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The Lexicon - Pentimento

One word, weekly. Found in a book. Shared with you.

Word: Pentimento

Definition: (n) a reappearance in a painting of an original drawn or painted element which was eventually painted over by the artist.

Origin: It. repentance, correction, fr. pentire to repent, fr. L paenitēre -- more at penitent

Source: Seymour -- An Introduction by J. D. Salinger --

This last little pentimento, or whatever it is, has started me sweating literally from head to foot. I want a cigarette, but my pack is empty, and I don't feel up to leaving this chair. Oh, God, what a noble profession this is. How well do I know the reader? How much can I tell him without unnecessarily embarrassing either of us? I can tell him this: A place has been prepared for each of us in his own mind. Until a minute ago, I'd seen mine four times during my life. This is the fifth time. I'm going to stretch out on the floor for a half hour or so. I beg you to excuse me.

I've been carrying this word around in my pocket for weeks now. I could have chosen any number of words from Salinger's work (Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and this one collected in one slim volume). For as colloquial and chatty as Salinger can certainly be (what is it Holden calls everything? Ah, yes, lousy), he does not shrink from the right word even if it is an unfamiliar one. An incomplete list: puissance, crapulous, effulgent, tractile, panegyric, poetasters, euphony, cavil. But it is pentimento that has continued to rise up, demanding to be understood.

And then, this morning, it turned up again, in this brilliant poem by Daniel Zhang, winner of the Kenyon Review Grodd Poetry Prize for Young Writers. Seeing it there, I thought I knew what it meant, but looking it up, I was shocked to find out how wrong I was. And now, rereading both the Salinger and the Zhang, understanding blooms bright, and good god, the awe.

Perhaps you are only familiar with Salinger through Catcher in the Rye? If, like me, you come across a copy of these stories (first published in the New Yorker), do make haste to acquire it. They are not universally beloved; the Times liked Roof Beam but panned Seymour when the book came out in 1963. But, I can say - with some confidence - that my introduction to Seymour (and the Glass family) has changed my understanding of storytelling.

And my admiration has only grown now with the definition of pentimento. As an act of indecision, a hesitation on the part of the artist to reveal, a deliberate (but halfhearted) obscuring of some previous desire, this word represents everything Salinger seems to be doing in these stories. He writes brilliant dialogue, providing detailed descriptions that bring a moment fully (and often hilariously) to life, but underneath it all is the tender, bewildering reality of loss. Buddy - a writer - is the perfect narrator for this story about what it means to create, what it means to trust yourself, what it means to wake everyday to a searing void where your brother, your hero, used to be. And try though he might to obscure it, that intimate vulnerability is always just visible.

The passage quoted above arrives in the final moments of the story, just before Buddy attempts (again!) to explicate the driving purpose of his work. But in the epigraph (from Kierkegaard), Salinger shows his hand, if only you would see it:

It is (to describe it figuratively) as if an author were to make a slip of the pen, and as if this clerical error became conscious of being such. Perhaps this was no error but in a far higher sense was an essential part of the whole exposition. It is, then, as if this clerical error were to revolt against the author, out of hatred for him, were to forbid him to correct it, and were to say, "No, I will not be erased, I will stand as a witness against thee, that thou art a very poor writer."

The pentimento strikes back. It will be seen.


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