Just trying to say it right

The struggle (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

There are few people who can both write about art and produce it. I have been cautioned against attempting the superhuman feat of doing both. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of impassioned but mutilated thought that has been scribbled down, and a lot of cleverly strung together ruminations that entirely miss the point of the artwork in question. Regrettably, frenzied vehemence and smooth yet detached theorising tend to be accepted as legitimate encounters between art and writing, as though art ought to infect words with its garbled passions, and as though crystalline categorisations really said the whole of what is to be said about art. An honest, steady, thoughtful middle ground is difficult to attain, but it is this gravity and lucidity that Susan Sontag manages to achieve in her essays on film, theatre and literature. Against Interpretation and Other Essays thrusts us deep into the works in question, considering them, as it were, from the inside. Sontag is both artist and thinker: author and critic; able to love and to measure, to experience and to judge.

The essay. Perhaps, itself, a dying artform. It is easy to dash off an article, a commentary, a review, some quick thoughts, or a summary. But to engage with ideas–whether they emerge from books or paintings or elsewhere–involves something more. It involves a cohesive train of thought, an argument, an insight, a real willingness to enter a zone of intellectual conflict. In the case of writing about art, the essay is a knife, sharpened for the express purpose of permeating the flesh of the artwork to get at what is inside, to taste it, to judge it, to display its qualities for what they are. Perhaps things were ever as dire as they seem to be now: but writing about art, if at all penetrable, is so often vapid promotional cotton candy; sugary teasers that are little more than loosely-clad advertising, slick and professional, treading lightly so as not to crush any toes.

As for myself: Perhaps you have traced my artistic education, observing my first tentative steps into the world of painting, as I respectfully recounted it online. I kept my eyes open, I exposed myself to many things. I thought fiercely and critically about all of it–all of it–I agonised over the disappointments, the ineptitude, the obtuseness, the deception, the sheer ignorance. I think one does not improve unless one learns to discover faults, and can explain why they are faults, and propose ways of addressing them. As an artist, I kept these considerations to myself and applied them in practice. But in writing about art, I maintained a certain reverence. I made a conscious choice to be just, but positive: to focus on the best things.

Copy after Klinger

A curious but probably predictable thing came from this: I was plagiarised. My thoughts found themselves rehashed, sloppily restitched and dimly cited in monstrous word-spaghetti that no longer conveyed the original idea, if any at all. I went to exhibitions where my own words were read back to me, translated into German. It made me consider who has these jobs, and why they don’t know what to say about art. Certainly, artists don’t always know how to write about their work, and that’s why they paint it. But if people who are otherwise proficient writers can’t produce a faithful and insightful piece on a work of art, the problem seems to be deeper. They cannot think about art. They stand before a painting in a distracted panic.

But not all of us do. Some of us approach an artwork attentively, quietly, patiently. We take our time with it, revisit it, think on it. Sontag (1966: 12) is not at all incorrect to say that ‘attention to form in art’ is urgently needed. The formal properties–how colour is used, how strokes are applied, linear rhythms and the balance of shapes–might not be the entirety of a painting, but taking them in is surely the place to start. The little ripples of paint will soon chase away the anxiety, drawing us into a silent and timeless realm, inviting us to reflect. Our thoughts will scurry around with the worries and agitations that we hug to ourselves every waking minute, but these, too, will slow down. A painting is a shy creature, but approached through its form, it might let us near it.

Copy after Claudel

Sontag’s essays, as a collection, make me consider the art I encounter and what is being said about it. I have known highly trained painters, self-taught painters, casual painters, designers, illustrators and conceptual artists across the world. Sontag looked fiercely at the world around her, she wrote about the time in which she lived, about America, about Europe. Her essays are not lighthearted, not necessarily short, not lazy Sunday supplements. They are the product of an active and alert mind wrestling with works that stimulate it or disappoint it and unleash a response. Goodwill is no vice, but the critic, the thinker, has work to do, and goodwill must not cloud the public discussion about art. We came to be impressed, to be stirred, to greet grand ideas–when art fails us, it is not we who should be ashamed, apologetically carrying home our embarrassment at the artist’s deficiency like a tail between our legs. Our critical faculties have not failed us. The art is rubbish.

Sontag (1966: 12) demands a kind of criticism that genuinely responds to art, rather than one that ‘usurp[s] its place.’ Words continue to threaten to replace the artwork, but the situation has grown considerably worse: the words are disposable, interchangeable, unilluminating and cheap. Barely able to capture a coherent thought, they could hardly hope to upstage an artwork. The real threat is whether such vacuous feel-good writing blinds us to art entirely, dulling our sensibilities, subduing our objections. The remedy has been around for some fifty years. We need:

‘Acts of criticism which would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art. This seems even harder to do than formal analysis.’

(Sontag, 1966: 13)

The conjunction of sharp and loving is surprising but utterly natural. For how can one love a painting without discernment? How can one withhold affection from a painting that satisfies visually and stirs thoughts even in the silent mechanisms of its construction? Sontag (1966: 14) urges us to recover our senses, and that call is no less urgent now. Once we’ve learned to trust our senses, we must also remember to sharpen our judgements of what we perceive: to be fair, incisive and to demonstrate our love for thoughtful, well-crafted art.

Copy after Veronese

Sontag, Susan. 1966. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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On meaning

Das Bett / The bed (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Das Bett / The bed (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

 

Richard Wollheim’s meticulous and absorbing book Painting as an Art stands, all three hundred and fifty hefty pages of it, in opposition to explanations of meaning in painting that depend on comparisons with language. I have found some useful analogies for painting in language, but such a rigorous book leads me to consider that my preoccupation with an ill-defined ‘visual language’ disguises a deeper concern with meaning itself in painting. I have considered Susan Sontag’s (1969) argument that ‘silence’ in paintings belies an absence of meaning, and have picked up her appeals to a kind of discussion, a back and forth between painter and spectator. But perhaps it is more illuminating to be yet clearer about the type of meaning that is to be manipulated (by the artist) and found (by the spectator) in paintings, and to be strict about the distinction between painting and language.

Painting as an Art inextricably binds meaning in painting to the materials of painting. Paint itself can be transformed into a medium that can ‘be so manipulated as to give rise to meaning’ (Wollheim 1987: 7). What Wollheim (1987: 15) wants to hold on to here is the very ‘paintingness’ of a painting as integral to its meaning—that meaning must be contained within the painting, implanted in it by the artist, discoverable by the spectator, and independent of external validation or explanation.

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‘Pictorial meaning,’ concedes Wollheim (1987: 22), ‘is diverse.’ From the outset, he casts aside any theory with a linguistic scent. ‘Structuralism, iconography, semiotics and various breeds of cultural relativism’ look for the kind of meaning that language has in painting. That is, they try to make sense of paintings by decoding them according to a variety of rules and conventions and symbol systems. But, argues Wollheim (1987: 22), while these sometimes influence the meaning of a painting, such codes do not lie at the heart of pictorial meaning.

And so Wollheim (1987: 22) sets out his own account of pictorial meaning, which he brands a psychological account in contradistinction to these linguistic theories. The core components of this account—and there are three—align happily with factors I have, as a painter myself, come to consider crucial in appreciating painting. Though initially uncomfortable with the term ‘psychological,’ I grow ever more convinced that it captures as fundamental something of the elusive inner, emotional machinations of the artist which a linguistic account might only add on later. Wollheim’s (1987: 22) triad of factors upon which pictorial meaning rests are:

  1. The mental state of the artist

  2. The way this causes him to mark the surface

  3. The mental state that the marked surface sets up in the sensitive and informed spectator.

Or, more descriptively (Wollheim 1987: 22):

‘On such an account what a painting means rests upon the experience induced in an adequately sensitive, adequately informed, spectator by looking at the surface of the painting as the intentions of the artist led him to mark it. The marked surface must be the conduit along which the mental state of the artist makes itself felt within the mind of the spectator if the result is to be that the spectator grasps the meaning of the picture.’

Beginning with the painter (for, as Wollheim (1987: 36) argues, ‘if we are interested in understanding either painting as such or individual paintings, we must start from the artist’) demands something substantial of the painter. It says that we expect her to embody some thought, some idea, in the paint she is carefully mixing on her palette, preparing to smear across her canvas. It does not say that we demand to know her history, her biography, her certified statement on the meaning of the painting. Wollheim (1987: 44) emphasises again and again that the information we seek should be embedded in the painting itself. Turning to the painter’s mental state is important because it demands an intention of her, not something careless, accidental, or mindless. A painting that does not embody a meaningful idea does not qualify, on Wollheim’s (1987: 13) terms, as art—and he is keen to do away with the type of painters that are not artists. This addresses Sontag’s (1969) concern for silent paintings that in fact have nothing to say to the spectator, without yet having to depend on a spectator. For the artist’s ‘major aim,’ so Wollheim (1987: 44) contends, is ‘to produce content or meaning.’

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Wollheim (1987: 185) does not deny the spectator a role, but he treads very carefully where he fears that a painting might be endowed with meaning ‘after it left the hands of the artist and without any concomitant alteration to its marked surface.’ For this reason, he asks us to call to mind the posture of the artist: standing in front of her easel. This image of the artist before her work should continually remind us that the artist herself occupies ‘a multiplicity of roles:’ she must be both agent and spectator (Wollheim 1987: 43). ‘Inside each artist is a spectator upon whom the artist, the artist as agent, is dependent’ (Wollheim 1987: 43). This precise formulation captures exactly what I have observed when I have considered the self-indulgent hours an artist may pass considering her own work, without even picking up a brush: the apparent idleness that is actually a necessary (though passive) role by which the artist tests the calculated effect of her work (Wollheim 1987: 95).

We must, argues Wollheim (1987: 96) take care to recognise that the artist hypothetically, not categorically, imagines a spectator when she herself steps into the role of spectator. She does not necessarily paint with a specific spectator in mind, nor even approach her work with the attitude that another spectator will ever approach the painting. This further distinguishes painting from language, in Wollheim’s eyes. A painting may or may not be a form of communication, but it is not inherently a mode of communication. ‘Necessarily communication either is addressed to an identifiable audience … or is undertaken in the hope that an audience will materialise’ (1987: 96). I am not thoroughly persuaded on this point. A writer may similarly write for themselves, or for no one, in precisely the medium of language. Reams of private notes or sketches can be records addressed precisely to their creator in her role as spectator. The artist’s multiple roles seem, rather, to enable the possibility of an internal conversation.

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It is through marking the surface, intentionally applying paint, that the artist attempts to give form to and perhaps eventually to convey her thoughts. Among the artist’s intentions, Wollheim (1987: 86) lists ‘thoughts, beliefs, memories, and, in particular, emotions and feelings, that the artist had and that specifically caused him to paint as he did.’ The key is that there ought always be a connection between the marks set down and the inner, mental state of the artist. For Wollheim, this connection is never one of direct transcription, as in language, but there is always a correspondence.

But more than this: the artist also intends that ‘a spectator should see something in [the marked surface]’ (Wollheim 1987: 101). This particular intention is what Wollheim calls respresentation. He (Wollheim 1987: 101) here finds room to introduce a standard of correctness and incorrectness: Since the artist had something in mind, and tried to put it down, a spectator might understand that intention correctly or incorrectly. Of course, spectators bring all sorts of personal musings to a painting, and there is a case to be made for reverie, but these wayward, subjective reflections can never comprise the core meaning of a painting. The artist’s intention can be grasped or misunderstood, or partially recognised. But respect for the artist’s intention is crucial if we are to salvage painting from the meaningless mire of subjectivity. Our personal reflections ought only augment the artist’s original idea.

The second important point here is that the spectator should discover this idea in the marked surface. We move smoothly from the intentions of the artist to the response of the spectator via the uncomplicated physicality of paint itself. We spot a glimmer of hope that ‘the sensuous and the meaningful can here for once be fused into an indissoluble unit,’ as Ernst Gombrich (1996: 453) writes of the Greek awakening to the expressiveness of the human form. The spectator can expect to discover, with enough patience and attention, what the artist hoped to convey, by viewing the picture itself. The painting reveals, after all, the way in which the artist worked. If we acknowledged this, rather than fumbling for written explanations of paintings, we would come a long way in restoring dignity to painting as a carrier of meaning.

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The spectator, in turn, must bring something to the painting in order to grasp its meaning, though not in the sense of permitting a plurality of meanings, nor in the institution-dependent sense of being thoroughly educated in art history or appealing to authorities. The ‘sensitive’ and ‘informed’ spectator brings, rather, certain fundamental perceptual capacities, on Wollheim’s (1987: 45) account, and there are three:

  1. Seeing-in

  2. Expressive perception

  3. The capacity to experience visual delight.

Wollheim is a delightfully thorough writer: he is strict on his terms and takes the time to develop each of them fully, probing their weak spots and plugging them with logically necessary qualifications. One must not be deterred by his terms: though precise, they are not as difficult as their rigidity makes them appear. I am so taken with his explanations of the above three capacities that I intend to devote far more attention to them in dedicated essays. For now, let us introduce them, keeping his broader system in view.

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By seeing-in, or twofoldness, Wollheim (1987: 46) means the very remarkable yet familiar experience of being aware of a surface but at the same time seeing something in it. This is, I contend, one of the most important aspects of a painting: it is not merely an image, nor do we desire to be completely drawn into some illusion of reality. The physicality of paintings stands ever at the fore. The very paint is seductive and never quite escapes our view, whatever image we see. Wollheim (1987: 46; 71) calls seeing-in a ‘distinct kind of perception’ upon which representation depends. The spectator, then, should notice both the paint and what is represented in paint, and see that both play a role in the meaning of a painting.

Emotion, that slippery aspect that ever eludes language but seems to be the particular strength—and perhaps even point of—art, enters with expressive perception. We know from experience that we are able to look at a painting and see it as depicting an emotion, and it is simply this ‘species of seeing’ that Wollheim (1987: 80) wants to capture with this term. He (Wollheim 1987:80) believes that because it is a genuine species of seeing, ‘it is capable of grounding a distinctive variety of pictorial meaning.’ What is attractive about this account is that it tries to establish the emotional content of a painting as a credible part of the meaning of the painting. The spectator must be attentive to it, and able to follow the painter’s cues, which may be far more complex than symbols.

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The artist relies on the sensitive and informed spectator to bring a certain ‘cognitive stock’ to the painting in order to uncover its meaning, particularly some information about how it came to be made. But, Wollheim (1987: 89) emphasises, this information should be embedded by the artist in the painting itself. ‘What is invariably irrelevant,’ he (Wollheim 1987: 95) writes, ‘is some rule or convention that takes us from what is perceptible to some hidden meaning: in the way in which, say, a rule of language would.’ This information only gives itself up slowly, with long and attentive deliberation, and perhaps a familiarity with the larger body of the artist’s work. ‘Often careful, sensitive, and generally informed, scrutiny of the painting will extract from it the very information that is needed to understand it’ (Wollheim 1987: 89).

Lastly, the artist demands of the spectator the ability to experience pleasure in his encounter with art. Pleasure does not simply come from subject matter, Wollheim (1987: 98-99) argues, but rather from the way the artist carefully controls the spectator’s propensity to see the emotional character she has laid over an otherwise recognisable, and perhaps utterly ordinary image. Without the capacity for visual delight—which the artist is bursting to transmit—the spectator would remain unmoved by painting; an impenetrable barrier would ever stand between him and the appreciation of paintings, their meaning would ever elude him.

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Wollheim’s Painting as an Art is dense but rewarding: his search for meaning within the painting itself, driven by the intention of an artist with something to express, not only restores dignity to the distinctly visual nature of painting, but does so without recourse to language or its associated symbols, conventions and syntaxes, which he considers an unfortunate and ‘ill-considered analogy’ (Wollheim 1987: 181). Ever reminding us of the limitations of such an analogy, Wollheim offers instead a persuasively thorough conception of meaning in painting that I find well worth deeper consideration. This continual return to the painting itself is just the sort of philosophical system that seems to allow for a breed of objectivity to surface. And this is a path through the murky forest of aesthetics which I should like to go down.

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Gombrich, E. H., and Richard Woodfield. 1996. The Essential Gombrich: Selected Writings on Art and Culture. London: Phaidon Press.

Sontag, Susan. 1969. ‘The aesthetics of silence.’ In Styles of radical will.

Wollheim, Richard. 1987. Painting as an Art. 1. publ. London: Thames and Hudson.

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Stille

Pflaumen © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Pflaumen © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

There have always been things too profound to express, and humanity has always sought ways to grapple with these elusive, ineffable thoughts. Whether through religion, philosophy or art, we have spent sleepless nights labouring over the questions we cannot quite articulate, the chains of reasoning we cannot quite lay out systematically, the conclusions which evade us as fog resists our grasp. Wittgenstein (in Sontag 1969: XII) says that ‘everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be said at all can be said clearly. But not everything that can be thought can be said.’

And so, argues Susan Sontag (1969: XIII), ‘the artist issues his own call for a revision of language.’ The artist invites—‘administers,’ even—silence. The artist acts in the face of ‘the habits of lifeless, static verbalisation, presenting models of “sensual speech”.’ So much is said, and yet so little gained by this cacophony. And so much more is lost: for all our eloquence, our senses are blunted. With painful accuracy, Sontag (1969: XIII) writes: ‘We lack words, and we have too many of them.’ Words fail to get at what we really want to illuminate: they prove themselves crude, but in their desperately mounting explanations and arguments they bathe us in an unbearable busyness, ‘inviting a hyperactivity of consciousness … which actively deadens the mind and blunts the senses.’

Birnen © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Birnen © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

The artist, unsurprisingly, cowers from this chatter. The serious artist, Sontag (1969: II) suggests, ‘is continually tempted to sever the dialogue he has with an audience. Silence is the furthest extension of that reluctance to communicate.’ The artist, living more fully in his body, thinking in sensory experiences more than in verbal ideas, is not retreating solely to contemplate, nor to ready himself to explain himself. He really stands at the edge of the abyss, desperate to plunge himself into silence. ‘For, to be a victim of the craving for silence is to be, in still a further sense, superior to everyone else. It suggests that the artist has had the wit to ask more questions than other people, as well as that he possesses stronger nerves and higher standards of excellence.’

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Yet silence need not consume us completely. According to Sontag (1969: XV), Rilke considers it enough ‘to cut back drastically the scope and use of language.’ Similarly, she (1969: XIII) describes Mallarmé’s intention to use words—poetry—‘to clean up our word-clogged reality—by creating silences around things.’ Silence both implies and demands its opposite, and that calls on the artist to produce something dialectical: to participate in a dialogue, even if his role is to punctuate that dialogue with silences.

silence speech silence

 

For what precedes words, and what follows them, but silence? Sontag (1969: XIII) explains, ‘Silence, then, is both the precondition of speech, and the result or aim of properly directed speech.’ The artist sandwiches speech with his wordless meditations, guiding avid speakers through quiet milieux. ‘The efficacious artwork leaves silence in its wake,’ just as Wittgenstein considered his Tractatus a ladder to be climbed and cast aside with the attainment of understanding; just as he abandoned philosophy after producing this work and turned to humble menial labour in Vienna. The yawning silence that Wittgenstein left behind him was not a disavowal of everything he had said; rather, his work had been a sort of deliverance (Sontag 1969: II). The artist does not search for his voice, his message, his marketable style: he seeks closure, the stillness of silence, and his work is the only means he has to reach this delicious promised land.

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In smaller doses, silence provides some relief from the continuous barrage of speech. It makes room for thought—for its prolongation, extension; for exploring the hidden alleys and backstreets of thought that we’d otherwise avoid. Because, ‘notably, speech closes off thought’ (Sontag, 1969: XIII). But used deliberately in speech, silence brings gravity and solemnity to words. It slows their burbling pace and lends dignity to them: ‘when punctuated by long silences, words weigh more; they become almost palpable.’ And we ourselves become more palpable to ourselves, we become more aware of our bodies: ‘when one talks less, one starts feeling more fully one’s physical presence in a given space.’

Art—painting, perhaps literature, poetry, music, at the very least—takes up the lofty aims of philosophy and religion to clear our heads, to touch something difficult to reach, to slow the rush of businesslike verbal exchange. For even ‘language can be employed to check language, to express muteness’ (Sontag 1969: XIII). But my beloved painting and drawing stand in a firmly wordless domain, resisting thorough explanation and description, demanding but to be seen, tugging at the senses. And they remain painfully, infuriatingly, resolutely silent in the face of words, warring against words in their reclamation of the body, of the senses. Sontag’s (1969: XIII) rallying cry defends this retreat: ‘Art must mount a full-scale attack on language itself, by means of language and its surrogates, on behalf of the standard of silence.’

For Ryan.

Kürbisse © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Kürbisse © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Sontag, Susan. 1969. ‘The aesthetics of silence.’ In Styles of radical will.

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Style and epistemological decisions

Downtime, Berlin © Samantha Groenestyn

The question of style is something that I have been giving some thought of late. How does one uncover one’s style, and how does one develop it? Does amassing a collection of work really amount to a ‘body’ of work—will the pieces speak to each other, and somehow stand united? Is style simply what pours out of the end of your brush, or can you train it, and if you imitate the work of someone else, how much can you appropriate into your own style?

Bike riding through the city

The ever provocative Susan Sontag* has some ideas in her essay ‘On Style.’ She argues that when metaphors are concocted to explain style, they inevitably ‘plac[e] matter on the inside, style on the outside. It would be more to the point to reverse the metaphor’ (p. 17). In this she agrees with Cocteau, whom she cites: ‘Decorative style has never existed. Style is the soul, and unfortunately with us the soul assumes the form of the body’ (p. 17).

This is appealing from a practical point of view. In creating something, it can feel as though the thing created is limited in many ways. I might attempt to write a book in the spirit of Thomas Hardy, but find my writing to constantly fall short. This is explained by Cocteau’s position, in that my writing will be restricted by my own facility with words and my particular habits in stringing them together. Rather than falling short of writing in Hardy’s style, my writing will simply exhibit my own style, at its particular stage of development.

The same may be said of illustration: I have particular gouache techniques that allow me to achieve very specific effects, I have a steady hand with a pen, and I have some innate (though nascent) understanding of tone, but my particular experience and practices will not allow me to achieve just any style. My very lack of experience dramatically restricts my art to the point that my right hand feels like it lives in a deterministic universe. It does not yet know what it can achieve, or how to achieve the styles that get me excited, and feels quite set on its course to make the type of art that it does. Ira Glass expressed the sentiment of being a person of taste whose capabilities have not yet met the high standards of one’s taste, which I think equally applicable to style.

Sontag notes the importance of repetition to style, which not only allows us to class it but also aids our memory (p. 34). It is easy to spot the patterns in any artist’s work, and this repetition allows us to explore something more fully, in a meditative way and, further, gives us a means to perfect our craft. Sontag goes so far as to say that being able to spot these repetitions is what makes art intelligible to the viewer (p. 35). Motifs are a powerful way of connecting with and communicating with our audience. Their frequent appearances are little clues to those familiar with our work, an ongoing dialogue, even an inside joke.

What is repeated depends on what it is that we care to emphasise. Sontag refers to the function of ‘insisting on something’ and removing other things—‘ the most potent elements in a work of art are, often, its silences’ (pp. 35, 36). ‘Every style embodies an epistemological decision, an interpretation of how and what we perceive’ (p. 35). Art allows us so many means of distorting the world, narrowing it, making small parts of it larger, creating fantasies within it, glorying in it. We make these decisions every time we arrange a composition, or strike upon a colour combination, or obsessively note down leaf structures. It only remains for us to share our style—our inner experience of the world—in the outward objects we create. To do this, we must repeat what needs repeating, and in repeating develop our technical proficiency to match our style.

* Sontag, Susan. 1994. ‘On style,’ in Against interpretation. Vintage: London.

In the morning we are going on holidays!

Downtime, Berlin is a study after Yelena Bryksenkova. Uncertain about how to move away from realism, I attempted to reimagine my own image with some of her motifs and methods that I found appealing. While nothing is directly copied, the spirit of the piece feels too near to hers for my comfort. This has given me much to ponder—does my style approach hers, when I have the techniques needed at my disposal? I sense that I am far too attached to realism—particularly tone—but I did enjoy the opportunity to exploit patterns to such dramatic effect.

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Death kit

Susan Sontag’s Death Kit (1967) is a bit of a mind-bender. Likeable, hateable, excruciatingly average Dalton ‘Diddy’ Harron dreams about wolf-boys, lives in the shadow of his thoughtless, successful brother Paul and is effortlessly good at his mind-numbing microscope sales job.

We meet Diddy the Good on a business trip. He takes the train from New York, meets a lovely blind—in contrast to his business of seeing acutely—girl, Hester, and bludgeons a workman to death in a tunnel—he believes, somewhat shakily, from self-defence—but Hester, his only witness and confidante, refuses to believe he left their train compartment to commit such an atrocity.

Sontag trips a fine line between the agonising boredom of a perfectly normal life and a brutal, violent, nauseating one, suggesting a causal link between the two. She has woven an immensely sensory work with constant references to nausea and hunger and scent and sight and blindness. Diddy is suffering a more intense existential crisis than the nausea of Jean-Paul Sartre. Diddy is dying.

‘Meaning, seriously, to kill himself, Diddy swallowed half a bottle of sleeping pills one evening; after walking the dog, who sprawls (now) before the fireplace in the living room. It’s twelve-thirty; in his bedroom, door closed, Diddy lies back and shuts his eyes. Begins to float down, softly, peaceably. Followed by an interval of undetermined length: some dark time, in which it’s hard to breathe’ (p. 6).

What follows is an intricate narrative of events taking place on a business trip, peppered with dreams and memories, and always the nausea, always ‘riding out the tide of nausea’ (p. 8). It’s explained that Diddy woke up. He hit his head, smelled something putrid by his bed, glimpsed a nurse, was carried away to hospital—‘reprieved from death … reprieved either by his own vitality or by the merest accident. … A posthumous person has certain new resources, new strengths’ (p. 7).

Hester is this new resource. Hester is Diddy’s vitality. Hester cannot see the ugliness of the world, and because she lives in darkness, she can bear to live. Blinded by her mother as a teenager, Hester experiences the world in a better dimension, and Diddy comes to idolise her sightlessness, a purifying trait that he tries to mimic by shutting himself away in darkness.

It is not that Diddy meets a healing character; rather, he descends into a strange internal world on the cusp of death and meets a new, stronger part of himself that wants to live. He speculates that Hester, this stronger part of himself, has gained some new wisdom and is now too intelligent to suffer. ‘Doesn’t the capacity to suffer depend on a kind of superior stupidity? So thinks Diddy. With his eyes closed, becoming drowsier’ (p. 207). Aching for this wisdom that will allow him to rise above his suffering, Diddy knows that Hester’s teaching him is his only hope.

Diddy and Hester marry, with plans to move to a new place, to go for walks and for Diddy to describe the scenery, smell the air as she does, read to her. ‘Diddy knows a remedy. There’s something else, rather someone else, to think about. When the spectre looms up before his retrograde vision, she comes to caress his face and to kiss his eyes. To banish the workman, to heal Diddy. She never fails to come. But always after. The workman arrives first. Diddy driven and counter-driven’ (p. 80).

The struggle is fierce. Though we meet him on a train, going into a tunnel, on a swift, dark track to death, the train is halted and Diddy and Hester have their first heady encounter. Though their marriage is full of hope, a strong, unifying decision at last, they begin to sink. They move into Diddy’s old apartment, draw the blinds and live in a dark, stifling den. Diddy becomes dependent on Hester, who takes care of all the cooking, the dusting, clipping Diddy’s toenails. The apartment descends into chaos, as filthy as the original train, strewn with cigarette butts, LPs languishing without their covers, the windows grimy with the city’s pollution. Diddy thinks of the view as that from the train window, only motionless. Diddy is returning to the place where we met him.

‘“Darling, we have to talk,”’ Diddy confronts Hester (p. 276). He has struggled; he has made his choice. As long as Hester remained to look after him, ‘death had refused his hectic, inept petition. … Diddy was afraid to die’ (p7). But Diddy (now) afraid no longer. ‘“Help me, Hester!”’ is his last plea. “‘What are you afraid of?” “I guess….I guess, I’m afraid that I’ll have to do something, something I’m not doing”’ (pp. 279-80).

Diddy and Hester return to the tunnel. A gory scene takes place, in which Diddy again splits the skull of the workman, has one last violent encounter with Hester, whom he then leaves slumped the way he left the workman the first time. Hester is defeated, now Diddy is left to explore his impending demise, in a cavernous vault of carefully catalogued and preserved corpses. The nurse reappears, and the hideous smell.

A little online research suggests that Sontag was harshly criticised for Death Kit when it was first published. At best, it was reviewed as a Kafkaesque dreamscape. And this would not be incorrect, since the entire narrative takes place within a dream, a dream laced with memories, sensations and internal struggles. Sontag constantly reminds us that it is a long moment, a lingering instant—it is always (now). It is gritty and grotesque. But it seems that it was received literally, and that readers failed to interpret it as a whole.

Sontag had written a paper three years prior to Death Kit entitled Against Interpretation. In it, she argues, ‘What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art.’ This she extends to literature, saying that modern literature and our expectation of what may be done within the literary form has become so uninspired that it is mostly undisguised news or information, or, if more loosely disguised, ‘it is still peculiarly visible.’

This is, of course, the easy to churn out pulp fiction, with characters who are simply colour-by-number cardboard cut-outs, designed for a purpose, mouths stuffed with one-liners, objects strewn like candlesticks in conservatories, lead pipes in billiard rooms, ready to be wielded for their scripted purpose. Rather than trying to be so obscure as to destroy meaning, or at the other extreme, becoming purely decorative in an effort to ‘elude the interpreters,’ Sontag proposes another way to inject meaning into work without the audience needing to reinterpret it in terms of Marxist-feminist-deconstructivist-postmodernism: ‘by making works of art whose surface is so unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the work can be … just what it is.’

And so she has presented us with a self-contained capsule of a work that we can swallow whole and meditate upon. It presents all its ideas, it relies on its strong internal imagery, it uses its own, specially crafted literary devices (now) with their own stipulated meanings. Certainly, you may need to read it again to appreciate the meanings woven throughout, which you had taken at face value at the outset, but you can trust it to be a complete, self-referencing, consistent work, with all the clues you need, should you search for them.

‘What is important now is to recover our senses,’ Sontag argues in the face of a swathe of books that dull our sensory experience. She has ‘selected lilacs for their scent’ (DK p. 65), and if at any time you are bewildered at the plot, you are riding a sensory rush so powerful it is hard to alight.

‘“Draw those curtains, Goldberg, will you? The light’s in my eyes,” said Reager irritably,’ (p. 83).

*Sontag, Susan. 2009 [1967]. Death Kit. Penguin Books: London.

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