Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What Abraham Lincoln and W. S. Merwin Tried to Tell Me

When I was a kid I spent a lot of time thumbing through encyclopedias and dictionaries (which sounds very geeky, but it didn't seem that way then). We had my mother's gigantic two-volume dictionary from her childhood, with dried flowers in various pages; I never asked, and I wish I had, but I imagined those flowers were keepsakes, from dates and dinners of her teenage years, pressed into the page on which that specific flower type was defined.  Or maybe it's better to say I started to think, I wandered into the afterimages of my imagination. I can spend hours there.

After-image was what I meant to write about anyway. In one volume of the encyclopedias shelved near those dictionaries, there was an entry on light's after-effect on the eye, with an illustration: a Lincoln-head penny in half-red, half-green.  The caption explained that if you were to stare at the image long enough—and that was important, you had to give it time—then move your eyes elsewhere, Lincoln's profile would magically appear anywhere you looked, and it did: on the wall, above the childhood pattern of faded lilac; on the window, transparent above the hills that sloped to the country cemetery. His profile stirred and invaded, even under my eyelids when I closed them.  This is after-image: an image that continues, even though you are finished looking at the original, or as the OED puts it: "A visual sensation which remains after the stimulus that gave rise to it ceases." Something that remains in your vision, even if you thought you were finished with it. 

 Stare at the yellow stripe in the middle of the fish for 20 seconds. Then move your gaze to the fish bowl. There he swims!

This after-image concept is delicious, and why not? The original stimulus was gone, but the image follows me and starts to bleed into whatever else, to color, to correlate with and perhaps even belong to whatever I saw next. How long would it last? Even when the visual finally disappeared, the effect remained in my thinking mind. Lincoln's head was a part of the next moment's narrative, and that he had now influenced my vision even after the book was closed and back on the shelf—that was part of it too.  Was this maybe the first time I blurred categories, reflected on how something in my mind's eye could be projected into the material world? Did it fascinate me, this metaphor about resonance,  that suggested that the persistence of memory has to do with more than the sentimental heart?

What does and doesn't belong in a moment? What does it mean to carry such a gathering of ghost images with you? So the the brain fibers twitch; so the mind ripples out, and meaning accumulates, shifts, focuses in or enlarges. It's similar to the delightful way the visual thesaurus rolls into a spindly butterfly shape when you look up the word "imagine." If you then click on the word "think" in the "imagine" butterfly, you'll see a floating, hovering dandelion of possibilities. 

 I didn't know it at the time, but after-image, how everything hovers, was part of an excellent lesson of  W. S. Merwin's, who was visiting our (very lucky) writing class.  In what seemed like a casual moment, he said: sometimes it's best to just go like this, and turned his head, about two inches to his right. We looked.  I'm pretty sure I didn't understand what he meant.  I was concentrating then on that beautiful, beautiful Merwin profile.  But now I know.  It's somehow useful to recognize that I possess more stimuli receptors than I'm aware of, and that I can't control everything, that the correspondences, the linkages, can surprise. The activity of writing may be a walk into the world of after-images, if you are open to the invitation. The stimulus is not always directly in front of you, but hovering, over there.

after-image of fish and bowl via Eric Chudler's Sight/Vision.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Any Given Moment: On Reality

Escaping Criticism, Pere Borell del Caso
Trompe l'oeil is the technique, in painting, closely aligned with optical illusion: fool the eye. The painter uses a realistic image to convince the observer of a dimension that isn't really there. In this sense it's a kind of lie.  Or is it? 

That realism is in flux, depending on the artist's interior perception, is hardly a new observation; it essentially launched Modernism. Picasso claimed, "I paint things as I think of them, not as I see them"; Virginia Woolf laments the Georgian novels and their emphasis on exterior details, perfectly arranged: "Is life like this? Must novels be like this?" Life as she saw it was "a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end," the artist's task "to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display."

The poem, the story, lives at least in part on the integrity of its reality, and this is one of the most interesting, contentious aspects of writing.  What's your reality? To what version of your experience do you owe your fidelity? Even while you are reading this, your mind has other things to ponder, is thinking about them as your eye gaze here. At that party, you stood in that lively crowd, laughing, telling stories, or listening to them, but you had dark, lonely thoughts; which of those realities is more real?  The imagination is not false; it exists, it has dimension and, sometimes, an intensity remarkable for its imaginary capacities. Fool the eye it can.  A cross section of any given moment, a diagram of a reality, has a geography the writer can only come close to representing.  Like a trompe l'oeil painter, the writer has to fool dimension to achieve dimension.  Trying is the ethical act.

Picasso said this: Everything you imagine is real.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Pilato's Ribbon

Milan Kundera's novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting opens with  the story of the Communist leader, Klement Gottwald, giving a speech in February, 1948; it's very cold, and he is not wearing a hat. His comrade Clementis stands beside him:
Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald’s head.       
     The propaganda department made hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottswald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people.  On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew the photograph, from seeing it on posters, and in schoolbooks and museums.       
     Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history and, of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottswald has been alone on the balcony.  Where Clementis stood, there is only the balcony.  Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall.  Nothing remains of Clementis but the hat on Gottwald’s head.
I've been thinking of Kundera's book on memory and forgetting since I learned that the image of Jerry Sandusky  in a giant mural at scandal-plagued Penn State has been painted over. The artist Michael Pilato had been working on the mural (titled "Inspiration") for more than a decade, and when he was contacted by the mother of one of the victims, he painted Sandusky out and painted in an empty chair, with a blue ribbon to represent the victims of the abuse. What else could he have done, really? I try to imagine walking by the mural and seeing Jerry Sandusky there; I can't, and I'm not even distantly related to anyone involved, except that I am human, and like all of us, horrified by the whole thing. 

I recognize in the mural, and that ribbon, the potential for sentimentality, which has, really, no place in art.  If you haven't, you should read Image editor Gregory Wolfe's marvelous, brain-sparking essay on Thomas Kinkaide, "The Painter of Lite™."  Trying to define this notoriously difficult-to define word, Wolfe quotes R.H. Blyth: “We are being sentimental when we give to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.” According to Wolfe, the problem with sentimentality is "that of a misrepresentation of the world in order to indulge certain emotional states."  I might nominate the those characters on Pilato's mural for this misrepresentation, larger than life as they cliché-ly are, but then I remind myself that the his piece is called "Inspiration," so the rules for this particular mural may not be the rules I appreciate, necessarily, in art. Thomas Kinkade troubles Wolfe for "not so much the treacly emotion he seeks to evoke or his inveterate prettifying of nature, but the political subtext underlying his iconography.... the packaging of nostalgia."  

We who have just learned of it are yet at the beginning of the Penn State horror. The children, terribly, knew more than did we. Well, more than most of us; the adults who knew failed to act.  In his mural, now, Pilato acts. The blue ribbon, the ribbon symbol...yes, the ribbon as a symbol has the potential to be sentimental, but it is, at the very least, a response.  I would nominate him for his mural, responding as he did so quickly, when so many others in power did not. 

Pilato's act shifts the mural's focus from an exaltation and elevation of humans to a discussion about frailty and flaw.  Wolfe writes: "Perhaps, at its best, sentimentality strives for something approximating the theological virtues of hope and love. But in refusing to see the world as it is, sentimentality reduces hope to nostalgia. And in seeking to escape ambiguity and the consequences of the Fall, it denies the heart of love, which is compassion."  

Clementis' hat and Pilato's ribbon. Of course, the circumstances of the displacements are quite different, and it's got me thinking about the difference between art and propaganda, between censorship and revision. Kundera writes about the removal of Clementis with his typical grim grin, humor and tears at once, this shaping of history into something blank and full of forgetting. Propaganda is a matter of systematic manipulation of information delivered when necessary, revised when necessary. 

But Pilato's work isn't propaganda, right? And his challenge here is instructive. Art's ongoing-ness, art's process of revision, is fascinating. Revision isn't elimination, but seeing again (re-vision), and it requires the same attentive, thoughtful, focused consideration of the original motivation.  Pilato's mural is his version of documentary and to remove, eliminate, Sandusky's image, to simply paint him out would have been—though at least what the heart wants, what the ethical, pained, enraged heart wants—a violation in some ways of the mural's laws. The blue ribbon Pilato has painted in is, I think, the revolutionary act. It works against forgetting. 

Kundera writes, "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." Unlike Clementis' hat that because it sits on Gottswald's head in all the photographs now seems to have always been Gottswald's, Pilato's ribbon becomes a part of our collective recognition of the importance of paying attention, of acting, of rescuing. 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Context is Delicious

Somewhere in my head is the arcane knowledge that the word context is attributed, in mycology, to the fleshy part of the mushroom cap.  This particular  knowledge is not as useless as some might suspect.  It's even a little funny that I felt like I have to say that—like I have to soften the blow that I'm using a word in an unfamiliar way, that I'm interested in thinking about an unfamiliar word.  Why is it that knowledge we don't yet have, knowledge that we can get simply by seeking it, so irritates some of us?

On the other hand, this isn't always true.  If you don't know stuff about football, and you're in a room with people talking about football, you wouldn't consider those initiated in the game pretentious, or talking above you; if someone involved in a conversation about a basketball game uses a term you're not familiar with, say, a "triple double"  —we don't think that person is trying to impress us, we just either say we don't understand, or we study the game and learn the term, and then we do understand. 

It's specific to art and literature, this irritation we have with stuff we don't know.  Since it's so wonderful to learn, I'm not sure where or when the distinction between football and poetry begins. How come we let football and baseball get away with such elitist activity as using specific language we might not know—that we need only a minute to look up and then know—but not art, literature, poetry?  

Context is delicious. Look up the unfamiliar term, and/or read about the time period. Context—not "the fleshy fibrous body in the pileus of mushrooms" but the other kind—is wonderful. If it's history you have to learn, or a definition of a word—what could be better than that?  I love looking things up. I guess I love context. And I like what I think I just learned, that context, as it relates to the study of mushrooms—that which holds the other stuff in the mushroom cap, suspended and supported in its fiber-y togetherness—is somehow related to context in art and literature and, I guess, in everything. It's all about coherence, weaving together: to connect.

Image of mushroom via Martin LaBar 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Under the Influence of Light

When the fall season is almost over in the Midwest, there's a litany of activities that are both pretty and a  little bit mournful.  The geese gather in great conventions at the lakes, line up, take off, fly over the house all day long, and honk at intervals; it's different from their honk all summer. You start to hear it early in the morning, while you're still waking up. It's more purposeful and even a little complain-y. They're making formations for their exit south, and they seem to be saying: later for you, flightless sucker. The whole thing tells me that it's about to get much colder.  

The leaves change color.  That's a little cliché of them, but that's their thing, this change from green to the reds, scarlets, and soft yellows.  I don't take the whole green leaf concept for granted; it's all plant science from my grade-school years, plants taking water from the ground, and carbon dioxide from the air, and using the sun to turn that water and CO2 into oxygen and glucose. Who's not a fan of photosynthesis, using the sun to transform elements for a specific purpose, mainly survival? There's a formal definition in the OED:
The process (or series of processes) by which the energy of light absorbed by chlorophyll is utilized by plants for the synthesis of complex organic compounds from carbon dioxide, with the accompanying oxidation of water to form oxygen....
but an easier, prettier, compact definition is "putting together with light." Chlorophyll helps photosynthesis— it's what gives their leaves that green color—and as the season changes from summer to fall, the trees shut down this food-making process, and the chlorophyll fades. Then we see what we think are new colors, but in many cases, the colors were always there; it's just that  they'd been obscured by the chlorophyll. Glucose that was stuck in the leaves is affected by the cold weather, by the sun's diminishing returns, and it changes color too.  

Winter is coming, and maybe some see that as an end to productivity, but it's hard not to see the colors of fall's leaves as a epiphany for them--a discovery, as they use all they have— their artful moment, having worked steadily and quietly and without seeming to make any kind of change or progress all season long.  What appears as diminution, the degraded leaves, the lessening and collapse of spring and summer, can be understood, too, as a sustenance; sustenance can be extraordinary. So the season that brings with it a sense of things ending can be quite the opposite. 

This is you.  Get it?
I'm always taking lessons from the garden and the backyard, or maybe it's better to say I can't help seeing what's outside my window as instructive. Writing each day, drafting, and nothing much coming of it—and that's really the major process of writing, isn't it—is a lot like taking the elements of the world and "putting it together with light."  A steady activity of absorbing and generating, writing is a photosynthesis from the inside, and maybe we shouldn't be surprised that the steady, seemingly unchanging act of our drafting, which can feel stagnant (when we feel fixed and almost motionless, and heading into a cold spell, when we feel we are being deserted by our powers) will, either quietly, or with a great flourish, surprise us with what we have, for however long, stored in.  Drafting is never easy, and maybe patience is the point. It's not the end of things that is coming on, but that potential for a bright intensity, always.


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