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 202: “Even dreams must be concrete.”

I came across Viktor Shklovsky’s Bowstring: On the Dissimilarity of the Similar (originally published in 1970, this edition translated into English by Shushan Avagyan and published in 2011) while looking for a particular essay of Shklovsky’s to assign to my undergraduates.

I ordered the book because I’ve been thinking about similes lately, and the book’s title made me think that it might have something to say about them.

It doesn’t, really, but it has something to say about almost everything else, delivered in the form of sphinx-like epigrammatic pronouncements.

On many of the book’s pages, paragraph breaks separate each sentence, the way they do here.

I thought I’d try out this formatting style to see if it imbues my own words with the aura of profundity that Shklovsky’s words emanate.

It doesn’t seem to, but that’s OK.

This post is really just a collection of those sentences that made a strong impression on me.

They are arranged in the order they appear in the book.


From the preface:

These are old pathways. I hope to intersect them.”

“Nightingales sang below my window, or maybe they weren’t nightingales at all.

They don’t care that they have been exhausted in poetry; they don’t know that they’ve been refuted” (4).

On Tristram Shandy:

“Life evolves in a thread of knots that gets more and more tangled. The narrative segments are intentionally dislocated and rearranged, so the knots become the characters, as it were” (25).

On the digital humanities, avant la lettre:

“Today we have such a multitude of fairy tales that it is quite impossible to try and make sense of them. We certainly can’t retain them in memory, and there won’t be enough index cards. We could create an enormous cybernetic machine, but what should it be programmed to do?” (167)

On the art of narration:

“Art has its direction and purposefulness, which does not coincide with the aspect of how interesting the work is, but rather how skillfully the story is arrested or delayed” (276).

On art and wondering:

“Science avoids the act of wondering, it tries to overcome the element of surprise. Art preserves it” (284).

On litotes, lyric poetry, and love:

“In rhetoric, litotes is a figure of speech that is the opposite of hyperbole. Pushkin spoke about a family, the members of which were becoming so small that soon one had to lick a finger in order to pick up one of them. That’s an example of litotes.

But there is another kind of litotes that intentionally understates something or implies that it is lesser in significance than it really is. If you are freezing but instead tell your neighbor (because you don’t want to worry him) that you are cold, then that’s a litotes.

The soldiers uses to sing during campaigns in the Caucasus:

‘In one word, it’s hard,

It’s certainly not easy,

By the way—it’s fine.’

This is a litotes.

When one is in love, one is often obliged to speak about it indirectly. If lyric poetry—all of it—is not a trope, then it is dissident speech.

The litotic plot in Pushkin’s poem [Eugene Onegin] is that a man is trying to persuade himself that his love has faded. In reality, it hasn’t (295-6).

On metaphor:

           In a metaphor, one object is compared to another, but it’s not confined in it as in a prison and it doesn’t replace the other.

The metaphor turns our knowledge of the subject as a stoker turns pieces of coal in a firebox with his tongs” (362).

On myths:

“Myths in human memory are like tools in a smithy—they are made for work, not for storage” (374).

On his changing views of form and content over time:

“I refuted the idea of content in art when I was young, thinking that it was pure form … Back then I used to say that art had no content, that it was devoid of emotion, while at the same time I wrote books that bled, like A Sentimental Journey and ZOO. The latter was also called Letters Not About Love because it was a book about love” (440).

On being an aging critic:

            “There comes a time in every man’s life when he renounces whatever is fashionable, considering it a mistake, and stays in his old, narrow pants and old-fashioned hat.

I have been studying the history of art for a long time now and I know.

The new skirts are too short for me” (442).

On rethinking the significance of ostranenie (estrangement):

“I should have asked myself: what exactly are you going to estrange if art doesn’t express the conditions of reality? Sterne, Tolstoy were trying to return the sensation of what?” (442-3)

On concreteness:

“[E]ven Dulcinea del Toboso couldn’t exist for Don Quixote without an exact address. Even dreams must be concrete” (446)

On the difference between the lack of endings in Sterne and Pushkin:

“The Sternean ending is the rejection of the principle of closure.

Pushkin’s ending in Eugene Onegin is the sad mark of the impossibility to tell the truth about the fate of the hero among his friends” (452).

On returning the ball to the game:

“[T]he photographer [at the end of Antonioni’s film Blowup] sees a group of university students dressed in masquerade costumes.

They are playing a game of tennis: we clearly hear the fast, staccato sounds of the ball hitting the racket.

Then we realize that we are watching a mimed match—it’s a game without a ball.

There is no sense, no ball in the game—only the ghost of sound.

Its purpose—the ending has disappeared. Nobody cares about the murder mystery and its solution. It can be used in a newspaper article or in photography, but nothing more. The denouement has vanished. There is no ending …

… People write poems about writing poems.

Writers write novels about writing novels, film scripts about film scripts.

They are playing a tennis game without a ball, but the journeys of Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Pantagruel, and even Chichikov must have a purpose.

Return the ball into the game.

Return the heroic deed into life.

Return meaning to the movement—and not the record of achievement” (464).

In conclusion:

Regarding the ending—

I don’t like that word.

There will be no ending” (467).


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 81: the shape of my midlife crisis

Well, it’s serpentine, obviously. Whoever is writing this plot has a serious weakness for the serpentine line. In fact, I’d say it’s a tad heavy-handed. I mean, first those hyacinthine, ripply locks, and now this??? In such close succession? It’s a bit much.

Oi Author, are you listening up (or, rather more probably, I fear, down) there? You don’t need to lay it on so thick. [1]

But I’m sure my pleas will fall on deaf ears. So back to you, dear readers. [2] What is this, you ask? Don’t scroll down! Serpentine line, remember? Let it unfurl in due course.

So, indulge me in a thought-experiment and all will be revealed. What are some things that a duck-rabbit might do at (and following) a jubilantly drunken dinner (G&T; Pimms; red wine; red wine; red wine; port. Dr. F, don’t blame me; blame Englishness) at the house of the lovely R, and her husband, the incorrigible Martinus Scriblerus?

Well, it would be mere speculation, but if I had to spin out a hypothesis, I’d imagine that a duck-rabbit might do the following:

  • Smoke a cigarette, which it has not done since New Year’s Eve in Berlin in 2003 when it was locked in a bathroom with the delightful Onivas.
  • Rashly swear to accompany Martinus Scriblerus to a tattoo parlor and get matching tattoos of this:


  • Not only make this pledge in speech, but further affirm it in writing with an unequivocal YES!!! when Martinus texts (“Tattoo. 5th June”) to affirm said commitment later that night. [3]
  • Upon getting home, be sober enough to wash face, remove contact lenses, and brush teeth before going to bed, and yet not be sober enough to actually master the act of getting into bed. In this hypothetical scenario, the duck-rabbit would think to itself that it had successfully gotten into bed; but although, in the most basic sense, it had, it would have failed to execute the maneuver properly, inserting itself, not under the top sheet, but between the wool blanket and the duvet, leading it to toss and turn all night muttering, “sheets … so … scratchy … must be withdrawal from alcohol poisoning … or possibly itchy skin first symptom of lung cancer resulting from one cigarette … must investigate on internet first thing tomorrow … ”
  • During fitful, itchy sleep, dream that it took two bottles of Chanel perfume home from R&M’s house. In morning open purse to discover two bottles of Chanel perfume! Squeal audibly in delight at this miraculous actualization of its dream! [4]
  • Upon awakening hungover and with (literally) cold feet, don one sock even though both feet are cold, because it seems too challenging of a task to locate the other sock. (Note: am still wearing only one sock.)
  • Laugh out loud to itself for several minutes at the idea of a duck-rabbit getting a tattoo of a squiggle from Tristram Shandy.
  • Instead of reading for tomorrow’s seminar, spend long time thinking up the most up-one’s-own-arse (oruboros! Ultimate serpentine line, no?) tattoo one could possibly get. Come up with idea of a Magritte-like hand drawing the Tristram Shandy squiggle on a duck-rabbit, which is itself drawn on the front (back) of a Necker cube, which is balanced precariously on an infinite chain of turtles.


[1] To butcher Monsieur Jacques Le Fataliste, who thinks everything is written up above: “tout ce qui nous arrive de bien et de mal ici-bas était écrit plus-bas.” I can’t remember French well enough to know if that’s actually how you would say “down below” in this context.

[2] And speaking of how dear you are; I am sorry, loyal subscribers, for posting so much and clogging your inboxes. I don’t expect you to keep up. I’m certainly not.

[3] Note, however, that the unequivocal YES!!! was preceded with an are-we-really-going-to-do-this? wobble, which Martinus instantly quashed with an emphatic, “fuckin right we are NO BACKSIES,” the use of the phrase “no backsies” (despite the duck-rabbit not having heard said phrase for approximately 30 years), triggering, in almost Pavlovian fashion, the instantaneous conviction that reneging on the oath was now completely futile.

[4] For the next week, I am going to alternate wearing these two scents. If you happen to pass me in the hallway and find your nostrils tickled by a delicious waft of je-ne-sai-quois that inexorably pulls you, Bisto-like (another serpentine line!!!), into my orbit, do let me know. Cheers!