Adumbrate is to darken or conceal partially, to faintly foreshadow or resemble.
Starting thinking about adumbration while reading Bruno Schulz’s Sanatorium Under The Sign Of The Hourglass. His writing is the closest thing I’ve found to my experiments with abstract writing; way more so than Magical Realism, either Garcia or Llosa.
Schulz gives me some sense of the difficulty in reading such abstractions. It’s not that the storyline is not there at all, not like some abstract paintings that are purely emotion; color and form and structure only. At this point I have doubts that writing could successfully reach the levels of abstraction that visual arts are privileged to. So far my pure abstract writing falls off the cliff of prose into the labyrinth of poetry, and as much as I love poetry that is not what this search is, not what these experiments are about.
To read Sanatorium is demanding, enjoyable work; it’s a challenge to follow Shlulz’s mind. To follow I must give up some control, allow my preconceptions to melt away. Here in a passage from a chapter called The Age Of Genius, the main character Joseph reels me in, insists I see with a child’s unbiased eye:
We stood in the semidarkness of my vast room, elongated in perspective toward the window opening on the square. Waves of air reached us in gentle pulsations, settling down on the silence. Each wave brought a new load of silence, seasoned with the colors of distance, as if the previous load had already been used up and exhausted. That dark room came to life only by the reflections of the houses far beyond the window, showing their colors in its depth as in a camera obscura. Through the window one could see, as through a telescope, the pigeons on the roof of the police station, puffed up and walking along the cornice of the attic. At times they rose up all at once and flew in a semicircle over the square. The room brightened for a moment with their fluttering wings, broadened with the echo of their flight, and then darkened when they settled down again.
The narrative is simple: a boy and his older cousin are looking at the boy’s drawings in his room, a window opens onto a square. At the end of the square are houses and a police station with pigeons on its roof doing what pigeons do. Breezes pulsate through the window.
Yet the passage is about perspective and causation more than how the relationship between the boy and his cousin advance the narrative. Breezes are calmed by silence and bear reflections of the distant houses into the room and give it its color. The fluttering of pigeons wings brightens and darkens. For the boy colors are reflections, wind determines sound, space is broadened by echoes and movement; his room, his necessarily limited world, our necessarily limited world, is a camera obscura. And it’s because of these limitations that it’s a wondrous place, a world of mystery and danger, surrounded by unknowns because anything is possible.
Drilling into a short passage like this is rewarding, fun, insightful, like a poem. The work is not too arduous because it does not take long. But it becomes tiresome at length, when the narrative and action must be subjectively gleaned from dreamy paragraphs of sparse action with unclear causes.
Here’s Ethan in Steinbeck’s The Winter Of Our Discontent expressing similar sentiments when confronted with his son’s interest in the contents of their attic:
I guess we’re all, or most of us, the wards of that nineteenth-century science which denied existence to anything it could not measure or explain. The things we couldn’t explain went right on but surely not with our blessing. We did not see what we couldn’t explain, and meanwhile a great part of the world was abandoned to children, insane people, fools, and mystics, who were more interested in what is than in why it is. So many old and lovely things are stored in the world’s attic, because we don’t want them around us and we don’t dare throw them out.
See the similarities of the above passages with my character Reuel as a naïve teenager:
Reuel loved mysteries and romances, so when for the first time ever his parents left him alone to go to his mother’s special appointment he climbed the narrow staircase from the basement and rummaged through their bedroom. It made him feel the way Merci, his mother, looks when she carefully teases tangled necklaces out of little cubbies in her heart-adorned ashen jewelry box. He arranged two gold necklaces on the glass-topped dressing table, admired in the mirror their delicacy, how they floated in the frame of chubby pink cherubs and grinning green sprites. Marbles of pearl he fenced in the chains of gold, tarnished silver-plated unicorn and satyr and elfin totems frolicked in a canyon turquoise bracelet, sparkling zirconia and ruby-like pebbles lay scattered in a glittering piece of time.
In the drawer of Merci’s nightstand Reuel sifted through silky things that had never been mentioned and discovered a blue-clothed diary secured with a lace strap and precious silver lock. He retrieved a thin skeleton key from inside the sparkling piece of time. The book fell open as if it had been waiting for him. He looked into the mirror, imagined flying out the window, over his neighborhood’s pitched rooftops, watched a perfect teenage girl perform a triple somersault into a backyard pool with scarcely a ripple, a handsome new father pick money like acorns from a stoic old oak, and a smiling gray-haired woman delight her fairytale grandchildren with stories of what she always imagined her life to be.
Here’s Reuel as an adult, an artist who never grew up:
Father Malley perambulated around the strange artist he tried to remember and watched him work. The priest squinted though the sun was at their backs, tried to make figures or images out of dripping blocks of orange and magenta and translucent green that could be rebirth or decay, and thin black and white lines teasing his eye from a lavender background. His gaze was mesmerized, and after some indeterminate moments Father caught a hint of himself in a triangle of gray-black swirling around the meal tent. The fajita grill’s smoke made him blink, charred beef teased his tongue and nose, onions and guacamole on a fresh tortilla formed to the top of his mouth. It was so real Father feared the painting was casting a spell, casting in a way The Shadow of the Cross, the mystery painting he charged tourists to view, seldom achieved.
Orange washed to sun-tinged gold under Reuel’s touch. Father finally recognized his San Francisco De Asis Mission Church amongst the blocks of color, the way the texture of the paint mimicked the texture of the drying plaster. Shadows lengthened and the walls of the church glowed. Uncertainty crept up his spine. He’d been in Taos almost thirty years and knew it would be several minutes before the setting sun made the walls of the church glow like the church on Reuel’s board. How could such a man understand this glow and Father not know him?
And finally Reuel as Steinbeck’s insane mystical child, more interested in what is than in why it is:
Reuel set up his easel high on Taos Mountain, overlooking the Pueblo. His brush flourished in the clear, thin air. Flute melodies filled his head and attracted many creatures. He painted cautious, delicate bodies with spindly legs and furry white butts, parents with their doe; tangled antlers hovered over a harem of sturdy, buckskinned torsos; and two anxious hooked lines the color of yellowed parchment coyotes skulked behind flamboyant strokes of pale green chamisa waving in the hint of a blue breeze. Reuel enjoyed his goose bumps.
Small black and white stripes of chipmunks clacked at Reuel from the safety of twisted gray piñon. At first the chipmunks were unsure of the scene he was creating. But soon they were chattering to the flutish melodies, munching on nut-shaped twists of Reuel’s brush, and flitting in fits and starts across the canvas. On the ridge above the gathering a hairy sling of black bear rummaged through unripe flashes of Indian plum. She stayed uphill and downwind, not wanting to scare her fellow Taosenos away on such a lovely day.
I want to push myself to write an entire novel the way a painter paints an abstract painting. It’s probably not fair to ask a reader to work so hard for so long, to follow a narrative that makes no distinction between characters’ imagination, dreams, and perceptions; a narrative structured only by form, color, shape, and emotion.
Yet I think to write such a novel would be an accomplishment. It would teach me about art, and not only the process, but the instinct, that primordial human spark that left its mark in the caves of Lascaux and El Castillo, the inspiration for jewelry and to knap a more perfect arrowhead.
There’s a common thread of humanity that the impulse to abstraction reaches back towards. It’s mysterious, anxious, frightening, full of doubt. It’s also the impulse that both makes us most human and ties us to other creatures, to whatever it is we share with all forms of life. It’s unregulated Time, Space torn free of measurement, freedom in its purest form allowing one to open Pandora’s box and not blink.
Writing is an art like visual arts because it can never be exact, no words, even in symbolic logic, are defined so rigidly that the beauty of ambiguity is completely absent.
Art is not the antithesis of science, as science itself is an art. This fact is not an indictment of science, but a reminder that its work, like creating art itself, will never be done.
And I want to write an abstract painting. I want to create my own Matisse, one time overcome that doubt that is the essence of abstract art.
Adumbrate is to darken or conceal partially, to faintly foreshadow or resemble.