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Issue 127

On Writing: Meditations on the Art of Reading
by Lucy Ives

Three notes:

1. The affect I perceive in painting may be no more relevant to the effects of literary language than any other context-producing affect.

2. Painting has often been representational and affect is included in painting. But affect – in or as itself – is not representational, in the style of an image. Affect moves differently than, say, naming.

3. I want to create a reader. This is what I am doing, in writing.

An anecdote:

A postcard reproduction of a painting by Eugène Delacroix was for many years affixed to a bulletin board in the kitchen of my par- ents’ apartment. At the time of the appearance of this postcard (of Young Orphan Girl in the Cemetery, c. 1824) I was seven or eight years old. The postcard remained in place, as postcards do, for three or four years more. During this period, microwaving frozen muffins, et cetera, I had plenty of opportunities to examine the face depicted. Things about it disturbed me. Not least among these was the fact that I could not determine the figure’s age. Was she a child? A teenager? Early twen- ties? Was I even sure that she was female? And then there was the question of the purpose of the painted image: What, exactly, was I meant to believe was occurring here? Someone leans hard to her left in a landscape, seems to rush in one direction without moving. (I did not know the painting’s title.)

I perceived something unhinged, thick in this face. The staring face is turned away, addresses an invisible entity (the sky?). The girl seemed to be an example, but of what I could not say, although her exemplarity seemed important, like a warning seems important.

An expression:

Many people think of affect as a kind of performativity, an act or pattern (an “act” in the sense that it is both artificial and real, in the sense of “happening”). Affect is a social act.

In the painting, it occurs to me that affect takes another form, that of an “X,” a quantity present and (in this strange fact of English) affecting. When I look at this painting, something seems to be held open for me, not just an eye or a mouth. It runs contrary to the painting’s title, its supposed meaning: This is a child. This individual is bereft. This individual is exposed. This is an expression (a face, a complex gesture of a painter). This is an “expression” “of” “grief.” (The use of quotation marks becomes more emphatic, the longer I look.)

In a kind of eccentricity endemic to almost all of Delacroix’s figures, issues of anatomical proportionality lead to a heightening of the work’s weird drama – what, in spite of that term’s potentially specious connection to painting, I want to describe as affect. Alfred de Menciaux, in an article on the salon of 1845, wrote, “If the impetuosity of M. Delacroix’s brush or pencil did not involve a tendency to join the legs too high or too low or to deform the arms – ultimately to flout the laws of drawing – my God, what a great artist he would be!”

Here, a massive fleshy ear demands the eye. A squished neck invites thoughts of anguish. What is that lump under the chin? An eye several times the size of the end of the face’s nose bulges at the very edge of believability, i.e., the far right of the figure’s face. This face cannot be imagined head on. What would we do with the neck? The eyes would be impossibly far apart. We could not fit the eyes within this face. The mouth (slack, febrile, plush) is rotated slightly too far to the left. Teeth are revealed as if from the front. This is to say nothing of the strange collusion of flesh and fabric that forms the torso. The fabric pinched, an inexplicable empire waist; the girl’s left shoulder turned to the eye at an impossible angle.

Anyway:

In his diaries, Delacroix does not discuss the Orphan Girl. This painting was a study for The Massacre at Chios (1824), an enormous historical painting depicting the genocide and enslavement of Greeks on the island of Chios by the Turkish army in 1822.

Around this time, in his diaries, Delacroix has a habit of using Italian to describe as- signations with his mistress of the moment, Julie. We can assume that the orphan girl’s head is hers. I am not a Delacroix scholar, but the trouble in the fashioning of the figure, the marriage of childish face to shrunken adult body, seems to have something to do with desire. We can’t ignore the exploitative aspects, the weird presence of breasts, open mouth, nostril, ear. The body appears recently shaken. It has just been seized and roughly shaken. Here things are, as we like to say in the U.S., “personal.” The face and torso are not yet in service of something larger, i.e., a prurient view into war in the near east, but soon they will be.

Anyway, as Delacroix admonishes a putative student, in his Meditations on the Art of Painting, “…in truth, you yourself are the subject…”

I mean:

The effect of the unreality of this painting is to create a viewer. I think about it, this ef- fect. A writer could, likewise, create a reader. I find much to despise in Delacroix’s paintings, yet his idea about his viewer is so obvious. It seems like a trick one should try to understand.

We are all familiar with the idea of creating an audience. But what would it mean to create a reader? Could a writer create a reader who had not previously existed, an entirely new reader? I don’t, for example, necessarily intend for a new reader, so called, to be a real person, or even a possible series of people. Perhaps creating this new reader is also about creating a kind of permission. Perhaps we could be more desirous of reading itself, or – if there is no way to have reading itself – then: a present of reading. I will quite willingly trade meaning for the present.

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