Drawing Writing: Reflections on Trash-Text

Drawing Writing: Reflections on Trash-Text
By Majken Jacoby, Ph.D.

Published in: Crossing Boundaries. Explorations in Therapy & the Arts. A Festschrift for Paolo Knill. Ed. S. K. Levine. EGS Press 2002

In my attempts at catching the thoughts not yet thought, I go to the computer. After a while, I grab a pencil and write on paper. Then I go back to the computer. I keep moving back and forth between the two kinds of writing. The purpose is the same. The possibilities of expression, however, differ.
When I lose track, when I search for an overview and stubbornly want to get a grip on what will not order itself and fall into place, I write by hand on paper. Suddenly, then, it happens that the writing of the hand - or is it that of the pencil? - starts to write its own way; it scribbles itself free of the well-ordered patterns of writing and begins to dream, forgetting that writing has an officially assigned meaning to its squiggles, a set symbolic translation of its looks; instead, it is as if the traces on the paper start to point to themselves. They pursue their own sign-making, away from the conceptual determination of words. Reflection yields to the imagining of hand and material, a sensuous engagement of graphic mark-making and the pencil’s small scratching sounds.

On the computer, in order to make such traces or picture-like things one needs a separate drawing program that I do not have. The pencil, however, slides, drifts imperceptibly from one program, that of writing-thinking, into another one of drawing-imagining. Apparently, to the hand and pencil, these separate areas of writing and picture-making have no definite line of demarcation. True enough, my focus of attention changes, and it is rather difficult and perhaps impossible to stay aware of the meaning of the words and letters and, at the same time, let the signs and traces emerge, image-like.
It begins as a repetitive stretching and distorting of the letters: quickly this evolves into human figures, ribbons, animals, small scenes; and since these loose sheets of paper are lying on my desk, phone numbers, shopping lists and messages to myself are soon added. It heaps up into random clusters of what is not picture and not anymore text, a hybrid “something” which, instead of clearing my mind for an overview, has taken off whatever it was that it was occupied by. The struggle to master the story-telling of writing has silently, dreamingly, turned into a picture-like mess. The pencil has wandered out in the white paper landscape and met whatever graphic word-structures already were inhabiting it. The material has effortlessly opened to the imagination in a way the computer with its virtual screen paper, its different materiality, does not so easily do. When the attention thus shifts to the different possibilities of the material of pencil and paper, the story-telling purpose of writing starts to dissolve; the language’s ability to serve thought’s shaping has been replaced by something as yet undecipherable.

These ambiguous writing-pictures or picture-writings - neither sketches for a manuscript nor for a picture, but debris, repetitions, loose ends and trash, which sooner or later, usually, land in the trash can - these things clutter my desk. Like an ornamentation of the work-in-progress, they stand as witnesses, attestations to an act of expression, themselves expression, a tone or an accompaniment to the “real” text; a trash-text, a blooming of what has been or most likely will be abandoned, crossed out and edited away.
On its way of chance and the need of the moment it has, nevertheless, started to look like something; like a rebel, perhaps, rising up against a computer text that, no matter how temporary and garbage-like it is, almost always looks betrayingly finished.

***

One meets a similar cluster-like tendency in the life of sketchbooks. In their freedom from uninvited eyes, and with their status as the artist’s practicing ground, they demonstrate a propensity of virtually shaping themselves on the condition of chance and accident. Look at Cezanne’s sketchbook , for example, where household accounts, drafts for letters and child drawings mix with masterful drawings of landscapes, portraits and still lifes. At times, son and father Cezanne literally sketched on top of each other, and the numbers of sous and francs spent on food one particular week become the backdrop of drawings, or, by virtue of their situation, they themselves become drawings upon drawings.

Knowing how extremely invested Cezanne was in his work, the indifference or tolerance with what happened to it raises one’s curiosity; on the one hand his work mattered maybe more than anything to him, and on the other hand, at least in the shape of a sketchbook, it seems to have mattered hardly at all. The mark-making of chance is, if not sought for, then also not opposed.
Edward Munch, on the contrary, seems aggressively to have sought it. He threw his paintings up in the apple trees in the garden, and left them there for the winter to work on. In his outdoor atelier, birds shit on the paintings, rain and snow almost totally wrecked them. At times, he used paintings as lid on pots when he was cooking. That it was not only a simple disregard for his work is perhaps demonstrated by the fact, that he was very particular about to whom his paintings and graphic works went, and he refused potential buyers if they did not suit him.
Of course one could ascribe it to the oddness of the character of these painters, and odd they were. One could as well say, however, that they were before their time; had they been contemporary painters one would have been less astonished. In contemporary painting there is an abundance of examples where chance and accidents rule the outcome of the artistic act, and where accidental mark-making is the working method. This was however not the situation a hundred years ago. That is, perhaps, what makes it tempting to approach this trace-making of chance and accidents as not merely an act of destruction or carelessness, but as an example of the sometimes radical detours that are part of and inherent in the artistic act of expression.
Maybe the experience of being taken more or less drastically off-track is part of making when making is poetic; maybe leaving it to what chance washes up upon one’s shore belongs to the process of articulation, actively sought out or not. Entrusting the control to what “blindly” falls into one’s hand, as Kirkeby does when he paints in the dark, so as not to be distracted by the labels on the paint tubes , or literally letting it out of one’s hands, as Munch did or even dreaming oneself into other and more meaning-free signs-on-paper as I do when I write, maybe it all bears witness to certain traits of the artistic act of expression. A way of creating a necessary breathing space for the artist himself, when the importance of the work threatens to fill up his whole life. Maybe it belongs to thinking: “The landscape thinks itself in me,” as Cezanne is quoted as having said of his work .
It is a struggle to keep the working space open, emotionally, physically, imaginatively. In order for the act of expression to work, the need of neither being glued to, nor of being too distant from the work-in-process is a recurring one. Its resolution (if there is one, and one never really finds it for more than a moment’s time - it is as tricky as are all relationships) has to be found each time. What works in one situation does not work in another. As much as the process holds the artist tight in its grip, as often it throws him off. It is like an oscillating movement, an erotic dance around the work: “If one cannot keep one’s distance, the work will rape the writer or become sentimental,” Klaus Rifbjerg, a celebrated Danish writer, says. “One is either wildly attracted to it or thoroughly stone cold.’
At its extreme ends, the process, thus, seems to oscillate between total absorption, where only the work has a sense of reality, and remoteness, as if everything connected to it is enveloped in an inconsequential sense of irreality. The danger is to get locked in one of these positions. Both leave the artist blind. How can one stay in the movements of engaging and disengaging, letting oneself be cast off without giving up, getting on with it instead of getting out of it, or totally “confused,” as Merleau-Ponty calls it?

Finding a right distance by un-familiarizing helps to keep one’s eyesight intact. The child’s drawing, bird shit or the ornamentation of the pencil may act as spell- breaker by its mere lack of belonging to the emerging work tone or Stimmung, in German. It does not fit. There is, to push it a bit further, even a kind of innocence in the accidental and foreign mark, a fragment, which belongs to nobody but is its own thing, a pirate within an established world of expression. Its lack of fitting in has nothing to do with my abilities as a painter. It does not judge my proficiency. It owes nothing to the work, and certainly not to working well. Its gift is the loner’s ability to point to what it is not: a full member of the family. Its fate may be that of being thrown out or taken away, but, by means of its very unfamiliarity, it may also provoke that slide of awareness, which allows in air and sight. The painter is shaken loose from his perspective: his frozen distance to the work often brought about by wanting to make a good piece of work (and that desire must be there). It becomes a disruption that also facilitates a formal distancing, helping him to stay in balance and putting him back on track, even when the track stops, so to speak. It forces the work to collect itself and relate to this visiting stranger, and whether the marks from winter snow or cooking steam are later painted away, assimilated into the work, or even become its ruling idea, is not so much the issue, as long as it provides fuel for the right-distance-dancing to continue and thus nourish the act of expression.

It comes from the “outside,” even when my hand did it. It did not emerge out of my aching or joy, my inability to answer the painterly questions raised by the work. The pencil did it, the child, the bird, insensitively.
Like a call from the rest of the world, it enters and disrupts a situation that threatens to close, and that brings me to another and perhaps just as essential aspect of the accident of the foreign mark: the independent-making of the work, letting it out of the hands of the artist and his demanding ownership. Free it of my tatty fingerprints, as Sørensen says , so that what goes beyond “my world” gets a chance in a bigger world, whether that will be as lid on a pot or museum piece. To Munch, the picture had to be “driven towards becoming a thing, a living thing, which just as well might have been made by nature as by the human being, Munch.” Munch’s “unnatural” behavior as a painter was perhaps a way of tearing loose the picture from the painter, so that it could breathe like a living thing, and we, the audience, with it. Then the picture and its artificially produced sign-growth can go its own odd way, liberating the artist from the illusion of being, or having to be, in control and in power, and allowing for the tenderness of looking away and letting others and other things, worlds, get a chance.
This is not altruism. It is an antidote to the threat of work-poisoning, which makes one deaf and blind and constantly concerned. The work has to go. As devoted parents long to be child-free, the painter longs to be picture-free, the writer text-free - for a while: love turning its back on the loved one in order for it to stay as a future possibility.

It lies in the artificial nature of the art work. As much as it is “mine” the work needs to keep intact its foreign and unfamiliar character, or it loses its own power of speech. Cezanne again: the landscape thinks in me. I speak with my voice, the art work with another, and sometimes it speaks to me. Even when the poem stylistically is close to daily language, or the picture is life-like, it is precisely not “more of the same,” but less. Even when it does not particularly speak to me, but stays mute and throws me off as reader or viewer, even then the art work, detached and strange, challenges what we come to believe we live off of, solely. Even when the art work does not work for me it may, by virtue of its unfamiliar character, create a break in the current of truisms of daily life. In the blinking of an eye, I can sweep away what does not matter to me. Nevertheless, the possibility of making a small rupture in my tightly-woven world and self-understanding is possible even then, even when that world-weaving consists of fractures and disruptions. The parallel to the effect of the “accident” in the process of artistic articulation is quite clear. It can only do so, though, if it is allowed its pirate character.

***

The bird shit, or the color found by refusing to “choose” it, opens to a visibility different from that of the work. It is disturbing and enriching at the same time, and thus sharpening the awareness of painter and work: what now? With its different visibility, it gives different eyes to the painter, opens to a different imagination. According to Merleau-Ponty, it lies at the core of seeing itself: this sensuous concretion of visibility that is exemplified by the art work and the “accident” is “a fossil drawn up from the depth of imaginary worlds,” it opens to “a fabric of invisibility” with which the visible is inseparably intertwined. Anything seen, and certainly the art work, rests in an imaginative invisibility; to imagine that I see only what can somehow be measured even by sophisticated measuring tools, is exactly a way of imagining, and a poor one, as is its idealistic counterpoint; that what I see, I see according to the ideal structures hidden behind or beyond the fleeting givens of the sensuous. The “more” of the art work, or, following Merleau-Ponty, the “more” of vision as such, need not be measured away or pushed into an ideal world. It points to an openness and an ongoing “making” of the world we live in. There is still much more to be seen.

Let me come back to the accidentally made mark and its different relationship to Invisibility, this elusive conception of Merleau-Ponty’s. In all its “strangeness” the mark of chance is as much part of Visibility and the “lines of force” invoked by it as is the work; it is a basic, “aesthetic” condition of the visible world that whatever is seen or see-able will relate to other things seen and thus, as Merleau-Ponty says, hold the visible world together - even when it seems to relate chaotically, fragmentally, clashingly, according to the established rules of seeing of its period. This aesthetic condition is at work all the time, in painting as in other art forms; the red dot there, that actually came from my brush dripping in a way never intended by me, does something unexpected to that green line upon the yellow-orange plane, and the small figure at the left corner suddenly seems larger. It is as if it wants to say something, or maybe it said too much already and now is startled by its own loud voice: the sensuous visibility shares the world with an imaginative invisibility and becomes aesthetic in the double sense of the word.

Reflections on seeing lies at the core of Merleau-Ponty’s thinking, as is well known, and reflection itself is approached as one of seeing’s gifts: I see you, and, simultaneously, you see me. Your gaze at me, and the fact that I also see myself and see myself seen by you, opens to reflection’s possibility, reflection’s dependency on the perspectival change, me being able to imagine myself in “its” place or in yours. Thinking, vision (or “sensing”) and imagination are each other’s precondition, they take each other’s place, and, if they are rigidly separated, they suffer.
Merleau-Ponty calls this, “reversibility”: we are both seer and seen. Passively - actively we take our changing places as the one or the other. Visibility “envelopes” me, I am by definition “to be seen,” by you and by myself; and, at the same time, the visible thing is at a distance as the object of my gaze. Subject and object reverse place - you are the object of my gaze and, also, “another me,” another subject as I am to you - subject and object are each other’s condition of possibility, interdependent. They create a “chiasm,” a crossing over of categories, without denying the separateness of the categories.
This is a recurring experience of the expressive act: we lead and we let ourselves be led. Active-passively we take charge or let chance rule. The sensible matter is shaped by my hands and brush, and, in reverse, shapes the next painterly move. The impulse comes not only from “me,” but from the material, the color’s figuration, the accidental mark. My thought thinks in the language belonging to us all. The tones compose my music.
Not only can I paint because I can see. I can see because I paint and because, reversely, I am seen and, thus, reflecting, thinking. The painting and I share our inclusion in Visibility. The world paints along with us, as thought, matter and imagination, as unforeseen “accident.”

***

Writing is also image. It has its relationship to invisibility. The image-aspect of writing, the way it looks and not what kind of imaginings its looks open to, usually disappears in favor of the music of speech (written, read, heard or said) and its metaphors; but it exists. Hand-written texts of a certain age, the illuminated manuscript, testify to the self-evidence and ease by which writing slips into image, reminding one that pictures and texts, however coherent and “pure” they appear, emerge from something “impure;” they are cross-overs by birth; they are mixtures, compositions, clusters of intersecting intentions and accidents emerging from the polyvalent inter-sensority. Writing a text has its invisible thinking base in a multiplicity of sensory and imaginative experiences.
At certain points I leave the sophisticated writing tool I own and turn to the simple pencil. I remember - or maybe I imagine it - the trance-like pleasure when I learned to write, the long rows of “a’s,” a a a a a a a a a a a a a A A A a a, small creatures that made a waving line slowly creeping down one page and onto the next, and one day bumping into a preprinted “b.” It was visual music that spoke right there. Its meaning came as a surprise and, as I remember it, a self-evident coincidence, a sliding metamorphosis: one day I was reading and writing. What did the six year-old think?

I long to challenge the text-image out of its neatness and back into its flesh and blood of music and image, spread it out, twist and shake its snugness into something that speaks so I can think. I miss the trembling of the hand, its uncertainty. Do computers tremble? I miss the mistakes, the crossings out and adding of something that soon may show itself superfluous or even totally off. I miss the occasional creature that creeps in for its lack of belonging. I miss the short-comings and distortions of the hand, its very weaknesses. We, the text and I, are equally nourished by imperfection and by that which falls into place, by the unevenly spaced out rhythm of the a’s and b’s and their promise of much more.
Let me not lose myself in pencil-nostalgia, however; I love my computer, the sophisticated writing tool. I cherish its neatness and order, how faithfully it keeps the right spacing and prints in “Palatino” as long as I ask it to. It holds for me the hope of the whole text. I want to pay it my respects and not ask for something outside its domain. Isaac Bashevis Singer said of his old Yiddish typewriter, that when he wrote something it did not seem to approve of, it became a demon. My computer and I just bore each other with our mutual propensity for neatness. Singer’s message is clear, however: respect the tools. They are not just mine. Together pencil and computer help me and the work to enter that passing and fluctuating stage of falling apart and coming together, where, when we are lucky, the coincidence - or confusion - of image and music makes sense and makes me think.
And also, let me not speak of accident, fragment or “trash” without honoring its companion, the shaped work that appears finished and somehow “whole” (even though I hesitate to use the concept). It is never an either - or. Experiences of fragmentation and formation do not rule each other out, and neither does the fragment and the finished work. Trash is, in the end, only fascinating as long as there is an emerging work. What I want to point to is that which surprises, that which vitalizes the work process, comes from surprising corners, from the edges, the marginalized, that which we overlook or turn our back to, consider irrelevant and, at times, call “trash.”

When one has lost one’s writing way, the spill-over of loose sheets and undecipherable sentences of what one now only partly understands may revert into a hope that something was and still is on its way. Great painters sometimes hang their palettes, a rather affected idea, it appears to me; however, what seems to be a pointless pile of broken repetitions, suddenly, by a shift of perspective and a different situation, changes into a thing worthy of attention. The trash-fragment becomes a catalyst, the agent that pulls the work together, the foreign mark that forces the work to consider its particularity. One day the finished text may stand there, different and with a voice of its own.

Together fragment and form point to one of the fundamental artistic experiences. They do not exist at each other’s expense. They point, however, to the paradoxical qualities of the expressive act. The field of artistic experience is, if anything, characterized by its ability to hold together formal and experiential paradoxes. It must or it becomes stale. It threatens all the time to fall into its own counter- point - form & fragment, meaningful & meaningless. The one, however, does not denounce the other: that rules of the discipline must be broken does not in itself make rule-setting invalid, and the possible fruitfulness of the fragment or the trash does not wipe out the work category. A work is an ambiguous thing. Often it opens to contradictory fantasies, to other works of a very different style and quality. Sometimes it falls apart, and all that is left are fragments that have lost their former power of speech, or for obscure reasons the work has become so hermetic that it hardly speaks to anybody. Sometimes it finds itself by means of the arbitrary incident, or by what it itself has discharged as “trash.” That the specific work encompasses certain dissolving qualities does not dissolve the idea of the work; but it differentiates it. The work as idea and experience, in all its ambiguity and lack of an authoritative definition, stands. Not on rock-bottom, however, and if we want to land neither in a (post-modern) aesthetic relativism, nor in a more or less rule-based formal aesthetics, we must keep “differentiating, disturbing and extending” the idea of the work. And the fragment.

Pointing to “trash” may enrich and widen the awareness of the conditions of the work’s coming into being. It is possible and even rewarding to hold together that which will not fall into place. We need that thought. Let us, however, only embrace it within a “differentiated, disturbed and extended” field of understanding. Only in this way may we catch the thoughts not yet thought.