Thursday, December 17

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, December 17, 2009 10 comments
While washing my hands at work this morning, I realized my left hand looked a little strange. Naked. The spot where my engagement ring and wedding band usually sit was empty. Stranger still, the now-exposed skin was shiny with scar tissue. The finger seemed atrophied below the knuckle, slimmer than its neighbors. Twelve years of ring wearing had left its mark.

I'll return the rings to their rightful spot this afternoon; my winter-dry skin is better today. Seeing that strange indentation and scarring got me thinking. Long habits mark us, and absence can become as palpable as presence.

A powerful way to portray a character might indeed involve showing the traces of what is not there. Virginia Woolf ends Jacob's Room with a pair of empty shoes, a powerful image of loss in wartime. Artist Sophie Calle photographed places in Berlin where the traces of its communist history had been effaced. Her book Detachment: A Berlin Travel Guide catalogs those images, as well as remembrances--real and imagined--from those who pass by the spots where monuments of the GDR once stood.

Where have you seen in books or life the traces of what is not there? Have you used this idea in your own work? Where might this idea deepen one of your characterizations?


  1. Great post, Laurel. It has me thinking. When my brain stops smoking and I think of some examples, I'll come back and share them. ;-)

  2. I still remember the impact of strolling through an old graveyard and seeing a stone that was inscribed: Mother and child.
    Nothing more. It was haunting and sad to think they died unknown, without names even to stand the element of time.
    I took an art class once and the best advice was not to try to draw the object but to draw the space around it. Nothing is truly empty.

  3. I've often looked at that spot on my ring finger when I've had to take off my wedding band for work or something. It does leave a mark, doesn't it? EVen after only (!) nine years.

    The "traces of not there" thing makes me think of Joyce's Ulysses, in the spot where Bloom finds the imprint of another man in his own bed. Also, Faulkner's A Rose for Emily, at the very end where Emily's head left its mark on the pillow.

    Absence can indeed be more powerful than presence. Well said, good lady. :)

  4. Mm, very well said. Absence=loss. The void itself is the thing, a character of its own. Can't think of a specific example from literature off the top of my head, but definitely, footprints in the sand...

  5. Great post!! I left you a little present at my blog today. :)

  6. Shannon: I'm looking forward to what you have to say!

    Tricia: There's a short story just waiting to be written about that nameless headstone. A very intriguing image! Drawing around the object...interesting. The ripples, not the stone, right?

  7. Simon: a year-long engagement gave me extra ring-wearing practice--it's been 11 years of marriage today. Your wife sang beautifully in our wedding choir as I remember.

    The moderns were really into the "what is not there" technique. I think it's a huge piece of the war angst aesthetic. The _Jacob's Room_ example came from an essay I edited. Still need to read the book myself! There's a contemporary Dutch author, Cees Nooteboom, whose _All Souls Day_ is an exploration of memory and forgetting in post-communist Berlin. (Again, I edited an essay on this book and now want to read it.)

  8. Carol: I'm grappling very much with how one comes at writing grief and loss. A huge part of the pain is simply not able to be expressed in a way that the reader feels it accurately. I'm learning a lot from the modernist era writers, whose world was shattered in the large and small scale by two world wars. They used this technique a lot.

  9. Kristi: Thanks so much! I'd already written my posts for the week (trying to be a planner for a change), but I'll share the blog love next week.

  10. In his "Lament for a Son", Nicholas Wolterstorff writes about the death of his college-aged son in a climbing accident. One the things that pained him most after the loss was what he called his son's "inscape", drawing upon Gerard Manley Hopkins (and the medieval philosopher Duns Scotus behind that).

    "Inscape" is the unique identity of a thing as it "selves itself," especially in relation to all the things around it, an identity that registers as a uniquely shaped absence with the individual's loss.