Monthly Archives: March 2015

Held up to the light

You hold me up to the light in a way

I should never have expected, or suspected,

            John Ashbery, A Blessing in Disguise

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blinded by darkness

If we are blinded by darkness, we are also blinded by light. When too much light falls on everything, a special terror results.

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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The purpose of art and literary criticism

. . . . [W]e often think the purpose of criticism is to nail things down. During my years as an art critic I used to joke that museums love artists the way that taxidermists love deer, and something of that desire to secure, to stabilize, to render certain and definite the open-ended, nebulous, and adventurous work of artists is present in many who work in that confinement sometimes called the art world.

A similar kind of aggression against the slipperiness of the work and the ambiguities of the artist’s intent and meaning often exists in literary criticism and academic scholarship, a desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable, to turn the flight across the sky into the roast upon the plate, to classify and contain. What escapes categorization can escape detection altogether.

There is a kind of counter-criticism that seeks to expand the work of art, by connecting it, opening up its meanings, inviting in the possibilities. A great work of criticism can liberate a work of art, to be seen fully, to remain alive, to engage in a conversation that will not ever end but will instead keep feeding the imagination. Not against interpretation, but against confinement, against the killing of the spirit. Such criticism is itself great art.

This is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas, invite it to blossom and invite others into a conversation that might have previously seemed impenetrable, to draw out relationships that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked. This is a kind of criticism that respects the essential mystery of a work of art, which is in part its beauty and its pleasure, both of which are irreducible and subjective.

Rebecca Solnit, Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable, The New Yorker, 24/4/2014

(from here) 

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Reading

Reading has always been for me a sort of practical cartography. Like other readers, I have an absolute trust in the capability that reading has to map my world. I know that on a page somewhere on my shelves, staring down at me now, is the question I’m struggling with today, put into words long ago, perhaps, by someone who could not have known of my existence. The relationship between a reader and a book is one that eliminates the barriers of time and space and allows for what Francisco de Quevedo, in the sixteenth century, called “conversations with the dead.” In those conversations I’m revealed. They shape me and lend me a certain magical power.

Alberto Manguel, Conversations with the Dead (from here) 

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On not knowing

There is so much we don’t know, and to write truthfully about a life, your own or your mother’s or a celebrated figure’s, an event, a crisis, another culture is to engage repeatedly with those patches of darkness, those nights of history, those places of unknowing. They tell us that there are limits to knowledge, that there are essential mysteries, starting with the notion that we know just what someone thought or felt in the absence of exact information.

Often enough, we don’t know such things even when it comes to ourselves, let alone someone who perished in an epoch whose very textures and reflexes were unlike ours. Filling in the blanks replaces the truth that we don’t entirely know with the false sense that we do. We know less when we erroneously think we know than when we recognize that we don’t. Sometimes I think these pretences at authoritative knowledge are failures of language: the language of bold assertion is simpler, less taxing, than the language of nuance and ambiguity and speculation.

Rebecca Solnit, Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable (from here) 

 

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Box of birds

Anne Ferran

Anne Ferran, Slender-throated warbler, 2013

(from here) 

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How can I bring the sun onto my page?

“Painting and writing have much to tell each other”, Virginia Woolf claimed in Walter Sickert: A conversation (1934), “and though painting and writing must part in the end, they have much in common, because the novelist after all wants to make us see . . . . The novelist is always saying to himself how can I bring the sun onto my page? How can I show the night and the moon rising?” One of Woolf’s earliest stories, “Phyllis and Rosamond” (1906), begins:

“In this very curious age, when we are beginning to require pictures of people, their minds and their coats, a faithful outline, drawn with no skill but veracity, may possibly have some value.”

(from here) 

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The journey into the painting

. . [T]he artist invites the spectator to take a journey within the realm of the canvas. The spectator must move with the artist’s shapes in and out, under and above, diagonally and horizontally; he must curve around spheres, pass through tunnels, glide down inclines, at times perform an aerial feat of flying from point to point, attracted by some irresistible magnet across space, entering into mysterious recesses — and, if the painting is felicitous, do so at varying and related intervals. This journey is the skeleton, the framework of the idea. In itself it must be sufficiently interesting, robust, and invigorating. That the artist will have the spectator pause at certain points and will regale him with especial seductions at others is an additional factor helping to maintain interest. In fact, the journey might not be undertaken at all were it not for the promise of these especial favors… It is these movements that constitute the special essentialness of the plastic experience. Without taking the journey, the spectator has really missed the essential experience of the picture.

Mark Rothko, The Artist’s Reality, Philosophies of Art (from here) 

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Self-criticism

Freud’s insistence about our ambivalence, about people as fundamentally ambivalent animals, is also a way of saying that we’re never quite as obedient as we seem to be: that where there is devotion there is always protest, where there is trust there is suspicion, where there is self-hatred or guilt there is also self-love. We may not be able to imagine a life in which we don’t spend a large amount of our time criticising ourselves and others; but we should keep in mind the self-love that is always in play. Self-criticism can be our most unpleasant – our most sadomasochistic – way of loving ourselves. Adam Phillips, Against Self-Criticism 

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Patience with Chaos

‘Do what you want to do and don’t worry if it is a little  odd or doesn’t fit the market.’

Lydia Davis advice to young writers ,on you tube

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPMGqYyKnEs

 

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