Writing the Light
Ten Thoughts about Literature and Photography
by Aidan Mathews
Issue 22 Spring 2000
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My father censored text, my mother images. Had they divided the work of curfew between them or was it simply that each had a special vigilance - and so a special weakness - for the form they monitored? It was my dad who threw out The Misery of Christianity, a Pelican paperback from the mid-seventies - indeed, he tore it in two and chucked it into the coal fire, though I'd learned my own ironic anti-clericalism from him; and it was my mother, on the other hand, who habitually interfered with my bottom desk-drawer to search out pristine selections of Mayfair or Men Only from underneath decoy student copybooks, old aerograms and bottled snowstorms. Text and the instabilities of print didn't bother her, but the women - naked except for their stilettos and lipstick, up-ended beside a two-bar electric heater - trembled between her hands. What shook my father was pollination, seeds on the invisible wind, tares among the wheat, the radiation sickness of a new idea for which nothing has prepared you.
They are in fact, my mum and dad, the patron saints and the secret policemen of the two languages, story and image, that I speak; and their prohibitions are my inhibitions still. One of the two could not assume flesh; the other was unable to flesh out new assumptions. Both together brought me the jeopardy of picture and page, the greening of black and white in two media.
Filming a novel is fine; novelising a film is hackwork. Neil Jordan is praised, and rightly, for his recent adaptation of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair; but for a writer to publish in fictional form the narrative of the same director's The Crying Game would seem peculiar if not plagiaristic. Does this circumstance mean that literary storytelling is somehow senior to a talent for images, that in the beginning was the Word, as Saint John tells us in the prologue of his Gospel, or that in the beginning was the light - light as in phos and photon, the inaugural fiat lux of the Lord in the opening phrases of the Book of Genesis? If so, is that hierarchy the result of a system of classification which privileges difficulty over ease, labour over fluency, individual endeavour over communal toil? For the organisation of language into the intricacies of narrative form does seem a more strenuous act than the exposure of light and shade.
Yet the high standing of print culture rests upon a Judeo-Christian mentality, ancient deference to speech and writing that has lost its supernatural nerve now and which therefore may not survive the erosions of modernity. The habit of solitariness which reading fosters will not change, since the pleasure of the Internet and the remote control consists precisely in the power of the emperor's thumb; but the practice of subtlety will suffer, for no tradition - oral or aural or visual - can provide the intelligence which the complexity of syntax summons into being.
When I went to Greece for the first time at eighteen, I travelled without a camera or the classics, without either intervention, because I still believed that there was such a thing as immediacy. This in itself was strange: images and texts were what had made me homesick in the first place for the mere idea of the Peloponnese since I was small. Pillars of Penguin books and of Loeb editions with their footnotes and their facing translations had filled my bedroom like a left-luggage cubbyhole for years. Two-tone postcards of the holy places - Delphi, Tiryns, Epidauros, Delos - climbed the walls around my pillow like lottery tickets in a tourist kiosk at a street corner in downtown Athens. Yet I arrived in the country with empty hands and a full heart, and, seeing the silhouette of the Acropolis through the shutters of my hotel bedroom, I left everything and ran to it down the empty streets of the noiseless siesta. There, like a pilgrim Jew at Solomon's second Temple, I stood beneath the Propylaea, the ceremonious ascent to the citadel, and cried in a kind of calf love in its blinding presence as elderly vendors around me shuffled fold-out postcards of the place that reminded me now only of Dublin and the greasy headboard of my bed. Though I had clean forgotten the name of my hotel and the name of the street in which it was found, I still had the long key in my pocket. I was home.
It would be almost two months before I came back to Ireland; months again before I began to regret the lack of a diary, the absence of snapshots. Oddly enough, it was neither sound nor image, neither narrative nor emblem, that evoked Greece for me then but light through my unprotected glasses and the intimate scent of the hot ground, a blur of whiteness above a slight olfactory pathos. Yet I needed in some way that would be more than merely possessive or proprietorial to utter the visit, to find the holy day in the holiday, to turn it from sortie into story. Twenty-five years later, its absence of record has about it a certain chasteness in a world which requires that we document everything. Besides, it was Greek culture that gave us Europeans the prestige of the fragment, the authority of remnants, whether the scraps of papyrus that preserve occasional sentences from the seventy-seven lost plays of Sophocles or the mutilated, colourless torsos that any citizen of the fifth century would have rejected outright for the want of limbs and the loss of that Expressionist coat of paint which made the works of Praxiteles into decorated Spanish statues of the Madonna.
It's late now, almost dark outside in the midsummer garden, and I'm sitting to the sound of birdsong at this hour, imagine, with a friend whose husband died the day before on a respirator in the ICU of a general hospital. We're looking at scrapbook photographs of the man, seated together on the sofa, closer than convention ordinarily allows, poring at greater length than custom requires over this picture and that, some of them formal, some fussy, some suddenly legible for the first time, but all of them altered irreversibly now by the presence of his absence, the compelling finality of this disappearance in these shuffled apparitions. It will all end up in a book, they say. Actually, it all ends up in a photo-album. The clocks chime. Watches tick. Ice melts in a glass from the heat of the hand holding it. This is the silence of vigil, the speechless small hours.
Yet images are borne; images are bearable. This black and white procession is an orderly retreat from the confusion of life. The same man at different ages and stages, the same smile, the same tooth, the same tendency to blink at the flash whether in the serrated hand-coloured display cards of his infancy or in the open-mouthed Polaroids of a later partytime. It is all peculiarly comforting and consoling.
When the phone rings on the low table across the room, neither of us thinks in time to get up, to go over, to intercept the atrocity of what must happen next, happen now, as the second ring stops short and the automatic message-minder trips into action. 'This is Jack speaking. I'm afraid I'm not able to talk to you now. Leave your name and number and I shall return your call.'
'Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.' If, as Virgil tells us, there are things in this world which lie beyond heartbreak, beyond the wound of the mouth and the seepage of the eye, one of them must surely be the voice of a dead man calling us, his breath in the bronchitic syllables, the hydraulic lungs. And here, on the borderlands of being, where a foetus flinches sooner at sound than at shadow, there is no uncertainty: human presence is more powerful as audition than as spectacle, more visible as language than as image. It is the Hebraic love of orality and not the Hellenic delight in the retina which triumphs.
There's a contradiction in the Judeo-Christian tradition of the image and it sinks to the scriptural root of the problem of representation. The human person in the Creation account of the First Book of the Law of Moses - our Genesis - is seen as divine. He and she are made in the image and likeness, the 'semel' and 'demuth', of a G-d who cannot be named and the vowels of whose vocative must never be pronounced. For to represent the Most High is to miss altogether the semitic metaphysic. So, in this story of sleep and spare ribs, in this exemplary articulation not only of Creation but of creativity too, original and copy are stated to be both identical and discrete at the same time, imitation is shown to be the structuring poetics of the universe, and the work of representation is solemnised as a sacred rite within the creaturely order.
Yet the same religious radicalism - so proper, so deistic, so somehow eighteenth century - cannot quite overcome its abhorrence of the slippy, oleaginous image. Text after text in Torah and the Writings condemns the image as bitterly as ever Plato mocked the phantasms of this world in his Republic, and the repercussions of an age-old desert hostility to the hallucinatory domain of the visual (Do not believe your eyes) resonate still today: it is to the Bible, to the singular form of what is a plural noun in Greek, that the Western Enlightenment turns when it traces to the source its own idolatry of discourse, and it is Islam, the chaperone of non-figurative vision, which champions a polemic of absolute purity, of conceptual rigour, in the worship of the unimaginable one.
Botticelli's Birth of Venus - which I always thought of as The Virgin Mary Without Clothes - hung from a nail on the inside door in the upstairs toilet of my home in Donnybrook, and often while I sat there on its wooden seat with my trousers round my socks, I would study the little reproduction that I had come to love. Was the figure modest or coquettish, and how could she be both, like some sort of androgyne or oxymoron? The slowness of my bowels made me in time a lover of the Renaissance, and when I was grown and gone from the family house, I made the journey to Florence, jumping up and down in the Uffizi, like a boy on a pogo stick, in the crowded room where the painting sank and surfaced, surfaced and sank, behind the turbulent heads and shoulders of the restless rest of the crowd as they held up umbrellas and cameras like a lynch mob outside a courthouse.
Had I read already the alert, lugubrious essay of Walter Benjamin's on The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction? At any rate, I had certainly learned its lessons. The mystique of much that is great derives from the effort of the preparation to encounter it - from the pedestrian banality of pathways and pilgrimages. Real travel, of the kind which reminds us that the origin of the word lies in the French 'travailler,' to work, liturgises those moments in which our sightseeing turns into night vision.
It wasn't so much that the Botticelli painting had been compromised by its proximity to bowel motions. Far from it. We are born amid shit and piss, as Augustine reminds us. But there are forms of grandeur which cannot survive dailiness.
Take Diane Arbus. I'd come across her work when I was a student in the States, and coming across it was just that - I found myself traversing for the first time in my life alien territory that was also home ground; I had somehow intersected with the mercury and crossroads of a haunted, holdstill world where my own breath was frosting the mirror. By this time I was in my twenties. I'd known for ten years at least that I was strange and estranged too, that I was different to those around me, family and friends, and that this difference wasn't the start of any competitive esprit, the spring of any individualistic exhilaration, but a subsonic shriek of wincing and shrinkage. It would be ages, it would be an eternity, before slim and silent revolving doors brought me to a place where I did not wish to go, to a ward where my clothes were taken from me, and to a room with shockproof windows and a jigsaw puzzle of animals drinking at a watering hole.
For the moment, though, here was the photographer Arbus, her stately, chronic repertoire of humanity's beached whales, its flying fish and duck-billed platypi. Mutant rotundities and fractured wraiths smile at the concave lens in this hall of mirrors. For hers is truly Quasimodo's catwalk, a strange, slow-motion freakshow, where social and sexual shore-liners quit the saddest stations that our species mans to stare courteously out of her out of arthouse editions at the spoon-stirring, south-facing sorts who turn the pages warily. Most of her inmates are solo, some coupled, some almost gregarious: a hint of whimsy here, a whiff of holocaust there, everywhere the watchful, incurious eyes of the circus act that is part revelation and part peep-show.
Twenty years later, I am wondering guiltily if the thing was predatory, validated at the time by a civilisation of middle-class emotionalism, fifty-minutes-a-session psychoanalysis, the mantras of the new Confessional mode in literature, and, most of all, the confusion of the shock of the new with the novelty of a shock. Arbus's own sad suicide posthumously sanctifies her shock-horror subject-matter so that it's hard now to discriminate between real empathy and the risk of voyeurism. And yet at the time I thought that she had given dysfunction back its dignity. Perhaps the truth is that the artist - poet or photographer - is always and everywhere both martyr and mercenary, and that is part of the nature of nature and no amount of culture can prevent it.
It is a vexing question, so, this business of use and abuse. Both in print culture and in photography, the stratagems of predation are abundant. I've written too much opportunistic and insensitive stuff myself to be in any doubt about it. For a photographer or a writer to serialise the miseries of the world on commission, to practice an aesthetic which is in some way an anaesthetic also, to make human lamentation the material of one's own safari in search of a portfolio, to brandish the camera so that nothing at all is in camera any more, to make formally beautiful images of fundamentally beastly occurrences, to enact the zoological principle of non-intervention when recording the inferno - these are decisions which test the maker of images and the shaper of words. They are the ethical modalities of the visual.
Why do people take so many photographs? A marriage or a christening can account for several hundred at a stroke. Breakaway weekends use up a minimum of one disposable camera. When I first saw a video recorder in the middle eighties, it was on a vaporetto returning to Venice from the Lido beaches as a Japanese in a transparent raincoat stood at the drizzling prow and shot everything in sight like a big game hunter until the boat walloped up against the truck tyres of the landing stage.
Why do we need to memorialise everything? Why this redundancy to the point of satedness? Remembrance is at the heart of the Jewish Passover and the Christian service of communion, but the systematic recollection of the total sum of human activity is an eventual form of amnesia. Yet the very people who are called ordinary and everyday will risk their lives to rescue photograph albums from a burning home, although a remnant of images would be proportionately more precious to them than a host of pictures since value rises inversely to quantity.
Is it a form of ancestor worship, these mantelpiece memories, this consecration of the past in a world where we have secularised our future expectations of well-being and salvation? Or is it that our modern memory has become visual and not verbal and its mnemonics pictorial rather than linguistic? Are we dumbstruck by a medium of exchange which has become expressive instead of articulate? And is it not ironic that the Western alphabet which began as comic-strip pictograms should now be superseded by the semantic field of the image?
From the time that early modern man annihilated the Neanderthals women and men could hardly have remembered the faces of their children by the time they became adults or the faces of their parents in earlier life. No wonder that dreams bespoke the potent threshold between worlds; no wonder they raised up a sacral interim between this place and the other. I live without images of a dead brother and with no memorabilia to evoke him, but I dream of him once in three years and wake with the smell of his skin on my face.
The iconoclasm of the Christian Byzantine period when sacred representations were banned and burnt in a paradoxically Muslim manner continued into the Reformation. For the quarrel centred on the cleansing of the temple and the derogation of the cult of images. Inevitably the crackdown on church embellishments and devotional - or visual - culture brought about the rise to power and primacy of language itself; and the flourishing of the form of the novel, its strength stemming from the Passion narratives of the synoptic gospels, which oust mythical perspectives and install martyric historicity in their place, remained unchallenged as a map of reality until the lifetime of the last and greatest Louis, more of a Sun King than any of his predecessors, the Frenchman Daguerre.
What made the artist Jean Meissonier assiduously reconfigure the painted legs of horses in his studies of equine form? A survey history of the camera tells me that the photographic revelation of real movement had shown him he was wrong. The same volume informs me it was the picaresque Eadweard Muybridge who documented the high-stepping steeds, but this I knew from my graduate years, for it was at Stanford, my own American alma mater, that so much of the Muybridge archive was conserved in tribute to a rumbustious friendship with the founder of that university. His Animal Locomotion, a photographic meditation in depth and detail on the human form as the first of paradigms, marked a high point of the humanist enterprise and the simultaneous nadir of the realist imagination. Henceforth a sub-atomic interiority, the quarks and protons of consciousness in place of the tonnage of fact, would offer itself as the newfoundland of the novel, a narrative form that had been upstaged grandiosely by the new nickelodeons and was struggling for its life; while still pictures in their ghostliness and solidity would constitute the new measure of the world.
The stations of the Cross in any Roman Catholic church - for the devotion is peculiar to Latin Christianity - starts with a trial and ends with a tomb. In between, the twelve remaining images before which one pauses and prays reveal the various stages of violence and exclusion that characterise everything we are meant to honour: due process and the penal code, systematic scapegoating in the interests of social cohesion and the greater good, law and order, the security forces striking at saboteurs.
A common practice in recent times has been to hang poster-size pictures of this atrocity or that outrage below the mass market kitsch of the stations themselves so that the two dialogue in whispers or bullhorns down the length of a nave. This concerts and disconcerts at the same time: concerts, on the one side, because it ratifies the social relevance of the religious motifs that are otherwise obsolete, and disconcerts, on the other, because the contemporary images are so much more biblical than the trash from the past.
I grew up in the 1960s. That decade is my home. I watched the Civil Rights movement in black and white, the moon landing in grey, and the fall of Vietnam in leaky colour. Hand-held jittery images - batons and helmets, the champagne corks of water cannon at a cultural nativity, teargas in the broadleaf branches of a public park - filled and fulfilled me as much as shouted despatches down a jostled microphone, the pacy, personal thumbnails of a voice witnessing from Saigon or Salvador. Whether seen in Match or Life, in orthodontic waiting rooms or counter-culture hang-outs, these stations of a human cross had all the gravity and noiselessness of a refreshed iconography. This new torture and brutalisation, compassion and fidelity, brought us an altered list of signs from an old discipline: a Jesus falling, a woman crying, discovery of the disappeared, grief in the burial places. So the ancient outlines are fleshed out again, and the hush of exhibitions repeats the atmosphere of any parish church in the same choreographed movement of unspeaking individuals from one panel to the next.
Violence, we hear them thinking, is evil; yet the representation of that violence in our reportage or our rhetoric can be good. Indeed, it can be very good. If Pascal couldn't solve this conundrum, neither can I. But it behoves us to live it out so that we do not come to love the wrong thing when it is too late to change sides. Humility, the recognition that our motives are always flawed and that we are therefore forgiveable, is the only way down.
Literature covets the quietness of images. It is itself always in flux, a moment of visible light between the shadows of the last sentence and the dazzle of the next. The prayerfulness of the gaze is beyond it, except in the most contemplative lyrics; yet photography may also covet, in a moment of desire and resentment, the philandering, ventriloquial, multitudinous voices of language.
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