Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Some time ago, I bought the black and white postcard of the World War I soldier at an Antiques Show & Sale. The caption underneath the photo reads: A church seen through a hole made by a shell in a window of the castle. The soldier's photo was taken in Tilloloy (Somme), which is a village in the French province of Picardie (Picardy). The castle in question was destroyed by Germans in 1914 and rebuilt after the war. 

The soldier stands with his back leaning against the crumbled wall. Next to him is a shelled-in window through which one sees a church with damaged towers. Soldier's left leg is straight; his right raised, his knee slightly bent, his foot resting on the wall. His posture seems to me somewhat daring, indicating perhaps his defiant spirit. The soldier is looking at the camera, squinting as if blinded by the sunlight. I think that his expression is bold and flirtatious at the same time. I see the soldier's life-size shadow on his right and the enormous shadows of the destroyed castle walls looming above. Considering the length of the soldier's shadow, I would guess that the photo was taken in the early morning. The trees are bare in the background, so it could be the winter, but I imagine it's the beginning of the first spring after the war.
Shortly after I acquired this postcard, I took a book art class and used the soldier's photo to make the front page for my art book, incorporating with it three Yugoslav stamps from a letter sent in 1992 by my mother - just days before the war in Sarajevo. 

Why was I so taken by this photograph of a mustached soldier? At first, this image haunted me because that's exactly how I imagine my characters looking out at the world, from this place in ruins, with this sense of lost majesty. The soldier's postcard captures not only the single moment or day of the solder's life, but his past, present, and even future. Marcel Proust writes of "the inseparableness of us from the past" - in other words that our past is always present.

Similarly, Eudora Welty writes in her essay "Eye of the Story":
"Katherine Ann Porter shows us that we do not have to see a story happen to know what is taking place. For all we are to know, she is not looking at it happen herself when she writes it; for her eyes are always looking through the gauze of the passing scene, not distracted by the immediate and transitory; her vision is reflective.

Her imagery is as likely as not to belong to a time other than the story's present, and beyond that it always differs from it in nature; it is memory imagery, coming into the story from memory's remove. It is distilled, a re-formed imagery, for it is part of a language made to speak directly of premonition, warning, surmise, anger, despair."

"There is no such a thing as was," Faulkner remarked in answer to a student's question as why he wrote long sentences. "To me, no man is himself, he is the sum of his past. There is no such a thing really as was, because the past is...And so a man, a character in a story at any moment in action, is not just himself as he is then, he is all that made him; and the long sentence," he adds, "is an attempt to get his past and possibly his future into the instant in which he does something..."
In fiction, what precedes the story is equally important to the present story. Correspondingly, another thing that called my attention to the soldier's postcard is the image of the shelled-in window in the background. This window looks at the landscape outside, but also, as in fiction, it looks inward into the psychological landscape of the soldier, or the character. It is as if we are looking into two landscapes mirroring each other - the solder's place in the world and the state of his mind or his psychological landscape.

The questions I ask myself are: What is the definition of the psychological landscape? How do we glimpse into the psychological landscape of others? How does a writer portray the psychological landscape of the characters? How does a reader glimpse into the psychological landscape of the characters? How it is possible that this image of a single moment in the soldier's life captures the soldier's complex mental state or his frame of mind?

What are your thoughts on this? Your comments?


  1. Hullo, Aggie.

    Interesting post. I've had Angela Carter and Cormac McCarthy specifically recommended to me as writers whose dense and particular use of setting give a sense of the (and this is the term my teacher used) "geography of character." I haven't read McCarthy yet, but I do think that Carter's settings are a small part of what make her stories so enormous on the inside... they aren't just strange and magical stories because everything that makes up the Plot is only the very edge of what makes up the Story.

  2. Hi Megan, my dear teacher Kevin McIlvoy used the term "psychological landscape" to help me illustrate ways in which writers depict "what's going on in character's head," the cause and effect between character's perceptions, emotions and behavior.

    I love the description of Nebraska prairie in "My Antonia," by Villa Cather, and how she uses the landscape or the exterior to portray the inner world of Jim Burden, the narrator:

    "I can remember exactly how the country looked to me as I walked beside my grandmother along the faint wagon-tracks on that early September morning. Perhaps the glide of long railway travel was still with me, for more than anything else I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping ... "

    In my writing, the sense of place and the loss of it, defines the characters in my novel.

    How about you?