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This article is taken from PN Review 245, Volume 45 Number 3, January - February 2019.

On Vision
An Attempt at Reparative Reading
Sasha Dugdale
I THINK ALL THE TIME and I always thought that everyone else did, too. I still assume this is true, because otherwise what would that look like: an absence of thought? A nothing in the mind, perhaps a cognitive vacuum? Wouldn’t a vacuum like that crush the skull from inside? Is that why the ears are placed on either side of the head, two small valves to prevent a vacuum in the event of an absence of thought?

I think all the time, and sometimes I have such great thoughts, they are so intricate and magnificent that they resemble Breughel’s Tower of Babel. But I can’t ever get them out of me intact. The act of birthing them on paper or in speech reduces them to vague shadows of their former glory. The birthing canal snaps the rudimentary structural props. Like a ship in a bottle, they cannot be pulled back out of the bottle’s mouth without splintering and splitting. The rings of Breughel’s tower collapse into a nest of sinister sphincters.

If you can’t communicate your thoughts then there is no point in having them. That was said to me at university and it is quite true, I suppose. This was my coming-of-age: I slowly got used to having humbler thoughts that were expressible, the apprentice thoughts of a beginner draughtsman, thoughts that were the same reasonable size on the outside and on the inside. I began to understand that the other grander thoughts were follies: unrealisable mental architectures with proportions that couldn’t sustain them in the cold world. Slow thoughts! Practical thoughts that proceed in logical order! (My logical thinking is mundane and awkward like a letter to a newspaper.)

But then thoughts are sometimes so delicious precisely because they can’t be expressed, their complexity does not permit them to exist. Such thoughts in their dark ingenuity parallel the work of the Soviet paper architects (the followers of Piranesi’s Imaginary Prisons) whose baroque and unconstructable designs were an antidote to Soviet planned architecture with its permitted ceiling heights and mandatory rubbish chutes. Paper architecture was the victory of the dreamer over the builder, the idler over the achiever. Paper architecture reminds me of doodling, the pure art of idleness and dysfunction, which claims nothing for itself, but sprouts and spreads across the page, binding, involving itself, convolving, passing its strands through the vulva, allowing the thoughtbabies their billowing form, where they belong, on margins, corporate post-its, backs of envelopes.

When the paper architects Sasha Brodsky and Ilya Utkin were asked for work to show in the USA in the 1980s they decided to make a model from one of their paper designs: a large speckled egg. Brodsky and Utkin asked a foundry to cast the egg. In the past the foundry had produced Soviet statuary and disdained such pointless avant-garde stunt work, but the political tide had turned and the stream of Lenins was drying up, so they took on the casting of a plaster egg, twelve foot in diameter, in return for some Western goods (so their US dealer Ronald Feldman recounts). The egg stood in the centre of a New York gallery, too large to fit through any of the doors, with a faux-glass-domed roof above it, patterned with etchings and an anxious small figure in black trying to push it: inscrutable birthing device, vast timer, sheer-speckled­stocking, Sisyphean impossibility. It is the utter impossibility of Brodsky and Utkin’s etchings which snags the viewer.

I had a Hans Christian Andersen book of stories when I was a child. It was a handsome gift album drawn in the 1970s spindly-saccharine manner, which suited Andersen well. The illustrations were slightly washed-out. There were certain pages I pored over until the paper almost wore through: the ballerina with the spangle stands on one leg in front of a pasteboard castle, reflected in a mirror lake. The castle has a large entrance but a tiny upper floor, like the buildings Giotto painted. The ballerina could never return to her castle, and if forced to do so by the narrator or the trold she would have to duck and huddle like Alice in the White Rabbit’s house. But no, in fact it was totally impossible, the artist had created such disproportion that the ballerina couldn’t ever go back into her own castle unless she grew and shrunk constantly, unless height was not a fixed measurement, but, like weight, depended on where you stood, what force acted upon you. Unfixed, unstable, there was only one way for the ballerina to go: into the furnace with the tin soldier.

I was deliciously vexed by this, it was a deep yearning vexation, like a tickling in the chest. Disproportion! Distortion! It (dis)taught me and (in)volved me: Fritz Wegner’s long escalator down into the world of the Fattypuffs and Thinifers; Lucy M. Boston’s Castle of Yew; lying very silent next to my doll’s house with my eye pressed to the door like Alice looking into the garden; the underground bachelor pad of Badger; the underground passages and halls of the rats of Nimh – all the many places of childhood which are larger, more mysterious on the inside than on the outside, just as the child is.

Why do children like small things? Like? What is that sensation? It is not liking, it is wanting to be, to step inside, to inhabit the tiny landscapes inside snow globes, model railways, like Borrowers to inhabit doll’s houses, hold pencils the size of matchsticks, tiny glass jars full of beads… Not just children, mice, too: Victorian burglars Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb, stripping bare the doll’s house. The feeling is not easy to define. It has something to do with consumption and control, the eyes eating the whole, a counterbalance to a world in which the child has no control, and consumption is limited. But the miniature also offers perfection and harmony, the possibility of realising and entering a flawless ideal, subject to no limitations – a perfection of the imagination, which we are simultaneously drawn into and excluded from by dint of our real physical size.

When the adult manufacturer doesn’t understand the importance of perfection then a deep disappointment ensues: at the root of Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb’s trail of destruction is the child’s disappointment that the doll’s house leg of ham is plaster, the knives and forks don’t cut, the taps don’t turn, the stairs simply stop, the doors don’t open. A doll’s house must be as good as Gulliver’s travelling box and all reminders of fakery, all shortcuts are acts of treason against the imagination, ruler of the miniature land. This tiny land must be impossibly real, that is, more real than reality, which is contingent in childhood and full of adult fakery. It is like being turned out of the garden of Eden when adult fakery is revealed, it hurt like a stabbing pain when the doll’s clothes were glued to her chest, and shoddy reality glared into the supernatural glow of the imagination’s reality. The fragile controlled world of the imagination cannot be contingent.

Kei Miller’s haunting poem ‘My Mother’s Atlas of Dolls’ is rich in meanings and readings, however when I read the poem I was reminded of this tragic potential, the fragility of the miniature world, swollen to enormous scale in the head. In motherhood, we are supposed to be able to control the realm of our family, and the array of miniature figures, dolls from all around the world, each representing an absence, puts the lie to this. In a distortion of the usual it is the mother, not the child, who keeps the dolls impeccably archived on white doilies, longs to inhabit their tiny worlds, the nubs of her children’s vast disappearances:

Unable to travel, my mother makes us
promise to always bring back dolls

as if glass eyes could bear sufficient
witness to where she has not been,

the what of the world she has not seen.
(‘My Mother’s Atlas of Dolls’, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion)

In a recent interview on BBC’s Front Row Miller discussed inspiration. He described how he had filed away the matter of the poem ‘in a drawer’, and when he began to write his book of poems concerned with ‘how we know the world, how we map the world’ then the poem came into being. Within the context of the whole collection the mother represents another way (apart from cartographer and rastaman) of knowing and mapping the world in small, serried rows of profound losses. We are not told why the mother can’t travel, we must decide ourselves, but the ‘makes us / promise’ suggests desperation, maternal coercion, even as the line break allows for this desperation to be simply part of ‘making’ children. Do the glass-eyed dolls teach the mother the impossible, how to travel in death, as the poem suggests? I have been wondering suddenly and sadly whether the poem is now speaking to me as a mother rather than a child: do small worlds of absence teach me how to part with the world? As the mother’s world shrinks, the dolls become vaster and vaster, there are more and more of them, the multiplication of their glass eyes.

A long time ago I saw an image by the Russian­-American artist Grisha Bruskin from his sequence ‘Message 1’. The image haunted me: it showed a boy in the clothes of a young Jewish scholar, simple robes, kippot, tasselled prayer shawl, but a pair of huge blue eyes floated in the air where his eyes should have been like twin polyconic projections, two conjoined blue fish. I was reminded of the eyes of my short-sighted elderly relatives, huge in the bottle-glass lenses of their glasses, peering at me in childhood. I could never reconcile the proportions, their kind eyes frightened me. I kept the postcard of Bruskin’s image on my desk for years, the boy’s disproportionate eyes, saying something important about proportion and sight which I couldn’t quite grasp, but I felt, nonetheless. Something that concerned the co-existence of clarity (the childlike illustrative style, perspective-less, unadorned) and mystery (the handwritten words behind him, the enigma of those eyes). Now I try to put it into words and it eludes me again: the spectacle of the doll-like child looking out and looking back in, trying to level the two worlds – one clear and bright, the other shadowed, empty – like a lock gate.

I often had dreams as a child which I still remember, and sometimes they return to me in faint echoes when I sleep. The geography of my childhood is quite peculiarly important to this dream. I lived and still live in a village next to a long stretch of downs. A railway runs through the downs, north–south. In my childhood we didn’t have a car, so all the journeys I took were on the train. Consequently, I had no idea what lay to the east or to the west along the downs. The north–south axis became practical and known and everyday, the east–west axis withered into non-existence and entered my imaginative life: a miniature land. My dreams concerned themselves with the mappa mundi of this east–west landscape, the towns, their pinnacles, elephants, moons and peacocks, their limitless lives and possibilities. The only way to discover this landscape was by bike so we sometimes cycled off across the fields to advance the edge of the known world by a little mile, always and forever tantalised by bridlepaths leading further into the unknown, towers further off, ‘stationary sunlight’ over other places.

Now I have a car I travel east–west quite often and that axis is as chartered as north–south. But sometimes, like a revelation, I am driving west and I pass some childhood boundary and something happens, I see differently. For one single second I see the mappa mundi of my childhood again, I see that I am travelling through the land of the imagination, as I travel through the mundane world. The two are briefly in tandem, one overlaying the other, and then the imaginary land is gone again. These moments are hard to describe, they are not mystic, or gilded by spectral light. They come from inside a person, from the life of his or her imagination and not from without. Our vocabulary of revelation is religious and it won’t do for these moments of visual overlay, the collision of two perspectives, but nonetheless they are a vision, they enlarge a life, they feel full of ungraspable wonder. I was struck by Marie Howe’s poem ‘The Affliction’ in which the speaker momentarily returns from a place of alienation. It describes so well, so apparently prosaically, the revelation from within, the moment when a lost sight is restored:

My friend Wendy was pulling on her winter coat, standing by the kitchen door
and suddenly I was inside and I saw her.
I looked out from my own eyes
and I saw: her eyes: blue gray    transparent
and inside them: Wendy herself!

Then I was outside again,
(‘The Affliction’, Magdalene: Poems)

Sometimes we see a thing, and then suddenly there is a moment of absolute clarity when we see that thing transformed. It almost appears to look back at us, it changes us and after that moment of transformed vision nothing is the same. In Marie Howe’s poem the transforming moments come more frequently after this initial episode, and are the basis of hope. In my dreamlike vision there is a tantalising complexity, a sense of something just-out-of-reach, a perspective no longer open to me, but that I remember distinctly as a sensation, and I am changed by the remembrance of that sensation. It causes pain, a subtle not unpleasant pain like breathing in frosty air, or biting the tip of a finger.

It is common to talk about an insight, meaning a clear and deep understanding (looking into something beyond its surface), but I now see the same word the other way round, in the manner of an optical illusion which flips both ways depending on how you look, pointing inwards, into my body, changing me. 

This article is taken from PN Review 245, Volume 45 Number 3, January - February 2019.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to
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