Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Lady in White: Describing

If I were to teach writing again, I'd call the course, "Description," and ask my students to do nothing but describe. Louis Agassiz is reported to have put a student in a room with a fish in a tank, pen and a notebook; the student was to observe the fish and take notes for three months. Even if I could, I wouldn't follow Agassiz's example, but I would ask my students to observe and write. I'd like them to forget themselves, and look outward.

If we gaze long enough, our prose may open to metaphor.

Early this morning--and it's always, as I've said, at three o'clock--I read again Henry James's story, "The Beast in the Jungle." It made me shudder even more this time around. James is so good on the life not lived. He also lets himself go in this description of May Bartram:

"Almost as white as wax, with the marks and signs in her face as numerous and as fine as if they had been etched by a needle, with soft white draperies relieved by a faded green scarf on the delicate tone of which the years had further refined, she was the picture of a serene and exquisite but impenetrable sphinx, whose head, or indeed all whose person, might have been powdered with silver. She was a sphinx, yet with her white petals and green fronds she might have been a lily too--only an artificial lily, wonderfully imitated and constantly kept, without dust or stain, though not exempt from a slight droop and complexity of faint creases, under some clear glass bell."

She's fated to die, of course, seeming already like an apparition. She might have lived--all the white and pale green turned to pink--if John Marcher had understood how much she loved him, and loved her in return. But now I'm straying from description.

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