We’re all patterns in the universe, swimmer Daniel Reiner-Kahn reasons in my new novel “Water Music.” But sometimes it’s only when we’re at the end of a journey – maybe even life’s journey – that we understand how the strands came together. At other times, we recognize how the strands fit as they’re being woven.
Last week, I had an onstage conversation with film critic Marshall Fine at the Emelin Theatre in Mamaroneck, N.Y. about the relationship between language and images after a screening of “Words and Pictures,” which opens this Friday, May 23. It’s the story of a tempestuous rivalry between a prickly artist (Juliette Binoche) and a showoff writer (Clive Owen). Four days later, the writer (me) and the artist (David Hutchinson) came together more happily at a reading from “Water Music” at The Lionheart Gallery in Pound Ridge. After, I opened up the floor for a discussion about David’s paintings and drawings there, which are based on the perverse writings of Jean Genet.
First, a few words about “Words and Pictures,” a rather contrived but nonetheless absorbing movie about a love-hate relationship that sparks a contest between the artist’s students and the writer’s. It occurred to me after that the only arena in which men and women compete is the intellectual one. With the exception of equestrian sports and racecar driving, men and women don’t compete against each other athletically. That’s part of the reason I made “Water Music” the story of four gay athletes. It wouldn’t have worked with two men and two women, although I do explore male-female rivalry in equestrian sports in “Criterion,” the third planned novel in my series, “The Games Men Play.”
The rivalry between the artist and the writer in “Words and Pictures” is a contrivance that is resolved all too easily. In the end, we need both words and pictures, blah, blah, blah.
But there is a real tension between writers and artists that arises in part from the idea that we live in a highly visual culture, albeit one, David says, with little visual literacy. It’s one thing to Instagram. It’s another to interpret Vincent van Gogh, a brilliant painter who was also a polyglot and whose letters teem with life.
At the same time, despite our visually driven world, we remain a culture that measures intelligence and capability through verbal skills. Perhaps that’s why women have higher IQs than men since standardized tests emphasize language skills over mathematical and spatial abilities. Men, who tend to do better on math and spatial tests, use something like 20,000 words a day. But women use in the area of 70,000.
Read any article about what CEOs are looking for in today’s graduates and the answer is always the same – someone who can think critically and comprehend and express that thinking not in numbers or computer symbols but in words.
So the verbal and the visual are a bit like Ali-Frazier, Affirmed-Alydar, Phelpte and Rafanole – necessary rivals and complements. Indeed, you can have one without the other but there is a sense of incompletion. And when you fuse the verbal and the visual, the temporal and the spatial, the analytical and the intuitive, you get what? An Einstein.
It’s against this backdrop that David, a philosopher (verbal) and architect (visual) by training, has taken on Genet, a writer who was a homosexual in an era when people used that word rather than gay. It’s no surprise, then, that Genet – a novelist, memoirist, playwright and sometime thief – saw himself as an elegant outlaw martyr. David isn’t, however, interested in commenting on the biographical. His drawings are layers upon layers of translations – a reflection on translation itself – so that they look like curlicues or wooly hair. You struggle to “read” them as if you left your glasses somewhere else.
His paintings are vertical stripes of colors whose names correspond to the different letters of the alphabet. So “a” would be “aquamarine,” and various stripes taken together spell words like “love.” As William McCauley writes in the catalog essay, it’s a form of synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon in which a person associates one sense with another so that a word might have a specific color, scent or musical sound. (We haven’t even mentioned music, which is ultimately the bridge between the writer and the artist in “Words and Pictures.” Like language and mathematics, to which it is related, music is seen as a left-brain function while visual and spatial abilities are right-brain functions. But this isn’t an exact science, varying between the sexes and from person to person as the two hemispheres “talk” all the time. Left-brain, right-brain is more of a metaphor. And like love, it’s complicated.)
Back to David, who asked me if I could describe where the images in my novel “Water Music” come from. They are definitely images and thus nonverbal, like the little boy who’s afraid of jumping off the diving board of his family swimming pool and is being bullied by his father. That’s an image I had a long time. Only later did I realize it was Dylan, the character who opens my book.
Writers dwell with images all the time. (I see my stories in my head as if they were movies, as I told the group.) But ultimately, images are not the writer’s gift. I’m bored by picture-taking and -making. No wonder I’m so lousy at it. (Or maybe I’m bored because I’m lousy at it – lack of talent and desire often going hand-in-hand.) Yet I was an arts writer for more than 30 years, a dream job. And I enjoy writing ekphraistic poetry, which is poetry based on artworks. (One of the best poems I’ve ever read is W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.”)
I love images. But what I really love is describing them in words. In “Purging Genet,” David isn’t seeking to rid us of language so much as to purify, clarify and distill it, to find its visual equivalent, just as I’m seeking the verbal equivalent of the pictures in my head.
We are both interpreters who want to ensure that nothing is lost in translation.
For more on David Hutchinson’s work, visit thelionheartgallery.com.