The need to translate experience into something resembling adequate language is the writer’s blessing or the writer’s disease, depending on your point of view. That’s why Whitman isn’t sure if what sings to him is a demon or a bird. If it is indeed a symptom of a problem, of life not having been really lived until it is narrated, at least that’s a condition that winds up giving real gifts to others. The pleasure of recognizing a described world is no small thing.
—Mark Doty, The Art of Description: World Into Words
“[A]ll perception,” writes the poet Mark Doty in The Art of Description, “might be said to be tentative, an opportunity for interpretation, a guessing game.”
Later, after describing a scene in Perry Grove, New York, Doty laments that his words don’t “come anywhere close to evoking the actual visual or auditory experience.”
These words remind me of the inadequacy of the written word to fully capture what it means to be. Doty continues:
Critical theory is full of discussion of the inadequacies of speech, and it’s true that words are arbitrary things, assigned to their objects in slippery ways, and that we cannot rely on words to convey to another person what it is like to be ourselves.
“What proof do we have,” writes Craig Morgan Teicher, “that / when I say mousse, you do not think / of a stop sign?”
Yet, speech acts — questions, invitations, promises, apologies, predictions, stories and criticism — provide us manifold opportunities to explore, understand, and contend with all manner of social circumstances. “Writing as practice,” says Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones, can “help you penetrate your life and become sane.” While Goldberg does not define what she means by “sane” in that introductory essay, I interpret the word in much the same way I have come to understand what the novelist Toni Morrison intended when, in her 1993 Nobel lecture, she says: “Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.”
This issue of Penumbra includes three critical articles, three short stories, and a photo essay. The work comes to us from scholars in academe and out, established and emerging writers and artist in the U.S. and abroad, individuals using traditional and experimental styles to explore the power of critical and creative expression.
In his essay “The Honor of God with Kierekegaard: A Kierkegaardian View of the Play Becket,” Timothy Charles Hall examines reading of Jean Anouilh’s play Becket through Søren Kierkegaard’s stages of existence. John Giordano’s “The Art of Interdependence: Autonomy, Heteronomy and Social Support in Shannon Jackson’s Criticism of Contemporary Art Social Practices” looks at the connections performance studies scholar Shannon Jackson makes between the culture of “inter-dependence” that drives theatrical productions and a similar ethic she identifies in participatory social practices that are on the rise in the visual artworld. “Beyond Colonization: Polyphony, Alterity, Humor and Wisdom in Louise Erdrich’s Four Souls,” a work of literary criticism by the poet Kate Reavey, examines the ways in which Erdrich’s storytelling engages the complexities of self, community, and the continual and her characters’ efforts to “practice” the kind of “freedom” Foucault’s ethics demand.
Thomas Wallingford’s “Aether” is a work of speculative fiction in which a man struggles with solitude and his own identity while lost in space. J.M. Parker’s “The Day Trip” is the story of a visit to divorced parents in Israel during the Antifada. In Elizabeth Comiskey’s “Steak and Wine,” a young couple believes they’ve made all of the right choices, and a downed economy changes their lives dramatically.
While all of the criticism and fiction appearing in this issue were approved for publication following a double-blind review, “Tokyo Tropes in Nebulas and Neighborhoods: Five Locations from Eternity to Home in Tokyo” is a solicited work that scholar and photographer Lawrence Karn graciously shared for publication in this issue. We found the images to e stunning. Coupled with Karn’s brief essay, “Tokyo Tropes in Nebulas and Neighborhoods” adds a perspective that found in any of the other pieces we include in this issue.
As our founding editors write in the first issue of this journal two years ago, Penumbra, true to its mission, is interdisciplinary—not just across academic or scholarly silos but across a landscape of perspectives and backgrounds. That is true academic freedom—the pursuit and exchange of ideas and scholarship for their own sake.