Let us contemplate parts and wholes. The progression of many into one. It’s human nature to assemble, but what do we form when we do?
In Illuminations, German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin welcomes us into his library—a pile of books yet unpacked, promises of greatness:
I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am. The books are not yet on the shelves, not yet touched by the mild boredom of order. I cannot march up and down their ranks to pass them in review before a friendly audience. You need not fear any of that.
Instead, I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among the volumes that are seeing daylight again.
When does a pile of books become a library? When they are organized? When they are touched and loved?
“The way my walls are made, stone upon stone, is like growth,” sculptor Andy Goldsworthy writes of his art. Goldsworthy repositions rocks and stone in walls, cairns, and arches, shapes that both amplify and slink into their surroundings. “I think the main difference between a design process and a sculptural process is that the latter is close to the way things grow.”
When does a pile of stone become a wall? For Goldsworthy, this transference occurs when the sculptural process begins; the first brick of a wall is a wall.
For Benjamin, similarly, the distinction doesn’t exist. His boxes of books are a library.
We are likely to agree with either or both. It is the power of gestalt, the human tendency to make out of many one.
This mental assembly of things occurs with both physical and abstract entities.
Anne Lamott’s highly influential writing guide Bird by Bird, published twenty-five years ago and widely read today, suggests the nature of writing—and creating—should be done through placement of one piece after another:
[S]omehow in the face of it all, you clear a space for the writing voice, hacking away at the others with machetes, and you begin to compose sentences. You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story.
We see this piecemeal assembly of work and creativity in the work of John Steinbeck, who—famously, twice—chronicled his writing process in creating The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. Steinbeck stings together words, pages, and himself.1
In his journal kept while writing The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck tracks his daily progress in an attempt to map the actual working days and hours of a novel, omitting not one day, not one state of being. It gives us a rare glimpse of an author producing—his novel and himself—“bird by bird.”
My nerves are very bad, awful in fact. I lust to get back into it. Maybe I was silly to think I could write so long a book without stopping. I can’t. Or rather, couldn’t. I’ll try to go on now. Hope to lose some of the frantic quality in my mind now.
Unlike Goldsworthy and Benjamin, Steinbeck does not recognize that his day-by-day bricklaying has become a novel. He uses phrases like “the work” and “my story.” He calls it a “book” but only in the future tense: something it will become. When he is halfway done, Steinbeck notes “the story which will be so much greater than I am,” and by the end of the next month, he uses the phrase “the hardest, most complete work of my life” but, again, in a subjective future tense.
The last page in the diary, October 26, 1939 Steinbeck closes with “Finished today. I hope to God it’s good.”
Even with a completed stack of pages before him, Steinbeck is reluctant to name the work as a whole.2
Gestalt means “unified whole” and comes from theories of visual perception developed by German psychologists in the 1920s. These theories “attempt to describe how people tend to organize visual elements into groups or unified wholes when certain principles are applied.”3
Navigating from a brick to a wall or a book to a library, even pages to a novel, is a cognitive, psychological step we make, even if when we make that leap differs.
What if we get even more abstract, however, like Alan Lightman does when he contemplates the stardust that forms all humans. When, Lightman asks, does the summation of atoms become a human? When she has a name? When she can say “I”? 4
Is she human when she is loved?
It is a fundamental tension of humanity: after the edge of material and before the wellspring of being, there is a chasm.5
There’s no mark that equals hair, there’s no mark that equals skin or anything else. It’s a little bit like an architect choosing a brick. The brick doesn’t determine anything about what kind of building will be built from it. You stack up the bricks one way and you make a gas station, or you stack up the bricks another way and you can build a cathedral. Both of them will be very different experiences, but it wasn’t the brick that determined the nature of that experience.
Perhaps there is no artist that allows us to float between a human whole and its pieces better than American portraitist Chuck Close.6
Through his use of grid scaling, Close makes the whole and its pieces simultaneously visible. A complete, detailed human face with every detail intact and yet, not a face at all, just the summation of pieces.
I believe a person’s face is a road map to their life, and embedded in the imagery is a great deal of evidence if you want to decode it. If a person has laughed his or her whole life, they’ll have laugh lines… It’s not necessary for me to have them laughing or crying or anything in order to have people be able to read them.
Like these portraits, we are formed of pieces, and those pieces coalesce into our concepts of being.
We shore up our fragments and say “I.”7
In art, in politics, in socio-economic systems, in religion, in science, in the basic family unit, and most of all in our concept of self, we are asked to move fluidly between the parts and the whole. To embrace all in value and meaning.
In this enormous complexity, I struggle to care, to prioritize, to discern, to assemble.
With all this change, how can we, the assemblage of atoms, ever feel truly whole. Full. Complete. Done?
There is poetry. A prism of knowledge, poetry strips language, images, and metaphors of meaning and returns them to us able to reassemble as needed.
Poetry allows us to visualize the invisible.
With her characteristic grasp of the finite and the infinite, poet Mary Oliver delivers us a robust, inclusive concept of sea:
I go down to the edge of the sea,
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,
It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
full of moonlight.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.
Goldsworthy’s walls break down, Benjamin’s Library was burned by Nazis, Close’s portraits are dissembled visually by a few steps towards the canvas. Things grow and decay.
While you can, while it lasts, read the whole story, piece by piece, sit in the complexity, sit in the beauty.