Fuse Feature: “The Riddle behind the Riddle” — A Dispatch from William Kentridge’s Fifth Norton Lecture

Mistranslation weaves through this lecture, for every translation is a mistranslation. But that is what makes them fruitful. As soon as we mishear or fail to understand, the brain constructs an instant bit of narrative to bridge the gap in understanding.

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 dispatch from Drawing Lesson One.
Here is the dispatch from Drawing Lesson Two.
Here is the dispatch from Drawing Lesson Three.
Here is the dispatch from Drawing Lesson Four.

Drawing Lesson Five, “In Praise of Mistranslation”

Introduced by Glenn Lowry. April 16.

By Grace Dane Mazur.

“The words of the first sentence would not travel down my arm to my wrist and then to my fingers . . .” William Kentridge on his difficulty in preparing the fifth of his Norton Lectures.

This corporality is echoed in the content and the delivery of these lectures, which all my friends agree are the best they have ever seen, on any subject. His delivery is transfixing. He has a vocabulary of different walks as well as gestures, and he seems to inhabit both his voice and his own body in a way one doesn’t often see in a lecturer. In a way, this makes perfect sense, since the body is where ideas, images, and words reside, even when they balk.

Kentridge makes art with charcoal. He says he likes it for its tonal range, which is beautifully rendered in his black and white movies. “You can change it,” he says of charcoal drawings, “as quickly as you can think.” With charcoal you get a quick, thick, black line; you draw the darkness and avoid the light. Then you can perform the double negation, erasing the dark to let in more light. It feels primordial, suitable for caves. All the black pigments in painting come from burning, charcoal from a long slow burning of wood without oxygen. There’s something unforgiving about charcoal despite the amount of erasing you can do. You smudge everything. It not only memorializes wherever it has been on the paper but does it on your hands, wrists, arms, face, as though those images were traveling back to the body. Think of lighting the fire in the back yard, how you need to bathe in the kitchen sink afterwards. And there is Kentridge, in his signature white shirt, making his velvety, black images, with the hush of the drag of the coal grasped by the fibers of the paper.

These Drawing Lessons started in Plato’s Cave and progressed to Africa, to Johannesburg, to the artist’s studio, and in this one, to the books on the shelves in the studio, among them Ovid, Flann O’Brien, and Rilke. Today he begins not with charcoal but with linocut prints on encyclopedia pages made from ink brush drawings of his Bialetti, stove-top espresso maker.

He made these drawings while the words that would make up this lecture were still refusing to come out of his fingertips. One after another, Bialetti after Bialetti, until the little coffee pot becomes goddess or calligraphy.

Then other ink drawings come out of his brush: blossoms, nudes. When the words for the lecture still wouldn’t come, he turned to a list he had made months earlier, “a corner of a superannuated bestiary,” of Durer’s Rhinoceros, Rilke’s Panther, Cats and Dogs, Horses, Picasso’s Goat, more Horses, Asen.

This last item, the Asen, from Benin, is a portable altar made of an ornamented disk forming a platform on a tall staff. On the disk, invoking and evoking the dead person, sheet-metal figures and objects stand in a tableau that works as a three-dimensional rebus or riddle. The whole altar, monument to a dead soul, forms a sort of membrane between the worlds of the dead and the living.

Asen from Benin. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

In Kentridge’s Asen, a girl sits in a chair, a man holds a large ball-perhaps the moon, a tree entangles a flag. In the Asen shown here, from the Brooklyn Museum, a man (in a stovepipe hat) and a woman stand under an umbrella, surrounded by a cross, two flags, and a very prickly tree. We who view these tableaux translate them to make immediate sense of it.

There are three people involved in the making of the Asen: the dead person who is to be honored by it; the donor who commissions it, providing a list of things to be included on it—perhaps prized objects, perhaps things that sound like the words of his name; and the craftsman who makes it. Eventually, Kentridge explains, the donor joins the dead in death, and the craftsman dies. But the puzzle that is the Asen remains in the museum.

Mistranslation weaves through this lecture, for every translation is a mistranslation, Kentridge says, but that is what makes them fruitful. As soon as we mishear or fail to understand, the brain constructs an instant bit of narrative to bridge the gap in understanding. His three-year-old daughter, hearing his story of the cat escaping from the dog by fleeing through the cat-flap into the kitchen, does not know the phrase “cat-flap.” In re-telling the story to her mother, the girl transmutes it, and the cat escapes by “flapping his wings” and flying up into the air. We tweak what we think is there until we have the story we need in order to make sense.

We do this with textual rebuses as well as stories or images. In this age of electronic “texting,” the following rebus should be perfectly readable, especially if one adopts the accent of an ancient Russian, or Lithuanian, Jew:


There is a physical desire, Kentridge says, to make the Asen, or any of the transformative rebuses of visual art. The arms and the chest ache to embrace the brush, the ink, the charcoal, the paper, and set to work. Part of that longing comes from the understanding that inside every riddle with an answer lives the secondary riddle, of that which does not have an answer. Once we know the answer to the question of the Sphinx, there are at least two more mysteries: the chimerical nature of the beast herself, and the question of what happens to Time when we condense the idea of a human life into a single day.

We mistranslate animals all the time, by anthropomorphizing them, as in Kentridge’s brief animation of a rhinoceros walking normally, then getting up on its hind legs, then standing on its hands (you see? I mean on its front legs), pirouetting, and somersaulting. Throughout, the stegosaurian heft of the rhino is at wonderful odds with its delicate, acrobatic dance.

A cat, Kentridge says, is a line, a spine connected to whiskers. A dog is a point, a nose–more like an arrow, really, and a tail to comment on what the nose finds. A cat is always relaxed, the dog always a bit frantic and in the end, stupid. Even through such visual linear mistranslations, however, we begin to get at what is hidden, for this kind of anthropomorphizing leads us to that part of the animal—and of us—that we cannot know. Watching the dancing rhino, we learn something about our own escapes from gravity. Watching the cat, we see languor, our own and that of various characters in plays. And always there is our ambiguity toward nature: we want to examine and know it, pull it close enough to feed it out of our hands, while all the time proclaiming it as other.

A charcoal panther in one of his films paces up and down in his cage, and Kentridge tells of the force of his first encounter with Rilke’s Panther in 1984, in William Exner’s translation. “It was as if I’d been waiting for the lines of this poem . . .”

Like a dance of strength around a middle
where a mighty will was put to sleep.

For him these lines described the felt experience of being in the studio, waiting for the instruction of the words and images to come. We have seen him pacing across the stage in these lectures; and in the movies he has shown us, we see him pace around his studio, sometimes alone, sometimes meeting and passing through his own image walking in the opposite direction. Always he reminds me of the panther. Talking of the line where a mighty will was put to sleep, he mentions his own practice of “Defensive Sleeping” when the inability to know what to make presents itself as tiredness.

William Kentridge — Pacing Panther

But I wonder if perhaps the strange power of both pacing and dozing is that they act on the membrane that secludes images or words from our consciousness, that they can each make this membrane more permeable, letting the words finally travel down the arm to the fingers.

Although Kentridge’s lectures have been very personal, they are so generous that it doesn’t feel as though he is talking about himself. Rather it feels as though he is revealing our creative processes or creation in general. A strong sense of play takes over, and of delight, even when the creations are at their darkest.

It’s not clear whether it makes more sense to compare his presentations to a tapestry—in which he weaves together vast numbers of seemingly disparate strands—or to a poem, in which I would want to spend my days unfolding each of the images and feelings. Perhaps I should simply claim that for him the lecture itself is an art form. These Lessons are about Drawing, even while they depict and draw forth from himself—and from within us—the image of what lessons can be.

Teaching duties kept Daniel Bosch from attending this lecture, but we can look forward to his dispatch on the next one, Drawing Lesson Six: “Anti-Entropy,” which takes place on Tuesday, April 24th.

Grace Dane Mazur is a writer living in Cambridge. Her most recent book is Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination. She can be contacted here.

The next public viewing of films by William Kentridge will be offered by the Harvard Film Archive on Sunday April 22 at 7 p.m. (without Q&A).

View videotapes of Norton lectures 1–3 here.

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).


  1. Evelyn Rosenthal on April 20, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    Wonderful piece, as usual! Thanks for posting the drawings, too (love the Bialettis). I’m curious–did Glenn Lowry have anything interesting to say in his introduction?

  2. Grace on April 20, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    Thanks so much! I’m afraid I can’t say much about the introduction, as I was so busy trying to make order of my thoughts about the previous lectures that I didn’t pay proper attention. I’m looking forward to seeing it when it becomes available on line or in DVD form.

  3. Karen Klein on April 23, 2012 at 8:44 am

    I want to thank you for the splendid essay you did on Kentridge’s Fifth Lecture. Not only did it bring the lecture all back to me, even parts I had forgotten, but also made such astute comments about Kentridge’s presentation. The embodiment of ideas in his body and the presentation of them through it are remarkable.

    For me, dancer, sculptor, sometime poet, former professor, Kentridge in himself overcomes the horrible mind/body dualism that has plagued the West. Intellect need not be separate from feelings, senses, physicality. It is a privilege to listen to him and to watch him. Thank you for rendering this so clearly.

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