The Art of Intimacy: The Space Betweenby Stacey D'Erasmo
The first work of nonfiction by Stacey D'Erasmo, author of the New York Times Notable Books Tea and The Sky Below
"What is the nature of intimacy, of what happens in the space between us? And how do we, as writers, catch or reflect it on the page?" Stacey D'Erasmo's insightful and illuminating study examines/i>/i>/i>/b>/b>/i>/i>
The first work of nonfiction by Stacey D'Erasmo, author of the New York Times Notable Books Tea and The Sky Below
"What is the nature of intimacy, of what happens in the space between us? And how do we, as writers, catch or reflect it on the page?" Stacey D'Erasmo's insightful and illuminating study examines the craft and the contradictions of creating relationships not only between two lovers but also between friends, family members, acquaintances, and enemies in fiction. She argues for a more honest, more complex portrait of the true nature of the connections and missed connections among characters and, fascinatingly, between the writer and the reader. D'Erasmo takes us deep into the structure and grammar of these intimacies as they have been portrayed by such writers as Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and William Maxwell, and also by visual artists and filmmakers. She asks whether writing about intimacy is like staring straight into the sun, but it is her own brilliance that dazzles in the piercing and original book, The Art of Intimacy.
“D'Erasmo manages to teach, model, and argue many essential truths about intimacy within the slim volume, making The Art of Intimacy a perfect go-to resource for any writer, teacher, or thoughtful reader who wants line-level references to apt 20th- and 21st- century literature that represent intimacy in its kaleidoscopic diversity.” Los Angeles Review of Books
“D'Erasmo digs deep into the nuances of literature in order to find the hidden glue that links lovers, family, friends and enemies to each other and to the reader. . . . Readers and writers will gain a deeper appreciation for the lyric need for that which is left unsaid, like the pause in a piece of music which defines the notes around it.” Shelf Awareness
“A profound meditation on the relationships between fictional characters, the possibility and meaning of intimacy in fiction, and most vitally, an exploration by a master writer of how authors create relationships between readers and their stories. . . . An invaluable text for the writing classroom. . . . Buy this indispensable book.” The Rumpus
“Provides powerful insight . . . as D'Erasmo proved throughout, intimacy is often the result of what isn't said, of what needn't be said, of a closeness the readers feel but don't see.” Los Angeles Review
“The word intimacy evokes images of love, but the book also delves into the darker side of the subject: obsession. . . . D'Erasmo provides a lucid and provocative examination of the ill-defined concept of intimacy.” Publishers Weekly
Read an Excerpt
The Art of Intimacy
The Space Between
By Stacey D'erasmo, Charles Baxter
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2013 Stacey D'Erasmo
All rights reserved.
Trying to See
What is the nature of intimacy, of what happens in the space between us? And how do we, as writers, catch or reflect it on the page? One hesitates, perhaps, to be so direct. Like looking directly at the sun, looking directly at the creation of intimacy in fiction seems like a dangerous business. In art as in life, one wishes intimacy to be, or at least to seem, unspoken, unmanipulated, certainly unforced. And, of course, when I talk about intimacy, I'm not only talking about romantic relationships between consenting adults. Friendships, the bonds of parents and children, the fleeting communion of strangers at a dinner party or on a train or a plane, crushes, being deeply moved by art or by a historical event, the relationship between reader and writer: in all of these, that space between is vital, electric, and it often drives the story. Only connect, wrote Forster, and we do, for better and for worse; we exhort our characters to do the same.
Moreover, we insist that, in literature, these connections must earn their keep by carrying meaning. They must speak some sort of truth about human existence — ethereal, carnal, primal, fleeting, damaging, reparative, beautiful, terrifying, exalted, base, ambiguous, or any combination thereof, these meetings of minds, hearts, and bodies take on a special gravity on the page. We measure their weight against our own experience. As with all other matters in fiction, the composition of these intimacies appears to us to pick out a pattern in the plenitude of everyday life, to find the chord in the cacophony of the street. And then they lived happily ever after. This is not the part of the story that engages us. We want to know what they said, how they looked, what was exchanged between them, what it all meant, and how it went down. Who was lost, who was found, and why? Every time one character approaches another, makes that perilous crossing into the space between, the reader knows that what happens next will be critical, it will produce a change. When we read a well-wrought piece of fiction, we long for that change, for the good or the ill, to occur.
Recently, I was waiting for a visitor to arrive. His plane was delayed. To pass the time and because I wanted to see it, I went to the Matthew Marks Gallery to see the Nan Goldin photo exhibit Scopophilia. In this project, Goldin was invited by the Louvre to pair photos of hers with imagery from the painting and sculpture in the museum. Goldin was given access to the Louvre in the off-hours so that she could take photos of the artwork that interested her. She paired four hundred images of hers with images from pieces in the Louvre; in addition to these framed pairings, she created a twenty-five-minute-long slide installation. The slide installation combines images of her work and of work in the Louvre with classical music composed by Alain Mahé and a musing voiceover composed of Goldin's thoughts on the work and readings from Ovid's Metamorphoses, St. Teresa, and others.
Goldin's work, which first came to prominence with her 1986 series of photos The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, is intensely personal. Throughout her career, she has focused on taking photographs of friends and lovers of both genders at their most naked, often literally. Here is her ex-lover Siobhan getting out of the shower, arms upraised, the look on her face both seductive and challenging. Here is a young man with extraordinary ice-blue eyes, naked, smoking, the look on his face both seductive and challenging. Here are families with children, women alone, drag queens and transsexuals, naked pregnant women, couples sleeping, children playing, people making love, men and women looking directly into the camera with frank desire or aggravation or hostility or affection, or all of these at once, and often with a clear pleasure in being looked at. As the art critic Vince Aletti has written, she has been the "prime iconographer of the downtown scene, a pansexual bohemia on the verge of a nervous breakdown." Goldin, as a vulnerable member of that bohemia, has been her own subject many times — she has photographed herself with her eyes blackened by a lover, naked in bed staring at a (presumably unringing) phone, in moments of joy, of pain, of confusion, of connection and disconnection.
Her great subject has been intimacy in all forms, among all genders, and in all emotional modes. In the Louvre — one of the less intimate spaces on the planet — Goldin found a treasure house of intimate moments, gestures, gazes, facial expressions, and bodily positions. She focused in on details from larger, grander works to discover the crook of a lover's arm around another, a face carved from marble turned at the most tender of angles, skeins of hair flowing over an exposed breast, mutual gazes, and many physical curves and hollows. We notice anew the curve of Cleopatra's breasts in Cleopatra with the Asp; the lyricism of a naked back in Cupid with His Wings on Fire; the downward tilt of Galatea's chin in Pygmalion and Galatea. These details, paired with her modern subjects in ordinary rooms and landscapes, might suggest an aggrandizement of the present moment — here's how my hot girlfriend looks just like Winged Victory getting out of the shower — but actually the pairings work the other way around, by reminding us that these august paintings and sculptures are impressions, painstakingly rendered, of living human beings, now gone. These works of art are also vivid fossils of intimacy. To Goldin, the human connection, and the yearning for that connection, are everywhere, even in the most exalted and reified spaces. Moreover, she never gets tired of looking at them. Scopophilia, after all, means the love of looking, or, as Goldin puts it, "the intense desire — and the fulfillment of that desire — experienced through looking." One of the desires prominently on display in this exhibition was Goldin's unabashed desire to look, and look again, and look still more. Walking into the Louvre at night for the first time, Goldin says in the voiceover, she was surprised by her own "very intense reaction" to the visual abundance that surrounded her.
As I sat in the dark watching the slide show, I can't say that I experienced such intense visual ecstasy, but my own loneliness and impatience for my visitor to arrive started to melt away. However, this was certainly not the grandeur of the Louvre after hours. The small viewing gallery was about half-full; in front of me, two elderly women, one in a wheelchair, bickered loudly over the strains of the slow, rich sound track. But the images were engaging and beautiful, transporting. Each one suggested a story half-glimpsed: what happened with that dark-eyed woman after the shutter clicked? What is the question silently being asked by that lithe, dangerous-seeming man, and why? Who is the tall, middle-aged woman, naked, on a rock, and who is she to Goldin? Who are the men floating in water? Goldin reveals the people again and again, and by implication her great desire to look at them. But we, the viewers, do not know their stories nor what place any of them occupies in Goldin's life. We only know that none of them is a stranger to her. But while the exact details of these subjects' lives remain private, Goldin's relationship to our voyeurism is never coy. Yeah, she seems to say, that's how it is for me, too. The very beauty of the images, a generous and persistent beauty of light and composition, feels like love, even, at times, like limerence. Goldin invites us to see the men and women she loves as she sees them, to occupy her position as loving eye. She gazes with equal intensity at the human subjects and the details from the art, as if, within her gaze, the distinction between the animate and the inanimate is rather slight. We feel, perhaps, closer to, or attracted to, these subjects, but we probably feel closest psychically to Goldin; we understand what her desire feels like to her.
Yeah, I thought that afternoon, that's how it is for me, too. And so I felt, for those moments in the dark, seen and accompanied. I did not, though, feel accompanied by or especially identified with Goldin's images themselves, as beautiful as they were, and as familiar as the modern, generally urban subjects are to me. I did not feel accompanied by the details from Delacroix or Bronzino, exquisite though they were. I felt accompanied by the fragile, transitory triangle of photographer, image, and viewer, a momentary space between self and others mediated by the artist's composition, doubled by the artist's composition of earlier artists' compositions in a kind of hall of mirrors of gazes. I was compelled, as well, by the electricity of the juxtapositions. The juxtaposition, for instance, of an image of the actress Tilda Swinton staring, flanked by leopards, with an image of a marble woman on a marble horse set off a series of reverberations and associations about femininity, wildness, and an odd sort of fixity, about marblelike flesh and fleshlike marble.
And what of the artist who had placed one image next to the other, what did the space between them reveal? "Between them and me," says Goldin on the voiceover, "telepathic exchanges, divination." Part of the pleasure of the slide show and exhibit lay in that unnameable zone of "telepathic exchanges" where the artist had chosen to put one image beside the other — in the connection she saw, for instance, between images from '80s club life and various veiled figures carved from marble. Goldin shows the viewer people who may or may not look like intimates of one's own, but she also locates the viewer exactly in that space between self and other, and in the longing to be in that space. We remember our own various desires to look. We see and we feel that we are not alone there.
The artist's illusion had worked for me that afternoon. While I was waiting for my visitor, something else had arrived in the dark, something furred and feathered and bejeweled, prismatic, playful, ambiguous, and, quietly, melancholy. (One cannot quite shake the feeling that the continual creation and evocation of connection must have some relationship to its opposite, which is rather conspicuous by its absence.) Goldin's slide show created out of high art a zone in which the curatorial principle, across centuries, was the intensity of the intimate moment. The darkness, the music, the play of light and form and color, what I saw and what I couldn't see, the motion of my own guesses and fantasies about the people in the photographs, the demiarticulated narrative and dream space of the slide show, had produced in me a sense of being included, of being intimate, here in the irreal world of art. It wasn't because I was in any of those modern rooms with any of those modern people, nor was I in the Louvre after hours. It was because I was sitting in the dark with strangers on an ordinary weekday in Chelsea, suspended in the space between self and image. When my visitor arrived at last, I wanted to explain all this to him, it seemed important, but I wasn't quite sure how to do it.
Consider what follows part of that explanation. Because I write fiction, I am often trying to develop various sorts of intimacies on the page. My tools are different from Goldin's: language, dialogue, scene, characters who have to eat and drink and walk around in a world of time instead of the color and light and shapes of visual composition. I often fail. I have come to wonder, What's in that critical space between in fiction? Of what is it composed? What makes it "work" or not? One way into this delicate matter might be to look not so much at individual characters and their motivations or the outcomes of their yearnings and relationships, or even at their interactions per se, but at exactly what is in that space between them, the linkage. Another way to put this might be to say: Where do they meet? How does the text bring them together? What electricity do we feel from the juxtaposition? I have noticed that the intimacy we feel as readers is often generated far less by characters turning to one another and saying intimate things or doing intimate things than it is by a kind of textual atmosphere, or maybe one should say a biosphere, a gallery, a zone that both emanates from the characters and acts upon them very deeply and personally. In other words, the textual where of their meetings, the meeting ground, the figurative topos — and by this I don't mean physical locations where characters meet, but locutions, places in language that they share — actually produces not only opportunities for intimacy, but also the actual sense of intimacy. That odd and powerful space between, the space where we meet, isn't only the medium for intimacy: it is, sometimes, the thing itself.
This book will not tell you how to write intimate scenes, nor instruct you on what is a "successful" rendering of intimacy and what is not. There are as many ways of rendering intimacy as there are of being intimate; an encyclopedic approach would be a Casaubonesque endeavor. Instead, we will venture together into a few of the meeting places, the spaces between, that have occurred in fiction. We will consider what has happened there.CHAPTER 2
Meeting in the If
In the idiosyncratic and inventive 1999 movie Being John Malkovich, directed by Spike Jonze, the characters played by Catherine Keener and Cameron Diaz, via a means that was never precisely explained, would jointly sort of inhabit the body and mind of John Malkovich — Malkovich played himself in the movie — in which interesting vehicle they were conducting an affair. One of the most hilarious, and perhaps disturbing, recurrent lines in the movie was "Meet you in Malkovich," which was what the lovers said to one another when they wanted to meet. It's impossible to know exactly what screenwriter Charlie Kaufman may have had in mind when he constructed this scenario, but, among other things, it certainly foregrounded a quality peculiar to the actor John Malkovich, which is the quality of never seeming to be entirely real or to fully inhabit his own skin. It seems, on an intuitive if not a realistic level, that one could, actually, meet in Malkovich, because it's never clear if he is, in fact, entirely John Malkovich or if he's a supposition, an ironic stance, a self-aware pose, John Malkovich playing John Malkovich. There seems to be room in Malkovich for other people, because his own attachment to himself seems so tenuous.
He seems to always be a bit "as if," a bit hypothetical, contingent, which is to say: a subjunctive. What Keener and Diaz were saying to one another was: Meet me in the subjunctive, in a possibility. Meet me in the if. In the end, their relationship does actually work out, the subjunctive being, perhaps, as good a place to foster intimacy as any other. While it is lovely in real life to meet in real life, on a textual level, as much, if not more, can often be accomplished in the subjunctive, language being uniquely suited to holding open the simultaneous possibility that an event is occurring and not occurring, that this or that might happen if it were to occur. If I saw you. If we met. If I had gone through that door. If I had found you. If you were here. The if is a wonderful device, because it simultaneously alerts the reader that what is to follow did not happen and allows the reader to engage in the narrative as if it were happening. As a grammar, it's an optical illusion that is also potentially quite a powerful tool for summoning up desire and loss simultaneously and causing the reader to experience both states with equal force.
The writers Elizabeth Bowen and William Maxwell made extraordinary use of the subjunctive in the novels The House in Paris, by Bowen, and So Long, See You Tomorrow, by Maxwell. Though the exterior narrative frame of these novels has to do with the impact of the relationships between adult lovers, and illicit lovers at that, the deeper, much more distressing, and much more perplexing and tender narratives at the core have to do with a much less nameable and far more delicate intimacy: both novels concern children who meet, quite briefly and by chance, in the "real life" of the novel, but who continue to meet for a much longer time than that in that subjunctive, that "as if," which, as it turns out, is the book, the novel that results from their meeting. The time of these children being physically present with one another is very short, but in both novels it leads to a psychic intimacy that is profound and long-lasting.
In So Long, See You Tomorrow, the literal action concerns a murder on a farm in Illinois in the 1920s. One man, Lloyd Wilson, has been sleeping with Fern Smith, wife of Clarence Smith. Lloyd is also married, to Marie. The affair is discovered; Fern takes the kids, leaves Clarence, and ultimately divorces him; Marie will not give Lloyd a divorce. Clarence becomes increasingly despondent and ruined and one day he kills Lloyd, shooting him as he milks a cow. A short time later, Clarence kills himself as well. The lives of all those who are left are shattered. One of Clarence and Fern's children is Cletus Smith, who is thirteen at the time of the murder. The unnamed narrator of the book is a boy of about Cletus's age who lives in the same town with his father and stepmother; his biological mother died of double pneumonia a few years before and he is still grieving her. Or, actually, the narrator is the elderly man that the boy became and the book, he says, is "a roundabout, futile way of making amends."
Excerpted from The Art of Intimacy by Stacey D'erasmo, Charles Baxter. Copyright © 2013 Stacey D'Erasmo. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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Meet the Author
Stacey D'Erasmo is the author of The Sky Below, a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Favorite Book of the Year; A Seahorse Year; and Tea, a New York Times Notable Book. She teaches at Columbia University.
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