On vanity

My sister-in-law was visiting with her kids (three girls) this week and the whole brood plus my wife and daughter took a trip to Tokyo Disneyland on Sunday. I was mercifully spared that and spent the day instead at the National Museum of Western Art in Ueno Park. The permanent gallery – which is what I went to see – was unfortunately closed for renovations but there was a special exhibit on Caravaggio being held to celebrate the 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Italy. (Not that long, I know, but don’t forget about that whole Shogunate closed-doors period they had here.) There I had a most fortuitous encounter.

Narcissus (1599) stopped me in my tracks and I stared at it for many long minutes, particularly at the eyes and forehead, as bunches of people shuffled behind, in front of (annoyingly), and into (more annoyingly) me while I stood there frozen in place. See the below to get a shadowy impression of what this great painting might feel like hung on a wall in front of you. 300px-Narcissus-Caravaggio_(1594-96)_edited

The lad’s face is pensiveness itself, wordlessly expressing fascination, satisfaction, longing, as he is locked in the spotlight cycle of himself, all else in the painting – and surely his world – dark, unacknowledged, absent. If ever there were to be chosen a single image of the human condition this must rank amongst the top choices.

Writers will often lovingly gaze into the pool of their own reflections as well; the trend is so ubiquitous that it almost seems pointless to list examples. Simply to have an image in mind for the remainder then let’s start and stop with James Joyce. Got the image settled? Great. Now, many who create will consider themselves more highly than they ought to as they go through life, and in hindsight some of them would have been arguably right to do so, but that is not what I wish to discuss. Instead I want to look at character building by way of such self-gazing.

As I mentioned a few months back I have recently undertaken a massive new project (yes that last link is a joke!). In that post (and note Paul’s comment on it as well) I described my idea of taking some elements from myself for my main character. A tried and true method, to be sure, and nothing particularly worth dwelling on. How that’s developed has been quite interesting, though. Almost at once my character took off away from me and developed the self-born tendencies I had laid in him in peculiar and unforeseen ways. He became someone wholly other, and no one I would like to spend much time with. Mind you, stating that is neither a cry for help nor a starter to stretching out on the psychiatrist’s sofa, it is a comment on the strange manner of quasi (almost?) life that fictional characters go through. It is a testament to our human powers of creativity. He is growing and, with what I’m putting him through, developing into a person that I would like to meet in the flesh, but he is not there yet. How can I speak of a character in a story this way, as if he were real? In large part because he is real in the sense that he has been born of me, my experiences in the world, my thoughts on those experiences, and how I imagine another like him might respond to the (fictional) experiences he confronts in his (fictional) world. Pebbles were thrown into the pool I was gazing into when I began to write and my reflection warped as the waves hit, changed shape, took on new features, and then – astonishingly – climbed out and dried himself off, with a backwards wave farewell as he strode down the path I had come by. What started with my inward eye turned into something altogether new and that process has been a joy; and a struggle. Certainly Joyce knew this, certainly every writer worth their stripes does. How fascinating this is, and how fortunate we are to be a part of it, to see these lives take their time in the sun and to co-create with our self-figments as they arise from within.

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