James Wood in The Nearest Thing to Life

…if the life of a story is in its excess, in its surplus, in the riot of things beyond order and form, then it can also be said that the life-surplus of a story lives in its details. For details represent those moments in a story where form is outlived, canceled, evaded. I think of details as nothing less than bits of life sticking out of the frieze of form, imploring us to touch them. Details are not, of course, just bits of life: they represent that magical fusion, wherein the maximum amount of literary artifice (the writer’s genius for selection and imaginative creation) produces a simulacrum of the maximum amount of  nonliterary or actual life, a process whereby artifice is then indeed converted into (fictional, which is to say new) life. Details are not lifelike but irreducible: things-in-themselves, what I would call lifeness itself. (38)

This quotation from Wood’s extraordinary book addresses, in one potent paragraph, the big question I explored in a presentation I gave at The Glen Workshop in 2013 — “An Ecstasy of Particulars” — which was inspired by, and dedicated to, the late Robert Siegel, a dear friend and a great poet.

You can read Siegel’s poem, which is a beautiful demonstration of what Wood is talking about, in the poem “Half a Second,” which is available on page 169 of Within This Tree of Bones: New and Selected Poems, or in this Examiner feature (which includes an interview and many of Siegel’s poems).

Anyway — Robert, if you’re reading this from the Great Beyond, I think you’d like James Wood’s book.

Has a small, specific point of detail in a painting or a film or a poem ever powerfully spoken to you?

You’re invited to share them on the Looking Closer Facebook page.

For me, the list of such details would be endless.

But I immediately think of the sugar cube in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue. This moment gave me an intuitive understanding of what was happening — or what was threatening to happen — to the main character at that point of the story. It was about both the thrill in, and the fear of, filling so caught up in a flow of inspiration and emotional truth that a person nearly loses all sense of self altogether, dissolving into transcendence.

That’s the power of finding just the right detail at just the right time on just the right canvas, so that it becomes what it is only there, in that point of relationship to everything else. Like a radiant, colorful agate on the beach, it is beautiful right there — but if it is pulled out of that moment, stolen away, claimed as “the meaning” of the moment, it loses its life and luster.

As William Carlos Williams once wrote, there are “No ideas but in things.”

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