Is it I, or is it not I?

Four essays on art and blindness.
By Aveek Sen


By God! if wommen hadde writen stories.

– Chaucer, “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” in The Canterbury Tales.

In the early years of the 1810s, the dusk of the first Empire, while Pride and Prejudice was being written and Fidelio revised, a tailor’s wife in Germany would come to sell eggs to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. The brothers, then in their thirties, would give her good coffee and make her tell them stories. With a “clear, sharp look in her eyes,” Katharina Viehmann recounted her tales. Wilhelm Grimm also writes that she told her stories “thoughtfully, accurately, with uncommon vividness and evident delight – first quite easily, but then, if required, over again, slowly, so that with a bit of practice it is possible to take down her dictation, word for word.” These Hausmärchen – together with many more, culled from other men and women – would become the “Nursery and Household Tales” for which the Brothers Grimm are remembered today.

One of Katharina’s stories – no. 34 in the Grimms’ collection – is about a girl called Elsie. Elsie’s family adored her for being kluge. This German word could mean anything from clever and shrewd to sensible and prudent, or even intelligent, judicious and wise. When a man called Hans came looking for a “smart” wife and started wooing Elsie, her mother assured him that Elsie could “see the wind coming up the street, and hear the flies coughing.” Then they all sat down to dinner, after which Elsie was sent down to the cellar to fetch some beer. Down in the cellar, she carefully did everything she was supposed to do, until suddenly, while waiting for the can to fill with beer, her eyes – she never let them be idle – spotted a pick-axe above her on the wall, left there by the masons. She immediately began to weep: “If I get Hans, and we have a child, and he grows big, and we send him into the cellar here to draw beer, then the pick-axe will fall on his head and kill him.”

As she went on weeping and screaming, every member of the household, including the servants, wondering about her delay, came down to look in the cellar, one by one, and Elsie managed to persuade them all about her premonition. “What a clever Elsie we have!” each of them said, and then sat down to weep with her. Hans, alone at table for some time now, went down to find out why nobody was returning with the beer, and found them all sitting with Elsie and weeping noisily. Finding this more than sufficient proof of Elsie’s smartness, Hans “seized her hand, took her upstairs with him, and married her.”

Some time passed, and Hans asked Elsie to go into the field to cut the corn and make some bread, while he went out “to earn some money.” “Yes, dear Hans,” she said, “I will do that.” Then she cooked some broth for herself and took it to the field with her. There she was faced with a series of dilemmas. “Shall I cut first, or shall I eat first?” She ate. “Shall I cut first, or shall I sleep first?” She slept – all evening in the field. When Hans came along to find her sleeping, he went back home and brought a fowler’s net with little bells and hung it around her. Then he ran home, shut the house-door, sat down in his chair, “and worked.” It had become quite dark when Elsie awoke, and when she got up and started walking about, the bells of the net wouldn’t stop jingling about her. This alarmed her, and she “became uncertain whether she really was Clever Elsie or not.” “Is it I, or is it not I?” she asked herself. And from this point I must quote Katharina’s words as recorded by the Grimms.

But Elsie knew not what answer to make of this, and stood for a time in doubt; at length she thought: ‘I will go home and ask if it be I, or if it be not I, they will be sure to know.’ She ran to the door of her own house, but it was shut; then she knocked at the window and cried: ‘Hans, is Elsie within?’ ‘Yes,’ answered Hans, ‘she is within.’ Hereupon she was terrified, and said: ‘Ah, heavens! Then it is not I,’ and went to another door; but when the people heard the jingling of the bells they would not open it, and she could get in nowhere. Then she ran out of the village, and no one has seen her since.

There are plenty of stories of married couples in Grimm. My English edition says that these are all the work of the “townsmen of the 14th to the 16th centuries,” held in the memory of “story-wives” like Katharina. The fun of these stories is most often grounded in a brutally idiotizing poverty, against which these men and women pit a sort of violent cunning that turns out to be only the other side of stupidity. Modern adult readers, usually less heartless than children, are often left deeply disturbed or depressed by these pictures of conjugal life. In them, the wives are always expected to be prudent and industrious. They must be able to run the household and share the labor of their husbands, either farmers or craftsmen. Failing this, they would be scolded for being stupid (“You are the stupidest goose that ever waddled on God’s earth”) or brutalized for being lazy: “Long Laurence got up, seized both Lean Lisa’s withered arms in one hand, and with the other he pressed down her head into the pillow, let her scold, and held her until she fell asleep for very weariness.”

These then are the households of Reformation Europe – the Europe of the German Faustbuch, of Dürer’s woodcuts, engravings and etchings, of Bruegel’s paintings teeming with beggars, cripples, lepers, thieves, fools, idiots and ordinary men, women and children, who live out proverbs, parables, sermons, allegories, games and festivities. In this Europe, house-doors would shut dangerously on the faces of madwomen, mystics, shrews and witches, who, if they escaped sainthood or the stake, would become part of a myriad wayfaring life outside the borders of law, sanity, prudence and piety. There is, in Elsie, something of that physically robust woman personifying Dürer’s Melencolia I, who sits in a sort of cluttered bafflement, having given up on trying to make sense of things. There is also, in Elsie, something of the medieval English mystic, Margery Kempe, who had dictated to a man living in “Dewchlond” her extraordinary spiritual life outside a dismal marriage and motherhood, always referring to herself as “this creature [who] went out of her mind.” “You shall be eaten and gnawed,” Christ tells her in a vision, “by the people of the world just as any rat gnaws the stockfish.”

Yet there is something startlingly modern in Elsie’s moment of radical uncertainty, and then in the terrifying wedge that is driven into her sense of who she happens to be. With her overwhelming question – “Is it I, or is it not I?” – she seems to transcend her specifically female story of exclusion and invisibility. As she wanders out of her sinister little village or town, its clever silence answering the mad jingling of her bells, she confronts, timelessly, what Michel Foucault called “that great uncertainty external to everything.” The exchange with her husband – “Is Elsie within? Yes, she is within” – has the shock of a contemporary nightmare. She becomes a kin of the schizophrenic Karin in Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly, who is unable any more to inhabit “two realities,” and is compelled to choose one of them as she puts on her dark glasses and climbs into the helicopter that would take her to hospital. I also couldn’t help thinking of Virginia Woolf, the grande dame of madness in a war-ravaged England. “Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again,” began one of her last notes to her husband Leonard. After she chose to disappear into a river, Clive Bell had hoped “for a day or two that she might have wandered off crazily, and might be found sleeping in a barn or buying biscuits in a village-shop.”

But while looking closely at Bruegel’s Battle Between Carnival and Lent the other day, I suddenly found Elsie in it. In her smock, apron and head-scarf, and quite lost to the merry din around her – of fish-wives, pilgrims, swine and a fool in motley – she has just drawn a bucket of water from a well. Yet, she seems to have forgotten her work. Her basket of greens abandoned at her feet, she peers into the bucket with the tragicomic bemusement of a simpleton. She seems startled by the white face that peers back at her from the water.


I know such gestures can never suffice.

– Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

Life, art and theory: the most natural, yet also the most difficult threesome. Two events recently dovetailed in my life to afford a fleeting insight into this troubled coexistence. Together with some friends at work, I read, for the first time, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s famous essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988). It took us a few weeks to sink our teeth into the densities, now legendary, of Spivak’s thinking and writing. Hard but rewarding weeks, during which something else was happening at home, simultaneously.

My friend, Chandana, who had rented a room in our house to live and paint in, was finishing a portrait, in oil, of Shondha, the woman who has been coming in to work for us for the last 20 years. On some evenings after we both finished work, Chandana would tell me, among other mundane things, of her deepening and difficult friendship with Shondha, which she always described in terms of daily, domestic proximity and of love. Yet, I also felt Chandana’s diffidence about presuming to claim this closeness for herself. An unbridgeable distance separated the two women, and Chandana was both pained by, and in awe of this distance. But inevitably, there grew across it what she called a “fullness” of mutual feeling and empathy, which expressed itself through a frenetic series of watercolor studies of Shondha and then, finally, this large painting in oil.

Shondha is a tiny woman in her early forties. The elfin fragility of her person, her silent, cat-like movements about the house, her delicate little giggles and the neatness of her attire express not only a subtle, humane and finely comic intelligence, but also an equally cat-like and un-melodramatic ability to survive physical adversity. Fatherless and with a mother who had lost her mind and wandered off somewhere, Shondha had dropped out of Mother Teresa’s school for abandoned children to marry a traveling juggler and magician, who soon took to drugs. His addiction quickly got worse, and when Shondha was unable to give him children within a few years, he started to live with her sister, who bore him three sons and a daughter. By this time, he was beating up both women and taking away all their money to buy drugs. During one of these fights, he shot at Shondha with a popgun, hitting her left eye. She lost the eye, and the bullet remains lodged inside the socket to this day, giving her frequent migraines. She also wears enormous glasses that heighten the gritty, unsentimental clownishness of her being, but also bring out its core of grimness. They make her look like a little girl who is refusing to take off her grandfather’s spectacles. Pitifully poor, the two sisters now live together in a slum with the children. Their man appears from time to time to ask for money and food; he seems to have been put in his place. But Shondha refuses to leave her sister and the children to come and live with us day and night.

Shondha, then, is a woman “doubly in shadow,” one of the “females of the urban subproletariat” in the Third World who form the “silent, silenced center” of Spivak’s essay. She is, by that definition, a subaltern. And “the subaltern cannot speak.” This is the terminal answer to the question that the essay’s title asks. The disconcerting brevity of such an answer is willfully and perversely disproportionate to the long, hard road Spivak makes her readers travel in order to get to it. The unique problem of her essay is that the place of its subject is empty. This emptiness at once confronts, eludes, frustrates and resists, or is – simply and metaphysically – other than, different from and thus indifferent to, the consciousness and the conscience forming the essayist’s “positionality.” Consciousness and conscience come together in the French word, conscience. This is the conscience of the languages, methods, questions and assumptions by which Spivak defines the subject of her essay and then tries to grasp this subject as a form of knowledge that may be “spoken” within the institutions and practices of such knowledge.

At the heart of Spivak’s essay, then, is a place of “disappearance.” But instead of being a “pristine nothingness,” it is inhabited by “something other than silence and non-existence.” As a place, it is inescapably fraught, gridded with “Power, Desire, Interest” – each trying to perform its own vanishing trick. Here an unspeaking Otherness confronts another conscience to produce “a violent shuttling” between “subject-constitution” and “object-formation,” between possessing a “voice-consciousness” and being given one, between being able to speak and being spoken of or for, between being silent and being silenced.

For Spivak, this is, crucially, a problem of “representation.” And this is also the word that bridged the two events for me: reading Spivak’s essay and observing the progress of Chandana’s portrait of Shondha. “Are those who act and struggle mute, as opposed to those who act and speak?” the essay asks emphatically. And not making this distinction would mean running together the two senses of representation: representation as “speaking for” (in politics), and representation as “re-presentation” (in art). The former is a proxy, while the latter is a portrait. These two senses are “related but irreducibly discontinuous” – the buried differences within words, which, when exhumed, open up rents and chasms in the apparently seamless textures of knowledge and power. The peasants in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire “cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.” This was an epigraph to Edward Said’s Orientalism, and Spivak uses the same passage to warn against, as Marx does, the conflation of meanings – “sleight of word” – by which it becomes easy to protect ourselves from the fact that to confront “them” is not to represent them, but to learn to re-present ourselves.

Through the jagged rigor of Spivak’s critique, there breaks out, every now and then, a personality (as much as a positionality) that shuttles, like the essay’s ungraspable subject, between existential awkwardness and theoretical flourish. This personality is informed with a flamboyantly irreverent professional confidence in being able to expose the “meaningless pieties” of certain theoretical positions. Yet, this confidence is inseparable from a sense of the precariousness of its own position, the insufficiency of its own gestures, the inherent presumption, and violence, of wanting to grasp and know other consciousnesses, to repeatedly invoke shadows and silences, absences and disappearances, only to work over them a relentless swirl of language.

Spivak and Chandana were both confronting a radical unbridgeability. All they could ultimately bring to it was the rigor and integrity – as well as the difficult, troubling pleasures – of their intellectual and artistic labor. But there is also a fundamental difference between their two distinct struggles with representation. What the subaltern cannot do is speak, and in Spivak’s essay, quite literally so: “the subject of exploitation cannot know and speak the text of female exploitation.” Yet it is precisely this textuality that the essayist must make her own medium. For Spivak – critic, philosopher, theorist and translator – there can be no deliverance from language, from its institutionalized production of meaning and value. Even when she turns from the rigors of theory to the succor of literature – to translating Mahasveta Devi’s Bengali story, “The Breast-giver,” for instance – the eponymous breast-giver’s bountiful mammaries cannot escape the rule of metaphor. There, too, in the “effect of the real,” the subaltern woman cannot just be. When not History, she is Parable, and always “the vehicle of a greater meaning.”

It is, therefore, in the necessary speechlessness of painting, in its circumvention of language (though not of signification), that Chandana sought a different kind of resolution to the problem of representation. Her struggle was to find a silence that would do justice to another woman’s silence, and then to let these two silences create a presence that would be proxy as well as portrait, that would re-present as well as represent. The silence of her painting is more absolute than reticent – for reticence (“I know, but I choose not to speak”) comes on its own moral high horse. But this is the silence of what the work cannot say, the assertion of an incapacity, a negative capability. “We exist on different planes,” Chandana would say about herself and Shondha. But she kept trying to describe to me the feel of the thickness and softness of pigments as the brush pressed them, layer upon layer, on the taut but yielding canvas. That feel was, for her, the sensual, even sexual, correlative of what she called “the merging of existences” in the making of the portrait – of existences that otherwise remain painfully and awfully apart.

Chandana’s painting of Shondha is a frontal impasto portrait, done mainly in two of the most poisonous pigments used by painters – ultramarine blue and zinc oxide. In it, Shondha looks unflinchingly at the viewer with her good eye, dimly magnified by her huge, high-power glasses placed slightly askew on her face. The bad eye is like a single, shriveled, virulently yellow petal, shot with crimson, which also stains the corner of her forehead and streaks her hair. The picture hangs in my study now, a gift from the artist when she moved out of our house. Shondha comes in to dust my room, and hardly ever notices the painting. But when I draw her attention to it sometimes, she gives a sharp little giggle and brings out that most dismissive of nonce-words in the Bengali language – Dhoorr!


The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

– Wallace Stevens, “The Poems of our Climate”

Silence and slow time. These are what the classics require of us, we are told, so that we might discover them properly and repeatedly. Nothing more and nothing less. In Calcutta – and I’m sure this is true of every other Subcontinental city – the story of one’s private contemplation of the classics is always intertwined with another picaresque tale. The latter is the story of one’s hopeless search for silence, for a quiet, minimal space away from human insistence or free-market muzak, where one might read a book, listen to music or look at a picture for a while. In European cities, there are always the Sunday afternoons – those vast deserts of eternity, with their empty streets, restaurants and shops, and the sense of little to look forward to apart from Monday morning. On such afternoons, as the light begins to fail and the Smug Marrieds domesticate in lamplight, the solitary aesthete reaches out, before emptiness becomes panic, for his Proust or Mahler, or wonders what might have made the Girl with the Pearl Earring stop and look back with such unwitting seduction over her left shoulder. And what follows is often a kind of joy, which does not banish the bleakness, but turns it into something rich and strange.

Art happens differently in Calcutta. Especially music. My room, for instance, is on the ground floor of an old, variously peopled house in a residential area called Ballygunge. A wall surrounds the house. But between the house and this wall runs a passageway whose function is exactly the opposite of the medieval moat. It is a thoroughfare built to let Life in, so that it might circulate around the house, its many noises mingling with the medley of sounds coming from the other houses that crowd around. So, when I sat down last week, early on my day off from work, to listen once again to all of the Bach Goldberg Variations, I soon realized that simply switching off my phone wouldn’t do at all, and it was too hot to shut the doors and windows.

In no time, Bach’s polyphony and counterpoint actualized themselves in quite another way, entirely unforeseen by the composer himself (who did live, I recalled, in a household of two wives, 20 children and numerous pupils). As a result, an altogether different classic was born that morning in my room. Once the hapless listener decided to let go of his exasperation and allowed life to come breaking in, Bach’s classic became helplessly, yet vitally impure, and far more acoustically complex than the original.

I was listening to Gould’s 1981 recording. It is, in any case, like Pablo Casals’ recording of the cello suites, wonderfully adulterated with the pianist’s grunts, groans and hummings-along. These were a continual reminder of the mortal effort, the “intolerable wrestle,” that was behind Gould’s performance. They prevented the sublimity of Bach’s achievement from becoming purely transcendent. As I listened, almost immediately after the opening aria – Hannibal Lecter’s favorite music – began playing, the water-pumps in our neighborhood whirred rustily awake in miraculous unison, and our cook’s little son, Raju, woke up and started running around the passageway, dodging his mother’s attempts at getting him ready for school. By the time of the fughetta, Raju was sitting on his potty, and during the canone alla quarta, I heard the hard little turds drop (a sound-effect memorably used by Bertolucci in The Last Emperor). At the andante, he screamed for his bottom to be washed. With the sesta, the sweet-shop next door woke up and the sweet-makers started their morning ablutions. Lush expectoration, Rabelaisian farts, vigorous cold-water baths in the open courtyard, the cats clamoring to drink up last night’s milk-gone-bad, and the stench of butter being clarified for the frying of sweets interlaced the slow unfolding of the sestima, ottava and the nona.

Then, with the great, penultimate quodlibet, one of the two huge, ancient palm trees that stand at the border between our garden and the sweetshop courtyard chose to shed a gigantic dry leaf. It fell with a tremendous crash, like the wrath of Jehovah, on the asbestos roof of their illegally-built outhouse. In the end-of-the-world silence that followed, I heard the opening aria return pristine in its simplicity, bringing the 30 variations of exponentially increasing complexity back to where it all began. Bach’s mystic circle had closed, but had not been able to shut out the “stubborn sounds” of Ballygunge. And, at least to the marveling ear of this listener, both Ballygunge and Bach were the richer for it, in spite of being sublimely unaware of each other.

“Music survives,” the poet Geoffrey Hill had written in “Tenebrae,” “composing her own sphere.” She is the “Angel of Tones, Medusa, Queen of the Air”: “and when we would accost her with real cries/ silver on silver thrills itself to ice.” Yet, it is difficult not to feel that this chilling composure, this angelic, deathly or imperious turning of human stuff into stone, silver or air, is not the only way that music might survive. For after composition, music lives only in performance, in the very temporal medium in which human lives – voices, bodies, memories and action – begin and end. Yet, the purest music does not imitate life in the way Cezanne’s apples or Van Gogh’s sunflowers depict real apples or sunflowers. It does not even transform spatial structures into musical ones in the same way as, say, Rothko’s abstractionist canvases turn human forms into gigantic colored shapes, although musical design or harmony, especially of the symphonic kind, may often create the effect of three-dimensional space, of depths and distances.

But, at a very real yet intellectually elusive level, composed or improvised music coexists with human life; they are always, quite literally, contemporaries. Music happens while, and as, life happens, in human time and in human spaces, and often comes out of human bodies, and therefore seems to transform or re-compose time and space and bodies. Hence, when artists and intellectuals who work with media other than music – poets, novelists, dancers, painters, sculptors, film-makers, linguists, anthropologists, philosophers – use, write about or reflect on music, they are struck by the paradox of music’s disembodied carnality, its being both in and out of time, its seductive ability to parallel the structures and accidents of language, myth, mathematics or society even while seeming to breathe far above all these – its capacity for being simultaneous, immanent or homologous, yet mystically apart and self-collected.

Perhaps the greatest exploration of the simultaneity of music and life, of the classical and the human, is opera, culminating in the mythic and psychological inclusiveness of Wagner’s art. Yet, much of post-Wagnerian, modernist opera – those of Richard Strauss, for instance – is about the breakdown of this unity, when the realm of the human, with its “real cries,” remains stubbornly outside, and even alien to, the composed “sphere” of music. At the end of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (1911), the Feldmarschallin Marie Therese, in her mid-thirties and magnificently Hapsburg, confronts the Rococo kitsch of her 17-year-old lover, Octavian, falling rapturously in love with the sweet little Sophie. It is an inevitability that the Marschallin herself has inscrutably and perversely facilitated. Strauss writes his lushest and most beautifully elegiac music for the final trio, as Octavian dimly wakes up to the point of the Marschallin’s bizarrely magnanimous erotic fatalism. Used to the Marschallin explaining him to himself, the young Octavian turns, even at this moment, to her. “Marie Therese,” he sings, “How good you are!/ Marie Therese, I do not know. . .” But it is with the Marschallin’s response to this appeal that Strauss’s music suddenly stops, and the opera steps outside its own musical plenitude for a few moments. Turning away from Octavian, in a hoarsely whispered aside, which Strauss does not set to music, the Marschallin gasps, “Ich weiß auch nix, gar nix!” (I too know nothing, absolutely nothing.) And then that high, ravishing music starts heaving again. The young lovers are discreetly left to themselves on stage, as the music blesses them with saccharine indulgence. They are then ushered by the Marschallin’s little black boy into her entourage, as she waits offstage.

The Marschallin’s disavowal of knowledge – harsh and tuneless, with its sharp German sibilants – is a moment, at once desolating and transfiguring, that seems to exist outside the generosity of great art. Suddenly, the classic knows nothing, and standing numb and blank, has nothing to say – the coldest of pastorals and no friend to man. The failure of grace becomes, here, the failure of music. Yet, life and language survive this tragicomic failure, as Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, come upon what Art, at its wisest and saddest, generously gives – precisely when it intractably withholds.


In 1962, the year he was to become director of the department of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski delivered a lecture to an audience composed exclusively of teachers of photography. He was trying to tell them about a rather unusual notion of commitment: the best teachers of photography are those who are committed to an openness that leads their students out of, and ultimately beyond, photography. They give their students what are ostensibly escape routes to other things. And these routes, seeming to lead away from photography, eventually become the paths for returning to it. For Szarkowski, photography becomes one of the arts, like literature, painting and music, only when it stops obsessing over its own history and theory – when its mirrors become windows, as much to the world as into the soul. To break out of its documentary cage, photography must risk a kind of intellectual and existential promiscuity, an all-absorbing hunger that is at once outwardly directed and inwardly trained. It must learn to look, as Blake had put it, not only with, but also through, the eyes. This is how photography can hold on to its self-reflexivity without turning it into a narcissism that fails to discover anything beyond itself. “I think this nourishment, this new blood that allows any creative field to become something new and something richer must come from outside of the medium,” Szarkowski elaborates, “an art medium is not like the snake with its tail in its mouth. We cannot expect to find all of the nourishment that we need within the works of the tradition.” This vitality must come from outside post-modernism’s hall of mirrors, from “the business of probing and exploring life, including all those intuitively sensed realities for which we have not yet found formal expression.” This is why photographers must commit themselves to “ideas from life. . .that do not yet have a form.” The consequences of such a commitment could be nothing less than revolutionary and, for Szarkowski, “Revolutions in art come from concerns that are outside and beyond art.”

For photographers, and equally for writers on photography, what Szarkowski opens up here is the question of reference, in the widest sense of the word. A photograph is the depiction of a relationship with reality in a much more necessary way than a poem or sonata is. So how can photography be sustained by this inescapable connection with reality and yet free itself from the tyranny of this connection, from what Coleridge had called the despotism of the eye? For Jeff Wall, who sees himself as both an artist and a historian of art, this double game is about “making things visible rather than seeing, somehow, what is already visible.” So, to make his own art out of the interplay between these two conditions, Wall looks towards the making of fictions in literature, cinema and the theatre – towards the construction, rather than the documentation, of reality. And this is where the other, more literary, sense of reference becomes important for the kind of photography that Wall – and before him, Szarkowski – are talking about. Photography must create its own access to a whole universe of reference – allusions, echoes, resonances and reflections – drawn from the myriad worlds of the other arts, determined by the peculiar character of the individual photographer’s inner life and circumstances. Together they constitute the photographer’s “inner darkroom,” in which, according to Proust, the ghosts and shadows of his art develop into more substantial and enduring, but no less mysterious, creatures. In this chamber of creation, the reality that photography must refer to is an amalgam of art, life and inwardness in which each element dissolves into and enriches the others. This is why photography is never enough for photographers – it is merely the place where all the ladders start.

To see this from the perspectives of both Wall and Szarkowski, of a photographer and a curator, is to realize how photography’s openness is essential to both the making and the viewing of photographs. So it is disconcerting to find the required reading for an education in photography being reduced to the Barthes-Benjamin-Sontag trinity for those learning to make as well as write about photography. Yet, the most important artists who have used, or use, photography – Man Ray, William Gedney, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Jeff Wall, Daido Moriyama, Tacita Dean, Roni Horn, Adam Fuss – have derived a more profound sustenance from a wide and eclectic range of literature, music and philosophy than from their peers and predecessors in photography or from contemplating simply the history of this particular medium. It is also ironic that the Benjamin-Barthes-Sontag trio now embodies a sort of canon in photographic theory, for each of them brought to his or her writing on photography an intimacy with the other arts and philosophy, a range of reference that their canonization in the photo world somehow belies.

The interplay between seeing what is already visible and making things visible that Wall talks about takes a specific, and poignant, form in photographers’ portraits of writers, artists and musicians. When Gisèle Freund looks at Virginia Woolf, Cartier-Bresson at Sartre, Matisse and Giacometti, or William Gedney at John Cage playing electronic chess in the dark, each portrait not only documents a unique presence that is already visible, but also struggles to make visible something far more elusive and unfathomable, an absence rather than a presence. The photographer’s struggle to express an intuitive recognition of another artist’s essence is often the silent expression of a longing – photography aspiring to the condition of writing, painting, sculpture or music.

In their portraits of Jorge Luis Borges, made in the 1960s and ’70s, photographers like Diane Arbus and Daniel Mordzinski add one more dimension to the interplay between seeing and making visible by choosing a famously blind writer and reader as their subject. How can the essence of blindness be made visible? These photographers, in their different ways, make us see Borges at the end of a line of blind poets that goes back, through Milton, to Homer, in whose figure history merges with mythology. Photography’s long fascination with the unmoving and the unseeing, together with the question of how to keep the subject unaware of the photographer’s presence, is given another turn of the screw in these portraits of the blind writer. “He gazes still,” Coleridge had written about a blind man in his poem “Limbo,” “his eyeless Face all Eye –/ As ’twere an Organ full of silent Sight.” In a 1977 lecture in Buenos Aires, Borges talks about how he was freed by blindness from the “inconsequential skin of things” into “the world of the blind when they are alone, walking with hands outstretched, searching for props.” The best photographs of Borges fuse Borges’ perception of his own blindness as freedom from the despotism of the eye and the photographer’s perception of blindness as a challenge to photography’s investment in the visible.

The writer who has helped me most in thinking through the challenge of photographing blindness was born three centuries before the invention of photography. If Shakespeare had not blinded his Earl of Gloucester in King Lear, subjecting him to the cruelest of tricks in the dramatist’s own house of illusion, and if Borges himself had not pointed me towards this theatre of the blind with his figure of the blind man walking alone with “his hand outstretched, searching for props,” then I would not have been able to understand the double vision captured in classic photographs of the blind writer. Shakespeare’s blinded Gloucester was led to believe, by his own son in a sort of vocal disguise, that he, Gloucester, was standing at the edge of a cliff from which he had decided to jump to his own death. The son makes his blind father, and the audience, feel the vertigo of standing at such a height through a purely verbal description of the cliff and of the view it commanded of the sea far below. Gloucester jumps at the end of this description and realizes that he has fallen rather ingloriously upon flat ground. In all good productions of the play, it is impossible to be sure whether what we see at this point is a theatrical rendering of an actual piece of tragic action (Gloucester and his son actually standing on a cliff from which the former jumps) or a trick played on the blind old man by his son. The power of Shakespeare’s verse and the unrealistic conventions of his stage collude wickedly at this point to keep us in a state of uncertainty. By making us experience a blind man’s point of view, the interplay of what we actually see with what we are being made to see reaches a level of cunning, from which the practice and theory of photography could well afford to learn.

Aveek Sen is senior assistant editor (editorial pages) of The Telegraph, Calcutta. He studied English literature at Jadavpur University, Calcutta, and University College, Oxford, and taught English literature at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. He was awarded the 2009 Infinity Award for writing on photography by the International Center of Photography, New York.

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