Fuse Dispatches: The Benefits of Doubt — A Dispatch from the Second of William Kentridge’s Norton Lectures

For William Kentridge, history accrues, falls dead, is born, washes up, piles up, and may be artfully arranged, but the most powerful place that this accretion might happen is in the artist’s studio, which is a metonym for the human mind.

Information Regarding William Kentridge’s Charles Eliot Norton Lectures. The lectures are held in Sanders Theatre in Memorial Hall at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Tickets are required and are available beginning at noon on the day of each lecture at the Harvard Box Office in the Holyoke Center or by phone (service charge applies to phone orders) and starting at 2 p.m. at Sanders Theatre. Limit two tickets per person. See end of this dispatch for a list of the remaining lectures. Here is the first Arts Fuse dispatch.

Drawing Lesson Two, “A Brief History of Colonial Revolts”
Introduced by Suzanne Preston Blier. March 27, 4 p.m.

By Daniel Bosch.

Any account of my vision of Jorge Luis Borges giving the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in English in Sanders Theatre in 1967 and 1968 must be issued along with a plea for its correction by someone who was a witness. I love the book more than almost any I own. Yet I know Borges’s Norton Lectures only via their transcriptions, published by Harvard University Press as This Craft of Verse in 2000, more than 30 years after he finished reciting the final line of his sonnet “Spinoza,” the poem that closed the last of his six performances. (“Mapa de Aquél que es todas Sus estrellas,” or, in Richard Howard’s and César Rennert’s translation, “Map of the One who is all His stars” (Jorge Luis Borges, This Craft of Verse).

The editor of This Craft of Verse, Călin-Andrei Mihăilescu, claims Borges was a charming lecturer. Speaking entirely from memory, fiercely concentrated, blind Borges “would look upward with a gentle and sly expression on his face, seeming to materially touch the world of the texts—their colors, fabric, music.” Dust jacket photos confirm this impression: Borges’s face is serenely contorted as if he were listening to/wrestling with some angel—Whitman? Stevenson?—who prompts him from a literary elsewhere. Interviews from the period indicate that at the time Borges’s richest visual field was nothing but a golden haze. Yet the extraordinary beauty of Borges’s Norton Lectures is magnified by the fact of the occlusion of his retinal, as opposed to literary, vision. I cannot understand how Borges could command language without passing his eyes over marks on a page.

I engage Borges’s lectures only through marks on pages, which their maker proved unnecessary. I was not even there, so you must not trust my gappy account, my failure to convey how the image of his speaking haunts me, how the mystery of his supreme command of mind and language taunts me.

But Borges was a friend of mysteries. “When I write something, I try not to understand it,” he explained in “A Poet’s Creed,” his lecture of April 10, 1968, in which he expounded an anti-rational, anti-egoistic mode of artistic production:

When I write, I do not think of the reader (because the reader is an imaginary character) and I do not think of myself (perhaps I am an imaginary character also), but I think of what I am trying to convey and I do my best not to spoil it.

The artistic question Borges raises in his Norton Lectures is how might the artist manage to fail to impede the conveyance of mystery?

With two down and four to come, Kentridge is an advocate on a behalf of his own artistic processes. At the same time he is modeling modes of engagement with art which he believes are responsive to and responsible for the better forms of human experience, human feeling and history, and human aspiration.

Yet both “In Praise of Shadows” (lecture 1, see my first dispatch here) and “A Brief History of Colonial Revolts” situate Kentridge as almost an anti-Borges: he’s a performer who has clearly thought hard about his auditors, whom he counts on being anything but fictional. Both lectures have been punctuated by Kentridge’s glee at telling a good joke, his consciousness of peaking interest via a ripping yarn, his absorption in the throwing of conceptual punches that correspond to punchlines. Kentridge’s lectures are performances in which the collision of image and word maximize effects he clearly means to induce in the audience. (I’ve thrilled to imagine how the professors in the audience have caught themselves thinking, as they have laughed or made a connection Kentridge has carefully crafted, “Oh, so this is how a lecture can feel!” Certainly the first two performances have been pedagogically as well as philosophically and artistically stimulating.) But I want to argue that Borges and Kentridge play for the same team, the careful anti-rationalists, that in spite of his animated presence in Sanders Theatre, Kentridge is succeeding in his attempt to fail to impede the conveyance of mystery.

“A Brief History of Colonial Revolts,” like “In Praise of Shadows,” involves the fiction that it is located in a notebook, images of which were projected on a large screen at the back of the stage. (The notebook is a metaphor, as we shall see, for the studio-mind of the artist.) Yet if in the first lecture the images of the notebook’s pages were busy with line drawings and the cuttings and pastings of collage as Kentridge walked and jogged us from the shadow-painted back wall of Plato’s Cave toward the Enlightenment, in this second lecture his notebook’s pages were mainly presented as blanks, labeled emptinesses giving only dates and places (“Waterberg, 1904,” “Vienna, 1791,” “Berlin, 1938,” “Parcours d’Atelier,” “A Geography Lesson, 1963,” “A Natural History of Dutch Lace,” “Viva Linoleum! Viva!,” “Paris, 1904,” and “Johannesburg, 201112.”

For me this difference in Kentridge’s use of the notebook both refers to the opening lecture and is an index of his shift in topics. As the artist put it, drawing an inference from the outcome of the Waterberg revolt in South Africa in 1904, “In the context of Colonial Revolts, an initial success is always a calamity.” The particular historical gravity of the decimation of thousands of the colonized at the hands (and guns) of colonizers precludes a return to the playfulness of the initial lecture. And in some way, the initial success of Kentridge’s showmanship in the first lecture is balanced by the relative blankness of the notebook he produced for the second lecture. The success of the light brigade in lecture one, its having drawn us in linear fashion from ancient Greece to the present, promulgates the aporias and the see-saw instability of lecture two.

William Kentridge in Stockholm during the preparation for Black Box/Chambre Noire, 2005. Photo: Petra Hellberg Deutsche Guggenheim, © William Kentridge

“A Brief History of Colonial Revolts” evokes mystery by leaving blank, by leaving out. Its emphasis on the purity and whiteness of the white page is deliberate practice—the messiness of the studio-mind here often fails to leave its traces, as if they might impede rather than convey. That is not to say that Kentridge didn’t fascinate us or that he himself isn’t fascinated by the world. His brief history includes things like

• a meditation on the disposition of museological dioramas that feature life-sized, three-dimensional depictions of Africans “as in life” on the savanna: do they belong in museums of Natural History or in Museums of Cultural History? Is their display more sensible (and sensitive) when it takes place beside taxidermied animals or beside swatches of seventeenth-century, Dutch lace? (Kentridge defends the rightness of the “in-between” space where such a diorama now resides: it may not be destroyed, nor is it displayed)

• the miniature theater built by Kentridge and called a “Black Box” that featured the measurement of skulls (c.f. Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man)

• a chorus of four William Kentridges on film, speaking at once, separately, in tandem, in canon, in fugue, contrapuntally, an a capella group making Reichian music from the ambient sounds of the studio

• a brief list of the five times Africa has been invented:
–in 137 CE, by Ptolemy;
–in and around 700 ACE, with the spread of Islam;
–in the sixteenth century as an outline on a map (the first vision of Africa as a continent);
–in the nineteenth-century European “rush” to conquer and divide it;
–in the 1920s, when Pan-Africanism offered a new vision of Africa and the African that erased geographical boundaries and embraced an idealizing essentialism

• a personal “Geography Lesson,” datelined “Johannesburg, 1963,” which comprised the deliberate erasure from a World Map of every country on Earth that did not recognize the South African government as legitimate at the time; the punchline of which was that though most of Asia was left blank, insular Japan survived—the Japanese having been declared “honorary White people” according to the strange certainties that characterized Apartheid

I’ve only just started. Yet to list the entire set of historical and artistic events and objects that Kentridge touched upon in “A Brief History of Colonial Revolts” would be to misstate its principal message. Kentridge’s second Norton Lecture is about how the gaps between things we know and experience limit and shape human understanding and can be powerful resources for artistic practice. In “A Brief History of Colonial Revolts” Kentridge collocates emptinesses and avoids the conventional logic of evidence, for the collection of evidence would put him, and us, in the position of the Enlightenment-driven colonizers, the slave-traders, the skull-measurers, the proto-eugenicists.

William Kentridge in his Johannesburg studio working on Black Box/Chambre Noir, 2005. Photo: John Hodgkiss Deutsche Guggenheim, © William Kentridge

The lecture is a paean to the benefits of doubt: No one who steadfastly acknowledges the gaps in his or her knowledge writes a science of race that subordinates some humans to others on the basis of skin color in spite of a million data points that contradict that subordination. The benefits of doubt do not solely accrue for science: the artist too, says Kentridge, must operate from a rigorous uncertainty, a knowing that acknowledges how little one knows.

For Kentridge history accrues, falls dead, is born, washes up, piles up, and may be artfully arranged, but the most powerful place that this accretion might happen is in the artist’s studio, which is a metonym for the human mind. Kentridge’s studio space is an experimental, “black box” theater. In it light is not the pure light of reason only but dimmed by ethical responsibilities that are cast as shadows when one operates “in the presence of the other.” This studio is “thick with time.” In it is heard “the cacophony of excess and uncertainty” into which the artist invites the viewer. Kentridge’s studio-mind is not a purely rational mind but a “cloud-chamber” (unafraid to borrow metaphors from “hard” science), a miniature theater within which one circulates, even if one does not quite understand. It is “a Limbo, where a failure of understanding becomes the only correct understanding.”

Drawing Lesson Three, “Vertical Thinking: A Johannesburg Biography”
Introduced by Benjamin Buchloh
April 3, 4 p.m.

Drawing Lesson Four, “Practical Epistemology: Life in the Studio”
Introduced by Maria Gough
April 10, 4 p.m.

Drawing Lesson Five, “In Praise of Mistranslation”
Introduced by Glenn Lowry
April 16, 4 p.m.
NB: This is the only lecture not on a Tuesday

Drawing Lesson Six, “Anti-Entropy”
Introduced by Peter Galison
April 24, 4 p.m.

Kentridge’s Norton Lectures will not be followed by Q & A. Instead, a separate opportunity to converse with Kentridge has been scheduled for Monday, April 23rd at 4 p.m. This extra session is to be held in Emerson Hall 105.

The Charles Eliot Norton Professorship in Poetry was endowed in 1925 by C. C. Stillman (Harvard 1898). Incumbents are in residence through their tenure in the Chair and deliver at least six lectures. The term “poetry” is interpreted in the broadest sense, to include all poetic expression in language, music, or fine arts.

Previous holders of the Norton Chair include Gilbert Murray (1926–27), T. S. Eliot (1932–33), Igor Stravinsky (1939–1940), Charles Eames ((1970–1971), Leonard Bernstein (1972–1973), Frank Stella (1982–84), John Cage (1988–89), Nadine Gordimer (1994–1995), and Orhan Pamuk (2009–2010).

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