Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Beholder's Share

In my MFA thesis, I called it, the voice of silence, Artur Schabel called it, the pauses between the notes, Chekhov called it, the single shard, and Ernst Grombrich, in his seminal work, The Story of Art, called it, the beholder's share. 

References all to the role of the observer (reader, listener) in a work of art.

The more elided a work, the more ambiguous it is, the more the observer must bring to it. Think of Haiku. Think of flash fiction. These are forms that require much of the reader in terms of memory, emotion, and reason. And even the most profusive writers craft with words, and so must manipulate these abstract materials in ways that expand within the reader, creating emotionally resonant, three dimensional fictional worlds. The senses play an important role here, but so does association. Chekhov's idea, that the whole night sky is reflected in a single shard of glass, is a reference to the mind's inclination to create wholes where their are only parts. What the Gestaltist's called the brain's holistic tendencies; we don't see individual geese, we see a V as the flock flies overhead.

The associative quality of art, the magic of the single shard, is fundamental to our work as writers.  It is the element of magic in our poetry, in our prose, and our illustrations, and speaks to the heart of the relationship between artist and observer, between writer and reader, between composer and listener.

Daniel Levitin, in This is Your Brain on Music, noted that Miles Davis believed his approach to improvisation was similar to Picasso's approach to the canvas; that is was not the objects themselves, but the space between the objects that are critical. Without space, without silence, there is no anticipation, no expectation, no emotion. And music is all about anticipation and emotion.

The player of the single string Japanese instrument, the Ichigenkin is primarily judged on their ability to convey power and meaning in the spaces between notes. This resonant silence is called ma, "emptiness which is full"... And the listener's ability to hear ma determines the depth of their appreciation. (Musicworks).

As readers (beholders) our associative powers take us beyond the limits and conventions of language. As writers, of course this is the challenge, to relate the experience of being in the world, and even more, the revelation of mystery, all that remains beyond words.