The Word-Soaked World
Troubling the Lexicon of Art and Faith
Since 1989, Image has hosted a conversation at the nexus of art and faith among writers and artists in all forms. As the conversation has evolved, certain words have cropped up again and again: Beauty. Mystery. Presence.
For this issue, we invited a handful of past contributors to examine our common lexicon as a sort of personal inventory on the part of the journal. Were there words we were using too glibly, we asked, words that needed to be reconsidered, revitalized, or tossed out?
The writers’ responses surprised us. Some pieces retain an element of that self-critical spirit we requested, such as the essays on beauty and suffering. But the majority of the essays ended up as a referendum on the power of language, like art itself, to represent and reveal. Words, the writers seemed to say, deserve to be weighed heavily. On consideration, some words that seem simple or obvious are more demanding than we think.
Language is double-edged. On the one hand, the ability to call things by their names can connect us to others, and can anchor an artist in the created world. Perhaps language itself even offers an image of the divine. Some would even go so far as to say that language is what makes religious experience possible.
But at times, even after long wrestling and careful study, language can seem inadequate, more a stumbling stone than a pathway. Sometimes language seems able only to point to things just outside its reach, things we crave but can’t grasp, things we dare not approach, things we draw back from in awe or revulsion.
This collection of short essays demonstrates the push-pull relationship believing artists have with words: We are in pursuit of a God who is revealed through the poetry of the oldest Psalms, but whose true name is impossible to pronounce.
Julia Spicher Kasdorf
in six senses: surplus of meaning; gendered essence; animation;
substantiation; transcendence; immanence.
1) THE WORD in something more than its literal sense came to me first from secular sources, and that’s where my mind goes now. It goes to Patrick, dreamy composer of gorgeous images, master of dodge and burn in the dark room. After he graduated from Rochester Institute with a degree in fine art photography—and some years before film gave way to digital processes—he grew less interested in making pictures and more concerned with the objects he chose to be photographed, those that he said possessed presence, a mysterious quality of value. In art or everyday life, few things have presence, and yet presence is the essential ingredient that arrests a viewer’s attention and transforms a lovely image or serviceable object into something surprising and marvelous.
And so, the image-maker turned connoisseur. We rose early on Sunday mornings and walked rows of collapsible metal tables erected on sweltering shopping center parking lots in central Pennsylvania. Amid the array of unmitigated flea-market junk, he spotted treasure: cloudy glass ink bottles from the nineteenth century, a wooden shoe form worn to a wafer-thin toe tip, a tiny Empire State Building made of an unrecognizable metallic substance manufactured in the thirties. I bought art-deco rhinestone brooches and old postcards, less confident in my ability to recognize the mysterious quality.
Objects with presence are often indisputably beautiful, but presence is not beauty. Presence is more interesting, more like “attractiveness.” When I was young, my mother made a point of distinguishing between the women at church who were beautiful and those who were attractive. (Merciful Lord, why did she feel it was important to teach me such things?) Beauty was an uncomplicated gift; you had it or you didn’t, but attractiveness was something else, an indefinable combination of personality and appearance that engaged others, male or female. Jackie Kennedy was not beautiful, but she was attractive; anyone could be attractive if she worked at it.
Patrick made assemblages in boxes like Joseph Cornell. He pasted intricate collages of candy wrappers, dried leaves, and thread onto art postcards. For my birthday that winter, he gave me a figural teapot wrought of glossy, white ceramic. A stout Englishman—vest buttons straining in their holes, hair clumped in thick buns at the ears—sits between handle and spout, his great girth balanced on two short legs splayed and thrust into tiny boots, a pointed cap with a round tassel for a lid. The object made no reference to romance or either of us, and it proved to be useless as a domestic implement—hard to clean, clumsy to pour from—nor was it pretty. Yet some uncanny aspect made you want to look at it again and again. It had presence.
Presence, that extra-real quality that some objects assert, I also associate with the vague sensation I get when it seems that a piece of writing may be nearly finished. The piece “works,” feels solid to the mind’s touch, and for at least the moment resists attempts at revision. It stands distinctly legible or audible; it has “voice.” Voice, of course, was what some women struggled to find back during the decades of my growing up in America, as if they suddenly discovered they had swallowed theirs. Or, was it that their sense of personal presence had gotten stolen or misplaced sometime shortly after the end of World War II?
2) This talk with Patrick about presence occurred during the middle of the 1980s, when all the undergraduate intellectuals were reading John Berger’s Ways of Seeing in the paperback Penguin edition. Berger argued that the presences of men and women in our culture are essentially different. Men are seen and judged for their potential to act or achieve, women for their potential to be acted upon.
Berger’s book did not come as good news to aspiring feminists. It echoed Simone de Beauvoir’s pronouncements in The Second Sex. Because of sexual difference—biological “reproductive slavery”—she wrote, woman has been immanent, compared to man’s transcendence, and therefore subject to his domination. However, the French feminist challenged, a woman can choose to elevate herself and take responsibility for her own freedom. That seemed true enough to those of us who grew up humming “Free to be You and Me” with spunky Marlo Thomas. We didn’t know it then, but we believed everything was a social construction, and therefore any obstacle could be overcome.
According to Berger, however, the social constructions are nearly totalizing: “A man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you…. By contrast, a woman’s presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her.” Or to put it bluntly: “Every woman’s presence regulates what is and is not permissible in her presence.”
“Women,” he said, “do to themselves what men do to them.” That is, they self-consciously survey their own femininity. One memorable moment in the little book juxtaposes Titian’s voluptuous Venus with Manet’s self-possessed Olympia, Berger stating that with modernity, there was little to replace the figure of the alluring Renaissance nude except a self-possessed prostitute.
In those years, navigating marginal New York City neighborhoods, I was obsessed with many pressing questions, but one of the most practical was what made some women less free, by which I mean more likely than others to get pinched on the ass in a crowded subway. Why did some of us, walking the streets in sensible, modest dress, get flashed, jumped, mugged, and regularly catcalled? Was it all a matter of chance and bad timing, or was there some invisible presence that creeps recognize before they pounce? Take Anita Hill in her prim aqua suit testifying on TV. Was she more likely than another young woman in that office to suffer Clarence Thomas’s attention? Did he choose her because she was black, she was young, she was smart, she spoke softly, she was marked?
If a woman’s presence suggests damage or neglect in some subtle, unconscious way—if she carries a history of those experiences, as many women do—does she invite violence just by being herself in the world? Wasn’t this kind of vulnerability why everyone loves Marilyn Monroe so much, male and female? If a woman projects self-care and self-respect, does it follow that she will command respect, that she will be free?
Oh, Mr. Berger, please say it is possible for a real woman—not a defiant prostitute from nineteenth-century France—to change her essential presence! And please note that Victorine Meurent, model for Manet’s Olympia, was also an accomplished painter herself.
3) I have lost touch with Patrick, but the teapot man still squats in the back of my sideboard, asserting a kind of signifying sovereignty, emanating a wholeness that invites speculation yet resists easy paraphrase or appropriation. Presence does not ask questions or appeal to the viewer; it simply states. Presence is more common in old things, but not only. (Kitsch is not what I’m talking about; that’s something else.) As nearly as I can approach it, presence refers to a vaguely animate quality in inanimate objects.
Often this animation implies memory or history. As a Dutch still-life painting reminds us that sunlight has traveled through a room in the course of a day by the way tiny droplets gleam on the skins of golden grapes, so an object no longer in common use points to times past. It thereby makes us mindful of time and our own temporal existence. Inanimate objects take on the animate quality of living things: they have been subject to change—or, to be entirely accurate, our sense of them has changed due to the passing of time. That trace of change, the only sure sign of life, enables them to resemble the living.
“No ideas but in things!” For images to come alive in a poem, they must convey presence and shimmer with metaphoric possibility. The red wheelbarrow and white chickens are both only themselves and something else: agrarian relics surviving in an industrial age, “glazed with rainwater.” The thoughtful reader apprehends presence, as did William Carlos Williams, author of that poem, which he published before his modernist motto appeared in Patterson: “No ideas but in things!” I love Dr. Williams because he demands that we look more closely at the objects of this world, that we attend to them, and not just gaze off into the next world or back to antiquity, or into abstraction.
4) “We believe in Real Presence—your people, those Anabaptists, believed in real absence!” snapped the dapper rector. In his office in the basement of a lovely neo-Gothic church in a tiny town lavishly rebuilt in the 1880s with Civil War profits, I smiled, adult convert in Episcopal confirmation class. I could have said that Mennonites do not subscribe to that bit of medieval magic, but that “my people” experience divine presence in communities that trace their roots to the Swiss reformation when Ulrich Zwingli and Leo Judd briefly preached that Christ is not to be found in the bread or candle or sacred images, but in the faces of Zurich’s poor.
Without creeds or conventional liturgies to explicate mystery, divine presence functions implicitly for Mennonites, like an aesthetic. In my idealized sense of it, at least, presence grounds countless everyday practices: decisions and deeds guided by a felt sense of what is appropriate, just what we do. Small gestures and every day acts speak without words. How you choose a career or decide to spend your cash or a free afternoon substantiates spiritual commitment and collective solidarity. Scrap the holy sacraments but retain a capacity for transcendence, by which I mean not flight but an ability to create an excessive sense of meaning here and now, and the everyday world becomes sacramental, each of us an agent of grace.
5) “Real Presence” is the title of a long essay George Steiner published in 1989. He stages paradoxes and makes philosophical wagers, but in the end reverses Roland Barthes’s death of the Author-God. Because of his own experience of music, especially, but also other art forms, Steiner claims a sense of “real presence.” Art begins in immanence, but then transcends, he says. How that transformation occurs is a “theological question.”
How does it happen, this making, what the ancients called poiesis, which became our word “poetry”? Before it was a noun signifying an act of creation, poiesis was a verb meaning to act in a transformative way, to continue the work of the universe, to labor with life and change. A person collaborates with the process of creation and thereby transcends her immediate circumstances, bounded by her own birth and death. Among the varieties of poiesis identified in Plato’s Symposium are sexual procreation, heroic fame that makes one “larger than life,” and the generation of lasting knowledge or virtue.
6) “Can we honestly think further about creation and genesis, about the bringing into being of life-forms which relate the poem or the paintings to existentiality itself, if we do not consider the essence of form-giving that is child-birth and the abstinence from poiesis which this act may entail?” Steiner asks, the question so troublesome his syntax almost cracks. Nor does he answer his own question. Have women, especially mothers, failed to create works of art in comparative quantity because the works of birth and nurture are sufficiently consuming and gratifying? (Or is it because they have so little time and energy left at the end of their days?)
Carrying a baby, a woman puts her body in the way of creation; giving birth to a new person, she experiences presence as never before: the child, herself. Her voice has a power it never had; her body can feed and soothe. Mothers of young babies are undividedly present, temporarily free of that self-consciousness Berger describes women having internalized, so that she must always look at herself as she imagines others seeing her.
Never mind social construction; what tethers the imagination in a more demanding and inescapable way than an infant at the breast?
It may be no accident that William Carlos Williams’s day job was delivering babies in Paterson, New Jersey. Late at night, scribbling lines on the back of his prescription pad as he waited out a long homebirth, he named the small yet solid things of this world, transcendent and immanent at once.
Julia Spicher Kasdorf has published three books in the Pitt Poetry Series, most recently Poetry in America. She teaches creative writing at Penn State.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.