Five days into the month-long process of Saint Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, Jesuit novitiates are asked to meditate on hell. The only context given is a prelude, instructing the pupil to visualize a space. “See with the sight of the imagination the length, breadth, and depth of Hell.” At midnight, the novitiate is instructed to imagine “the great fires, and the souls in the bodies of fires.” See, if you will, a picture of hell.
Ignatius’s exercise gives no specific indication as to how hell should look, what color the fire should burn, and no particular structure to help the novitiate decide whose souls he should see immolated and how visceral their immolation should appear. The exercise is a frame, and whatever picture goes inside the frame is personal. In a way, it doesn’t matter. Ignatius of Loyola wrote the meditations to will self-abnegation: the novitiate was meant to forget himself from the inside out. The real question he’s being asked is: do you see?
Because seeing, writes philosopher Alva Noë, “is more like climbing a tree, or reading a book than it is like digesting what you’ve eaten.” Seeing is enactive. You decide when to do it. Stand next to a guy on a train for twenty minutes and it’s easy not to see his pants. At a school assembly, a girl looked at her dad across the gymnasium and, seeing his head full of gray hair, she said, “but my father has brown hair.” She was pretty upset. When she thought of her dad, she saw a picture. The picture she saw didn’t show the man who stood across the room with his gray hair.
Ask any professor at the nearest German literature department for a writer who cares about the act of seeing, and chances are he or she will mention Robert Walser. Even on the front covers of Walser’s books, the Swiss-born writer (1878-1956) always seems to be looking. He’s looking at a view that’s charming, pure, beautiful, and good (adjectives he often repeats); even if under the surface he feels anxious, superfluous, and small (same thing). Characters in his work want to look. They want to see out windows, and see mountains reflected in lakes. They want to forget themselves, but never totally do so. Walser’s way of seeing is wonderful in the literal sense that he seems full of wonder at the fact that there’s a world that exists outside of himself. When Walser looks, he does see. Which makes it useful, then, to look at the same picture.
Looking at Pictures is a collection of twenty-five of Walser’s essays on art. Most of the pictures are paintings and drawings: van Gogh, Watteau, Rembrandt, Cézanne, Brueghel the younger, Aubrey Beardsley, and several lesser-known artists from Switzerland (Ferdinand Hodler, Karl Stauffer-Bern). The essays sometimes read like fiction, which makes sense coming from an author whose first book of fiction was named The Essays of Fritz Kocher. The earliest piece in On Looking was published in 1902, and the last few were written in 1930—three years before Walser moved to a mental asylum, where he stayed until his death in 1956. Doctors said he could leave if he wanted, but he stayed. He stopped writing. He was satisfied with his daily walk.
Because when Walser walks, he sees. When he sees a picture, in a way, he walks. Both the picture and reader accompany him on associative travels. Three pages into a review of an exhibition of Belgian art for Prager Presse Walser asks, “But when shall I start talking about art?” By this point, he’s already gone to the cafè, looked at a sunbeam, seen flags, and remembered a dream where a woman with an angular face asked him to hold up a hand-mirror. Seeing becomes complicated for a writer as perceptive as Walser. The text diffuses into fantasy and just as quickly pivots back to a banal art gallery, a reminder to the reader that the text isn’t a total replication of the mind of Robert Walser—a man who eventually chose the comfort and safety of institutionalization over living in the world, who went out alone for a walk one Christmas day at the age of seventy-eight and died of a heart attack—it’s just a short review in the Prager Presse.
On the wall of the museum, Walser sees “a vernal landscape, now a snowy one, now a flower painting, now a picture of a lady.” The text moves back to Walser’s associations: Duke Charles the Bold, ex-girlfriends, the wife of Peter Paul Rubens. Everything exists in limbo, a graceful dance between gray and brown-haired fathers. Walser sees both the real picture, and the associations that the picture summons. “To speak in a summarizing fashion about many pictures at once,” Walser writes, “constitutes for me a difficulty that I am most delighted, as it were, to permit myself.”
There’s a totally idiosyncratic and personal view of art criticism at work here: one that has as much to do with Walser as the real picture on the wall. After Walser’s seen the picture, he walks away.
William Gass called the narrators of Walser’s fiction “ninnies”; in the essays, Walser’s a ninny, still. Walser acts as if he’s ignorant and foolish and small in the face of the world because a lot of the time that’s really how he feels. “To a certain extent and in a certain sense,” Walser writes in an essay on Brueghel, “all of us are blind, even though we have eyes to see.” It’s hard not to interpret all this as a kind of self-abnegation: a decision to remain a ninny. Maybe Walser’s narrators are ninnies, but it’d be better to say that they’re ninnies who know.
Which might be why the first piece in On Looking starts with a disclaimer. Published when Walser was twenty-four, A Painter is a series of diary entries written by a fictional painter. It starts with a paragraph that reads: “Certainly opinions may differ regarding the views expressed on art here. But that isn’t the most important thing; rather, there was something else I found interspersed among these pages, something purely human, that seemed to me more significant and truly worthy of being read.”
What’s worthy is the mess. The narrator (with words) paints a portrait of himself as the kind of nice young man you might click away from here to find on your favorite online dating site. He’s confident, aphoristic, and optimistic. He doesn’t like color, but loves the colorless. He lives rent-free at the villa of a Countess. He is European. He likes the fog. For fun sometimes he walks around, trying to out-roam the fog. “Every great painter the world has ever known,” he says, “has been cheerful, quiet, thoughtful, clever, and superbly educated.” It can feel very good to talk. Better still to write down what you’ve got to say. But keep reading these diary entries and soon you’ve gone on a second date, a third, and that nervous, sad young man with his opinions starts to make less sense. Soon he’s choking in contradiction, drowning in words.
Exactly: words. What about pictures? Between diary entries the narrator puts down his pen and makes two. The first is a portrait of the Countess; second, a sickly visiting poet. Karl Walser, one of Walser’s seven siblings and a successful visual artist, sketched these paintings for the first printing of Fritz Kocher’s Essays.
Karl Walser’s drawing of the Countess is from a vantage point his brother favored: the observer observing himself. In this case, the observer observes himself observing. That is, in the drawing, the painter paints the Countess. The Countess sits in a chair and on the painter’s canvas, slightly altered in each place.
When the canvas is finished in the story, the narrator takes it off the easel. The Countess looks at the depiction of herself and sees something new in herself. She “stands in front of [her portrait] for long periods of time looking at it as if it were something foreign that did not pertain to her directly.” By seeing herself depicted in the painter’s mode of seeing, she’s reorganized her self-conception. Something about this way of seeing herself makes her fall in love with the narrator. The painter made the painting, and so made her. The narrator’s second painting goes just as well. He calls it a reproduction of nature itself. He is satisfied, but with his new satisfaction, there is sadness. He realizes he can’t stay. He’s seen what he needed to see, and now gets up and walks away, into the forest.
A writer writes; a painter paints. And the narrator of A Painter writes about painting. Walser’s description of any act can be straightforward, but he is always in between. A Painter says a lot about Walser’s insight into sight, about how difficult—impossible—it is to reduce the world into a pretty picture or sentence. The narrator of A Painter tries to pin down what it means to see a picture, but Walser, when he pins down a metaphorical butterfly, won’t kill the thing. His touch is light; if it dies, he’s failed. To keep seeing, he has to keep moving. And as he walks away, the narrator of A Painter puts it, “No idea how I shall deal with art from now on—we shall see.”
With any good prose there’s a balancing act, and with any balancing act it’s possible to fall. To stay upright Walser never leans too far toward danger, but in Thoughts on Cézanne he gets close to an articulation of what that danger might be.
The essay begins mid-thought (or step, if you want) with Walser contemplating how in Cézanne’s fruits there’s a lack of fullness. Cézanne, basically, sees some fruit on a table and in drawing what he sees, the fruit become lines. The lines have a certain kind of mysterious, mystical power for Walser. He writes, “I feel convinced that [Cézanne] commiserated with them, and then again with himself, and that for a long time he really did not know why.”
“As time went by, a secret watchfulness settled in his eyes from so much precise circling of contours that became for him edges of a mystery. An entire quiet lifetime he spent fighting inaudibly and, as one might be tempted to say, with nobility, to make mountainous—if such a paraphrase might suffice—the frame of things.”
Cézanne makes monuments of things by seeing them sympathetically, and rendering them as art. He becomes a kind of Midas; what he sees and paints becomes a Cézanne. When he paints his wife, he paints her just like flowers, glasses, dishes, knives, fruits, coffeepots, and cups.
Here’s the possible danger: draw your wife like a cup and now she’s got a handle. D.H. Lawrence writes that psychic degradation lurks nearby in the shadows when an artist contends to know others in his work and therefore kill their mystery. “KNOWING and BEING are opposite, antagonist states,” Lawrence writes. “The more you know, exactly, the less you are. The more you are, in being, the less you know.” If Cézanne were to KNOW his wife, that effectively kills her because to KNOW her is to reduce and diminish her mystery as an autonomous person into a solipsistic nothing, flattened by an artist into a quiet woman with brown hair. But that’s the thing about Walser. Ninnies don’t KNOW a whole lot about very much anything at all. They really just want to BE.
Walser writes that Cézanne “magicked flowers onto paper, so that upon it they quivered, rejoiced, and smiled, swaying in their plantlike ways; his concern was the flesh of flowers, the spirit of the secret which dwells in the resistance a thing with special properties offers to understanding.”
Both Cézanne and Walser have sat with cups, plates, trees. They’ve sat with these things for a very long time, and in their particular renderings of them, given the viewer a picture that is both mimetic and strange. Objective, but still personal. Go too far in either direction, and there’s the danger of a fall. The delusional man can only see a father with brown hair because he’s a fantasy. The unimaginative Randall can only see the gray. The artist sees both. Walser’s art writing enacts sight in all of its complication: in that sight, there is a kind of life.
Ignatius wrote the Spiritual Exercises to impel future Jesuit priests closer to a picture of god inside themselves—a devotion akin to Rilke’s idea of building a God inside of oneself rather than waiting for one to arrive from without. In his writing, Walser builds a god, too. There is no religion in his art criticism, but Walser, smiling mid-walk, sees a small-g god in all things. There’s a commune between himself and the world, never total. Walser genuflects to his gods quickly. He sees them, and keeps walking. In his pages, seeing isn’t always pleasant. It’s easy to wish that gray hair were brown. “But,” as Walser writes in A Painter, “I don’t want happiness. I want oblivion.”