Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Rembrandt & Raymond Carver

I am doing an arts course at the moment, and it opens with "art", that is painting. I have been doing the course barely a few days and it's teaching me about writing. And reading.

We were asked to look at a picture by Rembrandt, The Artist in his Studio then asked to write 100 words about it. Now I know what "art" is, right? I've been to lots of exhibitions and walked slowly, respectful, hushed, past pictures hanging on walls. I've looked at pictures before.

But now I had to 'respond". Uh-oh, arty-farty bollocks time. Is it too late to ask for my course fees back?

The picture is interesting, with soft, yellows and fawns and browns, and some nice lighting. (That's more than I would have seen or articulated when walking round a museum or gallery a week ago.)

But what about the perspective? What about the viewer's point of view? What about the lighting? What about the other items? Why are some highlighted more than others? Why this, here, why that? Why is the easel so big? Why show the door?
I started to write (they suggested 100 words) and struggled to keep inside five hundred words (and I'm picture-blind). Once I actually look, tried to see, once I wasn't casual, I kept seeing more and more and more. I began to wonder about the "psychology" of the painting, the fact that the easel dominated the room and the painter, and blocked a doorway.

The point is, Rembrandt could have chosen any perspective, different lighting, different emphases, but when he approached this painting, this feeling he had purpose and intent, or at least a sensibility he was trying to capture. There are dissonances in the way the picture is "read", tensions between the perspective and point of view. The tutor argued that perhaps the point of view of the picture is meant to be that of the person whose portrait is on the canvas. But is it then beginning to ask questions about the process?

The specifics don't matter. What matters is how easy it is to glance or to skim. How different is something when we really, truly, look, when we begin to interact, when we engage the intellect and the soul.

I've written elsewhere that I am still this kind of blind to a very large amount of poetry. I just don't "get it". I stare at pages and steel shutters fall, or worse a little voice starts telling me, "Here we go again, arty-farty bullshit."

I have to remind myself I would have said that about Hemingway or Carver. Hell, I would have said it about 90% of my own work!

Ask yourself this. How often do you read, sort of half-attending, waiting for the moment the story will "hit", catch fire, so you can attend more? And does it sometimes happen, that before you know it, you've reached the end of the text and thought, "Huh?"
Maybe you go back and try again but something has "gone', a thin chord of trust has disappeared and now the story is "just words". You might (if you have to) manage some kind of reaction, "get in the mood of critting" and pretend the story mattered. But what has gone, maybe forever is that chance to get a real first impression.

I remember once, in Boot Camp I arranged a live-chat of Raymond Carver's "A Small Good Thing". I arrived late, into a whirlwind of "not-sures" and circular arguments. We started again. Two hours later we were still arguing about the first paragraph! It's a very good discussion to sit down with any opening and ask what do we know with certainty or near-certainty, what is probable, what's likely, what's possible? And what is the mood, what's the emotional point of view, what kind of theme is being whispered, what do we know about the protagonists?

At first glance (note glance, and these were good students) the opening paragraph said, "woman orders cake for son's birthday". I argued (and I'm not going to do it here) that the opening did TONS more. For that matter, I said, could we not dispense with the opening paragraph altogether? After all Paragraph Two starts:
She gave the baker her name, Ann Weiss, and her telephone number. The cake would be ready on Monday morning, just out of the oven, in plenty of time for the child's party that afternoon.

Isn't that covering all the bases? Isn't the first paragraph redundant?
But this essay is not about the specifics of a Raymond Carver story, nor about a Rembrandt painting. Rather it's about the fact that artists don't do things casually, but for a purpose. They set tone, mood, point of view, both for themselves as a writer (to create a writing mood) and to create a way of responding in the reader, or viewer, what I've called "the mode of acceptance".

In the Open University text I'm reading Charles Harrison writes that viewing a painting and "seeing it" is in part a social agreement, convention, set in a historical context etc.

"I suggest that the ability to draw someone into this agreement is the basic condition required to make the illusion do its work in painting. I would also like to suggest that the establishment of such agreement is the starting point for art considered as a social activity. The form of social activity I mean to indicate is the relationship of collaboration and mutual recognition that is established, via the work of art, between the artist who furnishes material for the exercise of the imagination, and the spectator willing to undertake the relevant imaginative work.

A work of art is like a game – often a very serious game – that is set in play when the spectator's imagination engages according to its rules. Once that point of agreement is reached, endless possibilities are opened up for enriching the illusion and for the consequent enlargement of the picture's possible field of reference."

Now note above that there is work involved. That work may not cause blisters or back-ache but the reader of prose must work at reading, fully getting the text.
Later in the same text, when comparing and contrasting two still lifes, Harrison wrote that each artist was attempting to shape and control the viewer's mode of attention. How close is that to my reader's mode of acceptance?

In a still life there are questions of lighting, closeness, objects depicted (and some, for example the pomegranate often had religious or cultural meaning and were rarely 'just there'). The artist controls the manner in which the objects are experienced.

And of course the good writer "steers" the reader down a certain path. There may be a perceived ambiguity or range of possible responses, but how many are closed off to us, almost without us ever noticing, and how much of that response range is real?

For my sins, I sometimes clash with another kind of reader. This is the reader who says "hit me". He wants every single thing in the story to be instantly there, out front, on the surface and in glorious technicolour. For this reader there appears to be no such word as subtlety, or nuance, and "oblique" in his vocabulary (if he knows the word at all) means "obtuse".

Strange how many of these readers love the crudest, crappiest horror stories!

Am I being "unfair"? Am I arrogant or patronising, or cruel? Do you think I lie? Do you think these people are NOT out there?

Do you think I didn't read like that once and imagine it as the pinnacle of the art?

When I was a teenager I devoured Mickey Spillane books. I adored them.

But then, back then, the idea that say, Graham Greene, could matter, that any serious author could matter was ridiculous to me. I was a simplistic, crude young man who wanted everything instantaneously. I was waiting for fast food to be invented. Gimmee, Gimmee!

Now (and I am still, relatively, a Phillistine) I want to understand. I want to know about my humanity, about what might lay outside it or beyond it, or inside it and hidden. I want to discover what it is to be human, what the journey means, why things happen.

And that is not "in your face" and never will be. The trivial imbalances that lead to great tragedies, physical and mental, can be small and seem trivial or inconsequential (yes I know that's self-contradictory!) Going there, to the heart, to the moment, or to be where revelation appears, well that requires some sensibility or sensitivity. Describing it, must almost by its nature demand great care, subtlety and the lightest possible touch.

But if I as an artist, to get through your defences and touch your soul, need you to feel light and shade and texture, to sense perspectives and point of view, to bring to the table history, convention, awareness, and religious significance or irony, or humour, or a consideration of unusual juxtapositions… If I expect you to develop a certain receptiveness, and to look, and look again, feel and feel again, think, and think again…

Should I write dirt, muck, mud, soil, or earth? Are they the same?

In Carver's A Small Good Thing the mother always refers to the boy as "the child". Was that accidental on Carver's part? Why not "my little boy" or "my boy" or "my son"?

Have YOU ever referred to one of your children as "the child"?

What does Carver create when he has the woman say this?



Lexie said...

Loads of interesting stuff to think about there, AK. And yet ANOTHER perspective to look at things from. Life's much simpler (but far less interesting) when you just stroll through it without really looking.

Marzipan said...

Very interesting. Thanks, Alex.

Still, personally, have a mental block with this, though. On one hand, you seem to be saying write as quickly as possible to get past the sentinals of the mind, to find the unexpected; but on the other hand, you suggest that great writers have carefully selected their words, phrases, tone etc.

Is it possible to do both?

Also, if possible, I’d be very interested to hear more of your thoughts on ‘A small, good thing.’

Thank you.


Marzipan said...

Very interesting. Thanks, Alex.

Still, personally, have a mental block with this, though. On one hand, you seem to be saying write as quickly as possible to get past the sentinals of the mind, to find the unexpected; but on the other hand, you suggest that great writers have carefully selected their words, phrases, tone etc.

Is it possible to do both?

Also, if possible, I’d be very interested to hear more of your thoughts on ‘A small, good thing.’

Thank you.


The Boot Camp Diaries said...

I don't know who Marzipan is and I won't be allowing any more comments through until I DO now.

But I left this one stand, because it arrived half-way through an article I was writing which at least has begun to answer Marzipan's question.

In short the answer is. Write every day (for at least three years) and read read read as well, until your technique is second nature.

That allows you to stop worrying about the HOW of the craft of writing.

Now, unleash characters from deep withinyou. They know your theme and you will write to it, on autopilot.