“Speaking has to do with the reality of things only commercially: in literature, one contents oneself with alluding to it or disturbing it slightly, so that it yields up the idea it incorporates.”
—Stephané Mallarmé trans Barbara Johnson, Divagations (208)
I spent the final week of my lunch breaks during my internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in The American Wing. The above photo I took is of a painting by James McNeill Whistler titled Arrangement in Flesh Color and Black: Portrait of Théodore Duret. While the title does not exactly flow from the lips it goes a long way to get the viewer to look with the intentions Whistler thought were important. I find it amusingly heavy-handed. The label accompanying the painting insisted that M. Duret was given the props for purely aesthetic reasons and not to “imply a narrative.” I have no reason to doubt this assertion, I only can say—well good luck with that! The painting is extraordinary in every way, including (all intentions notwithstanding) implying an intriguing narrative. And, I will argue, I am able to love it all the more for that very implication. My narrative is my way in.
“Verse, which, out of several vocables, makes a total word, entirely new, foreign to the language, and almost incantatory, achieves that isolation of speech; negating, with a sovereign blow, despite their repeated reformulations between sound and sense, the arbitrariness that remains in the terms, and gives you the surprise of never having heard that fragment of ordinary eloquence before, while the object named is bathed in a brand new atmosphere” (211).
So too, I say, goes art. Mallarmé famously wrote “that everything in the world exists to end up as a book” (226), by which I think he points to the gestalt which occurs as a natural outcrop of art (visual, performative, literary). The parts of verse are merely informative—to paraphrase Whistler: a study in black ink on white paper—but the whole is truly bathed in a brand new atmosphere. And that is where, when one is absorbed by literature, dwells in front of a painting, or is transported by music, that, is where the art lives and where the soul desires to go. How one gets there is the story each work of art must share in its own way.
“Something else…It seems as if the scattered quivering of a page only wants either to defer or to hasten the possibility of that something else” (187).
An organizing principle of the mind is creating narratives. The wonder of it all is that art (in all its forms) must, if it is successful, give, not specifics, but ambiguities in order for there to be room for a narrative of the reader, viewer, listener. I don’t mean that a thing can’t be representational or more (or less) overtly relate a story, Whistler’s painting is a perfect example of an absolute representational painting maintaining allegiance to strict ambiguity. Perhaps many people, even now, know who Théodore Duret was, but what does it matter to the painting as a work of art? It is a wonderful painting because of the beauty, (and in my narrative) the darkness lifted by the insouciance of the ridiculous and very pretty fan and pink shawl, the sober expression on his face betrayed by the slight forward thrust of the hips in an attempt to preserve some imposed masculine sense of pride. Just who is the owner of the shawl and fan? I get to decide.
Just as one crosses out certain words that, in me, take the place of what once was a heart; it would thus be a mortal sin to serve them badly. A fool blabbers on without saying anything, and to so the same with out any notorious taste for prolixity and precisely in order not to say something represents a special case: mine (122).
There are of course varying degree of a narrative that an artist can give, but even in the most traditionally defined narrative works, I would argue, there is room left for the individual’s imagination to shape that narrative as their own mind and heart dictates. Without that there is a failure to communicate—a void—which is different from nothing. A void is too slick for there to be anything to grip, or to make meaning. It is the something that nothing emits that captures our imaginations and holds onto our hearts.
Silence! Sole luxury after rhymes, an orchestra only marking with its gold, its brushes with thought and dusk, the detail of its significance on a par with a stilled ode and which it is up to the poet, roused by a dare, to translate! (140)
*title from p. 208: “Under those conditions arises a song, which is joy made even less heavy.”