The year 1926 saw the writing of H.P. Lovecraft’s “portrait of the artist,” not in the Joycean sense necessarily. This fictional portrayal of a painter of weird canvases is called “Pickman’s Model” (DUN, 12-25). The narrator, whom we know only as Thurber, relates the tale as if speaking to an art club acquaintance whom he addresses as Eliot. Evidently Eliot has asked the narrator why it is that the artist Richard Upton Pickman, a person of odd repute at the art club, has recently vanished. The narrator regales Eliot with remarks about Pickman’s exceedingly weird and morbid art, canvases (exemplified by one called “Ghoul Feeding”) that have shocked and alienated other members of the club. Thurber tells Eliot that he has visited Pickman and heard that outré artist’s wild theories of horrific art and its inspirational sources.
Pickman, in a flashback subnarration, explains to Thurber that in a regular Back Bay Boston environment there are “things that are out of place here, and that can’t be conceived here, anyhow” (15). Pickman reveals that he has rented, under an assumed name, a studio in the crumbling and archaic alleys of Boston’s North End, where he takes the curious Thurber and shows him hideous but brilliant paintings “quite beyond the power of words to classify” (18). The dominant subjects of the paintings seem to be ghoulish creatures with “a vaguely canine cast” and a facial texture of “rubberiness.” Yet the backgrounds are not phantasmal or extramundane dreamworlds; rather, they are commonplace local scenes, including the nearby Copp’s Hill Burying Ground.
Pickman, in his hidden studio, paints in the cellar, “where the inspiration is thickest” (17), with artificial light. There is in one room in this cellar a large circular well plugged by a heavy wooden disk. Pickman, having taken the visiting narrator to an adjoining room (the studio), seems to hear something that disturbs him and goes to investigate. Thurber hears shots, and Pickman returns, explaining that the problem is rats. Yet the suggestion grows that this explanation is specious. Thurber has noticed a curled-up piece of paper tacked to a canvas-in-progress and has assumed that it is a photograph of a mundane background that Pickman intends to paint behind the revolting figure on the easel. In the excitement of hearing the shots, Thurber, fingering the piece of paper and intending to ask the artist about it, absentmindedly pockets it, and soon thereafter he leaves. Now Pickman has disappeared, and Thurber reveals to Eliot what was on the paper that had been pinned to the unfinished painting—not the photograph of an intended background, but a photograph of the ghoulish figure itself: “It was the model he was using—and its background was merely the wall of the cellar studio in minute detail. But by God, Eliot, it was a photograph from life” (25). In this rather engaging tale, this portraiture of a portraiture, we shall of course find that the surface pigments are not all that the canvas holds.
At the outset one notes that the text’s title purports to draw attention away from Pickman and toward his model, though the text goes on, in its peculiar mode of narration, to dwell on Pickman himself. The effect is to decenter the text, to quibble from the beginning over focus and center, indeed to make any center impossible. We say Pickman “himself,” though as we shall see, it is far from clear what this could mean. (Of the title, which is open to several interpretative penetrations, we shall have more to observe.)
One runs immediately into intriguingly problematic considerations in contemplating the matter of a model. Like Plato’s pharmakon, so ably disemboweled by Jacques Derrida, the term model is strangely and self-subvertingly plural. If one makes, say, a plastic “model” of a car or of an airplane, one makes a copy, a transmuted representation of some original object. When one paints a portrait of someone posing before the easel, one copies the features of that person, thus making a “model” of the person on canvas. Yet the person posing, the object to be copied, is, in customary artistic terms, the “model.” The person is the model, and the painting is the model. One has, without delay, a confusion between the object and the copy of that object. Pickman’s paintings are confounded with that which is arrayed before him to be painted. And if by “Pickman” we mean, metonymically, his work, as when we speak of reading Dickens, looking at Monet, or listening to Bach, then we already have an ambiguity about identities. In this and other ways, the text will blur the distinction between Pickman and his “model.”
The word model is problematic in etymological terms as well. Its root is med-, “to take appropriate measures,” a root giving rise to numerous other words, among them mode, modal, modality, modulate, modulus. One sees an immediate suggestion of plurality of modes or modalities of reading, a plurality destined to deny, as always, a settled or univocal interpretation. Modulus carries with it the suggestion of “base,” as in mathematics when one speaks of numbers’ being congruent with respect to a given, fixed modulus. In mathematics the term also coincides at times with the terms absolute value and norm. All these associations are redolent of fixedness, centers, absoluteness, settled reading. Yet the near-cousin modulate suggests “to vary,” as to vary pitch, amplitude, frequency, or musical key. Variability of course is antithetical to fixedness, centeredness, absoluteness, immutability. The root of model produces warring significations, and in the inability of terms suggesting fixity and terms suggesting variability to agree, it is implicit that variability wins out over fixity by the variability of view that originally produces the tension. A model, and in particular Pickman’s model, will be, as one learns to expect, unable simply to be itself. Again we shall have occasion to ask just what or who Pickman’s model is, expecting, in the asking, a variety of answers.
The story’s mode of narration is such that the narrator seems to be speaking directly to someone called Eliot, who, we learn, is an acquaintance through a mutual art club. The use of the name Eliot is curious; Lovecraft once wrote a parody of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. In Eliot’s celebrated poem, the modern world is seen as sterile, decaying, and fatally out of touch with myth. In the text currently under consideration, Eliot’s world, in contrast with the world of Pickman’s febrile fancy that Thurber describes, is presumably healthy. Pickman’s dark world, in fact, from a conventional point of view, is unhealthy precisely to the extent that it is in touch with myth: with timeless underworld legends of ghouls and changelings. The name of the otherwise unseen character to whom the narrator speaks is thus redolent of reversal and confusion.
Since the tale is told to Eliot, one feels that the reader, as if with an ear pressed to the door or an eye to the keyhole, becomes a voyeur or eavesdropper, taking in a conversation to which, it would seem, no one but Eliot should have been privy. In the role of eavesdropper, from an Indo-European root upo- meaning either “under” or “over,” as well as “open,” the reader comes to be in a position impossible to define—an open position. The reader, perversely enough, by reading, insists upon making a closed conversation into a text, a public document, a potential for continuing to write itself by being read, and read by whatever readers come along—an openness of possibility. But there is more to the text’s mode of narration than Thurber’s speech to Eliot, and, as Alice would have had it, things get curiouser and curiouser.
When Thurber speaks to Eliot, he speaks as if Eliot at times replies, though the text shows no such responses. As if prompted by Eliot to speak, Thurber says, “Well, if you must hear it” and “No, I don’t know what’s become of Pickman” (12). Thus there is no true dialogue here. The Thurber side of what would be dialogue is all that we see, with suggestions, however, that Eliot does reply, thus occasioning replies in turn from Thurber, as if there were true dialogue. The effect is to focus attention upon one side of what we suppose to be a conversation, in this case to focus upon Thurber’s account and to create the illusion of Thurber’s presence. Thus an illusion of presence is created precisely by absence—the absence of any overt responses by Eliot to Thurber.
In the course of the implied conversation, Thurber describes a long talk that he has had with the artist Pickman and quotes Pickman at great length, portraying him, then, as speaking and making of him a kind of subnarrator. Pickman here becomes a model, that which is portrayed. It is Pickman’s model, his copy or portrayal, who speaks. Here Thurber (who is “really” speaking to Eliot) is never seen replying to Pickman, who in the account speaks to him and calls him by name. Just as Eliot is never heard responding to Thurber in the main narration, even though Thurber speaks as if Eliot does reply, so Thurber in his own turn is never heard responding to Pickman in the subnarration, even though Pickman speaks as if Thurber does reply. Significantly, at Pickman’s studio, Thurber, by his account to Eliot, “was too speechless with fright and loathing” to offer opinions to Pickman about the latter’s paintings (20). We have here a textual wink to the effect that the question of who speaks and who does not is of some interest.
Thurber, in the beginning, is made to seem more vividly present by virtue of textual silence and textual absence—the silence of Eliot in the text and the absence of his replies. Thurber in turn comes to function in the same way with respect to Pickman, who is made to seem more vividly present by virtue again of textual vacuum: the silence of Thurber—who, ironically, is speaking, on another level, to Eliot, relating the seemingly one-sided conversation with Pickman—the absence of Thurber’s replies even when Pickman seems to have heard them. The text indulges in a dance of light and shadows, sound and silence. By its silences, it creates the illusion of sound, and as usual, the supplementarity of presence/absence—in the modality of sound/silence—becomes unsettled. Presence, far from being privileged over absence, is possible even as an illusion only by virtue of absence. It is always already infiltrated by absence, as sound is always already infiltrated by the silence that makes the illusion of sound possible. Yet the absence that we speak of here is still the absence of Eliot’s, or Thurber’s, responses, or at least the illusion of them, so that silence in turn is dependent upon sound, absence upon presence. As always, neither configuration of privilege of one term over another can stand unequivocally.
Who is Pickman, and who or what is his model? The text will allow no settled understandings on either score. We shall in fact need to consider the questions together, since, with little likelihood that either term will have any self-identity, even a distinction between “Pickman” and “model” is of unclear status.
At the outset, the salient feature of Pickman, to the extent that we suppose “Pickman” to be simply the artist of whom Thurber speaks to Eliot, is absence. He has disappeared. Thurber near the end says that “he’s gone—back into the fabulous darkness he loved to haunt” (24-25). Pickman, as a vanished acquaintance, can of course function textually as he does only by being gone. Though the text’s narration tries sedulously to make him a vivid “presence” through impressions of him and especially by the long stretch of reported speech by which Thurber reconstructs his conversation with the artist, nevertheless the effort is a self-subverted feint. Without Pickman’s having disappeared, there obviously could scarcely be the sort of mystery and aura of wonder about the artist that the text, in spite of its surface machinations, creates. The text proclaims the vivid presence of what is absent and can do so only in terms of that absence. On the symbolic level, the absence of Pickman is interpretative absence—the absence of any capacity in Pickman to be simply what he seems, however grotesque that “simple” characterization even in itself would be. Pickman is absent because his plural nature denies the metaphysics of presence and self-identity.
Even as a mere artist acquaintance, Pickman divides himself against himself. He is pique-main, he who piques our curiosity and wounds our comprehension by his hand (by main force), by the brush that he wields to create his canvases and to fashion around himself his problematic reputation, his peer-attitudinal framing. The paintings, significantly, are never themselves referred to in the text as being framed, even though one could suppose that as a matter of custom they would be. They spill over whatever suppositions of framing we might assign to them. They exceed boundaries, they refuse to be closed in and characterized. And to the extent that Pickman synecdochically is his work, he refuses to be framed or bordered or simplified as well. But here again the effect is brought about not by what the text does but rather by what it declines to do. It is silent on the question of frames, and its silence is louder than its sounds. The absence of frames symbolically belies the attempt to describe and characterize Pickman even in the bizarre terms in which Thurber describes him. The text tries to frame or enclose or portray him but on another level says that such framing cannot be done.
This self-subverting quibbling over frames and insides and outsides occurs on various levels. In its description of one of Pickman’s paintings clearly reflecting Goya’s II Saturno (or Saturn Devouring His Children), the text covertly brings up the imagery of Saturn and thus the imagery of being ringed about, enclosed, framed. Yet there are no frames. Saturn, or Cronus, possibly a pre-Hellenic god of time, is known to have overthrown his father Uranus. The text, even in evoking imagery of ringing-about and framing and control, subverts the evocation by bringing up, at the same time, the notion of overthrow of the father: subversion of authority, the death of gods, the denial of privileged reading. The text everywhere works to unravel its own workings.
On a number of occasions the text suggests, through the gossip of art club members as remarked upon by Thurber (sometimes quoting Pickman), that Pickman is not human, or not entirely so—that in painting his rubbery and dogfaced ghouls, ghouls bearing a disturbing aura of kinship with humankind, he is working out of a familiarity born of actual kinship. One of Pickman’s paintings portrays a changeling—a ghoul-child left to be raised as human, in exchange for a human child stolen away—and the text offers innuendoes to the effect that Pickman himself, who is deteriorating in appearance as time goes on, may well be such a changeling himself. With regard to the word changeling, it is interesting to note that in a number of terms employing the suffix -ling, the suffix functions as a diminutive, as in duckling. Such a diminutive flavor to the suffix in changeling would suggest “little changed one,” which one may readily read as “little-changed one.” The suggestion again is one that blurs distinctions. If Pickman, possibly as a ghoul changeling, is little changed, then once again he tends to merge with those monstrous forms that he paints. He tends to coalesce with his model, and we are back to the title.
Pickman’s model may be, in the usual sense, the copiable entity from which Pickman creates his works on canvas, or may be the copy or painting that is made, or may be the model of Pickman in the sense of a copy made of him, a sense already noted in connection with the fact that in quoting Pickman at great length, Thurber has framed him, portrayed him, copied him. “Pickman’s model” may be “Pickman is model,” “Pickman as model.” But if model in “Pickman’s model” means “copy,” and if Pickman, never simply self-present, is a copy, then “model of Pickman” means “copy of a copy,” and the same interpolation may expand this configuration into “copy of a copy of a copy” and so on, without limit. The effect is to push Pickman, whatever and whoever he may be, farther and farther away from presence, even when the text is vociferously creating vivid illusions of that presence. The text eschews the notion of frames, yet it frames Pickman within a telescoping nest of frames: portrayal of portrayal of portrayal of . . . , ad infinitum. If Pickman is spawned of the ghouls that he paints, then in an atavistic way he “copies” them merely by possessing his own gradually changing face, and every painting becomes then a copy of a copy of himself, again a copy of a copy of a copy. One’s senses reel at the prospect of an abysmal descent into such a well of copyings, of levels of copy for which there is ultimately no original being copied. But such is the nature of texts. The artist’s changing face itself symbolizes the textual mutabilities that one faces (and that one creates) in reading.
It is perhaps significant then that by Thurber’s account, Pickman’s artistic forte has always been faces—appearances, superficial surfaces both connecting and dividing. The eyes are a window onto the soul, but the face is still a barrier, a denial of immediate presence. This is as it should be, because Pickman’s modality is clearly the modality of absence.