Dotting the eyes, crossing the tease

Wednesday, 9 March 2011 — 4:06am | Animation, Film, Insights, Literature, Michael Chabon

When I was very young, I heard a legend about a Chinese muralist who painted the most vivid and lifelike dragons but refused to fill in their eyes, lest the dragons come alive and fly away. I tried to track it down four or five years ago for a fragment I was writing at the time, but on that occasion I never found it. Today it occurred to me to make another attempt, and for reasons of n-grammatic potentia that shall remain mysterious, Google was far more helpful this time around.

As with any old story, mutations abound, but the preponderance of them involve the painter Zhang Seng-You (張僧繇) from the period of the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589 AD). Depending on who’s telling the story, Zhang Seng-You is asked to fill in the eyes by a bystander, the abbot who commissioned the monastery mural, or the Emperor himself (who, in this case, must have been Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty). The ending is always the same: the painter finishes the eyes and the dragons bolt away from the mural in a flash of lightning and thunder.

The wonderful thing about fables is the discordance of what they say—typically a blunt moral lesson, delivered as the payload of a cruise-missile punch line like a Feghoot minus the funny—versus what they do, which is leave innumerable gaps for diverse interpretations to take root and flourish. Stories are not reducible to definite lessons. Fiction is a space for debate, and a fable is an open meadow for all and sundry to frolic. (“I don’t believe in stories with morals,” says the man with the childish fantasy of teaching Lolita in schools.)

So what can we make of the tale of the painted dragons?

Is it a statement of sumi-e aesthetics?

This story embodies the philosophy of Oriental sumi-e. The goal is not simply to reproduce the appearance of the subject, but to capture its soul. To paint a horse, the sumi-e artist must understand its temperament better than its muscles and bones. To paint a flower, there is no need to perfectly match its petals and colors, but it is essential to convey its liveliness and fragrance. Oriental sumi-e may be regarded as an earliest form of impressionistic art that captures the unseen.

Or is it about attention to detail? Here’s one reading of the story and the proverb it spawned:

The idiom 画龙点睛 “draw a dragon, put in pupils” could be translated “finishing touch” in English. In Chinese it describes a key or emphatic phrase to a speech or in writing to drive home a point, giving the work more power.

And here’s another:

Based on this fairy tale […] the last touch in a masterpiece is the most important part of a drawing, or any other important business.

Here’s a take on the story as it pertains to the tradition of dotting the eyes of dragon boats. It differs from the others in attributing the dragon murals to the fourth-century painter Gu Kai-Zhi (顧愷之), who left them unfinished until Zhang Seng-You was asked to complete them a century later:

[Gu Kai-Zhi] had a strange habit of leaving the eyeballs out for several years after the rest of the painting was finished. When he was asked why, he said, “The most life-like strokes of a subtle portrait come from the eyes.” He was actually implying that even a single stroke should not be done casually.

Nowhere have I read an interpretation that captures the essence of what I always thought the story to mean. Only the last one above comes close to grasping the part of the tale I find most resonant: the artist’s reluctance to finish the eyes until ordered to do so by somebody else.

In English, there’s a motto that art is never finished, only abandoned. It’s attributed to Leonardo da Vinci—who wouldn’t have said it in English, of course—but good luck sourcing it. One imagines that Leonardo, who filled in the most iconic eyes in the history of western art, derived the expression himself from a nugget of wisdom that arrived in the Italian Peninsula by way of Marco Polo’s expeditions to the Orient. But the insight resonates with anxieties of creativity everywhere, no matter which culture you’re in, and I lean towards believing it cropped up in many places independently.

What is perfectionism, really, but the avoidance of declaring something finished? Leaving out the pupils of the dragons, the way I see it, captures like no other parable the reluctance to put the lid on something magnificent. Once you’re done—once you’ve published—you’ve released your monster into the wild where it no longer bows to your command. The desire to create something magnificent conflicts with the compulsion to retain control over every detail. If the dragon flies away, it’s no longer within your power to polish the scales.

This is the perfectionist’s paradox: what if the creative apotheosis is only attainable through the loss of control? Here we’re not too far from the thematic stomping grounds of the most visceral film of 2010:

In the age of digital media we’ve grown accustomed to perpetual self-editing. It’s easy to deceive ourselves into believing that with instantaneous editorial revision at our fingertips, we now have the freedom to publish first and ask questions later. For many, this is true, and it’s why they propel the Internet’s flux of content at a pace that is nothing short of torrential. But in the other direction, there flows a strange inhibitor. Many now fear that substantial blog content is drying up, squashed in the middlebrow sandwich between personal intimations in social networks and the impersonal platform of paid journalism (where long-form is already on life support).

We’ve discussed some of these matters before, but I think they are worth revisiting. The dwindling of journals like this one has nothing to do with the terror of public scrutiny. What the decline really comes from, I believe, is an anxiety of impermanence. Good content—the transcendent stuff that rises above the encroaching tides of what Philip K. Dick called kipple—has a reputation for sticking around. This is a reputation the Internet does not share. It’s not just because online content is liable to be edited or outright wiped: it’s also because the connectivity of hypertext inherently carries a poison pill of long-term decay. Links break with time, and their container vessels get dragged into the undertow regardless of their independent eloquence.

I have before me a draft box overstuffed with nearly painted dragons. Many of them will never take flight. They will die in captivity.

Don’t even ask about my offline albatross.

There was an essay in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review about writers who abandoned their novels—beginning, as it should, with Michael Chabon’s Fountain City, which consumed a good five years of his life before he left it for Wonder Boys. And it’s worth remembering that the novelists in the essay—American titans like Chabon, Updike, and Harper Lee—had all already knocked something out of the park. Spare a thought for the failures-to-be who haven’t even made it that far; the roster must be endless.

If you think about it, it’s miraculous that anything of lasting power ever sees the light of day. I wonder sometimes if this is achievable without coercion, or if you really do require an external agent to flick the creative-inhibition switch to off. It takes a special force of will to abandon one’s baby on the river.

So whether it’s helpful or not, it’s worth remembering that even the best things in life aren’t finished. Like the serpents on the temple walls, they just get released.

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2 rejoinders to “Dotting the eyes, crossing the tease”

  1. Zinovii

    A wonderful, insightful article as per usual. Will be sharing this with my art professor. Thanks for the enjoyable read.

    Sunday, 10 April 2011 at 8:14pm

  2. Ahhh, this is an even better post than the first one I read of yours. If only the rest of teh interwebs were as clever as this.

    I’m about to paint in the eyes of my dragon, and nothing i’ve done has ever been as exciting and yet so bloody terrifying at the same time.

    Wednesday, 18 May 2011 at 11:00am

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