Chiaroscuro


(Quoted from The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1934 ed.) “[Italian: “light-dark”] noun: Treatment of light & shade in painting; light & shade effects in nature; variation, relief, handling of transitions, use of contrast, in literature, etc. adjective: half-revealed.”

On certain Projective [as opposed to Objective] psychological tests–where there supposedly aren’t any “right or wrong” answers, only “revealing” ones–the subject’s use of chiaroscuro [attention to the shading of an inkblot or an ambiguous drawing] has been interpreted in various ways, over the decades. The earliest developers of such tests [seeming to regard their own free associations to “light & dark” imagery as the norm] came up with: “anxiety about shadowy situations,” “fear of the dark,” and “hypervigilance.” I’m sure Carravaggio and his buddies in the artistic school of tenebrism would be amused to know that they were all Nervous Nellies.

By the time I was in grad school, the received wisdom was that use of chiaroscuro–a tendency to go beyond Black & White perceptions of an ambiguous situation, and instead to take into consideration the nuanced gray areas–reflected a capacity for abstract reasoning and empathy.

Like most things in psychology and real life, it could be both, ya know. Lili is most likely to react with alarm to suspected “intruders into her territory” when the light is tenebrous–at dawn & dusk. Like the lads in the lamppost anecdote, most scientific researchers trope to the light, rather than trolling through the dark alleys of half-revealed clues–even if that’s where the keys to understanding emotions and behavior lie. If we can be brave enough to tolerate the tenebrous subjunctive mood–“Well, I can’t say for sure, but it might be this…”–we can often stumble upon a useful truth.

Something seems to be troubling you. You are snapping at others, and shedding more tears than usual, and what a headache you just got! Oy, veh! Could you maybe be angry at someone or some situation? A little something up your nose? Rather than assume you are coming down with a Clinical Depression or “The Dreadful Lurgy” [aka the ‘flu], why not try a little poking around in the shadows of you mind, to see if you can get some instant relief? The “Always? Not always!” prof I told you about had a simple remedy for sudden-onset headache. “Say the name of the guy whose head you want to bash in!” [“Always a guy? Not always.”] Either the headache will go away right then, or you may be having an intra-cranial event. Are you willing to try it, before setting off for the ER? Maybe you could try it on the way. Just to see.

My favorite source of humor on weekday mornings is The Chris Moyles Show on BBC Radio One. The other day Chris was mildly mocking their light-weight, female sports reporter, who had apparently gotten “high as a kite” on one glass of wine at a Karaoke event they were hosting in a provincial pub. “When Carrie’s drunk, she could pick a fight with her own shadow: ‘Stop following me around, and falling at my feet!'”

Feel free to use it. And the possible headache cure, as well.

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Filed under aggression happens, black and white thinking, gets right up my nose, semiotics

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