Film art

Painting is, in a way, also about not painting, just as writing requires that certain things are left unsaid, outlines that will be completed in the imagination of the reader or in the brain of the viewer examining a painting, instead of the canvas where figures emerge out of loose strokes and a few lines.
— Antonio Muñoz Molina, Like a Fading Shadow

I have long argued that the experience of art is made only in the encounter between spectator and art object. The perceptual experience of art is literally embodied by and in the viewer.
— Siri Hustvedt, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women

Art is always an exchange, like love, whose giving and taking can be a complex and wounding matter.
— Ali Smith, Artful

At what point does the switch from observation to participation and creation occur? In all engagement with art, there is a liminal space where authorial intention meets the emotional and intellectual investment of reader, listener or viewer. We carry within us the stories we have read, the images viewed, the music listened to. They become us, they change us, and, in so doing, they are transformed into something quite different from what was crafted by their original authors. For, now, they are infused and mingled with our own world views, memories and desires. We switch off the television set, close the book, exit the theatre or gallery, and what we have seen, read or heard plays on in our minds, assuming new life and form. The stories drift beyond the constraints of the frame, page and stage.

Awaiting the arrival of two friends with whom he will dine in the Heritage Club, a university professor admires the portrait of a young women on display in a nearby window. Later, after an evening of conversation, food and alcohol, the professor falls asleep while reading. He brings the portrait’s subject to life in his dreams, entangling himself in a nightmare adventure with her. (The Woman in the Window, 1944)

Screen media like film and television depend on this. The fade out is not so much an ending as a new beginning, as the viewer takes over from the coalition of technicians, writers, designers, actors, producers and directors responsible for what they have just experienced. There is an invitation both to complete the process of creation and, especially in the case of the serial, to return and re-engage. The creative act, the need to suspend disbelief, are highlighted through the use of credits at the start and the end of the narrative. This is an artefact, we are told, and you, the audience, are among the uncredited people responsible for its making. We will give you so much, but you can fill in the rest. Like the novel, in its consumption, cinema is one of the most collaborative of art forms. Consider the back stories of minor characters, or the lives of the protagonists beyond the final paragraphs or the closing credits. How much is hinted at in the original? How much have you made up yourself?

Seated below the portrait of a young woman, a detective assigned to investigate the subject’s apparent murder falls asleep, succumbing to the effects of alcohol, work and obsession. When he awakens, the young woman herself stands before him, deepening both the mystery he investigates and the intense feelings her portrait has stirred up in him. (Laura, 1944)

Given the pronounced self-knowledge about its own artifice, it is unsurprising that there are so many feature films about the business of filmmaking itself, including The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), (1963), Day for Night (1973), The Player (1992) and Hail, Caesar! (2016). The artist – as explorer, sense-maker and creator – is a figure that recurs throughout film history, from the early shorts of Georges Méliès onwards. We luxuriate in original stories and bio pictures about the triumphs and travails of painters, novelists, sculptors, illusionists, poets, playwrights, actors and musicians. We take pleasure, too, in the cinematic reworking of classical mythology. The tale of Orpheus’s descent into the underworld to reclaim Eurydice is a frequent touchstone. So, too, the tale of the sculptor Pygmalion, the recipient of a divine gift from Aphrodite that bestows life on the statue Galatea.

A man traumatised by a tragic death encounters a young woman who bears a strong resemblance to the deceased. He cajoles her to dress differently and to change her hair colour and style, as he gradually moulds her into the image of his lost love. Little does he realise that in seeking to re-create the past, it will be repeated with the same tragic ending. (Vertigo, 1958)

Yet, so often, these secular modernisations explore the dark side of humanity. These are stories of love disfigured by obsessive desire, by the dark arts. The artist-creator gives life only to end up complicit in the destruction either of what they have helped create or of those closely associated with it. Even in more benign examples, such as Professor Higgins’s coaching of Eliza Doolittle, there can be melancholic undertones. For, to the anguish of parents everywhere, the creation of life inevitably carries with it the promise of eventual demise. We are entropic, ephemeral beings and our first breath unavoidably will be echoed by our last.

A flamenco dance company prepares to put on a production of Carmen. The more the dancers and musicians rehearse, the more the choreographer and company lead directs them, the more the boundary between fiction and reality dissolves. Increasingly, the performers assume the identities and characteristics of the roles they play. Carmen – as both character and production – is brought to life with fatal consequences. (Carmen, 1983)

Perhaps because of the fleeting nature of human life in the grander scheme of universal history, art frequently is concerned with time, with pausing and rewinding it, with breaking its chronology and highlighting its kairology. The photograph, the moving image and the portrait all record moments in time, capturing youthful snapshots, enabling us to revisit, at least superficially, our younger selves. But, as Janos observes in John Berger’s novel A Painter of Our Time, ‘Art is not a means of pickling.’ Youth itself is not preserved and, unlike the case of Dorian Gray, there is no transference from canvas or screen to animate being. These images – stripped of context as those who had some relation to the subject pass away or lose their memories – take on new meanings for those who now observe them. Ultimately, the connection between portrait and subject is lost.

An artist receives a commission to paint the portrait of a young woman, which will be sent to a prospective husband in Milan. Her subject is an unwilling sitter, and the artist is initially required to spend time with her as a companion, painting from memory. The effect of their affair will inform her art for years to come, long after they have gone their separate ways, she as a female painter making her way in a world dominated by male artists. (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, 2019)

To paint from memory is, to paraphrase James Sallis, to paint with the eye of the poet rather than with that of the reporter. Memories change over time, they are re-written and over-layered by the recollections of others, which we internalise, blend and alter. In this way, they become both personal and collective, palimpsests more sensory and emotional than factual. The artist who relies on recall, then, is in some way attempting to make memory manifest. The aspirations and desires of the former and current self meet on the canvas, the image re-captured is idealised, shaded by the desire for wish-fulfilment. Such images are both wistful and hopeful, reflecting on what was, what might have been, what yet could be.

A brief visit to the man’s elderly grandmother, and the magical few hours they spend in her company, underscores the love a couple feel for one another, helping them both to understand that they are meant to be together. Months later, in the wake of misfortune and misunderstanding, the man paints from memory his impressions of that afternoon. The canvas becomes a vehicle for reconciliation and the renewal of their relationship. (An Affair to Remember, 1957)

It does not take much, however, for idealised memory to be disfigured. The frustrations of the present magnify, shrink and distort the memories of past pleasures like a fairground house of mirrors. An artist obsessed like Pygmalion succumbs to the impulse to possess, conflating desire with ownership. Their art captures the tension between the expression and repression of their emotional lives. Mark (Carl Boehm), incapable of love, will photograph the women he desires in Peeping Tom (1960) even as he murders them. Orpheus will initiate Eurydice’s rescue from Hades even as he will make it impossible for her to return to the world of the living.

An ageing artist is under pressure to complete a series of new canvases ready for an exhibition of his work that has been organised by his benefactor. Learning that he has lost the love of his assistant, and that she has enjoyed a relationship with another man, he throws himself into his work. His expressionist painting captures his desire, pain, anger, frustration and regret. (‘Life Lessons’ segment of New York Stories, 1989)

There are occasions, however, when there is a need to engage with darkness in order to catalyse creativity. Good can emerge from evil, success from failure. The act of creation becomes a journey; one of fits and starts, peaks and troughs, longueurs and accelerations. The artist takes delight in this journey rather than demonstrating any concern for its destination. They revel in the process, with little consideration for the outcome. Creation becomes life itself, yet carries the danger of becoming a self-reflexive trap. Sometimes it is necessary to break the funfair mirrors like Elsa (Rita Hayworth) in The Lady from Shanghai (1947).

An elderly painter rediscovers his passion for making art when he encounters a new muse. The girlfriend of a young artist reluctantly agrees to pose for him, displacing his wife as the model for a long-discarded project. Friction becomes a source of inspiration as painter and sitter become lost in the work. (La Belle Noiseuse, 1991)

Unlike much musical performance, theatre, film and television, creation for the novelist and painter, especially those working from memory rather than with models, is a relatively solitary undertaking. At some point, however, if the artist can break themselves free from the creative process, the moment arrives when the work has to be shared with others, when an audience has to be found. Monologue then switches to dialogue, and the work can no longer be considered the artist’s alone. It is opened up to comment and interpretation, to multiple points of views, each shaped and informed by a variety of experiences and ideologies.

A woman with severe arthritis becomes housemaid to a local fish seller. As part of the improvements she seeks to make to his home, she begins to paint. Eventually, her work is noticed by a visitor from New York and she begins to receive small commissions. Media exposure raises the artist’s profile to such an extent that she is soon selling paintings from her home, even to the US Vice President. (Maudie, 2016)

While there is invariably intent in the creation of a work of art, the artist’s motives do not often marry up completely and exactly with the meaning the viewer, reader or listener will derive from that work. This is one of the great beauties of art, one of the reasons that a single work can keep on giving in new and numerous ways – not only to a fresh audience but to the same people at different points in time. To pick up a book or to watch a film once read or viewed at the age of twenty and now revisited as a fifty-something is to read or view something entirely new, filtered through three more decades of experiences and memories. It is a reminder that between production and consumption, we are all artists, all participants in the act of creation.

Trust the art, not the artist; trust the tale, not the teller. The art remembers, the artist forgets.
— Julian Barnes, Keeping An Eye Open

Art’s responses are always perturbable by criticism, by questioning, by context, and by reflection.
— Alva Noë, Strange Tools

I think I’m in a frame … All I can see is the frame. I’m going in there now to look at the picture.
— Jeff (Robert Mitchum) in Out of the Past

Out of the Past

Inchoately reaching into heartfelt darkness has to do with searching, not finding. It has to do with that land of Un—uncertainty, unfathomability, unknowing—which, turns out, is where writers live most of the time.
— Maud Casey, The Art of Mystery

And then, most important of all: to remember who I am. To remember who I am supposed to be. I do not think this is a game. On the other hand, nothing is clear. For example: who are you? And if you think you know, why do you keep lying about it? I have no answer.
— Paul Auster, ‘City of Glass’

When we want everything and give back nothing
the otherworld will be unlocked, and our whole world taken away.
— Robin Robertson, The Long Take

For more than twenty-five years, in a variety of different rooms and properties, a framed black-and-white movie still has hung near my desk. On the left of the photograph, stands an elegantly dressed women, clutching a revolver in her right hand. Looming over her, projected on to a curtain in a nod to the cinematic medium itself, are the shadows of two men fighting. This represents a key moment in the classic film noir Out of the Past (1947), when the masks come off and the protagonists see one another in their true light. The still freezes that singular moment immediately before revelation and unalterable change.

The proximity of the photo to me over the years has served as a constant reminder. First, of a particular period in my life between 1992 and 1996 when I dedicated myself to postgraduate research and the writing of a book on the evolution of film noir and the emergence of neo-noir. Second, of one of my favourite films, which always feels like a treat whenever I watch it, rewarding me with new insights and a sense of enjoyment that extends well beyond the 97 minutes of its duration. There are certain films – A Matter of Life and Death (1946), The Apartment (1960), The Awful Truth (1937), Chinatown (1974) and Out of the Past are among them – that I can never tire of, that are always a source of both pleasure and intellectual stimulation.

Out of the Past still

While my academic days are long behind me, I have harboured for many years a desire to reengage with film noir, watching the classic films again, reading about them and the people who made them, possibly even writing about them. There is nothing particularly intentional about this, and I have no clear objective in mind. The Covid-19 pandemic, however, has provided a perfect opportunity to scratch this particular itch. Woven into my daily lockdown routine for now is the early morning screening of an old film, most often a film noir from the classic period of 1941-58.

Over the past few weeks I have watched The Maltese Falcon (1941), This Gun for Hire (1942), The Glass Key (1942), Phantom Lady (1944), Murder, My Sweet (1944), Double Indemnity (1944), The Woman in the Window (1944), The Blue Dahlia (1946), Gilda (1946), The Killers (1946), Crossfire (1947), They Live by Night (1948), Force of Evil (1948), Gun Crazy (1950), Night and the City (1950), In a Lonely Place (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), Pickup on South Street (1953), Killer’s Kiss (1955), The Big Knife (1955), The Night of the Hunter (1955), The Killing (1956), Touch of Evil (1958) and, of course, Out of the Past. There are many others I intend to watch again over the coming weeks, too, including Laura (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Big Combo (1955), Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957).

This immersion in noir has reaffirmed my admiration for the writers, cinematographers, designers, directors and actors associated with these edgy films. Access to restored versions of the classic films noirs, and to HD or 4K transfers online and on blu-ray, has enabled me to see and hear detail in these films that I had not noticed before. As director and film historian Martin Scorsese argues in his documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995), these filmmakers were smugglers, transforming routine material into personal expression, bypassing the censors and the strictures of the Production Code where they could. They were stylistically and thematically innovative, bringing a B-film sensibility even to bigger budget projects. Often made under financial and temporal constraints, theirs are highly creative films, making extraordinary use of lighting effects, on-the-street photography and camera movement – from cars or even, in the case of They Live by Night, from a helicopter.

It is, though, the stories, narrative patterns and thematic motifs associated with noir that have the most enduring appeal for me. Returning to these films out of my own past, I detect synergies and connections with much else that I have written about and reflected upon in the intervening years. Indeed, there is a universal appeal about noir films that renders them modern myths or fairy tales. There is the comfort of familiarity even in their nightmare visions. They take us to dark places, show us the underside of humanity, and, despite the occasional glimmer of hope, do not usually end well. They are also difficult to categorise, the noir label having been applied to them retrospectively, prompting decades of debate among critics and academics about whether noir should be considered a movement, a style or a genre.

In many respects, noir always has been a hybrid beast, adding to this notion of universality. In look and feel and plot and setting and dialogue, noir has borrowed variously from hardboiled fiction, crime photography, Edward Hopper’s paintings, the gangster film, melodrama, the horror film, screwball comedy, the road movie and, on occasion, the musical, western and documentary. It presents a world out of balance, suggested by tilted camera angles, long shadows and edgeland settings such as city waterfronts, small-town gas stations, funfairs and border towns. This is a world populated by archetypal figures – such as the private investigator, the gangster, the grifter, the femme fatale, the man on the run, the war veteran, the corrupt official, the redemptive woman – in which the capitalist project and the American Dream of individual agency has turned sour.

In essence, noir is concerned with alienation, regret and identity. As noir academic Imogen Sara Smith has argued, the phrases ‘in a lonely place’ and ‘out of the past’ would apply equally well to just about any film noir, not just to the two films that bear these titles. The noir protagonist is often attempting to flee some past mistake, hiding their true selves, as with the Swede (Burt Lancaster) in The Killers, closing themselves off from broader society. Or, in the case of the detective, insurance agent and journalist, they are trying to make sense of what occurred in the past, building a story from the clues they find and the interactions they have with others. In either case, on one level, noir is about storytelling and narration, self-reflexively showing how a story is atomised then put together, through voiceover, flashback, interrogation, foreshadowing, even dreams, all of it filtered through a subjective point of view that rarely can be trusted in full. For film noir is imbued with both memory and desire, and while the former is subject to poetic licence and ‘re-writing’, the latter tends to distort the way we see and engage with the world.

In several key films noirs, such as Double Indemnity and Out of the Past, this cocktail of memory and desire colours the protagonist’s recollections of the femme fatale and her actions. Events leading up to the time of narration are presented from the protagonist’s perspective, justifying their existential angst and fatalist resignation, while preparing us for what will follow. In Out of the Past, gas station owner Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) recounts his former life as New York-based private investigator Jeff Markham to his Bridgeport, California, love interest Ann Miller (Virginia Huston). He narrates his involvement in the case of Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), who shot Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) and absconded with $40,000 of his money. Jeff describes his own entanglement in Kathie’s web, their love story played out against a background of fishing nets on Acapulco’s beachfront.

In fact, Jeff is a willing catch, exclaiming ‘Baby, I don’t care’, when Kathie talks of her violent departure from Whit. Meanwhile, fishing is a recurrent motif in the film. Jeff’s former investigative partner, whom he fights in the movie still hanging on my wall and who is killed by Kathie in the moments that follow that frozen image is called Jack Fisher (Steve Brodie). A subsequent victim of Whit’s and Kathie’s scheming is called Leonard Eels (Ken Miles), whose death they intend to use to frame Jeff. Whit’s henchman, Joe Stefanos (Paul Valentine), falls to his death when Jeff’s employee, The Kid (Dickie Moore), hooks him with a fishing rod before he can shoot Jeff. Even Jeff and Ann are first introduced while fishing on a lake near Bridgeport. Everyone is caught up in a giant net that they cannot see, reinforcing Jeff’s fatalism in the second half of the film. The film’s narrative, moving forward linearly but also jumping back and forth in time, weaves its own intricate web, too.

After Jeff has told Ann his story and she has dropped him off at Whit’s property next to Lake Tahoe – later the site of another underworld businessman’s home in The Godfather, Part II (1974) – we see him and Kathie reunited, getting back into character and resuming their old roles under Whit’s watchful eye. As they are sent on their assignment to San Francisco, accompanied by Joe, and working with Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming), they assume the costume and badinage of the hardboiled investigator and femme fatale, respectively. Kathie’s performance even elicits Jeff’s sarcastic observation, ‘Oh, you’re wonderful, Kathie. You’re magnificent. You change sides so smoothly.’ Identities are fluid, changed as easily as coats or hats. Faces are impassive, masks that give little away.

For all that Jeff attempts to portray Kathie as evil incarnate and himself as foolish victim, everything is not as black and white as it seems. Screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, adapting his own novel, Build My Gallows High, published under the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes, together with uncredited input from Frank Fenton and hardboiled novelist James M. Cain, worked many contrasts and oppositions into the film. These include city/country, American/other, society/underworld, high/low, mountains/beach, east/west, north/south, rootedness/restlessness, naturalness/artifice, trust/deception, passivity/action and good/evil. These polarities are reinforced by Nicholas Musuraca’s atmospheric black-and-white cinematography. Nevertheless, director Jacques Tourneur and the cast of actors tease out the nuanced gaps between these poles. Noir, despite its name, is an examination of the many shades of grey that describe the human experience.

Like Oedipus before him, Jeff is an example of the detective as a flawed man and tragic hero, neither wholly good nor completely evil, given to errors of judgement and reconciled to the consequences. Ultimately, he sacrifices himself and protects those who have the opportunity for a better life, such as Ann and The Kid. Kathie may or may not be willing to flee with him and start over in Mexico, following her murder of Whit, but instead Jeff engineers their mutual destruction bringing their own convoluted story to a close.

Inevitably, noir leaves us with more questions than answers. There may appear to be closure at the end of the film, in this case with The Kid freeing Ann to pursue a life without regret with Jim (Richard Webb). In the days of Hollywood’s Production Code, transgression always had to be addressed, disruption seemingly contained and the established order preserved. This might be achieved through marriage, as in screwball comedy, or, more often in the case of film noir, through imprisonment or death. In the modern era of neo-noir, this no longer holds, and we occasionally see the transgressor getting away with their crimes and the faults of the socio-political order laid bare, as in Chinatown, The Last Seduction (1994) and the TV series Killing Eve (2018- ).

For all that, however, there is something powerful and distinctly unsettling about the classic films noirs. The happy ending does not usually fit with all that has gone before. It prompts further reflection and doubt. As a result of the way films like Out of the Past play with temporal structure and narrative devices like voiceover and flashbacks, they entangle us with the narrator’s point of view, even as we question it. Yet, if we cannot trust the narrator, why should we trust any aspect of the story? What was truth and what was fiction? We keep questioning, conjuring with the film’s epistemological games, unpicking its story, jumping from one character’s perspective to another. The existential angst that affected the film’s characters is transferred to the viewer, and we, too, flounder in the net.

Noir bookshelf


My instinct was for doubts and questions.
— Teju Cole, Open City

here again was someone who knew the answers so wasn’t asking questions, wasn’t interested either, in how I might respond.
— Anna Burns, Milkman

As we currently witness the melting of trust in science, politics, law, medicine, social systems and economics, it is clear that this era will require a reclaiming of trustworthiness. Lamenting the postmodern condition of multiple relative truths and impossible clarity is only partially useful in regaining trustworthiness. Beyond the cynicism that the postmodern dilemma delivers is the practical need for better questions, and more rigorous inquiry into complexity.
— Nora Bateson, ‘Warm Data’

Totalitarian Truth excludes relativity, doubt, questioning; it can never accommodate what I would call the spirit of the novel.
— Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel

But then, you do not come to authors for answers. You come to us for questions. We’re really good at questions.
— Neil Gaiman, The View from the Cheap Seats

We make up stories in order to give a shape to our questions; we read or listen to stories in order to understand what it is that we want to know.
— Alberto Manguel, Curiosity

But above and beyond any moral questions about its creation, this is also just how it goes: fiction shaping belief shaping fiction.
— Sady Doyle, Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers

I remember when there were no questions.
— Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Transgressing the norms of the feudal society was seen as something beyond despicable, and questioning religious dogma, status or power was perceived as a threat to all of society because it might provoke the wrath of God.
— Lene Rachel Andersen & Tomas Björkman, The Nordic Secret

A key aspect of individualism is the challenging of established orthodoxies. This mind-set leads inevitably to the continuous questioning of anything and everything, ranging from the legitimacy of authority and prevailing economic doctrines to the interpretation of scripture and validity of scientific truths. But anyone who does not follow the standard social and intellectual trend is likely to be marginalised by the majority.
— Waqās Ahmed, The Polymath

Unlearning is about questioning what you thought you knew.
— Kyna Leski, The Storm of Creativity

Only by acting, experimenting, questioning and acting again do you find out who and what you are.
— Charles Handy, Myself and Other More Important Matters

Questioning is all well and good, and often necessary, but sometimes creativity needs blind acceptance.
— Alf Rehn, Dangerous Ideas

None of us can stand outside all human understanding and conceptual schemes and talk of what there is or could be. We are all anchored where we are. This is a truism, but it can quickly result in questioning the possibility of any detached reasoning.
— Roger Trigg, ‘Why Science Needs Metaphysics’

We can’t always answer our questions by following a closed set of rules, since some questions are undecidable.
— Marcelo Gleiser, The Island of Knowledge

Only the most naive of questions are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence.
— Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

It is easier to encourage questioning behavior, to have people take on new assignments they have never done before, and to create dramatic breaks with the past, including starting new units, in an atmosphere of trust and safety. Conversely, fear is an enemy of the ability to question the past or break free from precedent.
— Jeffrey Pfeffer & Robert Sutton, The Knowing-Doing Gap

When we don’t answer these questions as a community, when we have no agreements about why we belong together, the institutions we create to serve us become battlegrounds that serve no one. All energy goes into warring agendas, new regulations, stronger protective measures against those we dislike and fear.
— Margaret Wheatley, Finding Our Way

More of us than ever before are questioning our institutions and the way they function. People are starting to think more for themselves and seeking alternatives to the structure of the organization chart and apparent security of the salaried job for life.
— Euan Semple, Organizations Don’t Tweet, People Do

Without questioning our worldview and the narrative that has shaped our culture, are we not likely to repeat the same mistakes over and over again?
— Daniel Christian Wahl, Designing Regenerative Cultures

Why is it so important to learn to ask better questions that help to build positive relationships? Because in an increasingly complex, interdependent, and culturally diverse world, we cannot hope to understand and work with people from different occupational, professional, and national cultures if we do not know how to ask questions and build relationships that are based on mutual respect and the recognition that others know things that we may need to know in order to get a job done.
— Edgar Schein, Humble Inquiry

That’s the idea, let’s ask each other questions.
— Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Ask questions, leave space and silence and let it fill – almost always worked.
— James Sallis, Sarah Jane

More questions than answers, and this usually meant a story.
— Danny Denton, The Earlie King & The Kid in Yellow

The quest to find out who we are, as whole and singular human beings, the attempt to answer life’s question is responsible, in some measure, for our delight in the stories of others. Literature is not “the world’s answer” but rather a trove of more and better questions.
— Alberto Manguel, Curiosity

The writing had to answer a series of questions … these were the earliest acts of interrogation, of drawing myself into consciousness.
— Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Some people don’t put question marks at the ends of questions any more
In case anyone should think they’d be so idealistic as to expect an answer
— Emily Berry, ‘Everything Bad is Permanent’

the questions have lost their definiteness, tangled amongst the cobwebs in my head.
— Emma Healey, Elizabeth is Missing

These unanswered questions also mean we slide more easily into that space between yes and no, the intriguing chasm of maybe.
— Maud Casey, The Art of Mystery

Questions, more than answers, are the pathway to collective wisdom.
— Daniel Christian Wahl, Designing Regenerative Cultures

Questions are a powerful way to uncover new possibilities. They help us tap into our own wisdom and approach our lives with curiosity and wonder. Questions help us develop a positive orientation towards the unknown.
— Steven D’Souza & Diana Renner, Not Knowing

Imagine how sad it would be if, one day, we arrived at the end of knowledge. With no more questions to ask, our creativity would be stifled, our fire within extinguished.
— Marcelo Gleiser, The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected

The truth is that the more I know, the more questions I have. The more questions I have, the more I read, and that reading creates further questions.
— Siri Hustvedt, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women

Epistemological questions opened out of one another like the rounds of a turning kaleidoscope, always returning to the same point: I think I know something, but how can I know that I know what I know?
— Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Café

So much I’ve lost,
I have nothing
Except a fierce hunger
To fathom this world.
Naked, I knock on the door,
Wearing only my questions.
— Alan Lightman, Song of Two Worlds

He asked endless questions to order his thoughts, leaving “why” to the last. But in my thinking, I started with the last question, the “why” he hoped would be answered by all the others. Therefore I began with failure and had nowhere to go.
— Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces

The work will never finish, we may never be free; we pick up the questions and continue.
— Nisha Ramayya, ‘Threads’


It is difficult to move without leaving traces, crumbs, behind.
— Cristina Rivera Garza, The Taiga Syndrome

I am a fragment
Hurtling through space
— Alan Lightman, Song of Two Worlds

I come to realize (all over again) that a fragmented take can sometimes be the most accurate.
— Cedar Sigo, ‘The Endless Overlay’

I’m not comfortable with linear form. I mean I am genuinely more comfortable with a fragmented situation.
— David Bowie interviewed by Hermann Vaske

I hid from each of my lives in a fragment from another. There was rarely a connection between my actions, desires, and dreams.
— Antonio Muñoz Molina, Like a Fading Shadow

The search for origins ends with the discovery of fragments
— John Gray, The Soul of the Marionette

Bit by bit, discoveries reconfigure our understanding of reality. This reality is revealed to us only in fragments. The more fragments we perceive and parse, the more lifelike the mosaic we make of them. But it is still a mosaic, a representation—imperfect and incomplete, however beautiful it may be, and subject to unending transfiguration.
— Maria Popova, Figuring

Fragmentary impressions, scraps of others’ memories and others’ thoughts, still clung to me: what had washed up on my shores.
— James Sallis, Death Will Have Your Eyes

These fragments I have shored against my ruins
— T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

for the fragment always grieves for its whole
— Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks

each of us has some inner awareness of our own fragmentary, deconstructed state, and seeks refuge from this awareness in the illusion of wholeness.
— Stephen Frosh, Identity Crisis

Are we perhaps condemned to wholeness, and every fragmentation, every quartering, will only be a pretence, will happen on the surface, underneath which, however, the plan remains intact, unalterable? Does even the smallest fragment belong to the whole?
— Olga Tokarczuk, Flights

He is made of shards and broken fragments of the past, of prophecies and of dreams of his ancestral line. The tides of history break inside him, their current threatens to carry him away.
— Hilary Mantel, The Mirror & the Light

The adventure seeks him out
— Nathan Ward, The Lost Detective

One clue might lead to many more,
if we could get a slender prompt from which to start.
— Sophocles, Oedipus Rex

In connecting the dots, traversing the gaps between fragments and stitching them together – a meaningful whole emerges.
— Nick Sousanis, Unflattening

With words we begin to leave traces behind us like breadcrumbs: memories in symbols for others to follow.
— James Gleick, The Information

He noticed everything and everything he saw was like a memory. Nothing surprised him. What he saw dissolved instantly into memory as if some intermediate stage in the process of cognition had been skipped.
— Geoff Dyer, The Search

It was all jumbled up. In it, the detective investigated the crime, tracked down every clue, interviewed every possible suspect, only to discover that he himself was the murderer.
— Jenny Offill, Weather

The ultimate plot of a noir film is where the detective ends up chasing himself—not just someone like a self. But this chasing-of-oneself is exactly what happens in any first person narrative because the narrating I is structurally different from the I that is the topic of the narration.

— Timothy Morton, Humankind

It’s the worst thing in the world
catching sight of yourself.
— Robin Robertson, The Long Take

like all of us, a work in progress.
— Laura Cumming, The Vanishing Man

We are all untied, is the thing.
Untethered, floating, drifting, all these things.
— Megan Hunter, The End We Start From

More questions than answers, and this usually meant a story.
— Danny Denton, The Earlie King & The Kid in Yellow

But if stories are one of the ways we make sense of the world, they are also how we experience whatever doesn’t makes sense, whatever cannot be fully understood. Stories are how we stand in the presence of mystery. If mystery, the genre, is about finding the answers, then mystery, that elusive yet essential element of fiction, is about finding the questions.
— Maud Casey, The Art of Mystery


I knew what it was to be unpunctuated.

— Anne Boyer, Garments Against Women

It’s hard to explain how seeing a mundane thing cast out of the grammar of daily life can suddenly alert you to the irruption of violence.

— Ben Lerner, The Topeka School

He spoke in detail about food systems, weather systems, the loss of forests, the spread of drought, the massive die-offs of birds and ocean life, the levels of carbon dioxide, the lack of drinking water, the waves of virus that envelop broad geographies.

— Don DeLillo, Zero K

The emergent properties of systems are never apparent from the conditions going in.

— Lewis Hyde, Common As Air

In fact, the result and possibly unacknowledged aim of science may be to know how much it is that we don’t know, rather than what we do think we know. What we think we know we probably aren’t really sure of anyway. At least if we can get a sense of what we don’t know, we won’t be guilty of the hubris of thinking we know any of it. Science’s job is to map our ignorance.

— David Byrne, Arboretum

What if precarity, indeterminacy, and what we imagine as trivial are the center of the systematicity we seek?

— Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World

vague impressions of bodies hovering just beyond the threshold of the visible
— Tom McCarthy, C

A modern view of the processes of growth, decay and renewal must give due emphasis to both continuity and change in human institutions.
— John W. Gardner, Self-Renewal

Even more interesting for a sociology of modernity is that the fixation of modern social thought (or better yet: the modern social imaginary) on the nation state has evidently led our perception of the limits of the body to resemble our conception of national borders. Just as the latter, from a nationalistic perspective, are threatened by open and covert immigrants and enemies who may either destroy the state from without or subvert it from within, modern human beings see their own bodies threatened by bacteria and viruses; and what police and military forces do for the state, the immune system accomplishes for the subject.
— Hartmut Rosa, Resonance

Better to exile from the tribe, the reasoning follows, those unwilling to make the commitment to the perfect society than to risk the infection of dissent.
— E. O. Wilson, Consilience

Within a year our country will be a giant fortress, guns trained on the sea lanes: more like a castle than a realm.

— Hilary Mantel, The Mirror & the Light

Who do you run to, who do you tell, when you realize you’ve built a prison out of the things you thought were liberations?
— Ian Penman, It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track

Oddly though, the world is wide open for everything but people. Goods, services, and stocks crisscross the globe. Information circulates freely
— Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists

There is, as of yet, no solution for the ‘problem’ of our border; that invisible line we have never even seen.

— Kerri ní Dochartaigh, ‘Little Egret/Tall Ship’

Choose a new perception of identity, or justify the singular nationalism, the walls, the edges of reduction around definitions of gender, race, profession, religion, and live in a battlefield between false nations, false identities, false separations.
— Nora Bateson, Small Arcs of Larger Circles

If you have infected the sky and the earth
Caught its disease off you – you are the virus
— Ted Hughes, ‘If’

The diagnosis isn’t hard – the diagnosis isn’t even controversial. It’s guilt: mass guilt, generational guilt.
— John Lanchester, The Wall

Your people have finally fallen into history, he said. The rest of us are already here.
— Jenny Offill, Weather

To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world—and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.

— Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air

Nature is beyond morality; it gives us everything we have and it kills us all.
— Sady Doyle, Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers

Caught as we are between the animalistic and the godlike, we are doomed to self-knowledge and equally doomed to act out our innate violence. We create our own mazes and labyrinths in which to wander, lonely, miserable, unfulfilled, desperate.

— Stanley Donwood, There Will Be No Quiet

We should resist such inertial thinking; indeed, we should urge its opposite – deep time as a radical perspective, provoking us to action not apathy. For to think in deep time can be a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather of re-imagining it; countermanding its quick greeds and furies with older, slower stories of making and unmaking.

— Robert Macfarlane, Underland

From a long-term perspective, as a relatively young species on this planet we are collectively undergoing a maturation process which requires us to redefine how we understand our relationship to the rest of life on Earth – facing the choices of either collapse or profound transformation.
— Daniel Christian Wahl, Designing Regenerative Cultures

Inside the word emergency is emerge; from an emergency new things come forth. The old certainties are crumbling fast, but danger and possibility are sisters.
— Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark

We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.
— Greta Thunberg, No One is Too Small to Make a Difference

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the sound
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all
— Emily Dickinson, Hope is the Thing with Feathers


The following is a link to a PDF version of the bricolage series compiled between November 2019 and January 2020.

Bricolage PDF

Two novels published in the past few years have inspired this small experiment.

First, I was intrigued by the manner in which George Saunders incorporated passages quoted from other texts into Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury, 2017). They provided background context to the central narrative. They also raised a question, through their multiple, often contradictory voices, regarding to what extent history is itself a fiction.

The other novel was Jeremy Gavron’s Felix Culpa (Scribe, 2018), the entire narrative of which is composed of a patchwork of fragments stitched together from other texts. The novel as bricolage.

In both cases, quoted passages from different sources follow one after the other. There is no additional commentary. They are creative exercises in curation. Yet they also speak to the notion, in which I strongly believe, that books converse with one another – across time and space.

The pieces included in the PDF are:

Reading as creation
Time capture
Memory’s poetry
Bridging poles
Writing to understand
Book conversations
When I is we
Stories and genes
Viewed askew

When I is we

I is another.
— Arthur Rimbaud, Letter to Georges Izambard, 13 May 1871

For the second body, there is no stable boundary between one species and another: we’re all in the same boat.
— Daisy Hildyard, The Second Body

We are many all the way down, because we are wholes that are always less than the sum of their parts. We don’t just combine into multitudes, we contain multitudes, as any self-respecting stomach bacterium will tell you.
— Timothy Morton, Humankind

‘I’ live in a body that internally requires 10 trillion organisms, while externally my survival is ecological, emotional, and cultural. I am not an isolatable specimen.
— Nora Bateson, Small Arcs of Larger Circles

I am large, I contain multitudes.
— Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’

Are we perhaps condemned to wholeness, and every fragmentation, every quartering, will only be a pretence, will happen on the surface, underneath which, however, the plan remains intact, unalterable? Does even the smallest fragment belong to the whole?
— Olga Tokarczuk, Flights

I was pretty much all hyphen.
— Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World

We are contaminated by our encounters; they change who we are as we make way for others.
— Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World

Instead of thinking of ourselves as single, unified selves who are trying to discover through self-reflection, we could think of ourselves as complex arrays of emotions, dispositions, desires, and traits that often pull us in different and contradictory ways. When we do so, we become malleable. We avoid the danger of defining ourselves as frozen in a moment in time.
— Michael Puett & Christine Gross-Loh, The Path

Whatever happens to the individual happens to the whole group, and whatever happens to the whole group happens to the individual. The individual can only say: ‘I am, because we are; and since we are, therefore I am’.
— John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy

When we look at the global body, it is impossible to relate that body to anything individual because there can be no certain borders between one thing and another.
— Daisy Hildyard, The Second Body

An ecological border, like a cell membrane, resists indiscriminate mixture; it contains differences but is porous. The border is an active edge.
— Richard Sennett, The Craftsman

we are in fact relational beings in a world where everything affects everything else and, as a result, to care for others is to care for ourselves.
— Daniel Christian Wahl, Designing Regenerative Cultures

this relationship existing within each of us, between the person as individual and the personality as bearer of culture and race, is not immobile, rigid or static, not fixed inside him for good. On the contrary, its typical features are dynamism, mobility, variability and differences in intensity, depending on the external context, the demands of the current moment, the expectations of the environment or even one’s own mood and stage of life.
— Ryszard Kapuściński, The Other

The ability to live with differences, let alone to enjoy such living and to benefit from it, does not come easily and certainly not under its own impetus. This ability is an art which, like all arts, requires study and exercise. The inability to face up to the vexing plurality of human beings and the ambivalence of all classifying/filing deci­sions are, on the contrary, self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing: the more effective the drive to homogeneity and the efforts to eliminate the difference, the more difficult it is to feel at home in the face of strangers, the more threatening the difference appears and the deeper and more intense is the anxiety it breeds.
— Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity

Or is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give the rein to our wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves? Circumstances compel unity; for convenience’ sake a man must be a whole.
— Virginia Woolf, ‘Street Haunting’

The idea of self-realization is one of the most destructive of modern fictions. It suggests you can flourish in only one sort of life, or a small number of similar lives, when in fact everybody can thrive in a large variety of ways.
— John Gray, The Silence of Animals

Modernity is characterised by uncertainty, rapidity of change and kaleidoscopic juxtapositions of objects, people and events. Finding our uncertain way through these uncertainties is a prime task of contemporary existence, for individuals as well as for cultures as a whole.
— Stephen Frosh, Identity Crisis

Identities seem fixed and solid only when seen, in a flash, from outside. Whatever solidity they might have when contemplated from the inside of one’s own biographical experience appears fra­gile, vulnerable, and constantly torn apart by shearing forces which lay bare its fluidity and by cross-currents which threaten to rend in pieces and carry away any form they might have acquired.
— Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity

This contrast between a hermetically sealed contemporary self and a porous late medieval self intrinsically connected to nature, the “spirit world,” and its community is meant to serve only as a striking example of two entirely different relationships to the world, each of which gives expression to different types of self and world that are related to each other in different ways.
— Hartmut Rosa, Resonance

The emerging fields of embodied and enactive cognition have started to take dialogic models of the self more seriously. But for the most part, scientific psychology is only too willing to adopt individualistic Cartesian assumptions that cut away the webbing that ties the self to others. There is a Zulu phrase, ‘Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’, which means ‘A person is a person through other persons.’ This is a richer and better account, I think, than ‘I think, therefore I am.’
— Abeba Birhane, ‘Descartes Was Wrong’

Her consciousness, at this point – she was forty-three years old – was so crammed full not just of her own memories, obligations, dreams, knowledge and the plethora of her day-to-day responsibilities, but also of other people’s – gleaned over years of listening, talking, empathising, worrying – that she was frightened most of all of the boundaries separating these numerous types of mental freight, the distinctions between them, crumbling away until she was no longer certain what had happened to her and what to other people she knew, or sometimes even what was or was not real.
— Rachel Cusk, Outline

Listen: you are not yourself, you are crowds of others, you are as leaky a vessel as was ever made, you have spent vast amounts of your life as someone else, as people who died long ago, as people who never lived, as strangers you never met. The usual I we are given has all the tidy containment of the kind of character the realist novel specializes in and none of the porousness of our every waking moment, the loose threads, the strange dreams, the forgettings and misrememberings, the portions of a life lived through others’ stories, the incoherence and inconsistency, the pantheon of dei ex machina and the companionability of ghosts. There are other ways of telling.
— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

I swallow books upon books upon books
to unlearn like-mindedness, to externalise cosmos
— Nisha Ramayya, States of the Body Produced by Love

Books, conversations, and perceptions enter us and become us.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking

he sensed the connections being made around him, all the objects and shaped silhouettes and levels of knowledge—not knowledge exactly but insidious intent. But not that either—some deeper meaning that existed solely to keep him from knowing what it was.
— Don DeLillo, Underworld

The search for origins ends with the discovery of fragments
— John Gray, The Soul of the Marionette

These fragments I have shored against my ruins
— T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Hence it is with a certain feeling of urgency that I seek the nature, subject, words of the other story, the untold one, the life story.
— Ursula K. Le Guin, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction

/See, the world is full of other yous/ the kid was telling John. /Is full of people who are just like you but somehow different. They may look different; they may sound different. They may have different favourites; they may have different mammies, or memories, or names. But something in them will be the same as in you. Something in them will reflect in you as with a mirror./
— Danny Denton, The Earlie King & The Kid in Yellow

The first time you glimpse yourself through the eyes of a person like that, it’s a cold moment. It’s like walking past a mirror you’ve walked past every day of your life, and suddenly it shows you something else, something troubling and strange.
— Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

That’s the only part of himself he wants to protect, the part that exists inside her.
— Sally Rooney, Normal People

We are neither what we think we are nor entirely what we are about to become, we are neither purely individual nor fully a creature of our community, but an act of becoming that can never be held in place by a false form of nomenclature.
— David Whyte, Consolations

I am not who I am.
I must be who I become.
— Ursula Andkjær Olsen , Third-Millennium Heart

This piece, among several others, is collected in the Bricolage PDF.