Gotham Diary:
December 2017 (II)

12, 14 and 15 December

Tuesday 12th

Maddeningly, the entry is undated. But within the past couple of weeks, The Browser published a link to a presumably recent interview at Five Books in which Jane Jelley was interviewed about Vermeer. The point of Five Books, a British site, appears to be to get the author of a recent book to recommend five “best” books on the subject, whatever it is, and to make it very easy to buy all six — the five recommendations plus the author’s own work — with “Buy” buttons that take you straight to Amazon. Despite the shilling (I’d be much happier if they replaced “Buy” with”Browse”), I like Five Books almost enough to visit it regularly; if I don’t, it’s because I don’t need inducements to be buying books. In this case, I bought Jelley’s, Tracings of Vermeer.

Jane Jelley is a painter who lives at Oxford. The flap doesn’t say what she does there, but it is clear from the book that she is a student (and possibly a master) of historical art skills. To put it briefly, she knows how to simulate the practices of a seventeenth-century Nederlander painter. She knows about linens and “sizes” (a glue), pigments and oils, pigs’ bladders and brushes, and she has the patience to wait for pre-modern paint to dry. (Three months, in the case of a newly-primed canvas.) Perhaps from years of casually reading Elizabeth David, Jelley knows how to write about all of this with a charm that paradoxically conveys immense tedium in appealing prose, and it is for her writing, more than for what she has to say about Vermeer, that she is to be most highly commended. Not that she hasn’t convinced me that she’s right about how Vermeer worked. On the contrary: it’s very much because she isn’t out to convince anybody.

The controversy is, of course, about Vermeer’s use of the camera obscura. Whether or not Vermeer made use of this device has been argued, apparently, since 1891, when American print-maker Joseph Pennell claimed that he must have done. From the start, this claim was refuted by critics who clearly regarded such use as a kind of cheating. It’s a profoundly nineteenth-century argument, loaded with disdain for “mechanical aids” and addled by contempt for the modern camera, which shares with the camera obscura nothing more than a lens. The actual camera obscura is no more and no less of a mechanical aid than a palette, and, as Jelley makes drolly clear, it would not have afforded Vermeer any shortcuts on the road to transcendence.

The camera obscura projects a doubly reversed image onto a dark surface. Upside-down and backwards, this image would be an extraordinarily unwieldy template for masterpieces. Nor is it really conceivable that a painter could apply colors in a dark room. It may well be that Vermeer’s paintings betray a focal point more rigorously fixed than that of an artist surveying the scene from behind an easel, but the idea that the artist simply traced the image thrown up on a wall by light passing through a peephole is childish. He could not have done any such thing.

Jane Jelley has effectively reoriented the discussion by looking not at the surface that we call can see but that the bottom-most layer of paint, what we might call the background but the technical name for which is “invention.” Vermeer’s inventions are revealed by x-rays to be unlike everyone else’s. There are no outlines, no rays of perspective — nothing linear at all. There is only an array of masses, dark against the light primer. The examples that Jelley provides look like very high-contrast reductions of the finished pictures. The composition is presented not in terms of lines but of light and dark. Jelley wanted to know how Vermeer did this. For an artist to see the kind of arrangements shown in Vermeer’s inventions with his naked eye struck her as implausible. But what if he traced the dark parts of a camera obscura image onto oiled (transparent) paper, using black paint, working very quickly, and transferring the traced image simply by printing it — she writes of pressing the back of the paper with a wooden spoon — onto freshly-pumiced, highly-absorbent canvas? What if Vermeer then continued to build up further layers of paint in the conventional way, out in the open with his model?

For the viewer, the question would be why Vermeer would do this. What difference could it make to me? There is something primordial about my own answer. The world is a dark place, pricked with points of light. An atmosphere of some kind of vapor is required to diffuse light in such a way that, say, a room facing north could be illuminated by sunlight shining from an invisible source. That atmospheric diffusion, precious at northern latitudes afflicted by heavy clouds of rain, is Vermeer’s principal resource. It is what he paints onto the dark. It is what penetrates his rooms, fading inevitably into shadows — shadows that are there from the start: figuratively, before the sun comes up; actually, in the masses of his invention. Every picture captures a moment’s exposure to light, to the light falling on the many different surfaces in a room. It holds together with such breathtaking force because the shadows have also been captured altogether in one moment. In this regard, yes, Vermeer “took pictures” just as we do, capturing the instant in an image. But this image was the rough preliminary of the painting that we esteem. To suggest that using a camera obscura is some kind of low, dishonest trick is no different from making the same charge about his grinding lapis lazuli into ultramarine.

As Jelley’s entertaining walk-through of her experiment with the camera obscura makes very clear, an enormous amount of trial-and-error would have been required, by Vermeer or whoever taught him (Carel Fabritius, I strongly suspect), to produce workable tracings from the projected image. Oiling the paper, choosing a brush, finding a paint that would be transferable without running, these were all problems without self-evident solutions. (In the case of the oiled paper, she found the answer in a treatise from 1390.) Capturing the instant was anything but the work of an instant.

Not quite three dozen paintings by Vermeer survive. There no drawings, sketches, watercolors, or anything else. There are not many men in the paintings, and only two mature works that look out of doors. By my quick count, at least eighteen appear to depict the northeast corners of domestic interiors, and women appear in all but two, the pair known as The Geographer and The Astronomer (almost certainly the same model). In six paintings, women are shown wearing what looks like the same yellow satin jacket, trimmed in ermine. (All were painted within six years.) It was anything but unusual for Vermeer’s contemporaries to concentrate on specialties; the concept of branding was familiar in the arts. What was peculiar to Vermeer, however, may have been too subtle to be widely appreciated at the time. It is a unity of light that bathes an arrangement of surfaces that emerge with an appreciable indistinctness from the natural dark of shadow. Vermeer’s is a world of soft-edged intelligibility, in which nothing is altogether settled. Many of his pictures capture a privacy that our looking does not violate. Jane Jelley’s Traces of Vermeer persuades me that these illusions are all based on a foundation of shadow made solid. Now I think I know why it is that I can stare at one of his walls so expectantly, as if it were about to disclose another picture altogether: the dark of night lies directly beneath it.


Thursday 14th

As usual, I didn’t read the short story in last week’s New Yorker — until just now, having read about it in the Times. That was unusual; until very recently, it has always seemed to me that the magazine and the newspaper published in strictly separate worlds, each taking no notice of the other’s contents. But here in today’s Styles section was a piece about “Cat Person,” by Kristen Roupenian, an attractive woman (sorry!) in her mid-thirties who studied for the foreign service but turned to her first love when that didn’t work out. The story is about a twenty-year old sophomore who meets an older man — late twenties at least, she thinks — at a concession stand and gives him her phone number. A flirtation conducted in text messages ensues. I hope that readers learn from Roupenian’s mighty sorrowful story what a bad idea it is to try to size up a pen pal as a potential lover.

Robert, the man in the story, is thirty-four, and he lives alone in a house with little furniture. It seems to me that these are two of the many things that Margot ought to know about Robert long before she follows him into his bedroom. But Margot is only twenty. Worse, she is a very smart twenty, a very imaginative, empathetic twenty. She doesn’t need to know Robert; she can make him up. It’s enough that he makes her laugh. But does he? It’s the exchange of texts that makes her laugh, or smile, anyway, and that invites her to indulge in romantic speculations about him. The problem with these speculations is not so much that they are wrong as that they constitute an investment. You could call it a bet, but that just makes it out to be less serious than it is.

The preliminary, fun part of Margot’s relationship with Robert comes to an end with her return from a semester break, by which point she has been in the same place with him on a total of three occasions that could be timed in minutes.

When Margot returned to campus, she was eager to see Robert again, but he turned out to be surprisingly hard to pin down. “Sorry, busy week at work,” he replied. “I promise I will c u soon.” Margot didn’t like this; it felt as if the dynamic had shifted out of her favor, and when eventually he did ask her to go to a movie, she agreed right away.

The bulk of the story is an account of the date that follows. Nothing terrible enough for the tabloids happens, but the evening is, to put it mildly, deflating and demoralizing for Margot, leaving her with the sore conviction that she doesn’t want to see Robert again. It’s not that he’s a bit pudgy and slope-shouldered; Margot has dealt with these drawbacks before he takes his clothes off. It’s that Robert’s sex life has been pornographized. In the middle of things, he slaps her thighs and cries, “You like that!” He would probably never thought of such a gesture on his own. At their third meeting, in a convenience store, Robert made Margot feel like a very special doll; now he makes her feel like a rubber doll.

Robert returned from the bathroom and stood silhouetted in the doorway. “What do you want to do now?” he asked her.

“We should probably just kill ourselves,” she imagined saying, and then she imagined that somewhere, out there in the universe, there was a boy who would think that this moment was just as awful and hilarious as she did, and that sometime, far in the future, she would tell the boy this story. She’d say” —

but you’ll have to read it for yourself. I wouldn’t dream of upstaging Roupenian’s magnificent writing.

In the Times interview, Jonah Engel Bromwich’s last question begins with a statement: “The story’s last exchange gives the clearest view of who Robert is.” Well, Bromwich said it, Roupenian didn’t. I’d like to know if she agrees. The “last exchange” is ugly but familiar. Just as Robert seemed to be following a script in bed, so he seems to be acting the troll in his text. How else do you sign off on these devices? How else do you say “Good bye the hell to you, too!“? Of course it’s better not to say anything, but it’s better not to do most of the things that Margot and Robert do in this story. Robert is sadly unattractive in a way that now seems indicative of a cultural pathology; I feel an urge to help him out just for the sake of the body politic.

Roupenian tells Bromwich:

[Margot] thinks she can see inside Robert; she believes she knows more about him than she does, and that keeps the date catapulting forward when it might otherwise have come to an end. The people I know who tend to be drawn to the most troubled men are these incredibly empathetic, imaginative young women, and sometimes I wonder if that’s a piece of it: how good they are at creating a compelling back story for men who have done nothing to earn it.

Robert is also imaginative, but like most men (or so it seems), he is not empathetic; life gives his imagination little to work with. What the “last exchange” gives us a clear view of is where Robert is stuck. Although I can feel the blow of his last text to Margot’s stomach, I know that she will recover and possibly flourish (she is only twenty!). But is there a way out for Robert? A way out of his board games and vinyl collection and lack of self-respect? Ist auf deinem Psalter, Vater der Liebe, ein Ton…?


Friday 15th

It’s likely that I didn’t know what I was doing, but I consulted Google’s Ngram Viewer just now about the use of the phrase “meaning of life.” I was reading an entry at Less Wrong that explored the meaning of life as understood by several “cultures,” for example “SJW” and “4Chan.” It was one of those pieces that make me feel both old and uncertain. Do I have a lot more experience or a lot less understanding? Forget the meaning of life — has the meaning of words undergone a shift? Does language work in a new way that I don’t hear? In this case, however, the sogginess of the author’s anxieties about the meaning of life was very familiar. Familiar in an unexpected way: could it be that I remember when concern about the meaning of life was still something new, or new-ish?

I wasn’t surprised by the results of my Ngram enquiry. The phrase made its first appearance in about 1895, and slipped out of view in 1910. Since 1920, however, it has never been out of use, and its peak popularity, a recurring point in decades thereafter, was reached about 1940. Aside from that blip in the late 1890s, the phrase was unknown to the Nineteenth Century — to all those Romantic poets and novelists, in other words. For most of the Twentieth Century, we looked hard for the meaning of life, but until the outbreak of World War II, we didn’t give it much thought.

I still don’t.

What would the meaning of life look like? What would it feel like? Would it feel like that aha! that wraps up every TED talk? Like the Less Wrong writer, who goes by the name Elo, I stopped watching TED talks a long time ago, as soon as I realized that they were simply upscale versions of those old nature and science programs on TV that left you convinced that you knew everything that there was to know about volcanoes or beetles. TED talks were shorter, wittier, and syntactically more sophisticated than the old shows, but they were (are) scripted with the same alchemy, the same psychological prestidigitation. There would be no harm in this if the results were useful, but the presentations are always too closed-ended to be fertile. They have to be, in order to be entertaining. Open-ended shows would end not with a nugget of “realization” but with a panorama of all that remains to be learned. Instead of flattering the audience with a spritz of knowingness, it would demoralize it with a burp of ignorance.

Knowledge decays. The point on which I agreed most heartily with Elo was this:

We start out wanting meaning, we start out getting meaning, and after a while we don’t really get the same thing any more. We are not designed to notice meaning wearing off – we expect it to keep being there. Until it’s well and truly worn out so bad that it’s a shock to the system. The same way that we go blind a little each day and don’t notice until we crash a car. “that’s how blind we are”.

The meaning of life, in short, would look like something that we needed to replace pretty frequently, if we didn’t embalm it. “The meaning of life” promises to explain everything forever, but of course it can’t do anything of the kind. We are always outgrowing what we know.

The “meaning of life” has nothing to do with distinguishing right from wrong. Nor can it offer an ideal of happiness that is more satisfying than the one already familiar to every thoughtful person: health, good fortune, and — here’s the part that searchers for the meaning of life ought to be working a little harder on — the company of loving family and friends. If there’s one thing that we’ve learned in the past century, it’s not the meaning of life but the stabilizing power of liberal democracy to enable many people to build happy lives. Whatever the meaning of life might be, the happiness of life is not something that you discover on a remote mountaintop, but something that you do your best to bring about in your life every day.

Bon week-end à tous!