Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Patrick Madden: Summary / Judgment

One of writing’s axioms is that the large can be found in the small, the universal in the particular. I have seen this idea expressed a million ways (or, more realistically, a hundred? one-hundred-twenty-seven, more particularly, if not more accurately?), one of the most memorable, for me, in an informal lecture given by Scott Russell Sanders one Thursday morning years ago in the Dean’s Conference Room on the fourth floor of the Joseph F. Smith Building at Brigham Young University. I have shared here the specific details I can remember, omitted or elided the ones I cannot. But give me a moment to consult the Oracle (a moment passes; the writer types some keywords into an internet search engine, then reads the results): it happened in room 4010 of the JFSB on Thursday, October 15, 2009, sometime in the twelfth hour of the day, which means sometime after 11:00 Mountain Standard Time, given that the first hour of each day (like the first year of each person’s life, or the first century after the traditionally agreed-upon birth of Christ) begins at zero [or twelve, a dissatisfying and/or quirky feature of the repeated twelve-hour clock], a detail that the writer, who is also a teacher of writing, always checks when he encounters it in his students’ essays, such as when they write, “In my thirteenth year…” when what they clearly mean is that they were thirteen years old when such-and-such happened, which would be their fourteenth year. How have I found myself suddenly in the third person? the writer wonders.

Sanders spoke of his students’ reluctance to particularities, manifest in their assertion that by leaving their stories vague, they allowed room for readers to insert themselves and provide their own interpretation. Sanders liked to reduce their argument to its absurd case, he said, by suggesting that they ought, then, to leave their pages completely blank.

This comment, as I recall, got a hearty laugh and knowing nods from those assembled, a group that included both earnest professors and eager students. From the southwest corner of the room, the high-backed Eisteddfod chair sat in silence watching over the assembly, inscrutable but for its ornate carvings, which no one noticed or cared to decipher. A diffuse light shone in from the west-facing windows, through external metal slats, as the sun approached southerly vertical. On the south end of the room, on floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, an assortment of professors’ books rested unmolested but for the steady rain of dust accumulating on their pages’ edges. My own first book, which would soon occupy a place of prominence on the middle shelf, outward-facing and eye height, comfortable and confirming to the default perspective, was not yet among them, nor, indeed, yet in existence, quite, as an object.

(Sanders did not reduce his own argument to its absurd case: to the utter extreme of detail, where not a mote floating in the air would go unremarked or undescribed. While a blank page is easy enough to produce in reality, such an infinitude of detail can be conjured only in the imagination, and in the abstract.)

My mind did not then wander, though it wanders now, to the 1967 Batman episode “Pop Goes the Joker,” in which Cesar Romero’s character wins an international art competition by leaving his canvas blank. Responding to the befuddled judges’ “What is that?” he says “My painting is titled ‘Death of a Mauve Bat,’” and when he’s asked for further explanation, the gallery host, Baby Jane Towser, buts in to declare, “It’s symbolic [of] the emptiness of modern life. What else?” Towser’s subsequent announcement that the Joker has won gets hearty applause and knowing nods from those assembled, Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson excepted, of course.

To my very limited knowledge, no artist has attempted quite what the Joker pulled off with his blank canvas, but in 1918 Kazimir Malevich painted the best known of his White on White series, a white square floating at an angle in a larger, slightly yellower white square. Of it, he said, “I have overcome the lining of the colored sky. . . . Swim in the white free abyss, infinity is before you.” Which sounds quite inviting, I must say. Or perhaps terrifying. (Depending on one’s interpretation.) The painting currently hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art in a wing named for David Geffen, who made his money middle-manning pop music and movies to the masses. (I’m fine with that, I should say. I mean: Lennon’s Double Fantasy; Nirvana’s Nevermind; the Bee Movie! [see what I did there? Two unquestionable works of art followed by a famous flop? You’re not sure whether to believe my assertion. This is intentional. Or is it?])

Similar examples abound, from Malevich’s own works to Ad Reinhardt’s 1963 Abstract Painting, which at first glance is a plain 60-inch all-black square (upon longer and deeper observation, it reveals itself to include various shades of black, perhaps some shapes [Nigel Tufnel appears in mind, answering his own question about Spinal Tap’s pure-black Smell the Glove album cover, amidst a flurry of interpretations by bandmates: “How much more black could this be? And the answer is none; none more black.” Which in turn brings The Beatles, of course, but I refrain, because invoking The White Album would bring along Charles Manson’s murderously wrong interpretations, and after Manson would follow Joan Didion, and we haven’t got time, though her work is certainly worthy, and I’ve spent much time reading, admiring, and teaching it, noting especially the overly simple way so many of us understand “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” which Didion herself subverts and complicates in the sentences immediately following, so, before we get too far off track (too late!), to Metallica’s self-titled album, or to Jay Z or to Danger Mouse, for instance, I’ll pause only to explain that I cannot get my computer to place the n in Spinal Tap beneath an umlaut, just in case you were wondering]). It is difficult to experience such works via the computer screen, which flattens and translates them into pixels, which do not respond well to changes in viewing distance or angle. I recall seeing just one such work in person, Robert Motherwell’s 1958 Iberia, which hangs in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. I found the painting—a horizontal swath of brush-stroked black with a tiny unpainted white swatch in the lower-left corner—to give rise to many questions, mostly of the philistine’s “this is art?” variety, but some of a less skeptical, more earnestly curious kind. Later researches revealed that Motherwell was long obsessed with the ravages of the Spanish Civil War, and that while painting a series of Elegies to the Spanish Republic, he “discovered black as one of my subjects—and with black, the contrasting white, a sense of life and death which to me is quite Spanish.” A note at the Guggenheim website accompanying the painting admirably complicates Motherwell’s recollection or interpretation of his own work, stating, “Given that the Elegies date from an ink sketch made in 1948 to accompany a poem by Harold Rosenberg that was unrelated to the Spanish Civil War, and that their compositional syntax became increasingly intense, it seems all the more apparent that the ‘meaning’ of each work in the series is subjective and evolves over time.”

I have been thinking recently for a long time about what language does well and what it doesn’t. Also about what it maybe cannot do at all. I have arrived at no conclusions, not really, but I have reduced my wonderings to a two-item answer: summary and judgment, each of which serves a kind of efficiency, provides a container that reduces the “size” of life for ease of transport, enables a kind of crude communication among people, perhaps primarily of the informational or commercial kind. By summary we compress time and space and detail to portability, often to highlight the important parts, or to get through an explanation quickly. “This is an essay about variable interpretations and the importance of using specific details in writing,” I might claim about this very piece. But the summary, self-defeatingly, misses the specific details that make up the essay, even if I append them to my summary: “...including examples of single-color abstract art by Malevich, Motherwell, and Reinhardt.” And by judgment we shortcut the sometimes arduous sometimes glorious process of coming up with our own interpretations from our own experiences. “How was New Zealand?” people have been asking me lately, because I’ve just returned from there. “It was great/ lovely/ beautiful/ relaxing/ inspiring…” I respond with the obvious, and we both consider the exchange sufficient, finished. Most such communication results in no communion, no connection in the artistic or spiritual sense. Perhaps this is why literary writing, especially nonfictional literary writing, is so rare and vital and valuable: because it not only captures but creates an experience of reality akin to (or even surpassing) what our senses register as we move through our lives. Because as it uses language for more than summary and judgment, it rescues detail that most of us miss or forget (and then miss, in the long-for sense).

In matters of law, a summary judgment is one in which a judge issues a verdict “summarily,” which is to say without a jury trial, because the evidence unquestionably favors one party’s claims, because no significant facts are in dispute. For example, in May of last year, Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York issued partial summary judgment in favor of a group of Twitter users blocked by @realDonaldTrump, ruling that such blocking is unconstitutional as it violates their First Amendment rights. And in May of this year, Judge Amit P. Mehta of the US District Court for Washington D.C. issued summary judgment in favor of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which had requested (and has still not received) the financial records of Individual 1. Or just a couple of months ago, Judge David Briones of the US District Court for the Western District of Texas issued summary judgment in favor of El Paso County, Texas, and Border Network for Human Rights, which claimed that the president’s declaration of a national emergency at the southern border was unlawful and that use of emergency funds to build a border wall would violate the Consolidated Appropriations Act. A summary judgment is one that no person in their right mind could interpret differently.


Patrick Madden is the author of three essay collections, Disparates (forthcoming in 2020), Sublime Physick, and Quotidiana, and co-editor of After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays. He curates, co-edits the journal Fourth Genre with Joey Franklin, and, with David Lazar, co-edits the 21st Century Essays series at the Ohio State University Press. He teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts.


  1. I appreciated your guidance Patrick, and suggestions from other writing instructors at VCFA and elsewhere, to focus on the particular details. I seek in my writing to move away from my tendency to summarize and instead I now aim to hone in on specific details. I appreciate how that makes the writing more readable, interesting, and enjoyable. Previously, I had thought some details of my personal experiences were too bizarre or off-putting to make them worth expressing on the page, but I realize now that they are actually what makes my own work more engaging. I tried to follow this advice in my essay that appears on Essay Daily right here above yours about the winter solstice (it wasn't cold, it was 57 degrees; I did not exercise for a long time but rather 176 consecutive days, etc.)

    When I shared my essay above with a colleague who is not actively engaged in the literary world, he wrote back and said this "Wow, it’s really interesting to consider how many 'moments' happen in a day, between the things that happen and the meaning of the moments." It made me glad that without realizing it, he understood the point you make above, namely "Perhaps this is why literary writing, especially nonfictional literary writing, is so rare and vital and valuable: because it not only captures but creates an experience of reality akin to (or even surpassing) what our senses register as we move through our lives."

    In that vein of specificity, I wonder what you mean by "I have been thinking recently for a long time" since I know you choose your words carefully, and these could be interpreted as vague or imprecise.

    1. Thanks, Kara, for your comment. I'm glad that you're writing more detailed moments, and that they're effective in speaking to readers, even "non-specialists." I found this essay to be getting a bit long, so I did not write much on the counterargument about "too much detail," which can also be a problem for writers (and readers). That might be worth some exploration, too. As for that phrase "I have been thinking recently for a long time," I suppose it may fail with some readers, which is a risk. I hoped by it to play with time, to suggest that such measurements are always imprecise (I cut a passage questioning my use of "abound" in "Similar examples abound," which claim I do not quite earn here), and that "recent" events or thoughts can often seem closer to us than the adverb "recently" usually covers. Also, that everything is "recent," for much longer than it is "present," even given an elastic and elongated concept of "the present" as something more than a razor's edge of time. Also, that maybe I was wrong in claiming "recently" and thus corrected myself to "for a long time." (I am fond of seeing the writing process revealed in essays, including seeming contradictions or corrections, reversals, revisions.) Again, this may not work!

  2. I don’t recall ever seeing that episode of Batman, believe it or not. A fine portrayal of crude modern art stereotypes, to be sure. (I have seen enough art to recognize my limitations as a critic.). More telling in the case of your essay(s), I realize that my challenge in reading them in a timely manner is partly based on the fact that my reading habits are largely similar to my consumption of other media, i.e.,in small “sound” bites. So much is done in settings (such as the bus) where I must abruptly interrupt my thinking. This makes it difficult to ponder such impressive, Daniel Defoe-type sentences as the one with the White Album, Charles Manson, and Danger Mouse. It’s good to read in a moment of theoretical leisure. I enjoyed it even if I can’t succinctly capture why (at least not on my phone.)

    1. 1. You really should watch that episode. I think it's the one that has stuck in my mind more than any other. 2. I, too, suffer from the way modern life has trained my brain to seek distraction, which I lament. I continue to attempt to retrain my brain into long reading. Perhaps a goal to achieve in 2020.