One of the great pleasures of the gray days is coffee combined with the New York Times Book Review. I look forward to this moment for the way the newsprint reflects the color of the winter sky, the endlessly inventive illustrations and for the writing: often the reviewers leave me with as much to linger over and absorb as the books themselves. This week carried a particularly beautiful review by Leon Wieseltier of the letters of Saul Bellow. I am a letterkeeper. I belong to the vanishing lineage of those who dwelled in garrets and drawing rooms and “prewar flats” and lived to transcribe the moments of their lives for people they would never see but nonetheless carried with them as vital witness. To look back on letters from this century of the instant-message and the tweet has a special poignance.
What spoke to me most in this review were Bellow’s insights on metaphor, symbol, ideology and creative resilience. As a visual artist, narrative and symbol are my guiding frames of reference. But both can be hazardous to successful art. I take to heart these excerpts, as wisdom to work and live by.
“…the poetry of his prose, its force of consciousness, lay always in its fidelity to the concrete. In the appearances of things and circumstances and psyches, he discerned the revelatory details…“American books, including my own…pant so after meaning. They are earnestly moral, didactic; they build them ever more stately mansions, and they exhort and plead and refine…. A work of art should rest on perception.”
“Ideology is of no use to us in refurnishing the empty house….” What is of use, by contrast, is humanism. Humanism is “the most subversive of all — and I am a Humanist.” The absence of irony from that avowal is like a cool breeze. Trotsky, Rich, Steiner: Bellow was forever chasing the answer, but his disappointment in belief never dissuaded him from the chase. “The best of me was formed in the jumps.”
Metaphor is the juxtaposition of disparate elements of the world in which an unsuspected commonality, an illuminating partial likeness, has been discovered, and the more unlikely the juxtaposition, the greater the consequent sensation of the unifying of the world; and so the range of a writer’s metaphor is a measure of the range of his cognition.”
Read the complete review.
Photo collage from a series in progress called “Werkspace” about the physical and emotional space of creativity. Original photos by Iskra Johnson taken at Pratt print studios in Seattle.