Noise and the Weight of Silence

In a matched pair of screens, Hokusai depicts two groups who are out enjoying an afternoon. I imagine that it is afternoon—it could be morning or early evening. One group of people—larger, closer to us—turns to notice the other group. They are in the distance, smaller, but whatever noise they are making is enough to draw their attention.

Some of the quiet group seem curious about their noisy almost neighbors, and some are clearly annoyed, aggrieved, really. The woman playing the shamisen looks over her shoulder. “What is that ruckus.”

Across the way, two men dance—or fight—with fans. A child rides on his parent’s shoulders. They seem of a lower class than those spread out on a red blanket on the hill above them. They seem unaware of their neighbors or the disturbance they have created. So small, so far away, and yet, so loud. And so fun.

Some of the quiet group seem to look with a kind of longing. “We could be having that fun if we were over there.” The annoyance comes at once from the disturbance and the awareness that a woman in the quiet group (it is a man in Hokusai’s painting that is particularly aggrieved) might want to be with someone else who offers more fun. Pardon me while I engage the metaphorical: beauty wants a little riot.

The museums are, generally, quiet spaces. Most people use the most indoor of indoor voices, except for tour guides and children. In the sculpture garden this morning, one youngster offered a delighted “Wow” when he turned the corner on a Calder. Kids played on the walkway between the East and West buildings of the National Gallery (which is a work of art), amazed by the softness of the walkway and the glistening lights above their heads. A woman gives an impromptu explication of The Feast of the Gods, explaining the cast of characters in Bellini and Titian’s painting.

There are other less quiet conversations. Sometimes about lunch. Sometimes about a musical composition and performance. Phone conversations are always louder than imagined. In a museum? Always. I eavesdrop, and sometimes I ask questions.

Besides all that, the paintings are noisy. Wait, what? No, of course, they aren’t. And then you hear the visceral click-click of Keith Sonnier’s Go Between, but let’s be honest, stone and paint are silent. Except, who cannot hear the snigger behind the kerchief in Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s Two Women at a Window? Or the bawdy laughter in Quentin Massys’s The Ill-Matched Lovers? Or who thinks that the animals gathered for Circe’s lesson in Circe and her Lovers in a Landscape attend her in silence? Or that she is silent? Or the squeezebox playing angel in Mary, Queen of Heaven? Even the idyllic scenes contain the rush of wind over a field.

from Mary, Queen of Heaven

Still lives and portraits test this, but once again, if you cannot hear the voice of Cardinal Pietro Bembo, it’s your fault and not Titian’s.

Then there is abstract art, which seems to want to put a cork in art’s ample mouth. It’s hard to hear Rothko or Louis or Andre; there may be a note or a chord playing in your mind’s ear yet, these pieces wrestle elsewhere. They are either loud or static-filled or, like Oldenburg’s Clarinet Bridge, just out and out messing with you.

Claes Oldenburg, Clarinet Bridge

I spend my Sundays surrounded by noise—the art and the people—and it rejuvenates me. I reflect on a time in my life when I was surrounded by people who preferred silence during their slice of Sunday. I wish I did not think about this. I do not enjoy thinking about people who complained about the noises children made in church or griped how a fellow congregant beat a tambourine during hymns. While I write this, a child shrieks in a Smithsonian American Art Museum gallery in a full gale. Life happens.

Of course there is a value to spending time in the field or forest, the mountain or ocean, but none of these are silent at all. There is a generous cacophony in nature. But silence has come to dominate spirituality. People gather and decide to subdue noise for ostensibly spiritual reasons. I wonder at how fragile one’s spiritual life must be to suffer from human noise. I watched Barak Obama’s Eulogy for Reverend Pinckney with my Speech students, and it was a noisy event. People chipped in with “yes,” “that’s right,” and dozen other verbal nods; they would have earned hard stares at my church.

The valorization of silence imposes a purity narrative on the spiritual. Like all purity narratives, this only serves to control an otherwise uncontrollable experience. And it places the blame for distraction someplace else—the same way that some faiths require the covering of women to prevent men from being distracted. We all are so easily distracted.

Perhaps we wrestle with distraction because is a piece of our evolutionary puzzle: we had to be easily distracted to avoid danger. Our senses are always on alert. But maybe the problem isn’t so much about distraction as focus. For instance, when I attended Quaker Meeting, we all sat silently. But we listened—not for our thoughts or ideas, but for the spirit. Silence was a way of severing us from not just the world but from ourselves, so that we could listen—attend—more closely.

I’m not sure that we are listening the right way anymore. We try to “hear ourselves think,” and then replicate that strain of thought everywhere around us. We listen to confirm our biases, and it is almost impossible to do anything else. Our brains strive for homeostasis—not just of temperature, but attitude. The more we listen to the “still strong voice,” the less we hear the clarinet blast—or the tone of the angelic pipe organ squeezebox—that calls us to what we, fortunately,  do not know.

Misanthropy

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me. (Moby Dick, Herman Melville)

We all know “Call me Ishmael,” but there is a reason that the narrator of Melville’s Moby Dick wants to be acknowledged as such. He has left the tribe. Or been summarily cast aside, born of the wrong parent, and replaced by Isaac—he who laughs. Today, I woke up at Ishmael’s side: no laughter, all asunder.

Whether you look to the ocean or not, who hasn’t woken up not just on the wrong side of the bed, but the side that leads you to swear at the news (It’s marginally better these days), then at the car (who designed doors that are guaranteed to make spilling my coffee a near impossibility?), then at the fellow travelers on the road (you cut me off when there was no one behind me to make a left hand turn?) , then at the people clogging the door at Un je ne sais Quois (In or out; I have croissants to buy), or at the spell check that insists on who the fuck knows what for “Un je ne sais Quois.” Yeah, and there it is: “fuck.” Everything is one long variation on that theme, culminating, without effort, in “I fucking hate people.”

Usually, that feeling is evanescent—gone with the glint of sun off a pane of glass. But—my big but—it is always there. The opposite is present as well—gloriously so, necessarily so. The world holds too much that is joyful, whimsical, and beautiful not to be shared and smiled over. I share a few thoughts about Dewing with a woman photographing his The Lute. A man and I share thoughts on Hokusai, and he gives me an added incentive to travel to Tokyo. I keep the persistent disdain and disgust to myself. Who needs more of that?

The Lute, Thomas Dewing

Even now, as I shared with you, I am writing my way out of it, careening toward something constructive. Ugh. Why does everything need to run aground on the shoals of constructive? There is rarely anything constructive in “Fuck you!” or “Fuck off!” Does that make it any less, what? energizing? It is not just an escape of steam but an increase in indignation. “I see your selfishness and raise you my rage.” Why wait for the dying of a light?

Except.

A year or so ago, I started writing about evil and had to put it aside. The news was too full of people accusing each other of evil. The moral high ground wasn’t a hill, rounded and easily climbed or rolled down; it was a mile high pinhead, with more angels crowded on it than can be counted. Except it wasn’t one pinhead. It was two, maybe three, but always two: good and evil, us and them. The clamor from one pinhead to the other was deafening. But, if we stood angel shoulder to angel shoulder on the head of our respective pins, the anger we wielded was a broad mallet. Brickbats of “fuck” dispatched with full flail—forget about nuance and contradiction. Unlike Ishmael, no one knew to run to the sea, and hats went flying.

Now, with lives on the line, people ally themselves with justified rage. Some conflate their rage at wearing a mask or getting a vaccine with the annihilation of 6 million Jewish people by the Nazis. When over 700,000 people have died of COVID in the United States and nearly 5 million in the world, what matters is me, and I will use the rhetorical and emotional arguments I need to make my case. The lack of perspective is mind-blowing. But we have clamored to such extremes for years. We borrow rage when it suits us, when we need to enhance and emphasize how right we are, and diminish and demean those who oppose us.

How hilarious that 4 years ago, people on the right chanted, “Jews will not replace us,” and now people in the same political galaxy are claiming a kind of solidarity with Holocaust victims; we are replacing Jews with us. And the late-breaking news is that Israelis with vaccine passports and will require the booster to be considered fully vaccinated. But, what do they know? Rage knows no shame.

The funny thing is, when Ishmael gets in his moods, he gets on a boat and heads to the ocean—the beautiful open sea. However, on a boat human contact is not just unavoidable but necessary. There are few places as confined as a boat on the ocean. You put aside differences in a hurry when you stand watch through the dog hours. This is a stirring contradiction. Ishmael feels misanthropic, so he goes where he cannot avoid contact.

I spent a chunk of my morning at “high fuck,” then settled in among strangers who are unified only by the call of free art and time to enjoy it. A man stares up at Calder’s Rearing Stallion, and I cannot help but assert how I think it is so cool that the shadow makes a second work of art. We both smile, and you can tell, even though we are both masked, and he tells me what he sees and likes. “It is so cool.” We are on the boat together, looking at the amazing world.

Rearing Stallion, Alexander Calder

I am honest with myself: I will not stop feeling rage. And love, the sweet balm of human contact in all its brilliant and unbearable forms. I lack a middle ground. I try to put myself in front of things that inspire love and unbridled delight. I will still mutter, “I fucking hate people,” and the angel on my shoulder will buzz in my ear, “Liar.” To borrow from Whitman again, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.” I am back on the boat, sailing once again, to you.

Bi and the Dream

A placard on the wall of Gallery 19 at the Smithsonian Asian Art Museum announces that thousands of bi were found at “elite burial sites” dating from the Liangzhu culture (3300-2300 BCE). They are jade: nephrite colored richly by strains of iron and other ores over millions of years. Craftsmen sliced the discs with string saws.

The bi are displayed face on—almost perfect circles. Suspended in midair, they appear perfect: several circular discs floating behind plexiglass enclosures. This is, in part, a trick of the eye; we see what we expect (or want) to see. Actually, their shapes vary. While definitely circular, many are lumpy or lopsided. A long look from the side shows even more irregularities—thicknesses vary, and some of the bi undulate like warped records.

Some of the bi have barely intelligible marks. The note on one display explains that markings were “extremely rare.” What does that mean? 1 out of 100? 1 out of 1000? The marked bi are neither more nor less perfect than the others.

Nowadays, we mark everything. Like it or not, we even leave a faint digital signature on what we wish to be anonymous. Mostly. At my school, we check drafts of student essays for plagiarism, and when they come back with unnamed and unnecessary sources, it is an embarrassment of unoriginality. 5000 years ago, anonymous discs went to the grave and into eternity. We have them now—disturbed from rest—because of a construction boom at the beginning of the previous century. They could have slept longer.

Not surprisingly—or entirely a surprise—we have few records of the Liangzhu Culture. Evidence of the once-thriving culture ends abruptly. The people who lived in the region around Lake Tai seem to have disappeared. We don’t know why. We know that they thrived primarily because we discovered their funerary deposits: jade bi for the rich and pottery for the others. We build an idea of their lives on what they took to death.

We do not know why they prized their bi. Nor why a few of the bi have marks.

We do not know. Those words can feel intractable, like a dead end. Or like a challenge, a kind of epistemological “try harder.” But how can you know what you cannot know?

●●●

We coined the word “Kafkaesque” to describe the nightmarish world circumscribed by a bureaucracy of the soul. Franz Kafka, who repeatedly depicted such a world in his fiction, also told us how to escape. In his short story “An Imperial Message,” the emperor is dying. Before he dies, he sends a message for you. Sadly, or predictably, his messenger cannot get it to you. This is genuinely Kafkaesque—the emperor is at the center of a thicket of throne rooms, attendants, imperial bureaucrats, and cities within cities. Even though he is the emperor and his messenger bears the imprimatur of the emperor, the message will never arrive. However the story ends, “Du aber sitzt an deinem Fenster und erträumst sie dir, wenn der Abend kommt.” (Roughly, “But you sit at your window and dream it to yourself when evening comes.”).

Of course, the emperor is god—something or someone with absolute power. Except, once enthroned, the emperor’s power is circumscribed, in no small part by the same apparatuses of the power he wields. How often do we mistake the apparatus for the thing, imbuing that which is meant to do little more than act for or transmit with more? How often do we mistake laws for actual authority? We create limits (I can, or I can’t) because we cede control—and the attendant responsibility. Our current idea of self-authorized action is little more than lust and gluttony on steroids; to be the emperor, we must grapple with the full repercussions of having authority (read Shakespeare for a full gloss on the weight of the crown).

But, in Kafka, a dream cuts to the quick. You already know the message. You are the emperor.

In our dreams, we build worlds. A few nights ago, I dreamed of traffic patterns, and police, and cul de sacs. There were merge lanes and scofflaws who drove on the shoulder. I was looking for a purple Jeep. I didn’t make any effort; the world bloomed in my mind—a mind profoundly(and subconsciously) at work. So must it be as we sit by the window (a liminal space) in the evening (another liminal space). Dreams are no time for laziness but a bursting forth of our full power.

If I want to know what I cannot know, then I must dream.

●●●

We have found thousands of bi. Each one cut from a long round piece of jade. I wrote “craftsmen” earlier, but how did this not become domestic work—foisted, as much domestic work is, on women?  Or children? I think of the scene from Parasite when the family folds pizza boxes. Instead of sewing circles, sawing circles. Who did the repetitive work that wore down fingers, hands, and arms for hours at a time? Not a crew of slaves hoisting blocks into pyramids alongside the Nile, but an army of hands slowing sawing through stone.

Does this mean that the Liangzhu people had slaves? I don’t know, but I think about the tech factories outfitted with nets so that the workers do not find relief from their toil. Bone crushing construction or endless hours of grunting agriculture? Slaves, over and over again. Did they sing while they sawed? I try to imagine songs that keep to that frantic beat. Did they race each other to cut their slice first? We compete everywhere. Why not? Imagine a John Henry of the Neolithic Yangtze River delta, whipping a string bereft of crushed quartz through jade as if it was mashed rice paste.

We know that they did not speak Chinese. We know (from genetic analysis of remains) that they shared genes with Austronesian and Tai-Kadai people. But what we don’t know renders what we know into little more than conjecture and guess. Our knowledge is imperfect. In the same way that the bi have imperfect shapes and imperfect history, our understanding is imperfect. The message—the truth—is never coming from the emperor. All we can do is imagine.

More often than we would like to admit, we straddle the worlds of the known and not-known. We lead essentially liminal lives—caught between knowing and not-knowing. Too often, we trade hard-won ignorance (the awareness that as hard as we try—and we must try—our effort will not provide a satisfyingly clear answer) for arrogant correctness. We cannot admit that we do not know. We have a mechanical reflex against unpredictability—whether we read the past, present, or future. We value prediction over genuine discovery. “I was right!” supplants “I found out!”

If we are going to model reading on dreaming, part of the task is to recognize that we are out of control. We will predict—it’s what we do—but surprise will derail our predictions. Surprise is an error message in the infinitely predicting machine of our brains. However, if we substitute rigid certainty for precise and imaginative uncertainty, our interpretations will fail even if they are clear.

●●●

I’m going to make a leap here. Reading is prediction directed to the past; the words are already written. Even though it is past, we still try to fit what we read into models of everything else we have read. When my students assert, “I can relate to X, Y, or Z,” what they are saying is, “This fits with a model that I already know.” And those of us who teach know the living hell of relatability. Anything outside that narrow ravine threatens to stop the students in their tracks—already when they are 16. Earlier.

In the same way, when we encounter new situations, when a circumstance calls on us to genuinely predict, we predict following models we already know. It is nearly impossible to get someone to predict beyond what they expect to happen beyond the known. Happily, most things in our lives adhere to patterns. Until they don’t. Fortunately, most of us are not making predictions that will affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, but some are, and they fall prey to the same internal mechanisms. The results are too often catastrophic.

So, how do we avoid the quotidian and useful process of prediction? How do we read the exceptional? How do we incorporate the genuinely new and surprising into our homeostatically driven lives?

When I look at the bi, I can guess (which is not to say that I take incoherent swipes at possibilities) at their significance, but I realize that even my best guesses are circumscribed by the limits of my experience. I know there is something that I do not know, and I realize that ignorance will stymie me over and over. I return to the bi to marvel at them and to marvel at my ignorance. They remind me that despite my reasonably well-trained intelligence, that something as simple and elegant as a jade disc will remain out of bounds. I experience hubris in the face of the unknown. This drives me to consider the undiscovered countries. And consider them I must.

How then do we confront systems that are quantitatively more complex? We try to bridle wild horses (mistaking tigers for horses—they both have four legs!) with prediction and end up eaten. Our imaginations must be more thoroughly engaged.

When Kafka exhorts us to “erträumen,” I do not believe he is suggesting anything passive, or for that matter, lazy. The truth is like a message from the emperor. When we dream that message to ourselves, when we imagine it, our imagination must be fully engaged because it is not as simple as a dream for snack cakes or even a dream of bedding a fantasy partner.  Truth may be a dream, but it is, fortunately, a demanding and difficult dream. But if we do not dream the big dream, our thoughts will be confined to the palace’s myriad chambers and infinite passageways. Our imagination will take us to a place we do not yet know.

The Play of Light

Claude Monet, Waterloo Bridge, Gray Day, 1903

People at the National Gallery walk past Waterloo Bridge, Gray Day, and stop in front of The Houses of Parliament, Sunset, or The Seine at Giverny. I get it; those paintings are suffused with light—even the sun setting in the West behind the shadowy edifice of the Houses of Parliament gives the evening painting an elegant aura. The sun is barely present in Waterloo Bridge, Gray Day, which should not be a surprise in smoke throttled London. But there is no shine—instead of the billows of white smoke in a train yard, or the reflected sun in a lily pond, this is just gray. Another typical London afternoon.

The painting bears all the hallmarks of Impressionism: surfaces broken into brushstrokes, a scene captured with immediacy and revealing a moment. If it were not flanked by brighter canvases, would you stop? Who knows? This painting is gray—the day was gray—and Monet mutes his palette. People move on.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Philemon and Baucis, 1658

We are drawn to light. In a wood-paneled room of Rembrandts (Gallery 51), the glints and swaths of light in the dark paintings stand out. There may be details in those dour portraits; still, our gaze focuses on those bright patches. Rembrandt uses light to command our eyes toward the centers of the works—or in the case of Philemon and Baucis, to the right side of the painting, where a nimbus flares up behind Philemon—as it should, she received Zeus and Hermes when other, wealthier neighbors turned the gods away. Rembrandt does not play with light like De La Tour (The Repentant Magdalen, with the skull—a memento mori—only seen reflected in a mirror, shows off his use of light). He lights what matters most—this is key lighting, not bravura technique. But this is how we see, and this is what he (or his patrons) wants you to see. He knows that our gaze is like a moth, drawn inexorably to the flame.

John Singer Sargent, Margaret Stuyvesant Rutherford White, 1883

In Gallery 69, Whistler’s Symphony in White uses the bright cuff of Joanna Hiffernan’s dress not to focus the viewer but to prevent our look from settling here or there. Even the wolf rug’s gaping mouth—in and of itself a supreme irony—does not fix us. We can apply some meaning, but the painting fights against allegory and symbolism. It’s white, only white. Across the room, Sargent uses a flash of white to guide our gaze from the transfixing stare of Margaret Stuyvesant Rutherford White to a point just at her left hip. Sargent’s portait has other work to do. The flash of white is a sleight of hand—and it is Mrs. White’s left hand, in the shadow formed by the folds of her dress, that holds a small bottle. We cannot smell her perfume—it’s a painting, just a painting—but Whistler lets us know that she is not above such enticement. She is not a painting or symphony or play of light.

Claude Monet, The Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil, 1881

I tease my students while making a point. I wave my fingers in the air up and to my right, “Bright and shiny! Bright and shiny!” We are eminently distractible—they are; I am. A short woman in a pink shirt and a mask fashioned from a blue bandanna puts her hand on the shoulder of the short man with whom she walks through the museum, stopping for a moment in front of the sunset in one of Monet’s paintings. One part of my mind leaves the gallery room with them. A family—two boys and a dad trailing behind mom, who pauses in front of Redon’s Pandora—enters. I don’t know whether they are from out of town and making the fleeting pilgrimage or revisiting. They leave too quickly for me to ask. Instead, I talk to the couple on the bench beside me, and a woman confesses that she fell in love with Monet’s The Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil when she was 8. “It was everything,” she says. She paints.

I am jealous of painters and their use of color and light to direct the audience’s gaze around their work. Like a symphony, they speed our eyes and slow them down, distract us with flourishes, and satisfy us with thematic or chromatic resonances and unities. Yes, we will “read” the subject, but the paintings open in a dozen other ways, all at once, convincing us and vexing our expectations. I seek to do as much. The galleries inspire me.

The Necessary Writer

Stop worrying if your vision is new

Let others make that decision

They usually do

You keep moving on

“Move On”–Stephen Sondheim

You already know how to do it.

If you wait for inspiration, the right moment, the formulated phrase, then all you will do is wait.

Writing is like getting on the boat. No matter what the weather is when you leave the marina, you don’t know what you will encounter in three or four days.  And so you get on the boat and sail. Something will happen, maybe something similar to what happened yesterday, or five years ago—an ocean rolled out flat as plate glass that reflects no clouds, only the hot yellow eye of the sun. You will sweat and pray for anything, any change. If you were lucky, you brought a book onboard, and you charge through half of The Pickwick Papers in an afternoon. You will read fast to make up for the blazingly windless day. Or, you will not—you don’t know. You will find out as you go.

You are on the boat, so you dream of dry land and a woman who writes you love letters. The scopolamine patch behind your left ear gives you visions that will haunt you into your sixties: a black-bearded fat man pretending to have a heart attack, but you have discovered his lie, and he winks at you, knowing, somehow, that you will keep his secret, and in doing so, will enter a world of lies. Of course, you didn’t ask for this vision; you didn’t know what was coming. You thought you were sailing to Bermuda—the island of The Tempest—and would find stories of Sycorax and Caliban (you will: she serves breakfast at a restaurant in Hamilton, and he rents mopeds that break down on the winding North Shore Road).

There are no visions if you do not get on the boat. There is no hard, stupid sea, no Bermuda, no gingerbread at a restaurant in Flatts. Your father does not tell you to take the helm and hold it until the mountainous sea subsides. “I can’t do it anymore,” he tells you. “I will send your brother up, but you have to hold the helm. He can’t sail in this.” So you become the necessary sailor.

Writing is not like getting on the boat. Writing is getting on the boat. As much as you prepared, you discover, adapt, and grow. You don’t become a better sailor by reading about sailing—although, of course, reading can help. But remember Antonio Machado’s advice: “Mankind owns for things that are no good at sea: rudder, anchor, oars, and the fear of going down.” What you read is the rudder—an idea of where you should (or could) go. The rest is sailing.

I spend my Sundays wandering through the galleries of Washington DC and writing while I wander. That’s not true. I spend my Sundays writing in the galleries of Washington DC, and when I pause, I wander. I spend 8-10 hours resetting my writing brain for the week and return each week to reset again. The shadows on the walls of the Calder room remind me that there is the thing—the made thing (art, literature, as you will)—and then the accident of the moment—the way the mobile turns above my head and the light casts its silhouette against the wall. I watch as people stand in front of his Birdsong, and the one photographs the sculpture and shadow while his companion kisses him on the cheek. A 10-year-old girl asks the docent, “Are we allowed to take pictures of the sculptures?” She walks around the room with a small camera, recording everything she wants to remember.

Birdsong—Alexander Calder above Black, Yellow, Red—José de Rivera

I sit beneath a wire armature horse and write.

I write in galleries because I am surrounded by finished work. The artists painted or sculpted every day. Monet? There are ten paintings by Monet in Gallery 80. 2500 works have been attributed to Monet. Alongside the Calder sculptures, there is a photograph of his studio. It is work to create works. They were all, always, on the boat.

I love to write surrounded by people in the galleries because of their response to the art. Yes, there are people on their phones. Some walk through the National Gallery and do not see that in Gallery 81, on the wall opposite Constant’s The Favorite of the Emir, the three Renoir paintings (Young Spanish Woman with a Guitar, Odalisque, and Bather Arranging her Hair) reflect the figures in the Constant: musician, dark-haired woman, red-haired woman. Accidents and intentions abound. Unless you go and pay attention, you do not see. Write and pay attention.

But write. Write every day. Find a space that energizes your writing. Annie Dillard claims that she needs a blank wall and no distractions. Who can argue? Know what works for you. But write. Write for hours every day.

When you sail, unless you are in one of the science fiction yachts of the America’s Cup, you cross the ocean at an absurd 5-7 knots. Except you proceed, like the tortoise, every hour of every day. You may read 400 pages of Dickens in an afternoon, but you cannot write 400 pages in an afternoon. Well, maybe Dickens could. Get used to the steady, inexorable pace of the work, knowing that the words and pages will pile up as you write. Don’t be afraid to count the miles, the hours, the days, or the words. If you set out each day, they will accumulate. Get on the boat and go.

You need to become the necessary writer. Do not wait for inspiration or rely on that inner voice that weaves stories and does not write (I know I have a novel in me if only I had time to write). You have the helm—on dreary, monotonous days when the Iron Genoa churns out diesel fumes and artificial speed and for the hours when your mastery balances your life on the crest of swells. You are the only one who can fulfill the wishes you make walking past fountains, rubbing strange lamps. You are the djinn, the captain, the writer. So get on the boat, and don’t look back.

The Reader

A woman reads in the lower left-hand corner of the painting. She reads at the side of the bend in the brook under the shadow of a tree growing on the opposite bank. In the center, a patch of light bursts from the sky off in the distance, and two figures—are they fauns?—sit in the shadows underneath trees. She is smaller than the trees in the Forest of Fontainebleau, smaller even than the stone that juts out over the stream. Because she is human, she draws our attention. She is not nude. Her gaze does not capture ours; she is reading. 

The Forest of Fontainbleau, 1834
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot
National Gallery of Art

She is reading, and perhaps we would scold her for not paying attention to nature. “Look at the trees!” we might exhort, much in the same way that we scold friends on cellphones. “Look up!” How little things change in 200 years.

And yet, that rock that the stream has not worn away is like a fulcrum; it balances the reading woman and the rest of the world. Literature vs. Nature. Or maybe a portrayal of nature balanced against nature itself.  Much like me, today, at the museum. I could be walking on a trail, along a beach, or on a sidewalk that borders the Thames. I am not. I am in the National Gallery, looking at paintings and writing about what I see. 

Perhaps you could read the painting as a dream: the forest is what the woman reads about. Everything above the thin sward of grass where she reads is the thought ignited by the words in her book. Or perhaps Corot wants to tell us that a book has the same weight as everything else in the painting. That may be a warning as well—literature (what kind of literature? genre fiction? epic poetry? something Pynchon hasn’t written yet?) is going to replace nature.

I think of it as a challenge. Write something that can match nature. I love the made thing, the work of hands, whether it is an almond croissant or a cathedral. When we make beautiful things, we transcend the ingredients of our craft. And this: write something that keeps her reading. Yes, writing is about me—my words! my vision!—but what else matters more than that woman by the brook? I write for you.

Walking the galleries

On Sundays, I often camp out in one gallery or another at the National Gallery of Art and let one painting or room of paintings ignite some thought, instigate some scene in whatever I am working on. Between three museums on the National mall, I spend upwards of 8-10 hours on Sundays. Yes, it is delightful, but it is work time. Art recharges my work batteries. This past year, I have missed this weekly ritual.

Today, I breezed through, visiting rooms that I do not normally haunt for hours. But I started someplace familiar.

Rouen Cathedral, West Façade

40 years ago, Connie Hungerford introduced me to Monet. She explained his attention to light and changing light, focusing on his series work—Haystacks, Rouen Cathedral, and Waterlilies. Because I had studied Gothic Art and Architecture with Michael Cothren, the Rouen Cathedral series drew my attention. The play of light through and in the crenellations and layered portals gives Monet his subject: light. In Rouen Cathedral, West Facade at the National Gallery of Art, Monet makes it seem like light has fallen like snow. It accumulates and covers surfaces of the cathedral. In this painting, light has substance—perhaps negligible, but there it is. Of course, this is an illusion; light has no weight. In fifteen minutes, the earth will turn enough to change the effect, to give some other momentary impression.

At this moment, though, Monet’s insight is that light does have weight; it can obscure as well as reveal. The glinting ray of sunlight can blind us, blur our vision, and cause us to mis-see. Or, rather, it can give us a new vision. “I didn’t see that before.” Monet’s paintings have continued to surprise me over the past 40 years. Light falls like snow? Why not.

Symphony in White and Margaret Stuyvesant Rutherfurd White

In Gallery 69, Whistler’s Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862) has a title that makes clear that the model is a vehicle for Whistler’s intentions—to show the complexities of white. Nonetheless, the girl (the model Joanna Hiffernan) is not a blank. Across the room, Sargent’s portrait of Margaret Stuyvesant Rutherfurd White (1883) stares back across the 20 years that separate the paintings. Some crafty curator has juxtaposed these two “White” women. Hiffernan was born ten years before “Daisy “White, and so, jiggering the ages, she is ten years younger in the painting. She is a bit awestruck in Whistler’s painting, perhaps because she has been reduced by Whistler to a small part in a play of white. “Daisy,” ten years her senior in Sargent’s painting, is self-assured. Her dress is no less “painted,” no less a bravura effort on the part of Sargent. Without denigrating Whistler’s work, Sargent imbues his painting with personality and painterliness.

And whoever put these paintings in a room on opposing walls: Well done!

Lady with a Lute

If you know Dewing from his diaphanous women—in paintings like Before Sunrise or In the Garden—“ his Lady with a Lute shows how precise he can be. He captures not only the craft of the luthier but the richness of the model’s dress, the shadow on her neck, and the line of her jaw. All these are still present in his dreamier paintings: his precision in depicting women’s scapulae is nothing less than erotically obsessive. Lady with a Lute delights me because it shows what had always been contained and not so much hidden as missed.

I think about this in the context of Monet—we see the impressionist technique and miss the underlying details: all that straw, the flamboyant architecture, the ripples in the ponds he built. In Dewing, that lute shows up again and again, but so do those sexy shoulders. It is hard to see the thread in a piece of cloth, but there it is. We often only see it when it comes unraveled, but why wait?

Wealth and Benefits of the Spanish Monarchy under Charles III

I think that one of my favorite titles of a work of art is: Wealth and Benefits of the Spanish Monarchy under Charles III (1762) by Tiepolo. It doesn’t hurt that the painting is ornately lovely.

Daniel in the Lions Den

And finally, I watched as a couple stood in front of this Rubens and asked to have their photo taken. I get it, it’s a painting of lions (and that in and of itself is pretty cool). But Daniel in the Lions Den stirs some very specific messages about faith and, in particular, Jewish faith. Yes, the lions are cool, but you might ask: are you relating to Daniel or the Lions?

Certainty, News, and the Way Ahead

I grew up reading the news. We did not watch it in my house; my mother felt that the news, which included reporting from Vietnam, was too ugly (her word) for her sons. Keep in mind, this was the same mother who read Edgar Allan Poe to us at bedtime. However, my father brought home the Philadelphia Bulletin every night—back when the Bulletin was Philadelphia’s evening newspaper. He also had Time magazine delivered weekly, and my brothers’ names were often on the subscription. Whether my father was honoring us or getting a new subscriber’s bonus, who knows? I read both.

Later in life, I listened to Philadelphia’s all-news radio station KYW-1060 and grew inured to the rhythm of repeated stories. If they were updated over the course of hours, I noticed. Even later, when I was a night owl, I would slot in my 35 cents for a freshly delivered morning paper. A newspaper and breakfast before bed was near to heaven.

Cable news in its early iteration varied little from the repeated scroll of radio news. That was no matter in Philadelphia, which delayed the spread of cable TV until I was on my way to grad school and other obsessions. Nowadays, whatever used to be journalism has faded out of reportage to be replaced by a carnival barker’s promotion of something like the news. Reporting is more about the changing opinions than the changing facts. The internet does better, providing repeated updates of the day’s events: everything from the stock market to an ambassador arriving in Bahgdad to a 3-2 count on a hitter in the fourth inning of a baseball game in Seattle. Information pours out. At first, it came through the box on my desk, but then it glimmered miraculously from my phone. I pay attention.

I get obsessive. I chase the news with the same intensity that I once chased down sources in the library. And worse. I sit as rapt as I had when I churned through drafts of stories until 7 o’clock in the morning—if I slept at all.

I recognize that I had fallen into the trap that Henry David Thoreau noted back in 1854 when he claimed that “[h]ardly a man takes a half hour’s nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘What’s the news?’ as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels.” I felt that if I knew, then I could be one of life’s sentinels. On guard, on the post, always. There was no radio, no television, and no internet, and still, he bemoaned the obsession with “news.” Go figure, our national illness.

I tried to know everything. When my family gathered, we were all expected to hold forth on any topic of the day: popular music, politics, foreign affairs, movies, the weather. Our knowledge was expected to be sweeping and insightful. I could not understand people who did not consume—and comment on—news as we did. My father spent hours wringing information from the Wall Street Journal and passed that fervor onto his sons. My mother, despite herself, had some news station, finally settling on NPR, blaring in the background.

It was too much. This past year’s perpetual blast of breaking news—the fires, the politics, the case numbers—drove me to distraction. And I realized that I had been distracted for years. I don’t believe that “ [a]s for Spain, for instance, if you know how to throw in Don Carlos and the Infanta, and Don Pedro and Seville and Granada, from time to time in the right proportions…  it will be true to the letter, and give us as good an idea of the exact state or ruin of things in Spain.” While there are recognizable patterns to history—and history’s first draft—the distinguishable differences are meaningful and worth noticing. And yet, the news can pile up.

Thoreau was on to something, if only that our drive to know masks another deficit: a feeling that life is out of our control. Information is the salve to uncertainty, but it’s snake oil, especially when opinion is disguised as fact.

Writing, for all my appreciation of the uncertainty, is about control. At the very least, and perhaps the very most, I control when I write and that I write. As for the what, well, I take a gentle hand, relying on surprise and a fair amount of chance. Yet, I am aware that no writer, short of a few Dadaists, Postmodernists, or Pornographers, slaps words on the page and waves, “Voila!” I avoid Prufrock’s “hundred visions and revisions”; I don’t have time for such nonsense. The work needs to be done.

During the first draft, I write to discover—just as I listen to the news to find out what is happening in the world. I research my subject the same way I study how the new vaccines work. I have learned (painfully and too slowly) that I must write to the point where I do not know what will happen next; there must be surprises. I go back, organize the words, and develop the surprises, letting them, and not all my preplanned ideas, serve as guides. The writing must be out of control for me to find control. Otherwise, it all falls flat. That was not an easy lesson. No one can stand that—not the reader and not the writer. Not this writer.

This past year, while everything felt out of control: the fires in Australia, the pandemic, my mother, the election, and its aftermath, I charged back into the news. Did knowing all about it help me? Maybe. But knowing got in the way of the creative uncertainty that I needed to engage. I have spent years wielding some kind of authority, and like it or not, that has been the death of my creative life. I do not know how other writers do it. So, for now, I am backing away from the news, cutting the cable, and heading back into the unknown.

Emily Dickinson writes about the “Route of Evanescence”—the road of fleeting possibility. Take her advice. This way can be daunting, especially for someone who likes—no, loves to know. You too write to be in control, except, finally, we are not. But the route Dickinson so briefly and beautifully delineates is one way to uncover the mysteries that wait: “Some mail from Tunis, soon.” So must it be. The unknown and fleeting. Get there.

Uncertainty

“You are in transition,” she said.

I had changed my life, leaving a world in which I was relatively secure and not writing. I had made walls for myself to hang paintings and prints, in which friends could visit, and my daughter could stay three nights a week. Like the song says, this was not my beautiful house, this was not my beautiful life. There are a thousand, no a million people who would have doggedly pursued the life they made, the life I created. I was a principal, a teacher, a program director at my church. And I felt profoundly unsatisfied.

Just recently, I finished teaching Joyce’s “The Dead.” Again. I pointed out to my students that the whole point of literature is to learn about life. In “The Dead,” Gabriel Conroy is an English teacher; he has, for all his life, read and learned about life. And yet, when life comes at him, he fails. He is stuck—beautifully stuck if we believe that the story’s closing coda is his thought. Yet stuck he is, like the “never-to-be-forgotten Johnny” going round and round the monument of King Billy. And if the beloved Gabriel, the angel of the Annunciation, the deliverer of the good news, is stuck, what hope have we?

I was stuck.

I had set out on a course years before and had finally begun my way back. I had started writing—nonfiction, but words are words—and I began to reapportion my responsibilities. I left my jobs and my home.

“You are in transition,” she said; it was not a compliment.

When I think about literature, which I often do, most of the lessons are about managing change or how to change well. The ponderous chain that Scrooge girded on with his own two hands represents one form of paralysis: bondage of the heart and soul. Odysseus stuck on Calypso’s Island is a variation; the prison of our hopes and dreams can be ecstatically pleasant. In her book of poems Dream Work, Mary Oliver acknowledges the pain and weight of abuse and her need to live on despite that weight. Either we recognize “What good does it do to lie all day in the sun loving what is easy?” or we simply resort to the easy. Sometimes the weight is what is easy. Habit is like that.

Writers must have habits. In the end, no matter what we write, we must write—every day. But we must also write outside the narrow band of habit, beyond the immediate limit of what we already know. This—pushing the limits—is not true of all writers. Some work the known to great effect and profit. While I recognize the value of profit (Mr. Dickens tilled his well-worn field to fame, as have most successful authors), I come to writing as a way of discovering

I have discovered this: I must mine uncertainty. I have friends who claim that when they begin a novel, they know the last line and write toward that goal. I tried that, and it did not work for me. I tried and tried and mapped and mapped and was stymied. I lost faith and put my efforts into other work, into another life. The work was good and meaningful, as was the life. Still, I felt unfulfilled; a promise went unmet. Maybe I needed to suffer that loss (maybe) to find the spring. What good would regret do now?

Gabriel regrets. Marley regrets. Peter Walsh regrets. I had tried that too easy suit as well. I took it off.

I began without even so much as a first line. I charged in and kept going. I churned through a hundred thousand words. Not a day passed when I knew where I was going. I trusted the process. “I learned,” as Roethke wrote, “by going where I had to go.” And that’s the point—I had to go.  While I fill my life with routines, as long as I conserve enough energy and joy for the project at hand, the writing surprises me. That is how I must proceed. Surprise is met on uncertain ground, and there it is I must go.

“You are in transition,” she said, and yes, I am. I must make peace with that—that my method needs me to be ever in the air, landing where I need to be for a year or a minute, long enough to write for a day and a month and the rest of my life, and then, always, casting my lot with chance and discovery. The old song commends “to turn, turn will be our delight/‘Till by turning, turning we come round right,” and, yes, this is the simple lesson I have learned—and which I have fought against too often in the past.

There are risks to this: to be always turning. But holding tightly to the chains also presents a risk—and a certain one. Back into the maelstrom I must go. Time to turn.

Will this work for you? Will change and uncertainty produce a sudden outpouring of words? I do not know. I do know that surprise is what brought me to literature in the first place. Writing that made the world bigger than it was before I started reading kept me reading. Is that true for you as well? Perhaps you seek confirmation and affirmation. I understand the gravity of both, and that may well be what you need. Or, you may already know what makes the world larger. Maybe you are sure about that. Then perhaps we are different kinds of writers and this advice is lost on you.

If not, in spite of yourself, in spite of your routines, charge into the unknown. Embrace uncertainty. And write.

Contradiction and Awe

In the Smithsonian American Art Museum, John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler hangs in a room on the second floor. The room features paintings of men and women from the Gilded Age—the last great flourishing of robber baron capitalism in the United States. Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler is a descendant of Peter Stuyvestant, a member of the Astor family,and became part of “the 400”—the unofficial roster of New York’s finest families.

Sargent painted her while she was in London for her brother’s wedding. She is 26, the eldest daughter, self-possessed—as she needed to be since both of her parents died by the time she was 11. The description on the museum website points to the juxtaposition between her controlled gaze and the turmoil of “[h]er arms, leg-of-mutton sleeves, and the pillows [as they] seem to wrestle with one another.” That’s fair enough. Her gaze, direct and at the viewer, is strident, almost an affront, “You think you see me?” she asks.

Museums are fabulous places, in no small part because of the juxtapositions of things. Across the mall this is made clear by the exhibit of Charles Lang Freer’s ideas about exhibiting like objects that were made hundreds if not thousands of years apart. Here at SAAM, the exhibitors have put the portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler in a place where her gaze extends out into and across the hall. Standing across the hall, one can still sense her stridency.

What’s in the room across the hall? Undine, Illusions, Spring Dance, An Eclogue, The White Parasol, and Woman with Red Hair.

None of the women depicted in these works stares fiercely at the viewer. They either stare off to the right or left, or are engaged in a closed unit—with other women, or in the case of “Illusions,” a child or putto. Several are naked, or draped to reveal their sensual forms. Or, as the titles suggest, are to be known for the attributes (hair, parasol). The women her are used as subject matter (“The White Parasol”) or at the service of allegory (“Illusions,” “The Eclogue”).

Spring Dance. Across the hall.

I cannot be certain what Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler felt about art and female representations. That she was part of a world that valued culture (her brother, Robert Wilson Chanler was a painter) is fairly certain. By 1893, sitting for a portrait by Sargent would not have been an inconsiderable achievement. But in this museum—in every museum—are countless works that transform the sitter into something at the service of the artist (who is often working at the service of another). She must have known that.

Sargent captures her singular defiance. She may be beautiful. She may be 26 (and years yet from marriage). She may be wealthy—or wealthy enough, say her rings and her brooch. She is not too young, not too self-aware as to hold our gaze with hers. Sargent said she had “the face of the Madonna and the eyes of a child,” but his painting reveals a fire that exceeds anything childish. She is determined.

“Match me,” she tells us. “I will not go quietly.”

I return to the SAAM—or the hall National Gallery, or the Freer and Sackler Galleries—because getting caught in the web of juxtapositions helps untangle me from whatever I am stuck in from the rest of the week. The juxtapositions reinvigorate me. Roethke writes in “The Waking,” “This shaking keeps me steady.” Do they contradict themselves? I hope so. I count on it.

How are the juxtapositions I find here, in these places and spaces, different from those in the world? There are a web of contradictions waiting around every corner—cocksure hypocrisies and beguiling changes of mind. Why do I need more? What’s the point of contradiction contained in or by art?

There is a difference. I am drawn to a world of things and ideas that acknowledge the diversity, that are not afraid to make contradiction and juxtaposition a large part of the message. Yes, just as there are people who insist on “I know the truth”—and then brook no contradiction—there are works that proclaim their own monolithic messages—“Look on ye mighty and despair.”

And yet like a cathedral, or like a mountain, a canyon, or an act of genuine kindness, they can awaken a sense of awe, and, if you are open to the experience, that sense of awe blasts away preconceptions. And unlike things found in nature—as awe-inspiring as those are—works of art made by human hands, perhaps because they were made by human hands, despite the petty hypocrisies and even the pointed cruelties awaken a human sized sense of awe. I can stand before the human sublime and feel the full terror (Jeder Engel ist schrecklich—Every angel is terrible, Rilke), but the terror is a tearing away of everything else, everything I thought I knew, and an opening to what is suddenly possible. I stand and proclaim, “I do not know!”

I feel rather a bit like Scrooge when he declares: “I don’t know what day of the month it is!… I don’t know how long I’ve been among the Spirits. I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby. Never mind. I don’t care. I’d rather be a baby…” Imagine that, being 18, 25, 38, or 60 and being like a baby, ready to learn everything as if for the first time. To be wise and to be willing to be surprised.

So, I return, and step between Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler and whatever it was she held in her gaze, and I let myself be cast into the room across the hall, and all the rooms across all the halls, and find, once again, some awe and uncertainty. I can match that.