Before I arrived here in snowy St. Paul, not very long ago, I was living in Venice, Italy, sharing a two-bedroom apartment in the old Castello neighborhood with a scientist of sperm whale sound and a landscape architect. I worked days at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Palazzo Venier Dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, cleaning the base below the Calder mobile, washing the windows, selling tickets, and guarding rooms in which hung paintings by Picasso, Braque, Mondrian, Severini, Miro, and Pollock. Doing a boring job in a beautiful place is one of the greatest opportunities for meditation I have had, and I spent many hours comparing Mondrian’s The Sea to the ripples on the canal outside the wrought iron grated windows.
I became fascinated with a theme I saw in Mondrian’s landscapes, Brancusi’s birds, and Giacometti’s human figures. Each of these artists purposefully spent years of his working life paring down, making an attempt to paint or sculpt the essence of a natural image, ever simplifying the visual language he used. They all believed, in some instances with a spiritual fervor, that it was possible to find and express essence.
When I was in high school, my best writing teacher came to me through Biology. She taught me to describe the beginnings of life in the “primordial soup” briefly, on one side of a piece of paper. This was a painful process of excision, of finding the fatty words lacking in meaning and cutting them until the essay became its leanest self. Poets use this practice too; they choose the briefest of all possible ways to spin the phrase. Annie Dillard’s latest novel, The Maytrees, was originally a 1400-page manuscript, now just over 200.
Wise cutting makes for good writing and sculpture, yes, but since being in Venice I have come to see cutting away excess as a meaning-making practice too. Isn’t this how ascetics craft their very lives? Wouldn’t all our lives be more sustainable if we could, like the absract artists, pare away the metaphorical fat?