Pencil Sharpener

I had coffee with my friend Norman Bilbrough not so long ago. We were complaining, as we tend to do, about the state of writing and literature in this country. I told him I felt fed up with the whole business and that I had lost interest in writing for the moment. Instead, I’d started drawing again, something I do from time to time, usually at change points in my life. Norman was keen to know more. He is something of an artist himself.

‘What are you drawing?’ he asked me.

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Whatever’s there. Everyday objects. My pencil sharpener, for example.’

He roared with laughter.

I was a little put out by this hilarity. My talk about the drawing was a small but not insignificant confidence.

‘What’s wrong with that?’ I asked.

‘The Great Writer draws his Pencil Sharpener,’ he said. I saw the irony.

We went on to talk about drawing. He had been doing some too: flowers, in his case. I explained that, for me, the importance lay as much in the process as the product – the headspace that looking took me into was so different from the world of words.

‘Yes,’ Norman agreed. ‘It is a bit like meditating.’

He is right. There are strong similarities but also differences. Meditating and drawing both lead, I think, to a disengagement from the chatter of the every-day mind. In the case of meditating, though, this comes with a detachment from the senses. Drawing involves an alignment of mind and object through the sense of sight. It is as if the self becomes lost in the looking.

SharpenerSometimes, when I am in this space, I lose all awareness of meanings. An advertising hoarding, which might annoy me in the ordinary way because of its silliness or the insistence of its message, can become a satisfying arrangement of shapes and colours.

In his book Problems of Philosophy, first published in 1910 and still one of the best introductions to the modern British and American tradition in the subject, Bertrand Russell uses the example of the artist to highlight the distinction between appearance and reality. Ordinarily we ‘see’ a table as a rectangle but it does not, in fact, present itself to us that way. The shape it appears to have depends on our point of view. The fact that we can never escape a particular point of view and can only ever see the world through such appearances leads Russell to ask whether we can ever know what the world is really like. This question has nourished philosophical argument since the time of Socrates and even now still has a drop or two of juice left in it.

The paradox of drawing is that in order to produce a picture that looks real, you have to forget about how the object is and focus on how it actually appears. This requires a new relationship with the whatever it is you are focussing on, the pencil sharpener say, a relationship in which the function of the object disappears and it becomes an experience without meaning, something purely visual. In order for this to happen, the person doing the drawing must cease to be an interpreter of the world and become instead something which looks and nothing more.


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