I am amazed by what visual artists can do with a pencil, pen, clay, or brush. The ability to see a person, object, or landscape and then manifest it on paper, canvas, or in clay is something I’ve always admired. Years ago, I had a roommate, Lori Shorey, who gave me a drawing lesson. She placed a glass on a table and told me not to draw the glass but to draw the “negative space” around the glass. It wasn’t the best glass ever drawn, but it did look like a glass!
Fast forward years later: I am working with students on an essay by John Edgar Wideman, and we are discussing literary tools he uses in his writing. I point out the “negative narration,” describing what is by describing what it isn’t.
Example: I am not tidy. I am not patient. I am not quiet.
The above negative narration reveals that I am messy, impatient, and noisy.
Here is a more elegant example from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
"You are not wood, you are not stones, but men . . . "
Another good theatre example, conceptually, is Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, the play where nothing much happens. Even the stage is mostly bare, except for a tree with a single leaf on it that falls off during the second act. But that stage is full of possibility: Where are they? Are they in Purgatory? Are they in a park? Are they . . .? And as the characters wait for "Godot" nothing seems to happen, yet so much happens in that unhappening!
Now, I refer to this as “negative narration,” and I see it all the time in literature, but when I Googled it to find examples I came up with references to the visual arts and not the literary. Does it have another name, I wondered?
I did some digging and found the term apophasis, which comes from the Greek word for “without form or images.” Apophasis is used in theology to refer to a type of prayer that does not use words to communicate with God, recognizing that God is not human and human language is insufficient. Therefore, silence is a form of wordless prayer humans can use to “talk” to God. In the silence we hear God clearly.
Apophasis is usually linked with theology, but scholars have written about Emily Dickinson’s use of apophasis in her poetry. I also found aposiopesis, also Greek, meaning to keep silent – except we know that “silence speaks volumes.” Sometimes the ellipsis in literature is used to indicate what is by not mentioning what it is.
Ex.: “Do you have a problem with him?”
“Well, no . . . “
That ellipsis? Loaded with problems!
I don’t know; maybe I made up the phrase negative narration, but the concept certainly exists by other names. And this concept of "much in nothing" came up at Thanksgiving dinner when we were sharing what we were grateful for -- a tradition my family pretends to hate. I force them every year, in spite of their groans, just so I can express how grateful I am for them. (They need to hear it once a year.) Anyway, we were going around the table, and they were teasing and saying things like "I'm grateful for mashed potatoes," and "I'm grateful for forks," and "I'm grateful for Alvin Kamara."
That's when my niece jumped into my mind, and I wanted to count what hadn't happened in my blessings.
Genny was in a terrible car accident a few weeks ago. She was hit head on by a driver on a two-lane road. Her car's windshield was smashed, and they had to remove the door of her car to get her out. Both she and the driver who hit her survived but spent several days in the hospital. My niece suffered a mild concussion, and she won’t be walking for 6-8 months.
But she was not killed. She is not on life support. She is not paralyzed.
Genny celebrated another birthday on the 20th. I am grateful she is here and for all the little things that did not happen so that she could be here: The fact it was not rainy or icy, that the driver wasn’t going any faster, that no one was tailgating her, that . . .
I know you all are grateful. Some of you keep a gratitude journal. Some of you shared on Facebook what you were/are grateful for every day this month. We have learned to acknowledge all the “blessings” in our lives, but do we acknowledge what we don’t see? Do we recognize the hidden gifts, like getting caught in traffic because we left ten minutes late, and now there’s a traffic jam up ahead because of a collision? We might have been in that collision. Our lateness may be an unnoticed miracle.
Or take the day you met your significant other – what did not happen in order to bring you together? Invisible miracles.
If you have work that fulfills you, what invisible factors led you to that work? Things that went wrong so that later things could go right? Invisible miracles.
There is so much “negative space” in our lives where positive things have come to form who we are and the life we live. If we could sit before a movie screen and watch as all the unnoticed miracles were projected before us, beginning with our conception, I think we would never bemoan again that which we did not receive.
Invisible miracles are happening all around us; we simply need to open our eyes.
WRITING CHALLENGE: See if you can trace a significant positive thing in your life that occurred because other things did not. You might begin with the prompt "I did not . . ." and see where it takes you.