Illustration, illumination, and ‘precious knowledge’

Boys in the street
Beginning to play
Girls like birds
Flying away
I’m carrying the roses
That were given to me
And I’m thinking about paradise
Wondering what it might be

— Bob Dylan, “Marchin’ to the City”


Oh, would that I were in England right now… Several friends have brought to my attention a current exhibition at the Bodleian Library in Oxford of Tolkien’s artwork — “illustration” it is usually called — including several pieces never before exhibited to the public. This information, which I initially brushed off as a petty torment — since there is no chance I will go to England before the end of October when the exhibit closes — has over the past few days succeeded in distracting me on numerous occasions, and has at last combined with other ideas I have lately been considering in connection with the novel I am finishing for the MFA. For example, I have been thinking a lot about the man who painted this image:


This image is nothing like the sort of images that Tolkien produced in connection with his mythopoeia and legendarium. Rather, it is a realist image of a game of fantasy, or in other words the sort of scene that plays out among children who hold in their minds the sort of images that Tolkien made in connection with his literary work; or, more precisely: who hold in their minds images altogether their own, which they got from reading or listening to Tolkien’s literary work and not from looking at actual images of Tolkien’s or anyone else’s making. I remember enjoying the images on the covers of fantasy novels when I was a child. I did not think of those covers as illustrations of the contents of the books; but what I got from them was the same thing I got from those contents, which was the suggestion of a world extending endlessly from the edges of the images on the covers (or the words on the pages). If the world of fantasy or of fiction — I’ll call it Faerie here — did not extend endlessly from the images and words, then as a child I could never have played, as I constantly did, in the way that the children in this painting are playing.

But I also remember being thankful that the books I read were not illustrated in any way beyond those covers. I preferred the images supplied by my own mind while reading the story, particularly the landscapes, which were transfigurations of the landscapes that I knew in the Ohio Valley. (I have always been slightly disappointed with any fantasy that has not involved a great continental river at some point, however incidentally, and I am quite certain that I will never write a book of any kind that does not involve such a river.) So far as I could tell, my mind was the sole means of accessing Faerie and any art which attempted to assume my mind’s role or which failed to provide indefinite extension beyond the limits of its imagery in which my mind might do its work, I would reject. I had no access to Tolkien’s visual art; but if I had seen it, I’m not sure I would have cared much for the privilege. That is not to say I think it bad work: only that I would have been unable to refrain from applying that work to the world Tolkien’s writing had discovered in my mind, and this would have been frustrating, for the peculiar virtue of books is not that they convey images but that they conjure or reveal them. (When I wrote just now of art providing indefinite extension of imagery, I meant the word provide very concretely in its primitive etymological sense of foreseeing or knowing something must be there without having yet seen it, as in ‘providence.’) I rely very heavily indeed on the mental imagery which books conjure in my mind. I therefore have a problem with what is commonly called illustration. This kind of image seems to me to sap both visual and verbal art of its vitality — its proper discoveries of the indefinite intension of Faerie — without offering anything by way of replacement.

Art that points ever beyond itself to further provinces in mind, is also able to image forth the maximum emotional depth of human interiority. Both qualities (which we might relabel transcendence and immanence) are emotional, and they seem to be dependent on the other. For example, James Tissot was also able to paint this image, which has become one of the most treasured images in my mind:


This is an image of Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise; it is also one of many images made by James Tissot of the love of his life, Kathleen Newton, in this case some time after she had died at the age of twenty-eight from tuberculosis. The upper right-hand corner of the painting, above Adam and Eve, suggests in the unfolding distance what I think of as the endless landscape of Faerie, as I have glimpsed it from within many works of fiction. That perception is the minimum requisite to draw my interest and convince me that I am seeing an authentic figuration of truth, which is a quality that exists only in mind. But what really makes this painting moving for me is Eve’s expression and gesture. I have seen blonde Eves and brunette Eves, but I have never elsewhere seen a crimson-haired Eve: if this is not Kathleen Newton as only James Tissot knew her then there never was such a woman. But somehow she is also eminently familiar to me, utterly modern without being the least bit anachronistic. No, I am not saying she resembles my wife or a past lover, it is nothing that evident and visible: and yet, surely I myself have stood like this Adam with a woman like this Eve; it seems only the other day, and it seems years ago — leaving some ill-fated party together in the small hours, or always… All of these factors come together mysteriously. I have looked on many depictions of the Fall and the expulsion from Paradise, and I have always found the myth, so to call it, moving, it kindles in me a primordial excitement; but no depiction has moved me like this one.

I probably best know the Fall and the expulsion from reading Paradise Lost, and the first words that might occur to me if I tried to think of words in connection with this painting would be the last lines of that poem:

The World was all before them, where to choose
Thir place of rest, and Providence thir guide:
They hand in hand with wandring steps and slow,
Through Eden took thir solitarie way.

Of course Milton does not give his Eve crimson hair. But if I had to illustrate the closing lines of that poem, Tissot’s painting is the image I would pick. However, because I feel the way I do about Tissot’s depiction of the expulsion from Paradise, I do not want to think of this painting as an illustration of anything, not even of Genesis or as great a work of literary art as Paradise Lost. For me, Tissot’s painting has its own light: it is not an illustration so much as it is luminous, or illuminated.

And in point of fact, Tissot’s painting illustrates no text known to me. It is certainly not an illustration of the Genesis material, nor of Milton’s imagination of the event. And it does not even correspond to the visions of the Westphalian nun Anne Catherine Emmerich, which visions were popularly read in Tissot’s day and supposed to have inspired the enormous number of depictions of biblical scenes that Tissot painted in the latter phase of his career, having suffered the loss of Kathleen Newton and undergone a religious vision himself that reverted him to his childhood faith — even if it could not remove him completely from his fin de siècle decadence.

I became interested in Tissot (I’d never hard of him previously) when I acquired a copy of Angelico Press’ edition of the visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich (illustrated with many of Tissot’s works), as recorded in prose by Clemens Brentano. The situation here is extremely complex: Anne Catherine was a stigmatic recluse. She experienced the visions while she was bedridden over many years. We have a record or version of her visions only because Clemens Brentano, a poet living a bohemian lifestyle similar to Tissot’s two generations later, was mysteriously attracted by rumors of the visionary nun, to the point where he gave up his bohemian life and moved house so that he could sit by her side every day and write down what she told him she had seen. What she saw, if we believe Brentano, exceeds the realistic detail of even the most sprawling and meticulous novel or travelogue. Anne Catherine witnessed the creation of the world, the fall of the angels and then of mankind, and all of sacred history subsequent, through the events reported in the New Testament. The detail and character-descriptions and, often, the hour-by-hour account of biblical narratives reads like the frenzied (but eloquent and precise) notes of an impassioned novelist. The Emmerich-Brentano combination is one of the most fascinating literary and narrative documents I’ve ever encountered, whatever one makes of its visionary capacity. It is the perfect recension of the biblical material for a century immersed in the mundane and the sensuous (by the way, that’s some more Milton — he coined “sensuous”) — and, indeed, the century of the classic novel.

Tissot’s painting of the expulsion is certainly sensuous. But what it is not is a third- or fourth-order imitation or illustration, because as I say he did not depict what Brentano reports Emmerich reporting to him. I certainly think Tissot was inspired by reading Emmerich-Brentano, but the painting is his own vision. This essay, I have a feeling, is going to go off in a couple of different directions momentarily, but first a brief aside on — what else? — etymology, i.e. these words illustration and illumination.

The connotative difference between these terms is that between the application of light (illustration) and the emanation of it (illumination). A text that has been illustrated has had light, color, form applied to it, presumably in order to clarify or make it more vivid in the imagination of the reader, who is also thus a viewer. A text that has been illuminated, on the other hand, has been made luminous, it has been made to shine forth (remember the etymology of “fantasy” here and the notion contained therein of shining). Someone might illuminate a problem for you — they might even illuminate it by illustrating it with a concrete instance. That is, as near as I can discern, how we use the terms differently. I do not enjoy visual art, no matter how good, which I can understand only as an attempt to illustrate a text or story. The visual art that I enjoy has to be luminous in its own right, even if it is also an illustration. Probably we would all agree (accepting my distinction for the sake of argument) that the best art undertaken as illustration succeeds because it is also more than illustration, it is itself luminous, accomplishes its own imagination or figuration.

These days, we think of illustrated light as inferior to the light of luminous things. But it used to be that “to illustrate” could be applied to persons, so to illustrate someone was to make them famous, tout their virtues, and cause them to be praised. (As an example of that lapsed usage, there is the important tract of Renaissance poetics by Joachim du Bellay called Defense and Illustration of the French Language — which contained no pictures.) But things that have luster, we are now more apt to think, are only shiny, they are not supposed to have an intrinsic light; likewise to call someone or some institution illustrious is not necessarily to praise that person or institution, but only to objectively describe the fact (without committing one’s own opinion) that he or she or it enjoys a certain reputation or acclaim. Whereas the terms enlightened or illumined  — though we may use these terms ironically, of course — are more unambiguously value-positive in their basic connotations.

Well, fine then. But what about the etymology? That’s the curious thing. Illumination is not weird, it very clearly contains the Latin for “light” — lumen. Technically, illuminate is supposed to mean the same thing, physically, as illustrate, it is supposed to mean the literally superficial throwing of light on something. The word “luminous” is made of the Latin for “light” plus the suffix -osus, which means “full of,” so a luminous thing doesn’t have light thrown on it so much as it contains and overflows with its own light. But from luminous I tend to think of illuminate as the making of something luminous, I suppose because of medieval illuminated manuscripts, which at least cannot be said to be ‘illustrated.’ But about that word illustration: here we cannot escape the notion of application as distinct from emanation or emission, though it takes on an unexpected sense. The Latin root of illustrate is lustrum, lustri, etc which was a purificatory sacrifice performed at regular intervals. And then, to go back even further, linguists suppose that the PIE (Proto-Indo-European) root of lustrum is a word for light, which is very close to the reconstructed PIE words for “to wash clean” and “to expiate.” Somewhere very deep in the Indo-European mind the notions of light and of purification are linked.

This reverie maybe gets illustration back around to something like what I approve of in illumination. Perhaps we could think of the best illustration as a purification of a text in the sense of getting to its essence, rather than usurping the mind of the reader or viewer with imported imagery derived only from the text’s accidents or details. Surely when authors illustrate their own texts, their own accounts of Faerie, this is what they mean to do — because the artist is at all points concerned to communicate that essence by whatever means possible, regardless of whether a picture or a story (or for that matter a sound) occurs to him first. So true illustration, in this etymological sense, must be an extension of Faerie, or another version of it, but not a reduplication. Tissot’s painting of the expulsion from Paradise captures some trace of the essence of what is itself the essential story, or the first part of it, as it exists in my mind and heart. His painting shows me something promised and something lost forever –respectively the endless unfolding landscape of Faerie, and Eve’s stance and countenance. In a way, every work of art in any medium is only an attempt to illustrate — to capture the tiniest trace of the essence that the artist has seen. But it is a strange kind of seeing. I am reminded of Thomas Aquinas, who is supposed to have said toward the end of his life: omnia quae scripsi videntur mihi paleae respectu eorum quae vidi et revelata sunt mihi — All that I have written seems to me straw in comparison to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me. Of course, Aquinas was (usually) not writing poetry. But there is also the famous and very similar statement by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

The mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within… but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline; and the most glorious poetry that has been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.

A favorite writer of mine, the Englishman J A Baker, once wrote, “The hardest thing of all to see, is what is really there.” Of even greater difficulty is the subsequent saying or depicting, of what is really there. And of even greater difficulty than that, is saying or depicting what is no longer, or what could be there, or what you know is there but have not seen.

Still thinking of Tissot’s depiction of Adam and eve expelled from Paradise — in particular of my response to the human figures and the glimpse I catch, in the corner, of the endlessly unfolding Faerie –I want to share one of the many passages that comes to my mind from the work of Gerald Murnane, the Australian author on whom I wrote the critical portion of my master’s thesis. I have been so attracted to and immersed in the work of Gerald Murnane because he, too, seems to be attentive to the person in the place and the edge of the place and what lies beyond that edge that the person may be looking towards. Here he is in the story “Emerald Blue” describing an unnamed main character who is more or less a stand-in for himself, as his many unnamed main characters or narrators usually are:

There was much that he wanted to learn, but he could not believe that he would learn it as other people learned what they learned. He believed in something that he called to himself precious knowledge. As a child, he had hoped to find some of that knowledge in some discarded or forgotten book. Later, he came to understand that such knowledge as he was looking for was not readily passed from one person to another. Sometimes he thought of precious knowledge as lying on the other side of the pages of one or another book whose title and author he had yet to hear of. In order to obtain the precious knowledge, he would have had to get inside the book itself and to live in the places where the characters lived. Looking out from those places, he would see such things (knowledge being to him always something visible) as only the characters of the book were privileged to see, whereas readers and even the author of the book could only speculate about them.

I don’t know if I can communicate how much such a passage of prose fiction means to me. Murnane has been one of the great discoveries of my intellectual life, because it is a kind of solace to find someone putting into words what you have long felt and thought but have never been able to say. In any case, I consider Murnane, for such passages as this one, among the the most profound searchers in the extent and nature of Faerie. I call attention in the foregoing to the emphasis on visibility (though it is the inward visibility of imagination). But with Murnane there is always a dialectic between seen and unseen, finite and infinite. He continues a few pages later:

He had come to believe that he was made up mostly of images. He was aware only of images and feelings. The feelings connected him to the images and connected the images to one another. The connected images made up a vast network. He was never able to imagine this network as having a boundary in any direction. He called the network, for convenience, his mind.

People link Murnane to famously modern or postmodern writers like Beckett. But for me, Murnane’s work, though written in a precise and dry style, is highly emotional in the urgent way of meaningfulness, or perhaps what people mean by “beauty,” the suggestion of something there and something always beyond, something fleeting or something lost but remembered. I thought of this passage in connection with Tissot’s painting, thinking not only of the corner glimpse of Faerie but also of Eve. It’s in her face that I see the thought-feeling of something lost but remembered. But she knows, already she knows, memory is fickle: What really happened back there? Why is it so hard to see what was really there?

I am also now thinking of certain passages from Tolkien’s work. I am thinking about how the man published very little in his lifetime, and seems to have regarded his life’s work as something of a disappointment and, if not failure, then at best a frustration. Doesn’t Dostoevsky have someone say, “On earth everything has a beginning and nothing has an ending”? If he didn’t, Tolkien could have. He nearly does in this passage from his allegorical and autobiographical short story, “Leaf by Niggle.” As with the passage from Murnane’s story, Tolkien is writing in the third-person of a stand-in for himself, an unsuccessful painter. What happens with Niggle’s painting in this passage is what happens with any artist who looks to the corners of other paintings for glimpses of the endless unfolding of Faerie or who has a tendency to look backward like Eve:

There was one picture in particular which bothered him. It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew, sending out innumerable branches, and thrusting out the most fantastic roots. Strange birds came and settled on the twigs and had to be attended to. Then all around the Tree, and behind it, through the gaps in the leaves and boughs, a country began to open out; and there were glimpses of a forest marching over the land, and of mountains tipped with snow. Niggle lost interest in his other pictures; or else he took them and tacked them on to the edges of his great picture. Soon the canvas became so large that he had t get a ladder; and he ran up and down it, putting in a touch here, and rubbing out a patch there.

The emphasis is mine, because I believe this is what all the best fantasy is, an endless opening out of a country. As the allegory of “Leaf by Niggle” goes on, Niggle dies and goes through a kind of Purgatory, in the latter stages of which, something like the “terrestrial paradise” of Dante’s Purgatory, he is permitted to see his Tree in its fullness, and the country in which it stands; and then finally he moves beyond the terrestrial paradise of this purgatory into a yet further country, the heavenly paradise. But this latter part we don’t see: for Tolkien could not see it, he could only provide for it in his fiction.

For Murnane, that yet further, ever-unseen but foreseen country, a place of both sentiment and presentiment, is not fundamentally different from the country of fiction, what I am calling Faerie. Murnane is an adventurous and rigorous explorer of the metaphysical, and a great exponent of the infinity and interconnectedness of Faerie. But I am not sure that he believes what Eve is beginning to understand — about what is lost forever, and half-remembered now, and strangely promising foresight, all at once — in Tissot’s painting. It is, though, something Tolkien seems to have believed when he wrote to his son (letter 96 in Humphrey Carpenter’s edition) the following passages concerning the expulsion from Paradise:

…certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy Earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile.’… We shall never recover it, for that is not the way of repentance, which works spirally and not in a closed circle; we may recover something like it, but on a higher plane.

Whether Faerie, or Middle Earth, or the precious knowledge of fiction — call it what you like — is a vision of what has been lost or of what has been foreseen regained, I am not sure. If the two termini are implicated in each other, then I suppose it is a moot point. What I know is that there is much pathos in it, this business of catching and trying to then communicate the glimpses and what lies unspoken and invisible but hinted at beyond even the glimpses. Tolkien goes on in the letter to say to his son: “I think you are moved by Celebrimbor because it conveys a sudden sense of endless untold stories: mountains seen far away, never to be climbed, distant trees (like Niggle’s) never to be approached” (emphasis in original). The untold and unspeakable, the lost and the horizon — perhaps the artist experiences these things uniquely in the nature of the work of art, but they are the common experience, in innumerable contexts, of all people. Memory and fantasy are, I think, two faces of the same human fate.

Having brought all these thoughts and images together from an unlikely group of sources, including the final verses from of one of the great artistic visions of Paradise, I will conclude by quoting some more verses on the topic. These are some of the last lines Ezra Pound wrote:

M’amour, m’amour
what do I love and
where are you?

That I lost my centre
fighting the world.
The dreams clash
and are shattered —

and that I tried to make a paradiso

I have tried to write Paradise

Do not move
Let the wind speak
that is paradise.

Lets the Gods forgive what I
have made
Let those I love try to forgive
what I have made.