Responsible Viewing: Charles Simic's Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell

By Morris, Daniel | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Responsible Viewing: Charles Simic's Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell


Morris, Daniel, Papers on Language & Literature


   "Every art is about the longing of One for the Other. Orphans that we are,
   we make our sibling kin out of anything we can find."

   --Charles Simic, Dime-Store Alchemy (62)

Since the Eighteenth Century, writers and artists have tried to combine all the senses. In France, for example, Louis-Bertrand Castel, with his "ocular harpsichord," attempted to make sound visible (Gessinger 50). Simultaneously, the limit to Castel's experiment at cross-genre fertilization was being articulated by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who in Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1766) raised the question of how poetry could combine the features of sculpture and painting on one side, of music on the other. Disputing the absolute boundary between genres established by Lessing and, in the modern period, by Clement Greenberg in "Toward a Newer Laocoon" (1940), the contemporary poet Charles Simic demonstrates in Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell (1992) that visual designs and verbal narrations are related but distinct strategies for personal disclosure and interpersonal communication. Reinscribing Cornell's shadow boxes as a collage of sixty prose poems, Simic destabilizes the line between generic identifications. In the act of transforming spectatorship into a creative endeavor, Simic explores his own poetics while recuperating the work of an iconoclastic American artist who died in 1972.

Using ideas the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin derived primarily from verbal discourse to analyze the visual arts, I follow an argument he developed in an early, unfinished essay "Toward a Philosophy of the Act" (1919-24) to consider Dime-Store Alchemy as an event that Simic, metaphorically, "co-authors" with Cornell.(1) Following Bakhtin's model, I read Dime-Store Alchemy as a "creative understanding," a hybrid text that Simic calls the "third image" (Dime-Store 60). In "Toward a Philosophy of the Act," Bakhtin argues that "creative understanding" differs from a "live entering" of the reader's viewpoint into the author's imagination. For Bakhtin, such an empathetic identification between reader and writer, while a necessary step toward "creative understanding," removes the relational and, therefore, the critical and creative aspects of reading as a form of authorship:

If I actually lost myself in the other (instead of two participants there would be one--an impoverishment of Being), i.e., if I ceased to be unique, then this moment of my not-being could never become a moment of my consciousness. (Bakhtin 16)(2)

"Creative understanding" through reading involves "live-entering" (identification) and the "moment of separation" (disidentification) that establishes the reader's imaginative horizon. The interaction between reader and writer produces what Bakhtin calls a "surplus of seeing," a perspective on the text that posits the reader's stake in the creation of its meaning, and, by implication, the reader's responsibility for sharing in the author's construction of the cultural imaginary.(3) As Deborah J. Haynes writes in Bakhtin and the Visual Arts, "If visual art is ever to have social or political efficacy, the critic or viewer must practice this kind of living-into and separation" (68).

Lacking formal artistic training, Cornell designed collages in his spare time in the basement of a modest house on Utopia Parkway, Bayside, Queens. His art work primarily consisted of placing in home-made wooden boxes abandoned objects such as dolls, twigs, thimbles, maps, cut-out pictures of birds from cheap paperbacks, photographs of movie stars such as Lauren Bacall, dice, Cordial glasses, rubber balls, and ping pong balls that appear to have fallen off the surface of a slotted game board that functions according to obscure rules. As the poet John Ashbery has written of one of the "hotel" boxes that depicts an out-of-season French resort, Cornell's art in general does not require empirical verification to testify to its authenticity: "The secret of his eloquence: he does not re-create the country itself but the impression we have of it before going there" (Ashbery 15). …

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