Thursday, September 24, 2009

Why I Write, and Adam or the proper picture

Here we go: Two of three texts to read for Tuesday, October 6:

• George Orwell: Why I Write

• Axel Thormählen, Adam or the proper picture
first published in TrenchArt: Parapet, 2007

Not many people have had Adam as their art teacher. I was one of those who had that pleasure, but unfortunately he didn’t like me. My face, he announced in front of the entire class, didn’t fit into any aesthetic context. I must have seemed so ugly to him that he avoided looking at me even in passing. In fact, he didn’t look at any of us for longer than absolutely necessary. We were, so he told us at the beginning of every art class, a superfluous, vulgar breed, and teaching us art was a waste of time. Twelve-year-old pupils, we thought of art—if we thought of it at all—as a random thing, rather than as a school subject. The main thing was for Adam to approve what we painted, then we’d get a good grade and that was art. I got one poor grade after another because Adam kept telling me to paint an apple; but I couldn’t do apples, or faces either. The soft cheeks and the shadows were beyond me. Art teacher Adam was a good-looking young man whom the biology mistress was running after, as the whole school knew. He, however, yearned for the perfect apple. Not angular and certainly not cut into pieces, cubist-fashion; not blurred in transports of water-colour or thickened in oil sludge; a pure, clear apple was what he wanted, taken from the dish of an English still life or bought off a Dutch market-woman. As time went by and nobody in our class was able to produce that apple, his apple, he tried a river instead. ‘Paint me a river!’ he commanded. ‘And anyone among you good-for-nothings who doesn’t do it properly will pay for it on the grade-sheet.’
My first river didn’t find favour with him. What was that miserable blue line, he yelled at me, did I think this was the geography class? Adam snatched the sheet of paper from my desk and tore it up in front of everybody. ‘Once more, and you’d better be quick about it!’ he ordered. Desperate, I squinted at the thing on my neighbour’s desk to see if I could pick up any ideas. But all that had occurred to him was an estuary, a delta, and that only meant a few more blue lines, some thick, others thin. Now I changed styles and used the paintbox instead of soft pencils. A river, I thought, needs water, blue water. It was the work of a moment to get a wide blue stretch of water on to the paper, framed by green, my idea of a river bank. I felt Adam’s sceptical gaze on me as I pursued my artistic endeavour and suspected he was just waiting to destroy another work of my hands. But I accepted his challenge. I suddenly grasped that a river has a bottom across which the movement, the current, rolls and tumbles; and I found that there isn’t just one blue, but endless variants. With some shades of blue you could go deep down, into the coolness; in other, lighter tones, you could even bathe. I tried hard, had deep-blue shades relieved by shallow ones, even went almost grey along the bank. From the corner of my eye, I observed that my diligence made Adam increasingly restless. Finally I saw him stride towards the window. Oh, right, I thought, he wants to think about something else; it annoys him that I’m still at it.

Our art teacher, however, did something unusual: suddenly, with a powerful gesture, he tore open both window sections, letting the gale outside into the classroom. It immediately lifted all our sheets of paper off our desks, twirled them—like an acrobat his skittles—through the air and then, chaos completed, let them drop.

‘As the wind blows,’ said Adam mockingly, closing the window again. Most of my fellow pupils were disconsolate; why, the teacher himself had intervened and torpedoed their work! That gust of wind had ruined what had come so easily to them a moment ago. I wasn’t exactly jubilant either as I picked up my sheet from where it was lying on the floor. Painted side down, of course, in the dirt which had been dragged in by many shoes and now stuck to the water-colours. A botched picture, as it seemed. Once more the art teacher relished the shot of despair that must have been evident on my face. I took another look at the misfortune and suddenly found that even dirt could be made something of, if... Swiftly, before it all dried up, I seized a wooden ruler and pushed the sand and earth into the watercourse, making lumps of it. When I added more watercolour, the lumps turned to rocks in the river. That encouraged me to create movement, eddies, around these rocks. At this point I was even having fun, playing in the river. I was just imagining trout jumping in it when Adam took the paper out of my hands once more. He looked at it, long and hard; he’d never looked at a person for that length of time. I was waiting for him to tear this one to shreds as well, but he didn’t. He held up the sheet before him and walked along the aisles like that. At last he moved back to the teacher’s desk, still staring at the picture.

‘Here’, he said, turning around and holding up the sheet in front of the class, ‘this is art.’ Then he was silent for some time. The wildest emotions clashed within me. Branded as an eternal failure, I was unable to believe in this monumental accolade; resigned, I took his words as a piece of implicit scorn to which I was sure he’d give full expression in a moment.

However, the expected opprobrium didn’t materialise. Instead Adam came up to my desk, leaned on it, pointed to my picture and said: ‘That’s really good, you know. You went through all the phases: instead of laziness—contradiction; instead of whining and giving up—sincerity, bowing to the motif. Responding to a serious challenge, not everyone can do that. And then to go on and fill it with one’s own stuff, that takes a lot. lot. You can do it, lad. Move around in your imagination. Bring me the apple!’

I tried to produce an apple but found I wasn’t able to. I could describe it, though, how it hung there high up on its tree, an alluring prize for a boy who coveted it and went to any lengths to get hold of it. Thanks to that essay I got a good grade from a colleague Adam respected, and from then on I went in for the written story.

But I kept running into my limitations when writing as well. Soon I concluded that while creating yields fulfilment, a successful piece of work immediately engenders further demands. First among them is the demand for beauty, which won’t let itself be captured, but it doesn’t want to find itself on paper by chance either. If a figure turns out well, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it fits into the framework you created for it. If you want a story too badly, it has a way of ending up in shallow waters. Far too often, these burdens breed a fear of the empty sheet of paper, of the colour, even of the sentence. And the questions linger on: Can I repeat what can’t be bettered? Hasn’t everything been said and done already? Be careful, I say to myself at such times, Adam’s standing there right behind you, he’ll tear up your piece of paper, he, the observer, the reader, the teacher. Take care to stay good: first think of the form, then of the craft and the idea together. And only then, at last, of the pleasure at the chance of taking a bite from the apple, never mind who hands it to you.


  1. When I try to click the Orwell link it says:

    You don't have permission to access /library/essays/wiw/english/e_wiw on this server.

    Apache/1.3.31 Server at Port 80

    did I break it...

  2. So strange -- as it works from my computer. I'll include links on the syllabus, in case this happens again.