Art The Second Time Around

Eyes SculpturePhoto Credit: Eyes, Louise Bourgeois, October 2001, Williams College Museum of Arts, taken on August 29, 2004 by Dave: dbking/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

“The real voyage of discovery consists of not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust (as quoted by Garofalo, par. 1)

“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” – Anais Nin (as quoted by Garofalo, par. 16)

Recently, I came across a Facebook post I made about a year ago reflecting on a film I was seeing for the second time. The post made me think about the word revision. It’s a word that doesn’t have the most positive connotations for most writers (think: writer hacking away at a manuscript already written over and over and over again). But there is another kind of revision – re-seeing, experiencing a book or film or painting or piece of music again and discovering something new in it you didn’t see before.

It’s nothing new that we can see something in a different way when we experience it again. I think there are a few reasons for this.

***Some spoilers***

When we experience an artistic work for the second time, we make connections we didn’t make the first time. My Facebook post was about the 1970 film I Never Sang For My Father. I noted in my post, “I saw this film quite a few years ago and appreciated the psychological drama of the relationship between father and son.” I’m always interested in books and films that delve deep into the parent-child relationship, especially mother-daughter and father-son relationships, so it was no surprise the film struck me from that angle, since it focuses on the troubled relationship between the son Gene (the now regrettably retired Gene Hackman) and the father Tom (classic film actor Melvyn Douglas). My first viewing of the film was pretty much all about that relationship. But when I saw the film a second time, my experience was different. I wrote, “I’m seeing so many similarities between Douglas’ character and my father (right down to giving driving directions, going to a restaurant when his wife is in the hospital, and haggling over coffin prices when his wife dies).” I made a connection between Douglas’ character and my father on a deeper psychological level so the film spoke to me in a very different way than it did the first time.

Anais Nin tells how the story “Je Suis le Plus Malade Des Surrealists” from her collection Under a Glass Bell and Other Stories was inspired by a rereading of a section in her diary about a visit with a friend to a psychiatric hospital where a doctor was doing an intake of a schizophrenic man:

“The blundering questioning [of the doctor] made a deep impression on me. Also the fact that [my friend] and I understood the symbolism of the [schizophrenic] man’s fantasies, whereas the doctor was merely using the incoherence of them to prove his diagnosis, heightened the impression for me.” (Nin, Chap. 3, location 1153)

She made a connection between the scene she observed and the eccentric poet, actor, and founder of the Theater of Cruelty, Antonin Artaud, one of her most influential friends and lovers. As she explains in The Novel of the Future:

“On rereading [the diary entry] I felt: this might very well be Artaud speaking. There are resemblances in the poetic expressions (the madman was well read), in the nature of his fears, general similarities in the sexual puritanism. When I placed the two fragments together they seemed to be in harmony, one the outcome or development of the other. It was psychologically logical, consistent.” (Nin, Chap. 3., location 1153-1160)

It was re-seeing the passage in her diary that brought for Nin the connection between her friend Artaud and prompted her to write the story.

But making connections isn’t the only reason a painting or a book or film might speak to us in a different way when we experience it for a second time. Another reason might be that we are in a different position psychologically than we were the first time. This happened to me when I was seeing I Never Sang For My Father. In my Facebook post, I reflected, “I’m also seeing the film in a totally different way because when I saw it last, my father’s health wasn’t as bad as it is now and the film is all about the guilt and conflicts of dealing with aging difficult parents and leading your own life.” In other words, I was in a different place psychologically and I understood the struggle Gene was experiencing, wanting to stay close to his parents, especially his father after his mother dies, on the one hand, and move to California to marry the woman he loves and start a new career on the other.

For writers, this could happen also when rereading their own work. The original version of my novella The Claustrophobic Heart was about Gena, the main character, searching for a mother figure in Larissa Alderdice, the matriarch of the wealthy San Francisco family central to the Waxwood series. Her relationship with her aunt was crucial to understanding why she needed that maternal figure but there were only a few scenes between them. However, I reread the sections with Gena and Helen when I was reorganizing them as a novella and realized their relationship was psychological dynamite and was crying out to be made central to the story. I believe the reason for this was because, in the twelve or so years between the first draft and the rereading, I had gone through my own process of discovery and learned a lot about dysfunctional families and complexities inherent in the relationship between a mother figure and a daughter, which is what Gena and Helen’s relationship is. I felt ready to tackle those complexities.

It’s not a hard-and-fast rule that we’ll see a film or read a book differently when we encounter it again. Sometimes, we just want to revisit a work that we enjoyed the first time by enjoying it that way again. But other times, these other factors work with us, making the work speak to us in a different way.

Works Cited

Garofalo, Michael P., M.S. “Vision: Seeing, Looking, Watching, Insight, Sight Perspective, Observing, Foresight.” Green Way Research, 2016. April 2000. Web. 18 April 2017.

Nin, Anais. The Novel of the Future. Sky Blue Press. The Anais Nin Trust, 2014 (original publication date 1968). Kindle digital file.


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