that we can accept something on a wall of a museum that is totally unacceptable on a printed page" (Interview 295-96).
(5.) See Suarez-Toste, "Machine," for the relationship between Bishop and Magritte.
(6.) All quotations of Bishop's poetry are from The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 (New York: Farrar, 1983), hereafter abbreviated CP.
(7.) My italics. I use the term epanorthosis here with the implications established by Richard Mullen, who relates it to Bishop' s attempt to give her poetry a deliberately informal and spontaneous look, close to surrealist practices (68).
(8.) A Lacanian approach, for example, is no less puzzling. In Bishop's mock-exercise Lacan's "mirror-stage" is tested to destruction. While there may be a "jubilant assumption of his specular image" (2) by the Gentleman, the mirror does not provide a coherent and unitary image of the subject. There is certainly a meconnaissance or misrecognition that constitutes the subject's ego, but the mirror hardly provides any "illusion of autonomy" (6). Rather on the contrary, it asserts dependence, and division in equal halves -- to the point of proving totally indistinguishable. The result of the mirror experience is, in short, confusion. But accepting the situation ("he is resigned") is, after all, the ironic equivalent of entering what Lacan calls the symbolic realm.
(9.) In fact, the Gentleman suffers from a personality disorder, which has been accurately typified by scientists. Adolf Stem coined in 1938 the term "borderline" and since then the "borderline personality disorder" has been the object of deep study.
The range of symptoms includes narcissism, inordinate hypersensitivity, somatic anxiety, severely paranoid distortions, and -- not so surprisingly - "a curious contradiction between a very inflated concept of themselves and occasional feelings of extreme inferiority" (Kemberg 192-93).
(10.) Later in this automatic piece Breton retakes the window-anatomy motif, and there is a line that reads "La fenetre creusee dans notre chair s'ouvre sur notre coeur" ['The window excavated in our flesh opens to our heart'] (33). Again we find the window, not just as a hollow in the human anatomy but opening to an interior world.
(11.) The only difference would be the type of hat: for Magritte the top hat was exclusive of Fantomas, one of his heroes. He would never represent himself or the ordinary man with a top hat. For an insightful analysis of Bishop's use of windows as a perspective-framing device, see Costello, 14-20.
(12.) John Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" reminds us that the etymological source for the English "speculation" is precisely the Latin speculum ['mirror'] (69).
Apollinaire, Guillaume. Oeuvres poetiques. Paris: Gallimard, 1965.
Ashbery, John. "An Interview in Warsaw," conducted by Piotr Sommer. Code of Signals: Recent Writings in Poetics. Ed. Michael Palmer. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1983.
-----. Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. New York: Viking, 1975.
Bishop, Elizabeth. The Complete Poems: 1927-1979. New York: Farrar, 1983.
-----. "In Prison," The Collected Prose. New York: Farrar, 1984.
-----. One Art: Elizabeth Bishop's Letters. Ed. Robert Giroux. New York: Farrar, 1994.
Breton, Andre. Clair de terre, precede de Mont de piete, suivi de Le revolver a cheveux blancs et de L'air de l'eau. Paris: Gallimard, 1966.
-----. "What Is Surrealism?" Chipp 410-11.
Breton, Andre, and Philippe Soupault. Les champs magnetiques. Paris: Gallimard, 1968.
Brown, Ashley. "An Interview with Elizabeth Bishop." Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art. Ed. Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P. Estess. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1983.
Caws, Mary Ann. The Eye in the Text: Essays on Perception, Mannerist to Modern. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.
Chipp, Herschel B., ed. Theories of Modern Art: A Sourcebook by Artists and Critics. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968.
Costello, Bonnie. Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991.
de Chirico, Giorgio. "On Metaphysical Art." Chipp 450.
Donne, John. The Complete English Poems. ed. A. J. Smith. London: Penguin, 1986.
Durozoi, Gerard, and Bernard Lecherbonnier. Andre Breton: L'ecriture surrealiste. Paris: Larousse, 1974.
Erkkila, Betsy. The Wicked Sisters: Women Poets, Literary History, and Discord. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992.
Hammer, Langdon. "The New Elizabeth Bishop." Yale Review 84 (January 1994).
Jay, Martin. Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994.
Kalstone, David. Becoming a Poet: Elizabeth Bishop with Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. New York: Farrar, 1989.
Kernberg, Otto. Severe Personality Disorders. New Haven: Yale UP, 1984.
Krauss, Rosalind. The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986.
Lacan, Jacques. "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience." Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock, 1977.
Magritte, Rene. Faux miroir. (1928) MoMA, New York.
_____. Faux miroir. (1935) Private collection.
_____. Golconde. (1953) Private collection.
_____. Les liaisons dangereuses. (1926) Private collection.
_____. Les liaisons dangereuses. (1936) Private collection.
_____. Le mois des vendanges. (1959) Private collection, Paris.
Mullen, Richard. "Elizabeth Bishop's Surrealist Inheritance." American Literature 54 (March 1982): 63-80.
Page, Barbara. "Off-Beat Claves, Oblique Realities: The Key West Notebooks of Elizabeth Bishop." Elizabeth Bishop: The Geography of Gender. Ed. Marilyn May Lombardi. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1993.
Powers-Beck, Jeffrey. "Time to Plant Tears': Elizabeth Bishop's Seminary of Tears." South Atlantic Review 60 (Autumn 1995): 69-87.
Rubin, William. "Toward a Critical Framework." Artforum 5 (September 1966).
Suarez-Toste, Ernesto. "'Straight from Chirico': Pictorial Surrealism and the Early Elizabeth Bishop." Studies in the Humanities 23.2 (1996): 185-201.
_____. "Une Machine A Coudre Manuelle: Elizabeth Bishop's 'Everyday Surrealism.'" Mosaic 33.2 (2000): 143-60.
Travisano, Thomas. Elizabeth Bishop: Her Artistic Development. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1988.
Ernesto Suarez Toste is a graduate research fellow at the Universidad de La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain. He is completing a dissertation on the problematic relationship between surrealism and the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, with a special emphasis on the visual arts.
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|Publication:||Studies in the Humanities|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2000|
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