ABSENCE AS PRESENCE A paper delivered at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. Shambaugh Auditorium. Iowa City. July 6. 1992 THE MOST FRIGHTENING part of...
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Question: In what way does the "transforming" of absence into presence enrich and enhance a literary work or an artistic work like a painting?

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ABSENCE AS PRESENCE A paper delivered at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. Shambaugh Auditorium. Iowa City. July 6. 1992 THE MOST FRIGHTENING part of the act of writing is the absolute blankness of the empty page. and the realization that one is expected to create something out of nothing. A part of what we do as writers is really a kind of fancy con job, to create the illusion of ideas at play. to embody these ideas in imagined fragments of ourselves. clothed in our memories. propelled by the collective projections of our native culture. And the magic act is finally completed by the reader, putting flesh and color upon the flash of rabbit. scarf. or butterfly we have pulled out of our hats. 27 For writing is essentially a participatory act: the "something" that we write. that the editor edits. that the printer prints, and that the bookseller markets. is basically "nothing" until the reader's eyes have transformed the black shapes into the abstraction of a sound. and into a construct of their own recreation. We are in the business of creating presences out of absences, in other words. Literature, according to Paul Valery in one of his more cynical pronouncements. has become "an art which is based on the abuse of language -- that is, it is based on language as a creator of illusions, and not on language as a means of transmitting realities. Everything which makes a language more precise, everything which emphasized its practical character, all the changes which it undergoes in the interests of a more rapid transmission and an easier diffusion, are contrary to its function as apoetic instrument." Edmund Wilson, the literary critic, goes on to observe rather grimly that: "As language becomes more international and more technical, it will also become less capable of supplying the symbols of literature; and then, just as the development of mechanical devices has compelled us to resort to sports in order to exercise our muscles, so literature will survive as a game -- as a series of specialized experiments in the domain of symbolic expression and imaginative values attained through the free combination of the elements of language." [He goes on to observe that "our ideas about the 'logic' of language are likely to be superficial. The relation of words to what they convey -- that is, to the processes behind them and the processes to which they give rise in those who listen to or read them --is still a very mysterious one. We tend to assume that being convinced of things is something quite different from having them suggested to us; but the suggesn've language of the Symbolist poet is really performing the same sort of function as the reasonable language of the realistic novelist or even the severe technical languages of science. The most, apparently, we can say of language is that it indicates relations. and a Symbolist poem does this just as much as a mathematical formula: both 28

suggest imaginary worlds made up of elements abstracted from our experience of the real world and revealing relations which we acknowledge to be valid within those fields of experience." According to Wilson, the language of Symbolism amounts to "a literary shorthand which makes complex ideas more easily manageable."] The deconstructionists assure us that the Mitten text is not a stable entity, that its interpretation is a necessary part of its completion as a work of art. But unlike the six blind men and the elephant, who each envisioned the elephant in radically differing ways(as a piece of rope, as a floppy cloth-like piece of ear, as a tree-trunk, and so on), a competently-constructed work will yield, with a little variety, interpretations that come fairly close to the writer's original intention: the fruit shouldn't fall too far from the tree. An object is defined by the description of its attributes, and its space is delineated by the other objects around it -— but it is also defined by what it is not. In the same way, a person's character is shaped by what he or she chooses to be, as well as by what he refuses to be. Indeed, the creative use of absence is something we all recognize as a powerful literary tool. In literature, varying degrees of absence are known by such terms as "allusion," or "suggestion," "implication," "inference," - and my personal and most pompous favorite, "adurnbration." Today I would like us to look at some examples of literature that illustrate the way absences themselves function as a kind of presence. For the next half-hour or so, I'd like us to take these two words. absence and presence, and turn them around a bit. I would like to suggest that the dynamic between absence and presence in the written text can take two basic forms. The first of these forms is when a character or an object is not present within the frame of the text. but is invoked by concrete images that allude to the missing entity. 29 The paintings of Vermeer, for example (the Dutch painter from the l7th- century), are mostly about things: interiors of rooms, windows, everyday objects like a jewel-merchant's weighing scales -- all of these objects attain a kind of hieratic importance simply because of the great detail that the artist has expended upon their portrayal. The accretion of details characterize, or become the physical embodiment of, their owner who does not appear in the picture, but who remains outside the narrative frame of the canvas. These interiors are so cvocatively rendered that they suggest the outlines of a. living personage, of whom the objects themselves become extensions -- the objective correlatives, as it were -- of the people to whom the objects in the rooms belong; they become the external manifestations of another, internal life, they reflect the values and the attitudes of the people who own these objects and who hold them in importance. Another technique Vermeer uses is to place a person in the picture, and another character (who is also perhaps the onlookcr) outside the frame. so that the person in the picture seems to be looking up from whatever he or she is doing, as his "Young lady Writing," momentarily interrupmd from her work at her desk, seems to look out of the frame of the canvas at us. In this way, a second character is created, one who does not exist within the framework of the artistic canvas, but exists only by implication, called into being, as it were, by the created object's painted glance. We all know the power that objects have to evoke living presences, especially if the objects are strongly identified with people we know and love: our feelings invest upon these simple things all the power and pain of our own love or loss: a crochet hook with the thread still dangling, a rocking chair standing still, a well-worn tobacco pouch.

I first became fascinated by this process, of identity as defined by absence, where presence is invoked by imagfi alluding to the missing object, on seeing a Japanese painting. called, "Whose Sleeves?", which depicted, in meticulous detail, several objects, among them an elaborate kimono, a sword, and various other accouten'rtents that apparently belonged to a samurai warrior -- but the warrior himself was not in the picture. The warrior is, of course, present in the picture in another sense, through the objects that testify to his existence. But more imponantly, his existence is even enlarged. and magnified. because it is not circumscribed or narrowed by having been captured and limited and inunobilized by having been given a definite shape. Parenthetically, the Japanese kimono was adopted almost directly from the Tang Court in ancient China. where silken sleeves carried visual as well as symbolic significanceI have found several references in the Chinese poetry of the Tang period, that indicate that the sleeve of a garment was the objectification of the most extravagant expressions of grief. Particularly in the poetry of Tu Fu, the most allusive of the T'ang poets, the wet sleeve becomes a convention for expressing grief at separation. So the objects in the Japanese painting seem to cry out for him, and the viewer asks: "Where is the warrior? Where has he gone? Why has he gone? Whose sleeves are these?" Thus the subject matter of the painting becomes the most powerful and abstract and unspeakable theme of all, the one idea that is impossible for the mind to imagine. the beam from which no witness has returned to describe: the subject is death, the ultimate absence. but also the ultimate presence, and the most powerful creative force: as Wallace Stevens says, it is the mother of beauty, 3| My daughter made the mysterious and wonderful and frustrating and life changing correlations rather early between the written word and the imaginary worlds that writing might convey. Like most of the other first-time parents of my overly ambitious, and perhaps unrealistic generation, I look the duty to "read to your kids" very seriously indeed, and I started reading to the baby almost as soon as I could hold her up in my lap, steadying her with one hand and holding a picture book in the other. She was probably about seven or eight months old when she began to realize that it wasn't Monuny's voice that was making the story happen, nor even the pictures on the page, but it was those indecipherable black marks at the bottom of the page, that Mommy's finger would point to now and then, that made the story happen. That's Where the story was coming from. At that point, she began pointing to the words and pushing the book away in frustration, and for about two days after that she'd shake her head and turn away whenever I'd try reading to her. And then she got over it, surrendering to the irresistible attraction of the picture-word-voice magic. and by the time she was twenty-two months old she could read the alphabet, both upper and lower-case. I remember the ambiguous and flabbergasted mixture of elation and helplessness and even guilt that I felt when, just turned three, she looked up from one of those little Ladybird editions of "Beauty and the Beast" and asked, "Mommy, what does 'despair' mean? 'And Beauty cried out in despair." The next major step she took in the ongoing transaction between word and image, was when she began refusing to watch the movie and TV versions of books she'd read, because invariably the enactment fell short of the perfect and unembodied forms the mind creates; electronically- mediated pictures somehow intruded into the enchantment of the reading process: it short-circuited that most astonishing series of leaps between the shape of word on the page, to the eye. to the brain. It always strikes rue

as being one of the most miraculous of all of the human abilities, what takes place in the transformation of a squiggle, an arbitrary visual representation, into the simultaneous embodiment of both image and sound, an interior mental dialogue between sound and image and sense. There's a painting by Van Gogh at the Chicago Art Institute (and I have also seen a version of it at the Metropolitan Museum) that, like the Japanese painting of the sleeves and the Vermeers, utilizes the procedure of allusion. It's called "La Berceuse"~"'1'he Lullaby" ~ and the curious thing about this picture is that there is no baby in the painting. It's a portrait of a peasant woman in a green printed dress, and in the foreground of the painting, we can see where Vincent, without any insistence on his part, shows us her tough, workewom hands, which are folded together and resting on a wickerwork handle. We assume that this handle is attached to a basket that is outside of the picture. The absent baby, is, in fact, closer to us than to the woman: because, by implication, it is located in front of the woman, outside of the frame. Thus the cradle where the baby is lying is not a part of the picture at all, and yet the cradle (and the child inside it, and the fragile state of sleep that the child is occupying] are powerfully suggested by the quiet, casual placement of the woman's hands, as though the artist did not want to destroy the tenderness of the moment by calling too much attention to it. Let us pursue this parallel from the visual arts one step further. Presence can be created, secondly, by the collision or blending of two unlike substances. As we know, the Impressionist painters used this technique; they experimented with it. and indeed. it even became, to some extent, their subject matter, and it was what defined them as a school of artists. 33 Typically. the impressionist painter sets down contrasting colors. say. blue and yellow. side by side on the canvas, and a third color emerges from the juxtaposition of the two colors. I must stress that the colors are not blended beforehand on the palette: they are put down separately on the canvas. each with an identity of its own that remains autonomous and intact when you look at it closely. It is the viewer's eye that blends the two primary colors. lue and yellow. and "creates" the color green. Carrying this technique to its systematic extreme. the paintings of the pointillists Seurat and Signac. for instance. seem to give the illusion that they vibrate: let's think about Seurat's most famous painting. "An Afternoon on the Island of the Grande latte": what is it that makes the objects appear to shiver in the sunlight? It's not just that the entire picture is composed of dots, but it's also because Seurat has placed unlikely colors. each in tiny increments. side by side: purple and orange. green and blue. and the viewer's eye has to work to blend the colors, making tiny leaps from color to color, binning together and producing the illusion that it is the canvas, and not the viewer's eye, that is in motion. And we are all familiar with the equivalent to Impressionism in the music of the times, particularly in the work of Claude Debussy. When the typical Debussy piece is performed on the piano, the damper pedal is held down, blurring the notes and creating clusters of sound. The illusion of depth and complexity is created simply from the resonances. Debussy, and others who followed him, also experimented with using unusual intervals between notes. These unconventional intervals evoke in the listener reflexive expectations of more conventional harmonies, and the ear might even hear "phantom" echoes of the absent notes in between. The literary correlative to musical and visual Impressionism is found in the work of the Symbolist poets, around about the satne time, and whose Paris is the same one that refused Manet and his friends the right to exhibit their works in the galleries run by the French academy, and so Manet and friends banded together to form the Salon tier Refirser, the "Salon of the Rejected." 34

As we know, this was the afterglow of the Romantic age, and the poets made it their artistic stance to reject the conventional and restrictive forms of language and behavior around them. seeking. as artists always will. a new expression and a new synthesis of forrrrs. Rimbaud's poem, "Voyelles," is a sharp illustration of the technique of synasrhesia, the mixture of the senses. or the blending of unlike substances to produce a new substance, a substance or quality outside of the denotative quantities in the text. but evoked by the elements used in the text itself. VOWEIS Arthur Rimbaud A black. E white. I red. U green. 0 blue: vowels. I will tell someday of your hidden origins: A, black velvet vest of dazzling flies That buzz around cruel smells, Gulfs of shadow; E, innocence of mist and of tents, Spears of proud glaciers, white kings, shivers of parsley stalks; I, crimsons. spat blood, smile of lovely lips ln rage or of drunken prodigals: U. cycles, divine vibration of viridian seas, Peace of pastures sown with animals, peace of the lines That alchemy imprints on high studious brows; 35 0, supreme 'I'rurnpet full of strange stridencies, silences crossed by worlds and angels: - 0 the Omega. the azure ray of His Eyes! - uanslated from the French by Rowena Torrevillas In this very famous poem. Rimbaud seems to be marrying sound and color, and the product of this marriage is a series of evocative, clearly lyrical. and somewhat impenetrable images. A professor of mine in French literature was very emphatic about the fact that the vowels Rimbaud paints in this poem are not the English vowels. a.e.i.o.u. but that they are most definitely and exclusively French vowels, as though that would make any difference in our ability to discover why Rimbaud chose to assign a particular colors to a sound. and the image to the sound, to the color: Perhaps the boy that Rimbaud was when he wrote this intended us to puzzle endlessly over the vowel sounds and the images he attached to them: "A" the sound of disgust, of amazement. and perhaps even of the echoes across a canyon. The French e sound. brusque and clipped. might possibly apply to the sharp quality that is shared by the images of glaciers. proud kings and their crowns, the angle of tents. flowers bloorrring in the harsh blast of winter snow: but I continue to be puzzled as to the reason why the 2 sound is associated with the color white. l-- a sound of derision. or the shape of the enraged or drunken mouth? The last two vowels. U and 0 (especially the final sound) seem to produce the most accessible and obvious correlations. I used to think that Rimbaud was onto something really great here. that in this poem he had originated a kind of playful experiment in free association. and that he was releasing the reader into a trance-like and amazing state of mind where colors had sounds. and sounds had actual physical shapes attached to them. 36

As Rimbaud himself says, at the age of seventeen prophesying the advent of Symbolism: "This language will be of the soul for the soul, summing up all, perfumes, sound, idea, color, and shape. It's a very simple system, and it has to do with the literal shapes of the letters themselves: Turn the A upside down, and you'll see a fly, or a valley in shadow between two mountains. Turn the E on its back, with the three arms pointing vertically upward, and you'll get mists rising, the shape of glaciers, king's crowns, tents seen from a distance, and a row of flower stems. The I turned sideways is the shape of the tightlipped smile, of lips about to spit blood. Write several US in a row and you'll get waves, undulating fields with the shapes of cattle, and the lines on the foreheads of people who worry or squint nearsightedly. And the 0 is. of course. the flared bell of the trumpet seen head-on. the perfect circle of eternity and of God's eyes. Rather disappointing when you look at the poem that way. A sense of presence in a narrative can also be created by the tension that is generated by the magnetic pull of objects that are separated by space or physical distance. John Donne's "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning," for example, epitomizes the notion of paradoxical presence, when the persona in the poem counsels his loved one not to grieve at their separation. because their love increases commensurate to the distance between them: "Our two souls, therefore, which are oneflhough I must go, endure not yell A breach. but an expansionJ Like gold to airy thinness beat." 37 The central character in Patrick White's novel, Voss, is a pathologically shy and inarticulate explorer who is unable to express his emotions around people, so he makes the perfect expeditionary to venture into Australia's uncharted outback. At the beginning of the novel, he meets a repressed young governess, Laura Trevelyan. He speaks with her a few times, and never sees her again: she becomes "the girl he left behind," in the city of Sydney, and she becomes his muse in his wanderings, the object of a miraculously coherent fantasy love-life that they build separately between them. Miss Trevelyan, who reciprocates Voss's emotions, herself forges a kind of mystical bond from their unspoken feelings: as the distance between them grows, and Voss travels deeper and deeper into aborigine territory, so does their idealized love burgeon. until the woman knows the exact moment that Voss dies in the wilderness, because she feels it in her body as a physical (and simultaneously, mystical) reality. The love they feel for one another is a completely imagined entity, and it never assumes a physical shape, but it is something that becomes strangely powerful because throughout the novel they never articulate it to one another, or to anyone else. THE SECOND DYNAMIC between absence and presence is when absence is used or a form of presence, particularly in poetry: when the concept of absence itself becomes a character or a separate entity, and thereby assumes a form of presence. An object is defined as much by what it is, as by what it is not. There are three ways by which the absent subject generates a form of presence or meaning in a poem. The first instance is when the central character, the metaphorical figure embodying the theme of the poem, does not appear, but apparently exists outside the poem's immediate frame of reference. no

Let us look at Elizabeth Jennings' poem. "Absence." in which the experience being communicated here is immediately understood because it resides in the common body of human experience. ABSENCE Elimbeth Jennings I visited the place where we last met. Nothing was changed, the gardens were well-tended, The fountains sprayed their usual steady jet; There was no sign that anything had ended And nothing to instruct me to forget. The thoughtless birds that shook out of the trees, Singing an ecstacy Icould not share, Played cunning in my thoughts. Surely irt these Pleasures there could not be a pain to bear Or any discord shake tlte level breeze. It was because tlte place was just the same That made yourabsence seem a savage force, For under all the gentleness there came An earthquake tremor: fountain, birds and grass Were shaken by my thinking of your name. The situation being depicted in the poem is something the poet assumes we have all experienced: one returns to a welleloved place alone, and everything apparently remains unchanged. all, except for the one, most crucial element of the environment, and that is the loved one, who is not there, and whose absence is made more evident and more difficult to comprehend because everything else has remained seemingly in stasis - -including the feelings of the persona. 39 An additional tension is created by the way the poet manipulates the imagery in a deliberate, and paradoxical fashion. You notice that all of the objects in the poem are invested with motion and impermanence: flowing water. birds. wind. All these objects. in the natural order of things. ought to change: from one moment to the next, and indeed, from one year to another. And yet. the fountains "sprayed their usual steady jet," the growing plants in the garden are held in check: the natural world is subjected. like the persona's emotions. to a conscious restraint. In fact. the persona's feelings towards the absent loved one also remain unchanged throughout the period of separation. So it is that the one violent element in this well-regulated, almost rigidly harmonious place, is the big hole that's left by the loved one who isn't there: who has. by implication. departed, and will not return. The scale by which the trauma is measured is in the blatant lack of change in the external landscape. The largeness of the emotional wound is exacerbated by the fact that the world (and the loved one) remain completely indifferent to the persona's pain; and perhaps the person here is, herself, caught by surprise to find the wound still so fresh when she thought it had already healed. And the poem's ultimate paradox is this: that the quantity that would normally be the most mutable, and most subject to change, is not the outside world, but the inner landscape, the person's emotions: and yet those feelings apparently (and to her profound surprise) remain the same, the status quo of longing and love exert the inexorable force of tectonic plates grinding underneath the seemingly stable external earth-crust of her life. And so, finally, the presence of the ntissing loved one is more strongly felt precisely because he or she is not there: the presence defined by the absence.

In this way, absence becomes a character in this poem, a character that occupies a space and assumes an actual shape, simply because he or she is not there, and should be: absence lakes on a character as real, and even more interesting perhaps, than the actual unseen person would have been. Rowena Torrevillas was educated in the Philippines and the United States and holds the PhD. in English and literature from Silliman University. She is presently the Program Administrator of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. She is the author of Upon the Willows and other Stories (New Day, Manila 1980), and two volumes of poetry, and is a six-time recipient of the Carlos Palanca Literary Awards for fiction and poetry. She co-edited MW (Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa, l987). Her parents, the writers Edilberto and Edith 'l'iempo, founded and direct the Philippines' longest—running program and Workshop in Creative Writing. Rowena Torrevillas has completed her third collection of poetry, Genetic Drama, and is at work on her first novel. She lives in Iowa City with her husband and daughter. She is represented in other modules of this course. Important notes: 1) The subject of literary essay may be on anything. from the serious and important topics to the smallest and most insignificant things; 2) thus. the literary essay rather takes its earmark From its style. which elevates the subject. whatever it may be; 3) when the subject of the literary essay is about literature. like in "Absence is Presence." the essay may of course be also classified as literary criticism 4] hwariably, the title of a selection is the first thing to catch the attention of the reader, particularly if the title promises the discussion of a paradoxical content. The foregoing statement is surely upheld by the above excerpt from the literary essay, "Absence as Presence." by Rowena T. Torrevillas, for not only the title but also the content do assert a paradox. This essay demonstrates with competence at least two expansive ways in which the absence of something within a given context or situation turns out to be actually the Esence of that something within that context or situation. The essay takes the materials for illustration from different forms of an -—painting, poetry, fiction, legend, music, and even a real-life incident (recounting her experience with her baby daughter's discovery about words). The first artistic technique the essay cites in manifesting the presence of an absent thing is the device of using highly evocative objects and concrete images that refer to the missing entity. The essay uses the examples of three paintings. two by Vermeer and one by Van Gogh. and a musical composition by Debussy. Another example used is a Japanese painting. (Other examples are mentioned but not explained in detail.) But the example that would most probably engage the reader is the author's personal experience in connection with her baby daughter's discovery that the "absent" pictures and images and situations narrated to her by Mommy were really "inside" the printed words, not in Mommy's voice or in the pictures but in the words printed on the page. Thus. at the age of seven or eight months the child experienced the presence of m people and objects and situations; although they were totally absent in reality, they were present "realities" because she experienced them as they resided in the printed letters of the book.

The paintings alluded to evoke the presence of the missing entity by "positioning" the character in the picture, so that helshe seemed to be looking at or touching something or somebody that is not in the picture at all, but seems to be present in the picture that is existing outside its frame; and this suggested thing or person is what gives meaningfulness to the whole actually»portrayed picture, so that, in this sense the absent entity is very much 1% in the picture as framed. Another artistic technique in manifesting the presence of a thing or person actttally absent does not use the device of l) choosing objects or characters that evoke the missing entity, or 2) "positioning" objects or characters in the painting strategically. This other device involves a more artificial way, as indicated in "Voyelles," by Arthur Rimbaud, who arbitrarily assigns color and sound to the vowels, ge,_i,g,g, so that certain absent ideas or feelings are claimed to emanate from the particular color and sound each time the corresponding vowel operates. The three devices discussed above are all categorized under the first artistic technique in manifesting the presence of an absent object or person. A founh device under this first technique concerns a more abstract and mystical tie that binds two people, each absent from the other, but each one evoking or "sensing" the presence of the other at a crucial time. This fourth device is illustrated by a poem by John Donne, and by a novel by Patrick White. lust a list-summary of the four devices cited under the first technique for manifesting the presence of absence: 1. Paintings used to illustrate how the portraying of selected objects that refer to the absent entity creates the presence out of the absence. 2. Paintings used to Show how "positioning" a scene in a picture can evoke the presence of something or someone not actually in 43 the picture. 3. The other artificial device is assigning colors and sounds to vowels, thus arbitrarily evoking the presence of ideas and emotions supposed to be generated by the particular sounds and colors. 4. The abstract and mystical tie between people absent from each other, mutually bringing in, vividly, one or the other's presence at a crucial time. "The second dynamic between absence and presence is [operative] when absence is used as a form of presence, particularly in poetry." This statement quoted from the essay represents a more subtle operation because it is not really the absence of a thing or person that is under consideration, but rather, it is absence itself as a concept that is functional here. That is, absence as a concept becomes a character or an entity in the poem and therefore is present in the poem. In the poem, "Absence," by Elizabeth Jennings, absence as a concept is depicted in the persona's thoughts and feelings and reactions to the objects that pervade the scene and that surround her and her sensibilities, particularly when the m of the absent one comes to her mind -- not the memory of his person, his features, his voice, or his words; it is only his absence that pervades the poem and is therefore resent in the poem. Dr. Tonevillas has handled excellently the analysis of this deceptively lyrical, but intricately intellectual and subtle poem showing how absence as a concept is very pervasively present in the whole poem.

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