Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Full Circle

Well, I've been on a couple of journeys: geographical, intellectual, and artistic. And now it feels like I've come back full circle. I haven't been posting partially because I've been away, first to Maui for three days as a member of an accreditation team visiting a private school there, and then to Chicago for five days to attend the annual conference of the National Association of Independent Schools. So that was the geographical part.

Intellectually and artistically I've been circling deeper into the world of art, which has had the effect of taking me out of the worlds I would normally inhabit: the worlds of reading, and of writing, of playing chess or doing crosswords. Now when I have an hour or two open, I'm breaking out the materials and getting to work. I've also discovered a lot of people who have been out there before me, people like Robert Rauschenberg and Kurt Schwitters and Joseph Cornell , and that has been the beginning of another sort of education.

When I got back from Chicago (where I spent a number of hours at the amazing Art Institute of Chicago ), I found the February 24 issue of the New Yorker waiting for me. Every once in a while an issue of that magazine just hits on all cylinders, and this was one of those for me. There's a terrific profile of Ian McEwan by Daniel Zalewski, for example. Late in the article, he quotes a passage from McEwan's Saturday describing how the main character, a surgeon named Perowne, feels when he is at his work. Zalewski's point is that the description of Perowne's "ecstatic concentration" might serve as the analogue for McEwan's own engagement with the process of writing. But in reading it, I found myself saying, yes, that it pretty well describes the state of mind that I find myself in when I am trying to put together a collage:

For the past two hours he’s been in a dream of absorption that has dissolved all sense of time, and all awareness of the other parts of his life. Even his awareness of his own existence has vanished. He’s been delivered into a pure present, free of the weight of the past or any anxieties about the future. In retrospect, though never at the time, it feels like profound happiness. It’s a little like sex, in that he feels himself in another medium, but it’s less obviously pleasurable, and clearly not sensual. This state of mind brings a contentment he never finds with any passive form of entertainment. Books, cinema, even music can’t bring him to this. . . . This benevolent dissociation seems to require difficulty, prolonged demands on concentration and skills, pressure, problems to be solved, even danger. He feels calm, and spacious, fully qualified to exist. It’s a feeling of clarified emptiness, of deep, muted joy.

That's dead on: clarified emptiness and joy.

In the same issue of the New Yorker, there's also an article by Louis Menand about Donald Barthelme. What blew me away about that article was that in his discussion of Barthelme's characterisically oblique and elusive writing style, Menand winds up comparing his method to that of Rauschenberg. Barthelme, it turns out, actually wrote a catalogue essay for a Rauschenberg exhibition in Houston, in which he says "The principle of collage is one of the central principles of art in this century and it seems to me also to be one of the central principles of literature." Menand points out:

The visual artist can deal with almost every kind of material, even sound, but the writer deals only with one kind of material: sentences. The solution, therefore, was to treat sentences as if they were found objects.

We rarely experience sentences this way, because we're trying to look through them to the things they represent, just as, in traditional easel painting, we look through the canvas, as though it were a window, onto the world it represents. That's the kind of looking and reading that modernism was committed to disrupting...

The illogic, the apparent absurdity, of a Rauschenberg collage or a Bartheleme story makes people impatient, because it seems to violate ordinary habits of perception and understanding. But we experience the arbitrary juxtaposition of radically disparate materials every day, when we look at the front page of the newspaper.

Reading this article helped to circle me back from the (art)work I've been doing recently to the work I've done all my adult life as a teacher and student of English, trying to work through and understand the logic of reading and the logic of writing and how they inform one another. So now I find myself, having been away for a while, back here, typing away, looking for the throughlines.

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