“Colors are not sounds and ears are not eyes,” wrote Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, a mid-18th century German philosopher and art critic. He was making a point about what he saw as a crucial division between fine art and writing: not only do art and writing enter our minds via distinct senses, but we also require distinct creative faculties to generate them. A poet who is also a painter must draw on different skills when writing and when painting, and will likely not possess equal talent at both.
Lessing’s caution holds especially for artists or writers who decide to leap from one career into another relatively late in life, even—or even more so—when the artist or writer’s new work takes on the same core subject as the old. Such is the case with The White Road, the new book by the widely exhibited ceramicist Edmund de Waal. As with de Waal’s excellent first book, The Hare with Amber Eyes, his newest offering is a personal memoir posing as a narrative history. But whereas its predecessor took as its main subject de Waal’s family, tracing a collection of valuable Japanese carvings as they were handed down through five generations, The White Road treats head-on the very material with which de Waal has built his career: porcelain.
Often interesting and always thoroughly detailed, the book follows this specific and prized type of clay, valued for its strength, whiteness, and especially its translucence, across many centuries and locales, detailing historical moments in which it was discovered, reinvented, sought, coveted, and fought over. De Waal’s research takes him from ancient Chinese mines to the dungeons of a castle in Dresden, the English countryside, the backwoods of America and, in the surprising and haunting final section, the Dachau concentration camp. There, where porcelain kilns blazed side by side with the crematoria, one gets a feel for what de Waal sees as the stakes of his research: the more he unearths about porcelain’s past, the more fraught his obsession with it becomes.
The unveiling of that complicated past provides de Waal with ample opportunity for introspection—and, in fact, the book’s subtitle, “Journey into an Obsession,” highlights introspection as its true subject. De Waal weaves many vignettes about his own artistic evolution as a porcelain artist into his historical narrative, beginning with his very first experience with clay, when, at age five, he accompanied his father to an evening class at a local art college and was immediately drawn to the potter’s wheel.
Since then, de Waal has maintained an almost monomaniacal dedication to pottery: he deferred college to apprentice with his secondary school pottery teacher, then, after taking a break to complete an English degree at Cambridge, set out on his own. He eventually moved to the end of a lonely Sheffield street, where he supported himself by making and selling a variety of porcelain kitchenware. From there he took a fellowship in Tokyo and then traveled back to London, where, after thousands of trials, his pots “shed their learning. … Everything became simpler.”
Most of the interest in these more personal passages, however, springs not from de Waal’s detailing of his ceramic process but his attempt to grapple with the self-sacrificing act of writing about it. This can perhaps be classified as the book’s dark underplot: the gradual competition building between de Waal’s two projects, and his efforts to alleviate it. As diagrams for his book begin to crowd the walls of his studio, turning them into “a blackboard in some MIT lab” or the diagram of “a weather system coming in, unsettled ahead,” and as he is forced to spend more time drafting paragraphs and less time at the wheel, he tries to claim that the book is not hindering his real art, but is something he must do to evolve creatively. In one of de Waal’s best defenses, he quotes a letter from the philosopher Gottfried Leibniz to Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, one of the inventors of European porcelain: “No one should fear that the contemplation of characters will lead us away from things themselves,” Leibniz says. “On the contrary it leads us into the interior of things.”
Forging deeper into that interior, de Waal is able to mine some of his more illuminating revelations—revelations that allow him to position writing and art not as antagonists but rather as two sides of the same cognitive coin. To bring one example of many:
I hear objects. With objects it is possible not only to sound them, name them and make sense of them through language, but hear their kinship with words themselves. Some things feel like nouns, words with physicality, shape and weight. They have a self-contained quality, a sense that you could put them down and they would displace the same amount of the world around them. Other objects are verbs and are in flux. But when I see them I hear them. A stack of bowls is a chord.
In another, he describes one of his more recent installations as a work of poetry:
And I place [the vessels] on shelves in vitrines seven feet high and eight feet across. I call this quartet of installations breathturn. There are rhythms, repeated sequences of pots, and there are attempted rhythms, pauses and caesuras. There are congestions and releases. There is more white space than words.
These passages are about as close as one can get to the polar opposite of Lessing’s philosophy: colors are sounds, de Waal seems to be saying. Though perhaps less intuitive than Lessing’s stance, the position is in fact the more historically popular one. It reaches, in a way, back to Horace, who first coined the phrase, ut pictura poesis—as in painting, so in poetry—nearly two millennia before Lessing attempted to refute him, and one millennium before the invention of porcelain. In aligning himself with this philosophy, de Waal is also insisting on a less cynical, more all-encompassing, artistic vision.
To be sure, his effort isn’t entirely successful. Though the writer de Waal is compelling when describing his own process and ideas, the narrative history he constructs for porcelain does not always live up to the ceramicist’s work in it. The book’s stylistic flaws include a tendency to open each new section, each shift to a different locale, with formulaic, over-urgent, and repetitive action tags such as “I need to get to Dresden.” Such moments clumsily evoke a BBC documentary, with the solitary art historian talking to the camera while walking slowly through a bustling square. Often, they also lack clear motive, beyond the overall premise of obsession and the idea that an eyewitness account of each location might add interest to the book. I can understand the need for a potter to acquaint him or herself with historical pots and their makers, but why exactly does de Waal need to go all the way to North Carolina to view a seam of kaolin in the woods?
Curiously, it’s almost as if de Waal notices the dilemma, and yet does nothing about it. Before only the third leg of his journey, he sighs, “In terms of storytelling I wonder about how many times I can write about setting out.” But rather than alleviate the dilemma by changing the formula, this quip feels more like an attempt to hock the writing as damaged ware. This laxity—in the context of pottery he calls it “selling your seconds”—is something de Waal would not stoop to in his porcelain work.
In fact, the flaw seems unique to this book, and it’s worth considering why The White Road contains narrative weaknesses that are not apparent in The Hare with Amber Eyes. One possible explanation is that, in taking on Hare, de Waal started with an already airtight narrative, a gripping historical mystery that only needed piecing together. But that explanation seems to me to be overly reductive of de Waal’s ingenuity. Rather, I’m inclined to attribute The White Road’s weaknesses to his relative inexperience as a writer, inexperience that shows through specifically in contrast to his ceramic accomplishments. De Waal seems to experience a palpable discomfort in his new role, even with the success that writing has brought him.
De Waal ends The White Road with a sigh of relief. Having realized that the writing of the book was ultimately more than he bargained for, he returns to porcelain, a way of refocusing, of “finding your way, a route and a detour to yourself.” He stops writing about his art and starts making it again. Even though the book doesn’t quite hold up as work of narrative brilliance, it is a worthwhile diversion through the workings, motivations, and anxieties of an artist struggling to write and a writer struggling to make art.