Negative Space

Negative space. That’s an interesting concept. The term refers to the space around and between one or more subjects of a visual image; it’s the space that surrounds an image. To an artist—and others who understand the concept in an even more abstract and intellectual context beyond the visual—negative space helps define and articulate the boundaries of the subject, i.e., the positive space. When I see negative space used in art, its use is clear and unambiguous. But negative space in literature and rhetoric is sometimes almost invisible (pardon the pun). Yet absence can be the most emphatic amplification of nuanced presence. A passage in which a woman stares intently at an empty crib, her eyes brimming with tears, can say more than a lengthy exposition in which a child is taken from that crib and placed in a casket. Negative space gives the reader or the viewer or the casual observer an opportunity to become an active participant in the “performance.”

An unreturned kiss. A glance into someone’s eyes that is not returned. An acerbic comment that prompts no reply. These are negative spaces that can, when used effectively, evoke more emotion than long, expressive paragraphs. Literature can learn from the visual arts. And the performing arts. It’s a matter of translation and adaptation. I wish I were more knowledgeable about ballet and modern dance and visual arts in general; they could teach me a thing or a thousand about writing. Despite my devotion to over-long sentences and paragraphs that last for months, minimalism has ruthless power unmatched by mass.

These thoughts were on my mind last night while the others in this house, three women, were glued to the television set in the hope the Cubbies would take the pennant. I hoped the Cubs would win, too. They deserved the lifting of the curse; they are young and shouldn’t be forced to live with the guilt of their forebears. Alas, my interest was not sufficient to merit staying awake throughout the enterprise. Only one of the three, the woman from Chicago, stayed awake long enough to relish the Cubbies’ victory. The absence of a loss; that’s truly a defining negative space.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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