Several years ago, a phrase came into my head on a dark day: “life is a jigsaw”. It was used for a trail of dark introspective thoughts concerning self-image, but it was clearly an analogy that had plenty more to offer.
The phrase is hardly unique to me; Google will attest to that. But my introspective thought has long revolved around shapes. George Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie (1569), which describes the properties of shapes, reminds us that the study of literature can transgress disciplines and fuse modes of thought creatively.
Original thought is fun to contemplate. Are our lives the equivalent of average undergraduate essays: recasting what has come before in our own way and offering a mere fraction of originality along the way? What constitutes new ideas? What is a ‘philosopher’, for their own chutzpah? Much which challenges subjective realms of thought must owe itself to literature.
Circles, as I tried to grasp 18 months ago, hold the deepest personal significance. When making the daunting steps into adulthood, it became necessary to find a consolation for the difficult gaps that life presented. So, I came to depict my psychological wellbeing as two circles. The inner circle was Assets, the outer was Need. For them to touch would be true contentment; the degree they are apart is represented by longing and pain.
Different factors would influence how the two might expand or contract. A man who wants for little will have smaller and more stable circles; a man with high hopes (or bad luck) risks much heartache as his gap between dream and reality remains possibly wide apart. [And, as Robert Browning noted: ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a Heaven for?’ Perhaps a poet responds more acutely to pain and longing than anything else.]
The key influence for this has to be John Donne:
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix’d foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th’ other do.
And though it in the centre sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
(John Donne, ‘A Valediction, Forbidding Mourning’)
In this fabulous conceit, Donne combines the geometric, the geographic and the literary for a profound surety in its ending. The circle is both multifaceted and macrocosmic. The spherical Earth is reduced to a circle, so as to reduce the psychological impact of Donne’s imminent journey abroad from his ill wife. Additionally, the route to parallel souls is defined through the tool by which perfect circles are drawn. Hence, the circle is both a symbol of completeness and harmony, and one of distance, pain, and separation.
Surely, then, I am far from the first to imagine something along these lines, but that’s not important. What is important is figuring out vital things about our own psyche: how our individual emotions work, in harmony and in disarray; what it means to track personal ambition in course with an ever-changing reality; and how we might react when things go wrong.
It does not always work. The most knowledgeable man can be an unhappy one. Sad things befall us unexpectedly. But, as suggested previously when thinking about the values of poetry, “We almost always feel better about what is understood or explained rather than what is not”. To feel as though we recognise the ineffable complexities of our own thoughts is as good a placebo as anything. To find a semblance of control truly matters. Literature, I would wager, has metaphorically and literally shaped this for me.
Jigsaws and Mosaics
At this aforementioned dark juncture, the response to irrational self-appearance related thought was to introduce the mosaic to the fold. It was through this that the more likely analogy of jigsaws emerged.
The jigsaw: a complex collection of small pieces; some jagged, some smooth; some with slots, some with holes. Things piece together either through luck, assiduous effort, or by sheer coincidence. In the pursuit of ultimate happiness, the jigsaw must be completed. But pieces, like people, go missing, and, chameleon-like, they change shape. Maybe, irrespective of our efforts, the picture alters.
If we deem our life a jigsaw, we can only hope that nobody comes along, deems the effort a waste of time, and sweeps it all back into the box. Then we would lie broken, fragmented, lost in a confined abyss of darkness, hoping that someone will have the interest to start piecing the puzzle together again.
I was informed by a most-learned friend that the jigsaw was invented by a cartographer. The geometric and geographic combine again for the richness of art. Biographically and bio-critically, we might consider how we can Write off the Map. We do not need to be pieces in a box to be lost or found. Perhaps, on the other hand, the jigsaw is an implicit mirror, there to mask – as perhaps poetry does – what we dare not see in its explicit form. To stand on the edge of the land of Asset, and not even see the shores of Need on the horizon is a bleak foresight.
The mosaic fascinates because it demands attention to perspective and propinquity. Pieces that are unrelated become related when viewed altogether. To see less is, paradoxically, to see more. The mosaic has a rustic, untempered, material quality combined with a beauty and finesse that really does capture the glory of the human imagination.
The mosaic has much to offer literature too.
It is granted with elements of composition. The translation of an Italian text on art and eloquence shows distinct echoes of Donne in its imagery:
Style, given only to Wits enriched with high fancies; for all is dissolved Pearls, and beaten Gold, the office of sublime Souls… It composeth the draughts of the things it representeth with a precious Mosaick of a thousand Ingenious Conceits.
Daniello Bartoli (trans. Thomas Salusbury), The Learned Man Defended and Reform’d (1660).
The mosaic is a symbol of the transfer of high-culture from the continent. It naturally becomes a focus of travel writing. There are countless examples of letters and texts, powered by ekphrasis, recommending visits of “Mosaic Work” in Italy and the Vatican.
Florence is a new Town, but one of the most beautiful in all Italy… You may see a New way of Mosaick Work, wherein the figure is completed most delicately, both as to the parts and Colours thereof, by the Natural Colours of the several pieces of Stones assembled together; and which is strange, all the lights and shadows requisite in Painting is herein observed; So that they can imitate Nature almost as fully this way as in Painting itself.
…the particular Pieces that compose it, are of different Figures according as the colours require; for example, a Cherrie because it is all of one Colour, therefore it may be represented by a Red stone of a round Figure in one Piece, but the Stalk of it must be of another different figure: But in the old way, all the pieces were Quadrangular, whatsoever might be the colour or thing to be represented, and of this kind of Mosaick you will see a most excellent Piece in St. Peters Church at Rome, representing St. Michael the Arch-Angel treading upon the Devil.
Sir Andrew Balfour, Letters Write to a Friend, Containing Excellent Directions and Advices For Travelling thro’ France and Italy (1700).
With talk of the ‘old’ and the ‘new’, even at the turn of the eighteenth-century the mosaic was admired as an art form that was developing with the fashions and ideas of the time, centuries after its inception.
Finally, having worked on elegy for the past month, which invariably procures a mournful mood, it is delightful to see how the mosaic graces a farewell. An anonymous send-off for two church ministers who died on the same day in 1676 draws its conclusion:
Verses are Vain, your Memory’s more safe
For Cherubims shall Write your Epitaph,
Which in Mosaick Work with Diamonds Bright
Is Drawn in Heaven, and Read by its own Light.
Anon, An elegy upon the death of two eminent ministers of the Gospel, Mr. Pledger and Mr. Wells (1676).
One of the most fascinating battles between the public and private self in early-modernity was the writing of elegy, perhaps a subplot of The Stigma of Print. Should a private reflection upon death necessarily be prostituted for public fame? It is little wonder that Andrew Marvell’s elegy for Oliver Cromwell, by far the most intimate of the contributions, was withdrawn from publication at a late stage. But a frequently used topos in early-modern elegy was the insufficiency of words to reflect upon death, and to see the mosaic used as the pseudo-substitute is both consoling and memorable.
Of course, such analogies and shapes grow ever more complicated with time. What kind of need is created today when ‘image’, in all manner of capacities, feels so important? What happens when many hundreds of Facebook friends are revealed to be of little ‘asset’ substance? The dawn of networking has made this circular theory all the more unstable and troubling, and created many more pieces to our fractilic jigsaws. To witness everyone else’s successes, achievements, and voracious activity is often to feel the gaps straining in our own deficiencies, and to widen the chasm between the two circles.
It has never been more important to invest some time and energy into the perplexing and precious arts of understanding oneself.
With thanks to D.G.
Dedicated to A.C.
Time is just a circle
To keep us inside
Closer to home.