Sunday, March 6, 2011

The novelist, the coup, two poets, and a painting

We were listening to a BBC radio interview with the writer Javier Cercas, whose novel "The Anatomy of A Moment" has just come out in English (translated by Anne McLean) in paperback. It was a wonderful interview... he is a very, very thoughtful person!  Someone in the audience asked if he believed what he appeared to be suggesting in the title of the novel and in its resolution -- that everything can hinge on just one moment -- and he agreed, I think, that he did believe in seeing and exploring that moment. I looked up the novel and his prologue to it, where he writes that he has written this particular novel, based on historical events, "to understand that gesture or image" he saw -- the body language of one person, Adolfo Suarez -- as he looked at films from February 23, 1981, the day of the coup in Spain. Cercas writes that as gunmen burst into the legislative chamber that day, Suarez remained calmly seated. Everyone "saw" it, even though there was no live coverage... there was footage, that came out later, that was edited and shown that evening, and that everyone who saw those films believes that he or she saw the confrontation as it happened. Cercas suggests that people then held onto that memory, without delving into it ... and that this habit of ours, to first interpret an encounter and then box it away neatly, happens all the time. He writes in this prologue that "the truly enigmatic is not what no one has seen, but what we've all seen many times and which nevertheless refuses to divulge its significance ..."  And he decides to go back to studying Suarez and, through writing the novel, re-visiting the true import of the "gesture" seen on that film. Cercas quotes Borges: "every destiny, however long and complicated, essentially boils down to a single moment -- the moment a man knows, once and for all, who he is."

I think this is why we read and view art and why we make art ...  we are trying to find the moment.  I look for the moment when a painting resolves... it is what I hoped it would be, it is what it needed to be.  We read books or go to see films or exhibitions because we hope to find something that speaks to that moment in us.  In an interview I saw with (the photographer) Sally Mann's son, he said of her process that "she has a dream vision," and she doesn't stop refining a photograph until she gets there. And W.B. Yeats wrote, in the sequence "A Woman Young and Old,": "If I make the lashes dark/ And the eyes more bright.... No vanity's displayed:/ I'm looking for the face I had/  Before the world was made."  We are looking for that "single moment." We don't always stay with that hunt ... Yeats's woman, in the next poem of the series, says "I long for truth, and yet..."

Yes, so, to stay with it... You must look, you must hear... T.S. Eliot wrote, in "Four Quartets," that so much is "Not known, because not looked for/ But heard, half-heard, in the stillness/ Between two waves of the sea." We are so often between those "two waves," not paying attention, but then, sometimes, it comes right, because we are looking, and then we rest for just a minute, and the moment comes, and we seize it. I have been working on three paintings for a long time now, and one of them, a big one (2 feet by 4 feet), called "In Winter, The Gardener Does Not Sleep," found its moment this morning. ... I am really pleased with it:

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