Extrapolating Meaning from Ashbery’s “The System” Part 2

Let’s continue right where we left off. The poem had started down the dangerous path of extreme skepticism: can we ever know anything? It continues to darken as it then turns to the question of what purpose life has. Why do anything? This gets chillingly stated as a rhetorical question amidst many other thoughts and metaphors:

“…a life of suffering redeemed and annihilated at the end, and for what? For a casual moment of knowing that is here one minute and gone the next, almost before you were aware of it?”

Many poets talk about life as a journey along a “path” or “road.” This gives the impression that there is clear forward motion and progress. Ashbery uses the term “track” which draws up two different ideas. One is that we have no control. We can’t choose anything or wander into the nearby woods. The journey is fixed by the track ahead of time. Also, a runner’s track is an oval. There is no forward motion. You always loop back to the start.

The narrator laments that we are always lost. The track is not well lit. We have no idea where we’re going. Lots of people see the track and think they are no longer lost, but it is only an illusion. This whole section is the metaphor “life as career.” The next section is “life as ritual.” In life as ritual, we strive to forget the past and only look forward.

The narration then moves on to two notions of happiness. The first type is “frontal,” and occurs naturally. It is abstract (or not?) and is that sensation of opening up when confronted with the profound beauty that is life. Unfortunately, these moments are rare and few people ever experience them.

The other type of happiness is latent/dormant. This is a happiness withheld after waiting for it. Many people spend their lives hunting for it when they can sense it is just around the corner. When you read Ashbery’s description, I think everyone recognizes a bit of themselves. It is that thought, if I just had this one more thing, I’d be truly happy:

“And a kind of panic develops, which for many becomes a permanent state of being, with all the appearances of a calm, purposeful, reflective life.”

He then ties the forward motion motif to the happiness motif and the knowledge motif (pointing out the self-contradictory nature of radical skepticism as a philosophical stance) in an extended, breathtaking sentence:

“…when the common sense of even an idiot would be enough to make him realize that nothing has stopped, that we and everything around us are moving forward continually, and that we are being modified constantly by the speed at which we travel and the regions through which we pass, so that merely to think of ourselves as having arrived at some final resting place is a contradiction of fundamental logic, since even the dullest of us knows enough to realize that he is ignorant of everything, including the basic issue of whether we are in fact moving at all or whether the concept of motion is something that can even be spoken of in connection with such ignorant beings as we, for whom the term ignorant is indeed perhaps an overstatement, implying as it does that something is known somewhere, whereas in reality we are not even sure of this: we in fact cannot aver with any degree of certainty that we are ignorant.”

After some more discussion, the line of thought changes to offer us an out. He proposes a form of empiricism: “Yet this seems not quite right, a little too pat perhaps, and here again it is our senses that are of some use to us in distinguishing verity from falsehood.”

But this is difficult. Each day we’ll struggle to discern any truth at all. It will be “unsatisfactory.” We listen to the lessons life teaches us, and the truth makes its way in even if we don’t recognize it. Even if we can’t articulate it, we’ll come away changed by it.

We are then reminded that this is a discussion about the latent form of happiness. We can now see that it is a “fleshed-out, realized version of that ideal first kind, …, the faithful reflection which is truer than the original because more suited to us…”

If we achieve this happiness, we can forget about time and the changing seasons and all the chaotic and meaningless details and finally be at peace. We have “twin urges” to go out into the world and act, breaking our happiness, and to remain at peace. When you wreck the peace, you struggle to get back, but everything has changed so you can’t make sense of it anymore. This leads to a despair:

“The whole world seems dyed the same melancholy hue. Nothing in it can arouse your feelings. Even the sun seems dead. And all because you succumbed to what seemed an innocent and perfectly natural craving, to have your cake and eat it too, forgetting that, widespread as it is, it cannot be excused on any human grounds because it cannot be realized.”

Do not fear in this moment. What you had was real. Ashbery again gives us comfort. “The darkness that surrounds you now does not exist, because it never had any independent existence: you created it out of the spleen and torment you felt.”

I’ll end here for today. Hopefully the overall form of the poem is becoming apparent at this point. Ashbery starts down some line of thought and it wanders to an extreme and seemingly hopeless end. Then he reminds us where we started and offers consolation and a way around that terrible end.

We’ll finish this next time. I recommend reading the poem if you haven’t. My summary makes it look choppy, but it is kind of amazing how these disparate ideas flow together with all the metaphoric imagery to tie it together.


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