Day 204: filling in

“I always wonder if anyone actually draws a picture on the blank page,” I mused out loud to my class last week during the final lecture on Tristram Shandy.


If you haven’t read the novel, I’ll wait.








(Sorry, that was actually just a joke for people who have read the novel.)

But really, if you haven’t read the novel, the situation is this: Tristram has just told us that his Uncle Toby fell in love with the Widow Wadman. Tristram then adds, “And possibly, gentle reader, with such a temptation—so wouldst thou: For never did thy eyes behold, or thy concupiscence covet any thing in this world, more concupiscible than widow Wadman.”

The next chapter begins thus:

“To conceive this right,—call for pen and ink—here’s paper ready to your hand.—Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind—as like your mistress as you can—as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you—’tis all one to me—please but your own fancy in it.”

And then, famously, there follows a blank page ready to receive whatever you wish to draw there.

But does anyone ever draw anything there?

Today I can definitely answer that question: some people do; or, more precisely, at least one person has done so, and that person is me.

It was on a whim that I decided to draw in the book; it was just there and I felt like drawing and I thought “Why not?” But I wanted to draw in a way that would be relaxing; for that reason, I didn’t want to draw a face—which is always, I realized, what I imagined one would draw there, although Tristram’s characterization of the Widow Wadman as superlatively “concupiscible” might certainly inspire an artist to head in a different, more southerly direction.

Drawing faces never feels relaxing to me because it’s so difficult to get a good likeness. But then I remembered how I often draw when I’m sitting in panels at conferences; and what I draw there is often the backs of people’s heads, because … that’s generally what’s in view when you’re sitting in a panel. But also, I find drawing hair, like drawing folds of cloth, hypnotically relaxing.

It also occurred to me that it would feel somehow apropos to draw the back of a head on the blank page; it would be a way of filling in the blank in a way that wouldn’t close off but rather provide further fodder for the imagination.

“I should choose an eighteenth-century looking head,” I thought, and scrolled though portraits on Google images that showed vaguely eighteenth-century-ish backs of heads.

But then I got a different idea—inspired both by the whole project of Tristram Shandy as a work of self-portraiture as well as Sterne’s sometimes cheekily gendered references to the reader; I would draw the back of my OWN head.

I liked the idea that it would be an act of self-portraiture in the Sternian mode but that also, in drawing myself looking away from the reader’s gaze, I would kind of up-end what Tristram has in mind when he enjoins the reader, “Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind,” with the nudge, nudge, wink, wink of “as like your mistress as you can—as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you.”

I didn’t really want to overthink it, though (you are probably thinking: oh, you are way past overthinking this), so I just asked the elder to snap a picture of the back of my head in the kitchen. I didn’t really think about the composition of the photograph and after I started drawing from the photograph he’d taken I started to wish I’d worn something different or that my hair hadn’t been thrown up so messily, or that I’d moved the box of tissues and the paper bag off the dining room table in the background.


But then something started to happen as I was drawing. It was a version of the phenomenon the art critic Richard Wollheim describes happening after he “evolved a way of looking at paintings which was massively time consuming and deeply rewarding. For I came to recognise that it often took the first hour or so in front of a painting for stray associations or motivated misperceptions to settle down, and it was only then, with the same amount of time or more to spend looking at it, that the picture could be relied upon to disclose itself as it was” (Painting as an Art).


I’m not sure if it’s exactly that by trying to render the photograph as a drawing that it disclosed itself as it was; but the photograph certainly changed over the hours I spent with it. The most prominent part of the figure—the hair—gradually dissolved into abstract form—an interplay of light and dark, curls and waves. It started to look not messy but beautiful and intricate. The background objects changed in a different way; they began to seem freighted with allegorical significance, as if they each played a role in telling a story about who I am.

The chair on the left is one that used to belong to He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved’s parents. He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved kindly let me take the chair with me when I moved out. The briefcase on the chair is one that La Bonavita gave me. I regard it as my first proper, grown-up work bag. The laptop that’s open on the dining room table—well, that’s because—have you noticed?—I’m always writing. And the paper bag—that, I’m pretty sure, is what our takeout that night came in, because takeout is sometimes the working mother’s savior. The box of tissues isn’t even visible in the drawing but that has significance too because it’s always important to have that kind of paper ready to hand too—both because the elder has allergies and because, as is well established, I’m a weeper. Oh, and the electric kettle: because you can take the girl out of England but …

The longer I looked at the photograph, the more I appreciated the composition: the way that the door frame framed my head like a picture frame. What you can’t actually see in the picture—because they are hidden by my massive head of hair—is that on the wall of the dining room are two framed paintings by my grandmother, Elfrida Tindal, who was an artist.

When I was a child I always thought that I would write and illustrate my own books when I was grown-up. And I guess now I have, sort of.



Day 203: On being wrapt up

“Our minds shine not through the body, but are wrapt up here in a dark covering of uncrystalized flesh and blood.”

In Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759-67), Tristram makes this observation to evoke the difficulty of making characters legible to an outside observer. But the remark applies equally to the act of self-examination.

When you’re wrapped up in yourself all you can see is darkness.

The more you strain to see yourself clearly, the more the object seems to recede from view, and the quality of the darkness that enshrouds it becomes difficult to gauge. How do you know if you’re depressed or if you’re having an appropriate response to a difficult situation? And, whether the distress is situational or constitutional, how do you treat it without compounding it? Pharmacological prescriptions can produce side effects that exacerbate the initial distress; behavioral prescriptions burden you with additional tasks to undertake on top of your regular duties.

While the exact nature of the melancholy can feel elusive, other sensations become more vivid. I’ve learned that different types of physical pain correlate quite precisely to different qualities of feeling, even as the object of the feeling can remain indistinct. My fingertips sting, sharply, when I feel a particular kind of emotional vulnerability. My neck aches as though constricted by a tight collar that restricts my ability to breathe freely when I feel anxious. In her essay “On Being Ill” (1930), Virginia Woolf picks up Sterne’s metaphor of the body as an opaque casing that mediates the soul’s experiences: “All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February. The creature within can only gaze through the pane—smudged or rosy.”

I was reading Woolf’s essay because I’m working with an undergraduate who is conducting an independent study on mental illness and literature. If writing and reading about melancholy when you’re already feeling sad seems ill-advised—cozying up to the black dog when you should be chasing him away—the most famous meditation on melancholy suggests that, on the contrary, writing about melancholy can be curative: “I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy,” writes Robert Burton in the Anatomy of Melancholy (1621).

As I learned recently from reading another undergraduate’s wonderful thesis on Tobias Smollett’s channeling of Burton’s curative ethos, Burton’s recommendation to be busy was just one half of his two-pronged method for combating melancholy, encapsulated in the pithy imperative, “Be not solitary, be not idle.” As I learned from the thesis, in 1779, Samuel Johnson wrote a letter to James Boswell in which he both repeated and modified Burton’s dictum: “The great direction which Burton Has left to men disordered like you,” Johnson wrote to Boswell, “is this, Be not solitary; be not idle: which I would thus modify;—If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle.”

Johnson’s rewriting of Burton fascinates me. Most immediately striking is the change in syntax from Burton’s imperative to Johnson’s if / then parallel structure. Why did Johnson change Burton’s maxim?

Since I couldn’t ask Johnson himself, I did the next best thing: I texted my esteemed and beloved colleague, preeminent Johnsonian, and advisor of the Smollett thesis, Helen Deutsch, to ask her opinion. She texted me back right away, suggesting that “by translating Burton into his own style [Johnson] also gives us his habit of mind, of balancing opposites and seeing both sides.”

This seems to me exactly right.

But the reason, I realized at last, why Johnson’s version struck such a chord with me was not because of its stylistic elegance. Rather, Johnson’s version resonates with me in a way that Burton’s doesn’t because Johnson revises Burton’s dictum in a way that is deeply humane, particularly as an expression of care for another individual who is already feeling down.

Think about how different it is to say to someone who is feeling despondent: “Be not x; be not y” versus saying, ‘If you are x, be not y; if you are y, be not x.” Johnson’s version recognizes that the melancholy person is bound to be already overwhelmed and easily fatigued. The melancholy person is probably intimidated by the effort of tackling any one single task and, to be honest, is probably already either solitary or idle in their resting state.

Burton’s version sets you up for failure. Imagine it. You’re just sitting by yourself reading The Anatomy of Melancholy. Perhaps you are feeling, actually, slightly pleased that you’re nearing the end of what is, frankly, a massively long book. Then he hits you with “Be not solitary, be not idle” and now you don’t even have the chance to congratulate yourself on how you haven’t been idle because you are by yourself. Loser.

Now let’s imagine Boswell receiving Johnson’s missive. Boswell’s been out of town, visiting friends in Chester, and even as his initial letter to Johnson brims over with talk of visiting and social gaiety, his vulnerability shows plainly in his final entreaty to Johnson before he signs off: “two lines from you will keep my lamp burning bright.”

Let’s imagine this same, vulnerable Boswell, now having traveled to Carlisle, receiving Johnson’s reply five days later. It’s a warm, kind letter: Johnson both affirms Boswell’s lovableness and gives him practical suggestions for warding off his melancholy. And then we get to his reworking of Burton: “If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle.” Unlike Burton’s reader, as Boswell reads Johnson’s words, he can feel a little smug that he’s already winning: he may be alone—but that’s OK! Because he is not idle—he is reading Samuel bloody Johnson, isn’t he! And Samuel bloody Johnson has just given him permission to fail even as he expresses faith in his ability to succeed.

The ethos implicit in Johnson’s version of Burton is one that Boswell records Johnson expressing earlier in a different context in the Life of Johnson (1791): “Because a man cannot be right in all things, is he to be right in nothing? Because a man sometimes gets drunk, is he therefore to steal?”

When one is melancholy, it’s easy, I find, to succumb to this all-or-nothing way of thinking: since I failed to achieve task x, the whole day is now ruined; in fact, at this juncture, I may as well fully commit to making the day a full-blown disaster.

Johnson’s approach is different. Allow, Johnson suggests, for the fact that you will end up falling into some of the habits that foster melancholy. Allow that fact to be the place from which you start rather than the place where you give up.

For me, Johnson’s dictum has also been a starting place for thinking up other dictums.

So, you can’t say I’ve been idle. Just saying.

  • If you have a croissant for breakfast, have not a croissant for lunch; if you have a croissant for lunch, have not a croissant for breakfast.


  • If you are texting, be not driving; if you are driving, be not texting.


  • If you are weeping, be not teaching; if you are teaching, be not weeping.


  • If you are drinking coffee, be not drinking diet coke; if you are drinking diet coke, be not drinking coffee.


  • If you are scrolling through Twitter, be not scrolling through Instagram; if you are scrolling through Instagram, be not scrolling through Twitter.


  • If you are drunk, be not sedated; if you are sedated, be not drunk.


  • If you are online shopping, be not KonMari-ing your closet; if you are KonMari-ing your closet, be not online shopping.


  • If you are binge-watching Netflix, be not overly nice in your tastes; if you are overly nice in your tastes, be not binge-watching Netflix.


  • If you are in bed, be not checking the apps; if you are checking the apps, be not in bed.


  • If you are sharing your feelings, be not averse also to listening; if you are averse also to listening, be not sharing your feelings.


  • If you are ashamed, be not self-flagellating; if you are self-flagellating, be not ashamed.

Day 114: on being seen

“She sees me,” she said.

“She what?” I asked, but even as the question formed in my mouth I knew instinctively what my friend meant, in describing the woman with whom she was in love.

It’s a feeling that, despite its rarity, is not restricted to particular forms of communication or types of relationship.

A case in point would be my recent visit to the aptly named Dr. Lake; I felt seen with the clarity that her first name honors.

It’s a feeling that confers such immense relief; by contrast, the feeling of not being seen is one of the most chilling feelings. It’s intensified when you feel that someone has you in their sights – and you them – and then they slip out of sight, or earshot. They sound muffled. They look blurry. And they won’t come back into focus no matter how hard you squint.

It’s like for a moment being seen as a real live flesh and blood person and then reverting to being perceived as the mere automata cloaked in hats and coats that Descartes sees out his window in the Meditations, or the terrifying mannequins from E. Nesbitt’s The Enchanted Castle, whose “bodies were bolsters and rolled-up blankets, their spines were broom-handles, and their arm and leg bones were hockey sticks and umbrellas.” What is terrifying, in The Enchanted Castle, is not only the uncanny spectacle of the mannequins coming to life, but narrator’s cool assurance, once they do, that it is ethical to deceive and, ultimately, dispose of them, since they “have no insides.” Rereading The Enchanted Castle as an adult, it is blindingly obvious that the mannequins are coded as working-class: they are a “furious, surging, threatening mass.” We are selective, that is to say, in choosing those upon whom we confer “insides.”

I don’t know that any of us really have insides – a core set of easily personifiable traits as so appealingly depicted in the lovely movie Inside Out. But the feeling that one does and that another soul really sees the machinations of one’s own “soul stark naked,” with all her “frisks, her gambols, her capricios,” as in Laurence Sterne’s wonderful image (in Tristram Shandy) of a person’s body as a “dioptricall” or transparent bee-hive, is, surely, one of the most glorious feelings in the world.


Day 112: The Grisset, redux


The beautiful Grisset rose up when I said this, and going behind the counter, reach’d down a parcel and untied it: I advanced to the side over against her: they were all too large.  The beautiful Grisset measured them one by one across my hand.—It would not alter their dimensions.—She begg’d I would try a single pair, which seemed to be the least.—She held it open;—my hand slipped into it at once.—It will not do, said I, shaking my head a little.

—No, said she, doing the same thing.

There are certain combined looks of simple subtlety,—where whim, and sense, and seriousness, and nonsense, are so blended, that all the languages of Babel set loose together, could not express them;—they are communicated and caught so instantaneously, that you can scarce say which party is the infector.  I leave it to your men of words to swell pages about it—it is enough in the present to say again, the gloves would not do; so, folding our hands within our arms, we both lolled upon the counter—it was narrow, and there was just room for the parcel to lay between us.

The beautiful Grisset looked sometimes at the gloves, then sideways to the window, then at the gloves,—and then at me.  I was not disposed to break silence:—I followed her example: so, I looked at the gloves, then to the window, then at the gloves, and then at her,—and so on alternately.

I found I lost considerably in every attack:—she had a quick black eye, and shot through two such long and silken eyelashes with such penetration, that she look’d into my very heart and reins.—It may seem strange, but I could actually feel she did.—

It is no matter, said I, taking up a couple of the pairs next me, and putting them into my pocket.

I was sensible the beautiful Grisset had not asked above a single livre above the price.—I wish’d she had asked a livre more, and was puzzling my brains how to p. 604bring the matter about.—Do you think, my dear Sir, said she, mistaking my embarrassment, that I could ask a sous too much of a stranger—and of a stranger whose politeness, more than his want of gloves, has done me the honour to lay himself at my mercy?—M’en croyez capable?—Faith! not I, said I; and if you were, you are welcome.  So counting the money into her hand, and with a lower bow than one generally makes to a shopkeeper’s wife, I went out, and her lad with his parcel followed me. (from Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, 1768)


The gruff Proprietor returned from the stall across from hers, where she had been eating a brownie, when I said this.

She had wanted a cream puff, she explained, but wouldn’t you know that they had run out. But the brownie, which was studded with chocolate chips was a fair substitute, she declared.

I pointed to the cuff I had in mind. It was made of a warm, conker-colored leather with a brass clasp. How do you like your cuff to fit? said she. —I hesitated;— I’ve never worn one, I confessed, so I don’t know. Oho! said she, well let’s try some on.

Some people like a cuff to fit quite tightly, she observed, so that it doesn’t slide around and the clasp stays put in the same place. Let’s try this one said she, picking up the one I had chosen. I held out my left wrist aloft; —the gruff Proprietor wrapped the cuff around my wrist tenderly and fastened the clasp. Oh that’s very loose, said she, twisting it to show me how easily it moved around my wrist;—yes, said I, that seems too loose.

Here, we’ll try another one on for size, said she; and then I can custom fit the one you like to just the right size. —Oh, really! I exclaimed, isn’t that too much trouble? Oh no, it’s no problem at all, said she.

The gruff Proprietor fastened a reddish tinted one around my wrist. —The stiff leather snugly bound my wrist like a corset. She tugged at it to show me that it wouldn’t move at all. The leather will soften right up as it ages, she murmured. How does that feel, she asked.

It feels tight, I said, a bit too tight, I added.

There are certain combined looks of simple subtlety,—where whim, and sense, and seriousness, and nonsense, are so blended, that all the languages of the blogosphere set loose together, could not express them;—they are communicated and caught so instantaneously, that you can scarce say which party is the infector.  I leave it to your women of words to swell pages about it—it is enough in the present to say again, the cuff would not do.

All right then, she said, I’ll fit it for you so it’s just in between.

She picked up the brown leather cuff and set it on her work bench, hammering and tugging at the clasp, removing and then re-riveting it, adjusting its position so as to tighten the cuff. Try this now, she said. It was still too loose. Your wrist is very slender, said she, I’ll tighten it a bit more. She hammered and plied at the cuff a bit more. Try this now, said she, fastening it once again around my wrist. Now it fit closely but not tightly. Perfect, said I. She nodded her agreement.

What do I owe you, I asked. Aw … well … let’s see, I’ll give you a discount, so …. so let’s say 25. Oh thank you! said I, let me see if I have cash. I dug around in my wallet, but I just had a large wad of ones. I think I’ll need to use a card, I’m afraid, said I. That’s no problem at all ma’am, said she, let me get my phone. I handed the gruff Proprietor my card; — she swiped it and I signed my name shakily with my index finger across the screen. Thank you so much, said I, warmly, for the discount and also for fitting it especially to me. It was my pleasure said she, nodding her head.