The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

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OCT 2019 Issue
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The Luck of the Draw

Richard Shiff ends his essay, “Reality By Chance” (2014), on a proposition that concerns precariousness, understood rather more felicitously as the necessary condition for luck’s possible attainment:

“As one event follows another, we are the products and the causes of chance effects. We live a personal narrative of events we cannot predict. The line we draw, our gesture, produces a figure we would never conceive, had we not drawn it…. Yet life remains rich within this pattern of insecurity. Given all the factors of chance, we have a chance at good luck. So when we conduct research, or write, or merely think, and when we realize how little sense we have of what meanings will emerge—significant or insignificant—we realize as well that we could be lucky.1

Coming at the end of a gorgeous meditation on the ever-emergence of circumstance, this passage brings to a close, too, Shiff’s more personal disclosures about working method. Shiff earlier recalls an origin scene, detailing how he would read the books assembled by others; their study carrels provided denotative information and, in their absence, held forth the further prospect of connotative message. This acknowledgement, and others regarding his selection of topics, and his capacious ingestion of ideas the origin and terminus of which remain obscure, involve deeply generous admissions regarding what it means to acquiesce, but also to take responsibility thereafter.

Here is a reality effect of a kind, as I understand it, one productive of the thing it comes to know. In this, it put me in mind of a very different text, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) by Crockett Johnson (née David Johnson Leisk). A classic of children’s literature, it tells the story of a little boy who moves from a dimensionless jumble of tangled lines into a world of representation—a pictorial context where the marks resolve into coherent identities—keyed to his movement. A horizon, path, and field appear coincident with his passage through the nascent landscape. So fully realized are Harold’s inventions that they flat-out startle him; any particular instantiation gains in significance by virtue of the totality but also the contingency of its version of imaging. Fearful of a copse, Harold allows but a single apple tree. To guard it, Harold conjures a dragon, the ferocity of which sends him cowering backward; arm quivering and crayon shaking, his retreat precipitates a scalloped contour that becomes an ocean. About to drown, he draws a boat, makes it to shore, draws a picnic of pies, and so on.

Chance, as Shiff insists, through Peirce and through Barthes—“I know what I am doing but I do not know what I am producing,” writes the latter—may affect what we take for reality.2 The ability to stay alert to this potentiality may be all that we have. Harold and the Purple Crayon is reflexive on this count, admitting the continuous nature of generation—of action and consequence—though it perhaps overstates the odds of narrative resolution. Eventually Harold comes to his room, where his bed, set below a window framing a moon, proves his final achievement. The language is flawless, creating what it describes: “He got in it and he drew up the covers.” One night we should each be so lucky.

  1. Richard Shiff, “Reality by Chance,” Kodikas/Code: Ars Semeiotica 37, no. 3/4 (July-December 2014): 191-208.
  2. Cited in Ibid., p. 15.


Suzanne Hudson

Suzanne Hudson is an art historian and critic based in Los Angeles. Recent books include Agnes Martin: Night Sea (2017; 2020) and Contemporary Painting (2021).


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

All Issues