Autumn was this time of year where everything felt like revelation. To call this notion of wonderment overly dramatic is beside the point – the point is that I had just started college and got out of poetry class by lunch and spent the afternoons studying French and reading Dylan Thomas and Elizabeth Bishop as the sun filtered through my wall-wide window. Or maybe it was raining and my floor tinted with mud I had tracked in with my shoes, or maybe it was three in the morning from the quiet of my dorm’s lounge, but it was all beautiful to me nonetheless. I went to lectures enthralled by their unfamiliar sheen. Amidst the loneliness and indirection of autumn quarter, that awe of the material and ideas I encountered in my classes served as an unfailing comfort.
As the quarter came to an end, I heard this chorus repeated over and over: Winter quarter is for sadness and twenty units and less-constant sunshine. I initially brushed off this kind of statement, yet as the quarter has progressed, I’ve often experienced moments when the love and amazement that characterized autumn quarter, while still present, have largely given way to a kind of unidentifiable dread. Last week, I was suddenly overwhelmed by quiet panic during a lecture; in trying to go over in my mind arguments encompassing “Hamlet” or Montaigne, I felt incapable of accepting or understanding their grandness. The interpretations of entire texts that I had before written down unquestioningly became increasingly unfathomable the more I realized I was unequipped to form any semi-permanent insights of my own on works so layered and vast and in-motion. I worried about how I’d be able to elucidate the argument of my Dante paper if I felt viscerally unsettled by the clear arguments of renowned professors, the room turning bright and my breath short and strained. It was the same kind of dread and unsettlement I tend to feel generally, one whose origins are un-categorizable and night-dwelling, except with an academic bent, which made it all feel terrifyingly out of grasp.
I don’t know how to write about this process of unnerving and these concentrated bursts of distress without feeling ungrateful or crazy. I want to be honest without sounding irrational. I read Jeanette Winterson’s essay “Art Objects” for my creative writing class last weekend and felt like it pinpointed everything that had been aching at me in my classes, but I’m still just on the surface of figuring it out, a potted plant behind curtained sunlight. A secondhand feeling.
In “Art Objects,” Winterson writes about the experience of truly engaging with art, of spending time giving a painting its due attention without any lenses of assumption: “Art is odd, and the common method of trying to fit it into the scheme of things, either by taming it or baiting it, cannot succeed. Who at the zoo has any sense of the lion?” she writes. I surely don’t. Yet during lectures and in choosing thesis ideas for my literary analysis papers I can’t help but feel like we are trying to tame the lion, this ultimately incomprehensible entity. Since the shininess of these academic experiences has worn off, I’ve felt increasingly at odds with the foundations of these rigid structures.
So much of experiencing art is in the way the living parties of observer and artwork interact emotionally. The longer we engage with it, the more our emotional response develops and the more the work evolves before our eyes. Art is not rigid; it joins the contexts of work and reader, past and present, in ways pervasive and subconscious. The experience of the audience is rooted in its context, its moment in the movement of time; it is ever-changing, it unsettles, it can both speak and change its mind. While it is also intended to be analyzed, its very non-stationary nature seems to reject any claims of certainty, and our initial response to it is emotional, something felt rather than compartmentalized.
Yet the standard processes of writing analytical papers and discussing works in section completely cuts out this emotional aspect, the texts becoming islands about whose characteristics we form arguments from helicopters thousands of feet above. We pick one recurring theme and dutifully and selectively record the evidence that can support it with clarity and objectivity, as if some kind of permanent claim about a work of art could ever really exist. This intellectual pursuit is one I am infinitely fortunate to have, yet the taboo of mixing the emotional with the analytical and the dissatisfaction of analyzing works in this way make me guilty. Even if interpretation is inherently subjective, that fallibility is never acknowledged. We attempt to authoritatively harness into a cage, into a compact six-page essay, what is truly untamable.
I know that this kind of academic objectivity is necessary to insightful analysis, to the solid structures of academia and the progress of these literary pursuits. But I feel like I isolate myself from the works I write about instead of becoming more intimate with them. I want to submerge myself in the ocean, explore the uncharted territory of art and literature from within it, a proximity that cannot be separated from subjectivity. I want to be able to hone in on specific, fascinating claims and interpretations, but I also want to be able to just feel, to reflect on my experience with the texts we encounter in terms of the intangible. I want to be allowed to write a well-evidenced close reading of a text and my own personal, emotional response to that text in the same paper; to ignore the latter would be to deny a central aspect of encountering art.
“Canonizing pictures is one way of killing them,” Winterson writes. “When the sense of familiarity becomes too great, history, popularity, association all crowd in between the viewer and the picture and block it out.” I’m in a residential program dedicated to exploring the literary and artistic works of the Western canon, and it does become easy to allow the context, the interpretations of our lectures and the arguments we choose for our papers, to render them logical and comprehensible, to accept a flattened image from a secondhand lens. We talk a lot about structure but very little about love. I understand this separation but am still perturbed by it.
Even though these texts are canonized, we can still interact with them with great fluidity and openness. I often don’t initially understand the exact meaning of the works I’ve read but still felt altered by them in some way. In the solitude of my own experience, I’ve felt intimate instead of overwhelmed. I don’t know how to incorporate this intimacy into the way I approach lectures and sections and papers, if it can be incorporated at all; writing about this conflict has not dislodged its unsettlement.
As a follow-up to reading “Art Objects,” we were told to go to the Cantor museum and stare at a painting for an hour, as Winterson suggests. So I went on a Saturday afternoon and stared at a Delvaux painting called “Penelope,” both canonized and immediately recognizable. And for that hour, I felt a kind of tension dissolve, an unparalleled calm; “Penelope” became someone I knew and didn’t know, her still expression always changing from pain to tiredness to indifference, all of which I felt some version within myself. I don’t yet know what to do about these forces of intimacy and objectivity, uncertainty and permanence. Or how to write about a work with which my experience is always changing. Maybe the best I can do is carve out separate time for myself to spend with art and let it touch me, to gaze with the acknowledgment of never fully understanding. To balance the academic pressure of analysis with space for the incomprehensible and emotional. To let this lion free from its flimsy cage – however fleetingly.
Contact Maddie Kim at mkim16 ‘at’ stanford.edu.
Correction: A previous version of this column misspelled the last name of Paul Delvaux as “Delcraux.” The Daily regrets this error.