Friday, July 25, 2008

Figure and Ground: More Thinking Outloud

Steven Beattie asked, in a post to my Thinking Outloud:

"I wonder, is there a way to reconcile the desire to view the reading of a novel as a purely aesthetic experience with the desire to engage in an act of interpretation? Should this even be an issue?"

Both of my posts are as much about writing as reading and interpretation--what I call the aesthetics of process. Writing is another form of reading--reading an unfixed text. Reading... drawing on the newspad, still in the dark.

Isn't every interpretation an attempt to do just that? How could it not be? Because we have a split subject, aren't we always talking about two things: the text and our own response. We go wrong if we either forget that we are in fact involved and part of the subject, or overwhelm the text with a response that is not sufficiently engaged with it for its own sake.

In the post quoted above I was thinking about painting--as though Emma and Mr. Knightley were figures on a ground in a painting and the question had to do with distinguishing figure from ground.

Emma and Mr. Knightley are made of words. Goya's naked Maja is made of paint. What are the rules that identify Emma-words from not-Emma words? If we ask how the interpretation of a text is like and unlike interpreting a figurative painting, we realize that it's really a question about our brains. So now we have three levels to the basic interpretive act. I’m guessing that what enables the brains of humans, apes, porpoises, and elephants to recognize their own image in a mirror, is related to how we are able to distinguish the nude Maja from the couch she reclines on, how the Phoenicians, Greeks and Hebrews--whose earliest writing did not add spaces between words--came to see and conceptualize words as separate units--figure and ground. Second level--and this is where I began: how writing isolates subject from ground, subject from subject, analogous to how we visualize what is before us.

Many years ago I took a drawing class at Wichita State University--a primal experience. A room had been especially prepared to block out all light: blackout curtains, baffles around the door. A screen was set up in the front of the room. One small bead of red light left on over the screen so we wouldn't become disoriented in the first five minutes or so of perfect darkness. There was a slide projector rigged to increase simultaneously, intensity of the projected light and focus. The challenge was to render the image that was gradually becoming visible on the screen, drawing on our large pads of newsprint with sticks of charcoal. At first there would be nothing but a slight fog of light at the threshold of visibility: this, or course, would in the end, be the brightest area in the field. Only at the very end did the whole image come together--at which point the exercise was over and the lights were turned on and we could judge the success of our efforts--a landscape, a portrait, buildings that we had made without ever knowing what it was we were drawing.

What is a drawing made of? Not charcoal and paper... a complex interrelationship of light and dark. That is the middle level. In a text, words work to suggest a complex set of relationships between ideas (in the way we usually use that word), brain images, sets of affective instructions, the grammar of the narrative (what I was calling "rules" ), and... that in reading we are guided to visualize (sensualize) figure and ground, figure and ground in changing relationships over time (into the narrative future... which may be into the "past") , until we come to a place where the whole appears (appears to appear) before us. When I read a book or poem I experience something like what happened in those drawing lessons. While I was still drawing, still physically in the dark, there was a rush of images ideas guesses constantly discarded revised and replaced until the "epiphany" --the illusion of the whole. While reading, in the literal darkness, there is a rush of images ideas surmises until the illusion of the whole at the end.

The thing is, you never have the whole. The whole is bought at the cost of deletions, erasures, a narrowing of focus, so on opening the novel again, the details come back into play--down to grammar syntax peculiarities of style, until out of that everchanging rush... a new whole, which is always, at the end of every reading, the perfect figure of death. Blanchot was right. Why else is it so hard to "finish" a work?

"... give up youthful passions, make friends with death"

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