Note: this was to be the second chapter of a book on postmodern poetry of which the sections "Postmodern Poetry" formed the introduction.
Immanent Moments of Numinous Duck Geist
Cohen’s description of the ambiguity of Ashbery’s critique and simultaneous consumption of mass cultural products is not only the most accurate analysis of this poem, it is a profound insight into the relationship of postmodern poetry to postmodern culture. Yet, for every moment of ‘low’ cultural revelation, the poem has at least equivalent numbers of ‘high’ art insights, and I don’t mean references to opera or plays by Maeterlinck. The poem, as much as it is about culture, is also about being. The very act of stating that Daffy is in Hollywood suggests he also has a life elsewhere, which is both impossible and true at the same time. Daffy reproduced on screen, as he must be due to the material demands of celluloid film, is not limited to Hollywood.[i] Daffy has a private life in that he lives in our own imaginative interactions with him and while we may say this is a radically attenuated subjectivity, the poem suggests that Daffy’s being, his duck geist, is no different from our own:
Only my intermittent life in your thoughts to live
Which is like thinking in another language. Everything
Depends on whether somebody reminds you of me.
That this is fabulation, and that those “other times”
Are in fact the silences of the souls, picked out in
Diamonds on stygian velvet, matters less than it should.
Prodigies of timing may be arranged to convince them
We live in one dimension, they in ours.[ii]
This delicate, profound, insight into human intersubjectivity starts out in the voice of Daffy who lives only through projection, consumption, recollection and, of course, re-runs. However, it becomes obvious that we too live like ducks in this regard. If we exist then we must exist for others to know about it otherwise what is the point? In addition, all we have learnt from Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva about subjectivity shows that being is elsewhere, in the perception of others and in the language we rely on to communicate with others. If Daffy only lives in occasional moments and even then lives in a language foreign to him, so too do we, Ashbery is arguing.
A further point can be made, and this is where the equivalence of the poem’s two areas of investigation is nothing less than staggering. Just as Hollywood reduces differentiation into a single mass of entertaining, happy-go-nutty japery, so the traditional differentiations of being are, themselves, false demarcations. Can one differentiate between your true self and the Daffy or fake self? Is the fake self any less real than the internal and integral sense of self you have within you? Is the life you live within the confines of your body any more your life because it is located there, than the life you are leading in the minds of others unbeknownst to you? Ashbery sees that the fabulous self and the true self, valorised here by being compared to diamonds on velvet, in the end are just different parts of the self and that it is only an issue of timing, and indeed spacing, that convinces us that we exist, like these diamonds, in lustrous singularity. In fact, like Daffy, we are endlessly reproducible at the whim of an all-pervading, god-like system or production and reproduction.
Altieri’s definition of postmodern poetry as “immanentist” works extremely well here as a description of how “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” can observe the means by which consumer culture reduces hierarchical differentiations of aesthetic and cultural value through the storm of its mixed discourse, while itself being constructed of just such a piebald mix. In addition, it helps us get to grips with Koethe’s almost uncanny feeling that Ashbery is a single and identifiable personality who has no subjective fixity. How can Ashbery speak of postmodern cartoon subjectivity in such an authoritative and penetrating manner, and yet at the same time so identify with the fabulous and fake being that he takes on the persona of Daffy himself? What postmodern poetry does is have its cake, eat it, and pass comment on the process with its mouth still full of crumbs. It uses linguistic and subjective discourses against such discourses. How so?
Altieri explains that:
The characteristic postmodern poem does not proceed by abstract meditation but seeks to create a specific attitude or model for imaginatively perceiving relationships in a given situation, which—as attitude, not as symbol or statement—defines and give value to a more general perspective on experience…poetic creation is conceived more as the discovery and the disclosure of numinous relationships within nature than as the creation of containing and structuring forms…the immanentist poets stresses the ways an imagination attentive to common and casual experience can transform the mind and provide satisfying resting places in an otherwise endless dialectical pursuit by the mind of its own essences and of transcendental realities”.[iii]
This is rather dense argumentation but it can be shown that “Daffy Duck in Hollywood” fulfils all these criteria and so can be seen as a typical, but not archetypal, postmodern poem. First of all the poem is not an abstract mediation on consumerism and subjectivity but the creation of an attitude, let’s call it daffiness, from which this situation can be perceived. Who better than a cartoon character to comment on ontological fakeness, and where better than Hollywood to base oneself? The result of the poem is not a truth, a lasting foundational statement that can be tested against evidence and similar attitudes held within a culture, but a temporary location from which more general statements can be attempted. These general statements are not permanent or universally true, they come about only because of the specific attitude presented in the work, but nor are they postmodern free-play because the attitude is specific and rooted in experience of a sort.
The temporary, but significant, attitude to the ever-changing nature of experience has its mystical side for it is an immanentist philosophy capable of finding divinity and numinosity. However, God is to be found, not to be competed with. The poet is not a maker, a creator of lasting works of beauty, but a finder, a flaneur in the endlessly projected arcades of this hyper-real life. They can do this because they have no interest in God and creation, rather the immanentist is interested in her/himself. They seek localised moments of limited fixity, in this instance poems, where the poet can take a break from truth claims but also where they can experience the dissolution and transformation of a monumental and single sense of self, what we call a Cartesian sense of being, in the face of total and transformational multiplicity.[iv]
Taking our lead from Altieri we can now state that postmodern poetry is a temporary attitude, we will call this the poem, strategically placed to allow for observations of relationships, we will call this the theme, which allow the poet to experience the world rather than impose structures upon the world, the result of which is a removal of the subject from limiting, and ultimately irresolvable, positions such as essence and universal truths. This removal is great, not only because after four thousand or more years of chasing after these essences and truths and getting no nearer we are tired, but also because, in the end, life and the world are great. Thus the subject gets daffy and loves it.
Altieri sees this as just as aporetic and logically exasperating as the non-immanentist, modernist quest for the imposition of lasting forms on the transient nature of modern, everyday experience. Ashbery too, although probably the very immanentist poet Altieri had in mind, has his reservations. As the poem draws to a close Ashbery makes a notably immanentist statement:
All life is but a figment; conversely, the tiny
Tome that slips from your hand is not perhaps the
Missing link in this invisible picnic…Therefor bivouac we
On this great, blond highway, unimpeded by
Veiled scruples, worn conundrums.[v]
There are no lasting truths in other words, so let’s set up camp and camp it up in the midst of life’s ongoing process, the highway, and leave behind those structures which previously hindered our passage. It sounds like a lot of fun but Ashbery is under no illusion that this can be the end of the story. If one strand of postmodernism is definable as incredulity towards metanarratives then postmodern poetry is one step ahead or behind this suggestion in its appreciation that with loss of belief comes, also, a realisation of the importance of belief and a certain longing for belief, even if we cannot actually believe in it.
Daffy concedes as much at the poem’s end in one of numerous, poignant statements by Ashbery in his work on the need for belief at the very moment when it is least credible:
No one really knows
Or cares whether this is the whole of which parts
Were vouchsafed—once—but to be ambling on’s
The tradition more that the safekeeping of it. Thus mulch for
Play keeps them interested and busy while the big,
Vaguer stuff can decide what it wants—what maps, what
Model cities, how much waste space. Life, our
Life anyway, is between.[vi]
One is tempted to say, after this, behold the brilliance of postmodern poetry. It puts forward the most eloquent and sophisticated descriptions of the postmodern condition that exist in the language. At the same time, due to the alien nature of poetic language, and its self-referential foregrounding of this, it is able to both embody postmodernism and establish a place, what Altieri calls an attitude, from which postmodern culture can be critically analysed and perhaps, even, over time, slowly changed. As Ashbery suggests in the poem, postmodernism is just an overnight stop on the highway of things, and the distractions of its hyper-real cultural artefacts are not so much the end of culture as an interval between two films in a double feature. Somewhere the mystical projectionist is struggling with the fresh reel, modernism is over and the next film is not quite ready to be watched, meanwhile, and perhaps for an eternity or perhaps only for a few seconds more, we have postmodernism. Ashbery’s final point is perhaps the most encouraging. It may be true that postmodernism is only a temporary attitude towards life, language, history, culture, capitalism, subjectivity and the western traditions of philosophical Enlightenment, it may only be in-between, but life too is somewhat like that. Perhaps this is the final answer as to why modern poetry is like that, and postmodern poetry is like this. Postmodern poetry is like this because life, postmodern or otherwise, is like this too, it’s just that we only just realised it. It would seem we have a lot of catching up to do, but don’t worry, the poets are on hand to help.
[i] It is worth registering here Baudrillard’s profound insight on postmodern subjectivity where the idea of the subject in the mirror is replaced by subjectivity performed via the screen. The mirror of course aids self-reflection and is a closed, narcissistic system. The screen however requires projection or the self, suggests reception as well, possibly by large numbers, and, in terms of the computer screen, also emphasises the dissemination of subjectivity amongst an infinite number of networks. The postmodern subject, in other words, is a subject without interiority, privacy, or cohesion. Rather, the subject is a false projection, an augmentation, a performance, and an open-ended multiplicity.
[ii] Ashbery, Three Books 31.
[iii] Charles Altieri. Enlarging the Temple 16-17.
[iv] Herd associates this moment of localised fixity with the image of the pavilion in the poem “think in that language: its / Grammer, though tortured, offers pavilions / At each new parting of the ways” Ashbery, Three Books 31. Herd glosses this passage as follows: “A pavilion is a temporary structure assembled and disassembled quickly enough to serve the needs of a particular, fleeting occasion. This, Daffy argues, is what is required if the culture is to be delivered from Tophet, and of course the poem is just such a structure…” Herd 172.
[v] Ashbery, Three Books 33.