It is the crack formed between feeling and thought, reflection and recollection.
It is the flash of memory I have of an evening as a little boy when there was no electricity, a lantern aglow on the dining table, and I was having a meal of beans. It is the realization that if my writing until now could be downsized to a crucible it would be of that lantern, that meal. Every notion I entertain of desire and loss, memory and prophecy, comes from being in a room so suffused with absence I remember being enshrouded by shadows.
It is the search for a “controlling image,” the axle on which meaning might turn. “The controlling image is useful, because it determines the language that informs the text,” said Toni Morrison in a 1987 interview. “Once I have the controlling image, which can also work as the metaphor—that is where the information lodges. When I know where the white space is, when I know where the broad strokes are.”
We took fine art classes in primary school, and I was terrible at drawing. I would excel at handwriting exercises, and years later in boarding school became a choice junior boy when senior students wanted to bring their notes up to date. I remember being flogged for both my poor sketches—a cow that looked like a goat, a bird with uneven wings—and for my refusal to copy out notes for a senior student. My anxieties today seem to be a holdover from those punishments. Why is the image sometimes difficult to conjure on the page? How do I keep the text cool and disaffected, yet free and exuberant? How do I write free from the compulsion of others, staking my own claims?
I first thought of the title “Sum of Encounters” when Ingrid Schaffner invited me to write a “travelogue” for this year’s Carnegie International. My friend, the artist Elka Krajewska, had recommended me to an editor who passed on my work to Ingrid.
Of Elka, I had written:
“A man. In Mongolia he sits alone in a tent. Elka goes in to sit with him. Outside, several feet away, she’d been told of his insanity. Not the man he was before, they said to her, but he’s been like this for a long time.
There is a cupboard, ajar when she enters. Within its shelves are empty tins, ashtrays unused for years, an eagle’s feather, a syringe, a jaded toortsog hat, a photo album. She says nothing, letting him speak, until spittle fills the corners of his lips, glistening like a newborn’s. She is silent although she understands no word in Mongolian. She is a Polish woman who knew nothing of the nomadic tribes of Mongolia and sought them in their desert tents. To make sense of things. As her feet wouldn’t keep still.
Presently the man speaks to Elka. He thumbs through the photo album. His excitement falters when he points out who’s who in the pictures. Mostly himself in a group, wearing military fatigues. Mostly groups of men. His buddies and co-fighters, deceased or unaccounted for, men reduced to flashes of memory. He was younger and wild-eyed. Now, despite his animated gestures, there is an unmistakable indication in his glances that time, in his world, has accreted slowly.
Where’s the future in nostalgia? A man gets tired, living in years of slow time. As if he has stayed so fixed to the past it has become interminable, eclipsing the present, guaranteeing no future.
He gets to the last picture in the album, wets a finger, and continues. Empty page after empty page, a tableau vivant of missing photographs. At this point, Elka remembers, he begins to cry. Fits of sneezing accompany his weeping. His is a broken sound: his voice like ceramic, shattering.”
What you know of Elka and me, equals, perhaps, what you know about the Mongolian man. The sum of our encounters is a triad: Elka met the man, I met Elka, and you meet me on the page.
When in July 1880 he introduced the theorems that inform what is known today as the Venn Diagram, John Venn was casting about for a “new scheme of diagrammatic representation…competent to indicate imperfect knowledge…” How could he indicate all the possible ways in which two, or three terms might stand in relation to one another? How could he make a logical proposition interlink with another, so that no one of them is disentangled and represented separately?
In his essay “On the Diagrammatic and Mechanical Representation of Propositions and Reasonings,” Venn wrote: “When I say that all X is Y, I simply do not know, in many cases, whether the class X comprises the whole of Y, or only a part of it. And even when I know how the facts are, I may not intend to be explicit, but may purposefully wish to leave this point uncertain.”
What does an artwork reveal about an artist, but only in part? What do artists, in making a life from day to day, reveal about their art, but only in part? How do I find a way between these two mysteries, lugging, inevitably, the weighted sack of my own life?
Anne Michaels writes, in Infinite Gradation, of Eva Hesse: “When we consider the details of an artist’s life in relation to her art, it must not be with the presumption of solving a mystery, but in order to place one mystery next to another. Comparison is a blunt instrument, connection is not. Biography is an iceberg; a life is mostly submerged beyond our knowing.”
A Sum of Encounters fits, I hope, in a tradition of literature and criticism amply described as Nigerian. I mean “Nigerian” in the sense of the civilization that has formed me. I want to listen to artists teach me how to understand events and their causes. I want to consider, in the images they proffer, “the reciprocal tension between past and future,” as David Levi Strauss writes of Ursula von Rydingsvard.
There are varying reasons why I chose the artists I’ll write about—their dazzling artworks, my proximity to them, our friendship, their relevance in art history, etc. I deem all those justifications as subjective, even a little simplistic. I am most interested in recording facsimiles of our encounters, paid passage to a world of greater clarity. ︎