Sincronía Spring 2011

The Emperor of Ice Cream” and Speech Act Philosophy

Stephen W. Gilbert

Universidad de Guadalajara

Since its origins in the work of  J. L. Austin, ordinary language philosophy has tended to avoid literary texts. Austin famously claims, in “Performative Utterances” (1956) that when the poet (in this case, John Donne) says, “go and catch a falling star” that he doesn't really mean that we should go and catch a falling star. Austin, and most of his readers, have concentrated most of their efforts on the notion of “meaning” that Austin's comments entail, involving questions of intention for the most part. Fewer have given any thought to what Austin might have meant by “we.” The collocation, “what the poet really means (or doesn't mean)” leads directly to ideas about intention. I am prepared to argue that Austin's comment that the poet “doesn't really mean” that we should go and catch a falling star rests on questionable premisses. As is almost always the case, when we build arguments on premisses that are taken to be obvious, or that go without saying, we invariably open interesting paths of inquiry that usually begin with comments like, “Yes, of course, obviously, but what if...?” Or perhaps with a little more respect for the principles of argument, “But are there any conditions under which the poet might have meant precisely what he says?”

If we do, even for a moment, entertain such whimsical questions, we usually answer, very quickly, that in some imaginative way, the poet does order us to go and catch a falling star, and in some imagined universe, we do precisely that. And in this way, we rescue speech act theory for “literary purposes.” The poet's usage is still not “serious” in Austin's terms, so we needn't disturb the good professor's rest.

At this point, I think that relevance theory has something interesting to offer. If arriving at an adequate interpretation of an utterance in normal conversation is a process that combines the use of logical forms and cognitive processes, then it appears to me that there is absolutely no difference between the procedures that interpret an utterance in a work of literature and the procedures that interpret an utterance in ordinary conversation. A speech act is a speech act, no matter where it occurs. What we do about it might make some difference, I suppose.

On this view, any reading of Donne's poem that begins with (or includes at any stage of the reading) the conviction that “the poet doesn't really mean it” would produce nonsense. We are obligated to understand the utterance “Go and catch a falling star” as an imperative grammatically, and as an order pragmatically. Otherwise the poem would make no sense whatever. Of course he means it, by any definition of the word “means” we care to employ. How we respond is, on the other hand, an interesting question for literary theory, especially in the current climate where questions about how people read, what people are doing when they read, what strategies people variously employ in order to read, and so on, have become legitimate questions.

One of my favorite poems is Wallace Stevens' “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” It is absolutely loaded with orders, or imperatives, some of them quite interesting. I am going to argue that the illocutionary force of many of its lines determine, or invite, or at least allow for certain reading activities, most of which would be called “cognitive” or “mental” activities in today's criticism. Central to my argument is the spatial arrangement of the story of the poem that we imagine as a result of the orders given by the speaker of the poem. Helen Vendler, one of the most respected Stevens critics, imagines what she calls an “ur-narrative” of the poem, in which a neighbor enters the house of a deceased older woman, to help prepare the wake. As a friend of the family, he enters by the kitchen, where there is a party going on, ice-cream being prepared, and scullery girls and yard-boys are loitering about. In the back bedroom, the woman's corpse is stretched out on a bed. With this spatial arrangement firmly in place, Vendler reads the poem as an opposition between the two rooms. “Stevens "plots" this story into two equal stanzas: one for the kitchen where the ice cream is being made, one for the bedroom where the corpse awaits decent covering.”

Among the many things I find fascinating about Vendler's reading is the ease with which she assigns some experience to the poet (his mother's death is mentioned specifically) which establishes a kind of debate in the poet's mind between appearance and reality, and lays the groundwork for his “momentous choice for reality over appearance.” This is a reading with which many of us are familiar. We read “Let be be finale of seem” in precisely this way until other possible readings are made available. I'll return to this line later, but right now I'd like to revisit the spatial arrangement that Vendler proposes as a result of her search for some “ur-narrative” (presumably in the poet's life) that gave rise to the poem.

I go at the poem from a different starting point. I have been interested lately in the illocutionary force of certain lines in poems, most recently in imperatives (in terms that John Searle would use), or more generally recognized as orders or requests or invitations or instructions. This particular poem is full of them. I quote the entire poem for ease of reference:

The Emperor of Ice Cream

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

There are only two sentences in the entire poem (one of them repeated) that do not contain imperatives. This being highlighted, two related questions present themselves: Who is giving these orders, and to whom are they given? Professor Vendler imagines that the orders are given as a “series of commands from an unknown master of ceremonies, directing--in a diction of extreme oddness--the neighbors in their funeral duties.” I am very fond of “the unknown master of ceremonies” for a couple of reasons: it's not the “speaker of the poem” which is a phrase often used to avoid the work of deciding who actually is speaking, and it gestures toward the celebratory tone that I hear at work in much of the poem. (THIS NEEDS WORK). But the notion that he is addressing the neighbors strikes me as odd, and not particularly useful. But he is giving orders or instructions. There are eight of them. They seem to be of two types, one easy and the other more difficult. Let's start with the first (an easy one): “Call the roller of big cigars.” By its nature an order or instruction is given by someone to someone else. Normally we think that a person giving an order implies a right, or at least the power, to give such an order and communicates as well the expectation that the order or instruction will be obeyed or followed.

If a “master of ceremonies” is giving these orders to the neighbors (whom I find nowhere in the poem), then perhaps he is the poet's creation as much as the wenches, or the boys who bring the flowers, and we would look for Stevens elsewhere and wonder about his relation with this “master of ceremonies”. But if the poet's voice is present in the poem, then perhaps the instructions are directed to the only interlocutor a poet ever has – his reader. These instructions might thereby function as much as instructions for reading as for ordering the décor and decorum of a wake.

Notice first that any “ur-narrative” as a motive for the poem is necessarily a post-hoc creation; it can only be imagined after the poem has been read, and at least initially interpreted. This is how Vendler gets stuck with the two rooms of the poem on which her reading finally depends. But if we are interested in what readers do in the process of reading, in order to think about how other interpretations might be arrived at, we have to construct descriptions of the activities readers engage in as the elements of the poem enter their consciousness. Imagine first that a reader obeys orders when he sees them. In some way, then, a reader will in fact call the roller of big cigars, call him at least to his minds eye. And if not terribly distracted by “concupiscent” (one of Stevens' “inkwell words”) he might locate a few kitchen cups for the cigar fellow to begin his work. It is established by now that readers are able to handle multiple levels of represented consciousness without much effort up to four or five levels (“He was sure that she had told him that her husband believed their daughter had become convinced that she was a unicorn.” Some confusion possible about who is the unicorn in this case, but the example should serve our purposes. For a clearer explanation, see Dorrit Cohn's Transparent Minds). The point is that readers seem quite capable of maintaining things in mind as both discourse and story roll along. Consequently I see no need, at least at this early stage of reading, to construct more than a single space which is quite capable of expanding to include not only the cigar roller and his kitchen cups, but wenches, and boys with flowers.

Back to that obeying orders idea. This leads us to some rather interesting considerations about the word “let.” It is the tricky one. “Call” and “bid” can be dealt with in a couple of ways. First, let's give a chance to Vendler's notion that someone is giving orders to the neighbors. According to her reading, the neighbors have already complied, and the cigar fellow is busy making ice cream in the kitchen, and the scullery maids (presumably employees of the already mentioned neighbors) are hanging slovenly about (also in the kitchen) to help, attended by the nieghbors' yard boys (who may or may not have been invited.) We will let all that be, according to Vendler, as we make our way to the back bedroom where the old lady is laid out alone on her bed. We thoughtfully cover her up after wrestling with that sadly knob-less dresser. Notice the only meaning of the word “let” that is permitted by Vendler's reading. Let it be, since it is already the case. Let it go, since it is unimportant, and somewhat vulgar. Leave it behind (in the other room) while we attend to more serious matters. What is triumphs over what merely seems. And this, in Vendler's and many other readings, “solves” the poem.

I think there is much more fun to be had. Ordinary language philosophy, as practiced by John Austin at Oxford and Harvard in the 1950's opened the door for what I think of as a supplement to literary stylistics. The example of speech acts in the Stevens poem is a good example. Beginning with the idea that the orders given in the poem are a rhetorical act performed by a speaking voice in the present, the immediate interlocutor (without extraneous imaginings) can only be the reader of the poem. In what sense then, does a reader “call” anyone? Without leaving off the reading of the poem to open a window or door and call some previously known associate, the reader can only “call into being” an imagined cigar roller. In this way, a reader begins to stage the poem, in his mind's eye. Other elements of this staging are included as the poem continues. “Kitchen cups” supply a kitchen. Many readers may prefer at this point to send the cigar fellow off-stage, into a kitchen, where he will prepare those famously concupiscent curds. If those readers move with the cigar roller into the kitchen, to discover the wenches and their attendant boys with flowers, they will need to move again in the second stanza, removing themselves to some other room to attend the waiting corpse.

Once we begin any staging, or spatial arrangement, of a poem's elements, we perform interpretations of the linguistic elements of the poem. This is a process that can work the other way on, of course. We can begin with some understanding of certain words, and allow those understandings to guide the staging. The relations between these two activities probably deserves a special kind of research; the most profitable would likely be empirical. Let's look closely now at the nature of the order “let.” Since the word is used parallel to the words “call” and “bid” I feel confident in treating “let” as the same kind of order, and assume it requires the same kind of mental activity as the previous orders. That is we let it be the case that the wenches are dawdling. And we dress them in the same clothes they normally wear. (This is quite a trick, by the way, as you may have noticed yourself. As an experiment, you might ask other readers what, exactly, are those wenches wearing, and compare that to the dress you have supplied them.) This of course, opens other questions regarding the degree to which we are or are not engaged in visualization when we read poetry. I am aware, for instance, that among my students there is always a wide range between those who read more visually and those who do less visualization when they read poems. I am working, for the purposes of this exercise, as a very visual-oriented reader. One of the most important things to say about the activities of visualization is that they are by their nature a series of choices. I really can't argue that the wenches dresses should be of a certain color. I can prefer to dress them in pale pastels, clingy summer dresses, as a matter of fact. You can dress them as you please, but both of us imagine that they are in normal, everyday dress, nothing special for the occasion. I prefer to leave the cigar fellow and his preparations on the same stage, or in the same room as the women and boys, where they are very quickly joined by the dresser, the sheet and the corpse.

There are two meanings of the word “let” that might guide our staging and interpretation of this poem. We understand “let” to mean “allow” or “permit.” The less common, and the one I see operating in our poem is found in the notion of “let it be the case that.” This is the sense we find in God's creation of light. He calls it into being, commands it to exist, by the simple expedient of letting it be the case that light exists. The calling into imaginative being by a reader is quite similar, really, to the universe's response to God. I mean, who are we to disobey? And what does it cost us, after all?

If we adopt the first meaning of the word, we might imagine that certain actors of the poem are already present, onstage as it were, even before the cigar roller makes his entrance. But if we call them all into existence, cigar roller, wenches, boys, following the sequence of the poem's imperatives, then we create ourselves as the master of ceremonies, the stage-director, the organizer of the grand finale, not a triumph of one part of the poem over another, but ceremony that encompasses all of its elements, a celebration of tawdry , lustful, even vulgar life as well as its stark, well-lighted end. We let it be the case that existence includes both ice-cream and corpse. If we let it.

Works Cited

Stevens, Wallace, "The Emperor of Ice Cream,"  in The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, Vintage Press, 1990, p. 64.

Austin, J. L., "Performative Utterances," in Philosophical Papers, 1979

Vendler, Helen,Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen Out of Desire, University of Tennessee, 1984.


Sincronía Spring 2011