Tag Archives: James Wood

Looking and Noticing

In ordinary life, we don’t spend very long looking at things or at the natural world or at people, but writers do. It is what literature has in common with painting, drawing, photography. You could say, following John Berger, that civilians merely see, while artists look. In an essay on drawing, Berger writes that, “To draw is to look, examining the structure of experiences. A drawing of a tree shows, not a tree, but a tree being looked at. Whereas the sight of a tree is registered almost instantaneously, the examination of the sight of a tree (a tree being looked at) not only takes minutes of hours instead of a fraction of a second, it also involves, derives from, and refers back to, much previous experience of looking.” Berger is saying two things, at least. First, that just as the artist takes pains—and many hours—to examine that tree, so the person who looks hard at the drawing, or reads a description of a tree on the page, learns how to take pains, too; learns how to change seeing into looking. Second, Berger seems to argue that every great drawing of a tree has a relation to every previous great drawing of a tree, since artists learn by both looking at the world and by looking at what other artists have done with the world. Our looking is always mediated by other representations of looking.

Berger doesn’t mention literary examples. But in the novel, think of the famous tree in War and Peace, which Prince Andrei rides past first in early spring, and then, a month later, in late spring. On his second journey, Andrei doesn’t recognize the tree, because it is so changed. Before, it had been leafless and wintry. Now, it is in full bloom, surrounded by other trees similarly alive: “Juicy green leaves without branches broke through the stiff, hundred-year old bark, and it was impossible to believe that this old fellow had issued them.” Prince Andrei notices the tree in part because he too has changed: its healthy blossoming is related to his own.

James Wood, Serious Noticing

(from here) 

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Story about a drawing class

A story is told about the artist Oskar Kokoschka, who was leading a live drawing class. The students were bored, and doing dull work, so Kokoschka whispered to the model, and told him to collapse to the ground. Kokoschka went over to the prone body, leaned over him, listened to his heart, and pronounced him dead. The class, of course, was deeply shocked. Then the model stood up, and Kokoschka said: “Now draw him as though you were aware he was alive and not dead!” But perhaps drawing someone as if he or she were alive also implies drawing him as if he were dead too, or at least, as if he would one day be dead, like all of us.

James Wood, Serious Noticing, (from here) 

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A story is story-producing. . . . No single story can ever explain itself: this enigma at the heart of story is itself a story. Stories produce offspring, genetic splinters of themselves, hapless embodiments of their original inability to tell the whole tale.

 . .  stories are dynamic combinations of surplus and disappointment; in a way, the surplus is the exquisite disappointment. A story is endless, begun and ended not by its own logic but by the coercive form of the storyteller; the pure surplus of life trying to get beyond the death which authorial form imposes.

James Wood, Serious Noticing, in The Nearest Thing to Life 

(from here) 

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On Elizabeth Harrower

In “Either/Or,” Kierkegaard talks about the idea that against God we are always in the wrong. He means that God’s love is always greater than anything we can offer Him, and this, combined with our sinfulness, means that we are always in error in relation to God. This is a good thing, Kierkegaard says—we should desire that edifying wrongness. Harrower’s female characters have something of this Protestant masochism. It isn’t quite that these women mistake abuse for devotion, though perhaps they do. It is that they mistake themselves for the people they live with. The pity they feel is really self-pity, and the suffering they feel “connected to” is really their own. It is not Felix who has been “hurt into this shape” but Laura who has been “hurt into this shape” by Felix. Laura is describing herself when she tries to describe Felix.

James Wood, Rediscovering Elizabeth Harrower, The New Yorker October 20th 2014

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