The Correct Word

“The night was sultry.” Throw Momma From The Train

As a writer, a teacher of writing, and a sometimes translator, I spend a lot of my time looking for the right word. English is beautifully protean, so full of nuance that there is often an exact word to express any idea. Even when English can provide no precision, the language will be true to its larcenous past and will  execute a linguistic five-finger discount, usually purloining from German or French. Still, the contemplation of the right word is one of the joys of writing.

Last week, a student stopped a colleague in the hall; they stood with heads bent in silent contemplation. Curious, I asked what concerned them so. They were looking for a word. Now, our students are not native English speakers–for them English might even be their third or fourth language–but English is our medium. The student explained the idea she wanted to convey. We tried direct translation to no avail. I promised to think upon it. A few hours later it hit me: parasite, or even better given the belittling ferocity of the context, leech. Thus are the joys of a large lexicon.

Yet, this pastime–which makes it me very hard to best at Words With Friends and a whiz with the New York Times Crossword–has a non-vocabulary analog. For me, a photograph has the same potential as the correct word, the potential to transcend mere comprehension in favor of epistemological metastasis. For me, a photograph is kin to the right word. A seamless composition of reflected light can be as complex as Michelangelo’s La Pietà. Stare long enough, and you might see it move.

A small college wishes to commission a work of art to express some very complex and contradictory aspects of one world historical figure. Since my medium is the non-posed photograph made in available light, my art is relatively easy to make. I do not need a studio, artificial light, models, props, or any supplies beyond my camera and my eyes. If I were to apply to that competition, I know that I could make a photograph that would express the correct sentiment; I could find the right word to express an idea precisely. Yet, since there is no fussy material cultural in my process, would the elegance of precision be enough? Will a nearly two dimensional print fill their space with an appropriate (and, one expects, massive ) object.

Hemingway wrote the shortest tragedy in the English language: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” Because of its brevity and precision, is it less powerful than Hamlet? The shortest horror story should be compared with the shortest tale of psychological anguish: “The last person on Earth sat in a room. There was a knock on the door.” Compare: “The last person on Earth sat in a room. There was a lock on the door.” Perhaps brevity is the soul of wit, but it is also the essence of elegance. And skill.

In the years since World War II, Abstract Expressionism has competed with photography for elegance and brevity, especially with  images of the Shoah. Can a  sculpture ever inspire the same level of distress as a photograph of the Einzatzgruppen gleefully completing their loathsome task? Enormity of feeling needs to be met with enormity of scale. Subtlety and efficiency may be too severe and thus insufficiently oppressive to wrap one’s head around the brutal immediacy of a photograph.

I will not submit a proposal for this commission, mostly because most people do not think a photograph can inspire the same sense of gravitas  as a sculpture or installation. I will, however, undertake to make the image as a test for myself. After all, the exercise, like journey’s relationship to destination, is as important as the output. Whether it be the correct word or the precise image, thinking is the cure for the restless spirit.

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Filed under criticism, Ideas, Letters, photography, teach writing, teaching, Thinking

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