Widgets Magazine

OPINIONS

Images

Lately, the world has unfurled around me like a blossom. I am standing by the lake when an owl swoops low ahead of me, full-bodied and sleek, making its determined rounds along the shore as a guardian of the night. A rabbit darts across the lawn of an unlit residence. A man crosses the street with a walking stick in one hand and the handle of a suitcase in the other. There’s a pink orchid by my window, and each day I see its buds in different states of bloom, slow-changing stills frozen in motion at the onset of my gaze. My most striking experiences seem to appear in images like this, fleeting moments against ever-changing time, and they hold a kind of ineffable emotional power that narratives don’t – something about both their fullness and their incompleteness, their temporality, their independent luster. I’ve been careful to catch memory of them when they appear – for they seem to appear rather than become – and to write them down, to hold their stillness while I can.

Ever since I read Annie Dillard’s “Seeing,” which explores the frustrating, exhilarating, imperfect wonder of the act of observation, I’ve hungered for new ways to look at the world. I’m in the process of writing a painting paper, so I’ve been reading a lot about images and art for insight on how to approach them without holding any claim to knowing them. Robert Hass’s essay “Images” in particular has served as an illuminating reference, an essay to which I regularly return and compare against my own image-based encounters. As he writes, “[Images] do not say this is that, they say this is. In the 19th century, one would have said that what compelled us about them was a sense of the eternal. And it is something like that, some feeling in the arrest of the image, that what perishes and what lasts forever have been brought into conjunction, and accompanying that sensation is a feeling of release from the self.”

I think I’m inclined to agree with Hass; my 21st century sensibilities still feel that eternity captured in the stillness of an image. The owl mid-flight is permanently suspended there, hanging, in my memory, and there’s something comforting about its stillness, its lack of origin or end or explanation. Images capture a state of existence without the pressure of resolution. They don’t need to be explained or made sense of because there’s no narrative to trace – they just are. Images give us a respite from the ever-occurring events of our lives – as continuous as the time in which they pass – and the events of which we try to make sense and often find that we can’t.

The first time I really realized the limitations and nonexistence of narrative in reality was when I read Joan Didion’s “The White Album.” In it, Didion writes about her attempts to coherently thread together the events of her life in the ’60s, a pursuit that ultimately fails: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” the essay begins. Turning our own lives into stories proves less possible, though maybe not less necessary. I often want to turn my experiences into comprehensible, linear stories; I want to place my life within a narrative arc in which my hardships only strengthen and deepen my character development and everything happens for a reason, where everything can be plotted onto a larger graph or a definite course.

This tendency only leads me to forcing indefinite experiences into rigid structures that are ultimately too predictable to contain them. The time I was in a bad car crash the night of my winter formal, for example, became a subject of this obsessive desire for narration. For months afterward, I wrote and thought about it as if my life were built on symbols, on metaphor – the ruined car as a stimulus for some internal transformation, my relationship with driving and, by extension, my general direction in the world permanently altered for the sake of some larger and intentional cause. Looking back on it now, I grasped for meaningful story but in the end I was only describing images: smoke writhing, waltz-like, from the hood, my high-heeled shoes in the crushed passenger seat. I was afraid of driving for a long while, but an impermanent while, and now I don’t know if there was any greater point to the accident at all.

What I love about these kinds of images is their total lack of a point, besides that of their existence. There is something oddly comforting about such a presentation of existence, without ascribing any greater significance to it other than what is simply there. Most of the writing I do in my classes necessitates ascribing significance to texts, taking a passage and saying what it means, though there is hardly such stability for any such statement to be definitive and almost none that exists in real life. I am always pushing back against my instinct to want to make narrative sense of experience. I am still coming to terms with nonmeaning. Nonmeaning in the literary, symbolic sense, for I don’t think I’ll ever believe that any experience can be personally or emotionally meaningless.

How many small things can be beautiful? The orchid perched on a dusty cup from the dining hall by my desk, a couple strolling under streetlight … I was walking back to my car one night when the winds, which had been stirring the trees into a whistle, began to pick up speed, a kind of music against the loneliness of the night, and as I hurried toward my car, a palm frond from a nearby tree fell at my feet. That image of the palm frond and its heavy thudding, the wind and my car – made hazy by the unlit street – was enough to make me want to weep. To say that it meant something would not be saying much at all.
Contact Maddie Kim at mkim16 ‘at’ stanford.edu.