The Strange Energies of Images, and the Humility of Language

by Tom Jacobs

ScreenHunter_43 Jun. 18 14.27How many stories are born of images? All of them? Most of them? Without some founding image (of a person, of a family, of a moment) is it even possible to conceive of a story? The relation between an image and its story—all of the resistances and exchanges between these two very different forms of expression and representation—is both important and incredibly slippery. In a Paris Review interview, Faulkner was asked “How did The Sound and the Fury Begin?” His answer is struck with the force of a small revelation, in part I guess because it is so simple. It began with a mental picture.

I didn't realize at the time it was symbolical. The picture was of the muddy seat of a little girl's drawers in a pear tree, where she could see through a window where her grandmother's funeral was taking place and report what was happening to her brothers on the ground below. By the time I explained who they were and what they were doing and how her pants got muddy, I realized it would be impossible to get all of it into a short story and that it would have to be a book. And then I realized the symbolism of the soiled pants, and that image was replaced by the one of the fatherless and motherless girl climbing down the drainpipe to escape from the only home she had, where she had never been offered love or affection or understanding.

He notes that he tried to tell the story through the eyes of several characters, and even to “gather the pieces together and fill in the gaps by making myself the spokesman,” and ends up admitting that he “never could tell it right, though I tried hard and would like to try again, though I’d probably fail again.”

Kundera, too, in his excellently-titled, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, explains that his characters came into being by virtue of a haunting image. I have been thinking about Tomas for many years. […] I saw him standing at the window of his flat and looking out across the courtyard at the opposite walls, not knowing what to do.” He is trying to figure out if what he feels for Tereza is hysteria or love.

This puts me in the mind of (as most things that I find incredibly engaging interesting do), Walter Benjamin. He has a castoff comment in his Arcades Project where he is thinking about why criticism and analytical thinking are so much less successful than advertising. And he says this: Not what the moving red neon sign says—but the fiery pool reflecting it in the asphalt. That, to be sure, is the kind of declaration that will, if you are so inclined and share a similar sensibility, make you stop and think really hard.

There’s something there, but what does it mean? Why does the reflection of something affect us in such a different manner than the thing itself, unmediated? We have all seen an advertisement or a sign or whatever via its reflection and been kind of startled by it. It’s hard to know why our sensuous assimilation of things is so hard to talk about or describe or explain.

Michael Taussig, speaking of “tactility and distraction,” considers this passage and reflects: “Not language, but image; and not just the image but its tactility and the new magic therof.” When analysis generally reconstitutes or draws our attention to the obvious, Benjamin’s fascination with the tactile eye is “capable of surprising us with the flash of a profane illumination.”

And here is an excerpt from the end of Lolita, in which Humbert Humbert (the lovely double rumble) understands something about his monstrousness. He has just seen Lo for the last time and takes a momentary break from his endless drives to catch his breath and figure out what it is that all of this means… He is on a mountain and hears the sound of children playing far below (and this is more of a sound-image, but an image nevertheless).

As I approached the friendly abyss, I grew aware of a melodious unity of sounds rising like vapor from a small mining town that lay at my feet, in a fold of the valley. One could make out the geometry of trees, and a serpentine stream, and the rich, ore-like glitter of the city dump, and beyond the town, roads crisscrossing the crazy mountains. But even brighter than those quietly rejoicing colors—for there are colors and shades that seem to enjoy themselves in good company—both brighter and dreamier to the ear than they were to the eye, was that vapory vibration of accumulated sounds that never ceased for a moment, as it rose to the lip of the granite where I stood wiping my foul mouth. And soon I realized that all these sounds were of one nature, that no other sounds but these came from the streets of the transparent town, with the women at home the men away. Reader! What I heard was but the melody of children at play, nothing but that, and so limpid was the air that within this vapor of blended voices, majestic and minute, remote and magically near, frank and divinely enigmatic—one could hear now and then, as it released, an almost articulate spurt of vivid laughter, or the crack of a bat, or the clutter of a toy wagon, but it was all really too far for the eye to distinguish and movement in the highly etched streets. I stood listenting to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.

That sound image is a fulcrum on which the entire novel turns. The sound-image permeates Humbert’s being and he sees things anew and he understands that he must change his life. (he will die, of course, before he can do so…)

Although “the verbal” and “the visual” are often spoken of as discrete and entirely separate fields and forms of representation, as W.J.T. Mitchell has forcefully argued, “all media are mixed media, and all representations are heterogeneous; there are no ‘purely’ visual or verbal arts, although the impulse to purify media is one of the central utopian gestures of modernism.” The fundamentally heterogeneous character of any form of representation can be traced to the synesthesthetic underpinnings of our phenomenological experience of the world; when pushed far enough, the apparent distinction between faculties and senses breaks down, and the terms through which we produce or understand a given form of representation reveal themselves to be thoroughly hybrid. And so we are left with images and words, and in some profound way, never the twain shall meet.

Foucault is helpful here: the relation of language to painting is an infinite relation. It is not that words are imperfect, or that, when confronted by the visible, they prove insuperably inadequate. Neither can be reduced to the other's terms: it is in vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say. And it is in vain that we attempt to show, by the use of images, metaphors, or similes, what we are saying… It’s not that a picture is worth a thousand words; it’s that saying and seeing are just two completely different types of things.

Then there is James Agee, who thought a lot about the power of images. In Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (a strange text that he collaborated on with Walker Evans and that combines language and images in strange and unsettling ways), Agee repeatedly emphasizes the profoundly social motivations and intentions that underwrite their project, insisting that “next to unassisted and weaponless consciousness, [the camera] is the central instrument of our time” – an admission that eventually culminates in the extraordinary declaration that “if I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, […] a piece of body torn out by the roots might be more to the point.”

I don’t have a neat or snappy way to end this, other than to say that I have noticed (well, twice, I think) that in my own writing, I often refer to the image of a person looking out a window eating a sandwich. I’m not at all sure what it means, but I’ve been thinking about writing a series of stories about a person looking out a window eating a sandwich. Much depends on what kind of sandwich it is, what that person is looking at, what they are thinking about, and why, of course, they have chosen to look out the window rather than, say, look at the newspaper or facebook. I started a story, but have not finished it. I would invite anyone who is so inclined to submit their own stories about a person eating a sandwich and looking out a window. It’s such a Hopper-ian image, except it’s not an image. No doubt I will spend the rest of my life figuring out what this image means to me, and I will probably think about it while I myself am looking out a window and eating a sandwich.

So the alarm went off and it was 3 a.m. This is the time that I like to have a cigarette. I actually wake myself up to have a cigarette because I love them so much. It’s as if everyone is sleeping except for me and I lean out my window and smoke. My favorite thing is to go forage in the refrigerator and to find something worth eating while I smoke. On this night, it was the leftover lasagna. I look our and I see all of these seemingly empty apartments. Actually, I live across from an art institute, so I see all of these empty studios, with unfinished art within. I find this interesting. So I’m holding the vaguely wet lasagna in my hand and kind of slurping/chewing it and am trying to discern what these students are working on, and I see that there’s a dude in a wifebeater (a literal wifebeater) smoking a cigarette out his window in the exact same manner that I am. And mind you, It’s 3 am right now. We exchange a brief series of looks that establish some kind of fraternal recognition and acknowledgement. My baby starts to cry and I throw the cigarette on the street below and then I recede into to my apartment to take care of whatever needs to be taken care of. … I think I’ve seen this guy before. At the pizza joint, or maybe at the bodega. He’s familiar, that’s for sure. I know nothing about him. But I seem to keep running into him. It’s a “these are the people in your neighborhood” type of thing. You don’t really know them, but they are important to establishing some sense of home in the world. The guy who sells you coffee, or cigarettes, and even the homeless people that you meet when you’re walking down the street, type of thing. So I see him smoking out his window, and we have this brief moment when we exchange glances. We are both looking across something like an abyss of mutual incomprehension. But still, there is an acknowledgement of something. We are, all of us, brothers. And I feel that for a brief moment. But then he throws his cigarette onto the street and dissolves into the darkness of his apartment. This is mysterious and intriguing.