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Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”   This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of...

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Unable to Draw

While I was trying to draw something the other day, or looking at some drawing materials, I thought to myself: you can't draw. You are lousy at it.

But then I thought, thinking of myself as someone unable to draw is part of my inability to draw. I don't mean that if I suddenly got a positive attitude I would automatically be able to draw, but that my clinging to my inadequacy was a way of excusing myself for not having patience to work at it. That's why students who advertise their inadequacy are so annoying. What they mean by saying they are not good at something is that they don't want to do anything that doesn't come easily to them. They are bad at languages because they don't automatically speak Spanish fluently when they first try. In other words, they are exactly like me, who did not speak Spanish fluently until I had studied and practiced for several years.


Thomas said...

An inability to do something often correlates with a lack of receptivity (an inability to "see" something). I think I mean by "receptivity" what you normally mean by it. I have, for example, stopped accepting the idea that people can understand a language without being able to speak it. There is something dubious about my claim to be able to "sort of" read Heidegger in German, for example. I am unable to write a good German sentence about existence.

Jonathan said...

So to ensure someone has at least a passive knowledge of a language (ability to understand) you would require an ability to produce utterances (active knowledge)? I can receive Italian but I can't produce much of it. At least, my reception far outstrips my production.

Thomas said...

Well, perhaps thinking of yourself as unable to produce an Italian utterance is part of your inability to do so. Two thoughts.

First, you may be better at it than you think. If you forced yourself, or were forced to produce Italian for a few weeks consistently, you might surprise yourself.

Second, your reception may be less competent than you think. In fact, my argument (still pretty inchoate) says something like: the level at which you can produce an utterance, making a real effort (including some "training" or "rehearsing" before the attempt), is the level at which you actually receive.

(Consider an actor auditing a play. "I could play that part better," he might say. By this he does not mean: if I got up there on the stage right now I could outperform this guy. His trained eye lets him see the play as inferior in a way that may not be apparent to the audience. We can't see the play as clearly or in as much detail as the actor in the audience. And we could not do it any better.)

In a similar way, I would argue that you actually see a thing as a well as you can draw it if you really try. I was very surprised at how quickly I came to draw my hands with reasonable accuracy. But it's not surprising given how clearly I can see them.

Jonathan said...

Well, yes, I could learn to produce Italian with a little practice. I have that potential. And my reception is at about 70%, not 100, but however I parse it this reception still outpaces my production. I can speak rudimentary French--but I can read Balzac at more than a rudimentary level. And no matter how well I learn to draw I will never draw as well as I see. I could tell that a violinist who played a solo with my daughter's orchestra was way out of tune--yet I cannot play the violin at all, much less play it in tune.

I'd be suspicious of the poetry critic who couldn't write a poem at all, but I wouldn't expect any critic who was not primarily a poet to be able to produce the way sh/e could receive.

Thomas said...

It's hard to argue with that.

Pound said, "First came the visible, then thus the palpable" (or something like that). Goethe, however, said "in the beginning was the deed". I guess I'm trying to pull towards Goethe a bit.

It does seem as though we can see more than we can do.