Dispatches | March 13, 2007

The latest issue, Black and White, is now on newsstands.

One winter evening many years ago, some friends and I were entertaining ourselves with a game of free association. We were to respond without hesitation to whatever word or phrase the questioner put to us. Instead of asking about the obvious things — favorite hobbies, best movies, happiest moments, etc. — my friend was being philosophical. To me he said, “Literature,” and my unthinking response was, “Black and white.”

These are the basic shades not just of this issue but also of much of the best literature, beginning with the simple fact that writing is typically embodied by mere ink on paper. In appearance it is simple. Even the most powerful writing appears in a medium that is silent, unmoving, and two-dimensional. Yet this seemingly passive, static form creates worlds that can be experienced by our deepest selves, emotionally and intellectually. The evocative potency of literature lies partly in the material simplicity of how we encounter it. There are no stages, no machines, no electrical boxes, no speakers or screens, only the words, read in quietness.

Language is a process deeply native to the human mind. We are the speaking animal, and in writing we are able to speak the best. The paradoxical authority of the straightforward medium of written language is that it can move as fast as our minds can move, without baggage or gimmickry. Literature shifts readily between image, scene, narrative and contemplation through the elegantly simple instrument of words on the simple white page.

Reading this issue of TMR reminds me of that notion because of the blend of starkness, mystery and profound drama of the contents. Several of the selections, including Jesal Kanani”s story “Summers at Agaas” and Rana Dasgupta’s beguiling essay “The Piano Teacher,” are remembered through a veil of time but with the unadorned clarity of black and white.  The enigmas of life and death are reflected upon in Silas Dent Zobal’s fascinating “The Archimedes Palimpsest,” and Courtney Brkic’s “Gathering up the Little Gods.”  Seth Fried’s “The Siege” is a surprising and original tale of warfare set in mythic twilight.  Patricia Foster’s essay “The Deserters” deals with a personal form of twilight, chronic fatigue syndrome. Kristine Somerville adds to her series on neglected artists with a brief look at Romaine Brooks, who avoided the color-mad ‘isms of her day, producing turn-of-the-century portraits and single-line drawings with the unadorned simplicity of black and white.

Speer Morgan