Madame ‘X’ often jeered at us from the blackboard, never turning around as she heard the gasps of dismay, the predictable response to most of her threats. A sudden visitor to her French classroom would have caught our wide-eyed terror as an hour of unprepared dictation loomed through the murk of some imagined misbehavior. The stranger would have wondered about the cause of the effect. There was always a vortex of tension spinning in Madame ‘X’s class. She knew how to keep us hopping in a pressure cooker fueled by panic and embarrassment.
Lucky to have survived many educational experiences like those French classes long ago, I often find myself seeking formal learning situations today, such as a lecture at the Frick Collection recently. The subject was Vermeer’s famous painting, ‘The Girl with a Pearl Earring’, put in context by a curator from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My first reaction to the painting was how different it seemed in person than reproduced in print. ‘The Girl’ looked a lot younger, a point the lecturer made immediately, as well. Next we went on to discuss how the painting was not, in fact, “just” a portrait. What made it “a work of art” instead was the responsiveness reflected in her body language and expression. There’s nothing static about her. You can feel a dynamic tension between the viewer/painter and the subject, and that’s because she’s responding to something that just happened in the room or with the painter, leading to much speculation about the story behind her reaction.
That responsiveness and the dynamic tension it sets up reminds me of Itzhak Perlman’s counsel to his string instrument students to make a ‘constant response’ to the music, even if they’ve played it a million times. The response is necessary for the music to be alive, just as it’s necessary for the girl with a pearl earring to be real. I quickly saw the parallel to my writing, where responsiveness gives characters life and saves them from the static portraiture some novelists slip into, no matter how fluid their prose might be.
A wonderful thing to be reminded of— responsiveness— but I kept looking back at that painting before I left the lecture hall. Partly because I knew I was unlikely to travel to Amsterdam to see it when it goes home again, but also because there was still something about her I hadn’t put my finger on. I had a feeling whatever it was might be an even bigger discovery for my writing than “responsiveness”, and suddenly I saw what it was.
This girl, no matter how young, was free from the circumstances that might have caused her original response. She didn’t seem to be reacting to the situation, but more to her own inner world. It was as if she’d generated her placement beyond the original factors that may have caused the first response. They might have been the starting point, but she became the dominant force in the action. There was no question in my mind. Vermeer’s message was that this girl herself was the work of art.
The impact a self-generated response has on the viewer is enormous, obviously a fact Madame ‘X’ missed completely in her responsive chords in French class, but not one Mozart overlooked in his unexpected musical responses that added more tension instead of resolving it; and one I won’t hesitate to bring into my novels. Those special characters who command from within will become the dominant force, rather than the worlds around them. That’s how to give them the impact of ‘The Girl with a Pearl Earring’; how a subject on canvas, a theme in a sonata or character on the page becomes a fluid, living work of art. I want that for my characters, too, and now I know how to give it to them.