Monday, September 11, 2017

William Chapman Sharpe's "Grasping Shadows"

William Chapman Sharpe is professor of English at Barnard College, Columbia University. His books include New York Nocturne: The City After Dark in Literature, Painting, and Photography, 1850-1950 and Unreal Cities: Urban Figuration in Wordsworth, Baudelaire, Whitman, Eliot, and Williams.

Sharpe applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Grasping Shadows: The Dark Side of Literature, Painting, Photography, and Film, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Grasping Shadows opens on a moonlit night. Jane Eyre has just crossed the shadow of Mr. Rochester. His back is turned, yet he knows she is there. She writes, “I had made no noise; he had not eyes behind—could his shadow feel?”

In real life shadows are accidents of the light. But in creative works such as Jane Eyre shadows have been put there for a reason. Shadows may not be able to feel, but people inevitably feel the force of shadows. Grasping Shadows brings the largely unconscious act of shadow-processing out into the open. The book demonstrates how shadows communicate ideas and emotions in just about every kind of representation, from billboards to popular songs to Hollywood films to masterpieces hanging in museums.
Page 99 falls in the middle of a chapter on what I call the Vital Shadow, a shadow that reveals the life-force of its caster. Appearing to be connected to the soul or the psyche is one of the shadow’s most fundamental traits.. The shadow is an inside that displays itself outside, and audiences have to figure out how to respond to its power or vulnerability. Is what lurks in that dark shape something to be loved or feared? Is it something sexual, demonic or divine? Further down the page there’s an illustration of a fifteenth-century altar painting called St. Wolfgang and the Devil. Here, the devil’s shadow shrivels as it approaches the saint, as if could not survive in the light of the gospel that the holy man preaches.

But what about figures that lose their shadows completely? Or shadows that wander independently of bodies? Or shadows that do not match the bodies to which they are attached? Grasping Shadows explores how all these shadows silently speak to us, and shows how to understand the apparently infinite range of shapes that shadows assume in texts and images. Once we are sensitized to the shadow’s basic repertoire of tricks and traits, we can see the dark side of literature, painting, photography, and film in a whole new light.
Learn more about Grasping Shadows at the Oxford University Press.

The Page 99 Test: New York Nocturne.

--Marshal Zeringue