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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

That Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi...

We all know it. 
We've all experienced it.
A work of art will catch your eye, or a song will hold you captive, or you won't be able to tear your eyes from the way someone moves as they walk past you on the street. If asked what it was that captured your attention, you may say "Oh, it was a good beat" or "She had cool hair" but you're at a loss as to describes that thing that really drew you in.
The French invented a phrase to explain it (of course they did): je ne sais quoi. It literally translates to "I don't know" but it means more than that. The phrase is used now almost exclusively in America to mean a certain mystique- a magnetism, if you will. It means that there's something that's snagged your attention but it's undefinable in quantum terms
I find it in all my favorite books, works of art and people. Sometimes I can pinpoint parts of why I love a thing so much, like the colors or the witty dialouge, but more often than not, my conversations on the subject end with "I don't know why I love it, I JUST DO, OKAY?
I don't know if I could explain why I adore A Girl From Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter. The prose is quite purple in parts, the emotion overdone and sometimes the thread of the story seems to unravel, becoming tangled and strained in parts. But I've read that book at least a dozen times in the last two decades. It breaks my heart, makes me laugh and when I'm done, I'm yearning to dash off into the woods in search of a rare butterfly or moth. 
And trust me when I say I am not a bug person.
Painted landscapes tend to hold the same draw for me. I used to have a print that hung in my office when I worked at the bank, of a painting with a willow drooping over a stream as it wound between two grassy banks. When I was having a stressful day, I would shut my door and just stare at it for a few moments. In that small amount of time, I was able to relax and truly feel as though I was there, hearing the burbling water, feeling the sun on my skin. I couldn't define what about the painting held me, since it was quite commercial, not at all the work of a "master", but whatever it was worked wonders on my tension level!
I think the most successful movie and music stars have this quality. When they take to the stage or screen, you can't look away. Sometimes it's fleeting, never beyond that particular film or record. Whatever magic they captured was finite. And then you have people like Micheal Jackson. Say what you will about his bizarre personal life and appearance but when Micheal took to the stage, it was impossible to deny his magnetic talent.
If you asked me what my goal as a writer is, I wouldn't tell you it's to sell books or makes millions or win awards (although it would be nice). I want someone, someday, to tell their friend or coworker or the random person next to them at the bookstore, "Oh, you must get that book. I couldn't put it down. I don't know what it was about it, but I loved it!

Here are a few examples of things that have captured my fancy lately!

That ruff looks terribly uncomfortable but the lady wears it with aplomb. The painting is Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria by Peter Paul Fleming, dated 1606, and it hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Here's a picture I took, in the woods behind my house. I think it looks like a faery's playground. I'm slightly obsessed with this picture. (My son agrees, and he's always on the hunt. I keep telling him this is not a good idea...)



Here is another painting from the NGA. They are quite lovely, sharing their public domain art online now. If you'd like to check it out, the website is National Gallery of Art.This piece is A Pastoral Scene by Asher Brown Durand, dated 1858. I think it's peaceful and would like to spend a few days lazing around here. (Or maybe I just like his name: Asher Durand. Sounds like a romance novel hero!)


Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

And lastly, another photo I took with my trusty iPhone. This is the inside "roof" of my son's "house" in the woods. Do I have to tell you how much I love that my boys have this amazing imagination and regularly spend time on other worlds or in distant lands? I just wish I didn't have to hear the noise all the way from those distant (not distant enough) lands!


Share with me some of the things that draw you in. When was the last time you were stopped dead in your tracks, ensnared by a new fascination? It could be a guy walking past you in the mall or an art piece or a book passage or a song or whatever, as long as it had that certain je ne sais quoi!

14 comments:

  1. It's so crazy that you post this! I was so riveted by Les Miserables. Like as in I watched it on a work night...and just kept watching it over and over. The imagery. The music. (not that I didn't know how powerful it was, i loved it on Broadway...but to see it in film). Well it was vastly more powerful than I thought. Oh, and that first photo you've shared is stunning. Her gown is just splendid.

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    1. Isn't it pretty? I like her expression. Something about it seems confident, sort of on the edge of flirty. :)

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  2. Olivia,
    What a great blog topic. I've certainly experienced this more than once, but I tend to want to analyze things. Sometimes there really is no definite answer about why I'm drawn to something or someone. The outdoors draws me in for sure. I'm especially fond of trees. Sometimes I'll stop what I'm doing to study the gnarled branches. It's like they are in motion reaching for the sky. I love the sound of them swaying in the wind and the flutter of their leaves.

    With people, I'm drawn to their light. I don't know any other way to describe it. Some people radiate warmth or something electric that holds me enthralled. It's in their eyes. I don't know. It's the je ne sais quoi factor! :)

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    2. I know JUST what you mean, Samantha! I'm a big people watcher (in a totally non-creepy way, of course). It's one of my favorite things to do in a large crowd.

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  3. Sometimes I will get obsessed with a song. I don't know why, but I have to play it over and over. Like last week, at work, I listened to Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee" over and over. Thanks to Spotify, I was able to find like 5 different takes of the same song. Luckily for my co-workers, I have headphones.

    And sometimes, a phrase from a book will get stuck in my head, and I have to write it down so I can get on with life. :)

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    1. Lily, that happens to me too with songs. I get into phases with bands where their "sound" is my most favorite thing to listen to. :) Sometimes the phase is short, maybe a few weeks or a month, and other times I'll listen to the same album for years!

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  4. I love the water. Oceans, I have a great view from my desk, lakes, streams, any body of water facinates me. And boats, not huge cruise ships or freighters, though I have an unexplained love for tug boats,I think they are really cute, but sailing ships.

    This morning, I was able to get on a paddle board and go around Megan's Bay. I was in heaven.

    Tweeted.

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    1. Thanks for tweeting it, Ella! And I agree about water. One of the things I love to do with my husband is to find a restaurant on the water and have dinner while listening to the waves/river slap against the docks. And I sleep every night using a rain app on my iPhone. It's very soothing, the sound of running water.

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    2. You and me both, Ella. I love the water, boats and ships. I can't explain why, although it's probably due to the fact that my grandfather was a sailor and a navyman. The pictures he has of his trips overseas have fascinated me since I was very, very young. And yes, there is a certain fascination to tug boats. I still remember my first view of the Mississippi river and seeing my first tug boat. Great memory. I'm glad to see I'm not the only one with this fascination.

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  5. Right now, I am totally enthralled with anything to do with cats. It all started in August when we got our first kitty, followed a few months later with getting another one. I can’t get enough of the funny cat cartoons on Facebook and keep sending them to my husband on email. We spend so much time during the day playing with and enjoying our babies to the point, one would think we’re obsessed with them. Hmmmm.....”Mewonders" if this could lead to that terrible affliction known as...The Crazy Cat Lady! ;-)

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    1. LOL! I don't know, Connie, that's Catherine Gayle's department. I'm allergic! ;D There is something fascinating about new pets, and babies. My mom used to say when my first son was born, "It's a good thing new parents are so obsessed with every little thing their baby does, because they are too broke and tired to do anything else!"

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  6. There's this stretch of the road that I drive through nearly everyday that is enveloped by mossy craggy trees. I love them in every season. I feel like I'm traveling through fairyland every single time.
    Also, Waterhouse paintings captivate me, especially The Lady of Shalott. And Florence Welch's voice, and abandoned houses and barns, and too many books to count.
    I love this post. Thanks for writing it.

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  7. As I said in the reply to Ella, water, boats, and ships are my fascination. Currently I'm fascinated with the construction of Viking ships. Their technology was so advanced for their time. I could study ships for hours. Most people would get bored with the technical mumbo jumbo but I find it enthralling. Great blog!

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