Of Verbs and Vision: William Hazlitt’s Art Criticism

hb_24.45.1.jpgNicolas Poussin: Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun (1658)

One remarkable aspect of William Hazlitt’s art criticism is how he uses verbs to invigorate  and intensify his description of artworks. Contemporary critics stand to learn a lot from him in this regard. For instance, here’s a bit of his description of Nicolas Poussin’s painting, Blind Orion in Search of the Rising Sun (1658):

He is represented setting out on his journey, with men on his shoulders to guide him, a bow in his hand, and Diana in the clouds greeting him. He stalks along, a giant upon earth, and reels and falters in his gait, as if just awaked out of sleep, or uncertain of his way; ––you see his blindness, though his back is turned.

Of course, it could be argued that he’s merely describing a figure, which in “real life” would be exerting itself in accordance with these verbs. Yet Hazlitt does not reserve verbs for the self-evidently animate:

Mists rise around him, and veil the sides of the green forests; earth is dank and fresh with dews, the ‘grey dawn and the Pleiades before him dance,’and in the distance are seen the blue hills and sullen ocean.  

Mist almost begs to be described in passive terms, yet here mists “rise” and “veil the sides of the green forest” and even the quote from Milton (Paradise Lost, bk VII) animates the sky and stars.

Hazlitt concludes:

Nothing was ever more finely conceived or done. It breathes the spirit of the morning; its moisture, its repose, its obscurity, waiting the miracle of light to kindle it into smiles: the whole is, like the principal figure in it, ‘a forerunner of the dawn.’ The same atmosphere tinges and imbues every object, the same dull light ‘shadowy sets off’ the face of nature: one feeling of vastness, of strangeness, and of primeval forms pervades the painter’s canvas, and we are thrown back upon the first integrity of things.

I’m especially interested in Hazlitt’s description of how the painting hits the viewer: “we are thrown back upon the first integrity of things.” I’d argue that this serves as an analog for how Hazlitt’s masterful use of verbs works upon the reader. Nouns name and contain; they assign a static identity to things, rendering them somewhat passive. But verbs are dynamic and visceral; we feel them. When applied to a painting, they help it push beyond its frame.

Compare all this to a passage from a recent review of contemporary figurative painting (artist/work/reviewer omitted):

. . . a nearly six-foot-high canvas featuring two young men on a sofa, one with his head in the other’s lap, and a young woman sitting on a patterned carpet on the floor, gazing absently beyond the picture plane. The scene seems almost irradiated, with various components rendered in glowing oranges and pinks, and a T-shirt in blinding white. Looking closely, one notices that the faces are composed of mere suggestions: a few swift strokes add up to a likeness. Despite an atmosphere of relative contentment, things in L_____’s works often feel impermanent. Edges blend and passages are wiped or scraped away to reveal the canvas underneath. Such techniques convey the sense of fading memories.

The description is entirely serviceable, but any capacity the artwork might have to stagger or stun or entice the viewer is blunted by the verb-starved language.  The prepositions mark missed opportunities for compelling verb work; most of the actual verbs are art-review throwaways: “featuring,” ”rendered,” “composed.” The remaining verbs are a matter of the artist’s technique: “blend” and “scraped away.” Perhaps the most telling is the ghost of a viewer, masquerading as an abstract “one” who merely “notices.”—worlds away from  being “thrown back upon the first integrity of things.”

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Renee Gladman: The Draw of Language

If end I gained
It ends beyond
Indefinite disclosed—
—Emily Dickinson

Winning an argument may be a matter of having the last word, but for the writer, the true end of writing is: more writing. Writing is an activity that is, ideally, endless; a writer who no longer writes is not a writer. Success for a writer is succession, to find no end to words.  

More: the act of writing is its own impetus. A word, once written, calls for more words. This additive/corrective/amendatory process is the draw of writing. In her new book of essays, Calamities (link), Renee Gladman lays bare these paradoxes at the heart of writing:

You suddenly think you have reached the end. So, I was reaching the end of writing and was writing the end of writing (because you want this story told as well). . . . (116)

***

My sentences had changed somewhere between coffee and drawing, and then I was writing to try to catch up with the change but all the time making more change because to write was always to add to something that is going its own way. (120)

That second sentence embodies that difficulty it describes, as it appears in the 13th section of a sequence called “11 Calamities,” already two calamities over the line. Like the lectures of Gertrude Stein—a clear influence—Gladman’s writing is simultaneously a record of the writing process and also the effort to conceptualize and explain that process. But it’s almost impossible to theorize about something while one is in the process of doing it. Theorizing accomplished by means of its own apparatus is necessarily incomplete.

Consequently, Gladman’s writing is always after itself, that is, in pursuit and also behind, never quite synchronized with itself, always late for the show. As Gladman put it in a interview (link), For me, writing is a kind of pursuit of company that never comes.”

Why Calamities? Allow me a brief digression into literary history. In an influential discussion of 17th century prose writers, “The Baroque Style in Prose” (1929), Morris Croll notes that for writers such as Robert Burton and Sir Thomas Browne, “Their purpose was to portray, not a thought, but a mind thinking.” (This sentence has been cited with approval by 20th century and contemporary writers from Elizabeth Bishop to Charles Bernstein). Their prose aims “to express, as far as it may be, the order in which an idea presents itself when it is first experienced.” Through the use of this emergent structure, “each member” of the sentence becomes “an emergency of the situation.” Croll’s use of provocative term “emergency” makes each phrase a mini-crisis that the writer both creates and responds to.

So it’s as if Gladman  ups the ante on Croll, with her writing becoming, not an emergency, which is crisis for which there’s time for rescue efforts, but a continuous calamity, something most likely beyond the hope of repair. Such a situation calls for desperate measures. For Gladman, it compels her to switch to a nonverbal form of expression, drawing:  

I was not writing. I was drawing. Yet I was drawing writing so I was writing, but at the beginning I didn’t know how to say this. I wrote a calamity. I wrote another calamity. Sometimes they made me sad because I thought when I finished them I would be done with writing. I thought I am writing myself out of writing by writing. . . . (111)

But she realizes that the drawings are no more final than words, even when their lines are used to cross words out:

Sometimes the drawings were ugly because what I’d done was take the concept of the cross-out, magnify it by ten and remove it from context such that there was no cause for elision, no evidence of a relation to the elided, just cross outs. [But] it wasn’t just cross-outs but something swirling underneath like broken dances being written about in cursive language broken already in the hand before the hand wrote, so need to be appended. (113)

“Broken already in the hand…so need to be appended.” Throughout the book, she rings the changes on “drawing” and related words, such as “line” and “mark.” Gladman is also a visual artist, so to a certain extent, the drawings are literal (even though none appear in the book). Here’s one of her drawings (link)  that was just published in the December issue of Poetry.

“Draw”—like “line,” like “mark”— is an astonishing monosyllable, and its complexities limn the difficulties Gladman explores in her writing/drawing. Here’s a start on “draw,” courtesy of  Merriam Webster:

Screen Shot 2016-12-05 at 8.29.24 AM.png

Drawing draws: pulls us continually towards something; attempts to extract the essence and thereby put an end to writing, the need to append; yet it ends in a draw, with nothing resolved. In the interview cited above, Gladman states, “Ultimately, what I want is for there to be a blur over everything.” For Gladman, writing is no momentary stay against confusion: it’s more a matter of entering into—even creating—instability, so that language can embody the change it draws:

The page was a “commotional field”….To enter it, you had to be in motion, and to see where you were you had to be in motion, and not just moving your body around constantly, frantically naming stations, then moving at varying speeds between them, but also naming with impermanence, seeing objects as in the middle of some process, and understanding your seeing as impermanent as well, changing always.  (122-23)