The Underlying Theory
What we found on his desk was a drawing. A very lightly penciled sketch of a woman from stomach to throat, as if seen from above to the side, one arm flung out in the viewer’s direction and her breasts provocatively displayed. Underneath were the words “underlying theory.”
Our work was to plunder his study. An author, famed for fiction and poems and writings on art, had died suddenly, and his wife had contacted us to go through his things, evaluate its worth and preserve for posterity. There were boxes of manuscript pages, notebooks and loose-leaf, letters and typescripts, recipe cards full of quotations. The library was extensive, each book filled with scribbles and markings, a signifying system of importance and reference for use in his various projects. His mind was displayed like a trail left in woods. Here the path to food, here the one to water, here the building nest, here the safety hideout. It overwhelmed us.
I had written numerous critical studies on this man and reviewed professionally most of his books. He’d written extensively in philosophy and aesthetics, with compendiums of writings on particular artists and particular works. He’d produced over a dozen literary novels and twenty or more books of poetry. He was prolific and known for the depth and acumen of his thought, the cavalier ways he used language, and the breadth of his interests and knowledge. No one knew he made visual art. None would have tagged him “erotic.”
I wondered what this drawing might “mean.” What did it refer to? Was it drawn from a picture? An image from memory? Was the subject herself the underlying theory, or was it something about representation? Desire? And what theories did this mean to evoke or give rise to? His wife did not recognize the sketch – not the body, nor an artist her husband might have copied – and it was interestingly tucked beneath blank open sheets, at the middle of the desk – the ones always ready when he came to compose. It was worn, wrinkled, as if indeed, it underlay everything inscribed above it and served as inspiration or focus, an impetus to his work.
I’ll note that the form seems composed, not a doodle. It appears to be representative. No one knows of him having a model or lover, in fact no other drawings exist from his hand. Perhaps he had need of a form to describe, an image to imagine, some desire to propel. The figure is finely proportioned, both busty and lithe, fleshy yet thin and shaped like the currents of rivers.
I’m not certain what draws me to this. In an office literally stuffed with fine books and odd trinkets, paraphernalia of printing, and stacks of diaries and drafts. Among paintings and stones and figurines of the Buddha, historical writing utensils, family photos and legal documents dating throughout his life. There is so much to uncover and know. But “underlying theory”? That grabs me.
As I’ve mentioned before, this author was a reader of depth. Fiction, philosophy, poetry, science; criticism, essays and cultural studies. There are tall shelves of monographs of particular artists, but nothing gives hint to this sketch. I am struck by this rendering – baffled by image and text. An erotic drawing is always of interest, all other concerns of this man are abstract. It beggars the biographers “who/what/when/where” yet the text writ along the arch of her back stirs me in a different direction. “Underlying theory.” What the hell? What’s it for?
A theory is made for a function, something “underlying” proposes a cause. This drawing, these words must explain something, but what?
Is it cosmic? Like what drives human vocation is desire? Or epistemological? Ethical? Aesthetical? Metaphorical for apprehension of form? I can only guess at this point but am open to ideas – I’d love to find some consensus for the book I’m contracted to write.
I ask you – how would you piece this together? I’ll share a scan of the drawing and request that you submit your hypotheses below as comments. I thank you so much for your thoughts.