Monday, February 22, 2010
I'll start out by saying that this is one I should know, and may in fact actually know. I'm just not sure. The word came up in my last Finnegans Wake meeting, and here is the Joycean sentence that provoked this post:
"In fact, under the closed eyes of the inspectors the traits featuring the chiaroscuro coalesce, their contrarities eliminated, in one stable somebody similarly as by the providential warring of heartshaker with housebreaker and of dramdrinker against freethinker our social something bowls along bumpily, experiencing a jolting series of prearranged disappointments, down the long lane of (it's as semper as oxhousehumper!) generations and still more generations."
Leaving aside the question of whether I understand any of this, I will say that it does tend to confirm my sense of the word in question. What I think chiaroscuro refers to is a style of painting, pretty obviously originally an Italian one, which uses the play of light and dark to highlight what the painter wants our eye to focus on. I know that "oscuro" must refer to darkness, and though I don't know quite how, I think the "ciar" must refer to clarity or light. Shall we see?
Well, given my outrageously wrong guesses on some recent posts, it's heartening to see that I seem to have played this one right. Chiaroscuro is precisely a word about the mixture of light and dark and my etymological understanding is correct. Hooray!
Ignorance, of course, has its several levels. What I don't know about chiaroscuro is far more than what I do know, including the other meanings the word has accrued. For one thing, in a technical sense, it refers not just to such bold contrasts, but even subtler effects of light and shading. And though we usually think of chiaroscuro in terms of masterly paintings of the past, you have only to think of the effects sought in film noir cinematography and in many, many comics and graphic novels to know that chiaroscuro is alive and well and living in Sin City.
Or at least slumming there from time to time...