Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Eye of Hercule Poirot Sees All

This is Albert Finney as Agatha Christie's detective Hercule Poirot in the 1974 Sidney Lumet movie of Murder on the Orient Express.

Finney gleefully plunges into the role, making his Poirot ever so nauseatingly fastidious and Belgian. If it was explained correctly to me, Christie copped to having made Poirot Belgian because nobody knows anything about Belgium, thus obviating the need for research. She could just make her detective eccentric and vaguely French.

Finney's marvelous Poirot occasionally stops bumbling, allowing his victim to suddenly comprehend his overpowering intelligence, much as a mouse comprehends a serpent. It is during one such instant of clarity that he hisses, "The eye of Hercule Poirot sees all."

That's how I remember it, anyhow, and I like it that way.

This phrase passed through my mind on May 13th, as I was working on this sheet of drawings at Spring Street:

Daniel Maidman, Kuan: Knee, Back, Spiral Torso, pencil on paper, 15"x11", 2013

The top two drawings are from 10-minute poses, and the bottom is from a 20. The model is Kuan, who is a fantastic model, and also a dancer, and also a kind and funny human being. Poirot's comment floated through my mind as I was drawing Kuan's back, on the top right. I realized that I was seeing in a way that was - well, it was not entirely new. I had seen much like this before. But I had taken another step, across a turning point, so that a progress was now completed.

The way I had seen before was as a kind of craving, a thirst. For most of us, our gazes at the beautiful things of this world are characterized by a similar thirst. In its purest form, this thirst is a thirst for knowledge. Artists - the observational kind anyway - refine this thirst and turn it into an awful instrument, a blade that dissects reality, peeling away appearances to reveal the underlying light and color and texture and mass of things. What civilians understand themselves as having seen, artists learn to see: to disrupt the easy flow of sight, even focused desirous sight, to yield explicit knowledge not only of what is seen, but of how the seer sees.

This furious form of sight is powerful, but it has limits. Lately, I have bumped up against those limits some. It is limited in its nature. It is a slave to desire. Desire makes many things visible. But it is a sieve; it sees intensely what is desired, and blocks everything else. Therefore as much as it enhances sight, it also blinds.

When I did the drawing at the top right, of Kuan's upper back, I was suddenly seeing without desire. I had been working toward this, but now, with a little jump, I was there. Near to it and there are a world apart. I was filled with a floating and detached love, an undiscriminating benevolence. I was not on a budget or a schedule. I had time for only a little bit, but I was seeing as if I had time for everything. It did not matter to me what I caught or what I lost. In letting go of what I thought I needed to catch, I realized I was going to catch more - unexpected things, but more - more, and better. In fact, I was in the depths of Proust's paradox: you will only get what you want when you stop wanting it.

It was then that Finney's delicious line reading floated through my mind: "The eye of Hercule Poirot sees all." I had discovered Poirot's secret method of seeing all, that he desires to see nothing in particular. This is how the detective detects. Of course! Of course it must be so - this is the method of science, the disinterested gaze which does not eliminate anything from the pool of suspects, the universe of clues. To attack the mystery with the preconceptions of desire is a fatally flawed attack; it presupposes a solution. The solution may even be correct, but to solve the mystery by means of such flailing correctness is, spiritually, not to solve it at all. It is to remain in a state of blindness.

Analytically, I had always understood this distinction between the scientific gaze and the gaze, if not strictly of the artist, then at least of most artists, and all art students. But I had not understood before that the detachment of the scientific gaze is suffused with love. It is the total love which remains once desire has been boiled away. Desire confuses us about our loves - do we love the beloved because of the way it can satisfy our appetites, or do we love it with regard to its nature in and of itself? Do we love the mere beingness of the beloved? So long as desire distorts our gaze, we cannot know. But once we have overpowered our desires, we can know. Our eye sees all.

Let me turn once again to my favorite fakey ancient-eastern-wisdom story:

"Master," he says, "what comes after enlightenment?"

The peasant bends down, picks his load back up, and keeps trudging up the mountain.

You can deduce the surrounding narrative. The application of the story here is this: did I retain this transcendent lucidity? Of course not. Consider the very next drawing I did, at the bottom of the page:

What the fuck is this bullshit? It is, of course, a demon of desire. Kuan made another of her endless variety of fascinatingly curled shapes, and I succumbed to the desire to capture the essential of that curl in the 20 minute pose. I was working toward that goal, instead of merely drawing. I had one phenomenon of beauty in mind - the beauty of transcribing this composition of the body - eliminating the surrounding phenomena of beauties available and, perhaps, more natural to the interval.

I was aware of what I was doing, and yet I could not resist. I wanted that image! The results were predictable enough. I rushed the drawing, and got bits wrong. You can see in the grey of her lower ribcage at picture-left. That's where I misplaced her bones and had to push them back and forth, trying to get them in their right places. But as Yoda teaches us, there is no try. This drawing is not a good drawing.


At this point in my own progress, I am allowed only flickers of the sublime detachment of Hercule Poirot. And yet these are redeeming flickers, and the contemplation of them reminds me of what exactly I am supposed to be working on. In this, as in so many things, I feel dazzlingly fortunate; and I hope that in seeking to describe my good fortune, I am able to pass it along to you as well.

Once again, I find that Fred Hatt and I are expressing related thoughts. I had meant to read his latest before posting, and now that I have, I'm glad I didn't. Our descriptions of seeing make use of some of the same metaphors, and I would have become tongue-tied if I'd known how much of his work I was copying. But as usual, he has a distinct and intelligent take on the matter, one that is well worth reading (and also includes a Kuan drawing):


  1. Daniel, I have experienced exactly what you're talking about, many times - wanting it so bad you lose your cool and fuck it up. You've expressed it so beautifully.

    I think it's interesting that both of us used the metaphor of a detective - in my first draft I said "An Agatha Christie detective", but then I changed it to "murder-mystery detective."

    OK, now I'm going to continue trudging up that mountain.

  2. Fred - in regard to the first part, thank you. And I am so pleased to write a description in which you recognize something of your own experience (even if it's a crappy experience).

    I am glad you pulled back from outright saying Agatha Christie detective! It would have been just horrible. I feel bad enough as it is. But what a delightful comparison, I guess it makes sense we both thought of it, even if that renders *one* of us superfluous, and it ain't gonna be me, Hatt.

    Don't slip on icy patches on the mountain! And have a great week -


  3. Yes, it would have been as horrible as though we both showed up at the prom wearing the same gown! But I'm glad you invoked Poirot - you did a far better job of that than I would have, and with a great picture of Finney in the role, no less!

  4. We would have looked awful wearing the same gown. Fortunately, the situation reduced to merely similar tuxes. I'm glad you enjoyed the Poirot bit; and though many have played him, Finney is my favorite...