1. Point

Kandinsky starts with a point.  He lifts it from a sentence.  He writes a sentence three times, each time with the point at a different place.  The first sentence has the point at the end, a conventional period that “belongs to speech and indicates silence.”  The second sentence has the point in the middle. The resulting fragments may have been lifted from a transcript of a conversation.  The third sentence has the point near the sentence’s start and can be explained only as a misprint.

The third sentence allows us to see the point’s inner value for a moment before the typo explanation extinguishes our insight.  What did we glimpse?

A period “indicates silence,” but it “belongs to speech.”  Our habituation to the point used thus as an outward sign prevents us from hearing “the inner sound of the symbol.”  So, the point’s silence is deafening.

A period is a sign.  The artist can hear “dead signs” become “living symbols.”  “The dead comes to life,” Kandinsky points out in the first few pages of Point and Line to Plane, the second of his two major works on art theory.

The progression of three sentences gradually divorces the point “from the narrow sphere of its customary activity.”  But the divorce is not complete after the third sentence.  Kandinsky increases the size of the point relative to the sentence, and he increases the amount of white space on the page around it.  As he does, “the sound of the writing becomes diminished, and the sound of the point gains in clarity and strength.”

What is the point’s sound?  “The ultimate and most singular combination of silence and speech.”  The sound comes not from the point’s use in writing as a period, but from its status in geometry as “an invisible entity.”  As such, we associate the point “with the utmost conciseness, i.e., the greatest, although eloquent, reserve.”

One can see, then, from Kandinsky’s perspective how easy it was to co-opt the geometric point (a living symbol) for use as a period (a dead sign).  As a sign, the point (which “belongs to speech and indicates silence”) hints at its symbol, but our predilection for signs drowns out the sound of the symbol.

Signs are useful.  Verse is useful.  I’ve used “Thirty days hath September” countless times.

For Kandinsky, in the beginning was the word.  But the painter rescues the word from its own dead-sign nature.  (Paul says that “the letter kills.” Perhaps John was speaking of the word as symbol, while Paul was speaking of it as a sign, in Kandinsky’s terms.)  The word hides symbols in its signs, symbols that came before and that can be used again in art to create something larger while still honoring the symbol and helping others to feel it.

Jesus, then, is an artist. Christian theologians believe this prophecy in Isaiah points to him: “The Lord is well pleased for his righteousness’ sake; he will magnify the law, and make it honourable.”

The fleeting moment of recognition is expanded and made accessible to all.  The deafening silence is silenced, and the point’s true silence sings.

[This is the first of four posts on Kandinsky’s art theory.]

wmc is now here

Our brains, these pulsing organs soaked with terrors, have the capacity to embrace the opposite of terrors—to become a cabinet of wonders, “wonders” in the Alice in Wonderland sense, in the sense that language itself becomes the focus of wonder, that the play in the language (play-ful, full of play, play-billed, play-acted, play-thinged) reveals the play in our development as writers and as readers.

From wmc is now here.

Via Negativa

Nic’s reading is masterful. Dickinson is so condensed and elliptical that her work seems impossible to read aloud, much like the unplayable late string quartets of Beethoven. But Nic invests each word with a different weight; she doesn’t play with expectations, but transcends them.

From Julie Martin’s comment on Via Negativa.

Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ Artlog

Then just as the hands of the clock drew close to closing time, a security guard briskly rounded a corner and approached, and for the first time over the run of the show it was a man unknown to me. “I’m afraid you’ll have to leave now sir.” he announced in a business-like way. “The doors are about to close.” Thus it was that I was evicted from the gallery in the closing minutes of my own retrospective exhibition, by a man who had no idea who I was. I didn’t mind at all, rather enjoying both the irony and the return of the anonymity that is my usual condition.

From Clive Hicks-Jenkins’ Artlog.

Idealism: the hell & necessity


Ideals must burn low and long and locally.  Lincoln was my kind of idealist. He understood the hell in his own idealism.


Lincoln thought the winning ideals in 1783 and 1865 were the same, though few on the winning sides would have agreed on the ideals or were even idealists.


The moderation I want is not a Hegelian dialectical synthesis. It is the test of ideals through subordination and patience.


Eschatology – the ultimate ideal – leads to moderation, so Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith is a tax collector, unrecognized.


An ideal eschatology leads not to fanaticism but moderation. “Let your moderation be known to all men. The Lord is at hand.” – Phil. 4:5


After the cock crew, Peter’s idealism was sublimated into moderation. He became “a new creation.”


Only a few idealists have the highest moderation, but no one else does.


Moderation may be an idealist’s highest ideal, subordinating her other ideals to the rule of reason.

Philosophy in fiction

Tolstoy or DostoevskyIt occurs to me, rereading Tom Jones, that a novel can get across the life of an idea better than a treatise or a tract.

It’s not just that a novelist can sell a reader on her idea better than a nonfiction writer can his.  It’s that the idea can come across more fully, more like what it is: an idea enjoyed, feared, implemented, resisted, expanded upon, corrupted, corrupting.  The idea as obsession, as communication, as liberator, as oppressor.

When I think about expressing ideas in fiction, though, I face facts. I’m not attracted to stories as much as I am to language and to ideas, to abstractions.  Here’s how I know.  I never read fiction for plot.  I wore out two Bibles by the time I was thirty, and in them, the law, the histories, and the gospels — basically, the narratives — show some modest wear.  The epistles, those redoubts of instruction and abstraction, are in tatters.

I realized a few weeks ago that I’ve never watched a minute of television drama made since 1970.  (That’s about the last year I watched a local news broadcast, too: local news has most of the news stories.)  I also don’t remember jokes, anecdotes, names, or faces.  I often tune out, and sometimes interrupt for the gist, when people start telling me stories.

One last piece of evidence.  We had to recite cases in law school.  I never got the facts straight.  My contracts professor once asked me, pointedly, in front of a hundred of my peers, “Have you read this case?”  I had — I really had — but it didn’t take.

Nevertheless, I’ve read a dozen books by novelists on how to write novels.  My friend Michael, who also never writes fiction but at least is an excellent raconteur, reads them and passes them on to me.

Get the idea?  I don’t do stories.  But I’m enamored of them, crazy about the idea of stories.

Here’s another obstacle.  Writing fiction about ideas is out of vogue.  It’s fine to have a theme and all, people feel, but any greater role for an idea makes the fiction seem enthusiastic or polemical.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think an aversion to overcrowding fiction with ham-handed, ideological agendas is a matter of the age we’re living in.  I find a universal truth in the notion that good fiction, even a good parable or fable, can’t be first and foremost a vehicle for its message. But we’ve taken that truth to an extreme, I think because we have so few universally held myths stout enough to hang our ideas from.  (Myths I can handle.  Tell me a story a thousand times, set it to liturgy and holidays and commentary, and I can remember it.  Hell, I’ll serve at its altar.)

The most recent book Michael gave me was Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life.  (A dozen books on writing fiction, and I’m only now reading Dillard’s classic?)  She says:

People love pretty much the same things best.  A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but what he alone loves at all.  Strange seizures beset us.  Frank Conroy loves his yo-yo tricks, Emily Dickinson her slant of light; Richard Selzer loves the glistening peritoneum, Faulkner the muddy bottom of a little girl’s drawers visible when she’s up a pear tree. . . .

Why do you never find anything about the idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Dillard asks.  Because (she answers) it is up to you. (67)

But does Dillard confuse wood for spark, or purpose for fillip?  As a college writer-in-residence, Faulkner tells that story about Caddy’s underwear, but I don’t think it’s why he took up writing fiction.  The vision of Caddy climbing a tree just got him going, to hear him talk about it.

But what if it’s an idea I want to burn?  I could find a spark anywhere for writing about it, but do ideas legitimately burn in fiction anymore?  And the kind of fiction I’m thinking of doesn’t have ideas as mere theme or adornment.  These ideas are the work’s backdrop and its reason for being.  (You probably have clicked around this site enough to get some idea of my ideas.  It doesn’t take many clicks to do so.)

George Steiner thinks Dostoevsky’s characters burn ideas:

Dostoevsky’s heroes are intoxicated with ideas and consumed by the fires of language.  This does not man that they are allegoric types or personifications.  No one, with the exception of Shakespeare, has more fully represented the complex energies of life.  It means simply that characters such as Raskolnikov, Muishkin, Kirillov, Versilov, and Ivan Karamazov feed on thought as other human beings feed on love or hatred.  Where other men burn oxygen, they burn ideas. (Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: An Essay in the Old Criticism 289)

Intoxicated with ideas and consumed with language?  Maybe I’ll give up the thought of writing and become a Dostoevskian character.

But Dostoevsky, and not just his characters, burned ideas, particularly one:

Writing to Maikov in 1870, with reference to the projected Life of a Great Sinner, the novelist confessed: “The fundamental idea, which will run through each of the parts, is one that has tormented me, consciously and unconsciously, all my life long: it is the question of the existence of God.”  This torment was at the heart of Dostoevsky’s genius; his secular instincts – the power of the story-teller, the inborn sense of drama, his fascination with politics – were profoundly conditioned by the religious cast of his mind and by the essentially religious quality of his imagination. . . . Around “the question of the existence of God,” Dostoevsky’s novels elaborate their special vision and their dialectic.  They raise it now by affirmation and now by denial.  The problem of God was the constant impulse behind Dostoevsky’s apocalyptic and ultra-nationalist theories of history; it made moral discriminations of the utmost insight a necessary art; it gave the activities of intellect their pivot and tradition. (287 – 288)

Even if I had a fraction of Dostoevsky’s talent, are we in an age where our novelists or their characters can burn ideas like oxygen?  Here’s where the idea of the idea-as-backdrop comes in.  Steiner feels like Dostoevsky’s generation of Russians had a rendezvous with destiny:

The contemporaneity of religious fervor and poetic imagination in nineteenth-century Russia, the dialectical relationship between prayer and poetry, was a specific historical circumstance.  It was no less rooted in a moment of time than was that coalescence of occasion and genius which made possible Greek tragedy and Elizabethan drama. (321)

Our mythologies, which Steiner believes “can be of diverse orders: political, philosophic, psychological, economic, historical, or religious” (232), aren’t as deeply rooted as those in nineteenth century Russia (319).

That may be why some English and American writers are skittish about ideas in literature.  We’re diverse and disconnected, and while we’ll scream about politics, we rarely talk about it in the context of great ideas.  There’s little mythological (in Steiner’s broad sense of the word) bottom in our literature, so our literature can’t hold ideas. It’s like variations on a musical theme when the theme’s gone.  The variations clash, and everyone sounds insensitive to how the others are playing.

Rebecca West considered “a failure to recognize the dynamism of ideas” as the chief flaw in English literature.  Geoff Dyer, in his introduction to John Berger’s Selected Essays, takes issue with Craig Raine’s notion, which Dyer feels is prevalent in England today, that “We need ideas, but not in our art.”  “This belief,” Dyer responds, “is a serous blot on the English literary landscape” (xii).

Steiner feels a need to reorient us to the notion of ideas in novels before he examines Dostoevsky’s:

In suggesting that a novel may be a façade or a mask for a philosophic doctrine, we involve ourselves in error.  The relationship between thought and expression is at all times reciprocal and dynamic. (232)

Tom Jones and The Brothers Karamazov have been the chief pillars of my novel reading from high school on.  Tom Jones is a comedy set over a wide period of time with a friendly narrator; Karamazov is a tragedy in compressed time with a hidden narrator, a kind of stage director.  The books are so different.

But Tom Jones and Karamazov are both about ideas.  They’re both political and religious novels, though not in the sense of All the King’s Men (political setting) or the Left Behind series (religious indoctrination).  They both examine political theory and religious doctrine without falling into tract or allegory (despite Tom Jones’s “Allworthy” and “Thwackum”).  They extend beyond their ideas to touch something universal, something that readers who aren’t enamored with their ideas – indeed, readers who reject them – may still draw life from. In other words, while the novel serves the idea, the idea serves the novel more.


On Texas’s successive secessions. A potential secessionist is now a potential president.  James Buchanan is considered one of our worst presidents in large part because he didn’t think he could resist secession.  But even Buchanan never suggested secession as an option, as Mr. Perry has.  The issue isn’t patriotism but one of inalienable rights.  At its heart, secession is contrary to the notion that all men are created equal.

The illumination of grace

Real light, which creates shadows, seems to turn on and off during nodal points of history.  Thus, we can speak literally of the “Dark Ages.”


If, after Judgment, a day is like a thousand years, then chronological time ceases to be the yardstick by which the events and stories of realist art are measured.  Instead, a timelessness prevails in which colors and forms can function on their own terms.  In this immensity of tranhuanman time, the traditional technique of chiaroscuro cannot be applied.  Old sources tell us that after the cataclysm the secular shadows of time yield to the “new lights of eternity.”  Nonobjective painting keeps pace with this vision: shadows cast by candles, moons, and suns vanish so that a new kind of light can emanate from within the picture’s core.


Dante’s transhumanization [in the Divine Comedy] means that he will no longer be capable of casting a shadow and will no longer yield to the law of gravity.  Finally, in Canto 33, he has the Beatific Vision and sees the Supreme Light.  Viewing the three colored circles of the Trinity and wanting to “see how the human image was conformed to the divine circle and has a place in it,” Dante needs the illumination of Grace.  St. Bernard gives him this capacity to discover human measure in the colored circles of the divine nonobjective display.  It is ironic that Italy’s highest expression of the medieval quest for transcendence resisted convincing pictorial visualization until modern art made it possible.

— Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo, from the introduction to Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art.