Reality and “The Emperor of Ice Cream”

If you find “The Emperor of Ice Cream” by Wallace Stevens, the poem which I will be discussing in this post, excessively oblique, check out Helen Vendler’s quick analysis here, where she offers a strong reading of the poem’s narrative content. I think her story is right, but while Vendler reads the poem as primarily a triumph of life over death, I argue that Stevens is after something a bit more subtle and metaphysical. As in “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”, Stevens here seems preoccupied with ontology; instead of working in a moral mode asserting the primacy of life, Stevens posits an almost Lacanian account of the construction of a distant, transcendent Life (with the capital ‘L’). The poem, then, becomes about the negotiations between the living subjects and the distant Living Other, the mechanism of which is buried in the syntactically and semantically thick line “Let be be finale of seem.”

I had always been tempted to read “finale” in that line to mean something like “apotheosis” or “triumph”, an evaluative claim asserting the superiority of being to seeming. However, through discussions with David and closer reading of this poem and “Notes…”, I’ve come to believe that the thrust of the word is causative– being is the “finale” of seem because it comes from seeming; seeming, then, is a creative force, capable of constructing a metaphysical object that exists in a strong sense. Specifically, the living, by acting (or “seeming”) life, creates the Other/Platonic Ideal/Transcendental “Life.” I hesitate to offer any deeply theoretical reading as I’m away from my library, but hopefully I can sketch out a general account of the poem with a sufficiently Lacanian inflection to suggest further, more rigorous work.

In what sense are the persons in the first stanza merely “seeming” life? The room of the living, in the first stanza, is set against the room of the dead woman in the second stanza (a structure that employs a punning etymological efficiency), and the living are calling, whipping, dawdling, and bringing in preparation for the viewing. Clearly, this bustling vitality is a response to death– a sort of compensation– but Stevens suggests something inauthentic about the activity, mocking the actors, imbuing the activity with a strange, ironic sexuality. Sex is, perhaps, the central activity of life and living. But the sexuality here is mocking, teasing: the curds are “concupiscent”, the girls are “wenches” who stand around dress appropriate to wenches, presumably displaying their sexuality, and thus performing their vitality. While Vendler reads this sexualization as connoting disgust on behalf of the speaker, I think it’s better read as a represention of an incomplete, confused drive to Life, which, ultimately, is funny. The “gaudiness” of Steven’s verse (as he called it) and the unexpected sexuality colors the scene with a comic brush. The word “dawdle” alone suggests the speaker views the people with something other than contempt; it would take an especially melancholic soul to find no humor in a poem whose eponymous figure is an emperor of ice-cream. The final result is farcical– and farce itself suggests a distance between the acted roles and actually being those roles. The figures in the first room are only acting, “seeming” life, engaged in the performance of bustle and sexuality, which indicate life.

We come then, in the poem, to Stevens’s commentary on all this acting, on the living who are merely playing at being alive in response to the death in the next room. He does not argue that the bustle is useless, but instead that Living/Life/being is the finale of all this seeming. After all, there is no grand emperor that existed before we had been playing. The emperor only exists inasmuch as he is the emperor of ice-cream, a play-emperor, humorously lacking the station of the Emperor-ideal. As it stands, we can understand this couplet in terms of Hume’s projectivism: despite the inherent irreality of Life (with all the transcendent connotations that arise from the capital letter), we nevertheless see the world with Life and Ethics and all the rest in it, granting them a certain ontological status less weighty than, say, rocks, but more than unicorns. This would be a fine line of analysis, but the methodologies and motivations for acting, and the odd promotion of a projected, acted seeming to a powerful Being, seems most susceptible to Lacan’s various reals and the role of the Other. I leave the specifics of this relationship as an exercise for the reader, or else, as an exercise for myself when I have my books in front of me. Nevertheless, the creation of an identity (life) in response to a lack as reflected through a created, whole other (Life) appears to be the process this poem describes.

The second stanza replicates the techniques of the first, mocking the image of death, then providing an oblique philosophical statement that culminates in the conclusion that “the only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.” This stanza seems to create Death out of a comic death in much the same way the first creates Life out of a comic life. I’ll refrain from giving a close reading of that stanza, and instead suggest David’s accounts of similarities of a theory of performance in Genet and Stevens, and especially future writing on The Balcony. For my part, I hope this essay first offers a way of reading Stevens that is amenable to Lacanian terminology and conceptions of lack in the subject as against The Other, especially Zizek’s insight that, given the Lacanian ego-ideal, the subject herself reads the Others’ reading of herself, and the perpetuation of ideology is primarily through action. But, more importantly, perhaps, I hope this reading further demonstrates that Stevens is preoccupied with ontology and performance, especially in his greatest poems, and future work on Stevens-as-philosopher can be intellectually fertile.

Ryan P. Young


  • Stevens, Wallace, “The Emporer of Ice Cream,” 1923, library
  • Vendler, Helen, “On The Emporer of Ice Cream,” 1993, e-text

About this entry