In Praise of Absence

I have long been an admirer of the landscape painters of the Chinese Sung Dynasty, who nearly a thousand years ago depicted the natural world as both dynamic and imbued with deep peace. The style of these contemplative, monumental canvases is perhaps best represented by Fan Kuan’s masterpiece, “Travellers Among Mountains and Streams.”

The stately rise of the mountain’s rounded forms dominates the silk canvas, but that thin white stream of a waterfall on the right soon focuses my attention as well, especially when I realize that the water’s descent is actually negative space, shaped by the dark ink on either side. Then, I’m pulled in by the sense of palpable distance the white swathes of mist create, an absence separating the foreground from the background. The scene seems so deeply inhabited by the artist’s gaze that I feel I’m somehow there too, in awe of this striking panorama. But where are those “travellers” mentioned in the title, anyway?

If you squint your eyes, you’ll make out a teeny line of dark shapes in the bottom right corner. Here’s a close-up (Click to enlarge. Really, click):

Even in this detail the travellers are overwhelmed by nearby trees on the minor promontory and those secondary cascades of the waterfall. From this perspective, it’s hard to tell where the pack animals end and the human beings begin. We are so small we’re nearly absent, this Sung Dynasty master shows us, and nature is so large.

Another Sung painter who has intrigued me is Ma Yuan, sometimes referred to as “one corner Ma,” because of a number of his paintings in which all the detail is kept to one corner or section, letting it be defined by the negative space of the rest of the canvas. In one of his classic works, “Walking on a Mountain Path in Spring,” a scholar contemplates the vast sky before him–marked only by a single bird–inviting us, perhaps, to also contemplate what can and cannot be seen.

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Ma Yuan was an absolute master in shaping absence, defining what can be seen out of what cannot, as this detail from one of his paintings illustrates: a ridge or two, a few trees, a smattering of birds, and a vast space is elegantly and efficiently brought to life.

The extreme example above reminds me of the power of the space bar in writing—that empty space, sometimes punctuated by an asterisk or some other doodad, that separates sections of a short story, novel or essay. This empty space can connote the passage of time, or a change of narrative point of view, or a switch of locale, or sometimes a combination of all three. We can be reading, say, a narrative from a mother’s perspective taking place in the winter in New England, and then, with nothing more than the emptiness of a space bar, easily shift to the daughter’s point of view five years later, on a Florida beach. Take that, Ma Yuan!

But there are more ways to establish meaning, enhance a narrative’s drama, or deepen a character through absence. Often when we create, much is left behind in the revision and editing process, and yet what we have learned from what we have chosen not to display can assert itself, however subtly. Here’s a fine example described by the director Joel Cohen, from an interview in the book Moviemaker’s Master Class, by Laurent Tirard:

“The only time we do actual improvisation is during rehearsals, to bring certain things out, but that usually doesn’t affect the scene itself. What we’ll usually do is ask the actors to invent the parts of the scene that aren’t written, the five minutes that take place before and after the scene. We find that it helps them get into the scene better. Jeff Bridges and John Goodman liked to do that a lot on “The Big Lebowski.” And sometimes it was very funny. Actually, sometimes it was even better than what we wrote!”

Every scene we see in a movie, or read in a novel or memoir is surrounded by unexpressed scenes that take place prior to or just after the unfolding moment of drama before us and is shaped in some way by their offstage gravitational pull. Thinking about what leads up to the scene we are about to write can be especially helpful, as we can better imagine its dramatic trajectory.

The use of absence works for the development of characters as well. When Albert Brooks prepared for his role in the movie “Drive,” he wrote down an elaborate backstory for his creepy character. “I find it’s helpful just to know about things in your mind,” he said in an interview in The New York Times. “You can put it away. Because that’s what real people do. Real people walk into a room knowing where they’ve been the day before and what’s happening to them. It makes the present easier, if you know the past.” Behind the powerful intimidating gaze below is a world of the character’s past that Brooks has created inside himself, a past that viewers can’t see, though its effect can certainly be felt.

Even dialogue, that noisiest aspect of narrative, can benefit from absence. John Fowles, in his essay “Notes on Writing a Novel,” described a moment when he couldn’t imagine what a character might next say in a scene in his then novel-in-progress, The French Lieutenant’s Woman. “I was struck this morning to find a good answer from Sarah at the climax of the scene. Characters sometimes reject all the possibilities one offers. They say in effect: I would never say or do a thing like that. But they don’t say what they would say; and one has to proceed negatively, by a very tedious coaxing kind of trial and error. After an hour over this one wretched sentence, I realized that she had in effect been telling me what to do: silence from her was better than any line she might have said.”

We writers, perhaps because the empty page can frighten or intimidate us, can make the mistake of concentrating too much on filling up the blank space, relying too heavily on the varied palette of our words to create fictional worlds or the memoryscape of a memoir. But intentional absence is powerful, the unspoken often loud, and what we cannot see may insist on our curious attention.

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  • 3 Comments

    1. Kat says:

      Great article!

      I just wanted to point out that the painting, “Sunset Landscape” is not by Ma Yuan, but by his son, Ma Lin.

      😀

    2. admin says:

      Oh my. Thank you for that correction!

    3. admin says:

      Corrected! Ma Lin out, Ma Yuan in, with his “Walking on a Mountain Path in Spring.” Thanks again.

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