Why can’t he hear her question?

Francesca Woodman, “Self-Portrait Talking to Vince,” Providence, Rhode Island, 1977

From Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel The Blue Flower: the painter Hoffmann speaks to Fritz Hardenberg (the poet Novalis) about his failure to capture Fritz’s beloved in a portrait. He could not hear “her question” …

“In every created thing … there is an attempt to communicate, even among the totally silent. There is a question being asked, a different question for every entity, which for the most part will never be put into words, even by those who can speak. It is asked incessantly, most of the time, however, hardly noticeably, even faintly, like a church bell heard across meadows and enclosures. Best for the painter, once having looked, to shut his eyes, his physical eyes though not those of the spirit, so that he may hear it more distinctly. You must have listened to it, Hardenberg, for Fräulein Sophie’s question, you must have strained to make it out, even though, as I think very probable, she does not know herself what it is. … I could not hear her question, so I could not paint.”

Painting as deep listening. A portrait as an emanation, a question that is faint yet insistent, a sound “like a church bell across meadows,” incessant, probably to the point of discomfort for the one who has to listen. Though imagine how much more uncomfortable it is for the one asking it, the one trying to communicate when the words feel like coiled wire wrapped around her tongue, not because she cannot speak or because she doesn’t know how to put her question into words, or what that question is — she knows — but because, as soon as she opens her mouth, what comes out is literally unutterable.



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Nuria Belastegui

Nuria Belastegui


I’m a teacher and independent researcher living on the West Coast of Canada. I’m interested in the intersections between art and literature.