Painting a Body of Loss and Love in the Proximity of an Aesthetic

November 25, 2013 | 4 books mentioned 2 15 min read


Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
Jack Gilbert

And so as with many things, it begins with a war.

We had been traveling for days when that little plane touched down in Lisbon with only two out of its three wheels working. It listed to a stop and we emerged, a fat priest, a young photojournalist, my mother in her one faded African print dress and five children in little more than rags. The nuns met us with bristling beards and the warm embrace of old aunts and took us to a convent where it was impossible to hush the noise of four boys bouncing balls down hallowed halls. They loved all the attention I think, these women who had given their lives to God and silence unperturbed even by my baby sister who cried and cried because my mother’s breasts were too dry and emaciated to make milk for her. And all those people in the street staring at this bedraggled white woman in a faded African print dress, worn flip flops and crazy white hair who trooped her black brood through the city center because she thought, why not see the sights while we wait for a plane to England. And the many, many old women who pushed sweets and their sadness into the hands of us grateful boys and bounced my crying sister on their laps trying to coax her to take her feed from a bottle all the time singing softly in Portuguese, silencie bebê pequeno, while my mother smiled and sipped gratefully on the free coffee strangers bought her in street cafes. And every night, in the convent after a meal of rice and pork too rich for hunger-taut bellies, we threw up contentedly while my mother washed and rewashed the same old dress, hanging it to dry from the convent balcony, her nude body singing to the night.


All agree that it began with tracing an outline around a man’s shadow
Pliny the Elder

coverThe quote above comes from a larger piece within Pliny the Elder’s book, Natural History, and alludes to Pliny’s attempts to trace the mythical origin of sculpture as an art-form; its very conception, when allegedly a potter’s daughter traced a human figure on a wall from its shadow and began to mold a clay form from it. The myth, as Pliny recounts it, locates the impetus to make this work, this mark, to capture this shadow in the fact that the potter’s daughter’s lover was leaving to go abroad, perhaps to fight a war. That much remains obscured.

So it seems that the desire to make art, to draw the limits of the body, to create a simulacrum has its roots in loss; or at least, the possibility of loss. The need to remember, to create (or re-create) a body out of loss, but also against loss, and against forgetting, is what drives the artist. This intervention in the world is repeated through time and culture and place, regardless of the truth of this or any other myth. It can be argued that the creative process is a ritual of remembrance.

Consider the Catholic order of mass, as the priest raises the communion wafer and the chalice of wine, the moment he seeks, and the magic he is working is that of transubstantiation, the turning of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. More than the transformation of matter, is the transformation of the imagination; its very transubstantiation. The act of the ritual of mass is an elaborate ritual of remembrance, a mnemonic device that reminds us of the essential message of the Christ: my peace I give you. The idea of religion, of any religion, of a belief in deity or doctrine, is not what is important in this moment. It is just that the ritual of reclaiming loss has found expression most often within religion. In a sense, religion is a complex language for melancholy and nostalgia. What is important is the ritual, which helps orchestrate these creative interventions.

Perhaps in this age of photography and film, of being able to record images and videos on our cell phones, we overlook the importance of the rituals of making. Perhaps because we no longer carve plastic representations of these simulacra of loss with our very hands, with our sweat, we forget. But there is nothing sadder than a photograph. It is a reminder of that which we no longer have. Perhaps this sadness is the root of the instinctual fear that pre-technological cultures harbored for photographs. Not so much that their souls would be stolen, but rather that they realized upon seeing a photograph that its lifelessness reminded them that memory and its truth, its deeper value lies in what we bring to representation, not what the representation offers us. Denied the ritual of making, the recognition of loss becomes even more acute, but there is nothing to staunch the wound. It is no accident that most early photography was the recording of the dead.

coverIt may be deliberate in Pliny’s tale that it is a woman who stands at the liminal moment of birth, of the knowledge that ties remembrance to its physical double. Perhaps that kind of melancholy, that deep sorrowful knowledge is too much for men to bear. In his extended essay on memory, Memoirs of the Blind, Jacques Derrida writes about this desire we all have to mark loss, to record memory physically. Derrida argues that it is not that we desire to mark the moment of trauma, of the wound, but rather that we often need to and want to record the moment just before it. In all those trains that rode to the camps in Germany, people frantically drew, made marks in the wooden cattle cars. On Angel Island in San Francisco, we can see the same markings in the timber beams that held up the roof and in the frames of the double bunk beds made by early Chinese immigrants held there in limbo between the China they had left and the new land of promise just miles across the small bay. Marks made as talismans against loss. In this I think that Derrida and I agree; that to create the memory is to turn away from the moment, to remove one’s gaze from the trauma and turn it instead to transubstantiation. We know it is through this ritual, however tangentially or deeply obscured the lens, that we can even begin to bear witness to these histories, these shadows of love and loss that we carry within us.

This raises the specter of art as witness.


There is no evil angel, but love
William Shakespeare

My mother is standing by the stove in the fading daylight. The kitchen is small, an adobe addition to the rest of the house. Its floors and walls of pounded earth that smelled damp and full of promise after a rain, and warm and crinkly when she baked cakes, the very pores of the floor and walls heavy with nutmeg.

There is one small window above the stove and the sun is slanting in at an angle, framing her hair in a halo. She is stirring a pot of stew, or soup, perhaps. I no longer remember the exact details of the food; I was five or thereabouts.

Around her on the floor, crunching underfoot every time she moves is glass, shards from the oven door, broken by my careless football.

She is crying and her face is swollen where my father’s fist has hit her. An eye is half closed and there is blood from a broken lip. On the radio on the table by the eggs, Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsborough are whispering through “Je T’aime.”

Mom, I say softly, afraid to startle her, afraid of the look in her eyes. If she hears, she doesn’t respond.

When I broke the glass on the oven, I ran and hid and wouldn’t come out when my father called. So in anger at my defiance, he beat my mother. I watched from the cupboard under the sink. I didn’t move, didn’t come out to defend her, and didn’t speak up. I am a coward.

I am not sure if she is crying from the beating, from loving him, or because of the broken oven that had survived a civil war but is now not likely to be replaced, and which, although we can’t know that yet, would never bake right again.


It was not night, not even when the darkness came
WS Merwin

When we speak of art giving witness, we usually mean that we are attempting to give form, address or visibility to things that are often inexpressible such as the effects of terror, pain, destruction, and erasure. In this way, the idea of witness, of testimony, is seldom if ever linked to things that are wholesome in our cultures. We give testimony it seems to unveil the hidden, to restore the wished away, the instinct towards the erasure of shame.

To give witness is to create a common body of remembrance, one we can all share in, but beyond that, one that can and must necessarily offer us some kind of catharsis. This is what art strives to do. To build this body out of shared fears, and triumphs, and desires, nostalgia as it were, for something that maybe never existed. This is both the triumph of and the problem with art. It cannot speak of essential truths (if there is even such a thing), or even relative truths for that matter. It can only speak in approximation, because that is what allows everyone into the conversation. This is something writers and artists have always known because the truth of course is that we can never feel each others’ pain, but only approach it by relating it in degrees to our own. That this trade in a mutual loss bridges the distance between self and other. We are, it seems, an intrinsically selfish species. In this way, I think, the common body of art, despite its protestations to the unsentimental, depends so fundamentally on this shared trade between love and loss.

The problems art faces then in giving witness are multiple. Here is short and by no way exhaustive list:

  1. To create a common body of remembrance or experience is to be thwarted or colored by our nostalgia, by our pain and by our worldview, at every turn.
  2. How do we as artists evoke an event without limiting ourselves to the literal?
  3. What happens when the event cleaves a space so large in the collective mind that art seems not only inadequate but also almost offensive as a form of address?
  4. How can artists work within and without binaries to create a kind of ambiguity and yet simultaneous specificity?
  5. How do we create an empathetic yet reciprocal relationship between the art and the trauma/event?

Every true artist know that art is a weak vehicle for addressing trauma in all its magnitude and yet it is the most durable, the most reliable one we have. In this way the witness of art transcends mere testimony, mere accounting, mere reportage, to define a space that allows for surrender and resistance to occur at once.

That witness works at all is in itself a small miracle. A miracle of what, you might ask? In the oblique way that much truth happens, this is in fact a kind of love. I mean this in the sense that James Baldwin did, the idea that any kind of honest interaction between people requires the relinquishing of parts of the self to each other. Witness is an act of love, not in the sense of the sentimental although that is certainly part of it. What I mean by love is the act of seeing. Why is seeing an act of love? It is perhaps the only true act of love. Seeing slows the world down, bringing it into focus, even for a moment, the object/subject of sight, imbuing it with worth and value, while also actively resisting its erasure. But more than that, seeing requires not turning away from difficulty to the safety of comfort. In a sense the need for safety seems to be at the heart of America’s problems – that we will often give up our morality, our very humanity in exchange for that safety. Sometimes it is the safety of race, or nation or even of lack.

Witness works first by seeing and then by lingering. The seeing as I said slows everything down, and the layering creates a thickness, a mass that sits in our consciousness without threat, even if it does reek of menace. And this in turn allows us to approach by degrees, the violence of the event and the damage it leaves behind. The distance between the seeing and the mass is the impossibility of expression and this is conversely and paradoxically the very power of witness.

When we have large-scale tragedy, such as 9/11, Katrina or Haiti, it seems that the work of witness becomes easier. This I know is open to argument – many writers and artists felt silenced by the magnitude of the Jewish Holocaust for instance. But I think that I am referring to a different kind of ease, not the artistic impetus towards witness, but rather the reception of witness.

For as much as we resist it and don’t like to think of this, art, in all its forms, includes an audience, a spectator, and a consumer. That fact often determines how we approach witness through art, but that is a somewhat different conversation. For now, it is enough to know that this complicated relationship is part of the process. As Ansel Adams says, there are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.

Let me however, return to the question of magnitude. Witness in the face of large communal tragedy is easier because we all feel connected to it at some level, we all have some collective stake in the event and witness here allows us to renew our common bonds through catharsis primarily because of a shared loss, or anger or even hate.

The difficulty of witness really begins when the event cannot muster this level of collective tragedy. When the event is about a singular life, even in the midst of that collective. A woman who dies of cancer, a child who dies in a car accident or an unknown woman raped in a war in the distant Congo – all require that in giving witness to it, the artist foregrounds the individual while also trying to create the sense of a larger tragedy, even by its absence within the work, an epic grandeur that can give everyone a stake in this singular life.

My own personal experience tells me that violence disrupts our balance, create a feeling of vertigo, the sense that everything clear about our morality, our ethics and about our worldview is spinning out of orbit so fast we can barely keep up. For most of us, art is the only way to arrest the speed of disintegration, to step back and get a hold of the fragments. Like when you break a vase and take a step back. We see at once the detail of pieces and the whole vase. Slowly we bend, pick up the first piece and consider it. This is witness.

This is to say that it is not the spectacle of the violence that we seek to show as artists, but its erasure of everything, including itself. For the artist, this erasure is created by a direct avoidance of detail or by a saturation of detail. Either of these effaces our ability to fully grasp and thus limit the tragedy through an easy comprehension. There then results a dynamic interaction between the thing itself, the very fact of it, the very materiality of it the event and its trace, its evocative power, its emotional depth, its ability to create expansiveness, to serve both as fact and symbol. In this way the singular life can bear witness to a tragedy larger than itself. This is my stubborn belief, my stubborn hope.

Every time I ask growing writers why they write, they have well rehearsed answers like the following: I want to give voice to the voiceless. I want to speak for all those who cannot speak for themselves. I want to tell my story. I have a story to tell. I want to change things. I want to change the world. And on and on. My favorite one, because it is the closest to the truth I’ve heard on a first answer was: because I can.

None of these are the reasons why we write. These are the reasons we have come up with to justify why we write. To rationalize, to carve out a space for ourselves, to say we deserve to, we want to, we should be able to.

This is an understandable impulse because many of us live in worlds where writing is not allowed, where the idea of it, the privilege of it, is impossible to just accept either because of gender, or race, or class, or the expectations of others – the reasons are multiple; but the answers we give are answers to imaginary questions. When we give answers like the one above, what we are hearing are the following questions: Who told you that you could write? How dare you be so selfish? And who is going to look after the kids? And what makes you think this is any more than a pipe dream?

The problem is, we have forgotten the central question: why do you write? Why? This is the crux of craft. Until you know why you write, you often will never know what your moral and ethical dilemmas really are, you will never know how to shape characters and stories that live outside of your own neurosis.

While not every writer can phrase the exact reason, they can approximate the shape of the wound, because, yes, we are talking about wounds. These wounds are often nothing more than the narratives we have built up over the years around an imagined or real hurt. But having a wound is not the same as being wounded. The former shapes the desire of expression while the latter merely creates silence.

All writing, and in fact, it has been argued, all art, comes from an existential wound. These wounds themselves are not always dramatic, or caused by a big trauma, but they produce a seed, a trauma deep enough for us to grow the bacteria of narrative until after a while, the wound has no relation to the cause. Wounds are also never to be confused for suffering. The false suffering, to borrow a phrase from Jung, which is associated with art, is not the subject here.

For writers what matters is how to use this infection as the driving force, the very ash of our work. It doesn’t matter what form the writing itself takes – Harlequin Romance, Detective Story or that genre that is in so much self-denial, literary fiction. What matters is that the knowledge of the infection allows the work to shift away from selfish interior gazing into a world that it is bigger than itself. It is the vulnerability that allows us to even contemplate the world and so the wound is what lends the work its direction, its outward thrust.


There, in the aftermath, was the voice of a man — once the sweet, screwed-up boy…
Eliza Grisworld (Sapphic Fragment)

We are in a car driving down a narrow tarred road. It is hot, very hot, and the dry dust of the harmattan season is blowing in the window. Nauseous and frightened I am on the front bench seat of an old car, the kind with a hand gearshift sandwiched between my father and mother.

My father is angry that I am sitting there, and every time he changes gear, he brings the metal rod of it down on my head with stinging blows that soon begin to draw sniffles and exacerbate my motion sickness.

It is 1970 and my first day back in Nigeria from London. I last saw my father in 1968 before we fled from the war, and I was three, and have no memory of him. We have been traveling all day, arriving in Lagos and being held in the airport in a hanger for hours while my mother is interrogated by an angry Army captain for being a Biafran supporter during the war. Finally we are released and fly in a tin can of a plane that still has bullet holes in the wings. So many holes that my brothers joked that we wouldn’t need flaps, and that if we crashed into water we would be fine because we were flying in a sieve.

Finally we arrive at Enugu and meet my father who has been drinking while he waited. He is in a foul mood because he has been waiting. He is angry when I hide behind my mother and won’t hug him.

Now in the car, he is shouting at me: Why are you such a sissy? Toughen up, this is Africa. Each word is wrenched out in a different gear, which hits my head in punctuation.

Finally I begin to retch and my mother opens the picnic hamper she had brought from England, especially for family trips like this, bought in Harrods at great expense, and pulls out a napkin and holds it to my mouth as I fill it.

My father screams angrily and comes to a rolling halt, and my mother opens the window and throws out the napkin with a look of infinite sadness. I watch the napkin fall into the underbrush, and my guilt unfurls.


“They say it’s the iron in the blood that resists transformation”
Maureen Seaton

The problem of course is that witness cannot save lives directly, or even alter the course of current events necessarily; all artists know this. What we have is that we can create a shift in perspective, collectively or singularly, that can if not alter, at least dent, the current worldview. With enough blows, we hope that it can be hammered into something malleable yet beautiful. In my experience, this is important because worldview is everything.

Think if you will of Chekov’s play, Uncle Vanya. This play ends in much the same way as it begins. It goes through the exploration of loss, of tragedy, of misery, yet in the end it all cycles back. No grand change has happened, no great revelation occurs. And so we ask, what is the point? And that perhaps is precisely the point – that we have to ask. Perhaps this is the most powerful act of rebellion there is, or can be. Think if you will of the idea of God, I mean here the idea that many of us either hold or grew up with: an omnipotent, omniscient, all loving being who has mapped out the best life for us all. And yet we pray. We ask him/her/it to daily change things for us, to alter the world in our favor. Is this act of prayer not then blasphemy? Is it not the questioning of God’s order? I offer this not as a point of belief, but to demonstrate the real power of witness, which lies in the power of questioning, however self defeating the question may be. The very act of the question, what is the point, signals that the revolution has begun.

In the United States we are part of a culture that is obsessed on the one hand with the idea of truth telling, with the idea that there is a truth, and that this truth is found in fact and non-fiction, and that this truth once found will be our philosopher’s stone; while on the other hand we are experts at denial, erasure, masters of deception, of lying, of mythmaking. So much so that the pursuit of truth, much like our inane pursuit of happiness, becomes the greatest barrier to it.

And this is where the wound and knowing it is important.

True writing, being a writer, is the struggle to wring meaning, to wring value to redeem even the most unredeemable thing, to find transformation in even the most heinous moments, to prove, through a very complex sophisticated telling, that every life can and does and in fact must have value. There is nothing else.

It doesn’t matter what the cause of the trauma is, what the dimensions of it, what the pain of it is and how deep it runs, what the facts are, and who did it to us and when, we all write to seduce the world into seeing us as we would like to see ourselves. We are trying to revise the grand narratives of our lives; we are refugees from the world that most people have no choice but to live in, with all their being. We make it possible not only for ourselves, but to others who don’t know how to sing, to make a song that makes living bearable. That is all. And yet what a privilege, what a burden, so we must step out of our own way, and yet, paradoxically, to do so, we must stand naked and, to paraphrase Martin Espada, be startled by the bedraggled image we see in the too brightly lit bathroom mirrors of the gas stations of our crossroads.

If we can at least agree on this, then we can perhaps begin to understand that all craft starts here, with a simple question, which most of us can never answer, but must: why do you write, really?

Image via Pieter Hugo

is the acclaimed author of GraceLand and The Virgin of Flames. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, three PEN awards, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship, among many other awards. Born in Nigeria, he is currently a Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University, in Chicago, where he lives. His new novel, The Secret History of Las Vegas will be published by Penguin on Jan 7, 2014.


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