Shadows and Blur Part 4 — The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

 
Jean-Dominique Bauby, who had lost the use of his limbs and voice, dictated his memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, one letter at a time.  Claude Mendibil, shown here as she transcribes, devised a time-saving system of reciting the letters of the alphabet for Bauby   in order of their frequency in French words and waiting for him to blink in response.  Image via  commons.wikimedia.org

Jean-Dominique Bauby, who had lost the use of his limbs and voice, dictated his memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, one letter at a time. Claude Mendibil, shown here as she transcribes, devised a time-saving system of reciting the letters of the alphabet for Bauby in order of their frequency in French words and waiting for him to blink in response.
Image via commons.wikimedia.org

 

 

In his book In Praise of Shadows, Jun'ichirō Tanizaki upholds the value of art that captures "the uncertainty of the mental process" rather than "neatly packaged conclusions."   

Jean-Dominique Bauby's memoir, The Diving Bell and The Buttefly: A Memoir of Life in Death, makes use of this principle to describe the transformation Bauby underwent after a massive stroke left him unable to use his arms, legs, and voice.  Here is the book's opening passage:

"Through the frayed curtain at my window, a wan glow announces the break of day.  My heels hurt, my head weighs a ton, and something like a giant invisible diving bell holds my whole body prisoner.  My room emerges slowly from the gloom.  I linger over every item: photos of loved ones, my children’s drawings, posters, the little tin cyclist sent by a friend the day before the Paris-Roubaix bike race, and the IV pole hanging over the bed where I have been confined these past six months, like a hermit crab dug into his rock."

Jean-Dominique Bauby
The Diving Bell and The Buttefly: A Memoir of Life in Death
Translated by Jeremy Leggatt

Note the reliance on images of confusion and uncertainty.  Echoing Bauby's writing, Julian Schnabel's film version employs blurred lens focus and unexpected shot framing to convey Bauby's experience of first emerging from the coma after his stroke.

Note that the unknowing has been rendered clearly.  The readers and viewers of these works will experience Bauby's initial confusion without being confused about whether they are correctly absorbing the material.  Bauby and Schnabel have created portraits of confusion, not confusing portraits.  

What is not known may be impossible to render, but our unknowing can nevertheless be rendered with precision.


Thank you for reading.

Shadows and Blur Part 3 — My Bloody Valentine

 
image via  dailytrojan.com

image via dailytrojan.com

 

In his book In Praise of Shadows, Jun'ichirō Tanizaki finds a connection between the prominence of shadows in traditional Japanese architecture and the Japanese literary tradition of which he was a part:

“It is not that Japanese writers have been ignorant of the powers of concision and articulation.  Rather, they have felt that certain subjects — the vicissitudes of the emotions, the fleeting perceptions of the mind — are best couched in a style that conveys something of the uncertainty of the mental process and not just its neatly packaged conclusions.”

In Praise of Shadows, p. 45
(Translated by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker)

We might extend this connection further, from shadows to what might be called blurriness — the quality of images we clearly perceive but do not perceive clearly.  My Bloody Valentine’s album Loveless derives much of its power from this principle.

The song “I Only Said” starts with a lead guitar singing like a seagull as it soars over a bruised ocean of guitars, and the roaring blurriness of that ocean (produced by any number of techniques) forces us to confront our unknowing.  As a thought experiment, imagine that ocean of guitars replaced by a single acoustic guitar, and how reassuring that acoustic guitar might be by way of its clear sonic image.  It’s the unsettling lack of clarity about what we are hearing that gives this album its haunting, mystical power.  (Even the album artwork, captured in the video thumbnail, relies on this the power of blurred imagery.  We stare at it and see a guitar, but perhaps other things too.  The act of puzzling over the image draws us further into it.)

As the vocal enters, the dark ocean of guitars overwhelm it, as if the singer's mouth barely clears the water's surface, the washing of the waves blurring the syllables as they emerge.  We lean forward, striving for understanding.  Here are the lyrics, according to Google, which can hardly be confirmed by listening.

See there, run away you said to go, you were it, you were it
To lay underneath the red sky there, to lay under her, I want her there
See you there, under her and under to go you were there and I'm slow
To lay over her and I'm slow, to lay under her, I've grown away

The drowned inaudibility of the vocal feels planned, not mistaken.  We don't fiddle with our headphones as we listen, though if the vocal were any louder we might because the blur would feel less decisive.   Thus, the band has created not a blurry portrait (one we wouldn't know how to encounter) but a portrait of blurriness.  We emerge from this sonic ocean without wondering if we listened correctly, only with a deepened awareness of our unknowing.


Thank you for reading.

Shadows and Blur Part 2 — Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon

 
Maya Deren.   Image via  www.picsofcelebrities.com

Maya Deren.  
Image via www.picsofcelebrities.com

 

The previous post looked at Jun'ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, which explores the role of shadows in traditional Japanese architecture.  Near the end of the book, he identifies an analogous principle in literature:

“One of the oldest and most deeply ingrained of Japanese attitudes to literary style holds that too obvious a structure is a contrivance, that too orderly an exposition falsifies the ruminations of the heart, that the truest representation of the searching mind is just to “follow the brush.”  Indeed, it would not be far wrong to say that the narrative technique we call “stream of consciousness” has an ancient history in Japanese letters.  It is not that Japanese writers have been ignorant of the powers of concision and articulation.  Rather, they have felt that certain subjects — the vicissitudes of the emotions, the fleeting perceptions of the mind — are best couched in a style that conveys something of the uncertainty of the mental process and not just its neatly packaged conclusions.”

In Praise of Shadows, p. 45

(Translated by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker)

Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon provides a great example of art that conveys such mental uncertainty, and it employs shadows of light and of mind. 

(If for some reason the video does not play, you can see it here)

It’s worth noting two things about the film:

1.  The imagery is perfectly clear.  The composition of the scenes are such that we know what we are seeing at all points.   

2.  Because of this clarity, we are abled to discern a strange, shadowed logic.  We can read the various narrative leaps and gaps not as some mistake on our part as viewers, but as questions raised by the film, a clearly articulated riddle. 

Sometimes, a writing student will produce a piece of writing about an uncertain moment, and when pressed, explain that the writing is uncertain because the character on the page is uncertain.  This fails to note the distinction between an uncertain portrait and a portrait of uncertainty.

To employ the use of shadows, whether the literal shadows Tanizaki wrote of when describing the Sumiya Teahouse or the metaphorical ones that create mental uncertainty, is not to eschew clarity.  Deren’s film provides and example of art that renders unknowing with arresting clarity.


Thank you for reading.

Shadows and Blur Part 1 — Jun'ichirō Tanizaki

 
Image via  otromexico.com

Image via otromexico.com

In his book In Praise of Shadows (published in 1933), novelist Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, sets forth observations about the aesthetics of traditional Japanese architecture.  Foremost in his mind is the vital role of shadows:

There are no doubt all sorts of reasons — climate, building materials — for the deep Japanese eaves.  The fact that we did not use glass, concrete, or bricks, for instance, made a low roof necessary to keep off the driving wind and rain.  A light room would no doubt have been more convenient for us, too, than a dark room.  The quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s ends.

And so it has come to be that the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows — it has nothing else.  Westerners are amazed at the simplicity of Japanese rooms, perceiving in them nothing more than ashen walls bereft of ornament.  Their reaction is understandable, but it betrays a failure to comprehend the mystery of shadows . . .

. . . Of course the Japanese room does have its picture alcove, and in it a hanging scroll and a flower arrangement.  But the scroll and the flowers serve not as ornament but rather to give depth to the shadows . . .

In Praise of Shadows, p. 18 - 19
(Translated by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker)

Note Tanizaki’s focus.  While we might be tempted to view the shadows as important only inasmuch as they provide contrast to some featured element, Tanizaki's attention is absorbed by the shadows themselves.  (His book is not titled The Usefulness of Shadows.)

Here, he speaks of the Sumiya teahouse in Kyoto.  Note how precisely he captures the darkness.

On the far side of the screen, at the edge of the little circle of light, the darkness seemed to fall from the ceiling, lofty, intense, monolithic, the fragile light of the candle unable to pierce its thickness, turned back as from a black wall.  I wonder if my readers know the color of that“darkness seen by candlelight.”  It was different in quality from darkness on the road at night.  It was a repletion, a pregnancy of tiny particles like fine ashes, each particle luminous as a rainbow.  I blinked in spite of myself, as though to keep it out of my eyes.

— page 34

Elsewhere he lingers over a related element —grime:

Glassmaking has long been known in the Orient, but the craft never developed as in the West.  Great progress has been made, however, in the manufacture of pottery.  Surely this has something to do with our national character.  We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in a stone or an artifact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity.

Of course this “sheen of antiquity” of which we hear so much is in fact the glow of grime.  In both Chinese and Japanese the words denoting this glow describe a polish thatcomes of being touched over and over again, a sheen produced by the oils that naturally permeate an object over long years of handling — which is to say grime.  If indeed “elegance is frigid,” it can as well be described as filthy.  There is not denying, at any rate, that among the elements of the elegance in which we take delight is a measure of the unclean, the unsanitary.

page 11

In his embrace of these neglected aesthetic elements, Tanizaki finds parallels in literary technique:

One of the oldest and most deeply ingrained of Japanese attitudes to literary style holds that too obvious a structure is a contrivance, that too orderly an exposition falsifies the ruminations of the heart, that the truest representation of the searching mind is just to “follow the brush.”  Indeed, it would not be far wrong to say that the narrative technique we call “stream of consciousness” has an ancient history in Japanese letters.  It is not that Japanese writers have been ignorant of the powers of concision and articulation.  Rather, they have felt that certain subjects — the vicissitudes of the emotions, the fleeting perceptions of the mind — are best couched in a style that conveys something of the uncertainty of the mental process and not just its neatly packaged conclusions.

— page 45

When speaking of craft, experts generally stress the virtues of clarity, probably because the first obstacle facing any artist is being understood.  Tanizaki, however, stresses the danger of creating work that pretends all is clear, as in transparent.  He seems to insist that we include in our art what we don’t understand, the shadows and smudges of mystery, and that we learn to render our unknowing in all of its strange beauty.

Flaubert was an advocate of clarity, but note how well this observation resonates with Tanizaki:

Ineptitude consists in wanting to reach conclusions . . . What mind worthy of the name, beginning with Homer, ever reached a conclusion?

The Letters of Gustave Flaubert 1830-1857, p. xiii
(Translated by Francis Steegmuller)

And here, Flaubert captures the larger point.

What seems to me the highest and most difficult achievement of Art is not to make us laugh or cry, nor to arouse our lust or rage, but to do what nature does—that is, to set us dreaming.

p. xi

Dreams.  Their power to transport and haunt us relies not so much the magic that may unfold within them as much as the sense that some vital element has eluded our understanding. We wake up trying to figure them out.  Likewise, the art that calls us back makes use of shadows and other obscuring elements so that the questions eclipse the answers.


Thank you for reading.