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ISSN: 0974-892X


July, 2019



Multiplicity; Rhizome Theory; and John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

Ashutosh Biswal, M. Phil. Research Scholar
Dr. Madhusmita Pati, Associate Professor, Reader and Head of the Department, Department of English, Ravenshaw University, Cuttack



The paper explores and revolves around the concept and traces of “multiplicity” in John Ashbery’s lengthy poem, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” in the light of “Rhizome Theory”propounded by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (inspired by Jung) and clinical psychoanalyst Felix Guattari. This paper describes how the dimensions of “multiplicity” of rhizome theory project its significance in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. The principle of multiplicity is all about determinations, magnitudes, dimensions and its combination which results in growth and changing nature of multiplicity.  The multiplicity which has been discussed below is based on the interpretation of Parmigianino’s self-portrait and how the Dadaism or the Dadaistic technique of art is transferred into the painting within the tenets of postmodernism.

Key Words: Postmodernism, Rhizome Theory, Multiplicity, Dadaism.



Richard Tarnas in his philosophical as well as critical essay, “The Postmodern Mind” a study on complexity of postmodern mind describes; “it is Nietzsche and his concept of nihilism which became the harbinger of the study of postmodern mind. Nietzsche’s philosophy of nihilism suggested that the very centre of our existence is totally nihilistic or hollow because everything ends in nothingness. The postmodern mind is the complex human mind and postmodern thinking is the thinking of complexity. After the Second World War, human mind was complexly developed because of so many absurdities and so many emerging voices. Postmodern thinking is the complex thinking rejecting the modern thinking. As a rejection over modernism post modern mind believes on decentralization, undesirability, uncertainty, ambiguity, mystery and dilemma. It is against heroism and rather than dictating the single truth or reality, which is the monolithic claim of modernism, postmodernism believes on the multiplicity and plurality of truth”. (Tarnas)

Similarly, “postmodern mind gives ears to all the voices of philosophical ideas such as existentialism, absurdism, deconstruction, Marxism, feminism, post structuralism, linguistic idea” (Tarnas). Because of multiple voices given by such different philosophical, political, religious as well as linguistic movements, the concept of truth or reality has become very complex. Everything has become probable and the concept of central meaning has been divested so in post modernism the concept of single, coherent meaning has collapsed. Even though post modernism does not claim anything heroically it gives certain suggestion of us for being the postmodern thinker. First, it suggests that perceiving absolute truth or reality is impossible rather it can be accepted as the product of interpretation. Truth, reality, or meaning is the matter of human interpretation so non-interpretation can be the final interpretation so there is no final truth and no meaning is final meaning. Secondly, interpretations may come at any time because interpretations are never ending so it suggests us to make our mind flexible and liquid to accept any interpretation, and the interpretations are multiple in nature and this is how postmodernism and the principle of multiplicity are interrelated.

Among all the concepts of postmodernism, the principle of multiplicity, which is one of the aspects of Rhizome Theory, plays a pivotal role in understanding of postmodernism and the postmodern world.

The concept of ‘rhizome’ was introduced by Carl Jung the psychologist. His introduction to Memories, Dreams, and Reflections includes the following reference to ‘rhizome’:

Life has always seemed to me like a plant that lives on its rhizome. Its true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome. The part that appears above the ground lasts only a single summer. Then it withers away-an ephemeral apparition. When we think of unending growth and decay of life and civilizations, we cannot escape the impression of absolute nullity. Yet I have never lost the sense of something that lives and endures beneath that eternal flux. What we see is blossom, which passes. The rhizome remains. (17)

Though Jung paved the way with this quote, the figures responsible for rhizome as a term are French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (inspired by Jung) and clinical psychoanalyst Felix Guattari, who together developed an ontology based on the rhizome in works such as Rhizome introduction (1976) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980).

The concept of rhizome and its principles has been defined by Brent Adkins in his book Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus A Critical Introduction and Guide, makes the concept intelligible to the readers, the details of which are discussed below:

They begin the opening plateau, "Rhizome," by calling into Rhizome question the very notion of a book. They want to write a new kind of book, not a book that reproduces what we already know, but a book that creates something new and is itself something new. A book that merely reproduces good sense and common sense reproduces the hoariest cliché for thought itself, the tree. The tree is a marvel of stable, hierarchical organization. Lines of descent are always clear, as is the process of differentiation. Logic uses trees. Biological species are organized according to trees. Linguistics is quite fond of trees. Trees reveal the deep structure that lies behind the messiness of reality. Trees are so useful that it's hard to think without them. It is even difficult to conceptualize what thought would be like without trees. What is the opposite of a tree? For Deleuze and Guattari the opposite of a tree is a rhizome. We encounter rhizomes all the time. Potatoes are rhizomes. Grass is a rhizome. Colonies of aspen trees are rhizomes. Rhizomes do not propagate by way of clearly delineated hierarchies but by underground sterns in which any part may send additional shoots upward, downward, or laterally. There is no hierarchy and no clear lines of descent. A rhizome has no beginning or end. It is always in the middle. They simply begin again wherever they are. It is not predictable. It always tends to the creation of something new and does not follow a linear pattern of growth and reproduction. Its connections are lateral not hierarchical and is against the notion of arborescent structure. (23) 

            Regarding the principle of multiplicity, Brent Adkins analyzes in his book Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus A Critical Introduction and Guide and states that,

Making a rhizome also requires a principle of multiplicity. Here Deleuze and Guattari are attempting to avoid the dialectic of the one and the many. The traditional way of handling the many is to subsume it under the one. The many are just parts of a greater whole, which is of course organized arborescently. Such a view ensures that nothing new is created, but that any multiple is only a reflection of the one. On this view the one remains transcendent to the many and is unaffected by any changes in the many. In contrast to this traditional view Deleuze and Guattari propose to make a rhizome out of the same material. For them, the principle of multiplicity is all about determinations, magnitudes, dimensions and its combination which results in growth and changing nature of multiplicity. As Deleuze and Guattari say, "the laws of combination increase in number as the multiplicity grows" (TP 8). The multiplicity is not a discrete, static unity, but something constantly entering into and breaking off combinations with other multiplicities. (25-26)

            In this paper we attempt to indentify the traces of multiplicity in John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” with special regard to Ashbery’s position in the postmodern movement.   The poem mediates between the two functions of reproducing Parmigianino’s self-portrait in poetic form and constructing its own; in this double (or multiple) task of reproducing the self and the other the distinction between the two becomes blurred. Here the multiplicity which has been discussed below is based on the interpretation of Parmigianino’s self-portrait and how the Dadaism or the Dadaistic technique of art is transferred into the painting.


In the self-portrait of Parmigianino when Parmigianino draws the painting, the multiplicity of it is made possible by his determination (the process of establishing something new) and the magnitude (circular shape of painting that carries the immense thought process). But the time when the painting gets connected to outer world that is, its dimension gets increased though multiple interpretation and that give rise to pluralism. Ashbery projects the very idea of multiplicity from the first strophe of the poem that is,

“the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old beams,
Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run together
In a movement supporting the face, which swims
Toward and away like the hand
Except that it is in repose. It is what is
Sequestered.” (68)

            The hand is significant insofar as it discloses a double function and arouses a multiplicity of meaning. While on one, it seems that Parmigianino is offering the viewer as a greeting and welcoming sign. But at the same time it seems that Parmigianino is careful not to fully expose himself to the onlooker, and uses his hand as a shield to hide his private exhibitionism. The hand, therefore, symbolizes both a link and a wall to other people, in other words an expression of the painter’s extroversion and inner privacy.
The creation of the self-portrait is the creation of the artist himself. A constant dialogue underlies the act of painting, an argument between the painter and his reflection in the mirror and his evolving image of the reflection on the painted surface. An antagonistic analysis of the spiritual and psychological domains of the artist is performed that scans and generates a representation of his “self”. Investigating his inner plurality, the artist embarks on the quest for his own myth of his past, trying to come to terms with his duality. The dichotomy of the artist and his reflection, his ego and super-ego is balanced in a synthesis of the reflection of the reflection, in the result of a long process of psychological self-exploration.

Dadaistic technique of art is transferred into the painting.

            The mute portrait presenting Parmigianino, “speaks out” in the literal sense of the Greek word ekphrasis. It speaks through the verbal depiction of the painting in the poem. The ekphrastic incarnation of Parmigianino, Shakespeare, Mahler, Berg, Hoffman, Vasari and Freedberg become “percipitates” in Ashbery’s poem, merging into his literary context. His rummaging in the attic of the literary past, the taking down of the most extravagant artifacts is reflective of the postmodern spirit. In isolating such unique pieces from their original surrounding, the artist often negates their original purpose and/or function, and gives them a new interpretation. That is to say they acquire an entirely different meaning in the postmodern context. Bits and pieces are eclectically selected and pieced together in a collage. The dadaistic technique of cutting and pasting applied to the medium of language results in a “verbal collage” by means of intertextuality.

As Deleuze and Guattari say, "the laws of combination increase in number as the multiplicity grows"(TP 8). A multiplicity is not a discrete, static unity, but something constantly entering into and breaking off combinations with other multiplicities. The boundaries between multiplicities are neither stable nor distinct but move back and forth in what Deleuze and Guattari call a "zone of indiscernibility.” Here in Ashbery’s Self-Portrait, the combination is all about the “verbal collage” from earlier fiction or descriptive works, which is rich in allusion and selective quotations and this further increases the growth of multiplicity. And, Ashbery being an art critic and poet is also affected and carried out with several stances and psychological thoughts from his surrounding which depicts the multiplicity within the mind of Ashbery. In “Self- portrait in a Convex Mirror” Ashbery quotes Vasari, Freedberg, and Berg as,

Vasari,            “Francesco one day set himself
To take his own portrait, looking at himself for that purpose
In a convex mirror, such as is used by barbers…
He accordingly caused a ball of wood to be made
By a tuner, and having divided it in half and
Brought it to the size of the mirror, he set himself
With great art to copy all that he saw in the glass,” (68)
Freedberg, … “Realism in this portrait
No longer produces an objective truth, but a bizzaria….
However its distortion does not create
A feeling of disharmony…. The forms retain
A strong measure of ideal beauty,” (73)
Berg, The locking into place is “death itself,”
Or, to quote Imogen in Cymbaline, There cannot
Be a pinch in death more sharp than this” (76)

            These fragments are borrowed from exterior texts and are extracted from their original surrounding, only to be fully integrated in a novel milieu, where they serve a newly adopted function, namely Ashbery’s reflection in his self-seeking process.

            These borrowed pieces in the poem are smoothly blended and yet they retain a loose structure. Moreover, not only do the importations have fragmentary character, but the whole poem is composed of such fragments, jumping from association to association, from connotation to connotation, from painting to poem, from Parmigianino to Ashbery, and vice versa. The poem’s message cannot be isolated or restricted to a single or absolute definition. Its de-centered structure, open-ended constitution and discontinuity in the flux of thought transform the poem to a sheer challenge for both the art critic and for the postmodern-minded reader in general. Its complexity and abundance of topics and counter topics account for divergent interpretations or perhaps more accurately attempts at interpretation.

Regarding the verbal nuances and implication, in a Journal of Modern Literature an got essay published in 1976, shortly after the publication of Ashbery's poem, where Fred Moramarco comments that Ashbery is able “to explore the verbal implications of painterly space, to capture the verbal nuances of Parmigianino's fixed and distorted image. The poem virtually resonates or extends the painting's meaning. It transforms visual impact to verbal precision. He goes on to explore the way Ashbery attempts to record verbally the emotional truth contained in Parmigianino's painting” (436). Art in the poem is dressed in the latest style which paradoxically consists of an assemblance and conglomerate of historicist garments.

Positioning Ashbery within the tenets postmodern movement, an art critic and a poet considering his poem “Self- portrait in a Convex Mirror”, Richard Stamelman, in his 1984 essay for New Literary History, maintains that Ashbery approaches art from a postmodern standpoint. Stamelman identifies Ashbery's position as one in which “painting and poetry can represent nothing other than their own difficult, often thwarted efforts at representation.” The painted self-portrait is as self-enclosed, condensed, and smoothly englobed as the poetic meditation is open-ended, rambling, and fragmented. Where Parmigianino's face floats angelically in a state of perfect, timeless immobility, Ashbery's mind rushes to and fro in a dance of associations, thoughts, and self-conscious reflections. His consciousness moves in a recurring, although decentered, pattern from a meditation of the Parmigianino painting to a contemplation of his own life, to a consideration of the nature of poetic and pictorial representation, and back to the painting once again, where the meditation starts a new. While the painter presents an image of himself at once complete and unchanging, the poet represents the comings and goings of sensations, desires, thoughts, and impressions “a mimesis,” he says, “of how experience comes to me” (608).

By entitling his poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” Ashbery appears to have wanted to reveal the extreme difference between Mannerist and postmodernist aesthetics and the great disparity between the idea of self and the attitude toward reality that those two aesthetics embody. He wanted, in other words, to make his poem serve as a critical reflection of the painting: an ekphrastic re-presentation of Parmigianino's self-portrait and at the same time a radical criticism of the illusions and deceptions inherent in forms of traditional representation that insist on the ideal, essential, and totalized nature of the copied images they portray.

Ashbery is a poet of demystifications, differences, and, as will become clear, deconstructions. In the very act of presenting the Parmigianino painting describing its formal elements, its stylistic mannerisms, the history of its composition he critically dismantles the portrait, pointing to the sealed, life-denying, motionless image of self it portrays; the poem offers a critical deconstruction of representation itself, or more precisely, of the aesthetic of perfection which gives representations an aura of eternal sameness, enshrining them in the paradise of art so that they constitute what Harold Bloom calls a “supermimesis” (Stamelman 608).


            Rejecting the thought of one vogue or one truth, the artist of the postmodern age champions the richness, rather than the clarity of meaning. As Ashbery describes, in the postmodern soil the accumulation flourishes “like a cabbage rose” which is multilayered, just as the way in which we remove each layer of a cabbage but cannot find the beginning of it rather go on exploring though multiple layers the postmodern reality is quite similar to it. The multiplicity of meaning and truth subvert reality, homogenizes incongruities, and at the same time contributes to the complexity and diversity of the being. The multiplicity and complexity of Ashbery’s poem “Self- portrait in a Convex Mirror” is not only due to its treatment and dramatization of a variety of subjects, but also because of its structure. They overlap and interfere with each other and thus make a linear discussion impossible.



Works Cited

Adkins, Brent. “Rhizome.”  Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus A Critical Introduction and Guide, Edinburgh University Press Ltd, 2015, pp. 25-27.

Ashbery, John. Self- Portarit in a Convex Mirror. Carcanet Press Ltd., 1977, pp. 68-83.

Jung, C.G. Memoirs, Dreams and Reflections, translated by Richard and Clara Winston, edited by Aniela Jaffé, Revised edition,Vintage Books, 1965, pp. 17.

Massumi, Brian, translator. “Introduction: Rhizome.” A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. By Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. University of Minnesota Press, 1987, pp. 8-9.

Moramarco, Fred. “John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara: The Painterly Poets.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 5, no. 3, 1976, pp. 436-62. JSTOR,

Stamelman, Richard. “Critical Reflections: Poetry and Art Criticism in Ashbery's ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.’” New Literary History, vol. 15, no. 3, 1984, pp. 607-30. JSTOR,

Tarnas, Richard, “The Postmodern Mind: Meaning and Interpretation.”SCRIBD,