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Friday, June 20, 2008

Slanting waves of optic horror

Tove's comment about Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper" inspired me to check around to see how book jacket illustrators have rendered the "sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin." I did a Google image search and found these examples:

"It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide--plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.

"The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-burning sunlight.

"It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur tint in others."

It looks like most of the illustrators have picked up on the "sickly sulphur tint" rather than the "lurid orange"--the main color choice seems to be mustard or related hues. Gilman's short story is a good one for English classes because the examples of figurative language are plentiful--almost too plentiful, like the fungus that the pattern gets compared to in the second half of the story. You can do some good stuff with synesthesia (the "yellow smell") and even historical context (I heard a good lecture in college about Gilman's connection to the Yellow Peril discourse that was popular at the time).

"This paper looks to me as if it knew what vicious influence it had!

"There is a recurrent spot where the pattern lolls like a broken neck, and two bulbous eyes stare at you upside down.

"I get positively angry with the impertinence of it, and the everlastingness. Up and down and sideways they crawl, and those absurd unblinking eyes are everywhere. There is one place where the two breadths didn't match; and the eyes go all up and down the line, one a little higher than the other. I never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before, and we all know how much expression inanimate things have!"

I'm looking at a copy from the Barnard library--one of the few that's not in course reserves, which gives some indication of how popular the book is for classes--and it's funny to see so many different people's handwriting in the margins for so many different types of readings of the story. For example: feminist declaration... Freud's talking cure... bloat & addiction... *!!... wise... fat and blood... wise... Mitchell thought it was all physical as opp. to Freud's mental. "We all know how much expression inanimate things have" indeed!

"This wallpaper has a kind of subpattern in a different shade, a particularly irritating one, for you can only see it in certain lights, and not clearly then. But in the places where it isn't faded and where the sun is just so--I can see a strange provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design."

You know that question about writing descriptively--why is it that we reach for metaphors so often in description? And the answer is hard to articulate: because we worry that we can't approach accurate portrayal in plain language and so resort to approximations, which take the form of similes. Because it's easier to compare than to explain, because the brain likes comparisons in order to make sense of things. This story in some ways presents the opposite problem for portraying the wallpaper: you can't draw all the weird stuff that the narrator thinks she sees in it because it's in her head, but you have to be able to suggest that it could be there "skulk[ing] behind that silly and conspicuous front design." Is that why so many of these designs from different eras look similar?

"I know a little of the principles of design, and I know this thing was not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry, or anything else that i ever heard of.

"It is repeated, of course, by the breadths, but not otherwise.

"Looked at in one way each breadth stands alone, the bloated curves and flourishes--a kind of 'debased Romanesque' with
delirium tremens--go waddling up and down in isolated columns of fatuity.

"But, on the other hand, they connect diagonally, and the sprawling outlines run off in great slanting waves of optic horror, like a lot of wallowing seaweeds in full chase."

The exception to the diagonal patterns are these lovely limited edition collapgraph prints by Crystal Cawley, which I found on antiquarian book site. From the catalog description: "The frontispiece paste paper and 3 collagraphs are in yellow, the first two on acrylic-stained paper and the third on tracing paper collaged with acrylic medium, representing the narrator’s descent in madness. This is a handsome edition of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist classic – the first fictional treatment of post-partum depression."

It looks like the Feminist Press editions from different years (the ones with the afterword by Elaine R. Hedges) take two approaches: pattern vs. no pattern. The narrator has trouble following the pattern in the paper as she sees so many things in it, so any visual rendering of it would make some interpretation of where the paranoid pattern recognition stops and interior design begins:

"The whole thing goes horizontally, too, at least it seems so, and I exhaust myself in trying to distinguish the order of its going in that direction.

"They have used a horizontal breadth for a frieze, and that adds wonderfully to the confusion.

"There is one end of the room where it is almost intact, and there, when the crosslights fade and the low sun shines directly upon it, I can almost fancy radiation after all,--the interminable grotesque seem to form around a common centre and rush off in headlong plunges of equal distraction."

In the end, trying to determine whether there's a pattern leads to my favorite metaphor for being out of control, the comparison to fungus. Not only does it represent prodigious growth, it inspires more and more metaphors, so that the metaphor becomes like a fungus itself:

"In a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a certain lack of sequence, a defiance of law that is a constant irritant to a normal mind.

"The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing.

"You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following it, turns back somersault and there you are! It slaps you in the face, knocks you down and tramples on you. It is like a bad dream. The outside pattern is a florid arabesque, reminding one of a fungus. If you can imagine a toadstool in joints, an interminable string of toadstools, budding and sprouting in endless convolutions--why that is something like it."

For good measure, the metaphor is repeated at the end, but even peeling away the wallpaper won't work:

"Then I peeled off all the paper I could reach standing on the floor. It sticks horribly. And the pattern just enjoys it. All those strangled heads and bulbous eyes and waddling fungus growths just shriek with derision!"

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