Thursday, May 17, 2012

`Alone, As He Is Too, and Also Not Alone'

In her comment on Tuesday’s post, Helen Pinkerton reminds us of the poem by Diane S. Bonds about Edward Hopper’s painting Hotel Room (1931). Bonds relates it to another painting of a woman reading, Jan Vermeer’s A Girl Reading a Letter by an Open Window (c. 1657). Helen writes:

“I thought Bonds’s interpretation interesting, but I questioned the truth that reading words `doubles the self.’ Isn't reading rather an opening of the self to the experience of other selves--an addition of difference not a doubling of the self?”

I share Helen’s understanding. Deep reading, especially of fiction, induces self-forgetting and I become Natasha Rostov or even Henny Pollit. Like most people, I’m already too full of self. “Doubling” would be more than redundant. What counts is losing one’s self, not finding it, and a reliable means of doing so is concentrated reading and imaginative projection. Our reading of the real world deepens as we sympathetically read the fictional. I like Helen’s phrase: “an addition of difference.”

Of course, neither woman in the paintings is reading a work we would judge literary. In her biography of Hopper, Gail Levin reports the artist’s wife, Jo Hopper, modeled for the painting while holding a train timetable. Already, bags still unpacked, she’s planning her departure. In the Vermeer, x-rays have revealed a Cupid on the wall to the right of the girl, eliminated by the artist in the final composition. This lends credence to the common understanding that the girl, though impassive and poker-faced, is reading a love letter.  

Helen, too, has written a poem inspired by a Vermeer painting -- “On Vermeer's Young Woman with a Water Jug (1658), in the Metropolitan Museum,” collected in the “Bright Fictions” section of Taken in Faith: Poems (2002):

“Not Martha nor Diana--only a woman
Working alone, light falling through the casement
On forearms, yellow jacket, blue-white coif,
On a clear brow and eyes that look within.
She pauses in meditative quiet, conscious
That in her being, before her work resumes,
She sees and she is seen, knows and is known--
Thinking, `It is as if this precious light,
Uniting me and him who looks at me,

“`Imaged the unsourced being, first and real,
That gives our being momently, our seeing
And what we see, knowing and what we know.
It is as if my task, privately done,
Its time and place not in the world's arena,
Showed truth beyond geography's fine maps
Or charts of the astronomer--truth needed
By him who paints me here in his bright fiction,
Alone, as he is too, and also not alone.'”

Light appears in almost every Pinkerton poem. Vermeer’s painting glows with sunlight from the opened window. The young woman is buoyant in the light, illuminated with grace. Helen’s “precious light” is divine in origin, a mystery, another “bright fiction.”

In Still Life with a Bridle (1991), Zbigniew Herbert includes “Letter,” an essay in the form of an imaginary letter written by Vermeer to his friend Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the Delft lens grinder, inventor of the microscope and pioneering microbiologist. Herbert has Vermeer question van Leeuwenhoek’s reductive approach to science, verging on pure materialism. Note Vermeer’s pride in his depiction of light:

“Most likely you will reproach me that our art does not solve any of the enigmas of nature. Our task is not to solve enigmas, but to be aware of them, to bow our heads before them and also to prepare the eyes for never-ending delight and wonder. If you absolutely require discoveries, however, I will tell you that I am proud to have succeeded in combining a certain particularly intensive cobalt with a luminous, lemon-like yellow, as well as recording the reflection of southern light which strikes through thick glass onto a gray wall.”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

I like this idea that God’s creation of the world is a fiction we inhabit like literary characters, as a way to commune with readers, to prove we’re not alone in our loneliness.