September 29, 2010
When my wife first taught me to draw, we went to the park, and I tried to sketch a particular tree. I gave up quickly because I couldn't find just the right line to draw to capture any of the angles of the many branches and leaves.
"Don't draw the tree," my wife said. "Draw around the tree."
Draw around the tree? What sort of Zen mystery was this? Gradually, I understood that she was explaining negative space. Simply put, negative space means that the empty space on the page highlights the full space. The wide blank space on the left side of the page pushes your attention to the drawing on the right-hand side of the page.
The same principle applies to writing. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, a perennially challenged book, was targeted in 1980 because it made promiscuous sex "look like fun". An objection in 1990 said that Brave New World "centered around negative activity." Sadly, these challengers didn't bother to consider that the characters who took such a light view of sex were not the heroes of the book; they were products of a future dystopian society. The culture in Brave New World is the negative space, the negative example. The whole point of Huxley's book is to show us the wrongs that are possible in the future of humanity. In his dystopian vision, humanity also relies on narcotics, and forfeits all familial relationships. Huxley isn't proposing that we head that way. He is warning against that way.
The balance of negative space is positive space. There's the blank space on the left and the drawing on the right. In Brave New World, there's the corrupted engineered culture on the left and the hero, John Savage, on the right. People who challenge this book often miss the fact that the hero of the book agrees with them. He abstains from sex. He loves his mother. He even directly opposes oppression.
One of my favorite parts of any book anywhere is the conversation between John Savage and the head of this twisted future culture. John keeps quoting Shakespeare, and asking about the true meaning of life and humanity, and what it is to be human. John Savage is the most heroically human character I have ever read. He presents a positive contrast to the negative space in the novel. If only the challengers to Brave New World had art lessons, maybe they wouldn't have challenged the book to begin with.
Tags: banned books, book review