James Merrill's manners and Elizabeth Bishop's dismay.
became kinder, more generous, and more sympathetic. He never quite became an ordinary person, but his instinctive scorn of fools, once only half-concealed by good manners, relaxed and gave way to a detached, affectionate amusement, such as a highly civilized visitor from another planet might feel. (7)
Since the politeness of a bemused alien among human fools would satisfy no one's criteria for manners that are not merely polite, Lurie's portrait of Merrill's maturity is hardly flattering. It raises the question of the relationship between Merrill's detachment, his affection, and his amusement. Do his manners transform his scorn, or do they simply "relax" it? Does Merrill mature, or was he simply well brought up? Since, according to Merrill, "It's hard to imagine a work of literature that doesn't depend on manners" (Recitative 33), the question of manners bears also on style, which Stephen Yenser rightly calls the "literary allotrope" of manners (58).
For Merrill, Wallace Stevens's work exemplifies the "poem of manners" because of his inclination to "present the world through, say, a character's intelligence or lack of it" (Recitative 32). Such first-person enactments of "social behavior" are "more hospitable to irony, self-expression, self-contradiction, than many a philosophical or sociological system" or the "descriptions of social behavior" that according to Merrill inform Eliot's work (33). The qualities of "tone or voice" that Merrill values are evident in Marcel, the narrator of In Search of Lost Time: "The real triumph of manners in Proust is the extreme courtesy toward the reader.... Proust says to us in effect, 'I will not patronize you by treating these delicate matters with less than total, patient, sparkling seriousness'" (33). Marcel's voice restores to the social graces of the Proustian salon, so easily pressed into the service of flattery and aggression, the moral function of demonstrating respect.
To align manners and morals as Merrill does is to challenge the familiar claim that manners are essentially practices of exclusion and inclusion, social strategies of power and distinction. This is an important issue in reading Merrill because of the perception that his work, as Donald Sheehan puts it in a 1967 interview with him, seems to reflect "a more or less unified social world" constituted by "taste, intelligence, and manners rather than class or family" (qtd. in Merrill, Recitative 32). Merrill's imagination of the social world is notoriously hierarchical in appearance, and in The Changing Light at Sandover becomes unabashed in its appeal to the spiritually elite world constituted by the poem's "circles of the brilliant and creative" (383). And the kind of friendship Merrill's style inclines toward is indeed based on small partialist communities of friends rather than on a more democratic and impartialist notion of respect. (1) In this essay, then, I will examine Merrill's concern with manners in order to discover if manners, and therefore style, are ultimately aligned with a certain moral substance, or if they are essentially strategies of social distinction that serve to mark group membership. At stake in this question is the extent to which an ethical claim is asserted by Merrill's association of manners with style: just as politeness without moral substance would be merely aesthetically pleasing, so might a pleasing literary style be merely "ornamental" (Recitative 32) or "elegant," a charge frequently aimed at Merrill, to which he replies with a polite "shrug" (33).
One story in Merrill's memoir A Different Person narrates the birth in his teens and twenties of his "opera-going self" (112), whose manners and style were representative of a generation of economically privileged gay men who were educated in the private schools and colleges of the American Northeast. This story, which Merrill tells with some critical bemusement, is in tension with another story, one of vocation, maturation, and individuation: his becoming not so much someone different from his group identities and affiliations but a person whose difference is that of an individuated self. The most important figure in this story is Elizabeth Bishop, a "female role model" (141) more important than the operatic divas from whom he learned a representative gay style. Though Merrill does not tell that story in his memoir, Bishop's own reflections on the relationship between manners and morals suggest a number of ways in which Bishop as role model may have helped Merrill. In his tribute to Bishop, "Overdue Pilgrimage to Nova Scotia," in his final collection, A Scattering of Salts, Merrill dramatizes the relationship of manners and morals by representing his visit to Bishop's childhood village as an occasion on which his manners are challenged to prove themselves as more than mere politeness, as having moral substance. Though he attempts to pay "tribute" (Poems 667) to Bishop in a manner that would not cause her "dismay," Merrill's urbanity contrasts so strongly with the social world of Great Village and rural Nova Scotia that it is difficult for him to imagine the place and its inhabitants without a condescension that would indeed likely dismay Bishop. Merrill concludes his tribute by acknowledging this failure--but this acknowledgment is itself a form of tribute to what he has attempted to learn from Bishop's example.
Telling the story of his upbringing and maturation in A Different Person, Merrill considers characters in terms of what he learned from their manners and style. Central to this story is the "child's need for a female role model, lacking whom, conceivably, the grown man's psyche or anima (always envisioned as feminine) might well remain pinched and mean" (141). Apart from his mother, whom I will consider shortly, one of his most important role models in the memoir is Mina Diamantopoulis, whom he meets when visiting Kimon Friar in Greece in 1950. In Mina, Merrill "recognize[s] the upbringing that marked [them both] as deeply as any tribal scarification": she "had learned from her tutor in St. Petersburg ... the same French and German courtesies" that his "beloved Mademoiselle" had tried to teach him when he was a child (22).
During the previous winter, Mina had fallen in love with Kimon, who, being gay, did not reciprocate. The two managed to overcome their ordeal by "drawing upon all the experience, irony, and compassion at their command" (23). Because of her similar upbringing, it is Mina in particular who enables Merrill to envision how his manners--particularly the "lightness of tone" (22) he shares with Mina, which contrasts with Kimon's "tragic view of life"--might serve the moral purpose of salvaging relationships between persons. Mina and Merrill, "however [they] might rail at the given moment, counted on its being seemlier to shrug and smile." In this new family romance, Mina also revises the meaning of manners that Merrill had learned from his mother. After the divorce from Charles Merrill, Grace Merrill tries to keep her son, who "wanted nothing to do with him" (150), in the good graces of his father. Merrill figures himself as a young courtier sent to serve on behalf of his mother as well as his own advancement: "If my manners and appearance gave satisfaction at court, so much the better: this showed her in a good light too" (150). However, Merrill draws attention to the ironic consequence of this strategy when he attributes homosexual "style" to "the manners of our divorced mothers at the bridge table or at dinners where it behooved them to sparkle" (219).
In these brief narratives touching on his upbringing, Merrill tells the story of becoming "a different person," but he aligns his difference with his generation of gay men who were brought up by their mothers. However, becoming a person different from the cultural norm is only part of becoming a different person, and identifying one's style or manners as characteristic of a generation does not mark the difference of individuation. By representing his manners and style in terms of court flattery, Merrill suggests also that the style reflects a system of erotic and financial patronage that makes it difficult to really become a different person. Merrill does not respond to this difficulty, however, by rejecting the world of manners or the father's court, but like the divorced mothers who need to sparkle, he turns his upbringing into dramatic performance. Thus the fashioning of what becomes the self by which he lives his life is inseparable from the emergence of his "opera-going self." Merrill writes that "opera was from the start an education less musical than sentimental" (113). His identification with the main female characters of opera, he suggests, led to "dreams of immolation and all-consuming love" (115). Reflecting on his youthful identifications, he writes:
Such dreams die hard. "I want this to cost everything," Claude remembers my telling him during our courtship.... At fifteen-- at twenty-five, for that matter--I trusted suffering to improve the style, the lover's loss to be the artist's gain. Don't I still? (113)
Merrill's subsequent exploration of the relationship between theatricality and desire, art and life, suggests that the answer is both yes and no. But in his account of opera going he suggests that his sentimental education had not only to do with identification. "During performances," he writes, "my eye kept straying to row upon row of us, blank-faced in stagelight, inert, waiting to be moved" (112). Merrill's eye is on the stage, but at the same time on members of the audience who are themselves actors, "blank-faced in stagelight." Merrill has just cited Tonio's warning to the audience in Pagliacci "that a powerful story is about to be enacted, and not to mistake its interpreters for bloodless puppets." Merrill stages his own discovery that it is not the actors but "We [who] were the puppets"--waiting, like the marionettes he would abandon upon discovering opera, for someone else to make them expressive. The implications of this discovery require that he revise his understanding of the relationship between actor and person, between the fictional and the genuine, between art and life. At the center of these reflections will be his mother, from whom he learned lessons about behavior that have important consequences for art as well as for what he calls "day-to-day living" (141).
Merrill suggests that his mother had often been accused of being theatrical in the expression of her emotional life. On her behalf, and implicitly also on his own behalf, Merrill suggests that art and life--or, as he will put it in this italicized section of his memoir, stage and home--converge at the point of "strong" and "genuine feeling": "If, as my mother might have said in her own defense, genuine feeling kept one's responses from being dismissed as 'dramatic,' so did artistry" (114). While his mother's argument concerns life and not art, Merrill extends its implications to the emotional life of art. If "dramatic" operatic emotion is a product of "the strictest training," it is no less genuine than "genuine feeling," since genuine feeling is itself "modeled" in imitation of others, whether those others are opera divas and their characters or one's mother. (2)
Merrill's "opera-going self," which "was born ... during the summer (1937) my parents separated" (112), plays its role as diva when his mother has him read his father's "letter saying that he was leaving her." Merrill found himself "inspired (at eleven) to let it flutter from [his] fingers to the carpet. 'Oh, don't be dramatic,' said [his] mother with some asperity," implying that his feeling is not genuine, but merely acted. While Tonio warns us to have the right relationship to the actors on stage (they are not "bloodless puppets"), Merrill suggests that this is what he needs to learn of life: that the feelings his mother undergoes cannot simply be assumed and acted out by him through imitation or identification. The story Tonio warns us of is figuratively, in this passage, the story of Merrill's broken home, with his mother as main character and diva. Merrill has, in effect, identified with his mother's role, and Tonio's warning, he says, "put things in perspective":
Just as a child cannot dream of attaining the depth of the woman's feeling as she detaches herself from his arms and goes-- like the heartsick clown in Mrs. Longone's synopsis [of Pagliacci]--to powder her face at the mirror, so we in the audience must feel less than the actors do; it is as simple as that. Strong feelings are the stuff of art. They belong not in the home but on stage. (112-13)
In this section Merrill entwines art and life, an operatic story and the story of his mother and father, to the point of indistinction. As the ambiguous pronouns suggest, Merrill as a child must learn that he "cannot dream of attaining the depth of [his mother's] feeling. He learns what it means to be in the audience rather than to identify with the character on stage or the person before him.
If "strong feelings are the stuff of art" and do not belong in the "home," it does not follow that one's life will not have moments of art and that one's home cannot on occasion contain a stage. When one experiences strong feeling in life, one becomes an actor in this sense, as life and art meet. For Merrill this relationship between artistry and genuine feeling acknowledges that human tempers are products of "the strictest training." Identification with the actor or the imitation of another person as a role model is necessary to learning "how to attack one's own high notes" (114), how to express feeling. Merrill writes that "Art honored both the reticence my mother recommended in life and her right--or mine, if it came to that--to fall to the floor when nothing else availed." Art and the stage are not a realm separate from "day-to-day living" but are contained within the life of feeling, which reaches points of strength that are unattainable to the audience, who "must feel less than the actors do." The claim that such strong feeling makes on another person, then, is one that cannot be answered by identification or imitation but only by a certain kind of distance--the distance of an audience--a claim that solicits not imitation but a response more akin to acknowledgment.
When Merrill writes that members of the audience at the opera, "row upon row of us"--a generation of boys learning how to become gay men--were only able to learn such things as he learned because "our mothers had paid for us" (113), he also hints that their mothers were, like Merrill's, the heroines of dramas of separation and abandonment, and paid what Merrill twice in these brief reflections calls the "cost" of experience (113, 115). The lover's loss might be the artist's gain, but the original loss is experienced by another, particularly by the mother, "as she detaches herself from his arms"--her child's or her husband's arms--"and goes ... to powder her face at the mirror." This gesture of renunciation or resignation expresses what Merrill calls "a mother's dignity in the face of rejection" (140). But he is careful in his renditions of this moment of separation to leave ambiguous how and why it happens. While the ambiguity of the pronoun allows that it is either the child or the father and husband who leaves the mother, it may be that the mother "detaches herself from [the] arms" of the son, who would seem still to be clinging, in order to let him become a person. The narrative of separation is not always one of rejection but is also one of letting go.
This narrative emerges again in the same section of the memoir. In Der Rosenkavalier--which, Merrill writes, "had all but made me who I was" (115)--an older woman "detaches herself from [the] arms" of her younger lover in a way that allows her to maintain her "dignity in the face of rejection." His memories of Lotte Lehmann's performance as the Marschallin, Merrill writes, "helped [him] to smile and shrug through the worst. Here was a bittersweet, faintly homosexual, wholly survivable alternative to [his] dreams of immolation and all-consuming love." The Marschallin's shrug is a "survivable alternative" to the gestures adopted by, for example, Chester Kallman, who "had modeled himself in boyhood upon the Wrong Soprano--on Zinka Milanov, say, with her queenly airs and clutch-and-dagger reflexes" (114). The Marschallin's shrug makes it possible not only for her to detach herself and retain her dignity but also to return to "day-to-day living," to experience informed by "bittersweet" loss.
Yet as the shrug allows Merrill to sustain an identification with the diva and the heroine, it remains within the category of art. It is theatrical without being "dramatic" in the pejorative sense intended by Merrill's mother. If Merrill were to shrug in his personal life, one might not feel that the gesture was theatrical or dramatic; nonetheless, it would retain a private meaning and affect sustained by his identification with the diva. (3) While the shrug is a gesture of renunciation, it is also a performance that maintains dignity. The performance requires an audience that can perceive that dignity, just as Merrill perceived the Marschallin's dignity and made it an object of desire for himself--and so imitated the shrug. The Marschallin's gesture, in fact, might be seen as the only way in which an aging diva can retire from the stage with dignity and pass on the status of object of desire to the younger woman, or younger diva, while at the same time retaining her greatness.
That Merrill's response to the Marschallin is informed by his own diva desires becomes apparent when his lover has a very different understanding of her shrug:
Certain doubts arose belatedly when I took Peter Hooten to that opera, which had all but made me who I was, only to see him unconvinced by the Marschallin's "self-sacrifice." He blazed out at her, as we walked home, like a young Chenier or Cavaradossi attacking the corrupt regime. Manipulative, narcissistic--who could swallow such a woman? (115)
Hooten may as well be saying that the Marschallin is being "dramatic," that her performance is not redeemed by "genuine feeling." The real object of Hooten's attack, Merrill realizes, is "certain aspects of [Merrill's] relationship to him, with its own dramatic age difference and offstage Feldmarschall (David Jackson), whose prior claims made the young Octavian's position so intolerable" (115). He listens to Hooten "without shrugging" and in that moment of restraint feels "what it had cost the Marschallin to shrug." What it cost her is measured by what she renounces with that gesture in exchange for "dignity in the face of rejection": the theatricality underwritten by "dreams of immolation and all-consuming love" and the gratification to narcissism that her youthfulness made it easier to acquire. The gesture acknowledges her transformation into aging diva and heroine.
Why does Merrill not shrug? As Hooten attacks the Marschallin, he is also attacking Merrill, who discovers that he has been implicitly identified with the aging diva with whom he identified as a young man. His impulse to shrug confirms the identification, but he refuses to step on stage as the Marschallin. Although his exchange with Hooten is not a scene of rejection, Merrill's impulse indicates his dramatic role as aging lover. The attack exposes the possibility that Merrill's own shrugs, with which Hooten was likely familiar, might simply be a performance for an audience that can acknowledge the maturity and dignity they attempt to signify, and that his occulted theatricality has been exposed by another, more skeptical audience. The gesture of the aging lover, like the gesture of the aging diva, may simply transform "dreams of immolation and all-consuming love" to dreams of dignity.
Nonetheless, though he refrains from shrugging, Merrill inwardly maintains that "[t]he hold of art wasn't to be broken that easily" (115). He still feels the shrug would be proper but recognizes that it might seem offensive and dismissive--perhaps even cruel. In this account of his restraint, however, Merrill nonetheless shrugs to his audience, his readers, and acknowledges that he does so at Hooten's expense. Merrill allows us to see that his apparent respect for Hooten's feelings amounts to no more than mere politeness. He feels the hold of art at the moment he withholds what he feels is the gesture that belongs. Moreover, the gesture is called for in two senses: first by the aesthetic criteria of art, which are satisfied by the Marschallin's shrug; second, and more important, by the moral criterion of respect and friendship. If Hooten were his equal in these matters, Merrill could have shrugged, and the gesture would make both a moral and an aesthetic claim. Merrill, in this situation, is the grown-up. The problem with this particular alignment of manners and morals is that the moral sensitivity Merrill displays in his restraint amounts to no more than politeness because Hooten has violated the implicit rules of behavior that must be followed if one is to command the respect of others within a community defined by aesthetic criteria of behavior. Hooten places himself outside a community of those who would appreciate Merrill's shrug, which is also a community of those who would understand the Marschallin's shrug. The shrug signifies "the hold of art" because it is a minimal theatrical display, an expressive reticence. It signifies maturity and experience by expressing one's ability to refrain from "fall[ing] to the floor when nothing else availed."
These are among the reasons the Marschallin's shrug "turned out [not] to be much of a help in day-to-day living" (141). Merrill implicitly holds out for the possibility that "the hold of art" can be qualified by a moral purpose not dependent on the aesthetic criteria that constitute a small community of insiders. Rather than Mina or the Marschallin, it is Elizabeth Bishop whom Merrill identifies as the "female role model" who taught him about not only the art but the ethics that can attempt to align manners and morals so that their overlapping criteria cannot only be satisfied in "the right company" identified by the "tribal scarification" of its upbringing (22). Rather than being "theatrical" in the operatic sense, Bishop managed "life-long impersonations of an ordinary woman" (Recitative 121) that provided Merrill with an example of a morally respectable selfhood that contrasts with the "opera-going self" and its performances.
In "A Class Day Talk," Merrill affiliates Bishop with the social world of which he is a member by citing a letter to Anne Stevenson in which Bishop identifies herself as a snob among other snobs:
I think snobbery governs a good deal of my taste. I've been lucky in having had some witty friends--and I mean real wit, quickness, wild fancies, remarks that make one cry with laughing.... (qtd. in Recitative 162)
Simultaneously, as if to draw attention to the danger of identifying oneself in terms of such a small social world, Merrill notes that in "another letter to the same person" Bishop identifies herself as one of a group of barbarians: "I think we are still barbarians, barbarians who commit a hundred indecencies and cruelties every day of our lives ..." (162). In juxtaposing these two passages from different letters, Merrill aligns the group of "witty friends" with the "we" who are identified as barbarians, suggesting that the snobbery entailed by membership in the community of friends is affiliated with a barbarian cruelty and indecency that manifests itself "every day of our lives" in episodes like the small cruelty of Merrill's patronizing attitude toward Peter Hooten. Though he and Bishop share aesthetic criteria for what constitutes friendship, Merrill identifies in Bishop's work an acute sensitivity to "[t]he threat of human indecency and cruelty" that "can be felt always between her lines" (162). In his obituary of her, Merrill tells a story that exemplifies not only Bishop's moral sensitivity, which is a concomitant of respect, but also her "gift to be simple": prisoners in Brazil were able to talk to her quietly, "like an old friend who would understand" (122).
Bishop herself struggled with the question of the relationship between manners and morals, understanding manners as Merrill does to be the form in which the moral quality of respect is expressed. Her notes for a review of Marianne Moore's work reveal Bishop's admiration of Moore's "absolute refusal to differentiate between people at all":
I don't think I've ever really given her enough credit for her democracy--being put off by the tediousness of her politeness, etc.... If her manners are too ceremonious, at least they are equally so for "Gladys," "Tom," (TSE), or the elevator man. I wish I could quote Pascal's remark exactly, about how all men are not counted equal but it is spiritual death if we don't behave as if they were. (qtd. in Goldensohn 152)
Just as Bishop tries to learn something of democratic manners from Moore, Merrill tries to learn the meaning of manners from Bishop. Indeed, in "Self-Portrait in a Tyvek Windbreaker," to express what he learns, Merrill turns to Bishop's summary of Pascal: "For while all humans aren't / Countable as equals, we must behave / As if they were, or the spirit dies (Pascal)" (Poems 671). (4)
Merrill's poem dramatizes the very problem that concerned Bishop and Pascal. Merrill represents himself as a superior outsider who, dressed down in a Tyvek windbreaker with a world map on it, is mistaken for "Everyman ... the whole world's pal!" Not recognizing that his green "terry-cloth headband" is the laurel that distinguishes him as a poet, people on the street, to his veiled horror, hail him familiarly. A "smiling-as-if-I-should-know-her teenager," also wearing a windbreaker, waves at him, and though he doesn't welcome the wave he returns it "Like an accomplice." His good manners have no substance, however, as his Pascalian imperative for reciprocating the greeting makes clear: we must behave as if others are our equals, though we know they are not. Merrill cannot quite make himself treat the people on the street reciprocally as equals, and his scorn, which is perceptible, leads him to question whether there is such a thing as "we": "'We'? A few hundred decades ... / / Between us and the red genetic muck" doesn't make for an "Everyman." (5)
Merrill's tribute to Bishop, "Overdue Pilgrimage to Nova Scotia," appears only a few pages before "Self-Portrait in a Tyvek Windbreaker" in A Scattering of Salts. Indeed, Merrill's final collection turns repeatedly to Bishop, as if to take the measure of the lessons he learned from the female role model who ought to have helped his anima prevent him from becoming "pinched and mean" (Different Person 141). Before considering Merrill's tribute, however, I will consider in more detail how Bishop struggled with the question of manners and morals in her work.
In "Efforts of Affection," Bishop reflects on "the unaccustomed deference [and] the exquisitely prolonged etiquette" (Prose 156) of Marianne Moore and her mother. Trying to summarize these reflections at the end of her memoir, she famously becomes "foolishly bemused," and has "a sort of subliminal glimpse of the capital letter M multiplying," spelling out
Marianne's monogram; mother; manners; morals; and I catch myself murmuring, "Manners and morals; manners as morals? Or is it morals as manners?" Since like Alice, "in a dreamy sort of way," I can't answer either question, it doesn't much matter which way I put it; it seems to be making sense. (156)
Bishop's bemusement is apparent in the mixed tones of her memoir, which teases the Moores behind their backs for their anachronistic manners and morals. The memoir focuses on the idiosyncrasy and anachronism of the Moores' "chinoiserie of manners" (134) without really drawing any serious connection to their moral dimension; their exercise seems largely to be morally neutral, a genteel leftover of the past.
Bishop is nonetheless puzzled by the way in which the Moores treat manners as if they have a profound ethical significance in spite of what seems the moral neutrality of their code. One way in which Bishop explores the relationship of morals and manners is to draw attention to situations that are morally questionable. When Bishop first introduces the word manners into the memoir it is in connection with tennis, "the rules and conventions" of which, according to Bishop, Moore seemed to enjoy "as much as the sport. She engaged a young black boy to play with her," but "He was finally dismissed because of his lack of tennis manners; his worst offense seemed to be that instead of 'Serve!' he would say 'Okay!'" (131). This anecdote suggests that Bishop is aware of the power of the Moores' manners to distinguish insiders from outsiders. This parallels the story of the "very well known and polished writer [who] was never invited to Cumberland Street although his friends were" (137). When Bishop "asked innocently why [she] never saw him there ... Marianne gave [her] her serious, severe look and said, 'He contradicted Mother.'"
In both of these stories, manners become a moral issue in a way that anticipates Bishop's puzzled conclusion to her memoir. However, neither story elicits our respect for the Moores' manners. To see contradicting Mary Warner Moore as bad manners may simply reflect an arbitrary system of manners rather than a morally rooted one. Since we know neither their guest's tone of voice nor the topic of discussion, it is difficult to judge his behavior; it is possible, for example, that in his world of manners and morals, contradiction signals the respect we confer on others in conversation by acknowledging their ability to reason. While Bishop does not quite take sides, her tone suggests that the Moores' judgment can be merely idiosyncratic.
And yet there is a way in which manners as constituting a community is morally respectable. Bishop comments on the Moores' bowing to the elevator boy who, though
unaccustomed to such civility ... was very pleased and tried hard not to push his handle or close the doors as quickly as on the other floors. Elevator men, subway changemakers, ticket takers, taxi drivers--all were treated to these formalities, and, as a rule, they were pleasantly surprised and seemed to respond in kind. (136-37)
But considering that manners here, unlike morals, cost very little, it is difficult to say whether this example of civility has much moral substance, particularly when it is compared to the weight of moral substance brought to bear on the man who contradicted Mrs. Moore, and so found himself unwelcome in their home. While manners may constitute insiders and outsiders, some manners are welcoming and hospitable to others who are not friends. What are the tests one must pass in order to be welcomed with respect, as opposed to welcomed with mere politeness or turned away? How does one's code of manners allow for the acknowledgment of different manners, or the conferring of respect on strangers with strange customs?
Bishop implicitly raises such questions in her own treatment of the Moores, which attempts to be respectful even as their alignment of manners and morals seems to bewilder her and provide her only with amusing anecdotes at the expense of our taking the Moores' manners seriously. While she acknowledges that the Moores' manners and morals are anachronistic, Bishop nonetheless admits to finding them "still applicable and very moving" (155). But she can only express this feeling of respect indirectly, by citing a letter in which Gerard Manley Hopkins praises "the ideal of the 'gentleman'" at the expense of the artist--particularly the modern artist, whose work is prone, in Hopkins's words, to exhibiting "airs and affectations" (qtd. in Bishop, Prose 155): for Hopkins, the gentleman's manners, though they fall short of the good, protect virtue more capably than does the poet's aesthetic expression. Identifying herself with the moderns whom Hopkins criticizes, Bishop writes, "The word 'gentleman' makes us uncomfortable now, and its feminine counterparts, whether 'lady' or 'gentlewoman,' embarrass us even more" (155). Nonetheless, her invocation of Hopkins, whose ideas she acknowledges "may sound impossibly Victorian," allows her to voice the tone of moral respect that her memoir cannot bring itself to voice. The citation signals a different attitude to the Moores' manners: rather than simply bemused at the expense of the Moores, Bishop feels embarrassed and foolish.
Bishop's embarrassment has two sources. On the one hand, she identifies herself as a member of a younger generation who are embarrassed by their elders' beliefs. Her embarrassment, which she assumes her audience shares, is on someone else's behalf--someone who does not fit into the social circle in which Bishop includes herself: having brought Hopkins and the Moores into the company of her modern readership, Bishop apologizes behind their backs for their anachronistic beliefs. On the other hand, Bishop's "foolish" embarrassment reflects a lack of confidence in her own self-consciously modern manners and morals. The respect she voices through Hopkins is embarrassing because it is unmodern and may not command the respect of her audience. In the rhetorical gestures of bemused condescension in "Efforts of Affection," Bishop appeals to the figure of the precociously adult Alice, whose voice is echoed elsewhere in Bishop's work--particularly in the child's voice in "In the Waiting Room," whose attitude to her "foolish aunt" is one of superior bemusement and empathetic embarrassment, and who proudly points out that "[she] could read." Foolishness, however, or embarrassment on one's own behalf, requires another kind of child, one who is capable of a childlike respect rather than the precociously adult disrespect of the bemused Alice. This child is innocently inspired by the apparent goodness and innocence of the adults to whom she pays tribute. (6) Though little in the memoir seems to justify respect for the Moores' etiquette, something in their anachronistic manners elicits Bishop's faith in a way that parallels Hopkins's unembarrassed defense of the manners of the gentleman. Bishop admits the impression made on her by the Moores' manners by making herself into a child who has been taught--or rather inspired--to do good: "I never left Cumberland Street without feeling happier: uplifted, even inspired, determined to be good, to work harder, not to worry about what other people thought" (137). In figuring herself as a child in this way, however, Bishop realizes that she cannot expect her audience to share her respect, and the tone at the end of the memoir suggests embarrassment more than the urbane bemusement of the modern Bishop.
Bishop's memoir is troubled by the status of manners in the honorific sense--that is, manners as the civility purported to be a central achievement of the civilizing process. (7) The ambivalence of the memoir--poised between bemusement and embarrassment--also emerges in Bishop's poem "Manners." A tribute to her grandfather by "a Child of 1918," "Manners" rhetorically adopts Bishop's grandfather's code of manners in order to deal deferentially and courteously with the anachronistic social and moral life of Great Village circa 1918. The speaker's deferential tone works against a note of condescension and a sense of empathetic embarrassment (embarrassment on behalf of another), a feeling that her grandfather's manners are not worthy of the moral respect he implicitly claims for them. But if we consider William Empson's usefully general definition of pastoral--that "in pastoral you take a limited life and pretend it is the full and normal one" (115)--we can see that Bishop's pastoral, in spite of its attempt to pay homage to her grandfather, fails to pretend. The potential for embarrassment and foolishness on both sides is high, and the poem can barely restrain its condescending bemusement. Though the poem's manners, which edge toward the patronizing, do not pass the test of Proustian respect, its speaker, in spite of her attempt to assume an adult attitude of bemusement toward what is anachronistic and embarrassing, allows a childlike appreciation to remain audible. But that child still remains hidden from view, as if she were shy, too embarrassed to admit that she is, in the words of "In the Waiting Room," "one of them" (160).
The embarrassment I have been examining makes Bishop's speakers hesitant about any claims to an identity that is modern, mature, or urbane, and testifies to an identification with the anachronistic, the unmodern. Like her memoir, however, "Filling Station" provides evidence that Bishop is also capable of exploring the affects of disgust and contempt characteristic of the urban snob. This poem explores the inverse of the foolish embarrassment Bishop admits to in "Efforts of Affection" and concludes with a superior bemusement at the expense of the people whose way of life offends her sensibility. As Robert Dale Parker writes, the poem "begins abruptly in sudden and comically self-mocking squeamishness" (22). The conclusion, though, with its inclusive vision that "Somebody loves us all" (128), might seem to suggest that the poem overcomes its initial squeamishness. But in spite of the sense of self-mockery, the speaker is incapable of overcoming this class-based squeamishness. How generous is her "all"? The final line, as Parker notes, can be read "with a sarcastic accent on somebody, as if to admit wryly that maybe somebody is fool enough to love even this oil-soaked father and his greasy sons" (24).
The conclusion is unsettling rather than comforting to the speaker, who feels it to be a mysterious and even frightening thing that God loves these greasy people as well as herself--that God loves without making the distinctions that occur so strongly and suddenly to the speaker. The puzzled final line suggests displeasure or dismay at the sense that God does not see in me what I imagine would distinguish me for him. I am not of the elect: "I" am merely "one of them." "Filling Station" concludes with the petulance of a confident and spoiled child who is startled by how "thoroughly dirty" the station is (127). The theological sentiment is phrased in a tone of disbelief that discredits a sentimentalized God who would be "fool enough" to love "us all." The poem thus permits social distinction to stand forth as something not to be resolved by the inclusive vision of the final line. While in "Efforts of Affection" Bishop implicitly worries that the Moores' manners led them to make arbitrary and unjust social judgments disguised in moral terms, so that the tennis partner and the friend who contradicted Mrs. Moore suddenly find themselves unwelcome, "Filling Station" explores the difficulty of overcoming class-based revulsion and the bad faith of trying to hold to the moralistic truism that we are all equal in God's eyes. (8) Clearly there may be something in the Moores' enigmatic codes of manners and morals that Bishop may still find instructive.
Bishop's reflections on Moore's manners signal a trouble about equality, hierarchy, and distinction that emerges in "Filling Station" and elsewhere in her work. Just as Bishop returned again and again to the enigma of Moore's manners, Merrill posed the problem of morals and manners to himself through Bishop's example, as is suggested by his incorporating the allusion in Bishop's notebook to Pascal into his own reflections on democracy and manners in "Self-Portrait in a Tyvek Windbreaker" and by his reference in that poem to "oil-benighted creatures" (670), which calls up Bishop's "oil-soaked, oil-permeated" (127) filling station and the "oil-soaked" father and his "greasy sons."
In the opening line of "Overdue Pilgrimage to Nova Scotia," Merrill acknowledges the immense distance between the cosmopolitan tourist and the rural folk by admiring the artlessness of "the village," which "touched us by not knowing how" (666). There are small hints of his patronizing attitude to them, such as his tone when he sees that someone has built an Esso station in front of Bishop's childhood home: "facing where you lived, / Somebody's been inspired (can he have read / 'Filling Station'?)" (667). We can see Merrill incorporating the attitude of the speaker of "Filling Station": "Oh, but it is dirty!" (Bishop, Poems 127). We could rephrase Merrill's opening line much less sentimentally: "Your village touched us," but its touch was unclean; its artlessness moved us, but what we felt was a squeamish disgust. But a better word for the attitude that reflects this disgust may be contempt.
I use the word contempt because the poem hints strongly that Merrill's reaction to the villagers--for example, his Bishop-like response to the gas station--may have been apparent to them, or even that the villagers were not very welcoming to these visitors from away. (9) The poem hints that Merrill may have made this patronizing attitude explicit enough that it amounted to rudeness, whether conscious or not. At any rate, Merrill's several allusions to "Manners" and to "Filling Station" draw attention to how his manners seem to fall short in Great Village. This becomes apparent in the final lines, as Merrill describes himself and his companion saying farewell to the village with a "gush of nothings" worthy of a postcard: "We're off--Excuse our dust! With warm regards" (667). The allusion to "Filling Station" suggests that he's driving one of that poem's "high-strung automobiles" (128), and the allusion to "Manners" identifies what in that poem makes the rural manners of Bishop's grandfather seem so absurdly out of place:
When automobiles went by, The dust hid the people's faces, But we shouted 'Good day! Good day! Fine day!' at the top of our voices. (121)
Bishop and her grandfather shout out (and is it ever polite to shout?) greetings that, however well intended, amount to a "gush of nothings" as the automobiles pass in dust. Evoking this scene, Merrill and his companion apologize for leaving the village in their dust.
Unlike Bishop in "Filling Station," Merrill allows the villagers to be seen seeing his act of judgment and, perhaps, seeing also the contempt underlying what Lurie calls "detached, affectionate amusement." While in "Filling Station" the family is present only through the objects that represent them, Merrill's villagers are made visible as a force of contempt strong enough to provoke his flight. Merrill's awkward manners, his "gush of nothings" as he drives off, are thus a last attempt to be polite in response to the impoliteness of the villagers. The word dirty in Merrill's poem, borrowed from "Filling Station," refers indirectly to the manners of the villagers, to hint that they responded to him, as if to what they perceive to be his contempt for them, with "many a dirty look" (667). At the end, Merrill drives off in a state of foolish bemusement: while he maintains his cosmopolitan aloofness, he is embarrassed by the failure of his manners, which did not mask his contempt, and thus sees that he has failed to offer homage to Bishop.
However, Merrill is also embarrassed by what the poem asks us to imagine would be Bishop's dismay at Merrill's bad behavior. Although the poem is careful to suggest Bishop's identification with the people for whom Merrill has involuntarily expressed contempt, he cannot quite bring himself to acknowledge that Bishop could see herself as "one of them." The first stanza hints that Bishop herself is a "self-belittling brilliant," too modest to have her brilliance openly acknowledged in a tribute such as Merrill's. Although he pays respect to Bishop's refusal "to tip the scale of being human," the poem hints that Bishop tends perhaps to be too "self-belittling" in claiming any kind of identity with the people of Great Village.
Attempting to locate Bishop in Great Village, to see her in her hometown, Merrill associates her with "the fair, soft-spoken girl" who shows him and his companion through a museum of "things [Bishop] would have known." Though Bishop had left Great Village in 1916, at the age of five, Merrill figures the girl as Bishop's contemporary, as if history had not happened in rural Nova Scotia: "She knows these things you would have known by heart," and all these things are "circa 1915, like the manners" of the girl. The difference between Bishop and the girl is further elided in the first line of the second stanza, in which "The child whose mother had been put away" could as well refer to the girl as to Bishop. "The child" is a figure for a Bishop who is remote from the one that Merrill knew, and the poem allows us to suspect that Merrill did not, as he claims, know Bishop "by heart." The figure of the child occupies a place where Bishop withdraws from Merrill's view by identifying herself with a group of people inaccessible to Merrill, and it is the discovery of this intraversible social distance that Merrill's poem dramatizes in terms of manners. If the manners of the villagers are, as Merrill suggests, "circa 1915," then presumably they are the manners identified in Bishop's "Manners," dedicated to "a Child of 1918." With the little girl who shows him through the museum, Merrill makes explicit the attitude of the speaker of Bishop's poem: rural manners are charming and quaint, but finally are embarrassingly anachronistic.
Merrill's tribute is permeated with the embarrassment and social anxiety that comes with assertions of hierarchical social difference. But the affect at the center of the poem, which it wants above all to avoid, is what it imagines as Bishop's "dismay." Merrill identifies the source of the dismay as Bishop's modesty: he risks overpraising her," Add[ing] the weight" (667) to her work that she refused to add. However, Merrill's poem, with its muted comedy of social gaffes, offers more occasions of dismay than he openly acknowledges. It asks us to imagine Bishop's dismay not simply as offended modesty about her work's weightiness but as a more complex mix of embarrassment and disappointment, reflecting different social identifications.
First, the poem has the potential to dismay Bishop by embarrassing her on behalf of the villagers for whom Merrill has a noticeable contempt. This embarrassment is predicated on what the poem imagines is her ambivalent identification with them as her people. Second, this implies also an embarrassment on behalf of Merrill, with whom she identifies as an urbane and cosmopolitan traveler. Since she too is one of Merrill's social kind--sophisticated and modern--she is implicated in his failure. A third dimension to Bishop's imagined dismay, then, reflects her judgment of Merrill: she is disappointed in him because his attempt at a tribute has generated so much awkwardness and social anxiety.
In allowing us to imagine her dismay, Merrill's "tribute" to Bishop fails and leaves him embarrassed and, perhaps, feeling more foolish than bemused. As an instance of the poetry of manners, "Overdue Pilgrimage to Nova Scotia" marks out the limits of a social circle constituted by class and upbringing, with Bishop both inside and outside. However, it would be an oversimplification to claim that Merrill's dramatization of failure discloses a radical limit to the capacity of his manners to demonstrate the moral quality of respect. What he dramatizes as his failure--the failure of his manners and therefore also of his tribute to Bishop--may also be seen as an acknowledgment of Bishop's strangeness to him, an otherness that he cannot claim to know by heart.
But what does it mean to know someone by heart? Merrill clearly knows her work by heart, but to know a person by heart suggests an intimate knowledge that is deeply attuned to his or her sensitivities and vulnerabilities. We have already seen an example of such knowledge in the scene with Peter Hooten, where Merrill refrained from shrugging. Merrill's sensitivity to Hooten was potentially patronizing. With Bishop, however, Merrill allows himself to be subjected to the judgment of her dismay and excludes himself from a social circle of which he acknowledges her to be a member. By doing this rather than excluding this aspect of her identity from his social circle, Merrill accepts an embarrassment that in effect implies respect for the criteria by which Bishop is permitted membership in the social identity of Great Village. More specifically, Merrill's respect is for an aspect of Bishop's self that ought only to be honored implicitly and indirectly, as Merrill does, by a form of deference that diminishes one's value relative to the other--in this case, relative to the Bishop who is a member of the community of Great Village. (10)
In a diary entry for June 23, 1950, Bishop writes that "Embarrassment always comes from some falsity--the situation, manners, or a work of art--(I suffer from it now so horribly) ..." (qtd. in Goldensohn 124). In her notes on Letters of an American Farmer, under the heading "Tact & Embarrassment," Bishop comments on a passage in which Crevecoeur describes how the wasps he has allowed to nest in his house take flies from his children's eyelids. "Why ... does it embarrass one ...?" (qtd. in Goldensohn 124), Bishop asks. Paired with the notebook definition of embarrassment, this example suggests that Bishop's theory of embarrassment has a strongly empathetic focus, that embarrassment in connection with tact and manners--and therefore also with a work of art--is profoundly connected to embarrassment on behalf of another. By acknowledging and attempting to avert the conditions under which Bishop might experience dismay, Merrill demonstrates that he knows her by heart in the most intimate sense: not only does he know what will embarrass or dismay her, but he also knows that the moral causes of her embarrassment are worthy of respect. (11) Of course, since his poem rests on what is most likely a highly fictional account of his visit to Nova Scotia, Merrill's willingness to embarrass himself before his audience suggests an admirable humility in service of an homage to his friend. By allowing us to imagine Bishop's dismay at his expense, the poem discloses Merrill's respect for what Moore identified as Bishop's "deferences and vigilances" (176), which are shaped not by embarrassment or shame but by her sensitivity to "[t]he threat of human indecency and cruelty." (12) What Merrill attempted to learn from Bishop as a female role model is what he calls her "gift to be simple," which as a gift cannot presumably be acquired except by the secular equivalent of grace. He might have such a gift in mind when he says that "[m]anners are for me the touch of nature, an artifice in the very bloodstream" (Recitative 33). Being well brought up is not enough, it would seem, for one to have what Merrill hears in Bishop's poetic voice, and what Bishop heard also in Herbert: "the 'touch of nature' which makes the whole world kin" (Merrill, Recitative 129).
I would like to thank Puri Pazo Torres for conversations that helped me with the completion of this essay.
1. Though I will talk about class occasionally in this essay, I agree with Sheehan's distinction between kinds of social world. Robert von Hallberg's well-known discussion of class in Merrill's work concludes that the social world that most marks his style is the aristocracy of camp (109-13). I agree with Shetley's judgment, in his analysis of Merrill's "November Ode," that von Hallberg's conclusion, "while pointing to a real aspect of the poet's tone, is too harsh" (88). While Merrill's style is deeply marked by social distinction, his work, including "Overdue Pilgrimage to Nova Scotia," has the virtue, in Shetley's words, of refusing
to forget the gulf between him and them [in this case the small-town victims of capitalism the poem is about], to pretend to more sympathy than he can genuinely feel, or to a greater share in their plight than really belongs to him. (88; cf. von Hallberg 109-13)
For a similar observation concerning Bishop, see note 8. Dolan offers the most challenging and profound discussion of the political dimension of Merrill's "neoaristocratic sensibility" (138); see in particular the parallel he draws with "Nietzsche's reassertion of rank and severity in the context of a critique of democracy" (155).
2. My comments on Merrill's "opera-going self" are indebted at almost all points to Koestenbaum's autobiographical ruminations, which are deeply Merrillean, on opera and homosexual identity. For relevant comments on the role of the imitation of the gestures and voice of the mother, see 92.
3. Koestenbaum provides a figure for the private theatricality I am imputing to Merrill: writing of Butterfly's entrance, he says that
Opera kills the things it loves. Like Butterfly, if I enter opera, I will die, so I linger on its border to prolong and never complete my moment of entrance. I long to remain outside the frame of opera, immune to its dangerous charms, but I also feel narrative's seduction: I want to enter the story and I want the plot to proceed. (199)
4. It is difficult to determine when or whether Merrill would have read this entry in Bishop's notebooks, but it seems reasonable to speculate that he would have known, perhaps through conversation, of the importance of Pascal's idea to Bishop.
5. Merrill's self-mocking insistence on the singularity that distinguishes him from "Everyman" should be compared to his admiration for Bishop's lack of concern "with making herself any more remarkable than ... she already is." This makes "hers ... a purified, transparent 'I,' which readers may take as their virtual own" (Recitative 129).
6. Merrin has noted that the "childlike persona" that appears frequently in Bishop's work is a sign of her affinity to George Herbert and her "admiration for Herbert's social bearing, his tactful manners and quiet gentility" (52). Bishop makes the connection in a letter to Moore: "The negroes [in Florida] have such soft voices and such beautifully tactful manners--I suppose it is farfetched, but their attitude keeps reminding me of the tone of George Herbert" (One Art 68). As Merrin comments: Bishop's "'naturalness of tone,' like Herbert's, is also a matter of decorous comportment in relation to some larger power.... Bishop is humble in the presence of an incomprehensible and indomitable world" (53).
7. Emphasizing the tone of respectful homage of Bishop's memoir, Costello identifies what fascinates Bishop in the Moores' manners and, by implication, in Moore's work: "In Moore, surfaces and styles of behavior are the outward shows of inner attitudes. Manners express the rock foundation of an ethical system, and aesthetics are rooted to morality" (133). While Costello characterizes Moore as "[t]he Protestant poet of manners and morals" to distinguish her from Bishop as "the skeptic poet of mysteries" (130), she recognizes that "Bishop was deeply attracted to the high civility ... of Moore's charmed imagination" (133).
8. White argues that "Whatever Bishop's personal interests may have been in countering the effects of social inequality, the poetry is most successful when its addresses are written from within social paradigms clearly demarcated by class" (128). In "Manuelzhino," for example, "the speaker reflects on the condescension inherent in her attitude toward Manuelzhino without challenging it" (129).
9. My use of contempt is indebted to Tomkins's discussion of shame and contempt (157-62). Relevant to my comments on Merrill and Bishop is Tomkins's argument on social discrimination:
Contempt ... is a powerful instrument of discrimination and segregation. By means of contempt, the other can be kept in his place. If, however, the response to contempt is shame, this characteristic consequence of distancing is much attenuated. (158)
10. As Erving Goffman argues, deference "represents a way in which the individual must guard and design the symbolic implications of his acts while in the immediate presence of an object [the self and the self of another] that has special value for him" (6). As a literary instance of what Goffman calls "interaction ritual," Merrill's tribute to Bishop is a complex dramatization of a deference that must at all costs manifest respect to the other.
11. In Tomkins's terms, Merrill is familiar with Bishop's "shame theory" (165). A person's shame theory is on the one hand a prereflective "ideo-affective organization" (165) that allows one to anticipate and therefore avoid situations that one has learned to see as provoking shame. On the other hand, a shame theory subjected to reflection can assume a moral dimension that enables one to claim that certain modes of behavior ought to provoke shame. It is on this basis that models of maturity and responsibility are socially enforced and regulated through upbringing, particularly through what Tomkins calls the "socialization of shame" (168). Merrill's respect for the shame theory implied in Bishop's dismay can be further clarified by Tomkins's comments on the moral dimension of shame: "The vicarious experience of shame, together with the vicarious experience of distress, is at once a measure of civilization and a condition of civilization" (162). Tomkins's definition of shame as being "activated by an incomplete reduction of excitement or joy" (129) could be mapped onto the embarrassment of both Bishop and Merrill: while Merrill's shame results from what he imagines would be Bishop's disappointment in him, Bishop's shame on behalf of Merrill is activated by the imagined diminishment of her regard for him. At this point, however, Bishop's shame has little of the "foolish" about it, since it is a shame that requires a mature judgment that is worthy of respect. The implication is that Bishop, as Merrill's poem asks us to imagine her, recognizes that the part of herself that identifies with the rural Nova Scotians cannot communicate publicly with the part of herself that identifies with Merrill and his urbane class. Knowing that she is other to herself, she need not experience deep psychological conflict between these two identities--particularly the deep conflict that results in the affect we call shame. For this reason, though her dismay fits conceptually in the category of shame, it is more idiomatically appropriate to call it embarrassment.
12. Goldensohn briefly touches on the complex psychodynamics of embarrassment that the notebook entries suggest. She proposes that Crevecoeur's "display of vice," his performance of "an action that an implied we must never permit ourselves," evokes "shame for the species" (125). Because she attempts to understand it in terms of repression, however, Goldensohn's proposal, as accurate as it might be in some respects, would occlude the morally respectable dimension of empathetic embarrassment to which I am drawing attention.
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______. The Complete Poems, 1927-1979. New York: Farrar, 1983.
______. One Art: The Selected Letters. Robert Giroux, ed. New York: Farrar, 1994.
Costello, Bonnie. "Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop: Friendship and Influence." Twentieth-Century Literature 30.2-3 (Summer-Fall 1984): 130-49.
Dolan, Frederick M. Allegories of America: Narratives, Metaphysics, Politics. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994.
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Hallberg, Robert von. American Poetry and Culture, 1945-1980. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1985.
Koestenbaum, Wayne. The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire. New York: Da Capo, 2001.
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Merrill, James. The Changing Light at Sandover. New York: Atheneum, 1982.
______. The Collected Poems. New York: Knopf, 2002.
______. A Different Person: A Memoir. New York: Knopf, 1993.
______. Recitative: Prose. San Francisco: North Point, 1986.
Merrin, Jeredith. An Enabling Humility: Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, and the Uses of Tradition. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990.
Moore, Marianne. "Archaically New." Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art. Ed. Lloyd Schwartz and Sybil P. Estess. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1983. 175-76.
Parker, Robert Dale. The Unbeliever: The Poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1988.
Shetley, Vernon. After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.
Tomkins, Silvan. Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. Ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.
White, Heather Cass. "Elizabeth Bishop's Calling." Twentieth-Century Literature 48.2 (Summer 2002): 117-49.
Yenser, Stephen. The Consuming Myth: The Work of James Merrill. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.
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|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2004|
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