I need your disapproval

John Ashbery

The House of Mirth
Edith Wharton

John Ashbery’s “Homecoming” operates on my favorite romantic wavelength:

Weather drips quietly through the skeins
in my diary. What surly elision is this?

Who faxed the folks news of my homecoming,
even unto the platform number? The majestic parlor car
slides neatly into its berth, the doors fly open,
and it’s Jean and Marcy and all the kids, waving pink plastic pinwheels,
chomping on popcorn. Ngarrrh. You know I adore ceremony,
even while refusing to stand on it, but this, this is too inane.
And the cold anonymity of the station takes over,
reins in the crowds that were sifting to the furthest exits. No one is here.
Now I know why I’ve always hated the tango, yet loved the intimacy
secreted in its curls. And for this to continue, we’ve got to
get together, renew old saws, let old grudges ride ...

Later I’m posting this to you.
I just thought of you, you see, as indeed I do
several million times a day. I need your disapproval,
can’t live without your churlish ways.

The poem is all about contrast. It opens, with its invocation of a diary page, in solitude—I picture lines of writing blurred by the shadows of water running down the train car’s windowpane. Then, in the middle section, we’re introduced to a clambering frenzy of unwelcome relatives celebrating the speaker’s arrival. The critical element here is these characters’ lack of self-awareness—their celebrations are “inane,” but they don’t seem to realize it. Ashbery’s speaker acknowledges that this kind of “ceremony” might have certain appeals, but we get the sense that because Jean, Marcy, and co. engage in it without irony, their behavior is distasteful. It’s hardly a calamity—the speaker’s irritation is concisely articulated by that glorious word “Ngarrrh”—but we can tell he’s feeling stifled.

That point is emphasized in the ending lines. The speaker is, once again, alone and writing—this time, a letter—and we can feel his mind unclenching. It’s clear that the recipient would share the speaker’s disdainful feelings about the scene at the train station. The line “I need your disapproval” is especially rich because the direction of the disapproval is ambiguous. In one respect, the speaker indicates that he wants to lean on the recipient’s disapproval of all this pointless ceremony, to cast a skeptical eye on the empty gestures of his family. But at the same time, the line could be read as “I need your disapproval of me.” I need someone to shake their head at me, to laugh at me, to keep me in my place. God knows Jean and Marcy aren’t going to. I find this irresistibly romantic.

There’s more to unpack here: the tango, whose natural intimacy is spoiled by virtue of being performed. The rueful tone throughout the poem calls to mind the sadness one feels when watching a compelling expression fade into a cliché. For example, a phrase like “you complete me” would be beautiful if people didn’t say it so often and in all the wrong places. But “I need your disapproval”—now that’s a confession.

The framing of disapproval as a romantic virtue—the appeal of a person who can laugh at both you and at the world around you—is essentially untempered in Ashbery’s poem. But revisiting “Homecoming” made me think about how the same concept plays out very differently for Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (which I’m about halfway through reading). Lily is surrounded by characters who engage in empty ceremony, and the only man who seems to see through it is her friend Lawrence Selden.

Selden judges society—one can imagine him using the word “Ngarrrh,” although perhaps with a twinkle in his eye—and he judges Lily for embracing its artifice. This attitude, a strong contrast to the other men in their circle, makes Selden so uniquely appealing that Lily, who usually has firm control in her social interactions, finds herself clumsy in his presence.

“It seemed to be her fate to appear at her worst to Selden,” Wharton writes, echoing the sentiments of romantic heroines throughout history. (It took me about two seconds to find a YouTube montage of women falling down in romantic comedies.)

Like most tropes, there’s truth in this cliché. Lily feels that Selden’s critical gaze exposes “this real self of hers, which he had the faculty of drawing out of the depths.” Only he can see through her polite mask, which gives him power and allure. Wharton expresses that power literally in Selden’s posture:

Selden still leaned against the window, a detached observer of the scene, and under the spell of his observation Lily felt herself powerless to exert her usual arts.

Lily’s “usual arts” consist of intricate social manipulations, through which she shapes important conversations and influences others’ behavior while appearing to be utterly natural, even naïve. In the early part of the novel, the fact that she’s surrounded by comparatively dull companions enables Lily to demonstrate her skill, for instance, by making the bland (but wealthy) Percy Gryce fall in love with her over the course of a single train ride.

In Wharton’s New York, the charming people are never blessed with the good fortune of inherited wealth. Lily grows up with just enough money to make her dependent on it, without granting her the means of securing her freedom. She must marry, but a man like Lawrence Selden cannot offer her the lifestyle she requires. Instead, his influence unravels her ambitions simply by seeing them clearly.

"It seems to me," Lily says on an afternoon walk with Selden, "that you spend a good deal of your time in the element you disapprove of." At some level, Lily shares this disapproval; it’s what draws the two together. But her participation in this “element” implicates her in it, makes her an object of that same disapproval—Selden’s and, in a self-loathing cycle, her own. Whereas Selden can play the outsider, a “detached observer,” Lily, despite her equal perceptive skill, cannot. She must play the game. But when Selden is watching her, she becomes self-conscious. Her powers slip. She stumbles.

Lily realizes that “her sudden preoccupation with Selden was due to the fact that his presence shed a new light on her surroundings.” She acknowledges that he doesn’t possess any other particularly exceptional qualities:

It was rather that he had preserved a certain social detachment, a happy air of viewing the show objectively, of having points of contact outside the great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at. How alluring the world outside the cage appeared to Lily, as she heard its door clang on her! In reality, as she knew, the door never clanged: it stood always open; but most of the captives were like flies in a bottle, and having once flown in, could never regain their freedom. It was Selden's distinction that he had never forgotten the way out.

Lily’s assumption of Selden’s point of view, her “scanning her little world through his retina,” is her undoing. He renders her unable to function. On their afternoon walk, after noting Selden’s disapproval of her materialistic ambitions, Lily submits to a flicker of rage:

"Why do you do this to me?" she cried. "Why do you make the things I have chosen seem hateful to me, if you have nothing to give me instead?"

Selden’s answer—”If I had, it should be yours, you know”—is insufficient. In another society, Wharton implies, perhaps they might have a future together. But not in this one.

When faced with inane ceremony, Ashbery’s speaker in “Homecoming” can simply snarl and retreat to his writing table. Lily Bart has no such luxury. The “gilt cage” of convention suffocates her, despite its open door. Ashbery and Wharton are both aware that looking down on the silly side of life can bring people closer. Wharton’s tragedy comes from the sad truth that, sometimes, the silly people have all the power.

microreadingCraig Pearson