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What do writers gain from looking?
While visiting the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, where walls are covered with not just paintings from Cézanne and Van Gogh and Renoir but antique kitchen implements and crucifixes and sconces, I was overwhelmed in my attempt to really look at every still-life painting of food. How predictable, of course—my obsession with artists seeing food, but why wouldn’t I find these fascinating? I have devoted my life to another way of looking at food, of ensuring it is considered precious. There were simply so many. I’m often at a loss when looking at art (a loss I never feel when reading; I’m a ruthless reader) about what I’m supposed to be doing, how long I’m supposed to linger. I’ve never taken a class on fine art, and being a philistine about it is one of my life’s great pleasures—if it also comes with anxiety while I’m here writing about it for you. I’m supposed to know things, aren’t I?
“But the picture is magical,” writes Karl Ove Knausgaard in the introduction to So Much Longing in So Little Space: The Art of Edvard Munch. “It is so charged with meaning, looking at it I feel as if something is bursting within me. And yet it is just a field of cabbages.” I do not believe, of course, that there is anything “just” about a field of cabbages. But I catch his drift.
This gave way to predictable thoughts: Why is food important when depicted in a museum? Have we devalued images of food with digital sharing? What does it mean, for a writer, to look at art? Why does it feel important—and why does it so often prove itself important, making way in the brain for thoughts that otherwise never would have formed?
Knausgaard also writes of not being able to discern which part of a painting is ever moving him—the colors, the brushstrokes, etc. I can always, for whatever reason, note what I find interesting in a painting. Especially a still-life of food, probably because of repetition and familiarity: It’s the way the light hits the pear. It’s the limp purple of a fig next to a spotted squash. It’s always the spills across a table, peaches tumbling across a crumpled white tablecloth. From these, I’ve learned: about light, about color, about building texture in a flat image. I feel that I’m supposed to be embarrassed to talk about any of this, as uneducated as I am on the subject. Who am I to look at a painting? We know it’s silly. One would never ask, who am I to read an essay? Though one would ask, who am I to read a poem? In this, poetry and fine art are similar. They’ve been saying this for thousands of years.
“I don’t think / I can / live without / taking pic / tures,” writes Eileen Myles in the poem “Friday Night” in the new collection A “Working Life”. The poems here are about the day-to-day, the poems that emerge from a slice of pizza. Other than having to think about money (having to think so much about money), my work and life are one thing, an endless spilling-over of one thing into the next. I couldn’t live without taking pictures, without looking at them. I couldn’t work without the pictures, either, because I share them and because I use them as reference. What did I eat at that restaurant in Glasgow in 2017? Images conjure my feelings and thoughts from the time, and thus conjure my words to explain that. I am put back into the moment of eating those peas, those thinly sliced radishes, the delicate and crisp lettuce. I am back in the awe of being across the ocean for the third time that year, after 17 years stuck in the U.S.—now, having taught culinary tourism, I wonder what it was about being stuck, because I no longer think it had anything to do with wanting to travel, with wanting to eat Scottish peas, and everything to do with accessing a different life I thought I deserved.
When I say “my work and life are one thing,” the other edge of the double-edged sword is that I’ve ended up with cooking as part of both, and while writing being part of both isn’t an issue, I really do hate cooking sometimes. I’m being confronted, though, with my own book that’s coming out in the summer, where I wrote the opposite. When I had to write a book and make money writing at the same time, it does seem I hated writing and preferred cooking. So I have to believe I’m lucky to have them both, even if I’ll never fully enjoy them at the same time. C’est la vie. How many forms of creativity can we sustain in one life at once? It seems the answer is really very many, if we let ourselves and if the world doesn’t squeeze us of all our energy, all our care and enthusiasm.
“What could be more closed off and mediated than someone else’s mental activity?” writes Cesar Aira in An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. “And yet this activity is expressed in language, words resounding in the air, simply waiting to be heard. We come up against the words, and before we know it, we are already emerging on the other side, grappling with the thought of another mind. Mutatis mutandis, the same thing happens with a painter and the visible world. It was happening to Rugendas. What the world was saying was the world.”
I give three underlines in ink to the last part: “What the world was saying was the world,” because this captures the difference in the experience of looking at art versus reading. Painters, poets, see the world in some other way; the world communicates to them differently. Then we writers are there, astounded, trying to figure out whether it’s the color or the brushstroke or the content that we are most intrigued by, and in the end, we have to say: it must be all of it, at once, and then keep going with our words, never saying anything that can quite match the work. I don’t think that prose, by communicating one brain to another, is somehow less significant for this. It’s just different.
Before it was an internet prompt to “romanticize your life,” I was doing it, because I have always written, I have always taken pictures, I have always been in awe of art and in love with food in ways that feel heightened and inexplicable. I think of this when I read and look at Patti Smith’s A Book of Days: No one ever needed to tell her to romanticize a cup of coffee, a book, a tree in the wind. Is that all creativity is? I don’t want to be a naif, but I also don’t want to be a snob. Perhaps creative life (thus, every life) needs to be lived on that spectrum—naif to snob—and we move as needed to find what we want, what we need.
I was looking for something else but pulled Myles’s Not Me off the shelf, and it ends with a short essay I have always adored. “The process of the poem, the performance of it I mentioned,” they wrote in 1987, “is central to an impression I have that life is a rehearsal for the poem, or the final moment of spiritual revelation.” The penultimate paragraph notes, “I am obsessed with culture” and that publication is about violating “the hermetic nature of my own museum—as a friendly gesture towards the people who might recognize me.” These are my essays—emerging from life, a gesture toward you, a hope for recognition.
How can work house this spirit of the ongoing nature of creative life, asks Kate Zambreno in Appendix Project: Talks and Essays, and I think she’s been doing it, in Drifts, and To Write As If Already Dead, and the forthcoming The Light Room. These are immediate, chronicles of writing-of-life-as-it’s-happening but still fully formed. My favorite of these three is To Write As If Already Dead, the reading of Hervé Guibert as part of the impossible project of writing through the early pandemic with a small child. It’s the most visceral of these, vibrating. It, like much of Zambreno’s recent work, is brimming with ekphrasis—descriptions of artworks, of photos. It becomes more alive that way: What the world was saying was the world, an attempt to access this, the way a visual artist sees. The world saying the world.
“To the writer, the painter is a fortunate alter ego, an embodiment of the sensuality and exteriority that he has abjured to pursue his invisible, odorless calling,” writes Janet Malcolm in “Forty-One False Starts.” “The writer comes to the places where traces of making can actually be seen and smelled and touched expecting to be inspired and enabled, possibly even cured.” Malcolm here—she read me, she read herself, she read all us writers who seek out epiphanies in looking. Looking, for the writer, is like salt for the cook: Sometimes in the background, detectable only if its absence is felt; other times sprinkled atop, in fat crystalline flakes.
I was searching for the origin of a Constance Debré quote that I think might have originally appeared in French and found this: “With Play Boy, for instance, I had in mind a famous William Eggleston picture, ‘The Red Ceiling.’ It’s just a photograph of a red ceiling and a white lightbulb – I think he took it in 1973. It’s simple and profane, and very powerful. This is how I wanted to write.” Here one senses the visual influence is acting upon the writing as the perfectly salted pasta water acts upon the rigatoni.
And so what I’m saying about creativity is that it’s going on and on, never-ending, never finished, happening everywhere, no point in trying to write a tidy essay on any aspect of it. If it weren’t for money, if it weren’t for bodies—bodies like mine, prone to allergic bronchitis, coughing and demanding rest when I want to be living so that I can go on writing—how easy it would be to maintain our seeing, bring that seeing to the page, go from naif to snob and back again?
To tie this back to food: Even when I hate cooking, I want to look at food, talk about food, write about food. Even when I hate cooking, I’m excited by the mental exercise of it. Indeed, I’m just grateful to have so many things that make me happy to be here, even when I’m not.
(If you were looking for Kafka in this essay, after reading “On Research,” know that he will come up in the future... no need to get to everything today, but I do realize writing about the process of an essay really affects the writing of an essay—I’ll be thinking about that a bit more, too!)
This Friday’s dispatch for paid subscribers will be May’s From the Desk Recommends…, a collection of links to stories, podcasts, and videos I’ve enjoyed over the last few weeks. I’ve been into watching readings and conversations and lectures on YouTube.
Nothing, but stuff is coming and I have exciting news to share soon!!!
All of the above! But mostly I’ve been wasting away not in Margaritaville but in fucking allergic bronchitis. Much less fun.
We made pita bread in the Ooni oven last week to varied levels of success, each pita a learning experience. For us, it certainly makes more sense than making pizza—if there’s one nice by-product of having an Ooni, it’s understanding that good pizza is an art and craft that one must dedicate their whole life to in order to be good at it and I’ll leave it to them!