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Intermedial Arts

Intermedial Arts:
Disrupting, Remembering
and Transforming Media

Edited by

Leena Eilittä
with Liliane Louvel and Sabine Kim
Intermedial Arts:
Disrupting, Remembering and Transforming Media
Edited by Leena Eilittä
with Liliane Louvel and Sabine Kim

This book first published 2012

Cambridge Scholars Publishing

12 Back Chapman Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE6 2XX, UK

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Copyright © 2012 by Leena Eilittä with Liliane Louvel and Sabine Kim and contributors

All rights for this book reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system,
or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or
otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner.

ISBN (10): 1-4438-3285-5, ISBN (13): 978-1-4438-3285-4


Introduction: From Interdisciplinarity to Intermediality............................ vii

Leena Eilittä

Acknowledgements ................................................................................... xv

Disrupting Media

Intermedial Provocations: Paul Durcan’s Desecrating Art Gallery ............. 3

Liliane Louvel

What Icarus Knew: On the Intermedial Meaning of Objects

and Ekphrasis in Auden and Williams....................................................... 21
Jarkko Toikkanen

Christian Dotremont’s Logograms:

An Intermedial Work avant la lettre ......................................................... 33
Raluca Lupu-Onet

Moving Letters and Complex Medial Limitations in Digital Poetry ......... 51

Mette-Marie Zacher Sørensen

Remembering Media

A Cultural Poetics of the Photo-Documentary: James Agee

and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men Revisited .............. 63
Markku Lehtimäki

Historical Fiction and Ekphrasis in Leena Lander’s The Order ................ 79

Mari Hatavara

Forms of Ekphrasis in D’Annunzio’s The Child of Pleasure .................... 97

Helena Eskelinen
vi Table of Contents

Constructing Media at the Turn of the 18th Century:

Painting and Poetry in Dryden, Addison and Richardson ....................... 111
Tommi Kakko

Transforming Media

Master and Margarita: From Novel to Interactive

Audiovisual Adaptation........................................................................... 127
Nuno N. Correia

The Hypothetical Stratagems of Borges and Bertolucci.......................... 147

Henry Bacon

Intermediality and the Refusal of Interdisciplinarity in

Stravinsky’s Music .................................................................................. 159
Peter Dayan

Sonic Events, Media Archives, Poetic Transfers:

Emily Dickinson and the Phonograph ..................................................... 173
Sabine Kim


Remains to be Seen: Intermediality, Ekphrasis and Institution ............... 193

James Cisneros

Contributors............................................................................................. 213

Index of Names........................................................................................ 217

Subject Index ........................................................................................... 223



In recent years, studies concerning the relations between the arts have
become one of the major research areas in literary studies in particular.
This has not only contributed to a growing number of publications focus-
sing on intermedial relations, but also to those studies in which an urgent
need for theoretical re-thinking has been emphasised. Whereas once these
relations were discussed in interdisciplinary or interart terms, the rapidly
changing scene of theoretical discussion has introduced new concepts,
terms and ideas to be reassessed in critical discussion.
The term intermediality is one of the most promising concepts intro-
duced into the present discussion, in which new paradigms and the tradi-
tion of artistic interrelatedness remain interconnected. Perhaps the greatest
merit of intermediality lies in its success in making a “leap” from past uses
of artistic interrelatedness to our contemporary medial age, in which litera-
ture may be understood as a medium. This ambitious undertaking has con-
tributed to the liberation of literature—along with other art forms—from
an isolated position in the established scholarly landscape with its clear-cut
borderlines between disciplines. In this sense, intermediality has a close
affinity with the aims of so-called French theory. Beginning in the 1980s,
Roland Barthes, for example, pointed out that everything, from painting
through objects and practices to people, can be studied as “text.” The in-
fluential theories launched by such thinkers as Foucault, Althusser, Lacan
and Derrida have put forward new ideas about the social production of
meaning, gender differences and language. Julia Kristeva’s notion of inter-
textuality, which focuses on the relations between texts, is the most rele-
vant theory for intermediality. For Kristeva, the text is a dynamic mosaic
of quotations that includes absorptions and transformations of other texts.
Kristeva’s theory develops the ideas of Bakhtin’s principle of dialogicity,
which assumes that words are filled with dialogic overtones and with
echoes and reverberations of other utterances. Bakhtin’s theory allows the
viii Introduction

view that verbal expressions are not only influenced by expressions of a

similar art but also by other media and their structures. However, although
Bakhtin’s and Kristeva’s theories have been important for intermediality
to come into being, neither of these theories has really taken into consid-
eration the perspective of medial transformations and fusions currently
taking place.
In order to grasp the change which intermediality has brought about in
theoretical discussions, we should first pay attention to the meaning of the
word medium, which has to be specified. In this context, it is no longer
sufficient to conceive media as a means of mechanical transmission which
convey some kind of information from a “producer” to a “receiver.” In this
new context, medium should be understood as that which mediates on the
basis of meaningful signs or sign configurations, with the help of suitable
transmitters for and between humans over spatial and historical distances.
J. E. Müller has pointed out that a change from media product to inter-
media product takes place if a multi-media coexistence of different media
quotations and elements is transformed into a conceptual coexistence of
intermedia. Irina O. Rajewsky has made clear how such intermedial co-
existence comes into being in works of art: either via combinations or
transformations or references to another media. Media combination points
to those works of art which benefit from two or more forms of art, such as
opera, film or the photo novel. Media change highlights works of art that
transform one form of art into another, such as takes place in the filming
of literature. The third form of intermediality draws attention to works of
art in which there is a reference to another artwork or to another artistic
system altogether. This form of intermediality comes up, for example, in
literary texts which describe a painting or a piece of music. In such cases,
the target media (the painting or piece of music) is not materially present
but remains present through being described or in some other way suggest-
ed in the source media (i.e., in the literary work).
It is relevant to pay more attention to how different media combin-
ations, transformations and references to other media change our reception
of a work of art. J. E. Müller suggests that intermedial coexistence fore-
grounds the aesthetic refractions and faults which open new dimensions of
experience to the recipient. Such intermedial coexistence introduces an
awareness of the aesthetics of another medium not only in combinations of
other media but also in those transformations of and references to other
media in which these media are no longer materially present. For example,
intermedial references to works of visual art or to music in a literary narr-
ative contribute to the audio-visual qualities of that narrative. Thinking
further in these terms will eventually help us to get away from traditional
Intermedial Arts ix

dichotomies and move toward a meta-definition of media. Lars Elleström

has pointed out that a more mature intermedial perspective should build on
comparisons and distinctions that take into consideration the full complex-
ities of media. Instead of furthering such dichotomies as verbal–visual or
verbal–acoustic, we should speak about, Elleström has argued, different
modalities in interdisciplinary relations—which he has defined as the four
modes of the material, the sensorial, the spatiotemporal and the semiotic.
Although the term intermediality puts interdisciplinary relations into a
new medial context, we should also bear in mind that intermediality forms
a link to earlier forms of poetic understanding. Here I am thinking not only
of such traditions as ekphrasis, ut pictura poesis and the sister arts but
also, for example, those forms of (oral) poetry which put emphasis on the
audibility of language, and of ancient writings in which there was an affin-
ity of sign and text. While making us aware of the medial communication
between the arts, intermediality draws our attention to the aesthetic pres-
ence of other arts in those cases that have frequently been discussed mere-
ly as translations from one art to another. Intermedial narratives put new
demands on the reader’s involvement with the text and particularly on the
understanding of genre, which in such narratives frequently go beyond the
traditional definitions.
The essays in the present collection provide rewarding readings of
intermedial relations between written word, visual image and acoustics/music.
Although intermediality does not claim the status of a tightly defined re-
search paradigm, these essays position intermediality as a praxis of inter-
pretive analysis in order to show how intermediality challenges and trans-
forms our notion of art and our reception of experience. Although essays
on literature dominate this collection, there are also intermedial analyses
of works of theatre, cinema and music. In addition, this collection includes
essays reflecting on historical and philosophical as well as institutional
presuppositions of intermediality.

Disrupting Media. Liliane Louvel addresses some of the key questions of

intermedial studies in her article “Intermedial Provocations: Paul Durcan’s
Desecrating Art Gallery.” She analyses Durcan’s Crazy about Women, a
collection of poems based on paintings in the National Gallery of Ireland,
in terms of its “apparatus,” linking Durcan’s poetics to issues of desecra-
tion or profanation, to that of the erotic of the image and to questions of
anachronism as a heuristic tool. Louvel’s analysis of Durcan’s work
allows her to discuss the reception of word/image in terms of a concept
she has introduced in her theoretical writings, “the pictorial third,” which
provides a conceptual means to avoid the pitfalls of dualistic thinking in
x Introduction

intermedial studies. In his article “What Icarus Knew: On the Intermedial

Meaning of Objects and Ekphrasis in Auden and Williams,” Jarkko
Toikkanen sets as his goal the definition of the object of art in its inter-
medial relations. He argues that the discursive method of visual interpre-
tation developed in contemporary theory actually fails to account for the
intermedial meaning of the objects which he finds presented by W. H.
Auden and William Carlos Williams.
Raluca Lupu-Onet brings a further modernist perspective to bear on
intermedial discussion with her essay “Christian Dotremont’s Logograms:
An Intermedial Work avant la lettre.” Her interest focuses upon the hybrid
poems of Belgian poet Christian Dotremont, who co-founded the CoBrA
movement experimenting with pluralistic approaches to art. Dotremont’s
logograms came into being through his explorations of the materiality of
language—ideas which have continued to influence hybrid poetry and to
redefine text as a visual object. Lupu-Onet emphasises the impact of the
CoBrA group on the development of intermedial studies, in which the
reader emerges as a perceiver as well. Similarly, in her essay “Moving
Letters and Complex Medial Limitations in Digital Poetry,” Mette-Marie
Zacher Sørensen points out how digital poems borrow qualities from other
media and cause a change in perception from the semiotic system of
reading typical for literature to the semiotic system of viewing typical for
art. The works of concrete poetry by Reinhard Döhl and digital poetry by
Philippe Bootz which Zacher Sørensen discusses show how a kind of
doubling of semantic meaning occurs, in which the optical gesture of a
word is added to its semantic meaning. By drawing upon recent meta-
definitions of media, Zacher Sørensen reflects upon the aesthetics of
digital poetry in which the concrete poetry movement contributes to the
interplay of meaning. Both Lupu-Onet and Zacher Sørensen address inter-
mediality as a relation that causes a change in how we read, or more
precisely, how we engage in practices of interpretation.

Remembering Media. In his article “A Cultural Poetics of the Photo-

Documentary: James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Fam-
ous Men Revisited,” Markku Lehtimäki argues that the meaning of works
of art cannot be separated from the context of their production, and that
media can thus act as carriers of memory in a double sense. In his analysis
of the text jointly created by writer James Agee and photographer Walker
Evans, Lehtimäki maintains that the book acts as both a document of
tenant farming in Depression-era America and as a meditation on its own
shortcomings in “realistic” representation. According to Lehtimäki, one
should take into account the pragmatic, rhetorical, and political aspects of
Intermedial Arts xi

photo-documentary processes, and to distinguish visual representations

from the extratextual reality which is always more complicated than any
framed image. In her essay “Historical Fiction and Ekphrasis in Leena
Lander’s The Order,” Mari Hatavara is interested in studying how certain
narratives use visual means to represent the past. She first points to the
interpretive leap which both ekphrasis and historical fiction include.
Whereas in ekphrasis, the textual “other”—the visual—remains absent, in
historiography it is the temporal other—the past—which is absent. In her
analysis of Lander’s historical novel The Order (2003), Hatavara points
out how the narrator invites the reader to “picture” the Finnish civil war
via characters who recall this past through photographs and visual mem-
ories. Such intermedial expansion of narrativity succeeds in forming a link
between the present of the reader and the past of the story, in which the
narrator’s retrospective quest for the past turns out to evoke a plurality of
pasts that still exert influence upon the present. History is thus not to be
explained by full narrativization but serves to maintain the friction be-
tween the interpreter and the object of interpretation.
In her article “Forms of Ekphrasis in D’Annunzio’s The Child of Plea-
sure,” Helena Eskelinen shows how the descriptions of paintings in fic-
tional narrative are influenced by former ekphrastic descriptions. Her ex-
ample is taken from The Child of Pleasure, the first novel in a trilogy by
Gabriele D’Annunzio, a highly controversial figure because of his close-
ness to the Italian Fascist party, which consists of descriptions of paintings
that are in fact “borrowings” from various earlier literary sources con-
cerning the works of art. Discussing a scene which takes place in a library,
Eskelinen shows how the influence of ekphrasis has been more generally
twofold: it has not only influenced the way writers write about an artwork
but has also influenced the way the artwork has been seen. In his article
“Constructing Media at the Turn of the Eighteenth Century: Painting and
Poetry in Dryden, Addison and Richardson,” Tommi Kakko re-examines
eighteenth-century discussions of media and mediality. He argues that a
tendency to reduce various media to a single master medium is already to
be found in the contemporary criticism of Locke’s philosophy as discussed
by John Dryden, Joseph Addison and Jonathan Richardson. According to
Kakko, modern medial theories of the arts benefit from the study of the
arguments that have shaped the theoretical field in the past.

Transforming Media. In his article “Master and Margarita: From Novel

to Interactive Audiovisual Adaptation,” Nuno N. Correia discusses his
own video adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel of the same name.
Correia’s goal in this adaptation was to find the visual means to adapt Bul-
xii Introduction

gakov’s novel with an aim of creating a coherent and autonomous work

expressing the artistic view of the novelist. His further concern was to
integrate music and motion graphics in this project in a way that was
engaging to experience. Apart from carefully elaborating the change of
media in which the visual and acoustic were to replace Bulgakov’s narra-
tive means without sacrificing Bulgakov’s artistic ambitions, Correia also
reflects historically and theoretically upon such adaptations. Henry Bacon
discusses Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem, which is a cine-
matic adaptation of Jorge Luis Borges’s Theme of the Traitor and the
Hero. By focussing upon the narrative concept of hypothetical focalis-
ation, Bacon analyses how the indeterminacy of narration is translated
from the verbal novel into that of visual cinema. He shows how Berto-
lucci, by suggestive change of historical setting, partial transformation of
the story material and subtle filmic style, has transposed the mode of the
original text into his own cinematic medium.
Peter Dayan reflects upon intermediality and music in his article “In-
termediality and the Refusal of Interdisciplinarity in Stravinsky’s Music.”
As Dayan recounts, many post-Wagnerian composers deny that an inter-
medial connection exists in their works. Using Stravinsky as his major ex-
ample, Dayan points out that for the composer, words are the medium of
expression and music cannot do anything analogous to what words effect.
By analysing several examples from Stravinsky’s compositions, Dayan is
interested in solving the paradox which exists regarding Stravinsky’s stub-
born refusal to admit any word/music connection in his compositions,
despite his lifelong interest in the literary setting. In her article “Sonic
Events, Media Archives, Poetic Transfers: Emily Dickinson and the
Phonograph,” Sabine Kim explores the trope of vocality in Emily Dickin-
son’s poetry as a pre-figuration of phonography and the “speaking mach-
ines” which were invented in the nineteenth century.

Conclusion. In the final essay of this collection, James Cisneros draws

certain programmatic conclusions about the role of intermediality in the
current world. In his essay “Remains to be Seen: Intermediality, Ekphra-
sis, and Institution,” he suggests that the rise of intermediality as a field of
research is the product of a greater shift within the university in a world of
global market dynamics and tele-technologies. Cisneros argues that inter-
mediality, as a symptom of this juncture, opens the possibility for a histor-
ical critique of today’s institutional knowledge. His article shows how in-
termediality may be linked to earlier debates about the innovative role of
aesthetic knowledge—in which the relations between the arts have played
an important role since the advent of Romanticism.
Intermedial Arts xiii

Works Cited
Elleström, Lars, ed. 2010. Media Borders, Multimodality and Intermedi-
ality. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Müller, J. E. 1996. Intermedialität: Formen moderner kultureller Kommu-
nikation. Münster: Nodus.
Rajewsky, Irina O. 2005. “Intermediality, Intertextuality and Remedi-
ation.” Intermédialités 6: 43–64.
—. 2002. Intermedialität. Tübingen: Francke.

I wish to express my gratitude to all those involved in the project which

has led to this volume. The Federation of Finnish Learned Societies, the
Institutes of Comparative and Finnish Literature as well as the Rector’s
Office of Helsinki University provided the financial means to invite the
contributors of this volume to the conference which took place in Helsinki
in 2010. I wish to thank the co-organisers of the conference, Dr. Anna
Hollsten and Laura Wahlfors, for their help. Finally, I would like to thank
the co-editors of this volume: Liliane Louvel for her support and
comments upon the first drafts of these papers, and, last but not least,
Sabine Kim for her careful copy-editing of the final versions of these

Leena Eilittä


This article will address some of the key questions of intermedial studies,
taking up the example of Irish poet Paul Durcan’s work. The issue of the
word/image relationship may be tackled in terms of its “apparatus” and
linked to issues of desecration. It is also a question of the erotic linked to
image, and of anachronism and of its reception in “the pictorial third.” The
metaphor of the (fish)net and the riddle will help me structure this article. I
will hold that word and image, put together in the restrained space of text,
of its sieve, “sizzle” or emit a kind of sizzling as a result of their contact.
Image strives for advent and to arise, as it arose for the poet. Is it the
power of the text (still envisaged in its masculine dimension) to give flesh
back to image once again, in order to give it back its life? Or is not the
image’s resistance so great that it inspires text, in a never-ending process?
This is one of the questions intermedial studies may address. Indeed, if
Durcan is “Crazy about Women,” he is also crazy about images.

Keywords: word/image relations, apparatus, “pictorial third,” Paul Durcan

I will start with an image in keeping with our intermedial field of research:
Parmigianino’s drawing representing Vulcan catching Venus and Mars in
the act, and casting a net over the two culprits while his body testifies to a
strong corporeal reaction to the scene. If, according to the current way of
envisaging the word/image relationship, painting is associated with the
feminine (Venus) and poetry with the masculine (Mars), Vulcan might
then represent the interpreter or hermeneut casting the net of interpretation
over the two godly figures. This is a scene that Paul Durcan would have
relished. It might also represent our task, i.e., to capture in the meshes of
4 Intermedial Provocations: Paul Durcan’s Desecrating Art Gallery

the interpretive net, sieve or riddle,1 the enigma of the word/image relation-
ship, in its irenic and/or antagonistic dimension. Lessing clearly saw the
two arts in gender terms: “[P]aintings, like women, are ideally silent,
beautiful creatures designed for the gratification of the eye, in contrast to
the sublime eloquence proper to the manly art of poetry” (1962: 21). To
see intermedial transposition in terms of an erotic net fits in with Durcan’s
project when writing Crazy about Women: “the intercourse between what
is painted and what is written [is] as reciprocal as it is inevitable” (Durcan
1991: xi).

Casting the Net of Words over Images:

Durcan’s “apparatus”
Crazy about Women is Paul Durcan’s first project focussing on Dublin’s
National Art Gallery. It evolved from a proposal the director submitted to
the poet on the occasion of the eponymous exhibition:
In the summer of 1990 I was invited by the National Gallery of Ireland to
compose a book of poems out of my experience of the Gallery and its col-
lection.2 I accepted the invitation on the basis that the book would not be a
coffee table book but a book as well-founded and inexorable as any other
book of mine. (Durcan 1991: x)

The “plasticity” of the image and its capacity to arouse emotion are fore-
grounded in assistant director Dr Brian P. Kennedy’s insistence on the
uniquely personal response of the writer, namely, that “Paul Durcan is fas-
cinated by the potential of paintings to offer us a unique and personal
relationship with a visual image.… [Paintings] prompt the entire range of
human emotions and provoke a different reaction depending on our mood
as we view them” (Kennedy 1991: i).
The hiatus between arousal and expression, together with the problem-
atic “statement function” of the visual image, engender a fruitful slippage,
both poetic and fictional, which the viewer/reader may take advantage of
in a true “encounter,” as Blanchot defined it:
This infinite movement which constitutes the experience of meeting itself
(as the event of experience, the present event of the meeting) always
standing on the margin of the interplay and of the moment when it asserts
itself; for it is this very gap, this imaginary distance, where absence is
achieved. (Blanchot 1989: 18)3

This gap is what made Paul Durcan’s book possible. Crazy about
Women was followed by a second publication dedicated to the London
Liliane Louvel 5

National Gallery and entitled Give Me Your Hand (1994). I was intrigued
by this overt example of “word and image” relationship so clearly working
as such and I thought this was indeed a thought-provoking instance of
intermedial studies.

Durcan’s Gallery: An Apparatus

As we turn the pages of Durcan’s poetry collection, we realise that, in the
manner of the grand tradition, Durcan pursues the fiction of a word/image
gallery respecting the same lines as one’s trajectory while walking through
the rooms of Dublin’s National Gallery. Roger de Piles broached this
subject in his famous Cours de peinture par principes in which he envis-
ages painting as a pilgrimage one makes when moving from one part of a
painting to another, or from one genre to another:
For painting must be regarded as a long pilgrimage, as when while travel-
ling one sees several things capable of pleasantly entertaining one’s mind
for some time. The different parts of this art are considered; one makes a
stop while moving on, as a traveller will stop at resting places along his
way. (de Piles 1989: 90)

The relationship between painting and pilgrimage insists on the

movement one is induced to undertake. The architectural gallery provided
a private space for ladies in particular to take some manner of exercise.
Juxtaposing paintings and poems, the titles of which are borrowed from
the painted works, Durcan offers the viewer–reader a series of works
which constitute his “dispositif,” a concept Giorgio Agamben recently
theorised, which we could translate as “apparatus”:
It is clear that the term, both in common usage and as Foucault proposes,
seems to refer to a set of practices and mechanisms (simultaneously dis-
cursive and non-discursive, judiciary, technical and military) aiming at
coping with an emergency to obtain a more or less immediate effect.
(Agamben 2007: 20)

He gives a broader definition a few pages later: “I call apparatus all that
has the capacity to capture, orient, determine, catch, model, control and
direct living beings’ gestures, behaviours, opinions and discourses”
(Agamben 2007: 31). An apparatus then is a way of constraining people,
of wielding power over them. It is also a network. In Durcan’s case, the
apparatus works both ways: It is the answer to a particular constraint, that
of the Gallery commission (the term recalling the architectural structure
which conditions the visitor’s movements), and it also exerts a constraint
6 Intermedial Provocations: Paul Durcan’s Desecrating Art Gallery

on the viewer, that of a set reading. It is a praxis and also an oikonomia,

i.e., an economy of the visible.4 The theological heritage of the apparatus
linked to oikonomia and translated by Latin theologians as dis-positio
underlies Durcan’s work.5 And the concept of image is linked to pres-
ence/absence, to the doctrine of Incarnation and the figure of Christ as
God’s son modelled in His image. This is a trait we shall find in Durcan’s
work, which is immersed in the poet’s religious Irish background. The
doctrine of transusbstantiation also plays a part here. Serge Tisseron re-
calls this when he insists on the role of the body in the visual process and
its link with the Holy Trinity: “Like Christ who in Christian theology
occupies an essential position as mediator between God and men, image is
the essential mediation between bodies and words” (2003: 125–126). The
reader’s body will be the transmuting sieve or net (like that of enigma).
Durcan’s “apparatus” works on the “disposition” of 49 images refer-
ring to 47 paintings and two sculptures that accompany 47 poems. They
either face one another or follow one another. At times an image is in-
serted within a poem. The motif of an Irish harp, printed in the centre of a
page, separates the different “chapters.” This choice imparts rhythm to the
work.6 Thus the reader’s mind is made to look at Durcan’s word/image
apparatus in a specific way, creating an object we may also call an icono-
text, or more precisely, an iconopoem. The latter builds up the fiction of a
gallery made up of a selection of the National Gallery’s works.
To this spatial aspect of the apparatus, we may add what I will call a
“lecture/voyure” (a reading and a sighting), which is a more “temporal”
reflection on the current formula, such as “after” the great masters. As a
matter of course, Durcan’s project was carried out “after” the paintings.
The use of “after” in such occurrences as “After Brueghel”—like in the
numerous poems7 composed “after” The Fall of Icarus—deserves atten-
tion. The ambiguity of the term is telling. Of course, it means the poem
takes after the painting and will purport to offer an ekphrasis of the paint-
ing a la mode of the poet. It pays homage to the generating power of the
image at the origin of discourse. But it also clearly signals the anachronis-
tic link between poem and painting: The poem was written “after” the
painting. Blanchot has pointed to such a multiple connotation:
Things aren’t that simple. The ambiguity comes from the ambiguity of
time which comes into play here and enables one to say and feel that the
fascinating image of experience is at a certain time present, whereas this
presence does not exist in any present time; it even destroys the present it
seems to penetrate. (1989: 18)
Liliane Louvel 7

Furthermore, psychoanalysis has pointed out the complex interplay be-

tween word and image: Freud insisted on the gap between word and image
when he remarked that dreams think in images and that language comes
after the dream to cast its net onto the images. As long as a trace of image
lingers, the work of dream-elucidation is not finished (see Damisch 1995:
52).8 For psychoanalysts, language causes images to disappear. However,
Jean Rousset has provided a counter-argument. Working on ekphrasis, he
has remarked that, when an image arises from a text, the latter disappears:
I will make a last point without further ado, although probably a difficult
one to theorise: What happens in the mind of the person busy reading a
description? If he or she transposes the written words into (absent) things,
he or she will transform them into a mental simulacrum, in other words:
He or she visualizes it. In so doing, he or she substitutes this simulacrum
for the text, reduced to the role of support, which means it erases and
eventually destroys the text. (Rousset 1990: 163)

Since writing about painting refers to an image created before the ver-
bal text, the critic cannot dispense with anachronism as a precious critical
heuristic tool. This is one of the staples of Georges Didi-Huberman’s criti-
cal stance when he remarks on the absence/presence of the subject in its
What does it take to understand an image? Experience teaches us that,
while looking at it, we must pay attention to its temporal content, to the
polyrhythmic quality of which it is made up. Yet the standard historical
models—past and present, ancient and new, obsolescence and renaissance,
modern and postmodern—fail to describe this complexity of image. (Didi-
Huberman 2002: book cover)

The recognition of the ghostlike quality of the image as “survivor,” in

keeping with Aby Warburg’s concept of Nachleben, seems of primary
import for Didi-Huberman, who insists on the role of memory in picturing
our culture. Writing “after” a painting means adding one more layer of
fiction-as-interpretation to it, as well as an additional layer of time.
Therefore we can draw the first of our conclusions: Intermedial transp-
osition is a combination of space and time that defies G.E. Lessing’s clear-
cut separation between the arts in his Laocoön (published 1766). Further-
more, a kind of temporal hiatus exists between image–time and text–time
which constitutes a particular apparatus ascribing a specific place in a
specific historical context to the spectator. Transaction and transposition
are key concepts of the intermedial experience, as Marcel Broodthaers has
so wonderfully exemplified with his graphic example of the exchange and
transaction between poetry and the visual in his famous double “picture”:
8 Intermedial Provocations: Paul Durcan’s Desecrating Art Gallery

Gedicht/poem/poème, change/exchange/Wechsel, an avatar of which is on

view in the Barcelona Museum of Modern Art.
In Durcan’s gallery, both time and space are put to work, combining
the two arts and producing a new “object” offering a fine instance of hy-
bridity, an iconopoem. Speed, the combination of time and space, and
rhythm, that of the flux of the voice and of a walk, enable us to rethink this
artistic object beyond the age-old word/image opposition and beyond the
paragone. Hence they are “art objects,” as Jeanette Winterson demon-
strated in her eponymous work; that is, art makes a statement and thinks of
art with its own means:

The picture on my wall, art object and art process, is a living line of
movement, a wave of colour that repercusses in my body, colouring it, col-
ouring the new present, the future, and even the past, which cannot now be
considered outside of the light of the painting. […]
Process, the energy in being, the refusal of finality, which is not the
same thing as the refusal of completeness, sets art, all art, apart from the
end-stop world that is always calling “Time Please!” […] The arts stand in
the way of this doomsaying. Art objects. The nouns become an active force
not a collector’s item. Art objects. (Winterson 1996: 19)

In Paul Durcan’s case, I would argue that some of his poems, the majority
of which were written “after” religious paintings, actually aim at dese-
crating them while revealing their erotic flavour. Durcan’s words are truly
iconoclastic, which is not one of the lesser paradoxes. The reader going
through Durcan’s gallery gradually understands that the new narrative
derived from ancient painting often verges on blasphemy if not on the
absurd. In Profanations, Agamben defines desecration as the act of re-
storing to the profane sphere what had been restricted to the sacred one:
Whereas to consecrate (sacrare) designated the way things used to leave
the sphere of the human law, to desecrate, on the contrary, meant their
restitution to men’s free usage. […] Pure, profane, freed from the sacred
names is this thing which is restored to men’s common use. But use does
not appear here as something natural. On the contrary, it can only be
reached through desecration. So there seems to be a particular relation
between “using” and “desecrating.” (Agamben 2006: 95–96)

By lifting certain paintings out of their “sacred” locus of the museum

and using them in a way that differs from their original sacred function as
religious paintings, Durcan “uses” them for his own purpose and dese-
Liliane Louvel 9

crates them. He recycles them into a new work of art, and to make sure the
reader understands the profaning nature of his art, he consistently inscribes
their themes with a mundane iconoclastic momentum. The book with the
reproduced masterpieces belongs to one’s private sphere when perused at
leisure at home. This achieves part of the desecration, for “to desecrate not
only means to abolish and erase separations, but to learn how to use them
in a new way, to play with them” (Agamben 2006: 115).
In Durcan’s case, the intermedial relationship may be seen as an “inter-
course” where painting is imbued with an erotic flavour by the text, a fact
that his iconoclastic poems, written “after” the paintings, show. It is a way
of staging the strong attraction between painting and poetry, of envisaging
their transposition as peaceful while giving flesh to what stood lifeless in a
museum. The poem is the result of this interart negotiation in which the
loser is also the winner, where ekphrasis imparts the text with its enargeia.

The Apparatus at Work: Durcan’s

“dis–covering” Enterprise
Durcan’s word/image apparatus strictly matches poems with paintings,
often with an erotic flavour. The works were freely selected by Durcan,
who, in true postmodern manner, both celebrates and debunks them, a
paradoxical enterprise for a dedicated iconophile who defines his “lifelong
obsession with picture-making” in conjugal terms:
It is promulgated by the arbiters of culture that an artist should have only
one spouse. An artist such as myself with the two spouses of poetry and
picture-making is not looked upon favourably by the chaperones of art.
The challenge of art is to be inclusive, and Crazy About Women, born out
of a lifetime’s romance with the National Gallery of Ireland, is my attempt
to be so inclusive as to make the intercourse between what is painted and
what is written as reciprocal as it is inevitable. (Durcan 1991: xi, my em-

Rest on the Flight into Egypt with the Infant St John the Baptist, attributed
to Francesco Granacci (c. 1494); Veneration of the Eucharist by Jacob
Jordaens (1630); and the Portrait of Bishop Robert Clayton and his Wife
Katherine (c. 1740) by James Latham will prove my point. The first two
paintings illustrate a sacred subject with duly registered iconography. The
third, although profane, is nevertheless the portrait of a clergyman in full
garb. The three poems operate on the same “veneration”/“desecration”
mode in which “desecration is the counter apparatus which renders unto
common use what sacrifice had separated and divided” (Agamben 2006:
10 Intermedial Provocations: Paul Durcan’s Desecrating Art Gallery

40). Three aspects of this complex operation will be examined to see how
it emerges from the image to restore its erotic power, once the sacred net
has been lifted.
The poem The Holy Family with St John after Granacci (referring to
the painting’s former title) displays a systematic pattern of reversal. The
traditional treatment of the episode is turned upon its head. The role of the
speaker is attributed to the smallest and humblest character, the rower in
the tiny boat in the background of the picture. His point of view on the
family is given from the back. He gives pride of place to the donkey, one
of the lowest creatures in the animal kingdom (but nevertheless one of the
two which, according to tradition, witnessed Jesus’s birth). He imagines
the donkey deep in conversation with Joseph about his spouse. Thus the
Holy subject is reduced to the level of idle talk. The fact that the speaker
eventually enjoys a good pint of Guinness with a “halo” at “The Judge and
Jury,” shows that the profane has invaded the sacred, when “to use” is to
profane. The Holy Family is demoted to the level of “the human family”
whereas the too-human animal is gifted with speech.
Even iconography is put to the test of common use: the “halo” be-
comes a frisby and the Virgin’s sandals take on the shape of a horsehoof.
Her body is described with the detail of blazon: “her toes, her knuckles,
her eyebrows” emerge as one follows the viewer’s eyes and envisions the
parts evoked. As for St John’s little penis, it “peers out like a bullfinch
from a bough.” The desire to turn values upside down, to debase the sa-
cred with the mundane, is close to blasphemy when the holy image be-
comes “a pretty emotional picture.” The last word is given to the donkey’s
enigmatic thoughts: “what is it that a donkey sees in a man?” Thus the
“apparatus” shows itself as a way of constraining the spectator to look at
the painting in the same manner as the speaker, as the agent of the poet,
would look.
The highest genre of classical painting—historical and a fortiori reli-
gious painting—is also debunked in Jordaens’s The Veneration of the
Eucharist. It is as if the image were once again provoking the poet via the
aesthetic sensual choices of the painter—in the choice of mellow colours,
composition and in bold, sensuous strokes. This time Durcan is provoked
and provokes the spectator/reader in turn by the counteruse of the subject.
The Eucharist is the Holy Sacrament linked to the mystery of the Incarna-
tion, of Christ’s body rendered visible and consumed. A divine sacrifice, it
brings redemption to sinners as a result of God’s infinite compassion. In
the poem, the Holy Communion is transposed into a much more earthly
one. In a systematic way, the newsagent is associated with the church, the
counter with the altar and the after mass plays on aftermaths, complete
Liliane Louvel 11

with “post-coital grief.” As for “intercourse,” it resonates with “eucharistic

union” and a true “communion.” The blasphemous attempt aimed at con-
flating the sacred and the profane in the intermedial transaction strikes the
reader when the poet recycles the sacred “signifiers” of the painting: the
woman carrying the monstrance; the lion; the child with the bleeding sa-
cred heart; the cross; and Golgotha’s skull, all aligned in a descending line.
The poet’s eye lingers on the woman’s breasts: “a sturdy pair of Conne-
mara ponies.” This beautiful woman represents the Church welcoming the
sinner in her bosom. This is the place where the poet wishes to die “a
small death”: “to leap into her bosom and to die forever.” When “[a]s a
vision of fact” replaces “as a matter of fact,” the poem is revealed as a
place where flesh and vision “sizzle” together. Venus underlies this
veneration and the poem develops the latent message of the image as in a
dream, when the lover is held up above the faithful in erotic transport or

I would tell you that every moonburst

We have intercourse, you and I?
It is a eucharistic union.
I place my two hands on your thighs,
Hold you up to our sea-strewn skies.
(“The Veneration of the Eucharist”: ll. 14–15)

The third instance of Durcan’s word/image apparatus merges a profane

subject and a sacred character. The Portrait of Bishop Robert Clayton and
his Wife Katherine once more offers Durcan the opportunity to entangle
the profane and the sacred. If a portrait truly is a profane subject, the bish-
op has seemingly been touched by Grace. His function is first and fore-
most a religious one, evident in his clothes, his cassock and long white
shirt together with bands. His left hand is resting on a Bible. But the
painting also suggests something wholly different that did not escape Dur-
can. The deep decolletage of the young wife, her open hand resting on her
thighs, the direction of the bishop’s gaze plunging directly into her cleav-
age, and furthermore, as in Fragonard’s Lock, the red curtain behind the
young woman arranged diagonally with shadowy mellow pleats: All con-
cur to suggest a sensuality which the text immediately converts into words.
Durcan then chooses to use the figure of chiasmus to equate the profane
with the sacred, in which “decolletage” is the seat of the “godhead”:

Upon her decolletage

In whose umbrageous rocks divinity dwells,
Dwells the godhead.
(“Bishop Robert Clayton and his Wife Katherine”: ll. 15–17)
12 Intermedial Provocations: Paul Durcan’s Desecrating Art Gallery

Thus in the poem, “Sacristy” echoes “scullery”; “carnal fault” “her

soul”; “her thighs” “hands” and “gospel.” On their way to church, the
bishop and his wife grin and on Christmas Eve indulge in libertine games.
The progress of the collection towards the erotic is complete when the
clergyman and his wife’s love games are technically described :

This Xmas night

I having placed pillows beneath her back
She will draw back her knees up past her cheeks
Until her knees recline upon her shoulders
So that I can douse her haunches with my tongue
Install myself inside her,
Until we two are become as one divinity;
One divinity crouched in interlocking stillness on a bough;
The sole sound—the small rowboat of my member
Bobbing on the waters of her lough.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghosts, Amen.
(“Bishop Robert Clayton and his Wife Katherine”: ll. 36–47)

This blasphemous discourse violates the fourth commandment: Thou

shalt not take God’s name in vain. It reminds us of the mystery of the Holy
Trinity pictured in Jordaens’s Veneration and the principle of econo-
my/oikonomia, fusing three in one. Granacci’s Holy Family is also echoed
in this poem with the “small rowboat of my member” which retrospec-
tively imparts the former with more profanity, for the boatman was also
rowing “to drift sideways onto the family shore.” (Durcan 1991: 11, “The
Holy Family with Saint John” l. 3).

Irish Subversion: Eroticism and the Church

In Catholic Ireland, performing a desecration or a blasphemy has always
been considered a subversive political act. The Church is still very power-
ful in controlling education, sexuality and birth control. For E. H. Gom-
brich, “[t]he form of a representation cannot be divorced from its purpose
and the requirements of the society in which the given visual language
gains currency” (1996: 111).9 Thus Granacci’s Holy Family is “revised”
by Durcan according to the conventions of twentieth-century Irish society.
Durcan submits painting to the “noise” of his century and to the discords
potentially inscribed in the work by challenging common use.
The erotic undertone contained in the painting is all the stronger for its
religious aspect. The transgression is threefold:
—In the word/image combination, the text dissolves the image and
entraps it in a book just as paintings are trapped in a museum.
Liliane Louvel 13

—Eroticism features in an apparently “serious” book.

—The religious image generates an erotic piece of writing: an icono-
clastic desecration.
The power of the erotic is thus augmented by its profaning and icono-
clastic dimension. The word/image apparatus reveals the sensual potenti-
alities of the image which are otherwise veiled by the overt religious mes-
sage of the title that orients the so-called “reading” of the painting: The
Veneration of the Eucharist features the Church/Virgin as a beautiful bux-
om lady literally offering the “bosom” of the church to the faithful. Bishop
Clayton’s gaze is telltale, by means of which the painter seems to hint at
the sensual, irreligious inclinations of the bishop, a Protestant in Catholic
Ireland. Finally, mentioning the Virgin’s bare feet and St John’s penis
focuses on aspects that were to be ignored when one was deeply immersed
in prayer and veneration. The eroticism of the paintings is all the more
subtle when one considers that they used to hang in dark corners and
niches of chapels, only given life thanks to the flickering light of candles,
the movement of which sometimes provoked an hallucinatory effect.
The apparent desecration of image is perhaps only the advent of truth
(that of enargeia and evidentia), the unveiling of a latent sensual content
painted by an artist “in the know.” There is also a question of time and the
gaze when the issue of “after” and of anachronicity as a heuristic method
recur. At the end of the twentieth century in Ireland, it became possible to
“unveil” paintings without being banned. Another kind of image glimmers
in-between the overt message, the religious meaning carried by a canoni-
cal iconography, and its obtuse message pregnant with profane meaning:
the feminine beauty of a woman, the eroticism of her veiled/unveiled body
and the Saint’s sex. The superimpositon of the two bodies of the Church
twins the sacred with the profane. In-between, the gaze oscillates. It is up
to the reader/voyeur to choose between two visions, as with the case of
Jastrow’s duck–rabbit, or Rubin’s two-edged vases.10
The sacred text “sizzles” when transposed into images that in their turn
profane into a new text. The text “hystericizes” the image, exposing what
was latent and censured by the ruling eye. Divesting it of its aura, the text
turns the image into a cruder object. The oscillation between meaning and
the “flesh” of image acts in-between painting and text, conjuring up “the
pictorial third” (see Louvel 2010): an image appears on the reader’s inner
“screen” between painting and text, neither painting nor text but an in-
between or twilight zone, a third term, then. This is the moment when the
image turns the body into a filter or net, a result of its provocations, and
we remember Raymond Keaveney’s declaration concerning Durcan:
14 Intermedial Provocations: Paul Durcan’s Desecrating Art Gallery

The pictures he has chosen to write about [are] capable of provoking a rich
and varied personal response which works on many levels, aesthetic, histo-
ric, cultural and emotional. This collection reflects the deeply personal
response of the poet to the many images contained in the Gallery’s
collection. (Keaveney 1991: viii)

The Way Image “Touches” Us

“It is forbidden, in any way, to ‘touch’ painting,” according to Hubert
Damisch, “but to describe it and even more so to interpret it, is another
way of touching it, including all the risks it entails; to begin with that,
under the cover of words that celebrate it, to cause it to disappear”
(Damisch 1995: 50). The text seems to provoke the disappearance of the
painting it purports to celebrate, as if obeying a lethal desire to kill the
image by casting a net of words (a word-net) over it. Consequently, when
reading a text, one no longer contemplates the image captured in it. We
remember that for Rousset, on the contrary, the image supersedes the text
which describes it.
Celebrating the image is another way of “touching” it and, since one is
confronted with its materiality, of looking at it closer and giving it a shape
thanks to words. This is a kind of commerce, conversion, exchange, trans-
position or erotic intercourse similar to that of the work of dreams, per-
taining to the very nature of the exchange between the readable and the
visible. It involves the pleasure and satisfaction of the contemplation of a
painting and its soothing effects as the gaze rests on/in it, following its
many modes of manifestation. One remembers Lacan and the concept of
invidia, i.e., the always-lost object, and the fear of castration triggered by
the visual.
May we then advance that the satisfaction one enjoys while contem-
plating images is invested with a libidinal charge, triggering a discharge,
plunging one into a soothing absorption: “[T]he charm of painting is to
‘nourish the eye’s appetite’” (Lacan 1973: 105). For Lacan, “[t]he trompe-
l’œil of painting gives itself for something it is not” (1973: 105). Image
opens itself up to discourse, to reach this thing it is not: A screen has to be
lifted, hence the pleasure experienced in front of a trompe-l’œil. Accord-
ing to Lacan, the small child observing his brother at the breast experi-
ences invidia while confronted with a completenes from which he is ex-
cluded. Granacci’s Holy Family provides us with a fine example of invidia
when St John is trying to climb into the Virgin’s lap.
Crazy About Women testifies to a desire to prolong this soothing inter-
course and rich exchange by creating a textual poetics equivalent to the
painting “elected” to museum status. It would be a text which, more than a
Liliane Louvel 15

mere accompaniment, would offer a reading, an hallucinated image to-

gether with the mnesic trace of both the affect and effect of its first advent.
This is what Durcan’s apparatus testifies to: the madness of seeing, of wo-
men, of word and image.

Last Twists and Turns of the Apparatus: Profane Illusions

When the Spectator Turns Reader
Called forth by image, words arise. Image is a place one enters. Like in
Freudian free association, Durcan lets the erotic pervade his poems to a
point of frisson (that of the bishop’s wife’s bosom, of their “intercourse”
on Xmas night). This is a wording of the potentialities of image which is
not an interpretation but rather a dis-course, an inter-course or a course, a
becoming-conscious of the forces captured in the painting and liberated in
the intercourse. This intercourse is a trade in the “inter,” where values are
exchanged between the spectator and the work itself. It discovers what
might be “deposited” in the painting.
The reader–spectator becomes active. The book and “word/image”
gain momentum, thus provoking “transports.” The reader has to navigate
superimpositions, collages, reconstitutions and montages, notably those of
places and of the see-saw movement between poems and pictures (Picard
2002). Memory claims the loci and creates an event. It provokes an ani-
mation, and movement takes place as in a pilgrimage. Montages and “pas-
sages” recall Walter Benjamin as we witness those “vision processes”
(Fédida 1995: 133). Confronted with the apparatus, the reader–spectator
performs a double anachronistic movement: first from the painting to the
model (the bishop and his wife), then back to the painting thanks to the
painter as translator or stage manager. Then he conjures up the model as
fantasised by the reader–spectator–writer of the picture–poem.
The apparatus of reading-as-vision (“voyure”) is triangular: The reader
looks at the painting reproduced in the book and reads the printed poem
and hence there is a see-saw movement between word and image. Both are
the elaboration of things not located on the same level. Moreover, while
the painter truly stood in front of his models, the poet himself was only in
front of a representation (that of the model and of the painting). Thus the
poet will produce a new representation of a work as a thing (i.e., not of
human beings, for they are at a second remove). The reader–spectator
receives two joint representations: that of the model (the painting) and that
of a representation (the poem) of a representation (the painting). This is a
phenomenon we could call a super-vision in the same way one speaks of a
superimposition or “double exposure.”11
16 Intermedial Provocations: Paul Durcan’s Desecrating Art Gallery

Let us pursue our intermedial reflection: In this apparatus, what the

reader is holding in his hands is not the painting and the poem. Rather, he
is holding one of several possible presentations of the poems, while the
painting is only a reproduction. From autographic mode we move on to
allographic mode: from the painting to its photograph, without the initial
frame.12 The apparatus mixes modes: Concerning the poem, the mode is
allographic, whereas for the painting the mode is autographic turned allo-
graphic. Removing the frame means removing the volume of the object,
notably the reference to the thing as an object of the world. The object is
thereby deprived of its deictic reference or what it points out as a painting.
De-framing it, then, means idealising it, making an image of it and even
losing the painting in situ.
Hence it turns out the book is “cheating” even as it pretends to offer
the original painting together with the original poem that was born from
the image—at the very moment that the reader forgets she is becoming
caught up in the meshes of the net of the apparatus. But to tell the truth,
unless the reader pays a visit to the National Art Gallery in Dublin, that is
the only thing she will ever have: a reproduction at her dis-posal. For the
apparatus combines the photograph of the painting and the text, which sets
the subject at three or even four removes: that is to say, the original (the
model), the painting, its photograph, and this photograph reproduced in
great number.
The frameless work, once isolated on the blank page, becomes a flat
picture. Dematerialised, it has lost its pictorial quality and is detached
from its exhibition context. Hence, too, the interest of Durcan’s work,
which gives the image back its “flesh,” in another way: that of words. The
reader, too, has to collaborate in order to restore the “aura” to the picture.
This is partly the poem’s work, which testifies to the effect of image: its
affect and the fantasies which their meeting triggered. Writing finds its
“locus” after the contemplation of the painting by the poet, who, notebook
in hand, probably jotted down his “imaginary” visions.
What we experience is a see-saw, “reading-as-seeing” activity that
moves between the text and the photographs of the paintings. Subject to
this oscillation, the reader has to check details, look for clues and spot ref-
erences which are ways of seeing what would have been left unseen. The
apparatus thus offers itself as a pragmatic event. What is its potential?
What are its effects?
There is one last paradox. The circulating ekphrasis, which has been
narrativised, pushes one to go back to the image while reading the poem,
for the image both replaces the text and is replaced by it and by the other
image which subverts the original and which is inscribed in the inner
Liliane Louvel 17

“screen” of the reader–spectator–voyeur. Hence the advent of what I call

“the pictorial third” (Louvel 2010) which is in-between word and image,
neither one nor the other. It has the power of a phenomenon; it is a “read-
ing event” similar to that evoked by Louis Marin (1979) while reading
Stendhal: a “voyure” like a “rayure” on the inner eye of the reader.

Post Script: Enigma to End Up with the Net of Words

Damisch remarks on the enigmatic power of painting, which can never be
exhausted by either interpretation or iconographic solution. A painting
might partake of a kind of atonement, as when a spectre awakes before
coming back to haunt. But what kind of a “sin” has a picture committed, if
we speak of atonement? Is it in its feminine destiny, as Lessing would
have it? What is the destiny of an image submitted to the effects of inter-
pretation, or even of an image’s mere description, in terms of loss or gain?
Durcan’s desecrating apparatus shows that a reproduced image “siz-
zles” with all the strength of its latent desire. It strives for advent, and to
arise as it arose for the poet. Is it once more the power of the text (still
envisaged in its masculine dimension) to give flesh back to image and to
give image its life once again? Or isn’t the resistance of image so great
that the defiance inspires image, in a never-ending process? This is one of
the questions intermedial studies may address. Indeed, if Durcan is “Crazy
about Women,” he is also crazy about images. And so are we.

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actions, ed. Martin Heusser et al. Amsterdam: Rodopi.

The Greek etymology of enigma is “sieve,” i.e., net. A riddle is a coarse sieve.
For an analysis of Parmigianino’s scene, see Arasse 2006.
The book consists of 47 poems, 47 paintings and two sculptures.
All translations from French are mine unless otherwise stated.
The oikonomia of an image was developed by the doctrine of the Trinity in which
each part of the triad was allocated a function.
Dis-positio: in French, the word for apparatus is dispositif.
The harp is the trademark of the National Gallery of Ireland Publications.
Claus Clüver finds more than 40 instances of such poems (see Clüver 1989).
Liliane Louvel 19

See Damisch and his theory of the “après coup,” quoting Freud and Didi-
Huberman (1995: 52).
We can see that the links between currency, exchange, commerce and transaction
are reaffirmed in this quotation.
For the reference to these instances of double “exposure,” see Bernard Vouilloux
(2005: 143).
See Yacobi 2005.
Hence the loss of aura, and the passage from cultural value to exhibition value.


How is the idea of the “image” currently conceptualised in cultural studies
and, specifically, how do certain practices of visual culture tend to under-
stand its nature? By employing the rhetorical device of ekphrasis to dis-
cuss W. H. Auden’s and William Carlos Williams’s famous poems about
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, a painting long attributed to Pieter Bruegel
the Elder, I intend to show that the discursive method of visual
interpretation developed in contemporary theory actually fails to account
for the intermedial meaning of the objects presented to us by Auden and
Williams. As Icarus comes to know, the image one wants to reach and
subdue can, in the end, resist and defeat any such aim.

Keywords: image studies, visual culture, ekphrasis, W. H. Auden, William

Carlos Williams

In his article “What is an Image and What is Image Power,” published in

Image and Narrative, an online journal of visual narrative, art historian
Dirk J. van den Berg draws the attention of scholars of visual culture and
intermediality to four theses, in order to recommend “certain contributions
from the discipline of art historiography to burgeoning critical and inter-
disciplinary interactions collectively sailing under the flag of ‘culture
studies’” (van den Berg 2004: n. p.). Briefly summed up, van den Berg’s
four theses range from the Barthesian observation that “image” as a notion
is “completely polysemic and utterly ambiguous”; to the recognition of the
image as “always already ideologically infected”; along with we modern
Western people being “at once both practitioners and the victims of ocu-
larcentrism”; to finally resisting such pernicious centres of power with a
22 Ekphrasis in Auden and Williams

“full arsenal of arguments […] required to unseat received ideas once they
have been firmly established” (van den Berg 2004: n. p.). Van den Berg
With the objective of initiating resistance against [Foucauldian] ocular-
centric “scopic regimes,” we need dynamic, progressive and action-
orientated concepts of the image, appreciating images in temporal and hu-
man terms as bodily events which involve ideologically shaped perform-
ative acts of the imagination that open picture categories to visual display
rhetoric. (2004: n. p.)

By developing the appropriate rhetoric, van den Berg appears to suggest,

we may continue the work begun by pioneers in the field such as John
Berger, Norman Bryson, W. J. T. Mitchell, and Hans Belting, and thus
keep questioning, in a dynamic and generative fashion that responds to
current needs, the received categories of Western visual culture such as
aesthetics, “fine arts” and the “work of art.”
In this article, I wish to answer van den Berg’s call for a “visual dis-
play rhetoric” from a point of view which, in his gamut of “components of
art historians’ visual expertise,” would likely fall under the “visual herme-
neutics” of “special modes of visual rumination which involve ‘imaginal’
or ‘imagistic’ discourses that frequently test the limits of everyday ratioci-
native procedures” (van den Berg 2004: n. p.). My specifically literary
theoretical viewpoint is in line with the rhetorical device of ekphrasis, or
the verbal representation of a visual representation,1 and, in this case, the
ekphrastic phenomenon of poetic images turning into words as something
that, in ways to be indicated, actually exceeds the ekphrastic function as an
“opening” mechanism of sorts.
For instead of freeing verbal entities from their imagistic goals, ek-
phrasis rather highlights the incongruence of the two aesthetic media and
so, I will argue, resists being drafted in the service of any resistance move-
ment blazing a trail towards emancipatory glory. Moreover, as the mean-
ing of a particular ekphrasis is not to be found in such liberating “acts of
imaginative appropriation” as van den Berg proclaims towards the end of
his article, the suggestion arises—with the failure of the individual subject
to seize the object at hand for his or her own purposes—that perhaps
meaning (whatever that means) may only be witnessed in that precise
moment: i.e., in the subject’s failure to apprehend an art object by way of
discourse. Observing ekphrasis can therefore help us to become aware of
the intermedial meaning of objects as something thus far overlooked, and
this will be my main concern in what follows.
Jarkko Toikkanen 23

Floating About
Acknowledging Stuart Hall’s influence in their well-known book, Prac-
tices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture, Marita Sturken and
Lisa Cartwright (2009) go on to offer the following definition of how they
understand culture and everything that constitutes a culture:
It is important to keep in mind that in any group that shares a culture (or
set of processes through which meaning is made), there is always a range
of meanings and interpretations “floating about,” so to speak, with regard
to any given issue or object at any given time. Culture is a process, not a
fixed set of practices or interpretations. (Sturken and Cartwright 2009: 4)

This formulation makes it fairly clear that Sturken and Cartwright believe
in the individual’s power to appropriate, by participating in cultural pro-
cesses, “any given issue or object at any given time” for his or her own
purposes.2 The shared social interest becomes obvious not only in an indi-
vidual’s freedom to choose from a whole range of possible significations
but also in the manner in which “meanings are produced not in the heads
of the viewers so much as through a process of negotiation among indi-
viduals within a particular culture, and between individuals and the arti-
facts, images, and texts created by themselves and others” (Sturken and
Cartwright 2009: 4, my emphasis). With a massive variety of interpretive
outcomes available to the cultural subject, or consumer of cultural objects,
to enjoy on their own, the sensitive mind acknowledges the necessary
social dimension involved in the process and realises it must negotiate
with other minds in order to grasp the outcome which suits it best. With
each individual then having established their own meanings in an emanci-
patory fashion—which no one forced on them—the cultural process is
satisfied and will continue to its next issue or object.
From the viewpoint of democratic participation and equality in visual
culture and the rest of society, the foregoing course of action looks very
appealing. After all, it is based on a bottom-up movement of discourse that
allows individuals to forge their own meanings vis-à-vis “the artifacts,
images, and texts” (Sturken and Cartwright 2009: 4) surrounding them and
also confirms that, in order to do so, they must be a part of society. With-
out the negotiation provided by mutual cooperation, both in agreement and
opposition, there is no private identity, and without private identity, there
are no individual subjects to engage in such “acts of imaginative appropri-
ation” as proclaimed by van den Berg. In this sense, the cycle of culture as
a discursive process is a self-sustaining entity which feeds off the objects it
consists of and which it has emptied of all other significance except for
24 Ekphrasis in Auden and Williams

what the discourse has chosen to impose upon them. As Sturken and
Cartwright imagine it, meeting an object (whether visual, verbal, or other)
is therefore similar to encountering a linguistic token which merely waits
for us to pour meaning into it, and the deed is done first by reaching out
for the range of discursive solutions “floating about” and then by satur-
ating the object with whatever we retrieved from there. As a result, the
revived vessel springs golem-like into life, assumes position within the
culture, and stays open to an infinity of similar resurrections. Culture as a
discursive process is thus based on a cycle of continuous reincarnation.

Ekphrasis as Interpretation
The contemporary scholar of art historiography or visual culture appears in
the above description as a devoted apostate in the face of traditional theory
and criticism. With arms excommunicated beyond the visible, and eyes
that squint towards the margin, the figure is in the midst of speaking its
new cultural surroundings into place, calling for others to co-habit its
realm. As you can see, I am creating an ekphrasis, and actually doubly so,
for the word image verbally represents a visual representation based on the
rhetoric of the image provided in the first two sections. And, strangely
enough, as such, it has the power to disrupt its own verbal form and revert
back into a picture, even if only in our minds. Consider next the following
two art objects whose retrieval was predicted in this context:

About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
Jarkko Toikkanen 25

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
(Auden 2007: “Musée des Beaux Arts,” written 1938)

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing

his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was

awake tingling
with itself

sweating in the sun

that melted
the wings’ wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed

this was
Icarus drowning
(Williams 1962: “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”)

Both Auden’s and Williams’s poems have received much attention over
the years, including the obvious ekphrastic point of view, but, as far as I
can tell, none of these readings have distinguished the rhetorical device as
such an incongruence of two aesthetic media as I am doing here. Instead,
quite a few of the commentators have started out from how it would be
impossible for us to know “Bruegel’s picture had anything to do with the
myth of Icarus unless the painting had been named Landscape with the
Fall of Icarus, and they have then proceeded to ruminate on what the
function of naming images means for our ability to interpret and extract
meaning from artworks.3 As Arthur C. Danto has claimed: “A title in any
case is more than a name or a label; it is a direction for interpretation,” and
this entails the identification of the indexical potential of these hermeneu-
tic objects as their essentially subjective condition: “If it is an artwork,
26 Ekphrasis in Auden and Williams

there is no neutral way of seeing it; or, to see it neutrally is not to see it as
an artwork” (1981: 119). In this case, the naming function introduces an
ironic element into the work. The mythical protagonist is reduced to a
negligible role in the entire composition and as a result both Auden and
Williams come to assume this irony as their starting point for ekphrastic
interpretations of the original work.
One way in which the divergent directions of Auden’s and Williams’s
ekphrases can be made clear is by looking at the very first lines of each
poem. Auden’s interpretation is concerned with a certain theme, namely, it
is “[a]bout suffering,” and he intimates a particular treatment of this theme
in the work of “The Old Masters” who saturated their paintings with such
insight that centuries later we are still able to extract it from the works for
our benefit. In Auden, the verbal representation of the original visual rep-
resentation therefore suggests a moral duty (of caring for those who suffer)
which starts at the top, at the general level of the theme discussed, and
only descends to the level of the painting towards the end of the poem, as a
specific verbal illustration of the larger discourse which it is supposed to
join. In directing his own interpretation (and choice of title) in this manner,
Auden plays on the fact how, ekphrastically speaking, the logic of his
verbal narrative depends on a series of either absent or imagined
sensations—“everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster,”
“the ploughman may / Have heard the splash,” and “the expensive delicate
ship that must have seen / Something amazing.” As we can see, none of
these occurrences can be confirmed as real events within the world
depicted; they are mere conjectures, and so Auden’s strategy of repre-
senting them as particular examples of turning a blind eye to suffering—as
the failure of general moral discourse—comes across as dubious to say the
least. Moreover, as the poem also mixes past and present imaginings with
speculation concerning what is going to happen in the future (Icarus is
destined to disappear in the “green / Water” and the ship has “somewhere
to get to”), the proleptic component completes the ageless theme of suf-
fering, and Auden’s lesson within its discourse appears in full temporal
view: What Bruegel knew and wanted to teach us is perfectly reiterated by
the poet’s complementary words and images. In a manner similar to the
one outlined in the first two sections of this article, the object “Landscape
with the Fall of Icarus” becomes an interpretive token awaiting revival and
appropriation in a preset discourse to fill it with meaning and to show how
it is “always already ideologically infected” (van den Berg 2004: n. p.). In
this way, the scholar (or student) of art historiography or visual culture
becomes the professional diagnostician of society’s moral ills and may
develop his or her remedial rhetoric according to certain needs.
Jarkko Toikkanen 27

However, even if the two art objects called Landscape with the Fall of
Icarus after Pieter Bruegel the Elder and “Musée des Beaux Arts” by W.
H. Auden floated about on a sea of cultural discourses like buoys cut loose
from their traditional moorings, the image of Icarus they present does not
float at all: it is plunging head-first into the depths. Concerning this point,
Mary Ann Caws has analysed the manner in which Williams’s different
kind of ekphrasis of the original painting—also called Landscape with the
Fall of Icarus—makes use of a linguistic “participle system” in order to
“inset” the poem’s climax more emphatically:
That the entire poem should end with the drowning event already prepared
by the system of present participles and its initial recounting impulse: ac-
cording, shows this event to be deliberately set within a systematic, lin-
guistic frame, which stresses its own reading [.…] The innermost point of
the insetting is, in this re-reading, also the most significant, inserted as it is
within the space and time of legend and of the pointed presence of sight.
(Caws 1983: 326–327)

Instead of appealing to the animating effect of a dominant discourse,

Caws’s formal analysis highlights the declarative structure of Williams’s
poem.4 By sketching out the “participle system” above, Caws subordinates
the text’s various “-ing” endings to each other in a sequence (“According”;
“spring”; “ploughing”; “tingling”; “sweating”; “drowning”) with the inten-
tion of demonstrating how the poem proceeds from the initial attribution
of quotational authority (“According to Brueghel”) via miscellaneous acti-
vities to its dramatic conclusion as the final “insetting” of Icarus’s drown-
ing, which retrieves the legend for “the pointed presence of sight” (Caws
1983: 326).5 Caws’s linguistically informed reading exposes the strictly
verbal frame of Williams’s ekphrasis, which only recedes from view at the
end, and so it gives way for a reinvigorated visual emphasis.
Caws also analyses Auden in a similar fashion in order to show how he
descends from the general to the specific. However, in Auden’s case, her
focus seems to be more on the poem’s “side-setting” (the institutional and
moral context) rather than its “insetting” (the text’s internal structure),
which supports our previous findings. Nonetheless, Caws goes on to state
that “[b]oth the Auden and the Williams poems and the picture are con-
cerned with individual suffering, but they are also concerned with conti-
nuity, with the way the universal may triumph over individual failure”
(1983: 328). It thus appears that even though the respective ekphrases of
Auden and Williams take different routes to reach their final destination—
with Auden appropriating absent and imagined sensations for a preset
purpose and Williams retracting his words to reveal a spectacular visual
climax—both poems ultimately negotiate their way to the same place: the
28 Ekphrasis in Auden and Williams

discourse that sees them as interpretations of a certain theme which suc-

cessfully fills them with meaning, and which allows us to apply these ek-
phrastic tokens in our own rhetoric against the wrongdoings of society.
Again, such a democratic course of action looks very appealing from the
viewpoint which enables us to seize an expectant object and bestow it with
such individual significance as our social cultural practices have and con-
tinue to make possible. By this stage, it has also emerged that such uses of
ekphrasis as applied, among others, by Auden, Williams, Danto and Caws,
ultimately point in the same interpretive direction: that of Landscape with
the Fall of Icarus assuming position, and so exhausting its function within
a certain discourse. Is this the only outcome we can intimate? Or could
something different be made of the potential meaningfulness of objects,
both artistic and cultural? After all, in spite of the other aims they are said
to achieve, both Auden’s and Williams’s ekphrastic objects are also poems
in their own right; art objects allegedly different from other kinds of texts.
In the last section, I will suggest a few thoughts on what this might entail.

Another Kind of Ekphrasis

I claimed in the beginning that ekphrasis is a process in which poetic im-
ages turn into words and in doing so exceed their function as a strictly
discursive mechanism. My description of ekphrasis was offered as a coun-
terpart to the kind of “emancipatory machine” allowing individual verbal
meanings to spring out of their hermetic visual source, imagined or actual,
in a free act of interpretation which then negotiates with a definite context
in order to be completed and move on to the next instance. But what if the
ekphrastic phenomenon resisted being delineated so cleanly and suc-
cinctly? What if the multitude of single meanings appearing to us as the
galaxy of possible interpretations was not a question of negotiation or
choice, but rather a telescopic illusion? Making the painting “mean” the
same as Auden’s and Williams’s poems by addressing the same theme,
albeit with stylistic and structural inflections, accords with an understand-
ing in which the past image “floats about” in the boundless cosmos of cult-
ure and society—only to be sighted by particular words. In visual metho-
dological terms, such an understanding of ekphrastic discourse corresponds
with both Sturken and Cartwright’s view defined above and what Gillian
Rose has identified as “a free-floating web of meanings unconnected to
any social practices” (2001: 162).6 Consequently, when ekphrasis is under-
stood in this manner, it becomes a device harnessed in the service of inter-
textual information transmission which never really fails because the
discursive mechanism has released it from all constraints. Each verbal ut-
Jarkko Toikkanen 29

terance is just as valid as the next one and each sighted image packs the
same prospect; the experience of encountering an art object is reduced to
an exercise in one’s ability to interpret. The object, in other words, con-
firms anything I wish to say about it.
A different understanding of ekphrasis suggesting an intermedial
meaning of objects might therefore be initiated by one’s refusal to reduce
experience to a hermeneutic drill. In recent years, there has been quite a
backlash against the dominant discourse of visual culture, in the form of
cognitive poetics and other branches of cognitive science. However, with-
out dwelling on the issue in this context, in their dedication to what they
call an “experiential realism” and their focus on actual mental processes
instead of “[c]ontexts and biographies, influences and allusions, multiple
edited textual variants of literary works and their place in social history”
(Stockwell 2009: 1), some of these studies seem to have gone the opposite
way too quickly.7 For with ekphrasis, it must be noted, language is not the
reflection of a natural reality which the rhetorical device appears to shape
and mould in unexpected ways. If ekphrasis did have this ability to form, it
would be as if to argue that reality stood in unnatural contrast to language,
in which we were stuck imagining and reaching for a prelinguistic state of
pure nature. That kind of state, I might add, would serve only such discur-
sive tokenness as I have criticised. As ekphrasis then, in contrast to this
option, becomes a real imagination as well as an imagination of the real
with no “reality” or “nature” looming in the background except the visual
representation which the verbal representation attempts to imagine, every
last bit of significance involved in the attempt weighs on the unbridgeable
distance between the two media, in the unchartable space of intermedi-
ality. This space cannot be observed as such for it constitutes no measura-
ble plane or void, and its existence does not reflect a reality beyond lan-
guage because language is the reality as which it appears. However, exist
it must, along with its objects, since images are not the same as words and
words are not the same as images: the negative incongruence between the
two aesthetic media is affirmed time and again as they fail to complement
one another and so continue to generate new meaning(s) for the object
which appears in this unimaginable space. And this object, even if we be-
lieved otherwise, awaits nothing and promises nothing but what we bring
to it, enticed and seduced by an unfading shine.
Icarus knew this shine all too well, along with the celestial distance he
would never cross. In the painting, the sun-object is rising and setting at
the same time (we cannot decide which) in the eye of the beholder, but this
hardly matters to Icarus as he, horrifyingly, sees nothing we can see
anymore. It follows that, just as Icarus fails in his own ambition, we as
30 Ekphrasis in Auden and Williams

spectators fail to apprehend his significance as pointing in the direction of

any particular discourse. We are bound to try, but unless we erase the dif-
ference between the word and the image, and make them mean the same
thing as a morality lesson, we are going to fail in the effort. That is what is
special about art, or any object unexhausted by definite signification: It
arouses every possibility of meaning only to resist every possible meaning,
and this includes Auden’s and Williams’s poems beyond the interpre-
tations sketched here. It is easy to overlook what this conclusion implies—
that ekphrasis as resistance is not a cause but a necessary condition—and
imagine a single meaning derived from a certain discourse as somehow
more worthwhile or emancipatory than the next one. So why not let the
wings of such rumours burn, and instead consider the intermedial space of
language in which the burning occurs, ekphrastically? That kind of picture
gives me the shudders, and makes me want to know more.

Works Cited
Allen, Elizabeth. 2008. “The Ghost of Icarus.” Southerly 68 (1): 176–190.
Auden, W. H. [1976] 2007. Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson. New
York: Random.
Berg, Dirk J. van den. 2004. “What is an Image and What is Image
Power?” Image and Narrative: Online Magazine of the Visual Narra-
tive (8). http://www.imageandnarrative.be/inarchive/issue08/ (accessed
2 April 2011).
Brennan, Teresa, and Martin Jay, eds. 1996. Vision in Context: Historical
and Contemporary Perspectives on Sight. New York: Routledge.
Caws, Mary Ann. 1983. “A Double Reading by Design: Breughel, Auden,
and Williams.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 41 (3): 323–
Cole, David W. 2000. “Williams’s ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.’”
Explicator 58 (3): 151.
Danto, Arthur C. 1981. The Transfiguration of the Commonplace: A Phi-
losophy of Art. Cambridge; MA: Harvard University Press.
Fairley, Irene R. 1981. “On Reading Poems: Visual and Verbal Icons in
William Carlos Williams’ ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.’” Studies
in Twentieth-Century Literature 6 (1–2): 67–97.
Fludernik, Monika. 1996. Towards a “Natural” Narratology. London:
Heffernan, James A. W. 1996. “Entering the Museum of Words: Brown-
ing’s ‘My Last Duchess’ and Twentieth-Century Ekphrasis.” Pp. 262–
Jarkko Toikkanen 31

280 in Icons–Texts–Iconotexts: Essays on Ekphrasis and Intermed-

iality, ed. Peter Wagner. Berlin: de Gruyter.
—. 1993. Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to
Ashbery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hollander, John. 1995. The Gazer’s Spirit: Poems Speaking to Silent
Works of Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Jarniewicz, Jerzy. 2007. “To Be or to Be? Facts and Interpretations in
W. C. Williams’ Reading of Brueghel’s Icarus.” Pp. 177–182 in Walk-
ing on a Trail of Words: Essays in Honor of Prof. Agnieszka Salska,
eds. Jadwiga Maszewska and Zbigniew Maszewski. Lodz: Wydawn-
ictwo Uniwersytetu Lodzkiego.
Krieger, Murray. 1992. Ekphrasis: The Illusion of the Natural Sign. Bal-
timore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Mikkonen, Kai. 2005. Kuva ja sana—kuvan ja sanan vuorovaikutus kir-
jallisuudessa, kuvataiteessa ja ikonoteksteissä. Helsinki: Gaudeamus.
Mirzoeff, Nicholas. [1999] 2009. An Introduction to Visual Culture. Lon-
don: Routledge.
Mitchell, W. J. T. 1994. Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual
Representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Nemerov, Alexander. 2005. “The Flight of Form: Auden, Bruegel, and the
Turn to Abstraction in the 1940s.” Critical Inquiry 31 (4): 780–810.
Rose, Gillian. 2001. Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Inter-
pretation of Visual Materials. London: Sage.
Stockwell, Peter. 2009. Texture: A Cognitive Aesthetics of Reading. Edin-
burgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Sturken, Marita and Lisa Cartwright. [2001] 2009. Practices of Looking:
An Introduction to Visual Culture. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University
Williams, William Carlos. 1962. Pictures from Brueghel and Other Po-
ems: Collected Poems 1950–1962. New York: New Directions.

Standard works that may be consulted for recent uses and definitions of ekphra-
sis, as well as other word and image matters, include Hollander (1995), Mitchell
(1994), Heffernan (1993), and Krieger (1992).
For further background on such cultural processes see, for instance, Mirzoeff
(2009) or Brennan and Jay (1996).
See, for example, Mikkonen (2005: 79–88), and shorter texts by Jarniewicz
(2007), Nemerov (2005), Cole (2000), Heffernan (1996), and Fairley (1981).
Moreover, Elizabeth Allen’s essay “The Ghost of Icarus” (2008) provides a special
32 Ekphrasis in Auden and Williams

focus on Rosemary Dobson’s ekphrastic poems after Bruegel “Painter of Antwerp”

and “The Bystander” from 1955.
“For in picture as in poem, each element is presented as ultimately concerned
with itself: the sea is, Icarus was, we are. This is a statement, not a sermon, and no
morality attaches to the scene” (Caws 1983: 326).
Caws includes “spring” in her system as well because, “on a second level,” it is
said to provide a “contrary convergence between the motions of falling down and
springing up” (1983: 326).
Elsewhere in her book, Rose shows how the idea of “social practices” missing
from this kind of discourse analysis can be reintroduced into critical methodology.
In that case, however, the problem is that such an institutional approach seems to
bring with it “an uninterest in images themselves” (2001: 186).
For the origins of another important debate on the nature of such experience, see
Monika Fludernik’s Towards a “Natural” Narratology (1996).


Dedicated to collaboration and the ideal of breaking down ontological
barriers, Belgian artist and poet Christian Dotremont co-founded the short-
lived but widely influential CoBrA movement in the late 1940s. Known
best for its composite experimental artworks, CoBrA also played with the
very medium of visual art’s creative space: the canvas. CoBrA’s pluralistic
approach is evident in Dotremont’s much later experiments, beginning in
1962, with the invention of visual poems that he called logograms. I use
these encounters between text and image to contextualise my analysis of
the relationship between poetry and painting in Dotremont’s own work. I
examine how the intermedial praxis of logograms, via Dotremont’s explo-
rations of the materiality of language, causes a major change in the inter-
pretative paradigm of both poetry and the process of reading.

Keywords: logograms, visual poetry, materiality of language, Surrealism,

iconotexts, Christian Dotremont

The new paradigm of the historical avant-garde was based on the critique
of two fundamental concepts: the institution of art, and aesthetic experi-
ence as a social practice. In fact, these two points of reference are the so-
called negative origin of avant-garde movements, according to Peter Bür-
ger, author of the well-known Theory of the Avant-Garde, first published
in 1974. Bürger profoundly highlights the importance of the avant-garde’s
attack on the institution of art, which served to mediate between art and
society. Bürger examines how such concepts as “institution,” “art”/ “work
of art” (and the related avant-garde practices of “collage” and “montage”),
and “autonomy” interrelate. By showing how institutions act to mediate art
for bourgeois society, Bürger makes clear that the art institution itself
34 Christian Dotremont’s Logograms

serves as the essence of art in precise and historical ways. Based on this
intimacy between art and society, avant-garde works are above all a sub-
versive social practice; they subscribe unconditionally to a political (in the
general sense of the word) and thus social and aesthetic programme. At-
tacking the institution through their art, avant-garde artists commit them-
selves to a disruptive process of change. And one of the most popular
disruptive practices was without a doubt the combinatorial and heteroge-
neous Surrealist “objects” such as collages, which exploited several artistic
languages in order to create confusion and to destabilise audience expecta-
tions. Therefore, the avant-garde involves a new literacy: Its main objec-
tive is to enable the implosion not only of traditional art production, but
also of its reception, both being reliant on an aesthetics of transgressing
borders. Beyond the boundaries between disciplines, at the crossroad of
arts and media and in the midst of new artistic and writing forms, the col-
lage, the photomontage and the book object prove to be open to the en-
counter and mixture of text and image, of the literal and figural.
Surrealism to a large extent involved a dialogue between artists and the
arts that crossed national boundaries. Inspired by the concepts which Sur-
realism represented, but wishing to more strongly emphasise collaboration
and the ideal of breaking down ontological barriers, the experimental Bel-
gian poet and painter Christian Dotremont (1922–1979) took Surrealist
principles a step further by founding the CoBrA movement (1948–1951).
Based on an acronym designating the cities of its members (Copenhagen,
Brussels and Amsterdam), the name CoBrA itself testifies to the goals of
the new aesthetic movement, which sought to redefine Surrealism and
extend its influence beyond Paris. Through CoBrA, Dotremont continued
the Surrealist legacy of distrust of art’s institutionalisation. At the same
time, Dotremont profoundly transformed this scepticism: The work defy-
ing artistic codes and doxa yielded results within the first Surrealist gen-
eration which inspired Dotremont to link art and life; more precisely, link-
ing his art to his life with the invention of a new way of using language.
The encounters between text and image in a single work allowed him to
exploit the relationship between poetry and painting, between signifié and
signifiant. This truly becomes a reinvention of poetry in Dotremont’s
logograms, hybrid poems destined to redefine the text as a visual object.

Beyond Painting, Beyond Poetry

From 1962 until the end of his life, Dotremont drew almost two thousand
logograms or visual poems that aimed to restore the “tactile” dimension of
poetry in order to place it back amongst the objects of reality. Since 1949,

Raluca Lupu-Onet 35

he had been obsessed with the Surrealist ideal of reestablishing a link

between art and life and with the important role to be reassigned art as a
crucial and necessary force in reshaping reality:
Il est impossible, tout de même, que la réalité se limite à la mélancolie
d’une impasse, à la salopette du métallurgiste, à la femme qui se coiffe
devant sa psyché, au minotaure, au céleri, au hareng, à la guitare, au pot de
fleurs, à l’église et au monument du coin. (Dotremont 1990: 16)

[It is nevertheless impossible that reality confines itself to the melancholia

of a dead end, to the dungarees of a steelworker, to the woman’s making
herself beautiful in front of her dressing-table mirror, to the Minotaur, to
celery, to herring, to the guitar, to the flower pot, to the church and the
monument just around the corner.]1

In order to accomplish this mission, the first condition of an art syn-

onymous with life was to reject any temptation of mimeticism. This was to
be the starting point in Dotremont’s own definition of artistic experience.
In fact anti-mimetic, his creative activity required that its results, the work
itself, answer to a conception of art before the knowledge—or the institu-
tion in Bürger’s theory—of art, that is, art before its conventions and
codes. This is why Dotremont worked together with CoBrA’s painters, du-
ring the period of artistic community in CoBrA, to conceptualise swaths of
colour as a dismissal of Formalism. The common ground for CoBrA was
the invention of an art form as “the complete expression of the complete
reality” (Dotremont 1990: 16). Dotremont’s aesthetic project can be sum-
marised by this ideal of an exhaustive art as the immediate and global ex-
pression of reality in a language that would not need any code to commu-
nicate the truth. To arrive at this perspective, Dotremont drew on CoBrA’s
interartistic practices, discovering that the patch of colour “is as a cry of
the painter’s hand silenced by Formalism. It is as the cry of matter en-
slaved by Formalist thinking; and which thinking, by the way? The one
from the living room or the thinking from the same landing?” (Dotremont
1990: 19). Far from any Formalism and with no connection to abstract art,
the patch of colour is the artist’s imprint, proof of his presence on the can-
vas. The logograms are the natural realisation of this “physical” writing,
which is not confined to the uniformity of typography or to its secondari-
ness as a simple vehicle of meaning.
Dotremont’s decision to define his visual poems as logograms reveals
the existence of a creative pact which was, for the Belgian poet, indeed an
aesthetic platform: The logogram in fact alludes to this programme in its
very name (logos, “parole” and quintessence of artistic language; gramme,
“letter” as symbol of the visible signifier of written language). Dotre-

36 Christian Dotremont’s Logograms

mont’s logograms are a hybrid work of art, combining text and image (of
text). These in-between artistic objects are at the same time fundamentally
linked to poetry: Logograms are poems—albeit they comprise another
type of concrete and physical, as well as visual, poetry. But their original-
ity consists of their “physical,” thus illegible, dynamism (see Fig. 1). The
dialogue between text and image is therefore inherent in the creation of
logograms. The interartistic dialogue between painting and poetry trans-
forms logograms into relational objects. They privilege such concepts as
heterogeneity, dialogism and transgressing frontiers (of artistic language)
and are considered the paradigm of Dotremont’s poetic programme. It is
this fundamental condition which explains and characterises Dotremont’s
iconotextual poetry as intermedial object. His logography is hybrid, plural
and dialogical and consists of an artistic process that is complete and com-
pleted only as a dynamic and relational object. Instead of writing the
poem, Dotremont paints it, and his page and pen are replaced by the
painter’s canvas and brush. In other words, the poet draws the poem and
the logograms thus arise from the poet’s gesture.

Fig. 1: “Chanter jusqu’au cri / Crier jusqu’au chant”
Christian Dotremont, Logogrammes (1964: n. pag.).

Raluca Lupu-Onet 37

The hyper-signalled marriage of words and images in Dotremont’s

CoBrA and post-CoBrA work negotiates the transformation of text into
image and of image into text and outlines the logograms’ transformation
of legibility and illegibility. Dotremont’s logographic drawing assumes the
role of a “mediator” and the logogram becomes this intermedial object
characterised by being “in-between” or “in-relation.” It is “inter” the text,
which is the inspiration for the logogram, and the image, which is its pic-
torial deformation, if not its deterritorialisation or distortion:
Les logogrammes sont des manuscrits de premier jet : le texte, non
préétabli, est tracé avec une extrême spontanéité, sans souci des proportions,
de la régularité ordinaires, […] et donc sans souci de lisibilité ; mais le
texte est, après coup, retracé, sous le logogramme, en très petites lettres
lisibles, calligraphiques. (Dotremont 1975: 5)

[Logograms are first-draft manuscripts: the text, not pre-established, is

drawn with extreme spontaneity, regardless of ordinary proportions and
regularity, […] and thus regardless of legibility; yet the text is redrawn af-
terwards under the logogram, in very small and readable letters, handwrit-
ten (calligraphic).]

This definition clarifies the hybrid nature of logograms: text and drawing
of text. In addition to its genre as “in-between” (iconotextual), Dotremont
emphasises the twofold algorithm of logography. According to Dotremont,
the initial stage consists of the immediate realisation of inspiration, which
translates as spontaneity in creation (“first draft,” “extreme spontaneity”).
This consists of drawing as direct action, in which unpremeditated gesture
is enabled by total forgetfulness and oblivion of codes or the traditional
and conventional canons of communication (“regardless of ordinary pro-
portions” and “regardless of legibility”).
This first step results in the pictorial version of the logogram, which is
illegible. Thus, the initial immediate transposition of imagination must be
realised by sacrificing the legibility of the text, which is, it must be em-
phasised, the origin, inspiration and fundamental nature of logograms.
Dotremont never separates himself from poetry; his logograms are beyond
any doubt poems. The text would otherwise never have been rewritten
legibly underneath the drawing. However, his poems produce their mean-
ing in the very link that I mentioned between his life and his work. In fact,
Dotremont’s drawings copy the rhythm of the poet’s body, because the
poet exchanged his pen with the paintbrush and his white page with can-
vas. This is the fundamental condition under which the text becomes draw-
ing. All this effort is aimed at a single artistic objective: The capture of
singularity and the capture of the presence of the artist himself. The white

38 Christian Dotremont’s Logograms

page records and shows (makes visible) the movement of the one who is
creating/writing the text “regardless of ordinary proportions and regular-
ity” (Dotremont 1975: 5). However, in order to be shared with others, this
first spontaneous, and thus illegible, manifestation of singularity through
the drawing of texts has to be translated into a language that is comprehen-
sible. In other words, the incommunicable (the sign and trace of singular-
ity) becomes communicable in the rewriting by hand of the original text.
This second step is one of remediation of the original sacrifice of legibil-
ity. The in-between of logograms can be interpreted as this continuous
two-way dynamism, a playfulness sustained by the legible and illegible
elements of the poetic texts. Dotremont’s logography stipulates an initial
intermedial transformation: The poet becomes artist (a painter of texts) by
changing his creative instruments and posture. But this first metamorpho-
sis enables a second one.
The writing becomes drawing. Through a composite method of creat-
ing visual poems, Dotremont undertakes the work of de-instrumentalising
writing itself, more precisely a work of “desautomatization” of the word.
Defined by Viktor Shklovsky (1965), the concept of desautomatisation,
very similar to the Surrealist techniques of diversion/détournement and
often translated as “defamiliarisation,” encompasses all acts intended to
block the mechanism of convention and to make language unexpected and
surprising. The new paradigm of writing is motivated by an attempt to
reconsider the creative force of words as visual—or audible—forms. In
other words, the meaning of a text is equally composed of materiality and
content. All these changes are needed in order to produce a new and origi-
nal look at the world (and the word). The result is that what was once
reflex or habit becomes singular and original through this new approach.
By de-automatising writing, it becomes “scription,” a language perceptible
in its physical/visual presence: writing as “trace.” Thus, the invention of
the poem’s own visible writing in the logogram inspires the invention of
Dotremont’s own aesthetic programme—the de-instrumentalisation of wri-
ting and its transformation into pictorial and poetic matter.

The Intermedial Turn of the Medium

There is no doubt that the dialogic and dynamic construction of logograms
exploits language’s materiality as a constituent of signification and as
proof of the logographer’s presence (i.e., the name of the poet–artist). This
particularly hybrid creative principle redefines the figural space (the can-
vas as well as the white page) as a receptacle that records and imprints the
subject’s presence (both artist and poet); his trace is inscribed as drawing–

Raluca Lupu-Onet 39

writing. The relevance of a “language of language”2 in Dotremont’s work

generates an intermedial thinking of the poetic and pictorial medium as a
signifying materiality. Dotremont’s plural and hybrid objects—situated
beyond painting and beyond poetry, to become in-between painting and
poetry—entail a major change in the entire aesthetic paradigm from the
work of art to the artist–poet himself; from his instruments to the configu-
ration of meaning.
The intermediality of Dotremont’s logograms begins from the re-
evaluation of art as a result of the direct expression of artistic spontaneity.
The majority of the logograms are drawn for exhibition, on large white
sheets. The importance of this medium outlines the complexity of the new
language of language paradigm. The nature of the poetic medium is first
diverted from its original use (the white page containing the text) onto a
pictorial space. This metamorphosis of medium from one artistic language
to another is the beginning of the transformation of medium from its strict
material use to its participation in meaning. This revolutionary evolution
of the exploitation of medium reflects the modern transformation of art
itself. The white colour of the medium becomes visible in its chromatic
conflict with the black ink of the text. In other words, the logograms are
born from this tension of the contrast between whiteness (as figuration of
the void and primordial emptiness) and colour (as presence of text). This
very tension (which is complex because it is the encounter between two
forms of artistic expression as well as the opposition of hybrid elements of
the illegible and the visible) opens the logograms to the sphere of the visi-
ble. Manipulating the medium has a radical consequence: It forces Dotre-
mont’s poetry to become visible.
“I write to see” (Dotremont 2004: 7); with this statement, Dotremont
epitomised the spirit of his protean and original approach to visual poetry.
True successor to Surrealism, Dotremont found himself inspired by the
discovery of André Breton’s acolytes and friends: Poetry or text can very
well occupy the pictorial medium and cohabit with visual image, in both
harmony or tension. The Surrealist experimentation with liberty thus led
Dotremont to discover the (graphic) materiality of writing: Verbal texts are
written in order to be first of all experienced visually, and only afterwards
read. This infraction of the codes and limits of artistic expression was
fundamental to Dotremont’s invention of logograms. The logograms’
creative principle unremittingly addresses the questioning of the relation-
ship between text and image.
In their iconotextual invention and construction, the logograms estab-
lish a new aesthetic experience: First and foremost, text is reevaluated as a
meaning entity which exists by the equal conjunction of the word as signi-

40 Christian Dotremont’s Logograms

fier and signified. This first metamorphosis of the poem, based on the
importance of the medium as something visual in the creation of poetic
texts, determines a new spectatorship paradigm: The reader becomes a
viewer, because the legible is first encountered as the visible. Conse-
quently, the logogram is the figuration (the capturing) of the poet–artist’s
presence and the image and text of his own existence (see Fig. 2).
It is obvious that for Dotremont the logography tends to “expose” the
poetic text to a pictorial environment. The majority of his logograms were
to appear as exhibitions and only a few were published. The intermedial
nature of the exhibited logograms is of course evident: The transformations
in poetic invention and their influence on reception qualify the logograms
as true intermedial (border-crossing) constructions. The question of their
intermedial nature has to be asked in relation to Dotremont’s logographic
books, specifically his Logogrammes II, published in 1965, following two
other books of this type (Logogrammes, in 1964 and Logbook, also in

Fig. 2: “Chérie, quand tu liras ceci, je serai vivant”

Christian Dotremont, Grand hôtel (1981: 34).

Raluca Lupu-Onet 41

If the intermedial paradigm can easily be recognised in the first category

of logograms by the very transformation of texts into the images of text,
the book of logograms introduces a new nuance into Dotremont’s poetic

The Intermedial Literacy of Logograms

Although Logogrammes II (1965) was published for a reading community,
its own use of media is similar to the basic logogram principle: Texts are
superposed and displayed on a figural support. In fact, it would not be an
overstatement to say that this second collection of logograms is even more
radical in the exercise and the use of the medium as part of a meaning-
making process. The purpose of the collection is to stress the importance
of the medium: Designed as a book, this collection tends towards a visible
figurality by exploiting the presence of the medium, which is brought out
and intensified by the heightened illegibility of the set of logograms.
Seven logograms stand out because of the stratification in palimpsest
of several types of medium (see Genette 1997): Drawn directly on library
index cards (see Fig. 3) or on Danish newspaper sheets (Fig. 4), these
logograms present a stratification of both the nature and depth of the log-
ography. First of all, the eye of the reader is caught by the juxtaposition of
the (illegible) drawing in a medium that is literally legible. In fact, the
medium transgresses its normal state and becomes more than a simple
vehicle of meaning. It opens up an entire space of signification, since the
medium reveals an autobiographical space as part of the process of making
meaning. On the one hand, Denmark represents, firstly, the place where
Dotremont experienced the most devastating love of his life and where he
discovered his incurable tuberculosis, as well as the place where he con-
ducted the most significant CoBrA collective works; and, secondly, it
represents the place where he got his inspiration for the logograms. On the
other hand, the index cards, as a different medium, indicate Dotremont’s
books translated into Danish and they allow the reader to actually see how
many times his books were read. Together, these elements revealed by the
medium of logography suggest a second meaning to logogram poetics:
Dotremont’s work is reliant on his life. The superposing of logographic
drawing on the fragments of reality testifies to the intimate link between
art and life in Dotremont’s poetry. We encounter a true liberation of me-
dium from its conventional role. That is why I consider Dotremont’s logo-
grams as an exemplary model for Genette’s idea of the palimpsest: “A
palimpsest is a written document, usually on vellum or parchment, that has
been written upon several times, often with remnants of erased writing still

42 Christian Dotremont’s Logograms

Fig. 3: “une Irlandaise? à quel sujet?”
Christian Dotremont, Logogrammes II (1965: n. pag.).

Raluca Lupu-Onet 43

Fig. 4: “Ä” from Logbook, Christian Dotremont (1975: n. pag.).

Transcription of the text:

Du tout le cirque de rectangle aux coins blessants de bonnet d’âne

le nez sur la carte muette du monde
à partir d’un désert qui colle vers une île qui fond
par le sable des cours de récréation après la craie des tableaux
vers le village numéro trois par l’origine et par l’orgie
dans la musique nouvelle à patatras de lichen et tsointsoin d’où vas-tu
où c’est qu’y neige et je m’en vas

44 Christian Dotremont’s Logograms

visible such that it is possible to read, by transparency, the ancient under-

neath the new” (Genette 1997: book cover). In Genette’s definition, the
medium is key: The parchment is the place where previous texts encounter
new inscriptions. The palimpsest captures this encounter and displays the
coexistence of several meanings. Perceiving the medium as a palimpsest
introduces another layer to the logograms. Secondary but necessary, the
messages inscribed on the medium as well as the new nature of the me-
dium itself (as source of meaning) define Dotremont’s new paradigm of
visual poetry.
The palimpsestic thinking of medium is the very foundation of what I
consider to be the intermediality of logograms. In other words, logograms
are intermedial works that involve the collaboration of several means of
artistic communication. This hybrid conceptualisation of the logographic
iconotexts in fact lay the grounds for the complex collaborative nature of
logograms. The mediality and transformation of meaning are the basis for
the intermediality of logograms.
Dotremont’s logographic intermediality is particularly apparent in the
dynamic process of the transformation of the artistic act as well as of the
reader–viewer’s practice and standpoint. The logogrammatic algorithm is
based on the becoming-image of texts (visible in the illegibility of the
logogram drawing) and on the becoming-text of images (apparent in the
legible part of the logograms). This means that the logograms are dialogic
constructions: dialogue between forms of art (text and drawing) inside the
same artistic space (the white page). This collaborative paradigm has the
function of exposing and capturing the presence of the poet–artist visible
in his writing–drawing, created through the changes his body makes: It is
the movement of his hand which creates the rhythm of the text drawing,
and his brushwork which likewise transforms the text into drawing. More
precisely, the white page is the medium for heterogeneousness, as the
artist himself becomes a medium: While he has the liberty of writing what
he wants—a “poetic, prosaic imagination” (Dotremont 1975: 5)—, he also
writes how he wants—both by drawing and by composing his texts as
handwritten script.
The double mediality (of the page and the artist) distinguishes the log-
ograms from the Surrealist programme of subversion. As mentioned, the
combinatory practices of Surrealism are in support of an ethical project:
Collages or “disrupted objects” 3 aim to undermine the institution of art
because of the gap that it creates between art and life. That is why Surreal-
ism proclaims the flaws and weaknesses of the autonomous art system and
displays this failure everywhere.

Raluca Lupu-Onet 45

The Surrealist imperative is to operate by subversion in order to make

doubt about the conventional system widespread and general. The Surreal-
ist object is often plural, hybrid, impure: in short, “disruptive.” But rather
than engaging in dialogue, Surrealist objects short-circuit the basis of the
art-viewing public’s expectations.
Nevertheless, while inspired by the praxis of transgression of the fron-
tiers between the arts, Dotremont’s logograms do not adhere to this pro-
gramme of subversion. Whereas Surrealist objects are motivated by a
permanent intent to shock, the illegibility of the logograms is the result of
Dotremont’s aim to transform the conventional process of making mean-
ing of texts. That is why the avant-garde exposes the transgression of
codes, while logograms hide it.
The logograms’ illegibility is paradoxical. Because they are illegible
(as a consequence of their pictorial nature), they are incomprehensible.
Nevertheless, the logogram produces a meaning which surpasses conven-
tional signification; a meaning that is free from the constraints of day-to-
day language and carries out the liberation of all that everyday language
ordinarily needs to repress under the pressure of quotidian communication.
Moreover, reading the logogram means reading the artist’s body and deci-
phering the inscription of gestures and movements that invent–draw the
words and poem. It is hence indisputable that Dotremont takes his inspira-
tion from Surrealist combinatory techniques when he opens up his logo-
grams to a plural means of expression. But the logograms are the result of
the combinatory work of a poet in search of a writing style capable of
capturing and representing his very own trace or proof of presence, a style
capable at the same time of recording this presence in the materiality of
the text. The conclusion is that Dotremont’s logography combines two
means of expression in order to make the poet’s presence along with the
inscription of the subject visible in the work of art. The very principle that
links the logogrammatic image–text to the poet’s body is the foundation of
this new visual and cross-boundary poetics: The “body” of the text cap-
tures the presence of the subject, who simultaneously expresses himself
through, and inscribes himself into, the logogram.
The new intermedial poetry, literally material and destined to be seen,
is dependant on this paradigm of presence. Because text, image and body
are intimately linked, the logogram needs the spectator (both viewer and
reader) to participate in the production of meaning. In his or her relation to
the logogram construction, the spectator maintains the historicity of the
aesthetic experience. The logogram is the very recording of the creative
gesture which does not allow itself to be deployed as a filmic or photo-
graphic sequence but rather commits the spectator to reconstruct the exter-

46 Christian Dotremont’s Logograms

iorising gesture of the poet–artist. Dotremont’s imperative to see the poetic

text consists of these necessary steps, a process whereby the spectator
plays a role as crucial as that of the artist:
Je vous suggère de voir dans leur écriture exagérément naturelle,
excessivement libre, le dessin non-matérialiste, certes, mais de toute façon
matériel, de mon cri ou de mon chant ou des deux ensemble ; après quoi
vous pouvez lire le texte toujours écrit en petites lettres visibles,
calligraphiques, au crayon, sous le logogramme. (Dotremont 1981: 132)

[I suggest that you see, in its exaggeratedly natural and excessively free
writing, the drawing (non-materialist, of course, but still material) of my
cry or my chant or of both together; then and only then may you read the
text that always appears in small, visible letters, calligraphic, written in
pencil underneath the logogram.]

Before being able to enter the logogram world, the spectator first needs to
see it, to be engaged by his or her ability to identify a deformed pictorial
writing (“exaggeratedly natural writing” which is “the non-materialistic
[…] but material drawing”). Only afterwards is one allowed to become a
reader of the text that inspired this experience of verbal materiality. This
mechanism is determined by what I call the paradigm of presence: The
logogram offers to make a fragment of physical presence visible and dura-
ble in a language which is more a spontaneous, ephemeral or even her-
metical language than a coherent, codified system. Actually, for the spec-
tator to be able to decipher the meaning(s) of Dotremont’s logograms and
to perceive the crying (“mon cri”) or singing of the poet (“mon chant”),
the spectator’s own transformation is required, because the person encoun-
tering the logograms needs to lose his or her point of reference. Before
communication takes place, the logograms offer a true communion with
the viewer–reader which cannot be limited to ordinary language. The logo-
grams create an archive of vital rhythms: The body of text is the enactment
and proof of the poet’s body. This archive, a creative gesture expressed in
space, is destined to be his spectator, as a witness of the artistic experience
of the logogram. Creating a logogram is a true act of sharing, beyond com-
mon language and what cannot be shared; i.e., singularity.
In his Logbook ([1964] 1975), Dotremont receives the name of Logo-
gus, the one who is constantly searching for Lautre (The Other), and the
logogram comprises this open dialogue between Logogus and Lautre. Here
is the new literacy of logograms. It is the literacy of the in-between: be-
tween artist and poet, writing and drawing, legible and illegible, or even
legible and visible, viewer and reader. Dotremont succeeds in creating a
dynamic œuvre which relies on a cross-boundary and hybrid communica-

Raluca Lupu-Onet 47

tion. The meaning of the visual poem is in the movement itself, in the
constant transfer from one entity to another. The main aesthetic intention
of this truly intermedial work is to leave marks not only on the ground, the
snow, the mud or the white page, but mostly on the memory of those who
enter the logographic adventure.
As a heterogeneous art object, the logogram is based on a conflicted re-
lationship with language perceived as a constrictive matrix of the human
and as an oppressive (because prescriptive and codified) pattern of life and
expression. Logogus therefore wants to transgress the limits of language.
Everything is contained in this feeling of violence which is also transmit-
ted to the spectator as a refusal to obey the restrictive influence of lan-
guage as organiser of our vision of the world. Dotremont is searching for a
way to express what words are incapable of conveying: The logogram
drawing translates his interiority, the intimate “cry” of the poet who is
exorcising his personal catastrophe.4 In the meeting between Logogus and
Lautre, the initial moment is that of the shock of failure to communicate
through language. The encounter starts out as a confrontation inside an
artistic space which undermines the comprehensible. However, a legible
text is transcribed below the drawing. This part of the logogram testifies to
the duality of the poet–painter and to his indecision in attacking language
only from inside language.
In fact, the legibility of the text copied under the drawing is another
testimony of the “cry” of the artist who is torn between his subversive
work against language and his desire to communicate. As the drawing is
the consequence of this rebellion, the legible text is the remedy for this
violence. Dotremont considered himself in search of a new language in
which writing, colour and drawing would not be divided and where mean-
ing would be created on the spot, liberated of all constraint. To access this
universally comprehensible language, we need to give up the articulated
one. Thus drawing is not a simple work of representation, even less an ill-
ustrative or figurative one. Creating logograms means forcing language to
its own catastrophe. Drawing the words of a logogram is spontaneous and
depends on the movement of the poet’s hand and body. The logographic
drawing is thus driven by a velocity which profoundly affects legibility:
Et un jour, je me suis levé parce que j’avais décidé d’écrire sur des feuilles
beaucoup plus grandes et je n’ai plus pu travailler assis mais debout et
c’est devenu une danse vraiment de mon corps tout entier, une
chorégraphie, oui, et c’est ainsi que j’arrive à dessiner parce que je suis
incapable de dessiner [….] Et je crois que le rythme du dessin vient du
rythme de mon corps, c’est-à-dire de cette danse naturelle, spontanée, qu’il
m’est vraiment impossible de prévoir. (Dotremont 1981: 132–133)

48 Christian Dotremont’s Logograms

[And one day, I stood up because I decided to write on much larger sheets
of paper; therefore I could not keep working sitting down but had to stand
up and it truly became a dance of my entire body, a choreography of some
sort, yes, and this is how I stopped drawing; because I am incapable of
drawing [….] And I believe that the rhythm of my drawing comes from
the rhythm of my body—I mean of this natural and spontaneous dance
which is impossible for me to predict.]

It is the poet standing up who draws the logograms. Dotremont actu-

ally uses verticality to transform poetry into a new literacy: “[P]oetry
needs to stand up and not sleep inside books” (Dotremont 1990: 29).5 The
transformation of poetry in logograms is mimicked by the vertical chore-
ography of the creative body. This is how Dotremont succeeds in trans-
gressing conventional writing techniques, or disobeying, as he expresses it,
the “algebra of the conventional” (Dotremont 1990: 9). The logogram, as
an emancipation of poetry from codified constraints, is a poetic praxis of
communication which enhances the blindness and violence of language.
The reader (preceptor and lector) finds his way using what Mary Ann
Caws considers to be “the second sight” (Caws 1989: 16–17): As the spec-
tator returns a second time to the graphic part of the logogram after having
discovered the legible text, the logogram engages its perpetual dynamism
as a true art object.
The algorithm of the double signification at the limit of the “compre-
hensible” makes the materiality of words visible: The spontaneous, unique
and not repetitive (“first draft”) manuscript transforms into a medium
which captures the presence of something mysterious, latent and thus
inaccessible. However spontaneous, the writing gesture is paradoxically
motivated by the poet’s intention to express himself in order to be received
by others. Referring at once to singularity and otherness, the materiality of
the logograms is the very manifestation of a dialogic artistic community.
The otherness implied by the logogram is defined both as alius (the total
stranger: “I had the feeling of being […] the blind scribe of a writer I have
yet never met before” [Dotremont 1998: 100]) and as alter (the dialogue
partner: “My language is a form of Chinese, a certain type of Mongolian,
and I am not alone in understanding it” [Dotremont 1998: 101]). This
perception of otherness shows that logograms are an act of self-knowledge
based on a double dialectic: on the one hand, the body (of the artist draw-
ing the logogram) and language (the codified system from which the artist
wants to liberate himself), and on the other hand, the word as materiality
(a visible mark) and as meaning (the signification process). Consequently,
for Dotremont, writing that is “entitled to say a word” (Dotremont 1998:
102) can only be handwriting and not print:

Raluca Lupu-Onet 49

Ne faudrait-il pas s’élever surtout contre la dictature de l’imprimerie, de la

dactylographie ? Elles tuent la moitié de l’écrivain, en tuant son écriture.
Si l’écrivain écrit, c’est d’abord dans le sens physique: avec la main; c’est
ensuite dans le sens “rédactionnel.” (Dotremont 1998: 102)

[Should we not protest against the dictatorship of printing, of typography?

By killing the artist’s writing, they kill half of the writer. If a writer writes,
he does it in a physical fashion: by hand; only afterwards does he write in
an “editorial” fashion.]

The key function of manuscript writing is to grasp the singular event of the
poet’s expression and to simultaneously welcome the presence of the un-
known writer. Defined as “first-draft manuscripts” motivated by “an inter-
action between graphic invention and verbal invention” (Dotremont 1981:
132), the logograms represent a new iconotextual genre by the tension
maintained between the legible text and the materiality of the manuscript
graphics. For Dotremont, logograms create a new form of poetry because
they are a new form of visual art capable of unifying the meaning of words
with their materiality as signs—in order to create an original and playful
work of creation–interpretation that is, in fact, intermedial.

Works Cited
Bürger, Peter. [1974] 2004. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Trans. Michael
Shaw. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Caws, Mary Ann. 1989. The Art of Interference: Stressed Readings in
Verbal and Visual Texts. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Dotremont, Christian. 1945. La terre n’est pas une vallée de larmes. Brus-
sels: La Boétie.
—. 1964. Logogrammes. Tervuren: de la revue Strates.
—. 1965. Logogrammes II. Tervuren: de la revue Strates.
—. [1964] 1975. Logbook. Turin: Yves Rivière.
—. 1981. Grand hôtel des valises — Locataire: Dotremont: Les entretiens
de Tervuren, poèmes, manuscrits, photographies, collected and introd.
Jean-Clarence Lambert. Paris: Galilée.
—. 1990. Le grand rendez-vous naturel. Caen: L’Échoppe.
—. 1998. CoBrAland. Brussels: La Petite Pierre.
—. 2004. J’écris pour voir. Paris: Buchet Chastel.
Genette, Gérard. [1982] 1997. Palimpsests: Literature in the Second De-
gree. Trans. Channa Newman and Claude Doubinski. Lincoln: Univer-
sity of Nebraska Press.

50 Christian Dotremont’s Logograms

Nougé, Paul. 1980. “La naissance des images.” Pp. 233–234 in Histoire de
ne pas rire. Lausanne: L’Âge d’Homme.
—. 1981. “L’écriture simplifiée.” Pp. 27–142 in L’expérience continue.
Lausanne: L’Âge d’Homme.
—. 1995. Fragments. Brussels: Labor.
Shklovsky [Chklovski], Viktor. 1965. “L’art comme procédé.” Pp. 76–97
in Théorie de la literature: Textes des Formalistes russes, ed. Tzvetan
Todorov. Paris: Seuil.


Unless otherwise noted, translations are mine.
“Langage du langage” is the title of an essay in La terre n’est pas une vallée de
larmes (1945), later published in L’Estaminet 5, 1994, ed. Joseph Noiret.
In the history of Belgian Surrealism, Paul Nougé and René Magritte defined and
created these “objets bouleversants” (disruptive objects); see Nougé 1980; 1981;
Catastrophe is a key word in Dotremont’s literary and artistic work. The term
translates his insatiable desire for love, his immense affection for poetry, but also
his poverty, his insecurity and mostly his illness.
“La poésie doit se lever, ne pas dormir dans les livres” (Dotremont 1990: 29).



Works of concrete poetry often highlight the problematic limitations of
different art forms and media. In this article I ask if concrete poetry is a
type of literature that acts like visual art, i.e., does it stretch its own medial
limits? Or does it merely combine two different art forms? In contemporary
digital poetry such questions are becoming ever more complex, seeing as
digital poems combine several different media and thus describing the ex-
act mixture of art forms becomes practically impossible. This article draws
on Lars Elleström’s model of media modalities, which suggests that while
all media share certain modalities, each medium is individually defined by
the specific combinations of modalities. This model is productive, not only
as a way of defining the new, differing modal compositions in digital
poetry, but also as an analytical tool.

Keywords: concrete poetry, multimodality, “language-based digital art,”

Reinhard Döhl, Philippe Bootz

In 1766, Lessing defined poetry as the temporal medium, arguing that
since words appear one after the other, poetry is time-based and, hence, a
medium for actions. In contrast, visual art functions in space and depicts
objects—not actions—according to Lessing, who likely was not able to
imagine how contemporary poetry could be time-based in a more radical
way: The words actually move on the digital screen. The term digital po-
etry denotes a poetic movement of language-based digital art, thus consti-
tuting a genre of its own that is influenced, among others, by the poetic
avant-garde, by visual and concrete poetry and by software art. In digital
poems, for instance, words can move, perform and interact.
52 Moving Letters and Complex Medial Limitations in Digital Poetry

In this article, I will discuss the question concerning a medial category

of poetry: When can a work be considered part of the medial category of
poetry, and when are works mixtures of different media? I ask these ques-
tions, not because I am interested in strict definitions of genres and art
forms for the sake of classification, but because the problem of delimiting
different media generates valuable questions about intermediality and me-
dia ontologies.

Concrete Poetry and Media Imitation

In 1965, the German poet Reinhard Döhl published the concrete poem
“Apfel” (Apple).1 The poem consists of the word “Apfel” repeated several
times, making up the form of an apple. The spectator does not read the
poem but views it, and therefore it is not time-based, with the exception of
the short period of time it takes before the spectator realises that one of the
words is not “Apfel,” but “Wurm” (worm). How would Lessing charac-
terise this poem? As a piece of visual art consisting of words or as a poem
acting as if it was visual art? I am interested in whether it is all just a ques-
tion of labelling or if the poem instantiates certain qualities that define it as
one or the other.
Irina O. Rajewsky (2005) works with questions regarding medial classi-
fications, combinations and limitations in her intermediality theory. Fol-
lowing Rajewsky, I will differentiate between media combinations and
media imitations. Media combinations are also referred to as “mixed me-
dia,” and “[t]he intermedial quality of this category is determined by the
medial constellation constituting a given media product, which is to say
the result of a very process of combining at least two conventionally dis-
tinct media or medial forms of articulation” (Rajewsky 2005: 51–52).
Media combinations can be so “established” and “integrated” that it
makes sense to talk about individual art forms, such as film or opera, in
which the medium’s plurimedial foundation becomes its very quality.
Another category is intermedial reference, and it is via this category that
we arrive at the notion of imitation: A single medium refers to one or more
other media—it acts “as if” it were another medium—hence there is media
“imitation.” As Rajewsky suggests: “Rather than combining different
medial forms of articulation, the given media product thematizes, evokes,
or imitates elements or structures of another, conventionally distinct medi-
um through the use of its own media-specific terms” (2005: 53). Reflect-
ing upon media combinations, Rajewsky points out, “one might ask to
what extent, in the case of so-called intermedia—including for example
visual poetry and corporate logos—one can in fact speak of a ‘combi-

Mette-Marie Zacher Sørensen 53

nation’ of different medial forms of articulation, since the constitutive me-

dial forms become quasi inseparable” (2005: 52). She further suggests that
“[t]his extreme outer pole of media combinations concerns phenomena in
which individual media or their material manifestations—such as word
and image—become inextricably bound to, or even ‘merged’ with, one
another, and as such are simultaneously and oscillatingly present” and thus
difficult to treat as discrete objects (Rajewsky 2005: 52).
In contrast to the differentiations made by Rajewsky, I will argue that a
poem like “Apfel” is an example of media imitation rather than media
combination. The poem is visual, but poems are always visual, and it con-
sists of nothing but the materials that poems always employ: letters in a
certain order on a page. Even though Rajewsky characterises visual poetry
as the “extreme outer pole of media combinations,” I would suggest that
Döhl’s kind of visual poetry should be described as imitation of images.
When, in a concrete sense, words create pictures, certain modes of recep-
tion are activated that resemble the effect of images. A poem such as “Ap-
fel” breaks with one of the fundamental properties of writing, namely the
fact that words necessarily constitute a time-based medium. In this work,
the spectator sees all the words instantaneously, though, as mentioned, it
might take a while before she discovers the worm, which, nevertheless,
emerges in a process of viewing, and not by reading the words one by one.
I will suggest that “Apfel” is writing that acts “as if” it was an image—
indeed, in a very concrete way.
On the subject of concrete poetry, Roberto Simanowski argues, “[i]t is
visual not because it would apply images but because it adds the optical
gesture of the word to its semantic meaning—as completion, expansion, or
negation” (2004: 7). Hence, according to Simanowski, “[t]he intermedial
aspect does not lie in the change of medium, but in the change of percep-
tion, from the semiotic system of reading typical for literature to the semi-
otic system of viewing typical for art” (2004: 7). To assume that one me-
dium acts like another, one must accept that all media are, in some sense,
Writing is visual and auditory, and it can exaggerate these qualities and
thereby change the modes of reception within its own category, and I will
therefore argue that Rajewsky’s notion of imitation can be expanded.
There is no such thing as pure media, but there are categorical limitations
bound to history and intuition—and with this example of visual poetry, it
makes sense to talk about a work of art that belongs to one media category
while it simultaneously effectuates modes of reception from other media

54 Moving Letters and Complex Medial Limitations in Digital Poetry

Digital Poetry
Intermedial relations are becoming increasingly complex in the digital
medium, in which it is possible to blend almost all kinds of media. Thus,
digital poems are always already media combinations, but not in the sense
that the phenomenon can be defined as a specific type of art, such as the-
atre or cinema (multimedial genres, defined as media or art forms with
their own limitations). Digital art and digital poems will probably never
stabilise and present a coherent mix of different media—every single work
is a new genre in itself. One distinct quality, however, is the potential of
moving letters.
“La série des U” is a digital poem composed by the French poet
Philippe Bootz. 2 It comprises moving words which say things like:

Le pas
Le passe
Elle passe
Elle passe le fil
Elle passe le fil d’leau
Le fil d’leau passe
L’eau passe
(Bootz 2006)

Other factors contributing to the poem are soft piano music, tubular bells,
and “painting” in blue and red nuances, and the work thus consists of both
media-combining components and components which I would define as
media-imitating. We might say that some of the work’s components are
inseparable and others are not. In fact, important issues are first revealed
when one consults the programming. Initially, the music, which was com-
posed especially for this work, fits very well with the soft, moving letters,
but its programming is aleatoric, which means that every user of the work
gets her individual, instantaneous bite of music. Furthermore, the visual
background is constructed so that former users’ movements with the cur-
sor construct a new layer of drawings and paintings. In a complex sense
the poem thus establishes a form of constructed continuity, a sense of
materiality, even though it is complicated to talk about presence and ma-
teriality within the digital. The page is always new and it does not exist
anywhere, unless it is activated by a user. It is a structural potentiality, but
not a material object.
In a close analysis of the work, one has to take into account the visual
component, the music, and also, as mentioned, the strategy of program-
ming, which is invisible on the surface. “La série des U” articulates a

Mette-Marie Zacher Sørensen 55

problem concerning digital poems and their ephemeral status (see Saem-
mer 2009). The work has been overtaken by its own theme, because if you
were to experience it through the Internet today, it would run much faster
than when it was made and, therefore, the work is no longer alive on the
Internet, but archived. On several levels, the work speaks in collaboration
with its own text, generating an awareness of materiality, the possibilities
and problems concerning its own technical medium, which are, for instance,
coincidence, invisibility, perishability and imprint.
Let us focus on the words and their concrete movement in the poem,
which do not simply emphasise the semantic content—the movement is
the condition of the play with words. With its permutations on the level of
words, “La série des U” can be compared to the concrete poem “Como o
vento” by the Brazilian poet Ronaldo Azeredos:

Como o vento
com o ouvido
como o vivo
ou vindo
(Azeredos 1967)

The difference between “Como o vento” and “La série des U” is that the
movements and permutations in the latter could not exist on paper. “La
série des U” begins with a lone word, “Le.” It quivers, because we antici-
pate that other words might arise (as opposed to a book where words do
not suddenly turn up), but also because “Le” cannot stand alone, seeing as
it has no meaning of its own—its only function is as the definite article,
masculine, singular. This masculinity suddenly attains content when a play
with the word “elle” is established. This is so, because the letter “e” disap-
pears, leaving “l” to stand alone; in French, the pronunciation of the letter
“l” is “elle” (Saemmer 2009). These slow intimations happen on the visual
level as well when the word “Le” flies around and is somehow mirrored,
indicating the formation of the word “elle.” “Le” becomes “Le pas” and
“Le Passe,” until the letters “E” and “l” come flying in and create the sen-
tence “Elle passe.” The sentence “Elle passe le fil de l’eau” gradually
changes as the sequence “le fil de l’eau” moves over “elle,” which then
disappears and we are left with the sentence “le fil de l’eau passe.” There
is a lot of concrete movement in the poem: There is a sense of soft move-
ment as well as waves, the colour blue, the word “water” and so on. In the
end, only “passé” stands alone, until it passes—a “concretistic” disappear-

56 Moving Letters and Complex Medial Limitations in Digital Poetry

The Modalities of Media

Once again, I pose the question: How can we characterise “La série des U”
according to its intermedial references and combinations? Does it combine
and imitate different media at the same time? In experience, the varieties
of different medial and modal possibilities within the digital field are
enormous, and new genres are never properly stabilised. In an attempt to
clarify and analyse the medial and modal composition of a work, one so-
lution could be to use the model developed by Lars Elleström (2010).
Elleström suggests that all media share many fundamental modalities—
they differ, but they also have a lot in common. Therefore, for instance, it
is incorrect to talk about the old verbal–visual dichotomy. Writing is also
visual, and “traditional” visual media are also always somehow verbal;
just think of W. J. T. Mitchell’s provocative statement, “[t]here are no
visual media” (2005). Elleström agrees that all media are mixed media,
and all media consist of material, sensorial, spatiotemporal and semiotic
modalities. Characterising a poem like “La série des U,” it is important to
emphasise the spatiotemporal modality. Words in the poem move, and the
spectator is thus fixed within the sequentiality, since she is incapable of
controlling the speed and sequence of the words. A poem on paper is not
time-based but, of course, on a referential (semiotic) level, we can talk
about time in the narration. Walter J. Ong (2002) has investigated modal
differences while analysing the fundamental differences between writing
and oral language. He investigates the differences between voice (sound)
and reading (vision): Reading is a more individual process than listening
to sound in the company of other people; on the other hand, there is no
way to control the speed while listening. The movement within a digital
poem combines fundamental modalities from listening with the funda-
mental modalities of writing: It is visual like writing, but time-based like
oral language. With the vocabulary developed by Elleström, it is possible
to name the composition of modalities without being forced to talk about
the works as mixtures of voice and writing, movies and traditional poems.
On a material level, “La série des U” is a two-dimensional work, consist-
ing of visual and auditory components. The music and the moving words
have (apparently) fixed sequentiality, and we are presented with time on a
referential (semiotic-symbolic) level via words about movement (“passe”
and others). When the words move, the symbolic and material (performa-
tive) levels become interrelated, as when “elle” leaves, giving the impres-
sion that the words are people who are able to walk away.
To me, it is very important, though not sufficient, to characterise the
modal composition of a work of art (that is, the materiality, the time, the

Mette-Marie Zacher Sørensen 57

fixation, the activation of different senses, the semiotics and so on). When
we have defined what a work is, we have to analyze what it does: how the
modal composition affects the experience of the work. In this sense, the
model developed by Elleström is a meta-definition of media, as Jørgen
Bruhn puts it in “Medium, Intermedialitet, Heteromedialitet” (2010). It is
thus pre-descriptive. Why should one then use a pre-descriptive model for
the modalities of media in an analysis? It would never make sense to do so
in a traditional novel where the modal composition is more or less the
same every time, but with digital poetry, every piece of work is almost a
new genre. The variety of modalities change from time to time, therefore,
the analysis of the modal composition is not simply a question of what the
work is, but also what it does and how this affects reception. For instance,
we might analyse the effect of the moving words in the reception of the
poem. When the spectator “waits” for a word, she experiences suspense
but also some form of frustration, since she cannot control the speed of the
reading as she is used to with regular poems.
Another important issue is that when we analyse a poem like “La série
des U,” we have to take into account the fact that the poem was written on
a complex surface. It can be compared to the famous Scottish poet Ian
Hamilton Finlay’s garden “Little Sparta,” where he wrote on trees, stones,
and other natural materials which then developed over time (gradually
changing, growing, becoming darker, more fragile and so on). In the digi-
tal sphere, however, the material is much more complex, since the techni-
cal medium is not merely a transparent medium, displaying certain con-
tent. According to N. Katherine Hayles, “[i]n informatics, the signifier can
no longer be understood as a single marker, for example an ink mark on a
page. Rather it exists as a flexible chain of markers bound together by the
arbitrary relations specified by the relevant codes” (1999: 31). We might
say that the machine needs its own position in the communicative struc-
ture, a third space, perhaps, or an artificial intelligence? This epistemo-
logical question concerns the digital and its ontology, and so far I am un-
able to answer the question.

If we return to the concrete poem “Apfel,” we can conclude that it is a
poem and a work that stretches the limits of art forms. On the material
level, “Apfel” can be defined as a two-dimensional work, whose other
levels of modality are also somehow flat. It is hardly temporal, even
though it is a poem; we regard the words (and locate the worm) without
reading them one by one. Furthermore, the poem does not establish any

58 Moving Letters and Complex Medial Limitations in Digital Poetry

kind of temporality on a referential level, since it only refers to the consti-

tution of signs, using the words—symbolic signs—to build the shape of an
apple: an iconic sign. It should be noted that even if we discover an ad-
equate terminology with which to describe intermedial works and their
modal composition, a work like “Apfel,” in its historical context, draws at-
tention to the conventional limits of specific art forms by provoking, point-
ing out or changing these limits. So even though we arrive at a precise
terminology and no longer need to discuss imitations or combinations of
media, this work enunciates the following: I am a poem, but I act as if I
am an image, and I may as well have been the opposite. In her article
“Border Talks” (2010), Rajewsky also argues that although the limitations
of art forms are contingent and historical, we still have precise and com-
mon intuitions and, of course, we do recognise if an artwork refers to an-
other art form.
Thus, the question is whether, within the field of digital media, new
genres and media will ever be stabilised and achieve the status of new art
forms and individual media. Friedrich A. Kittler has suggested that “[t]he
general digitisation of channels and information erases the differences
among individual media. Sound and image, voice and text are reduced to
surface effects, known to consumers as interface. Sense and the senses
turn into eyewash” (1999: 1). Kittler insists that “Media determine our
situation” (1999: xxxix); he analyzes the history of media and writing
technologies and suggests that the reason we had the Romantic period
(including the assumption of poetry as the medium of the spirit) is because
the Western world was blessed with a phonetic alphabet and around 1800
mothers began teaching their children to read, thereby naturalising words
and making writing “transparent.” According to Kittler in Discourse Net-
works (1985), it was new media that animated modernism. With the in-
vention of the gramophone and the advent of film, literature had to find its
own intrinsic values and emphasise them, because it was no longer the
only medium of imagination with hallucinatory effects.
I do not think we can say today that media determine our situation in a
strict sense, but it is an important fact that artists and writers use and im-
mediately explore the invention of new technologies.4 The disciplines of
aesthetic and intermedial analysis must focus on mediality in a broad
sense, since mediality should be understood both as the limitations, com-
binations, and interplay of media—but also as questions concerning tech-
nical media—what they are, what they do and how we interact with them.
Hence, the necessity for intermedial and transdisciplinary studies and
questions concerning mediality in a historical and contemporary context
will continue to grow.

Mette-Marie Zacher Sørensen 59

Works Cited
Azeredos, Ronaldo. 1967. “Como o vento.” [P. 13; n. pag.] in An Anthol-
ogy of Concrete Poetry, ed. Emmett Williams. New York: Something
Else Press.
Borsuk, Amaranth, and Brad Bouse. 2010. Between Page and Screen.
Chapbook. Los Angeles: Otis College of Art and Design. Digital book
version available at http://betweenpageandscreen.com/book (accessed
24 Oct. 2011).
Bootz, Philippe, and Marcel Frémiot. 2006. “La série des U.” Electronic
Literature Collection. Ed. N. Katherine Hayles, Nick Montfort, Scott
Rettberg and Stephanie Strickland. http://collection.eliterature.org/1/
works/bootz_fremiot__the_set_of_u/ (accessed 11 Dec. 2010).
Bruhn, Jørgen. 2010. “Medium, intermedialitet, heteromedialitet.” Kritik
198: 77–87.
Döhl, Reinhard. 1965. “Apfel.” http://collection.eliterature.org/1/works/
bootz_fremiot__the_set_of_u/index.htm (accessed 2 April 2011).
Elleström, Lars. 2010. “The Modalitites of Media: A Model for Under-
standing Intermedial Relations.” Pp. 11–41 in Media Borders, Multi-
modality and Intermediality, ed. Lars Elleström. London: Palgrave
Hayles, N. Katherine. 1999. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies
in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.
Kittler, Friedrich A. 1985. Aufschreibesysteme 1800/1900. Munich: Wil-
helm Fink.
—. [1986] 1999. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Trans. Geoffrey Win-
throp-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Mitchell, W. J. T. 2005. “There are No Visual Media.” Journal of Visual
Culture 4 (2): 257–266.
Ong, Walter J. [1982] 2002. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of
the Word. New York: Routledge.
Rajewsky, Irina O. 2005. “Intermediality, Intertextuality and Remedi-
ation.” Intermédialités 6: 43–64.
—. 2010. “Border Talks: The Problematic Status of Media Borders in the
Current Debate about Intermediality.” Pp. 51–69 in Media Borders,
Multimodality and Intermediality, ed. Lars Elleström. London: Pal-
grave Macmillan.
Saemmer, Alexandra. 2009. “Ephemeral Passages: La série des U and
Passage by Philippe Bootz.” Dichtung-Digital: Journal für digitale

60 Moving Letters and Complex Medial Limitations in Digital Poetry

Ästhetik. http://dichtung-digital.mewi.unibas.ch/index.htm (accessed

10 Jan. 2010).
Simanowski, Roberto. 2010. “Concrete Poetry in Digital Media.” Dich-
tung-Digital: Journal für digitale Ästhetik. http://www.brown.edu/
Research/dichtung-digital/2004/3/simanowski/index.htm (accessed 15
Jan. 2011).


You can watch the poem here: http://www.netzliteratur.net/solothurn/bild3.html
(accessed 11 December 2010).
It is possible to watch the poem here: http://collection.eliterature.org/1/works/
bootz_fremiot__the_set_of_u/index.htm (accessed 2 April 2011).
Translation: “The footprint / Passes it / She is going / She is passing the thread /
She is following the current / The current goes / The water goes / Go(es).”
The newest tendency, at the time of writing, is to incorporate a webcam into
artworks and poems, thereby including the spectator and the space between a
physical object and the screen. In a digital work called Between Page and Screen
(Borsuk and Bouse 2010), the computer reads book pages and presents words in a
virtual space between the spectator and the screen.



This article explores the photo-documentary mode in a specific cultural
and historical climate, suggesting that the meaning of works of art cannot
be separated from the context of their production. The article focuses on a
classic verbal/visual text about the Great Depression, Let Us Now Praise
Famous Men, the product of a collaborative project between two artists,
writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans. By juxtaposing text
and photographs, the book discusses its own shortcomings in “realistic”
representation of poor families in the American countryside while simul-
taneously foregrounding itself as an artefact. Agee expresses his frustra-
tion with the incapacity of language to represent the full materiality of the
tenant farmers’ life. On the other hand, the visual and material aspects of
Evans’s photographs can be seen to resist narrativisation. In this article, I
argue that we need to take into account the pragmatic, rhetorical and polit-
ical aspects of photo-documentary processes, and to distinguish visual rep-
resentations from the extra-textual reality, which is always more com-
plicated than any framed image.

Keywords: documentary photography, iconotext, cultural poetics, the

aesthetics of the everyday, James Agee and Walker Evans

Studies of photographic art aim at foregrounding photographic specificity

while relating that specificity to the concerns of a particular cultural and
historical climate. In 1936, the U.S. government launched a large-scale
64 A Cultural Poetics of the Photo-Documentary

documentary project called the Farm Security Administration (FSA),

which worked hard to make the Great Depression easier to handle and un-
derstand through photographic images. It is important to note that the
classic phase of American photographic art was born in this context and
that these years saw a lot of collaboration between prose writers, poets and
photographers in their joint project to try to depict the events and faces of
the Depression era. Arguably the most famous photo-documentary book
about the Depression is Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), the prod-
uct of a collaborative work between two artists, writer James Agee and
photographer Walker Evans, who tried to capture the everyday reality of
poor tenant farmers in Alabama in 1936.1
In his studies representing cultural poetics, Stephen Greenblatt empha-
sises “the historical embeddedness of literary texts (or cultural artifacts in
general)” and insists upon “the inseparability of their meaning from the
circumstances of their making or reception” (1990: 9).2 Focusing on “the
historicity of texts and the textuality of history,” Greenblatt reads histo-
rical stories and anecdotes—such as stories of colonialism, violence and
torture—and tries to recognise their textual/historical specificity. In his cri-
tique of universalising tendencies in culture and theory, Greenblatt writes
that to separate a specific language and a specific culture from each other
“is to turn from the messy, confusing welter of details that characterize a
particular society at a particular time to the cool realm of abstract
principles” (Greenblatt 1990: 32). Similarly John Tagg, in his theories of
photo-documentary art, claims that specific documentary strategies and
their rhetorics should be related to the longer histories of documentation,
record-keeping and discipline; to the pictures of misery, the power of
horrors and the pleasures of the gaze; and to that which “escapes, resists,
or scores through the limits of the rhetoric of transparency and the regime
of documentary truth” (2009: xxxiii). We can easily see Michel Foucault’s
influence behind Greenblatt’s and Tagg’s thinking.
In his influential books The Burden of Representation (1988) and The
Disciplinary Frame (2009), Tagg turns his attention from the ontology of
the photograph to the historical, social and cultural contexts in which the
meaning of photographs is constructed. Tagg aims to “redescribe the ma-
terial processes of production and circulation of meanings and their
relation to cultural technologies and to questions of power and resistance”
(2009: xxx). He is interested in photo-documentary strategies and in their
mapping into a historically specific field of cultural politics. In my article,
I will discuss Agee and Evans’s photo-documentary work within a theoret-
ical framework of cultural politics and poetics.
Markku Lehtimäki 65

Words and the World

According to T. V. Reed, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men represents “nov-
el journalism that calls its own representational practices into question,”
and the book’s “questioning of representational capacities within each of
the two media [the prose and the photographs] is intensified by compar-
ative cross-mediation” (1992: 35, 39). Written mainly against the conven-
tions of the genre inside which it is produced—the 1930s documentaries of
rural life and their claim to give the reader a real picture of that life—the
book aims at shaking readers’ preconceptions by problematising the rela-
tionship between a verbal/visual text and the harsh realities of the actual
In the book, James Agee expresses his frustration with the incapacity
of language to represent the full materiality of the tenant farmers’ life (see
Entin 2007: 141). “Words cannot embody,” Agee states, “they can only
describe” (Agee and Evans 2001: 238). For Agee, “words are descriptive
signifiers of a more vital and concrete reality toward which the writer can
only gesture or refer” (Entin 2007: 141–142). By juxtaposing text and pho-
tographs, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men discusses its own shortcomings
in “realistic” representation of poor families in the American countryside
while simultaneously foregrounding itself as an artefact. The book makes
its presentations in both typographic and photographic form as intimate
and immediate as possible. Agee’s style of self-negating his own writing,
as well as his way of stressing the materiality of the book, is illuminated
by his comment on the early pages of the narrative:
“If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the
rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of
speech, pictures of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of
excrement” (2001: 26, my emphases)

Agee’s prose is filled with realist observation and visual allusions, as if he

were trying to capture the photographic sharpness with his verbal imagery.
In the production of the book, it appears that both James Agee and
Walker Evans wanted to challenge their own devices and media by
pushing them to certain limits; thus, Evans is experimenting with photo-
graphic techniques (lenses, frames, lights, angles, etc.) while Agee pain-
fully—sometimes also painful for the reader—includes in his prose all the
motives and devices of his writing. The result is a book which is “a medi-
tation on the limits of what, among the things we see and recognize, we
can directly record or indirectly evoke with images and words” (Minter
1996: 201). Brian McHale interestingly speaks of a revenge of the visual
66 A Cultural Poetics of the Photo-Documentary

illustration against the verbal text: “Photographic illustration, too, can be a

form of revenge of the visual against the verbal,” and “as practiced by late-
modernist writers, it focuses certain of modernism’s epistemological anx-
ieties” (1996: 189). According to McHale, the classic example of this
phenomenon is Agee and Evans’s collaboration and its competing claims
vis-à-vis self-consciously “objective” photography and self-consciously
“subjective” writing.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is not an iconotext in any pure sense:
it is not an artefact where “the verbal and the visual signs mingle to pro-
duce rhetoric that depends on the co-presence of words and images”
(Wagner 1996: 16), so that text and image would be mutually interdep-
endent in their ways of producing meaning. In fact, Walker Evans’s photo-
graphs are completely separate from James Agee’s prose in the book’s
structure, and they are also devoid of all textual features that conven-
tionally accompany this kind of photo-essay: There are no legends, cap-
tions, dates, names, locations or any other subtexts or textual guides which
would help us to “read” these photographs (see Mitchell 1994: 290). One
of the questions the reader–viewer of the book must face is in what ways
prose and photographs are related.
Structuralist studies of verbal and visual representation have frequently
stressed the pre-eminence of language, but the relationship between photo-
graph and written text is complicated, and cannot be reduced to some
general textuality. Moreover, the visual and material aspects of a photo-
graph can also be seen to resist narrativisation. Thus, we should be reflex-
ive enough not to read narrative, plot and progression into still pictures—
that is, not to become party to “the easy imperialism of savage narrat-
ivization which reduces the specific material properties of the object to a
mere springboard for narrative reception of unnarrative visual materials”
(Baetens and Bleyen 2010: 170). Therefore, it is not enough to read visual
representations through verbal paradigms.
Generally, photographs are less discursive and narrative than many
paintings. However, we can read stories, places, events and human exp-
eriences into Evans’s photographs, and think about the past, present and
future of the people—and even inanimate objects—in pictures. Let Us
Now Praise Famous Men has usually been described as either “realist” or
“modernist,” but these concepts, realism and modernism, are themselves
put to question by the text. Agee protests against the flatness of realist
representation but also against Modernist art, which “is hermetically
sealed away from identification with everyday ‘reality’” (2001: 217). Dis-
cussing textual representation and the handicaps of naturalism and docu-
mentary, Agee writes in his characteristically complicated prose style:
Markku Lehtimäki 67

I doubt that the straight “naturalist” very well understands what music and
poetry are about. That would be all right if he understood his materials so
intensely that music and poetry seemed less than his intention; but I doubt
he does that. That is why his work even at best is never much more than
documentary. Not that documentation has not great dignity and value; it
has; and as good “poetry” can be extracted from it as from living itself; but
documentation is not itself either poetry or music and it is not, of itself, of
any value equivalent to theirs. So that, if you share the naturalist’s regard
for the “real” but have this regard for it on a plane which in your mind
brings it level in value with music and poetry, which in turn you value as
highly as anything on earth, it is important that your representation of
“reality” does not sag into, or become one with, naturalism; and in so far
as it does, you have sinned, that is, you have fallen short even of the
relative truth you have perceived and intended. (2001: 215, my emphasis)

As we may note, Agee regards representation of reality as a highly ethical

act, one that must take as its main goal at least a relative truth, and one that
does not sink to the lower depths of naturalist documentation.
Next, let us see how Agee defines his aims, purposes and media:
The nominal subject is North American cotton tenantry as examined in the
daily living of three representative white tenant families. [....] The immed-
iate instruments are two: the motionless camera, and the printed word. The
governing instrument—which is also one of the centers of the subject—is
individual, anti-authoritative human consciousness. [....] Since it is inten-
ded, among other things, as a swindle, an insult, and a corrective, the
reader will be wise to bear the nominal subject, and his expectation of its
proper treatment, steadily in mind. (2001: 10)

Here, the authors (both Agee and Evans) present themselves as documen-
tarists whose working ethics must be considered and negotiated by the
readers. What is more, the “nominal” subject of the book—the life of
tenant families—both shapes and is shaped by the “actual” subject, that is,
the flesh-and-blood reality of the real people behind or beyond the text.
We may note that Agee changed the names of the three families, not with
the intention of creating fiction, but to grant them their dignity and indivi-
Here is how Agee writes about George Gudger, the central character of
his book:
George Gudger is a man, et cetera. But obviously, in the effort to tell of
him as truthfully as I can, I am limited. I know him only so far as I know
him, and only in those terms in which I know him; and all of that depends
as fully on who I am as on who he is. [....] The one deeply exciting thing to
me about Gudger is that he is actual, he is living, at this instant. He is not
68 A Cultural Poetics of the Photo-Documentary

some artist’s or journalist’s or propagandist’s invention; he is a human be-

ing; and to what degree I am able it is my business to reproduce him as the
human being he is; not just to amalgamate him into some invented literary
imitation of a human being. (2001: 211)

Fig. 1: Untitled. Walker Evans, 1935–1936. Photograph Albums for Let Us Now
Praise Famous Men (FSA-OWI Collection, Prints and Photographs Division,
Library of Congress, Washington, DC).
Markku Lehtimäki 69

While Agee’s medium is, finally, written language, Walker Evans, in his
photograph of George Gudger (Fig. 1) and the other photographs printed
in the book, has to establish the sense of relationship between author and
character without using words. As Reed notes, Evans does so primarily in
two ways: by allowing his subjects to compose themselves, and through
the use of the family photo album genre (1992: 52–53).3 The subtle but
marked aesthetic composition of the photographs adds dignity and strength
to Evans’s subjects, those “marginal” human beings and their inglorious
daily living. These are finally real people in the pictures, not some artist’s
imaginative creations.

Pictures of the Everyday

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men celebrates the aesthetics of the everyday:
material objects, architecture and the natural environment (see Saito 2007:
2–8). In the same vein, Bill Brown, in his study of American modernism,
aims to construct a “materialist phenomenology of everyday life” (2003:
3). What interests me here are those marginal details of the everyday, such
as daily work and inanimate objects, which sometimes only photographs
can capture.
While in a painting the artist chooses the things that are included
(according to his or her aesthetic vision), the photograph can be disting-
uished from other kinds of visual art in its recording of all the details that
are present before the camera’s eye:
The photograph works to alter our perception of the world by drawing
attention to a marginal detail, one that would go unnoticed if it were not
for the fact that it was photographed and thus framed. Ultimately, the auto-
matic inclusion of daily, ordinary, even banal details within the photo-
graph’s frame affects the way the world is seen. Through the everydayness
of photographic aesthetics, the familiar (and oftentimes overlooked) as-
pects of the real world are more readily perceived and thus gain in impor-
tance. (Horstkotte and Pedri 2008: 14–15)

As Nancy Pedri argues (Pedri 2008: 155–173), an understanding of the

photographic documentary needs to reach beyond the notion of the photo-
graph’s supposed objectivity, an idea represented by its mechanically pro-
duced indexicality or the historical contexts that make its meaning. From a
rhetorical and pragmatic aspect, it is also crucial to note the reader’s role
in the reception of the photo-documentary expression and in the produc-
tion of its possible, and alternative, meanings, as Pedri has commented:
“Born of an interaction between photographic document and reader, the
70 A Cultural Poetics of the Photo-Documentary

documentary comes to be that uncertain mixture of fact and fiction that

moves readers to belief” (2008: 170).
While a photograph is also perceived as resembling that which it
depicts, C. S. Peirce early noted that a photograph is not only iconic but
also indexical (see Lefevbre 2007: 12–13). The notion of indexicality is
the founding element of photographic representation: Indexicality links the
image to its objects through physical causality or connection. As Geoffrey
Batchen notes, “as an index, the photograph is never itself but always, by
its very nature, a tracing of something else” (1997: 9). Therefore, since the
photographic image is an index of the effect of light on photographic
emulsion, all unedited photographic and filmic images are, by their nature,
indexical—although, of course, conventional practices always also involve
composition, focusing, developing and so on, and obviously recent digital
media complicates all things.
We need to reflect that the uniqueness of photographic textuality
resides in the very referential nature of the photographic entity. What dis-
tinguishes the photographic image from other forms of representation is its
material link to reality; indeed, we have to pay attention to the tension
between the culturally fabricated nature of the photograph and its funda-
mental indexicality, its status as “a trace of the real” (Hughes and Noble
2003: 4). In other words, “the photograph is a physical trace of (the light
reflecting off) that which existed before the camera in the real world”
(Horstkotte and Pedri 2008: 12–13). Photographs, in short, differ from all
other images on the basis of their photochemical process, mechanical pro-
duction and indexical connection to reality.
Alex Hughes and Andrea Noble suggest that photographic images
make their appeal to the viewer not simply on an intellectual level, since
they can work against the culturally consecrated primary of intellect over
emotion, or of mind over body; thus, “as we engage with the realm of the
photographic we are given access to alternative ways of knowing”
(Hughes and Noble 2003: 6). As W. J. T. Mitchell shrewdly puts it, Let Us
Now Praise Famous Men works against text–image “exchanges” typical of
photonarratives, as the book resists the straightforward collaboration of
prose and photography. Evans’s photographs are bereft of textual and
literary elements, and thus they “force us back onto the formal and ma-
terial features of the images in themselves” (Mitchell 1994: 239). There-
fore, the very materiality, as well as indexicality, of the photograph makes
it work differently from the written text; it requires the reader to respect
the thing in itself.
Evans usually refused to move any of the objects he was photograph-
ing; instead, he wanted to take pictures of those objects, people and things,
Markku Lehtimäki 71

in their natural contexts of everyday living; and for the most part he
avoided unnatural angles, preferring to shoot from normal height and
straightforward angles (see Reed 1992: 48). There is simple poetry in
Evans’s silent, unmoving images. The style of Agee’s text is sometimes
similar; sometimes more subjective, angry and polemic.
As John Tagg has argued, instead of a certain manipulative rhetoric of
some of the other Depression-era photographs, which aimed at construct-
ing an explicit meaning through spectacle, irony and symbolisation (e.g.,
the aestheticising art of Margaret Bourke-White), Evans’s poetic images
are more obscure and more difficult to fix within a definite time, place and
event. In Evans’s photographs, “the relationships of image to image are
not those of thesis and antithesis, but of rhyme, repetition, discrepancy,
and reversal,” “the process of reading is not curtailed in advance” and “no
spatial setting is given, no wider explanatory frame, no supporting ground”
(Tagg 2009: 131–132). There is an ontological distance between the hard
material presence of real things and the observing yet subjective photographic
eye. In its demand for realism, photo-documentary art is always limited; it
never reaches “the unforgettable forgotten that does not lend itself to sig-
nification” (Tagg 2009: xxxiv). In Tagg’s phrasing, the “overwhelming
thing” and an “unencounterable real” present continuous challenges to ver-
bal and visual representation (2009: 178). In Tagg’s view, it is precisely
the problem of meaning that is visible in Evans’s photographic art.
There is an obvious allusion to Vincent van Gogh’s famous painting of
peasant shoes (1886) in a picture of a tenant farmer’s shoes taken exactly
fifty years later (see Fig. 2). We may also recall that it was van Gogh’s
painting that stimulated the great, if controversial, German philosopher
Martin Heidegger to produce his famous essay “The Origin of the Work of
Art” (1935–36), written, as we can see, during the very same time period
Evans took the picture. In his poetic essay, Heidegger explains the essence
of art in terms of the concepts of Being and truth. He writes about art’s
ability to set up an active struggle between what he calls earth and world.
While “world” in Heidegger’s terminology is a passive entity, “earth” is
active. The world simply occurs while the earth actively exists. To put it in
Heidegger’s terms, the parts that clarify and unify the work embody its
“world” aspects, while practices that help resist such completion make up
its “earth.” The earth is resistant; it cannot be fully revealed or explained.
This struggle between world and earth takes place within the artwork; but
as soon as meaning is pinned down and the work no longer offers
resistance to picturing, framing, and rationalisation, the struggle is over
(see Heidegger 1971: 39–50).4
72 A Cultural Poetics of the Photo-Documentary

Fig. 2: Untitled. Walker Evans, 1935–1936. Photograph Albums for Let Us Now
Praise Famous Men (FSA-OWI Collection, Prints and Photographs Division,
Library of Congress, Washington, DC).
Markku Lehtimäki 73

The possibility of its earth aspects is due to the fact that the reader of
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is able to connect the photograph of the
shoes to the very particular body and existence of a farmer, namely Floyd
Burroughs (“George Gudger” was the pseudonym Evans and Agee used in
their book), a man whose specific human weight can be felt in these work-
ing shoes. Agee writes of these shoes as if they were a Cubist artwork (and
obscure like Charles Bovary’s hat), and still firmly rooted in the hard work
on cotton fields:
They are one of the most ordinary types of working shoe: the blucher
design, and soft in the prow, lacking the seam across the root of the big
toe: covering the ankles: looped straps at the heels: blunt, broad, and
rounded at the toe: broad-heeled: made up of the most simple roundnesses
and squarings and flats, of dark brown raw thick leathers nailed, and sewn
coarsely to one another in courses and patterns of doubled and tripled
seams, and such throughout that like many other small objects they have
great massiveness and repose and are, as the houses and overalls are, and
the feet and legs of the women, who go barefooted so much, fine pieces of
architecture. [....] The shoes are worn for work. (2001: 241–242)

Agee’s poetic rendering of the working shoes reminds me of Heidegger’s

vision of the shoes depicted in van Gogh’s painting. Heidegger writes that
in those shoes, “there vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet and
ripening corn and its enigmatic self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the
wintry field” and that “this equipment [the shoes] belongs to the earth, and
it is protected in the world of the peasant woman” (1971: 34).
We may recall the photographic medium’s necessary indexical
complicity with the real. In this sense, Evans’s reality referent—be it
human faces or inanimate objects like shoes—is never totally lost. We
should also recognise photography’s remarkable ability to put the viewer
in perceptual contact with the world, “an ability which can be claimed
even by a fuzzy and badly exposed snapshot depicting few details and
offering little information” (Walton 2008: 49). The indexical nature of
“analogical” photography has relation to what Agee calls “unimagined
existence” (2001: 10), a notion representing his belief that there is an
extratextual world, a resistant earth and non-human nature. In Heidegger’s
style, we can think that Evans’s photograph of tenant shoes is still full of
earth, existence and resistance. In a phenomenological sense, in the
photograph there remains a kind of natural “being-there” of objects.5
Of course, Evans’s probably intentional allusion to van Gogh’s famous
painting may also remind us that our vision is being directed aesthetically
by the photographer via his choice of framing, angle and perspective. That
is, there is no simple documentary apprehension of these objects or of the
74 A Cultural Poetics of the Photo-Documentary

human being who wears these shoes (see Reed 1992: 47–48). Therefore,
these real objects and the earth they belong to are also artistically
transformed into something other than what they really are or really were.
Still, the contrast between Heidegger’s and Evans’s “readings” of van
Gogh’s painting is illuminating, since whereas Heidegger takes off on a
flight of fancy about universal peasantry (and we should not forget his
“national” interests), Evans’s approach to the painting has the effect of
making it appear more concrete and rooted in a specific life.
Finally, as John Tagg suggests, we need to stress the pragmatic,
rhetorical and political aspects of photo-documentary processes, and to
distinguish visual representations from the extratextual reality, which is
always more complicated than any framed image (Tagg 1988: 4). In
Evans’s pictures, just as in Agee’s prose, we are made to feel the hard
realities and the resistant earth of Depression-era Alabama, even though
neither words nor images really capture that real earth.

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In addition to the collaboration between Agee and Evans, the following are worth
mentioning: Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell’s You Have Seen Their
Faces (1937); Archibald McLeish’s Land of the Free (1938), a collection of poems
including the work of various photographers; Dorothea Lange and Paul S. Taylor’s
An American Exodus (1939), and Richard Wright and Edwin Rosskam’s Twelve
Million Black Voices (1941). The influence of the FSA photographs is perhaps also
felt in the narrative style of what may be the most famous of the Depression-era
novels, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939). Two remarkable studies of
the era are Stott (1973) and Dickstein (2009). See also my earlier article on this
subject (Lehtimäki 2010).
The present article is part of my research project (128066), funded by the
Academy of Finland.
Cultural poetics can be defined as an attempt to describe the reflexive relations
between artistic form and cultural context (see Watten 2003: xv, xxv). According
to this practice, the established concepts of literary theory—mimesis, representa-
tion, allusion and the like—seem inadequate in describing contemporary cultural
phenomena in which social energies are charged with aesthetic discourses and vice
versa (see Greenblatt 1990: 146).
Marianne Hirsch’s book Family Frames might be an interesting touchstone here.
Hirsch discusses the ways photographs can powerfully shape personal and collec-
tive memory. She speaks of the “continuing power and ‘burden’ of photographic
reference,” and notes that the camera is an apparatus whose “social functions are
integrally tied to the ideology of modern family” (Hirsch 1997: 6, 7).
Fredric Jameson somewhat clarifies this by saying that Heidegger’s theory is
“organized around the idea that the work of art emerges within the gap between
Earth and World, or what I would prefer to translate as the meaningless materiality
of the body and nature and the meaning endowment of history and of the social.”
Jameson adds that “Heidegger’s account needs to be completed by insistence on
the renewed materiality of the work, on the transformation of one form of materi-
ality—the earth itself and its paths and physical objects—into that other materiality
Markku Lehtimäki 77

of oil paint” (Jameson 2005: 7–8). Jameson also refers to Walker Evans’s photo-
graph of the tenant shoes in his own analysis of van Gogh’s painting of the peasant
The photograph is thus connected to the physicality of the past, or, as Roland
Barthes puts it: “In Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there.
There is a superimposition here: of reality and of the past” (Barthes 1981: 76).


This article analyses ekphrastic descriptions and their manifold references
in Leena Lander’s historical novel The Order (2003). In historical novels,
the question of referentiality is a prominent feature of the storyworld.
However, the referred past world is temporally unattainable. This forms a
fruitful structural analogy between ekphrasis and historical fiction: In ek-
phrasis, the textual other, the visual object, is always absent from its verbal
imitation. Similarly in historical writing, the temporal other, the past, is al-
ways absent; it is not available to the senses or experience as such. As a
formal difference inherent to ekphrasis, this mode of alienation is crucial
in The Order. In alternating between ekphrastic hope and indifference in
the reader’s perception, Lander’s novel mediates between the past and the
present, thereby suggesting that history is not to be explained by full
narrativisation but rather needs to maintain a tension between the interpre-
ter and the object of interpretation.

Keywords: ekphrastic model, historical novel, historiography, fictional

embedding, photography, Leena Lander

Descriptions, References and Interpretation

Ekphrasis comprises the co-presence of words and images not in a con-
crete sense but by allusion: The literary text refers to a pictorial object
which remains materially absent. This reference to another media or mode
of art connects firstly to the larger question of allusions and quotations in
literature: to intertextuality at large, as well as Bakhtinian notions of dia-
logicity, double-voiced discourse and stylisation (see Bakhtin 1984: 185–
190, 193–194), and secondly—from a more formal point of view—to
discourse categories in fiction (see Palmer 2005). An important contribu-
80 Historical Fiction and Ekphrasis in Leena Lander’s The Order

tion to the discussion has been Tamar Yacobi’s (2000: esp. 712–717)
study of the analogical structure of fiction and intermedial allusion.
Yacobi remarks that all fiction is a system of embedded discourses: Nar-
rators quote characters, and so on; in many cases, with several layers of
both narrators and characters. She adds that while all cases of quotation
involve the question of whether verbal expression has been modified or
not in the process, ekphrasis inevitably involves the modification of the
visual to the verbal. Therefore, it brings the question of quoting to a head,
and helps investigate the phenomena involved.
In this article,1 I analyse ekphrastic descriptions and their manifold
references in a single novel’s storyworld, along with the reader’s interpre-
tation of it. I concentrate on the genre of the historical novel where the
question of referentiality is prominent: The storyworld connects with
known historical reality (see Maxwell 1998: 545). Yet, this referred past
world is inevitably absent from its representation; it is temporally unat-
tainable. This forms a fruitful structural analogy between ekphrasis and
historical fiction: In ekphrasis, the textual other, the visual object, is al-
ways absent from its verbal imitation (see Mitchell 1994: 158). Similarly
in historical writing, the temporal other, the past, is always absent; it is not
available to the senses or experience as such. Furthermore, the relationship
between the past and history entails both friction and interdependence,
otherness and similarity. In a parallel manner, interpreting ekphrasis
causes both fear and the hope of overcoming the difference between the
verbal and the visual, as well as indifference due to the impossibility of
this intermedial mirroring (see Mitchell 1994: 163). In historical writing,
otherness and difference are temporal and epistemological, while in ek-
phrasis they are medial.
The historical novel I analyse is Leena Lander’s The Order (Käsky
2003).2 Lander is a Finnish author who has published novels, short stories,
plays and radio plays. The Order has been adapted for film (directed by
Aku Louhimies) and theatre (with two dramatisations, one by Lander
herself and the other by Seppo Parkkinen). The novel has a frame narrative
where the narrator introduces herself as the writer of the book. She recalls
a visit at her grandfather’s where she had caught a glimpse of an old
photograph. The narrator does not see much of the photograph or learn
anything more at the moment. The reader is given a short description of
the photograph: “Pudonneen kuvan alta paljastui toinen kuva. Epäselvä,
keskeltä uudestaan liimattu. Lumisesta puusta riippuva pitkä, tumma
mytty” [“From under the fallen photo, another photograph appeared. Un-
clear, glued together from the middle. A tall, dark bundle hanging from a
snowy tree”] (Lander 2003: 9). This photograph, even if unclear and only
Mari Hatavara 81

glimpsed once, functions as an inspiration for the story to come. The nar-
rator regards the photograph as evidence from the past—even if she admits
the possibility of misinterpretation. The short description of this photo-
graph is only the beginning of a chain of ekphrases in the novel which all
refer to the same visual object, the target of the photograph. This ekphras-
tic description of a visual object, along with many others, is crucial to the
reader’s understanding of this historical novel.
The narrator admits that the story she is about to tell might not be true,
but still regards it as important. This open contemplation of the truth value
of the story is typical of contemporary historical fiction (see Hutcheon
1999: 122–123), as well as historical understanding generally. As Markku
Hyrkkänen (2009: 263) has aptly stated, “[a]ll historical events are past
events but not all past events are historical events.” The subjectivity and
relativity of historical writing has been discussed for decades (see, for
example, White 1978: 85–87; Barthes 1970). What is important for the
argument I want to make here is the repeated analogy between historical
writing and pictorial arts when sketched by historians. As they and phi-
losophers of history have become more and more aware of history being a
narrative with a subjective point of view rather than a collection of facts,
they also tend to claim its truth value as resembling a novel, a painting or a
photograph (see, for example, Kellner 1995: 1; Ankersmit 1995: 238–240;
2001: 39–48). What I am about to disclose is the potential of a historical
novel to illustrate history and historical writing by employing certain
intermedial modes where the oppositions and analogies between the verbal
and the visual become highlighted. The relationship between historiogra-
phy and verbal or visual art is far from straightforward, and needs to be
studied in detail, case by case. This is why I shall narrow my analysis
down to a single novel in this article.
I place special emphasis on the way ekphrasis is used as a means of
depicting the past storyworld in Lander’s novel. I want to explore how this
intermedial device enables the rendering of the past storyworld in a man-
ner which both respects the alien nature of the past and recognises the
need and obligation to try and make the past meaningful for the present.
This mediation of the present and the past coincides in The Order with the
mediation of verbal and pictorial presentation. The reader gets involved in
a web of references where ekphrastic allusions help her to approach the
past storyworld. It is through the characters’ ekphrases in particular that
the reader is offered an interpretative position where she can partake in the
process of historical understanding. The narrative mode of the novel is
third-person narrative. The novel operates mostly on character focalisation
where the characters’ perception—vision, hearing and so on—dominates
82 Historical Fiction and Ekphrasis in Leena Lander’s The Order

the content, even though the discourse is mediated by the third-person

narrator located in a later time than the events of the story. Direct and
indirect quotations of thought and perception are abundant, along with the
characters’ ekphrases.
Ekphrasis, concisely defined, is the verbal representation of a visual
representation—either fictional or non-fictional (Heffernan 1991: 299;
Mitchell 1994: 152; Clüver 1997: 26). In Lander’s novel, the visual origi-
nals are fictional; they exist only in the storyworld. Thus the reader has no
other access to the visual targets but the verbal description. However, this
is only one aspect of the referentiality of these ekphrastic descriptions.
Yacobi (1995: 622–623, 632–634) argues that ekphrasis does not have to
describe a certain unique piece of art, but may also refer to a visual model
familiar to the reader, such as the classical Greek gods. Ekphrasis referring
to this kind of recognisable pictorial model can, according to Yacobi, have
a broader interpretative scope than one representing a particular piece of
art: It gives more room for the author’s and the reader’s imagination. As I
will indicate in my analysis, ekphrases in Lander’s novel do refer to fa-
miliar pictorial modes, and thus engage with the reader’s experience of her
reality. Mitchell (1994: 164) has pointed out that ekphrasis includes two
intermedial changes: the original visual representation verbalised in the
text, and the reader converting this verbal description back to a visual
image. The second process gains more latitude when the original pictorial
representation is fictional, and the interpretative referent is not a single
work of art but a model.
The reader’s recognition process may also be related to what cognitive
poetics calls stereotypes, scripts or schemata. Cognitively inspired literary
theory assumes language as built on our shared experience of the world,
which has given us an understanding of the phenomena of the world as
scripts and schemata. Readers of literature recognise and interpret these
scripts, and negotiate the storyworld with their previous understanding of
the world and of literature (see Lakoff 1987: 68–76; Lakoff and Turner
1989: 65–67; Fludernik 2003: 244–247). Although ekphrastic models are
more specific than these broader scripts, they function in a similar way by
forming a link between the reader’s individual experience and the charac-
ter’s individual experience through a more general, shared model. Mieke
Bal (1997: 5) presumes a strong connection between narrativity and a
character’s visual images. As well, she has suggested a character’s visual
perception to be essential for the character’s acquiring of a coherent iden-
tity through narrative. In the novel The Order, the characters’ ekphrases of
their visual perception of the storyworld are crucial not only for the char-
Mari Hatavara 83

acters’ own identity project but also, what is more, for the reader’s inter-
pretation of the historical events.
Before going into the novel in detail, I want to point out one more im-
portant aspect of the kind of ekphrastic descriptions The Order includes.
Yacobi (1995: 618–622) argues that in addition to a broad interpretative
domain, ekphrastic reference to a visual model is available for narrative
use too, to serve the story. Traditionally, many of the defining features of
narrative, such as temporal change, events and causality, have been re-
garded as alien to any description or visual representation. Yet it is main-
tained that storytelling requires a certain amount of description in order to
create the illusion of the storyworld, among other things. In many ways,
the connections between the verbal and the visual, rather than their mutual
separation, have garnered more attention during the last decades (see
Wagner 1995: 6–7; Horstkotte and Pedri 2008: 2–5). W. J. T. Mitchell
(1994: 160–161), for example, has argued that, semantically, there is no
essential difference between text and image; whereas the verbal and the
pictorial are different types of modes, both can communicate similar
things and are not, in the end, restricted to the typical dichotomies of spa-
tiality vs. temporality or static vs. dynamic.
I do, however, think that the idiosyncrasies of each representational
medium are essential in the understanding of art—be it verbal or pictorial.
While Mitchell is right in arguing that the strict dichotomies are but a
handicap to research, I believe it is the borderline cases and crossovers that
make the distinctions between media and modes both more interesting and
more significant. Furthermore, I want to illustrate how the storytelling
capacity of ekphrasis becomes evident in Lander’s novel. The novel has
ekphrases and ekphrastic descriptions which are essential to plot and char-
acterisation, and often function on the story level (see Yacobi 1995: 641–
642). Nonetheless, the differences between the media, i.e., the alienation
caused by rendering something visual in a verbal mode, is also significant
in the novel. The differences between the verbal and the visual coincide
with the reader’s interpretative effort to understand the past and history.

Photographing the Dead

The story of The Order is set during the Finnish Civil War and its bloody
aftermath in 1918. The war had taken place between opposing parties
called the Reds and the Whites, where the former consisted mostly of
factory workers and tenant farmers and the latter of the land-owning class,
bourgeois and educated people. The Reds lost the war, and were conse-
quently imprisoned in large masses, executed and starved to death. The
84 Historical Fiction and Ekphrasis in Leena Lander’s The Order

novel depicts one such prison camp which also has a court martial. The
place is a former sanatorium for the mentally ill. The characters represent
the opposite sides of the war. To put it plainly: Miina Malin is a captured
female Red soldier, a worker from a low-status family. Aaro Harjula is an
elite soldier of the Whites, a former officer in the German army. The third
part of the triangle—there is a love triangle revolving around Aaro—is
Emil Hallenberg. He is an author and an acting judge of the court martial
at the prison camp. Another character important to my argument here is
Konsta, or Konstantin Martikainen. He is a mentally injured handyman
who used to be a patient at the sanatorium. Konsta is considered harmless
and let to wander freely among both the officials and the prisoners. He has
a fixation with taking photographs—using a camera which the officials
wrongly assume is no longer working. These photographs, and their ek-
phrastic descriptions, carry important metaphorical and formal implica-
tions in the novel.
One of Konsta’s photographs is the one described in the frame narra-
tive. In the following example, Emil is talking to Aaro. He explains how
Konsta found the body of the director of the sanatorium, who had hanged
himself from a tree shortly after his sanatorium had been turned into a
prison camp.

Kuvitelkaas, mikä hirveä näky se on mahtanut olla: lumikiteiden peittämä

kuollut esimies, roikkumassa männyn oksassa. […] Rassukka [Konsta] on
kuvannut sen minulle kerran toisensa jälkeen: miten tohtorin takki oli re-
peytynyt ja kaareutui ruumiin ylle kuin jäätynyt siipi. Naama sininen, jäh-
mettynyt marmorinkovaksi. Konsta nimittäin kosketti sitä. Hulluparka.
Siinä lumisessa metsikössä lymynneen jäätyneen ilmestyksen on täytynyt
piirtyä sen älyttömän mieleen jonain pelottavan yliluonnollisena, demoni-
sena tai raamatullisena kuin alttaritaulussa joka meillä on tuolla kappelissa.
(Lander 2003: 20)

[Just imagine what a horrible sight it must have been: the dead superior
covered in snow flakes, hanging from a branch of a pine. […] The poor
thing [Konsta] has described it to me time and again: how the doctor’s coat
was torn, and curved over the body like a frozen wing. The face blue, stiff-
ened hard as marble. As it happened, Konsta touched it. Poor crazy thing.
That frozen apparition lurking in the snowy forest must have made an im-
pression in the mind of that fool as something frighteningly supernatural,
demonic or biblical, like in the altar-piece we have in the chapel.]

I want to pay attention to the emotive language used in this description.

For Emil, Konsta’s sight is “horrible,” a “frozen apparition lurking”; it is
“frighteningly supernatural, demonic.” Konsta, the observer, is for Emil a
Mari Hatavara 85

“poor thing” or a “poor crazy thing.” Yacobi (2000: 712–713, 720) has
observed that emotive language in a character’s ekphrasis tells more about
the character who provides the description than about the object of the
description. Here the emotive content is expressed by Emil. Moreover, the
whole communicative situation and not only the sender of the message
should be considered. Emil invites Aaro, to whom he is talking, to imagine
this scene with him (“just imagine”). Neither Aaro nor Emil has actually
witnessed the scene, but Emil relies on Konsta’s description. This invita-
tion to imagine may also be extended to address the real reader of the text:
She is also invited to imagine with Aaro and Emil what a horrible sight
Konsta had seen.
Emil does not know that Konsta has taken a photograph of the dead di-
rector. Later, when this scene turns out to have a photographic equivalent,
it becomes a threat to Emil as evidence of the violence at the prison camp.
Besides acting as evidence of things past (see Barthes 2000: 82–87; Son-
tag 2003: 26), photographs are considered capable of transcending the line
between past and present, as well as the line between life and death (see
Sontag 1979: 15; Hirsch 2008: 115–117; Horstkotte and Pedri 2008: 15).
Konsta’s photograph of the dead director makes it impossible for the de-
ceased matter to remain buried in the past and be simply forgotten about.
The novel includes a third description to complement the two I have
quoted: Miina’s ekphrasis of the altar painting in the chapel. Notably, in
Emil’s ekphrasis, Emil drew a direct parallel between Konsta’s sight and
the altar painting. Towards the end of the novel Miina enters the men-
tioned chapel with Emil and Aaro and looks at the altar: “Joku on tuonut
alttarille kevätkukkakimpun. Sen yllä enkelien kannattelema rujo Kristus
luo vaikeasti tulkittavan katseen heitä [Miina, Aaro, Emil] kohti”
[“Someone has brought a bunch of spring flowers to the altar. Above it a
malformed Christ, held up by angels, gives them (Miina, Aaro, Emil) a
gaze that is hard to interpret”] (Lander 2003: 212). Emil and Miina both
perceive, or at least describe, the altar painting with Christ in a negative
manner. For Miina, Christ is “malformed” and staring at people.
The three ekphrases just analysed, I would like to suggest, form chains
of representation. The novel offers, firstly, the narrator’s description of
what, secondly, turns out to be a photograph taken by Konsta of the scene
he has witnessed which, thirdly, Emil describes to Aaro. In this descrip-
tion, furthermore, Emil refers to the altar painting which, fourthly, is the
object of Miina’s ekphrasis. These four instances of description, each
linking to each other and building a continuum, turn into a plenitude of
representations that is several steps removed from the represented object,
be it the dead director or Christ. The characters make the connection be-
86 Historical Fiction and Ekphrasis in Leena Lander’s The Order

tween these objects, but the reader needs to make the connection between
the photograph mentioned in the frame story and these descriptions. All
along the way, the reader is invited to imagine what and how the charac-
ters perceive.
These chains of representation function in a manner which Mieke Bal
(1997: 5) maintains is especially important in the process of narrativising
visual images; linking and combining images form, according to her, the
basis of meaning-making. What makes these images accessible to the
reader is the model to which they refer, and the more general schema or
script to which it adheres. Bal (1997: 201, 212–213) suggests that a series
of pictures of the same target are especially revealing of their object’s
nature. In Lander’s novel, this series of pictures is not so much available to
the characters in the storyworld, but to the reader who connects the ek-
phrases with one another. Susan Sontag (2003: 85–86) has mentioned that
high emotive involvement with a photograph often results in changes in
the viewer’s opinion of history. In The Order, the ekphrases offer the
reader abundant material for this kind of involvement, both because of the
objects described (suicide and crucified Christ), and because of the char-
acters’ choice of words in the description.

Hidden Pictures
The high emotional involvement of characters is even more obvious in the
next example, where Miina recalls seeing a hidden photograph. The
photograph reveals Miina’s little sister being sexually abused:

Hetkessä hän oli nähnyt enemmän kuin amatöörimäisiin otoksiin mahtui.

Hän oli nähnyt jalat ja kädet ja hien kaljulla otsalla. Hän oli kuullut lapsen
vikinän ja vanhan miehen huohotuksen. Ja ähkäisyn kun siltä oli tullut.
Hän oli haistanut vaseliinin ja hätäpissan ja siemennesteen ammoniakin-
hajun. Hän oli nähnyt lapsen jokä oli odottanut vuoroaan. Hän oli kuullut
snapsilasien kilinän, karamellit, kiltin tytön palkat pöydällä ja kahisevan
äänen, joka oli merkinnyt kameran suojapeitteen poistamista. (Lander
2003: 247–248.)

[In a short moment she had seen more than the amateur photos could con-
tain. She had seen the legs and the hands and the sweat on the bold fore-
head. She had heard the whimpering of the child and the hard breath of the
old man. And a groan when he came. She had smelled Vaseline and the
little girl's pee and the ammonia of semen. She had seen the child who
waited for her turn. She had heard the clinking of schnapps glasses, can-
dies, rewards for a good girl on the table, and a swishing sound that meant
the removing of the camera’s protective cover.]
Mari Hatavara 87

This ekphrasis surpasses in two ways what the object of description can
technically convey. Firstly, a photograph cannot capture sounds and smells
(like the whimpering of the child or the odour of Vaseline) which Miina
interprets from the image. Secondly, Miina also appears to see things
framed outside of the picture, like the child waiting for her turn. Thus
neither the material limitations of the vehicle (a photograph) nor the origi-
nal choices of selecting and framing apply. Miina’s perception and de-
scription of the photograph transgresses, as the text says, what “the ama-
teur photos could contain”—she overcomes the original choices inherent
in photographic representation (see Horstkotte and Pedri 2008: 13–15).
This ekphrasis, apparently, is able to conjure the reality as a horrible scene
in Miina’s imagination (see Mitchell 1994: 158).
Whereas the dead director was aligned with Christ, this ugly descrip-
tion of child abuse also has a parallel pictorial model. Miina has worked in
a photographer’s studio—which has led to the discovery of the hidden
pictures—where customers have re-enacted classical scenes and motifs.
Miina’s little sister has been involved in one of these scenes and acted as
Cupid, the god of love, who is customarily depicted as a more or less
naked child. These re-enactments have been photographed and the photo-
graphs are public—they are considered art. The public and the hidden
photographs of Miina’s naked little sister thus act as counterparts to each
other. Via the analogy, the pedophilic pictures also refer to the familiar
pictorial model of Cupid, but with a reversed meaning. This is further
illuminated when the little sister herself tells Miina ironically: “[m]eidän
pikku Selma kelpasi esittämään paljapyllyistä amoriinia Fotografisen
Seuran viehkeissä kuvaelmissa” [“our little Selma was good enough,
though, to act as a barebottomed Cupid in the graceful tableaus of the
Photographic Society] (Lander 2003: 97). These graceful tableaus, how-
ever, overlie other, ugly ones where the god of love is reduced to a mo-
lested child.
The theme of Cupid recurs in the novel. Emil, while talking to Aaro
about the post-war situation, looks at and muses on a fountain in the yard.
Emil’s ekphrasis discloses his opinion of the state of things at large.

Emil tarkastelee surumielisesti suihkuallasta. Sen keskellä kohoavan pie-

nemmän altaan kivisiltä enkeleiltä—vai kerubejako ne ovat—puuttuu jäse-
niä, siivistä on vain jäljellä surkeat riekaleet. Jää ja rapautuminen ovat teh-
neet tehtävänsä, allas on haljennut. Ehkä siinä on joskus ollut kaloja, pieniä
punaisia karppeja, joiden merenneitomaisten liikkeiden hypnoottisesta seu-
raamisesta hourupäät ovat saaneet omalaatuista lohtua. Voisikohan altaan
korjata? Täytyyhän olla jokin keino palauttaa allasparka entiseen lois-
toonsa. (Lander 2003: 108)
88 Historical Fiction and Ekphrasis in Leena Lander’s The Order

[Emil looks at the fountain with sadness. The stone angels—or are they
cherubs—of the smaller fountain at the centre are missing limbs, and their
wings are but sordid shreds. Ice and weather have done their deed; the
basin has cracked. There have perhaps been fish in it, small red carp; their
mermaid-like, hypnotic movements have given the lunatics peculiar solace.
Could the fountain be repaired? There must be a way to restore the poor
fountain to its past glory.]

Emil as the enunciator of these words has no knowledge of Miina’s little

sister. The reader, however, is capable of connecting this description to the
earlier one, because “cherub” is another expression for Cupid. In Emil’s
ekphrasis, the idea of the past and history is thematised: The past is some-
thing irretrievably gone, yet present in the form of remains. Time cannot
be turned back; not all wounds can be healed or bumps mended. Still, one
cannot get rid of the unpleasant remains or the evidence of what has hap-
pened. As with the photographs of the dead director, this vestige reminds
one of what has once been and also what has happened since.
These two groups or nexuses of ekphrases—one with Christ figures,
including the dead director, and the other with figures related to Cupid—
share common features that are crucial for the interpretation of the novel
and its way of understanding and writing history. Common features are
both material and formal. All the ekphrases refer to wings in some way:
The cherubs of the fountain have wings (even if broken), and so does
Cupid in the classical scenes, as well as the angels holding Christ in the
altar-piece. Even the dead director’s coat is described as curving over him
like a frozen wing. The objects described in the ekphrases are, however,
disfigured: The effects of time and war have broken the cherubs; the Cupid
of the staged scene is in reality a molested child; Christ is malformed and
the dead director has been stiffened by death. This disfiguration applies to
the wings which are symbols of freedom: They are broken, violated or
unable to move. This stability of not only the pictorial representations but
also the objects they describe is an interesting phenomenon where an at-
tribute of the medium seems to apply to the object of representation as
well. Liliane Louvel (2008: 34) has pointed out that a photograph trans-
forms its object, both static and mute. In Lander’s novel, the director is
already rigid because of death and frost, and the cherubs have lost their
ability to fly.
The ekphrases quoted refer to pictorial models familiar to the reader,
but they convert the habitual meaning of these models, often from the
sublime to the mundane, as Christ’s bodily suffering is foregrounded or
Cupid becomes an abused child. These mundane, even disturbing mean-
ings are often hidden, as are their representations. The photographs of both
Mari Hatavara 89

the dead director and child abuse, which may act as physical evidence, are
hidden in concrete ways. They need to be found and made public in order
to correct the public picture of history. People in the storyworld may try,
like Emil, to maintain their illusion of a “past glory” and the possibility of
returning to it. The Order suggests, however, that it is impossible to retain
this illusion, as the remains of the past are present—both materially and

Visual History
What do my analyses of Lander’s novel mean in a broader sense? They
allow me to formulate a poetics of the novel, which I understand as an
effort to create a certain kind of visual history. The Order’s abundant ek-
phrastic models, of which I have given two examples, transcend time.
They function within every temporal level of the novel, as Christ and Cu-
pid are known to the characters, the narrator and the reader alike. Through
these familiar models, the character’s experience, the narrator’s explan-
ations and the reader’s interpretative effort coincide, and the boundaries
between different points of time and different narrative levels become
ambiguous—just as the borders between verbal and visual representations
are endangered in ekphrasis.
This ambiguity comes close to what David Herman (1998: 81; 2002:
214–220) calls polychronic narration or omnitemporality. Although The
Order does not include anachronisms that would question the whole tem-
poral order of the story or narrative, it creates an interpretative space open
to agents from all levels of narrative communication. The novel suggests a
mixing of different temporal levels through ekphrastic, interpretative mod-
els. What is introduced in the frame story as a retrospective quest for the
past turns out to evoke a plurality of pasts that still work on the present.
The theme of photography is prominent in the plot of Lander’s novel.
In the end, the photographs Konsta has taken, unbeknownst to anybody,
threaten to uncover the cruelties that have taken place under the command
of Emil. What is more important is the function of individual photographs
in the novel. The two photographs I have introduced as examples of ob-
jects of ekphrasis have a special relation to the past. Marianne Hirsch
(2008: 115) has maintained that “photographic images that survive mas-
sive devastation and outlive their subjects and owners function as ghostly
revenants from an irretrievably lost past world.” She then argues for the
notion of postmemory, referring to the memories evoked not in the minds
of those who experienced the event represented in a photograph but of
90 Historical Fiction and Ekphrasis in Leena Lander’s The Order

later generations who face the photographs as evidence (Hirsch 2008: 107,
The Order indeed promotes a kind of “postmemory,” but more specifi-
cally, it offers an illumination of how history is constructed. Thus I would
be more inclined to concur with Sontag (2003: 85–86), as she claims col-
lective memories should not be regarded as memories but as statements or
claims. Lander’s novel makes claims about the past that aim at revealing
new insights into the past. In his The Idea of History (1946), R. G. Col-
lingwood postulates his theses according to which history should be both
concerned with human actions and intentions in the past, and pursued as
interpretation of evidence in the present (1986: 215–218). In The Order,
the characters’ ekphrases highlight the characters’ experience in the past,
and the ekphrastic models used increase the communicability of this past
to the reader. Thus the level of both action and intention and the level of
interpretation are involved and converge in the ekphrastic models.
Silke Horstkotte and Nancy Pedri write that “the photograph superim-
poses a past on a present moment” (2008: 18). They thus argue photogra-
phy is an art of both space and time. In Lander’s novel this superimposi-
tion works in many ways: Not only do the photographs bring about the
past they portray, but they also occur in layers and superimpose different
points of view on each other. For example, the photograph of the dead
director is hidden under another photograph depicting the same era, and
the pedophilic photographs of abused children underlie the sublime classi-
cal scenes staged and photographed in the studio.
The multiplicity of viewpoints is, of course, typical of contemporary
historical fiction (see Hutcheon 1999: 108). The thematisation of pho-
tography does, however, add a new turn. As Horstkotte and Pedri (2008:
20–21) have put it, “postmodernist writers have come to use photographs
as the reverse of representation: as a revelation of the invisible, unseeable,
and, indeed, unknowable.” Thematically, this is what the photographs
mean in The Order. They represent things people want to try to hide or
erase. Therefore, photographs are not as much devices of conserving the
past but of offering revelations about a past that has been suppressed.
An important question in history is, of course, whose history it is that
gets recorded (see Hutcheon 1999: 120). Historical fiction—as well as
historiography proper to some extent—has increasingly turned towards
depicting individuals, not historically known personalities or generally
recognisable representatives of a class or a type (McHale 1987: 90;
Hutcheon 1999: 113–115). This requires other means of familiarising the
reader with the storyworld and helping her find familiar scripts and
schema. The ekphrases in The Order, with culturally shared visual models
Mari Hatavara 91

as their referents, serve the story and interpretation of the past. They char-
acterise not only the characters but also the events within a broader mean-
In The Order, individual experience (mainly Miina’s and Emil’s) of
war is communicated with the help of references to general imagery
(Christ figure, Cupid). Yacobi (1995: 627) has argued that the ekphrasis of
a visual model (as opposed to an ekphrasis of a single work of art) may
have narrative effects in addition to or instead of descriptive, picture-like
effects. She also maintains that these ekphrastic models allow the reader to
approach the storyworld with the help of pictorial representations familiar
to herself. This narrativisation—and familiarisation—happens in Lander’s
novel for two reasons in particular: firstly, referring to a model rather than
a single image allows for the consideration of several examples of that
model, and, secondly, ekphrases referring to different singular fictional
objects but the same real-life model reveal particular meanings that the
model may adopt. These variations in the meaning of an ekphrastic model
form a set of changes and modifications that follow each other—even if
not causally but temporally—and constitute the minimum definition of a
It may be thought that historical narrative in particular is essentially
about a transition. Arthur C. Danto (2007: 235–245) has emphasised that
historical narratives are all about change: that something is different from
one moment to another. The ekphrases in The Order play with alternation
between sameness and change, between recognition and alienation. They
refer to a visual model culturally known to the reader, like Cupid or the
crucifixion of Christ, and contrast them with pictures of abused children
and suicide. This contrasting occurs both in the visual targets and the
verbal representations of these ekphrases. The visual targets of Christ and
suicide, as well as Cupid and the abused child, resemble each other in
figure, and their verbal imitations use the same vocabulary to refer to both
parties of the pairs. Although this narrativisation cannot be complete, the
reader is constantly faced with new references and meanings to which the
past adheres.

Interplay between Past and History

The alteration between alienation and recognition—otherness and sche-
mata—is an important formal feature for both ekphrasis and the historical
novel. Historical novels often represent the past as a prehistory or an an-
alogy of the present. Yet the past is by definition always absent from the
present and in consequence alien to it. In the storyworld of Lander’s novel,
92 Historical Fiction and Ekphrasis in Leena Lander’s The Order

the photographs testify to events in the recent past of the characters. On

the level of the novel’s interpretation, the ekphrastic models utilised re-
semble pictorial models familiar to the reader, and help make the past
recognisable. Ekphrasis provides the means of transmitting experience and
ideas over historical distance, and at the same time reminds us of the im-
possibility of completing such transmission.
In The Order, the temporally absent is made present in interpretation
through techniques that emphasise that which is textually absent but se-
mantically communicative. The differences in code and narrative levels
also coincide and help the reader to make sense of the past storyworld.
Readers are invited to picture the past, metaphorically and literally. As
Emil told Aaro in the first example of this article: “Just imagine what a
horrible scene it must have been.” The horrible scenes of the civil war are
offered to the reader from many angles and with varying meanings. For
the sake of the historical narrative, it is important that the two positions of
historical writing, the characters’ intentions and the reader’s retrospection,
are linked in a manner which suppresses neither.
The novel thematises moments of revelation in the story. Emil imag-
ines—and invites the reader to imagine—a “horrible sight” and an “appa-
rition” which Konsta has witnessed. The highly emotional language used
persuades the reader to respond as well. Even more revealing for the
spectator is the hidden photograph Miina sees of her little sister. Miina
becomes so distraught that the photograph uncovers more for her than it
literally could. Neither medial restrictions nor technical framing of the
photograph apply to Miina’s perception and description of what is re-
vealed. This suggests the novel endorses an intermedial, comprehensive
understanding of history where the otherness and diversity of the past is
apprehended. Bal (1997: 200–201, 214) has observed that photography
may act like mise en abyme in a novel: It indicates the principles of con-
struction of the whole work. In The Order, not the photographs as such but
their ekphrastic descriptions carry this function. They make it evident that
history is both about our present understanding of the past, and of the past
itself as it was experienced at the time of unfolding. The remains of the
past may act as evidence only through our current interpretation and with
the help of mediating techniques like ekphrastic models.
Lander’s novel keeps reversing the meaning of the ekphrastic models
and highlights their textuality by offering several descriptions of one ob-
ject. Whereas Mitchell (1994: 158–161) understands the communicability of
ekphrasis to rely on the fact that, despite the formal difference in mode,
there is no semantic difference between the visual object and the verbal
imitation in ekphrasis, I argue that it is precisely the formal difference, the
Mari Hatavara 93

alienation in mode, which is crucial in The Order. As ekphrastic hope and

indifference alternate in the reader’s perception, the novel mediates be-
tween the past and the present. As the novel suggests, history is not to be
explained by full narrativisation but rather needs to maintain the friction
between the interpreter and the object of interpretation. In this way the
reader of The Order is constantly reminded, not only by thematisation but
also by intermediality, of the uncanny, protean and ever-changing nature
of history.

Works Cited
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212–240 in New Philosophy of History, eds. F. R. Ankersmit and Hans
Kellner. London: Reaktion.
—. 2001. Historical Representation. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Bakhtin, Mihail. [1963] 1984. Problems of Dostojevsky’s Poetics. Ed. and
trans. Caryl Emerson. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Bal, Mieke. 1997. The Mottled Screen: Reading Proust Visually. Trans.
A.-L. Milne. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Barthes, Roland. [1967] 1970. “Historical Discourse.” Pp. 145–155 in
Introduction to Structuralism, ed. Michael Lane. Trans. Peter Wexler.
New York: Basic Books.
—. [1981] 2000. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans.
Richard Howard. London: Vintage.
Clüver, Claus. 1997. “Ekphrasis Reconsidered: On Verbal Representations
of Non-Verbal Texts.” Pp. 19–33 in Interart Poetics: Essays on the
Interrelations of the Arts and Media, eds. Ulla-Britta Lagerroth, Hans
Lund and Erik Hedling. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
Collingwood, R[obin] G[eorge]. [1946] 1986. The Idea of History: Ox-
ford: Oxford University Press.
Danto, Arthur C. [1983] 2007. Narration and Knowledge: Including the
Integral Text of Analytical Philosophy of History. New York: Colum-
bia University Press.
Fludernik, Monika. 2003. “Natural Narratology and Cognitive Param-
eters.” Pp. 243–267 in Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences,
ed. David Herman. Stanford: CSLI.
Heffernan, James A. W. 1991. “Ekphrasis and Representation.” New Lit-
erary History 22 (2): 297–316.
Herman, David. 1998. “Limits of Order: Toward a Theory of Polychronic
Narration.” Narrative 6 (1): 72–95.
94 Historical Fiction and Ekphrasis in Leena Lander’s The Order

—. 2002. Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative. Lincoln:

University of Nebraska Press.
Hirsch, Marianne. 2008. “The Generation of Postmemory.” Poetics Today
29 (1): 103–128.
Horstkotte, Silke, and Nancy Pedri. 2008. “Introduction: Photographic
Interventions.” Poetics Today 29 (1): 1–29.
Hutcheon, Linda. [1988] 1999. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History,
Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge.
Hyrkkänen, Markku. 2009: “All History is, More or Less, Intellectual
History: R. G. Collingwood’s Intellectual History.” Intellectual History
Review 19 (2): 251–263.
Kellner, Hans. 1995. “Introduction: Describing Redescriptions.” Pp. 1–18
in New Philosophy of History, eds. F. R. Ankersmit, and Hans Kellner.
London: Reaktion.
Lakoff, George. 1987. Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Cate-
gories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lakoff, George, and Mark Turner. 1989. More than Cool Reason: A Field
Guide to Poetic Metaphor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lander, Leena. 2003. Käsky (The Order). Helsinki: WSOY.
Louvel, Liliane. 2008. “Photography as Critical Idiom and Intermedial
Criticism.” Poetics Today 29 (1): 31–48.
Maxwell, Richard. 1998. “Historical Novel.” Pp. 543–547 in Encyclopedia
of the Novel I, ed. Paul Schellinger. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn.
McHale, Brian. 1987. Postmodernist Fiction. New York and London:
Mitchell, W. J. T. 1994. Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual
Representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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ture).” Pp. 602–607 in Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory,
eds. David Herman, Manfred Jahn and Marie-Laure Ryan. London:
Sontag, Susan. 1979. On Photography. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
—. 2003. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and
Wagner, Peter. 1995. “Introduction: Ekphrasis, Iconotexts, and Interme-
diality: The State(s) of the Art(s).” Pp. 1–40 in Icons—Texts—Icono-
texts: Essays on Ekphrasis and Intermediality, ed. Peter Wagner. Ber-
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Mari Hatavara 95

Yacobi, Tamar. 1995. “Pictorial Models and Narrative Ekphrasis.” Poetics

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day 21 (4): 711–749.

This article was completed during my stay as a Fellow in Residence at the
Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study.
Käsky is the original title in Finnish. The novel has not been translated into
English, so the English translations of the quotations are mine. There are, however,
translations of the novel in Swedish (Varghyndan 2005); in Dutch (Het bevel
2005); in Estonian (Käsk 2006); in German (Die Unbeugsame 2006); in French
(Obéir 2006); in Polish (Rozkaz 2006); in Italian (L’ordine 2007); in Lithuanian
(Sakymas 2007); in Norwegian (Den rode fangen 2007) and in Albanian (Urdhri
2008). The film based on the novel has been distributed under the English title
Tears of April.


Ekphrasis, the verbal representation of visual representation, appears in
many functions in Gabriele D’Annunzio’s novel The Child of Pleasure
(1889). The narrative proceeds as a series of ekphrastic descriptions, with
passages from different sources embedded in the text. As a textual “other,”
ekphrasis draws attention to the implicit meanings of the text. In the pas-
sage from The Child of Pleasure analysed in this paper, ekphrastic de-
scriptions bring forth the tensions between different kinds of masculinity
and between words and images, as well as the theme of possession. The
ekphrastic scene, which takes place in a library, also invites us to reflect
upon the visual images that are the sources of D’Annunzio’s verbal de-
scriptions. An analysis of the “borrowings” makes it evident that the effect
of ekphrasis is twofold: It influences the way we write about visual art,
and it also influences the way we perceive art.

Keywords: Gabriele D’Annunzio, The Child of Pleasure, ekphrasis, fin de


The Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863–1938) is perhaps better

known as a poet and political and cultural figure than as a novelist. How-
ever, he wrote six novels, in which visual art plays a central role. It is par-
ticularly important in his first novel, Il Piacere (The Child of Pleasure,
1889), which is in many ways indebted to J. K. Huysmans’s A rebours
(Against the Grain, 1884), often referred to as the “Bible of Decadence.”
Yet D’Annunzio goes even further in his “visual narrative” than Huys-
mans. D’Annunzio’s narrative proceeds as a series of ekphrastic descrip-
tions, so that the novel becomes a kind of collage, with passages from dif-
ferent sources embedded in the text. Ekphrasis occurs in several forms; in
98 Forms of Ekphrasis in D’Annunzio’s The Child of Pleasure

descriptions, comparisons or allusions to works of art—sometimes there is

no visual artwork present and yet the narrative creates the suggestion of a
work of art.1
Ekphrasis is an essential component of D’Annunzio’s writing style.2
On the one hand, the device serves his pursuit of rare and “flowery” lang-
uage, and on the other hand, ekphrastic description also enables precision.
With a specific reference to a particular work of art, the author defines the
kind of image formed in the reader’s mind and thus the text leaves little
room for free association. In the narrative, the function of ekphrasis is also
to express the protagonist’s—and the narrator’s—aesthetic values. Those
values reflect D’Annunzio’s cultural context, which is the decadent move-
ment of the fin de siècle. Since ekphrases in the novel are references to the
imagery that dominated the writer’s cultural context, they allow under-
standing of the implicit values of that culture. For D’Annunzio, writing is
typically the appropriation of several sources, visual or verbal. Most of his
ekphrases are borrowings from the texts of other writers, which means that
the works of art cited are already loaded with interpretations. However, as
I show in this article, the actual images behind the verbal descriptions may
easily be lost to the memory.
The Child of Pleasure tells the story of a young aristocrat, Andrea
Sperelli. The narrator focuses mostly on his adventures with women. In
the novel, the contrast between 1880s high-society Rome and the bucolic
scenery around an unspecified seaside villa is pertinent. The novel is div-
ided into three sections. The first part describes the narrator Sperelli’s ro-
mance with Elena Muti and the events subsequent to her leaving him. Af-
ter the romance, Sperelli spends his days seducing other women until he is
wounded in a duel. The second part of the novel describes Sperelli’s con-
valescence in his cousin’s villa. This convalescence, which is a kind of in-
between state, gives Sperelli the chance for rebirth and he discovers a new
way to live, embracing art and spirituality (see Spackman 1989: 33–104).
He also finds a new love, Maria Ferres, who is married. Whereas Elena
Muti is described as a sensual and independent figure, Maria Ferres is
angelic and spiritual. This kind of dualism is typical of D’Annunzio’s
characterisation in The Child of Pleasure. The characters are representatives
of a certain type that can generally be recognised by external characterist-
ics. In the third part of the novel, Sperelli returns to Rome and to his old
way of life, filled with sensual pleasures. Even though Maria has become
his mistress, Sperelli tries to conquer Elena again, despite the fact that in
the meantime she has married a wealthy English lord. The novel ends in
disaster for Sperelli, who not only does not manage to win Elena back but
loses Maria as well. Maria is forced to flee Rome in disgrace, as all of her
Helena Eskelinen 99

husband’s possessions, including his paintings, are sold in an auction to

cover his debts. The central theme in The Child of Pleasure is the male
protagonist’s efforts to possess a woman, in which he inevitably fails (see
Pireddu 1997: 184–199). This failure reflects the crisis of the hero, which
is part of the crisis of the aristocracy. The theme of masculine heroic fail-
ure continues in D’Annunzio’s subsequent novels, L’Innocente (The In-
truder, 1892) and Il Trionfo della morte (The Triumph of Death, 1894).
In this article, I concentrate on The Child of Pleasure and on one pas-
sage in particular which contains two ekphrastic descriptions central to an
interpretation of the text. The first depicts an erotic drawing of dancing
female skeletons and the second refers to Elena’s portrait. The passage I
discuss marks the beginning of the events that lead to Sperelli’s final
failure. It becomes a focal point for the failure of the male hero but also
highlights the tension between words and images. In these scenes, the
theme of possession extends from sexual possession to the possession of
images by words, creating the question of which one will dominate.

Ekphrasis as a Zone of Conflict

The first ekphrastic passages describe Sperelli’s visit to the library of Lord
Heathfield, who is now Elena Muti’s husband. Heathfield exhibits his coll-
ection of erotic pictures and texts to Sperelli. Similar to the female charac-
ters, Heathfield is a stereotype, represented as both a caricature and the in-
carnation of degeneration. The visit to the library becomes tortuous to Spe-
relli, as both the erotic drawings and the collector himself make him feel
uncomfortable. His discomfort is aggravated by Elena’s portrait, which
hangs in the library. At this point in the novel, Sperelli still wishes to win
Elena back despite the fact that she has married the English lord. Sperelli
and Heathfield study the erotic images until Elena calls from outside.
When the men leave the library, Elena humiliates Sperelli by mocking his
physical arousal, brought on by the images, which causes Sperelli to flee
the Heathfield household.
The centrepiece of Heathfield’s collection consists of drawings by
Francis Redgrave, a fictional artist. The description of Redgrave’s draw-
ing, which depicts dancing female skeletons, is written in language that
suggests the morbid fantasy and the frenetic rhythm of the design. In this
drawing, female sexuality appears in a manner in which Thanatos is more
strongly present than Eros:

Era, infatti, una composizione di straordinaria potenza fantastica: una

danza di scheletri muliebri, in un ciel notturno, guidata da una Morte fla-
gellatrice. Su la faccia impudica della luna correva una nuvola nera, mo-
100 Forms of Ekphrasis in D’Annunzio’s The Child of Pleasure

struosa, disegnata con un vigore e un’abilità degni della matita d’O-kou-

sai; l’attitudine della tetra corifea, l’espression del suo teschio dalle orbite
vacue erano improntate d’una vitalità mirabile, d’una spirante realità non
mai raggiunta da alcun altro artefice nella figurazione della Morte; e tutta
quella sicinnide grottesca di scheletri slogati in gonne discinte, sotto le mi-
nacce, sotto le minacce della sferza, rivelava la tremenda febbre che aveva
preso la mano del disegnatore, la tremenda follia che aveva preso il suo
cervello. (D’Annunzio 2005: 322–323)3

[It (the drawing) was the product of an extraordinary faculty for fantasy:
the dance of female skeletons, under the nocturnal sky, which the flagellant
Death was conducting. Against the immodest face of the moon appeared a
black cloud that was monstrous and drawn with the vigour and skill of Ho-
kusai; the attitude of the grim choirmaster and the expression of her skull,
with its empty orbits, had a touch of marvellous vitality, of vivid realism,
which no other artist has ever reached in the depiction of Death; and all
that grotesque dance of skeletons, with loosened joints and in untied
dresses, under the menace, under the menace of the scourge, revealed the
tremendous fever which had possessed the hand of the draughtsman, the
tremendous folly that had possessed his brain.] 4

Representing female sexuality as connected to death is typical of fin-de-

siècle imagery. By the end of the nineteenth century, the image of the
virtuous woman, or “household nun,” popular in the middle of the century,
had transformed into the “idol of perversity,” an incarnation of evil. Bram
Dijkstra suggests that the roots of the fin de siècle’s misogyny lie in eco-
nomic changes in society and in the parallel change that took place in the
role of the middle-class male. The representations of sinister female fig-
ures illustrate the falling away of women from the path of righteousness,
or more precisely, from the role of dedicated mothers and wives. The pop-
ularity of images of feminine evil show that the idea pervaded not only the
visual arts but literature as well (see Dijkstra 1986: 3–5; 325; 353–354 and
passim).5 Redgrave’s drawing also introduces other features popular in fin-
de-siècle imagery: dancing and the moon. The compulsive dancing of a
woman suggests that sexual impulses have completely taken possession of
her (see Dijkstra 1986: 243–244). In Redgrave’s drawing, the sexual im-
pulses are closely associated with death. His half-naked, dancing skeletons
thus combine different aspects of feminine evil. Moreover, the moon,
described in the drawing, is often associated with femininity; for example,
its roundness is a symbol of the self-containment attributed to women (see
Dijkstra 1986: 122–129).
However, the way Redgrave represents female sexuality in the drawing
is not how Sperelli would like to see it depicted. Sperelli longs for a repre-
sentation that depicts sexuality in a more sublime form, and, in effect, also
Helena Eskelinen 101

provides a model for it. In the novel, Sperelli’s judgement in matters of

taste is considered superior. Sperelli himself has artistic ambitions and his
favourite medium in the fine arts is printmaking. During his love affair
with Elena, he depicts her in two etchings which are described in detail.
Even their technical execution—for example, how the acid corrodes the
plate—is described accurately. In the first etching, Elena is depicted sleep-
ing under an embroidered cover, while a dog, a greyhound, is watching
her. The second etching depicts her standing in a round basin, which she
sometimes uses as a bath, while she is caressing the very same dog. In
these etchings, Elena’s sexuality is depicted symbolically, by the dog. In
the imagery of the fin de siècle, depictions of women with animals repre-
sented the bestial qualities of women. The image thus suggests that women
are prone to succumb to their basic instincts (see Dijkstra 1986: 285).
Although, in his etchings, Sperelli masters his gaze, in the scene which
takes place in the library, Sperelli loses control over his gaze to Lord
Heathfield. The library scene is in fact a combat zone for different kinds of
masculinity.6 In the culture of the fin de siècle, there was a conflict be-
tween two kinds of masculinity: The first is that of a “superman,” a strong,
virile male, and the second is of a “wimp,” a man who lacks virility. The
adversary of both is a “virago,” a woman who is sexually active and, as
such, masculinised. The “superman” keeps the woman under control, but
the “wimp” submits masochistically to the power of the “virago” (see
Dijkstra 1986: 272–274). In D’Annunzio’s first novels, male heroes find
themselves caught in the tension between the “superman” and the “wimp.”
Although they first appear as superman figures, they reveal themselves to
be incapable of such masculinity.7 Correspondingly, Sperelli turns out to
be thwarted in his hope of realising ideal masculinity.
In the library passage, Sperelli’s apparent superiority is positioned
against the supposed inferiority of Heathfield. Heathfield is physically
malformed, mentally feeble and, as a foreigner, inferior to Sperelli’s noble
specimen of the “Italic race.” In fact, all the non-Italian male figures in
The Child of Pleasure are described as bodily imperfect. In D’Annunzio’s
political writing, the male body is a metaphor for the nation and thus the
integrity of the male body signifies a strong nation, with intact borders.
The threat to the male body usually comes from the female body, but in
D’Annunzio’s novels, it may also come from other male characters (see
Duncan 1997: 135–136).8 Sperelli’s masculinity is metaphorically wounded
in the library, just as his eyes are violated by the images he finds offensive.
Earlier in the novel, his masculinity was wounded literally, during a duel
in which his opponent’s sword pierced his body. The theme of piercing is
emphasised by the duel, in which the fighters do not use pistols, as would
102 Forms of Ekphrasis in D’Annunzio’s The Child of Pleasure

be conventional at the end of nineteenth century, but swords (see Spack-

man 1989: 68–69). When the integrity of the body is violated, Sperelli is
reduced to a state that resembles femininity.9
In the library passage, Sperelli’s response to the images demonstrates
his vulnerability. Heathfield initially directs Sperelli’s gaze with words, by
explaining what aspects are worth noticing and what the imagery means to
him. Heathfield uses language to determine what the beholder sees in the
image and conveys an emotional response to the artwork to the reader.
Furthermore, Heathfield also directs Sperelli’s gaze in a more concrete
way, by pointing with his finger, which is described as being “affiliata
come un’arma” [sharp as a weapon] (D’Annunzio 2005: 322). The finger
offends Sperelli’s sensibility, since it forces his gaze towards the erotic
images he finds repulsive. Whereas Heathfield needs erotic texts and vis-
ual images for sexual excitement, Sperelli needs an aesthetic, almost theat-
rical, setting, with precious ornaments and works of art (that are preferably
religious), and no romantic encounter is possible for him without flowers.
In the novel, Heathfield’s sexual desire is represented as depraved but Spe-
relli’s excitement seems noble, because it appears in a more sublime form.
In Sperelli’s etchings of Elena, he has full control of the mode of repre-
sentation. He is the master of the pointed weapon, the etching needle,
when he depicts Elena and female sexuality in an idealised form, veiled in
symbolism and not tainted by death and horror as in Redgrave’s drawing.
In the library passage, ekphrasis becomes an instrument for highlighting
the ineptitude of the protagonist. Heathfield forces Sperelli to accept his
view of sexuality, and at the same time the indicating finger forces Sperelli
to confront his own sexuality. The morbid dance in Redgrave’s drawing
becomes the image of Sperelli’s own “danse macabre.” Apart from the
drawing, the deformed figure of Heathfield is a warning to Sperelli of
what will become of him if he persists on the path of hedonistic pleasures.

Ekphrasis as a Model for Interpretation

In the scene that takes place in the library, it is not only Sperelli’s eyes
which are violated but also his soul; the latter pierced by the painting of
Lady Heathfield. Her portrait dominates the library and has a strange
power over Sperelli’s gaze. While the portrait is fictional, in the novel it is
attributed to a real artist, Sir Frederic Leighton (1830–1896). The ekphra-
sis in the novel thus points simultaneously to the fictional portrait of
Elena, and to a representation of a real portrait, Nelly O’Brien, made by Sir
Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792):
Helena Eskelinen 103

Alla parete pendeva il ritratto di Lady Heathfield accanto a una copia della
Nelly O’Brien di Joshua Reynolds. Ambedue le creature, dal fondo della
tela, quardavano con la stessa intensità penetrante, con lo stesso ardor di
passione, con la stessa fiamma di desiderio sensuale, con la stessa prodi-
giosa eloquenza; ambedue avevano la bocca ambigua, enigmatica, sibil-
lina, la bocca delle infaticabili ed inesorabili bevitrici d’anime; e avevano
ambedue la fronte marmorea, immacolato, lucente d’una perpetua purità.
(D’Annunzio 2005: 321)

[On the wall hung the portrait of Lady Heathfield side by side with a copy
of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Nelly O’Brien. And the two women looked out of
the canvas with the same, self-same piercing intensity, the same glow of
passion, the same flame of sensual desire, the same marvellous eloquence;
each had a mouth that was ambiguous, enigmatic, sibylline, the mouth of
the insatiable absorber of souls; and each had a brow of marble whiteness,
immaculately, radiantly pure.]10

Reynolds painted three versions of Nelly O’Brien’s portrait between the

years 1762 and 1764; the most well known of these are now in the Wallace
Collection, London, and in the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow (see Man-
nings 2000: 355). The first represents Nelly, fashionably dressed with a
straw hat, sitting in a garden with a little dog; the second also represents
Nelly sitting in a garden, this time dressed in white and leaning her left
elbow on a balustrade. If we compare D’Annunzio’s description of Elena’s
portrait to Reynolds’s Nelly O’Brien or to Leighton’s paintings in general,
it becomes clear that their artistic styles have little to do with the spirit of
D’Annunzio’s narrative.11 Leighton was a neoclassical painter, specialis-
ing in highly finished female figures and fine textures. Reynolds’s spe-
cialty was portraits of the British aristocracy. In contrast, the description
by D’Annunzio owes more to the fin de siècle’s general imagery and to
the interpretative conventions of the period.
D’Annunzio rarely chose a visual work of art as the source for his ek-
phrastic descriptions; rather, the source was often borrowed from another
text. Here D’Annunzio’s most important source is Ernest Chesneau’s La
peinture anglaise.12 In his study, Chesneau introduces and discusses Eng-
lish art from the middle of the eighteenth century through to the Pre-
Raphaelites. In the description of Nelly O’Brien, Chesneau reflects upon
the woman’s personality and deems her “une pitoyable, une buveuse d’or e
de santé” [a pitiless consumer of health and gold] (Chesneau, n. d.: 36).
Then he compares the portrait to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, although
he also sees differences between them. According to Chesneau, the eyes of
Nelly express a desire and ardour that the Mona Lisa’s expression lacks
(Chesneau n.d.: 36–38). D’Annunzio can be seen as an imitation of Ches-
104 Forms of Ekphrasis in D’Annunzio’s The Child of Pleasure

neau, as his description of Elena includes references to both Nelly O’Brien

and the Mona Lisa. For instance, Elena’s expression around the eyes and
mouth is ambiguous, in a way that “solo qualche moderno spirito, impre-
gnato di tutta la profonda corruzione dell’arte, ha saputo infondere in tipi
di donna immortali come Monna Lisa e Nelly O’Brien” [only some mod-
ern spirit, invaded by profound corruption, has been able to depict in im-
mortal women such as Mona Lisa and Nelly O’Brien] (D’Annunzio 2005:
24–25). In this quotation, one can also detect the influence of Walter Pa-
ter’s description of the Mona Lisa in Pater’s work The Renaissance
(1873).13 In the chapter dedicated to da Vinci, Pater accords the art of da
Vinci an evil touch when speaking about “the unfathomable smile, always
with a touch of something sinister in it, which plays all over da Vinci’s
work” (Pater 1907: 128–129). The vampirism that characterises Elena in
The Child of Pleasure echoes the vampirism Pater attributes to the Mona
The presence, that thus rose so strangely beside the waters, is expressive of
what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. Hers is the
head upon which all “the ends of the world are come,” and the eyelids are a
little weary. […] She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the
vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the
grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about
her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants; and, as Leda,
was the mother of Helen of Troy; and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary;
and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives
only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments,
and tinged the eyelids and the hands. […] Certainly Lady Lisa might stand
as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea. (Pater
1907: 129–130)14

A recent study of Pater’s legacy in Europe, edited by Stephen Bann, shows

that Pater’s influence upon literature on art has been long-lasting, even
though he is often considered less important than John Ruskin (see Bann
2004: 1–5).15 In the nineteenth century, Pater’s description of the Mona
Lisa became the model for interpretation of the Mona Lisa, so much so
that viewers of da Vinci’s painting began to see it in terms of the qualities
that Pater had pointed out in it (Bann 2004: passim).
The influence of Pater’s description of the Mona Lisa shows how cer-
tain written interpretations of art—that is to say, ekphrases—are so domi-
nant that subsequent writers repeat their sentiments, instead of trying to
describe the image itself. The influence of ekphrasis is thus twofold: It
influences the way we write about visual art but it also influences the way
we see art (and of course, it also reveals how people in previous periods
Helena Eskelinen 105

perceived works of art). Bryan Wolf, for example, faithful to E. H. Gom-

brich’s idea that there is no innocent eye (see Gombrich 1960: 262–299),
points out that “seeing occurs within frames: how we see is a function of
what our culture allows” (Wolf 1990: 195). This means that we see what
we think we see, until somebody teaches us to see otherwise. Similarly,
David Carrier argues that the way we see a work of art depends greatly on
what we have read and that the rhetoric of literature on art defines the
structure of visual thinking (see Carrier 2003: 12–13). This leads Carrier to
ask if it is possible to evoke the presence of a visual work of art without
interpreting and altering it and, as a solution, he proposes that we should
merely describe the subjective experience, the act of looking, instead of
the work of art (see Carrier 2003: 84).
Pater’s description of the Mona Lisa sets a frame through which to see
the painting, and in D’Annunzio’s further writings, there are similar exam-
ples. D’Annunzio wrote for newspapers and periodicals, especially in his
youth. Mostly he described social events with an eye for ladies’ fashions—
but he also covered art exhibitions and the works of various artists. In sev-
eral articles, D’Annunzio described the paintings of his friend, Francesco
Paolo Michetti (1851–1929); for instance, Michetti’s painting The Vow (Il
voto, 1883). This painting represents a religious event in a very crowded
church. In front of a crowd a few pilgrims are crawling in the direction of
the altar, towards the archaic figure of an anonymous saint. The atmos-
phere is devotional, rather serene, but in an 1883 article published in the
Fanfulla della domenica (1883), D’Annunzio describes the event dramat-
ically. According to him, the pilgrims are bestial and their spirit fanatic.16
D’Annunzio re-used fragments of this description in his third novel, the
Triumph of Death (1894). His interpretation of the scene as a depiction of
the religious fanaticism of derelicts became quite dominant in art criticism.
To date, critics have apparently described the scene in Michetti’s painting
with D’Annunzio’s words, as if unable to see the painting apart from those
words.17 Yet Michetti’s artistic qualities are, in fact, very different from
the qualities D’Annunzio attributed him; essentially, Michetti is much less
dramatic in his art than D’Annunzio’s description of The Vow suggests.
The Vow is a representation of a cycle in people’s life, and, even though
some of the figures express devotion fervently, it would be rather difficult
to argue that there are traces of bestial qualities in the congregation.

Responsive Images
In D’Annunzio’s library scene, the portrait of Elena, which should be an
object of aesthetic admiration, becomes instead a living image. Typically,
106 Forms of Ekphrasis in D’Annunzio’s The Child of Pleasure

female characters in The Child of Pleasure are represented as aesthetic

objects whose function is to please the eye. As objects of visual pleasure,
they are not expected to return the gaze of male spectators. Sperelli would
like to admire Elena only as an aesthetic object and, in his etchings, she
appears with averted eyes; either sleeping or looking at the dog, who, as
we have gathered, is a symbol of her sexuality. In these etchings, Elena is
purely a passive object of Sperelli’s gaze. In the library, however, Spe-
relli’s eyes are drawn to the female figure in the portrait, which appears to
respond with intensity: “il suo sguardo […] si levò […] verso il cupo
quadro ove brillava la faccia esangue di Elena dagli occhi seguaci, dalla
bocca di sibilla” [his gaze was directed to the gloomy painting, in which
the bloodless face of Elena glowed with rapacious eyes, with sibylline
mouth] (D’Annunzio 2005: 324). Elena’s gaze in the portrait disturbs
Sperelli deeply and, when he leaves the library, he has to confront the gaze
of the real Elena. Sperelli is metaphorically castrated by both Elena and
her husband, because both cause him to lose autonomy over his body.
The uneasiness that both the portrait and the erotic drawings provoke
in Sperelli points towards a tension between his need to control images by
means of words and to his corresponding anxiety when the images fail to
“behave” as they should.18 In the descriptions of Elena (for example, 2005:
24–25, 91) and in the description of her portrait, it is significant to notice
that the mouth seems to be forever silent but the eyes have the force to
enter the soul of the beholder. The enigmatic mouth in D’Annunzio’s des-
cription represents the mystery of visual art, whereas the piercing eyes are
a metaphor for the uneasiness which the images provoke, since they do not
seem to follow the same logic as the verbal medium (see, for example,
Mitchell 1997: 154–157).
In The Child of Pleasure, the descriptions of the female portraits—
Mona Lisa, Nelly O’Brien and that of Elena—become examples of the
conflict between words and images, and of how words constantly try to
possess images. Bryan Wolf suggests that the mystification of the mute-
ness of visual art is typical of ekphrastic descriptions. In Western culture,
the tendency to “verbalise” images prevails and, when we do not under-
stand the language which pictures speak, we regard the visual art as silent.
Moreover, we mystify this silence, regarding it as an intrinsic charac-
teristic of the image itself (Wolf 1990: 185–186). Pater’s use of ekphrasis,
in regard to the Mona Lisa, demonstrates such an approach. The “voice-
lessness” of visual art is something which has been pointed out by W. J. T.
Mitchell (see, for example, 1994: 157). He suggests that we might over-
come the uncomfortable silence if only we looked at the images and tried
to understand what they have to say, in their own language (Mitchell 2005:
Helena Eskelinen 107

46–48). This is indeed what an intermedial approach to ekphrasis may

accomplish. It may also show how cultural context has influenced the way
the image is made to speak.

Works Cited
Bann, Stephen, ed. 2004. The Reception of Walter Pater in Europe.
London: Thoemmes.
Bàrberi Squarotti, Giorgio. 1992. La scrittura verso il nulla: D’Annunzio.
Turin: Genesi.
Barilli, Renato. 1999. “Il posto di Michetti nella pittura europea fin-de-
siècle.” Pp. 15–18 in Francesco Paolo Michetti: Dipinti, pastelli, di-
segni. Naples: Electa.
Becker, Jared M. 1994. Nationalism and Culture: Gabriele D’Annunzio
and Italy after the Risorgimento. New York: Peter Lang.
Cantelmo, Marinella. 1996. Il Piacere dei leggitori: D’Annunzio e la
comunicazione letteraria. Ravenna: Longo.
Carrier, David. 2003. Writing about Visual Art. New York: Allworth.
Chesneau, Ernest. n. d. La peinture anglaise. Paris: A. Quantin.
Connell, R.W. 1995. Masculinities. London: Polity.
Dijkstra, Bram. 1986. Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in
Fin-de-siècle Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
D’Annunzio, Gabriele. [1883] 1996. “Il Voto: Quadro di F.P. Michetti.”
Pp. 92–110 in Scritti giornalistici 1882–1888. Milan: Mondadori.
—. [1889] 2005. Prose di romanzi: A cura di Annamaria Andreoli. Vol. 1.
Milan: Mondadori.
Duncan, Derek. 1997. “Choice Objects: The Bodies of Gabriele D’Ann-
unzio.” Italian Studies 52 (9): 131–150.
Giannantonio, Valeria. 2001. L’universo dei sensi. Letteratura e artificio
in D’Annunzio. Roma: Bulzoni.
Gombrich, E. H. 1960. Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pic-
torial Representation. New York: Pantheon.
Heffernan, James A. W. 1993. Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis
from Homer to Ashbery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mannings, David. 2000. Sir Joshua Reynolds: A Complete Catalogue of
His Paintings. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Mitchell, W. J. T. 2005. What Do Pictures Want? Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.
—. 1994. Picture Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Pater, Walter. 1907. The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. New
York: Macmillan.
108 Forms of Ekphrasis in D’Annunzio’s The Child of Pleasure

Pieri, Giuliana. 2007. The Influence of Pre-Raphaelitism on Fin de siècle

Italy: Art, Beauty, and Culture. London: Maney; and Modern Human-
ities Research Association.
Pireddu, Nicoletta. 1997. “Il divino pregio del dono: Andrea Sperelli’s Ec-
onomy of Pleasures.” Annali d’Italianistica 15: 175–201.
Praz, Mario. 1972. Il patto col serpente: Paralipomeni di “La carne, la
morte e il diavolo nella letteratura romantica.” Milan: A. Mondadori.
Spackman, Barbara. 1989. Decadent Genealogies: The Rhetoric of Sick-
ness from Baudelaire to D’Annunzio. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Wolf, Bryan. 1990. “Confessions of a Closet Ekphrastic: Literature, Paint-
ing and Other Unnatural Relations.” Yale Journal of Criticism 3 (2):

I use the term “ekphrasis” in the sense proposed by James A. W. Heffernan, as
“the verbal representation of visual representation” (Heffernan 1993: 3).
See, for instance, Bàrberi Squarotti 1992; Cantelmo 1996; Giannantonio 2001.
My quotations are from a 2005 edition of The Child of Pleasure.
English translations are mine, unless otherwise stated.
As sources for his study, Dijkstra uses reproductions that appeared in periodicals,
newspapers and exhibition catalogues; in brief, images that the public actually saw.
I use the word “masculinity” in the sense promoted by the social sciences (see for
example Connell 1995): as constructed and relational, not as a biological charac-
The ineptitude of D’Annunzio’s heroes has been pointed out by Pireddu 1997 and
Spackman 1989.
In fin-de-siècle discourse, a weak nation is like a helpless male enslaved by a
woman (see Becker 1994: 157; Dijkstra 1986: 211).
Barbara Spackman argues that, for a male character, convalescence signifies a re-
turn to childhood and feminisation; see Spackman 1989: 61.
This translation is by Georgina Harding and Arthur Symons (1898); available at
http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/20015 (accessed 20 April 2011). Unfortunately
the English translation of the novel is flawed; for instance, large portions of the
text have been omitted.
This was already pointed out by Praz 1972: 410.
All the sources used by D’Annunzio have been brought to light by Annamaria
Andreoli in the edition of Prose di romanzi cited; however, many of them were al-
ready pointed out shortly after The Child of Pleasure was published.
The Renaissance was not translated into Italian until 1912 (by Aldo de Rinaldis,
see Bann 2004) but Vernon Lee published a translation of the description of the
Mona Lisa in an article featured in Fanfulla della domenica, in 1885, as Giuliana
Pieri points out (Pieri 2007: 46).
Helena Eskelinen 109

As mother of Helen of Troy (Leda) and Mary (Saint Anne), the Mona Lisa is
also a figure connecting Elena Muti (Helen) and Maria Ferres (Mary).
Interest in Pater in Italy in the nineteenth century coincides with the birth of
English studies, in which such writers close to D’Annunzio as Enrico Nencioni and
Angelo Conti were important (see Bann 2004: 5–7; see also Pieri 2007).
“Il Voto: Quadro di F.P. Michetti,” Fanfulla della domenica, 14 January 1883,
reproduced in D’Annunzio 1996: 92–100.
For instance, Barilli 1999.
I owe this “anthropomorphic” view of images to Mitchell 2005.


Theories of media have a tendency to reduce various media to a single
master medium, to either a private mental medium or an abstract public
and discursive medium. A brief look at early eighteenth-century thought
informed by John Locke’s philosophy as found in theories of art posed by
John Dryden, Joseph Addison and Jonathan Richardson indicates that the
notion of a master medium was also a central concern in contemporary
criticism of Locke’s philosophy. It suggests as well that a modern concep-
tion of a public master medium inherits many of the Lockean problems if
we conceive of thought as a simple reflection of public discourse. A criti-
cal self-awareness necessary for the creation of modern transmedial theo-
ries of the arts benefits from the study of the arguments that created and
shaped the theoretical field concerned with intermediality today.

Keywords: eighteenth-century criticism, media theory, John Locke’s

influence, John Dryden, Joseph Addison, Jonathan Richardson

Her pencil drew whate’er her soul designed,

And oft the happy draught surpassed the image in her mind.

– John Dryden, 1685

“To the Pious Memory of the Accomplished Young Lady
Mrs. Anne Pettigrew”

It is perhaps not too controversial to say that the notion of intermediality

already presupposes a transmedial theory or a conceptualisation of media
112 Constructing Media at the Turn of the 18th Century

as things that share an abstract quality or essence; for example, the quality
of being tools for communication. While the essentially communicative
nature of media has been challenged often enough, W. J. T. Mitchell sug-
gests that there is a paradox built into the very concept of a medium, be-
cause media seem to “occupy some sort of vague middle ground between
materials and the things people do with them” (2005: 204). The paradox
leads to problems, especially when one begins to view media critically and
attempts to define the boundaries of a given medium. The paradox leaves
Mitchell wondering whether the concept of a medium can be redeemed
and finally to argue that all media are in fact mixed media.1 He rejects
attempts to purify concepts of various media as utopian and extends his
view of the inherent intermediality of all media to thought itself by refer-
ring to Wittgenstein’s critique of language, in which thinking does not take
place in some “queer medium” inside the mind. Minds, according to this
view, are also inherently mediated and one assumes that as the mind lacks
a metalanguage of its own, it must resort to the generally available ma-
terial mixed media. This mixing of intermediality and thought warrants
new questions about the viability of the concept of a medium. It also war-
rants the examination of the arguments by which these notions came to be
and the form they took in earlier theories which provide us with much of
the language with which we try to make sense of our media-saturated
modern world.
Discussions concerning the relationship of poetry and painting, in par-
ticular, often begin either with Lessing’s insistence on the limits of the two
media or Edmund Burke’s objections to contemporary notions of poetic
images and the imagination (see, for example, Marshall 2005). Burke and
Lessing are seen as the beginning of a new paradigm that discarded ut
pictura poesis theories, which reached their apex after the first half of the
eighteenth century. The aim of this article is to examine an earlier shift in
aesthetic theory. I attempt to trace what I will call the idea model or idea
theory of aesthetics derived from John Locke’s philosophy in the texts of
John Dryden, Joseph Addison and Jonathan Richardson. I use these
terms—in the spirit of the eighteenth-century philosopher Thomas Reid—
instead of the more conventional copy theory in order to underline the
separation of Wittgenstein’s queer medium of the mind from the artistic
medium. Sketching a picture of this early transmedial theory also suggests
that intermediality as a concept supports the Wittgensteinian objection to
theories involving a private mental medium, but the objection alone does
not present a solution to their inherent problems or solve those inherent in
the notion of any type of master medium to which other media could be re-
Tommi Kakko 113

Locke’s philosophy had an immense impact on eighteenth-century

thought, but it was never without its critics.2 Broadly speaking, criticism
came from either earlier traditions and outside the Lockean paradigm or
was born out of the contradictions inherent to the model. A brief look at
theories of aesthetic media with older critical roots, represented here by
Dryden, suggests that they actually had greater respect for the artistic me-
dium as a creative force in the artist’s work, whereas new theories, champ-
ioned by Addison and Richardson, struggled to create a psychology of art
in which abstract aesthetic perceptions were conceived of as a single field
of interacting ideas. The latter struggle is part of what Michael McKeon
has called “the empirical project that would separate the subjective act of
knowledge from its objects” (1994: 18). The fundamental problem of this
project in art criticism was, and perhaps still is, locating the source of the
resistance any creative medium will display when an attempt at theorizing
its content is undertaken. In other words, the way media resist their eradi-
cation is a central aspect of the objects of aesthetic experience.

In the spring of 1695, Dryden published a prose translation of Charles
Alphonse Du Fresnoy’s De arte graphica (1668) and prefaced it with an
essay George Saintsbury famously called “the first writing at any length
by a very distinguished Englishman of letters on the subject of pictorial
art” (Saintsbury 1902: 385). It is clear from the essay that Dryden is not
very familiar with painting, but he was the most eminent poet of his time
and as qualified as anyone to draw parallels between poetry and painting.
After informing the reader of his initial reluctance to write about painting,
he begins the preface with a clear statement of purpose: “The business of
this preface is to prove that a learned painter should form to himself an
idea of perfect nature. This image he is to set before his mind in all his un-
dertakings, and to draw from thence, as from a store house, the beauties
which are to enter into his work” (1962: 183–184). By “perfect nature”
Dryden means a conception of the natural world in its perfect state, an
image of nature as it should be at its best. It is indeed this nature that has to
be imitated in poetry and painting, not the actual world. The concept en-
ables a much more flexible approach to the mimetic arts and a more per-
fect object of imitation than the natural world in its many imperfections
could ever provide.
However, this does not mean that the artist should only present images,
poetic or pictorial, that reflect perfection. Dryden finds exceptions to this
in portraits and drama. In portrait painting, a balance is necessarily struck
114 Constructing Media at the Turn of the 18th Century

between likeness and flattery. In drama, a comedic buffoon cannot be

perfect because comedy rests on his buffoonery, a villain cannot be thor-
oughly evil because the audience would not pity him, and a saintly martyr
should not be perfect because the heavens cannot strike down the wholly
just without appearing unjust. Furthermore, not all perfect ideas are ap-
plicable to every character, but they must be compiled to meet the needs of
the subject. Dryden, who was at the time in the third and final period of his
critical life, is not a dogmatic theorist, but sensitive to the demands of art
in the face of artistic principles.3
Comedy and representations of buffoons in painting are imitations of a
lower order for Dryden. There are also lower forms of painting and poetry
which are not imitations of nature, but come from outside nature. Dryden
writes: “[F]arce is that in poetry, which grotesque is in picture” (1962:
190). The characters and their actions in farce are unnatural or “inconsist-
ing with the characters of mankind” (Dryden 1962: 190). As an example
of grotesque painting, Dryden employs an ekphrasis he borrows from the
first lines of Horace’s Art of Poetry. Poets and painters have always cre-
ated images of hybrid monsters and because no such creatures exist in nat-
ure it is reasonable to call them unnatural. The pleasures of the grotesque
are also of a lower order, but Dryden understands that if seeing an image
of a grotesque creature or a farcical play gives pleasure, farce and the gro-
tesque must have some redeeming qualities as entertainment. After all, art
is meant to please as well as instruct. Dryden finds the mimetic models for
nobler pleasures in antiquity. Rules for poetry can and have been derived
from the classics, but in the case of painting only descriptions of great
works remain and the scholar must revert to them. Raphael and other
Renaissance painters have, Dryden is certain, more than made up for the
loss of classical painting and indeed surpassed them. However, the tradi-
tion of painting which appeals to the authority of the Ancients must be, in
essence, built upon ekphrasis and hence intermedial by its very nature.
Although Dryden establishes imitation as the main aim of painting and
poetry, he does not mean that the skills to identify the best imitations of
nature are inborn. That is, viewing art correctly also requires knowledge of
the rules of art. The Aristotelian view of imitation maintains that imitation
gives pleasure because the spectator identifies resemblance in the artwork
and the act of comparing its truthfulness to nature is a pleasurable activity.
Never a modest critic, Dryden overrules Aristotle:
Truth is the object of our understanding, as good is of our will; and the
understanding can no more be delighted with a lie than the will can choose
an apparent evil. As truth is the end of all our speculations, so the discov-
ery of it is the pleasure of them; and since a true knowledge of nature
Tommi Kakko 115

gives us pleasure, a lively imitation of it, either in poetry or painting, must

of necessity produce a much greater. (1962: 193–194)

What Dryden means by this is that if one maintains the view that a con-
ception of perfect nature is imitated in the best examples of painting and
poetry, the act of comparing the artwork with nature is not the ultimate
source of pleasure in art. Pleasure actually comes from recognizing a high-
er truth in the imitation. As the truths found in perfect nature are, by defi-
nition, the best of nature, art surpasses the truths found in nature herself. In
short, Dryden shifts Aristotle’s emphasis from the process of comparing
the artwork to nature to the discovery of truth in art.

In some respects, Joseph Addison’s essays on art and the pleasures of the
imagination in The Spectator (1712) carry the abstraction of artistic truth
further, but at the cost of severing the bond between the medium and the
perceiving subject. Addison’s project is related to the eighteenth-century
view of reading poetry and painting as activities involving a number of
psychological and physiological categories that require theoretical explor-
ation and definitions. According to Lee Morrisey, in many critical texts of
the period, reading “is seen as a psychological—or, as we might today say,
‘cognitive’—process” (2008: 13). The description is apt in Addison’s case,
for the aim of the short essays is to define or “fix” the concept of imagina-
tion by modelling the psychological mechanism of aesthetic perception.
Addison’s guide in the essays is Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Un-
derstanding (1689), although it must be said that Addison does not follow
Locke’s argument quite as meticulously as he would like his readers to
think. Even if Addison does misread Locke’s essay, it is clear that Locke’s
distinction between the primary and secondary qualities of matter acts as
the starting point for his speculations. Addison wants to create a rudimen-
tary psychology of aesthetic perception, particularly as it pertains to the
secondary qualities of matter.4 He is aware that the true natures of ideas
and the soul are unknown to science and that all he can do is “reflect on
those operations of the soul that are most agreeable” (1712b: 63). Like
Locke, Addison sees himself as clearing the way for future studies with his
protopsychological aesthetics.
Addison begins by situating the faculty of imagination into a hierarchy
between the senses and the understanding: “The pleasures of the imagina-
tion, taken in the full extent, are not so gross as those of sense, nor so
refined as those of the understanding” (1712a: 57). In modern parlance,
this tripartite division could perhaps be mapped onto material, perceptual
116 Constructing Media at the Turn of the 18th Century

and conceptual sensory and mental processes. The primary pleasures arise
when actual objects are perceived and after this point the material medium
is no longer relevant to perception. The rest of the process is transposed to
the level of ideas; differences between actual media can be overlooked as
all perception becomes the stuff of the mind. The secondary pleasures of
the imagination function through the independent operations of the imagi-
nation and this also explains how poets and painters are able to dream up
creatures that were never present in the senses. When certain ideas in the
mind are called forth, they are reproduced in the imagination as images
that recreate the pleasure the mind experienced when they were first per-
Addison notes that there need not be a strict resemblance in the art-
work and the original idea to bring pleasure: “It is sufficient that we have
seen places, persons, or actions, in general, which bear a resemblance, or
at least some remote analogy with what we find represented. Since it is in
the power of the imagination, when it is once stocked with particular ideas,
to enlarge, compound, and vary them at her own pleasure” (1712d: 73). In
comparing the ideas that arise from the object, the spectator gains pleasure
from a quasi-Aristotelian comparison between the idea and its representa-
tion. Addison speculates that this activity has its roots in what modern
readers might regard as an evolutionary function: It helps to “quicken and
encourage us in our searches after truth” (1712d: 75). But art for Addison
is too stylized to produce images that only raw nature can achieve: “There
is something more bold and masterly in the rough careless strokes of na-
ture than in the nice touches and embellishments of art” (1712c: 66). In
short, art is too artificial to trigger the ideas nature produces naturally.
Words, however, have great power over the imagination in Addison’s
model: “Words, when well chosen, have so great a force in them, that a
description often gives us more lively ideas than the sight of things them-
selves” (1712d: 75). He thinks that this may be “because in the survey of
any object we have only so much of it painted on the imagination as comes
in at the eye; but in its description the poet gives us as free a view of it as
he pleases, and discovers to us several parts that either we did not attend
to, or that lay out of our sight when we first beheld it” (1712d: 76). From
this one can derive yet another three-fold hierarchy in Addison’s thinking.
Pictorial art is limited in its scope because it is confined to minor repre-
sentations of ideas which can exert more power on the imagination when
they are retrieved by poetry. Poetry, in turn, is dwarfed by nature. The fact
that every reader does not necessarily receive the same ideas from de-
scriptions Addison explains by saying that different ideas may be attached
to the same words and that inborn qualities and education have an influ-
Tommi Kakko 117

ence on the way art is perceived. Much like Dryden, Addison speaks of the
“perfection of imagination” (1712d: 76) and artistic education as a pre-
requisite for enjoying the pleasures of the imagination on any higher level.
His account of the pleasures of the imagination is confused and con-
fusing, because it tries to maintain a distinction between a homogeneous
collection of ideas in the mind, a division of primary and secondary oper-
ations that work on the imagination and a division between the senses,
imagination and understanding. It is difficult to see how the distinction
between, say, a line of poetry and an actual landscape could be sustained
when they both end up inhabiting the same space of ideas and both work
through the sense of sight. The strength of the model, on the other hand, is
that it is a fully psychologized theory of aesthetic perception on the ab-
stract level of Locke’s idea theory.

Jonathan Richardson probably had a bigger impact on painting as a writer
than through his chosen profession of portrait painter. In 1715, he pub-
lished his influential Essay on the Theory of Painting and followed it later
with The Whole Art of Criticism in Relation to Painting and The Science of
a Connoisseur in 1719. In his Essay, Richardson retains the distinction
between poetry and painting, but sees painting as just another means of
communication: “And thus it must be ranked with these, and accordingly
esteemed not only as enjoyment, but as another language, which completes
the whole art of communicating our thoughts” (1725: 2–3).5 In other
words, he turns the arts into discourse and makes them all a matter of
communication. This gives his theory of the arts the distinction of a human
agent and an intentionality lacking in Addison’s view of natural works of
art. However modern Richardson’s view might seem, he is not conducting
a linguistic turn of the eighteenth century. He clearly states in the Essay
that thought and language “are two distinct excellencies” (1725: 228).
Nevertheless, his view of the language-centred nature of pictorial art gives
his approach surprisingly modern characteristics.
The painter’s education is of great concern to Richardson and in the
Essay he assigns him, among other things, a course in poetry: “A painter
should therefore read the best books, such as Homer, Milton, Virgil, Spen-
ser, Thucydides, Livy, Plutarch, etc., but chiefly the Holy Scripture”
(1725: 201). Behind the prescription lies the notion that the painter’s char-
acter must be shaped to prepare him for his art. Poetry and painting, as
they were understood at the time, do have a common source in nature, but
they must be channelled through the painter and his judgement must be
118 Constructing Media at the Turn of the 18th Century

moulded to suit the gravity of his work. Richardson writes that, in a way,
“painters paint themselves” (1725: 218) and an aesthetic education in the
arts and sciences is essential to create an artist worthy of the art he wishes
to create. Thus his paintings will have a poetic quality by virtue of his
The highest level of artistic achievement, according to Richardson, al-
ways involves the sublime, “the greatest, and most beautiful ideas, whe-
ther corporeal, or not, conveyed to us the most advantageously” (1725:
248). He claims perfection can be reached much more easily in poetry than
in painting, that “there are sublime passages in writers where the words are
not only the most apt, and proper, but the most beautiful” (1725: 254), and
what these passages are and how they achieve perfection can also be de-
scribed quite easily. In painting, however, perfection is unattainable.
Richardson says: “[Y]ou can never see, I say not an entire picture, or fig-
ure, but even a single head without at the same time feeling something
amiss” (1725: 255). Even the best pictures have defects, but the aesthetic
impact of the sublime makes these defects redundant when the painter has
succeeded in creating a harmonious composition. To describe the sublime
in painting, however, is impossible. Richardson has little faith in the pow-
er of ekphrasis and laments the fact that descriptions of paintings are al-
ways inadequate compared to the originals. Writing may achieve perfect
sublimity; painting is always incomplete and descriptions of paintings, in
turn, are always less than the paintings they attempt to describe.
In The Art of Criticism, Richardson continues to follow the idea model,
but he does have some reservations. Rather than a firm theoretical stance,
Richardson seems to use the theory for the purposes of describing the
workings of the faculty of invention and as he follows the reasoning of the
theory, he notices a problem:
In making an original our ideas are taken from nature; which the works of
art cannot equal: when we copy ’tis these defective works of art we take
our ideas from; those are the utmost we endeavour to arrive at; and these
lower ideas too our hands fail of executing perfectly: an original is the
echo of the voice of nature, a copy is the echo of that echo. (1719: 177)

Richardson recognizes the power of invention to improve on bad copies

and this is a problem for the idea theory: “But though it be generally true
that a copy is inferior to an original it may so happen that it may be better;
[…] an excellent master can no more sink down to the badness of some
works than the author of such can rise to the other’s excellence” (1719:
178–179). How is it that (to use modern terminology once again) a low
resolution copy of nature can be made into a higher resolution copy? If a
Tommi Kakko 119

copier set to work on a substandard work of art and did his job well, surely
the final product should be another substandard copy of nature. But this is
not the case and a master can produce a great work of art using ideas the
original copy only suggests. In Addison’s interpretation of Locke’s theory,
this is indeed possible through rough analogies, but only on the level of
In the final pages of The Art of Criticism, Richardson discusses a re-
lated problem in Locke’s theory when he turns to the subject of the con-
noisseur. The question he is struggling with is how to distinguish between
two copies that are very much alike. Richardson is pragmatic on this point
and says: “If there are a thousand circumstances relating to two things, and
they agree exactly in all but one of them, this gives us two as distinct ideas
as of any two things in the universe” (1719: 206). The same applies to
actions: When one analyses one’s actions there are always circumstances
that lead to a specific action rather than some other action. Richardson
then refers to Locke’s Essay (Book 4, Ch. 10) and his failure to prove the
logical necessity of God. In brief, Locke argues that from the Cartesian
cogito we know something exists for certain, namely we do, and therefore
we must know that an eternal being exists from the intuitive a priori cer-
tainty that something cannot come from nothing. A timeless universe of
nothing is for Locke impossible and, therefore, “from eternity there has
been something” (1849: 476). Modern philosophers have often noted that
Locke’s argument is flawed and that the sentence “from eternity there has
been something” relies on equivocation.6 Richardson mockingly gives the
role of the critic to his 12-year-old son. He gives Locke’s proof to the boy
to read and when the latter is asked what he thinks of Locke’s demonstra-
tion, the child declares: “Supposing the world to have been created in time
this is a demonstration, otherwise ’tis not” (Richardson 1719: 207). It is
safe to say that Richardson sees problems in Locke’s idea theory on a fun-
damental level. If the theory was valid, it would create a closed system
that does not allow the spontaneous creation of mimetic novelty. As a
flawed argument, on the other hand, it can only accept divine autonomy as
a hypothetical point of origin and hence the theory is groundless.

Beyond Ideas
Both Addison and Richardson are nevertheless clearly in the patrimony of
John Locke and idea theory. This is indicative of the explanatory power of
the theory and also tells of a fundamental shift in aesthetic theory and
eighteenth-century thought in general. Perhaps through ignorance or sim-
ply by belonging to an earlier tradition, Dryden manages to create a more
120 Constructing Media at the Turn of the 18th Century

sophisticated theory of art as an independent search for truth by finding the

object of truth in the artwork itself. This can also be seen in his poems,
such as the ode to Anne Killigrew cited above.7 The “image in the mind” is
not the end of art for Dryden, as it is for Lockean protopsychology, which
eradicates the differences between media on the level of ideas, but ideas
can be surpassed by what is produced in the interaction between the artist
and the medium used. The materiality of the medium has, as it were,
power over its communicative function. Richardson, on the other hand,
relies more heavily on the communicative aspect in his approach and ex-
plains some of the troubling material qualities of painting with the effects
of the sublime. The idea theory so enthusiastically adopted by Addison, in
turn, bridges and creates clarity in the grey area between materiality and
communication through the mechanics of the ideal master medium.
Were we to apply a Wittgensteinian criticism to Mitchell’s suggestion
of an intermedial public mental medium, it could perhaps be shown that it
is a novel way of constructing the notion of Lockean ideas. Such a con-
struction takes its place in what remains an essentially Lockean theory of
the mind—which reduces media to the brute stuff of experience in order to
create a transmedial theory. In yet another paradox, this supposed homog-
enous medium inside the mind of the thinking subject is the space of inter-
mediality in that it is where media are converted into thought, yet it simul-
taneously destroys the possibility of intermediality as the interaction of
different media. There are bound to be further problems in a system which
is premised on a single reductive principle, and as such sweeping claims
are also part of the theoretical tradition in which the discourse of interme-
diality must be situated and which bring the vague theoretical aspects of
media into focus, one should proceed with caution. In other words, if, as
Mitchell suggests, treating minds as media and all media as mixed media
resolves the paradox, one has to wonder if this is yet another reduction that
will lead to similar problems. Among other things, it eliminates transc-
endence for the media theorist, who has to accept his necessary embedded-
ness as a theoretically sound position. In some sense, the fusing of inter-
mediality and thought is thus a refashioning of the Lockean model that
shifts it from a private scheme into a public one, and many qualifications
are in order.
It was already Sir Philip Sidney who noted the fact that poetry as a lin-
guistic medium has an influence on the design of any particular poem. He
remarks that this quality of poetry was once thought divine, as if the poet’s
hand was guided by an unknown force. As the poet writes, language
moves and guides him to higher expressions and thoughts above nature
that were not planned beforehand. Or as J. Hillis Miller puts it, in rather
Tommi Kakko 121

less uplifting terms, in the case of criticism: “The writer feels his way like
a blind man without seeing for certain where the writing is going” (2008:
561). No doubt, as Mitchell (2005: 209) also notes, theoretical expositions
of media are also guided by established discourses and the specific lin-
guistic expressions they carry. This is what often seems to be missing from
ideational and similar reductive theories of art: the strange and wonderful
realisation that the movements of the brush have created something of
their own accord, or that the sculptor’s marble has created a form for him
even before work has begun. Dryden saw in it the truth in art and we as
moderns might view it as a quality in the medium, but whatever we call it,
we can see that it sometimes leads us to designs we could not expect to
find in the mind. One of the theoretical aspects of intermediality, then,
should involve resisting the temptation to reduce all media to a predictable
master medium, private or public. It should also include the continued
preservation of the concept of an autonomous medium and thus the possi-
bility of intermediality itself. Whether we view this as a theoretical prob-
lem or an opportunity remains our decision, provided that the critical me-
dium allows us to view criticism as a form of art dependent on past argu-
ments, and ourselves as critics perched on the shoulders of our critical

Works Cited
Addison, Joseph. [1712a]. Pp. 56–59 in The Spectator 411 (Sat. June 21),
reprinted in Smith 1898.
—. [1712b]. Pp. 63–65 in The Spectator 413 (Tues. June 24), reprinted in
Smith 1898.
—. [1712c]. Pp. 65–68 in The Spectator 414 (Wed. June 25), reprinted in
Smith 1898.
—. [1712d]. Pp. 73–77 in The Spectator 416 (Fri. June 27), reprinted in
Smith 1898.
Dryden, John. [1686] 2001. “To the Pious Memory of the Accomplished
Young Lady Mrs Anne Killigrew, Excellent in the Two Sister Arts of
Poesy and Painting.” Pp. 214–219 in Selected Poems, eds. Steven N.
Zwicker and David Bywaters. London: Penguin.
—. [1695] 1962. “Preface of the Translator, With a Parallel of Poetry and
Painting.” Pp. 181–208 in Of Dramatic Poesy and Other Critical Es-
says, ed. George Watson. London: J. M. Dent.
Gelber, Michael Werth. 1999. The Just and the Lively. Manchester: Man-
chester University Press.
122 Constructing Media at the Turn of the 18th Century

Jolley, Nicholas. 1999. Locke: His Philosophical Thought. Oxford: Oxford

University Press.
Locke, John. [1690] 1849. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.
London: William Tegg.
Marshall, David. 2005. “Literature and the Other Arts: Ut Pictura Poesis.”
Pp. 681–699 in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Vol. 4:
The Eighteenth Century, eds. H. B. Nisbet and Claude Rawson. Cam-
bridge: Cambridge University Press.
McKeon, Michael. 1994. “The Origins of Interdisciplinary Studies” in
Eighteenth-Century Studies 28 (1): 17–28.
Miller, J. Hillis. “What Do Stories about Pictures Want?” in Critical In-
quiry 34 (52): 559–597.
Mitchell, W. J. T. 2005. What Do Pictures Want? Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.
Morrissey, Lee. 2008. The Constitution of Literature. Stanford: Stanford
University Press.
Rancière, Jacques. 2007. The Future of the Image. London: Verso.
Richardson, Jonathan. 1719. Two Discourses: An Essay on the Whole Art
of Criticism as It Relates to Painting and An Argument on the Behalf of
the Science of a Connoisseur. London: W. Churchill. [Available online
via www.archive.org (accessed 14 Nov. 2010)].
—. [1715] 1725. An Essay on the Theory of Painting. 2nd ed. London: Bet-
tesworth. [Available online via www.archive.org (accessed 14 Nov.
Saintsbury, George. 1902. A History of Criticism and Literary Taste in
Europe, Vol. 1. Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons.
Smith, Gregory G., ed. 1898. The Spectator. Vol. 6. London: J. M. Dent.
[Available online via www.archive.org (accessed 14 Nov. 2010)].

I refer the reader to Mitchell’s “ten theses on media” (2005: 211) and especially
theses five (“All media are mixed media”) and six (“Minds are media, and vice
In addition to philosophers like Leibniz, George Berkeley and of course David
Hume, the Scriblerians mocked the scientific pretensions of the Royal Society and
Locke’s psychology in satirical literature. The Laputa episode of Jonathan Swift’s
Gulliver’s Travels is perhaps the most read of these today. Other famous
Scriblerians included Alexander Pope, Thomas Parnell, John Arbuthnot and John
For discussion of Dryden’s development as a critic, see Gelber 1999.
Tommi Kakko 123

Addison believes Locke and contemporary philosophers have proven that light
and colours, as secondary qualities of matter, are a product of the ideational
mechanisms of the mind and have no real existence outside the realm of ideas. He
is concerned with sight in particular and follows Locke’s view that ideas in the
mind must arrive through the senses; the mind can then call up these ideas as it
pleases, either through reflection alone or by being reminded of them by an exter-
nal object or by a description. Berkeley’s philosophy would push this aspect of
Lockean metaphysics to its logical conclusion.
In The Future of the Image, Jacques Rancière comments on Richardson’s view of
the relationship between language and painting by noting that Richardson “rec-
ommended to painters that they first of all write the story of the painting in order to
know whether it was worth painting” (2007: 78). Rancière argues that modern
painting and its concern with the materiality of the medium instead of representa-
tion is in fact “not the separation of painting from words, but a different way of
conjoining them” (2007: 76).
See for example Jolley 1999: 96–97.
See Dryden 2001: 214–219, ll. 106–107.


Master and Margarita is an audiovisual work by Portuguese new media
art collective Video Jack that adapts Mikhail Bulgakov’s Russian mod-
ernist novel. This article studies those aspects of intermediality that resul-
ted from this particular adaptation. Video Jack’s project, in contrast to oth-
er similar audiovisual artworks, does not aim to follow an abstract “visual
music” aesthetics but rather takes an innovative narrative approach. Inter-
medial aspects bring into focus Video Jack’s non-literal “borrowing” from
the novel.

Keywords: new media, animation, “visual music,” adaptation, collage,

Mikhail Bulgakov, Video Jack

Introduction: Historical Precedents

This article aims to examine the issues of intermediality that are raised by
adapting the novel form to a new medium. Master and Margarita is the
title of an interactive audiovisual work inspired by the satirical novel of
the same name by Mikhail Bulgakov. The adaptation of Bulgakov’s The
Master and Margarita was developed in 2009 by the Portuguese new me-
dia art collective, Video Jack.1
Video Jack’s Master and Margarita can be contextualised with several
historical works of art which aimed to create integrated sound and image
artworks, particularly by combining music with narrative structures and
animation. In ancient Greece, philosophers such as Aristotle, Pythagoras
and Plato speculated that there might be a correlation between the musical
scale and colours (see Moritz 1997; Van Campen 2008: 45). The idea was
128 From Novel to Interactive Audiovisual Adaptation

further explored by such artists and scientists as Leonardo da Vinci and

Isaac Newton (see Van Campen 2008: 45–46).
Richard Wagner idealised a type of artwork that would combine differ-
ent forms of the arts in what he called a “total work of art” (Gesamtkunst-
werk). Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk is an operatic performance that encom-
passes music, theatre and the visual arts. As Wagner suggested in 1849:
“The true drama is only conceivable as proceeding from a common urg-
ence of every art towards the most direct appeal to a common public”
(2001: 5). He concluded that, to achieve this, “each separate branch of art
can only be fully attained by the reciprocal agreement and co-operation of
all the branches in their common message” (2001: 5).
It was only with the emergence of cinema that the combination of abs-
tract animation and music was made possible, a mix often classified as
“visual music,” such as in the work of Oskar Fischinger and Walther
Ruttman (see Moritz 1997). However, Fischinger preferred the abstract
visualisation of music, having halted work on Disney’s Fantasia after his
designs “were simplified so that only one thing at a time moved, and
everything was altered a bit to make it resemble some natural form, from a
violin to a tin roof to a cloudy sky” (Moritz 2004: 84).
The development of electronic technologies in the twentieth century
inspired many artists to pursue new means of synthesis in the arts. As Roy
Ascott asserts, artists have been increasingly “bring[ing] together imaging,
sound and text systems into interactive environments that exploit state-of-
the-art hypermedia and that engage the full sensorium, albeit by digital
means” (1990: 307). Ascott calls this convergence Gesamtdatenwerk, a
concept inspired by Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk.
As well, electronic music has played an important role in exploring the
potential of digital art in the late twentieth/early twenty-first centuries.
Christiane Paul has suggested that digital sound art and music projects are
a vast territory that includes not only pure sonic art (without any visual
component), but also audiovisual environments and Net art projects that
allow for real-time compositions and remixes (see Paul 2003: 133). Ac-
cording to Paul, many of the projects within the audiovisual area follow
the tradition of “kinetic light performance” or the visual music of Oskar
Fischinger (Paul 2003: 133). However, narrative approaches to audiovisual
projects, such as Master and Margarita, are less common.2
Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita has been adapted frequently,
especially following the 1970s. His novel has lent itself to various differ-
ent media forms, such as cinema, TV, theatre, opera and the graphic novel.
One of the most interesting adaptations is a TV mini-series released in
Russia in 2005. It consists of 10 episodes, with a total duration of nearly
Nuno N. Correia 129

nine hours. The director and screenwriter of this adaptation, Vladimir

Bortko, decided to make a mini-series instead of a film in order to be faith-
ful to the novel. As he states, “I didn’t write one word of the screenplay
from my own ideas […] [I]t is Bulgakov’s text” (qtd. in Sonne 2005).
With this extended duration, he aimed to include the novel’s psychological
depth, as well as its supernatural side and humour. According to Bortko, it
would be impossible to fit all the scenes from the novel into a film.
Andrzej Klimowski’s and Danusia Schejbal’s graphic novel adaptation
of The Master and Margarita, published in 2008, elaborates the narrative
elements based in Moscow with pen-and-ink and watercolour created by
Klimowski, with the biblical sections done in colour gouache by Schejbal.
Their graphic novel does not attempt to be a full adaptation of Bulgakov’s
work. According to Neel Mukherjee, it is a simplified and “flattened” ver-
sion (Mukherjee 2008).

Master and Margarita—The Adaptation and its Aesthetics

Master and Margarita is not a literal adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s
(1891–1940) novel The Master and Margarita, which was first published
in 1966.3 The novel has three main sub-plots. The first plot presents the
Devil and his entourage creating havoc in the Moscow of the 1930s. In the
second plot, Margarita strikes a Faustian deal with the Devil in order to be
reunited with her lover, a tormented writer whom she calls Master. In Bul-
gakov’s narrative, there is also the story of Matthew the Evangelist in
Jerusalem in 33 AD attempting to uncover the truth about Pontius Pilate
and the crucifixion of Jesus. Bulgakov progressively integrates these
threads while, as Paul Sonne puts it, “exercising devilish lampoonery and
wit to satirize Soviet life under Stalin” (Sonne 2005). Each of the three
sub-plots provides a commentary on the others (see Milne 1998: 202). The
tale of the Master mirrors the life of Bulgakov in certain aspects, as in the
references to publishing problems and censorship. As Lesley Milne as-
serts, The Master and Margarita is a book that tells the tale of its own
composition (1998: 202).
In Video Jack’s Master and Margarita, the biblical story was omitted.
It would have been considerably difficult to integrate the sub-plot with
Matthew the Evangelist, due to its long dialogues and slow pace, in a non-
verbal adaptation. Also, it would not have suited the animation style of
Video Jack, which focuses more on the action-driven chapters of the book.
Nine chapters were chosen for the adaptation, allowing for an overview of
this complex narrative and including most of the main events and charac-
ters, with the exception of those in the biblical part.
130 From Novel to Interactive Audiovisual Adaptation

Using Dudley Andrew’s terminology, I would suggest that Master and

Margarita is a “borrowing” type of adaptation, in which “the artist em-
ploys, more or less extensively, the material, idea, or form of an earlier”
work (1984: 98). In these types of adaptation, the audience “is expected to
enjoy basking in a certain pre-established presence and to call up new or
especially powerful aspects of a cherished work” (Andrew 1984: 98).
Stylistically, Master and Margarita can be understood as an audiovisual
“collage” inspired by Bulgakov’s book. Collage is an artistic technique
invented by Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, who reassessed painting
and sculpture, giving each medium some of the characteristics of the other.
Braque and Picasso placed great value on everyday materials and objects.
The Futurists and the Dadaists also employed collage, as did painters in
the Russian avant-garde. The latter used photomontage, an extension of
collage, to support their ideals of a progressive world order (see Waldman,
n.d.). Collage is, therefore, a key concept behind this adaptation of Bul-
gakov’s novel to the interactive audiovisual project. This collage aesthetic
is applied using multiple techniques. Visually, photographs and other
found or non-drawn elements (such as blots of ink) are mixed with 2D and
3D animation. These techniques aim to match Bulgakov’s literary ap-
proach, its rawness and mixture of elements—his “dazzling display of
different styles, from the austerely laconic to the richly ornamented”
(Milne 1998: 203). Moreover, the adaptation serves as a visual reference
to such avant-garde artists contemporary with Bulgakov as Alexander
Rodchenko and El Lissitzky. Similar to Video Jack in their Master and
Margarita, Rodchenko and El Lissitzky also combine different modalities
of visual communication in their works, such as simple but expressive geo-
metric shapes, together with symbolic elements, lettering and photographs.
Sonically, the collage is achieved by mixing different types of sound:
field recordings of sounds related to the narrative, and samples of music
related to the themes of the book, as well as to the collage aesthetics; elec-
tronic percussion and synthesizer sounds were also added. A saturated and
multi-layered work is created that captures Bulgakov’s surreal, almost
demented, universe, creating an engaging multi-sensorial experience.
Master and Margarita borrows the idea of different narrative levels
commenting on each other from Bulgakov’s novel, and expands it to the
visual and sonic layers. The visual elements comment on the narrative,
bringing different levels of realism and symbolism into play, from the
realistic full-screen animations to the animated icons. The sound elements
also provide commentary on the narrative, mainly through the use of field
recordings. These different layers—in both sonic and visual spheres—
echo the multi-layered writing style of Bulgakov. Like Bulgakov’s novel,
Nuno N. Correia 131

Master and Margarita emphasises the process involved in making a work

of art. Whereas in the novel Bulgakov comments upon the act of writing
and brings up parallels between his life and the character of the Master,
Master and Margarita displays the user interface and the user’s actions.
Similarly to the book, in which references to the writing of the novel are
apparent, in the interactive audiovisual project, the activity of choosing the
different chapters, animations and sounds is equally relevant.
The animations in Master and Margarita are divided into four main
areas that correspond to the position of the buttons that trigger them: top
animations, lower animations and lateral animations.4 Top animations
mainly include characters or major narrative elements. They involve ac-
tion, and contribute to the narrative. These animations fill the entire
screen. Lateral animations are also full-screen animations; however, they
essentially contain background elements or graphic details.5
“Animated icons,” or the animations in the lower part of the visual
field, are iconographic elements that symbolise concepts or represent a
certain narrative element.6 They can be dragged and placed on different
areas on the screen. Animated icons can also trigger sounds, if the trian-
gular “play” button in the centre is pressed. Once playing, volume and size
can be controlled by additional user interface elements. When the respec-
tive sound is playing, the animated icons are sound-reactive—their size
changes according to the amplitude of the sound (see Fig. 1).
The sound in each Master and Margarita chapter consists of four
sound loops—sounds with a duration of 14 seconds that cycle seamlessly.
Both the sounds and the animations of Master and Margarita follow this
“loop” logic. Once activated, and without further intervention, they would
run indefinitely, repeating without a perceptible beginning or end.

Fig. 1: Stopped, active and manipulated animated icons.

132 From Novel to Interactive Audiovisual Adaptation

Intermedial Borrowings
In order to discuss in detail how the adaptation from Bulgakov’s novel to
Video Jack’s interactive audiovisual project was accomplished, it is neces-
sary to recall those nine chapters of Bulgakov’s novel that were adapted
for this project. In the chapters “Never Talk to Strangers” and “The Sev-
enth Proof,” Bulgakov introduces the character of Woland, a devil who
goes to Moscow and engages in a theological discussion about the exist-
ence of Jesus Christ with two members of the local literary elite. Woland
predicts the imminent death of one of his interlocutors; his prediction
comes true shortly after. In the chapter “Black Magic and Its Exposure”
(adapted in two parts), Woland and his associates, including the man-cat
Behemoth and the choir master Koroviev, stage a magical and mystical
show in Moscow. The main show, which is preceded by the performance
of the Giulli family of acrobats, defies the audience’s expectations, and
exposes not the black magic as was announced, but the greed and corrup-
tion of the audience. A later chapter, “The Hero Enters,” tells the love
story of the Master and Margarita, from their meeting to their separation,
narrated by the Master to Ivan Homeless while they are both at a mental
health institution. Besides the romance aspect, the chapter also focuses on
the Master’s struggle to get his novel published, which culminates in
frustration. In the subsequent chapters, “Azazello’s Cream” and “Flight,”
Margarita strikes a deal with the Devil in order to find her lost lover, and
to avenge him, gaining supernatural powers in the process. Eventually, in
the chapter “The Great Ball at Satan’s,” Margarita fulfils her part of the
deal with Woland, becoming his companion at an extravagant and surreal
ball. The chapter “The End of Apartment No. 50” depicts the local police
attacking the apartment where Woland and his partners were hosted, fol-
lowing the chaos caused by the group in Moscow. Finally, the chapter
entitled “It’s Time, It’s Time” brings the novel to a close, with the death of
the Master and Margarita, and the departure of their “ghosts” (the book is
very ambiguous here) from Moscow together with Woland and the rest of
his entourage. In the following, I want to show in detail, through an analy-
sis of three selected chapters from the project, how the adaptation from the
novel to an interactive audiovisual project was created.

“The Seventh Proof ”

The top animations, which are inspired by the third chapter of Bulgakov’s
novel, “The Seventh Proof,” convey the main narrative elements of that
chapter. They follow a colour scheme that is red, white and black, similar
Nuno N. Correia 133

to the graphics of Rodchenko and El Lissitzki. As in the works of these

two artists, photomontage is heavily used in the animations, together with
graphic elements. Elements from the novel’s first chapter, “Never Talk to
Strangers,” also appear.
In the animations, red symbolises both the blood that will eventually be
spilled and also, as the first sentence of the book thematises, the sunset:
“At the hour of the hot spring sunset, two citizens appeared at the Patri-
arch’s Ponds” (Bulgakov 2006: 3). Red is also, of course, associated with
the flag of the USSR and Red Square.

Fig. 2: Berlioz in “The Seventh Proof . ”

One of the animations depicts swans in the Patriarch’s Ponds, where

the action of these two chapters takes place. Another animation presents
the character of the literary critic Berlioz:
One of them, approximately forty years old, dressed in a grey summer suit,
was short, dark-haired, plump, bald, and carried his respectable fedora hat
in his hand. His neatly shaved face was adorned with black horn-rimmed
glasses of a supernatural size. (Bulgakov 2006: 3)
134 From Novel to Interactive Audiovisual Adaptation

In the animation, photographs of a mouth and eyes are combined with

drawn elements of a face and suit (see Fig. 2). The animation reflects Ber-
lioz’s difficulty in breathing “at that hour when it seemed no longer pos-
sible to breathe” (Bulgakov 2006: 3), and his inner state of anxiety: “[H]is
heart gave a thump and dropped away somewhere for an instant, then
came back, but with a blunt needle lodged in it” (Bulgakov 2006: 4). The
heart is depicted quite literally in the animation.

Fig. 3: Woland in “The Seventh Proof . ”

An additional animation presents Woland, the enigmatic foreigner.

Again, photographic elements in the face are mixed with drawn ones.
Woland’s depiction is faithful to Bulgakov’s description in the book:
He was wearing an expensive grey suit and imported shoes of a matching
colour. His grey beret was cocked rakishly over one ear; under his arm he
carried a stick with a black knob shaped like a poodle’s head. He looked to
be a little over forty. Mouth somehow twisted [….] Right eye black, left –
for some reason—green. Dark eyebrows, but one higher than the other.
(Bulgakov 2006: 7–8)
Nuno N. Correia 135

The detail of the poodle-shaped knob on Woland’s walking stick is high-

lighted in the second part of the animation, where Berlioz, who “sat down
on a bench” (Bulgakov 2006: 4), looks curiously at the foreigner. The
bubbles surrounding Woland convey the aura of mystery and magic
around the character (see Fig. 3). Another animation introduces the tram
car, which will eventually run over Berlioz and cut off his head: “And
right then this tram car came racing along” (Bulgakov 2006: 59).
Additional animation depicts the multiple instances of Woland, re-
flecting his contradictory shifts in mood, his progressively more threaten-
ing presence and his apparent insanity: “Here the insane man burst into
such a laughter […]” (Bulgakov 2006: 57). A low-angle perspective
represents this oppressiveness. Finally, the concluding animation shows
Berlioz’s head rolling on the screen, leaving a trace of blood behind as a
result of being run over by the tram, although the actual accident is not
shown in the animation, but only hinted at:
The tram-car went over Berlioz, and a round dark object was thrown up
the cobbled slope below the fence of the Patriarch’s walk. Having rolled
back down this slope, it went bouncing along the cobblestones of the
street. It was the severed head of Berlioz. (Bulgakov 2006: 60)

The lateral animations depict the vegetation of Patriarch’s Ponds that act
as a background for the action (although in this case the “background”
often becomes the foreground: It can appear on top in the top animations).
The last animation is an exception: A jet of blood conveys the violent
ending to the chapter.
The animated icons complete the visual interpretation of the chapter.
One represents the traffic light which warns Berlioz of the oncoming tram:
“He turned […] and was just about to step across the rails when a red and
white light splashed in his face. A sign lit up in a glass box: ‘Caution!
Tram-Car!’” (Bulgakov 2006: 59). Another animation represents the blood
and violence, present across all layers of animation (top, lateral and
lower). An additional animated icon represents the religious discussion
surrounding the existence of Jesus: “Bear in mind that Jesus did exist”
(Bulgakov 2006: 19). The last animated icon is more ambiguous, and
brings to mind both a target and the wheels of the oncoming tram.
The music points implicitly to the anxiety, madness, oppression and
emotional confusion depicted. One loop portrays rather clearly one of the
narrative elements—the motion of an oncoming tram. The music helps to
complete the “picture,” contributing to the psychological and emotional
elements and to the atmosphere of confusion that prevails in this chapter.
136 From Novel to Interactive Audiovisual Adaptation

While some details from the book become amplified in the visual in-
terpretation (for example, the poodle-head knob), other elements disap-
pear. The characters of Ivan Homeless and Azazello, for example, are re-
ferred to but do not appear as such. References to the religious sub-plot are
omitted, with the exception of an animation with a symbolic cross. The
commentary on the Moscow literary scene is also left out. However, the
chapter’s two crucial elements are represented: the introduction of Woland
and the death of Berlioz. More importantly, the dense atmosphere of the
chapter is captured with images and sounds. There is a magnification of
certain elements of the book, on the one hand, and a simplification, on the
other. To a degree, it can be said of Video Jack’s Master and Margarita as
a whole that it foregrounds certain literary aspects while simplifying other
parts of the novel.

“Black Magic and Its Exposure”

The animations and sounds that form the interpretation of Chapter 12,
“Black Magic and Its Exposure,” are divided into two parts. In both parts,
a different colour palette is used than the one in “The Seventh Proof.” In
addition to red, white and black, there is extensive use of the colour blue.
The chromatic references to the Soviet flag, Constructivism and blood
depicted in “The Seventh Proof ” are extended to the present-day Russian
flag. Red, white and blue are also the colours of the flags of the U.S., the
U.K. and France; the project therefore makes an implicit critical connec-
tion between the Soviet era and contemporary society.
In Part One, the top animations refer mainly to the Giulli family of ac-
robats, the “warm up” performers who precede the main attraction of the
night, Woland and his troupe. In contrast to the previously discussed
chapter, which made more use of small details and backgrounds, in this
chapter, the graphic style changes to a more minimalistic look in which
photomontage is still combined with drawings, but the illustrations are
sketches rather than detailed graphics.
One of the animation portraits is of “a small man in a yellow bowler
hat full of holes and with a pear-shaped, raspberry-coloured nose, in
checkered trousers and patent-leather shoes, rolled out on to the stage of
the Variety on an ordinary two-wheeled bicycle” (Bulgakov 2006: 163).
The animation shows him losing one wheel of the bicycle; as described in
the book, the man “contrived while in motion to unscrew the front wheel
and send it backstage, and then proceeded on his way with one wheel”
(Bulgakov 2006: 163).
Nuno N. Correia 137

Another animation depicts the Giulli woman: “On a tall metal pole
with a seat at the top and a single wheel, a plump blonde rolled out in
tights and a little skirt strewn with silver stars, and began riding in a
circle” (Bulgakov 2006: 163). The woman’s short skirt is merely sug-
gested by a few grey strokes. An additional animation presents the child
performer: “[F]inally, a little eight-year-old with an elderly face came
rolling out and began scooting about among the adults on a tiny two-
wheeler furnished with an enormous automobile horn” (Bulgakov 2006:
163). The detail of the horn is amplified in the animation.

Fig. 4: Bengalsky in “Black Magic and Its Exposure.”

The next animation introduces Bengalsky (Fig. 4), the master of cere-
monies, one of the main characters in this chapter. In the background, the
curtain and its reddish glow are depicted as suggested by their description
in the book:
A moment later the spheres went out in the theatre, the footlights blazed
up, lending a reddish glow to the base of the curtain, and in the lighted gap
of the curtain there appeared before the public a plump man, merry as a
baby, with a clean-shaven face, in a rumpled tailcoat and none-too-fresh
138 From Novel to Interactive Audiovisual Adaptation

shirt. This was the master of ceremonies, well known to all Moscow—
Georges Bengalsky. (Bulgakov 2006: 167)

The last top animation showcases the audience, and their excited response
to the first spectacles of the main attractions of the night (which will be
further developed in Part Two): “[R]apturous shouts came from the wings”
(Bulgakov 2006: 170).
One of the animated icons also focuses on the audience response.
Stylised clapping hands mimic the “unbelievable applause” (Bulgakov
2006: 170) from the public. Two other animated icons refer to the card
tricks that will also appear later in Part Two, as well as to the notions of
gambling and “easy money.” The last animation represents a flash, which
will be occurring later in the chapter as well, quite literally: “[T]he pistol
was pointed up […] there was a flash, a bang” (Bulgakov 2006: 171). The
flash also relates to the theatre lights.
The lighting in the theatre is further presented in one of the lateral ani-
mations. A bicycle wheel is represented in another, a reference to the
Giulli family. The deconstructed, only partially dressed, female bodies in
two of the animations point towards the fashion extravaganza in the sec-
ond part of the chapter, when the “women disappeared behind the curtains,
leaving their dresses there and coming out in new ones” (Bulgakov 2006:
Sounds recreate the vaudeville atmosphere of the chapter. One of the
sound loops represents the “alarming drum-beats of the orchestra” (Bul-
gakov 2006: 163). The sound of the orchestra has a tribal, pagan character
in tune with the “black magic” theme. Another conveys the sounds of the
audience—“there were gasps of ‘ah, ah!’ and merry laughter” (Bulgakov
2006: 171)—as well as clapping and feminine agitation: “[F]rom all sides
women marched on to the stage […] general agitation of talk, chuckles
and gasps” (Bulgakov 2006: 178). An additional sound is a piano melody,
somehow naive, delicate and feminine, conveying the seductive appeal of
the visions conjured by Woland. The remaining sound loop is more mys-
terious and ethereal, suggesting the magical atmosphere.
The top animations in the second part of “Black Magic and its Expo-
sure” represent the characters of Behemoth, the devilish cat with semi-
human behaviour, and the choir master Koroviev (also known as Fagot,
which is Russian for “bassoon”); these animations all refer to Bulgakov’s
description in the novel: “but most remarkable of all were the black magi-
cian’s two companions: a long checkered fellow with a cracked pince-nez,
and a fat black cat who came into the dressing room on his hind legs”
(Bulgakov 2006: 165).
Nuno N. Correia 139

Fig. 5: Behemoth in “Black Magic and Its Exposure.”

One of the animations shows Behemoth simply walking onto stage,

with ink blots jumping out of his body. His red eyes betray his demonic
nature (see Fig. 5). Two other animations represent the card trick perform-
ance by Behemoth and Koroviev/Fagot, which Bulgakov describes as fol-
Fagot and the cat walked along the footlights to opposite sides of the stage.
Fagot snapped his fingers, and with a rolling “Three, four!” snatched a
deck of cards from the air, shuffled it, and sent it in a long ribbon to the
cat. The cat intercepted it and sent it back. [….] Fagot opened his mouth
like a nestling and swallowed it all card by card. (Bulgakov 2006: 169–

In the animation, Koroviev is also depicted with devilish red eyes, but the
cards are merely suggested, as outlines. The animated icons complete the
picture, providing a more literal representation of playing cards.
The last top animation shows Behemoth cutting off Bengalsky’s head,
and putting it back again, as described in the book. First, the head is re-
moved: “Growling, the cat sank his plump paws into the skimpy chevelure
of the master of ceremonies and in two twists tore the head from the thick
140 From Novel to Interactive Audiovisual Adaptation

neck with a savage howl […] blood spurted in fountains from the torn
neck arteries” (Bulgakov 2006: 173), and then it is put back: “The cat,
aiming accurately, planted the head on the neck, and it sat exactly in its
place, as if it had never gone anywhere” (Bulgakov 2006: 174). Although
in the book these two events are not presented as a continuous action
(there is a discussion with the audience in between), in the animation it
becomes a repeating loop, and Bengalsky is (appropriately) no longer
The lateral animations repeat motifs from the first part of this chapter
and from “The Seventh Proof ” which include the spotlight, curtains and
blood, although differently coloured than those earlier animations. Two of
the animated icons contain the U.S. dollar and euro symbols, surrounded
by moving circles. They represent the greed and consumerism of the audi-
ence members, and also the money that literally falls upon them: “[I]n a
few seconds, the rain of money, ever thickening, reached the seats, and the
spectators began snatching at it” (Bulgakov 2006: 171).
Regarding sound, one of the loops continues the tribal, ritualistic per-
cussive sound of Part Two with added aggressiveness, mirroring the
sounds of the orchestra in the theatre: “[T]he orchestra … hacked out some
incredible march of an unheard-of brashness” (Bulgakov 2006: 182). In
another sound, distorted noises from present-day slot machines can be
discerned, representing the “easy money” and gambling theme of the
chapter. An additional sound is a distorted and harsh synthetic melody,
representing the violent and bloody aspect of the text. The last sound is a
recording of sheep, illustrating the notion of materialistic “herd behaviour”
demonstrated by the fervent race towards money and luxury goods offered
by Woland and his accomplices.
The music in both parts of this chapter is particularly ironic, fitting the
tone of Bulgakov’s cartoon-like descriptions of the black magic “séance.”
The animations cover most of the action, either in a more literal way or by
suggestion—with the exception of the dialogues established between char-
acters.7 These are difficult to convey using the style of animation adopted
for the project. The money magic trick and women’s fashion extravaganza
are only suggested by more symbolic animations. Woland, a less important
character in this chapter, does not appear in the animations here, and Be-
hemoth, assisted by Koroviev, becomes the main character instead. Be-
cause of its division in two parts, and consequently having twice the num-
ber of animations and sounds, this is one of the most comprehensively
adapted chapters of Bulgakov’s novel within the Video Jack project.
Nuno N. Correia 141

“The Hero Enters”

This chapter is quite different in tone from the previous ones. It narrates
how the Master met Margarita, his lover. The tone is not violent, ironic or
fantastic, as in the previous chapters, but romantic and poetic. The colour
scheme becomes softer, with different shades of blue mixed with black
and white. The Master narrates this story from a psychiatric hospital, and
he appears in the top animations as both narrator and character. As narra-
tor (see Fig. 6), he appears dressed in a hospital gown, although his gown
is blue in the animations (and not brown as in the book) in order to fit with
the overall colour scheme: “Here Ivan saw that the man was dressed as a
patient. He was wearing long underwear, slippers on his bare feet and a
brown dressing-gown thrown over his shoulders” (Bulgakov 2006: 183).
The Master’s face looks weary and exhausted, reflecting the suffering he
has been through.

Fig. 6: The Master and Margarita in “The Hero Enters.”

This chapter also contains fewer animations than the others. In one of
the top animations, the Master sees Margarita pass by in a Moscow street,
carrying yellow flowers: “[S]he was carrying repulsive, alarmingly yellow
142 From Novel to Interactive Audiovisual Adaptation

flowers in her hand […] and these flowers stood out clearly against her
black spring coat” (Bulgakov 2006: 192). Margarita looks distant and sad:
“I can assure you that she saw me alone, and she looked at me not really
alarmed, but even as in pain. And I was struck not so much by her beauty
as by an extraordinary loneliness in her eyes” (Bulgakov 2006: 192–193).
The other top animation depicts the Master’s anxiety as he awaited
Margarita’s visits to his basement apartment: “[M]y heart would pound no
less than ten times before that”; and “when her hour came and the hands
showed noon, it wouldn’t even stop pounding until […] her shoes would
come even with my window” (Bulgakov 2006: 195). The second half of
this animation shows Margarita’s steps coming towards the Master, from
the perspective of his window.

Fig. 7: Mental states of the Master in “The Hero Enters.”

The Master’s anxiety regarding the time of the meeting with his be-
loved is also reflected, albeit in a more iconographic way, by one of the
animated icons, i.e., a heart-shaped clock, beating fast. An additional ani-
mation represents both the Master’s brain (literally) and his creativity
(figuratively, via a light bulb). This has a double connotation—indicating
his feverishly creative period in the basement in the past, and his affected
Nuno N. Correia 143

sanity at the madhouse in the present (see Fig. 7). Another animation is
more symbolic, a flash, conveying the effect of love upon the couple:
“[L]ove leaped out in front of us like a murderer in an alley leaping out of
nowhere, and struck us both at once” (Bulgakov 2006: 194). One last ani-
mation, a snow crystal, relates to the Master’s winter period of loneliness
before meeting Margarita: “[I]n the winter it was very seldom that I saw
someone’s black feet through my window and heard the snow crunching
under them” (Bulgakov 2006: 191).
The same image of winter is conveyed by the snow in one of the lateral
animations. Another one shows a multitude of passersby: “[B]efore my
meeting with her, few people came to our yard—more simply, no one
came—but now it seemed to me that the whole city came flocking here”
(Bulgakov 2006: 195). One more animation again depicts the Master’s
brain, although here the speed of the moving brain and the strong colours
convey a sense of dementia. The last animation, a flower, recalls the mo-
ment of the first encounter between the Master and Margarita.
One of the sound loops, an unsteady beat, represents a broken mecha-
nism, a clock moving at an irregular speed. Another sound is a recording
of bells, illustrating the passage of time. The two remaining sound loops
are more musical and melodic, conveying romance, although the melody is
bittersweet and melancholic, reflecting the longing for an absent lover.
The first part of the chapter, the dialogue between Ivan Homeless and
the Master, is not adapted, since the adaptation focuses on the Master’s
recollections of his love story with Margarita. Some elements from the
novel are omitted, particularly those related to the activity of writing the
book, the problems surrounding its publication, the burning of the manu-
script, and even several locations such as the apartment and the streets. But
the first meeting of the couple, the city atmosphere, the romantic mood
and the anxiety of the Master while waiting for his next meeting with
Margarita are well conveyed by the animations and music. This is a chap-
ter in which the elements are suggested rather than presented directly,
which matches the fragmented poetic recollections expressed by the Mas-
ter in the novel.

In this article, I have tried to show that Video Jack’s Master and Mar-
garita is not strictly an adaptation of Bulgakov’s novel, but a work in-
spired by it and from which it “borrows” key elements (to use Andrew’s
terminology [Andrew 1984]). As in Klimowski and Schejbal’s graphic
novel The Master and Margarita, Video Jack’s interactive audiovisual
144 From Novel to Interactive Audiovisual Adaptation

project simplifies Bulgakov’s book. Some elements from the novel have
been left out and others such as the political and social elements are only
suggested by the music, whereas the religious elements are suggested by
means of a few animated icons. Still, those who have read the novel will
recognise the main characters and events, particularly the devilish incur-
sion in Moscow, the love story between the Master and Margarita, and
Margarita’s Faustian transformation. To those who have not, Master and
Margarita could serve as an introduction to the book, enticing them to
read the novel.
Nevertheless, even if Master and Margarita is not a full adaptation of
the letter of the novel, it aims to be true to its spirit—its irreverence, in-
tensity, stylistic diversity, irony and use of multiple layers of meaning. It
conveys the particular artistic vision of its creators and therefore it is not
only an interpretation of Bulgakov’s work, but also an autonomous and co-
herent work of its own. The approach taken to the integration of sound,
animation and graphic user interface establishes a clear connection with
the authors of the project and their previous works.8 Additionally, new
meaning is contributed to the novel, such as the animations and sonic ele-
ments, which comment on twenty-first century society.
What remains in the conversion are these elements: the contrasting vio-
lent and romantic aspects of the novel; the supernatural and magical ele-
ments; the emotional tension; the wit; the multiplicity of layers; the styl-
isation of expression and the openness to interpretation of the work. Both
Master and Margarita and the novel it adapts are “written in code”; they
have elements that require decoding in order for the full meaning to
emerge. In the novel, the coded elements pertain particularly to the politi-
cal dimension. In the adaptation, many elements of the book (mainly nar-
rative but also emotional) are symbolised in iconic animations and sounds,
and the user/viewer/listener is expected to create meaning by connecting
these different elements. All these aspects contribute to the meaning: the
sounds and animated icons, together with the more literal animations—the
distinct branches of art combine in a “common message,” in “reciprocal
agreement and cooperation,” as Wagner stated in his description of the
ideal Gesamtkunstwerk (2001: 5). Therefore, while Master and Margarita
simplifies Bulgakov’s literary work, it also expands upon it, by opening
the potential to generate new meaning, and an engaging experience, by
means of an interactive multi-sensorial approach.
Nuno N. Correia 145

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Ascott, Roy. 1990. “Is There Love in Telematic Embrace?” Pp. 305–316
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Virtual Reality, 2001. New York: Norton.
Bulgakov, Mikhail. [1966] 2006. The Master and Margarita. Trans. Lar-
issa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear. London: Penguin.
Correia, Nuno N. 2010. “Heat Seeker: An Interactive Audio-Visual Project
for Performance, Video and Web.” Pp. 243–251 in Proceedings of the
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Yingcai Xiao, Roberto Muffoletto and Tomaz Amon. Freiburg: IADIS
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Sonne, Paul. 2005. “Russians Await a Cult Novel’s Film Debut With Ea-
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Science. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Video Jack [André Carrilho and Nuno N. Correia]. [2008] 2009. Master
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Wagner, Richard. [1849] 2001. “Outlines of the Artwork of the Future.”

Pp. 3–9 in Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality, eds. Randall
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cessed 8 June 2011).

Video Jack is composed of André Carrilho and Nuno N. Correia. The Internet art
version of the project, which can be found at http://www.videojackstudios.com/
masterandmargarita, is described in this article. A performance version was also
created by Video Jack.
A closer precedent would be a previous Video Jack work, Heat Seeker, available
at: http://www.videojackstudios.com/heatseeker/. As in Master and Margarita,
Heat Seeker also combines (mostly) narrative animations with music (Correia
2010). In the case of Heat Seeker, however, the different narratives that compose
the project are unrelated, and are not adapted from any previous work.
The novel was written between the late 1920s and Bulgakov’s death in 1940, and
only published for the first time in 1966, a quarter century later.
In each chapter, the number of top and lateral animations vary but there are al-
ways four animated icons, or lower animations.
They often include abundant empty space, allowing the graphic elements under-
neath to show through (top animation or colored background). When characters are
included in lateral animations, they are represented in a less realistic way than in
top animations. Lateral animations are descriptive and contextualising rather than
Their default size is smaller than that of the other animations. They are positioned
on top of the remaining animations (top and lateral animations).
For example, the dialogue between Koroviev and Arkady Appolonovich, chair-
man of the Acoustic Commission of Moscow Theatres, is left out.
The connection to the earlier Video Jack project Heat Seeker is particularly evi-


David Herman developed the notion of hypothetical focalisation for the
purposes of analysis of literary narratives, but it can be illuminatingly
applied to the study of film as well. The conceptual adjustments this en-
tails can be rewardingly explored through the study of cinematic adapta-
tions of literary works in which hypothetical aspects loom large. Bernardo
Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem, a cinematic rendering of Jorge Luis
Borges’s “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero,” is a particularly intriguing
example of such intermedial adaptation. By means of a subtle and highly
intertextual film style, suggestive change of historical setting and partial
transformation of the story material, Bertolucci has transposed the extra-
ordinary mode of the original text into his own medium and created a story
with its own highly unique quality of hypothetical narration.

Keywords: hypothetical focalisation, adaptation, René Magritte, Bernardo

Bertolucci, Jorge Luis Borges

Film is by its very nature the most intermedial of arts, and adaptation is an
intermedial act par excellence. However, just as film style all too often
relies unimaginatively on the norms of classical film narration, adaptation,
in the words of John Ellis, is typically merely “a process of reducing a pre-
existent piece of writing to a series of functions: characters, locations,
costumes, actions and strings of narrative” (1982: 3). But when Bernardo
Bertolucci used Jorge Luis Borges’s “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero”
as the starting point for his film The Spider’s Stratagem, he developed
astonishingly ingenious filmic ways of rendering the themes of the literary
original. This involved stretching the intricate web of intertextual refer-
ences woven by Borges to cover other arts as well. Above all, a further
148 The Hypothetical Stratagems of Borges and Bertolucci

intermedial dimension emerges from the use of opera as a major reference

point around which Bertolucci spread his own nets of hypothetical focal-

Irrealis Modality
The notion of hypothetical focalisation was developed by the literary
scholar David Herman to refer to a variety of ways of suggesting what
might be the diegetic status of story information. It covers a range of strat-
egies that can be used to question the nature of the fictional truth of both a
scene or an entire story. Few authors exemplify such hypothetical modes
as well as Jorge Luis Borges. His “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” is
particularly intriguing in this respect, containing as it does embedded lev-
els of narration, the status of which are in different ways hypothetical.
The term focalisation was used by the French literary theorist Gerard
Genette to describe how the flow of story information in a novel may be
constrained and shaped by being conveyed as if by the narrator, one or
more of the characters or some more or less hypothetical entity. Focalisa-
tion is an important narrative device as regards both dramatic development
and epistemic concerns. From a dramaturgical point of view, focalisation
is needed to control the flow of story information; say, for the purpose of
creating mystery, suspense and surprises. When the narrative structure
contains embedded levels of narration, it might have a key function in def-
ining what the reader or spectator knows in respect of the different charac-
ters. Even more intriguingly, focalisation can also address issues of epis-
temology, such as how certain things can be presumed to be known at all.
In any form of storytelling we might have what Genette referred to as
zero focalisation. It is roughly equivalent to what is commonly referred to
as third-person narration. David Herman sees this as “just a name for an
epistemic stance in which a focalizer has absolute fate in the veracity, the
actualness or the actualizability, of the states of affairs detailed in the nar-
rative” (2002: 326). While zero focalisation expresses firm reliance on the
unequivocal narratability of events, a storyteller working in any medium
has at her disposal a range of expressive means to express both specific
subjectivity as well as general epistemic uncertainty concerning how well
things can be known. Multiple focalisation offers embedded or layered
belief contexts. This serves detective-type narrative structures well, in
which a character seeking to find out what has happened earlier on has to
assess what other characters tell her about past events, in the process try-
ing to take into account how what they believe and say may be condi-
tioned or distorted for one reason or another. They may be reliable or un-
Henry Bacon 149

reliable, depending on their vested interests and their more or less well-
grounded attitudes and beliefs.1
At the opposite end of the scale, there is the kind of narration which
casts doubt on not only whether a given expression or formulation about
the storyworld is fictionally true or not, but whether there was or was not,
or even possibly could have been, someone perceiving and witnessing a
presumed state of affairs. Furthermore, there might be a more or less se-
vere mismatch between the expressed world and the reference world, be-
tween what is being said and what we are likely to assume to be the way
things are or have been. These are instances of hypothetical focalisation.
According to Herman, “there is an analogy, more or less exact, between
models of focalization and propositional attitudes,” and thus, “focalization
itself can be described as the narrative transcription of attitudes of seeing,
believing, speculating and so forth, anchored in particular contexts or
frames, that is, particular modes of the way the world is” (2002: 325, 325–
326). With the notion of hypothetical focalisation, Herman further extends
the range of focalisation to cover speculation on the veracity of what any
given point of view might offer for our perception and understanding as
well as the reliability of the world view that frames it. Thus he discusses
narratives “that prompt speculation about focalizing activity that someone
who actually exists in the storyworld may or may not have performed”
(2002: 309). Such hypothetical focalisation can be used to “encode differ-
ent degrees of certainty with respect to objects, participants, and events in
the storyworld” (Herman 2002: 310). Hypothetical focalisation is above all
a matter of narrative indecision about how things are in the diegetic world.
By virtue of this metafictional quality, hypothetical focalisation can be
employed to probe fundamental epistemic issues, such as in what ways
and to what extent do the world and our lives really open up to our at-
tempts at making sense. Herman also refers in passing to what linguists
have termed irrealis modality. It is a modality which “encompasses all the
semantic resources that enable language users to signal that they are not
fully committed to the truth of a proposition about the world” (Herman
2009: 133).
Standard cinematic narration has a certain inbuilt quality of hypotheti-
cal focalisation. In his scheme of hierarchical levels of narration, Edward
Branigan develops the notion of an implicit diegetic narrator, which he
defines with the linguistic formulations: “If a bystander had been present,
he or she would have seen […] would have heard ” (1992: 111–112). That
is, an implicit diegetic narrator is a metafictional notion that refers to
perception as if taking place in the storyworld. Branigan’s very phrasing
suggests hypothetical focalisation: Though a bystander was not present,
150 The Hypothetical Stratagems of Borges and Bertolucci

we presume such a person could have been there (and might have been
dramatised by the text). Furthermore, the functioning of Branigan’s
implied author refers to a hypothetical quality on a different level. As an
example, Branigan analyses the opening of Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man
(1958) and mentions the shots where “Manny is overtaken by two
policemen who seem to walk on either side of him as if to take him into
custody, but in fact they do not walk on either side of him and do not (yet)
take him into custody” (1992: 111–112.) Thus, whereas the diegetic
narrator conveys perceptual information from the diegetic world as if he
were an online connection to the immediate narrative moment as such, the
implied author is in charge of the hypothetical implications of that
information and the retrospective and prospective meanings which emerge
from the immediate situation as a part of the narrative whole, as well as
the various satisfactions and expectations to which it gives rise. Both can
be thought of as varieties of hypothetical focalisation.

Traitors as Heroes
Few authors offer such rich examples of hypothetical focalisation as Jorge
Luis Borges. A certain hypothetical attitude pervades most of his oeuvre,
emerging as a foundational mode of trying to make sense of the world. He
is one of the greatest masters of the irrealis modality. The short story
“Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” (1944) is an excellent example of
this. The story is in a sense set in the form of an account of what suppos-
edly has really happened, as if in a detective novel. But before relating the
actual story, the narrator warns us:
In my idle afternoon I have imagined this story plot which I shall perhaps
write some day and which already justifies me somehow. Details, rectifi-
cations, adjustments are lacking; there are zones of the story not yet re-
vealed to me; today, 3 January 1944, I see it as follows: […]. (Borges
1970: 102)

The narrator is even uncertain where his story is to take place, but then
opts “(for narrative convenience) Ireland; let us say in 1824” (1970: 102).
He then proceeds to name a narrator, Ryan, whose attempt to account for
the assassination of his forefather, the revolutionary hero called Fergus
Kilpatrick, serves as the basis for the story being told. As Ryan explores
Kilpatrick’s life, he makes strange discoveries. A parallelism emerges be-
tween the assassination of Caesar and that of Kilpatrick. At first Ryan is
about to resort to circular ideas of history to explain this. But then, “he is
rescued from these circular labyrinths by a curious finding, a finding
Henry Bacon 151

which then sinks him in other, more inextricable and heterogeneous laby-
rinths: certain words uttered by a beggar who spoke with Fergus Kilpatrick
the day of his death were prefigured by Shakespeare in the tragedy
Macbeth” (Borges 1970: 103).
Ryan continues his investigation, although the narrator of Borges’s
story admits in brackets: “(this investigation is one of the gaps in my
plot)” (1970: 104). The “truth” that emerges—if one may use such a word
in the context of so many embedded uncertainties—is that Kilpatrick was
actually a traitor to the cause. As this was revealed by the very same per-
son Kilpatrick himself had ordered to discover the traitor, Kilpatrick
agreed that he himself should die. However, he begged this to be arranged
so that the struggle to free the country would not be harmed—he was, after
all, thought of as a national hero. Thus Kilpatrick’s elimination was staged
as an assassination. The plot was designed by somebody called James
Alexander Nolan—yet another imbedded narrator—who in his haste had
to plagiarise Shakespeare in order to come up with a narrative that would
catch the imagination of the nation. Many people participated in realising a
drama that would “endure in the history books, in the impassioned mem-
ory of Ireland” (Borges 1970: 105). Finally, the drama takes place in “a
theatre box with funeral curtains prefiguring Lincoln’s” (Borges 1970:
105). But how, then, could this story be related? It is not even supposed to
be available to us, since Ryan has resolved to keep his discovery silent.
Borges concludes his story: “He [Ryan] publishes a book dedicated to the
hero’s glory; this too, perhaps, was foreseen” (1970: 105).
“Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” does not contain hypothetical fo-
calisation in the strictest sense of evoking attitudes of seeing, believing or
speculating by a hypothetical observer, as all these activities are accom-
plished by given characters anchored in particular contexts or frames.
However, Borges at several points suggests—not to say insists—that we
are reading a highly hypothetical account that is not even supposed to
exist. There surely appears to be a severe mismatch between reference
world and expressed world within the main fictional (already embedded)
frame, as a real-life account is discovered to be false because it resembles
fiction too closely. The one-step-higher fictional frame acquires a degree
of truthfulness, but only because it appears more plausible than the first
one. Here Ryan functions as an embedded focaliser, whose inquiry—to
employ Herman’s definitions quoted above—“encode[s] different degrees
of certainty with respect to objects, participants, and events in the story-
world” (Herman 2002: 310). In a rather tenuous sense, there does appear
to be a fictional truth which Ryan discovers, yet this is undermined be-
cause it is just as much an instance of circular labyrinths as the false story
152 The Hypothetical Stratagems of Borges and Bertolucci

about the assassinated national hero. In Herman’s terms, quoted above,

“[n]arrative indecision about how things are in the diegetic world” is em-
phatically rubbed in.

Cinematic Traitors and Heroes

Borges’s “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” served as an inspiration for
Bernardo Bertolucci’s film The Spider’s Stratagem (Strategia del ragno,
1970). As if in accord with the hypothetical nature of the precise setting of
the events of the story, the events have been transported to fascist/con-
temporary Italy. A young man returns to his native town of Tara in order
to discover the truth about his father’s assassination during the fascist era.
In an appropriately cinematic rendering of Borges’s narrative mode, father
and son not only have the same name, Athos Magnani; they are also
played by the same actor (Giulio Brogi). As Athos, the son, first arrives in
the quiet little city, people he meets comment with astonishment on the
similarity between the two men. With the exception of a couple of kids,
the people he meets are all rather elderly. They appear strangely unable to
give consistent directions in the small city, although it would appear that
they have lived there most, if not all, of their lives.
Athos Jr. has been invited to the town by Draifa, his father’s lover
during the fascist era. Draifa appears to believe in the “official” story
about the assassinated anti-fascist hero, the only lacuna of which is the
identity of the assassin. She wants to find out who the assassin was, and
recruits the hero’s son in this pursuit. He, perplexed by the strange behav-
iour of the townfolk—he is punched in the face, for example, first thing in
the morning after his first night in town—ends up trying to help. From
Draifa and his father’s old anti-fascist cronies he learns various things
about his father, almost always accompanied by verbal references to cul-
tural history, especially to works by Shakespeare and Verdi: Julius Cae-
sar, Macbeth, Othello, Rigoletto, Ernani, Il Trovatore. In addition to such
intertextual references to other individual works, an intermedial level em-
erges as brief reminiscences of Verdi’s Il Trovatore and Attila are heard as
background music and as it is revealed that a performance of Rigoletto has
served as the setting of the assassination: In a parodic fashion, the narra-
tion begins to assume quasi-operatic features. Some of the specifically
intertextual elements seem to bear on the story told as significant parallels
which indicate the way characters think or the general mode in which they
operate; others appear mainly playful—e.g., the name of the town is the
same as that of the plantation in Gone with the Wind.
Henry Bacon 153

In terms of intermedial models (rather than intertextual references),

one more source should be mentioned. Bertolucci has repeatedly com-
mented in interviews that the quality of light captured by Vittorio Storaro’s
and Franco Di Giacomo’s exquisite cinematography in the night scenes to-
ward the end of the film were inspired by René Magritte’s paintings, such
as The Empire of Light. This certainly appears true, and similar influences
may also be detected in other images. But as Robert Kolker emphasises,
such Magritte works as the Human Condition offer an even more intrigu-
ing parallel on the level of ideas. Representation takes the place of the real
in a way in which only the framing—of which there often is only barely
enough to be recognised as such—marks the difference between reality
and its representation: “The realm of The Spider’s Stratagem, like a Mag-
ritte painting of a landscape within a landscape that is and is not a painting
within a painting, is a fiction that is and is not fiction within the fiction”
(Kolker 1985: 108).
Whereas Magritte works have served as aesthetic and conceptual mod-
els that transcend medial boundaries, the web of intertextual references
seems to be as integral a part of the fictional “truth” as anything that has
“really” happened. The references are mainly focused on assassinations
and betrayals, and as such they prepare the way for what Athos Jr. finally
learns about what happened in the Fascist era: Il Duce was expected to
visit the town, and the anti-fascist band to which Athos Sr. belonged had
decided to shoot him from the stage during a performance of Rigoletto.
Theatrically enough, according to the first plan, this was to take place as
Rigoletto sings “Ah, maledicione!” (oh, the curse!) at the end of the first
act. Eventually, however, following Athos Sr.’s suggestion, the band de-
cided to use a bomb. But the bomb was discovered and Mussolini can-
celled his visit. It then turned out that it was the father who had let the
Fascists know about the bomb. To pay for this betrayal, upon Athos Sr.’s
own suggestion, so as not to harm the anti-fascist cause, he is killed at the
very performance of Rigoletto that originally was to have been the last of
the great dictator. The assassination had become “a grand theatrical spec-
tacle” in which the entire population of Tara unknowingly participated.
Bertolucci powerfully dramatises Athos Jr.’s pursuit of the truth. By
emphatically cinematic means, Bertolucci builds his own circular laby-
rinths worthy of his literary predecessor. As Athos the son hears stories
about his father, these are for the most part shown as flashbacks. But their
status is left somewhat obscure. Standard mainstream filmic convention
allows the rendering of narrative information that could not have been pos-
sessed by the person whose narration or reminiscence is used to motivate
the flashback. In such cases, the narration is ostensibly but not actually
154 The Hypothetical Stratagems of Borges and Bertolucci

focalised on the narrating person. But we are typically not cued to pay
attention to this discrepancy. As often happens in art-cinema narration,
things get much more complicated in The Spider’s Stratagem.2 There is,
for example, a flashback that is first motivated by what Athos Jr. is told by
one of his father’s cronies, but which at the end of the flashback appears to
be told by another friend. This could be interpreted as an indication of how
well the band sticks to its version of the events long past, and we might
assume that we see what Athos Jr. has put together on the basis of two
accounts he has heard separately. But the question of the possible degree
of subjectivity also emerges, possibly even of wild fantasy intruding into
their accounts, as when the cronies serve Athos Sr. a platter with the head
of a runaway lion they have apparently captured, killed and cooked in his
honour. This further emphasises the phantasmatic quality of what this
band of brothers is up to. Though Athos Sr.’s reasons for the betrayal are
never made explicit, one possible hypothesis would be that he simply
become exasperated by their silliness in attempting to change the course of
history by a single shot. In many scenes, they appear a bit like the tradi-
tional buffoon character of Italian comic opera.3 Are these people really as
silly as they appear to be in the flashbacks motivated by their own ac-
counts, or is what we see more like how Athos sees them—and which
Athos, at that?
Even more perplexing is a scene where Athos the son encounters for
the second time the statue of his father placed in the middle of a square in
the town: The statue has the father’s red scarf round its neck and its eyes
are painted white, as if he had been blinded. Even more strangely, the
statue appears to rotate as if to keep track of Athos as he circles around it.
We might at first think of this as the son’s subjective, distorted vision. But
even this does not quite suffice in explaining this sequence, as at one point
Athos starts to move in the opposite direction while the statue keeps on
rotating in the original direction—at this point, the camera, constantly
faced by the statue as they both rotate, is also following Draifa walking
towards Athos in the background. A comic parallel of sorts appears in a
slightly later scene between Draifa and her first Athos, as she makes him
rotate in order to put a bandage round his torso. As this scene continues, he
turns his back on her and the camera to look outside at where a lion hunt is
taking place. At this point, Draifa faces forward and appears to be telling
Athos Jr. what happened that day when she last saw his father alive. Here
we have multiple focalisations within a single shot, and we may well ask
which of these focalisations are hypothetical, and in what sense. For one
thing, the time structure of the narrative seems to have momentarily col-
Henry Bacon 155

Right from the beginning, a sense of spatial and temporal discontinuity

and discrepancy has gradually become more and more prevalent. Athos Jr.
had not planned to stay for long in Tara, but he again and again postpones
leaving. There is strange uncertainty about when trains leave Tara: Even
train timetables in Tara appear to be hypothetical (in 1970s Italy, this may,
of course, have appeared quite realistically motivated). In one of the
strangest scenes involving spatial displacement, Athos Jr. meets Beccaccia,
a man known to have been a Fascist and a sworn enemy of his father’s, in
the otherwise empty opera house. As they talk, Beccaccia’s position chan-
ges from box to box without there being any indication of time passing; by
contrast, as Athos talks with his father’s old friend Gaibazzi, there are
fades into black. In classical film style, these fades would almost invari-
ably indicate scene changes, often involving a major temporal ellipse.
Here, however, judging by the way the conversation keeps flowing, there
are no temporal gaps.
The thing that most uncannily suggests that some kind of a temporal
disorder prevails in Tara is that Draifa and the old friends look exactly the
same in the narrative present (established as Athos Jr. first enters the town)
and in the flashbacks. For the most part, the two Athoses can be distin-
guished only by a difference in hairstyle and by the father’s safari jacket
and red scarf. Even this distinction is about to dissolve as Draifa tells
Athos Jr. he cannot leave anymore and drapes him in his father’s jacket.
She then speaks to him as if he were her lover come back. Athos is aston-
ished, but then he recovers, quickly strips the jacket, leaves Draifa’s house
and makes an abortive attempt to leave Tara.
Athos is seen walking back and forth at the Magritte-like railway sta-
tion, as if not knowing which way to go—or just not having any way to
get out. The opening prelude of Rigoletto is heard. The music is given a
diegetic status of sorts, as it is shown emerging from loudspeakers all over
the town with the old people listening to it intently. Athos approaches the
opera house, which seems to be guarded by soldiers. As the opera pro-
ceeds, people outside the opera house offer him information about what
happened on the night of the assassination. Suddenly we are inside the
opera house, which is full of people quite unlike the persons we have until
then met in Tara. In the right-hand box closest to the stage, the three old
friends are seen. Symmetrically, the box on the left-hand side is where
Athos can be seen. At this point, it is not clear whether it is the father or
the son, in the Fascist era or in the narrative present—or some hypothetical
mixture of the two. The father’s associates enter Athos’s box as the per-
formance reaches the end of the first act and Rigoletto cries “maledi-
cione!” This could be taken as the moment when the friends enter to kill
156 The Hypothetical Stratagems of Borges and Bertolucci

the traitor, but the narration seems to return to the present as the former
companions tell Athos about the events which led to the assassination of
his father. Here and a bit later on, as Athos the son addresses the towns-
people, we see flashbacks of how the assassination was planned, as well as
of other events related to his father’s past. Some of these he could not
possibly have witnessed, and presumably could not even have heard about,
such as Draifa accusing the elder Athos of cowardice. We do not see what
is happening on the stage, but we may assume that the music we hear
emerges—or emerged—from an operatic performance, witnessed by an
audience at some point in time. As Kolker points out, there seems to be a
parallel of sorts between twists of the opera plot and the plot that has been
staged in the auditorium; between Athos’s pursuit of the truth about his
father and Gilda’s word to her father: “Tell your poor daughter. / If there is
some mystery […] reveal it to her […] / Let her know about her family.”4
In addition to it becoming ever more difficult to distinguish exactly
which point in time we are witnessing, we are not given sufficient basis for
determining whether what we see is what actually did happen or merely
another instance of (embedded) story-weaving. Throughout the film, we
constantly have to make hypotheses about the diegetic status of what we
see—while being again and again cued to wonder whether it is possible to
do so at all consistently. In good Borgesian fashion, Bertolucci leaves the
level of the inquiry equivocal. As Athos Jr. hears about his father’s per-
fidy, he has to decide whether he wants to be a part of the Athos Magnani
story. It might be difficult for a person with his name to do otherwise. He
decides to keep up the false image of the heroic anti-fascist, but he does
this at a cost. As he finally decides to leave Tara, he hears that no news-
papers have arrived there. The salesperson sighs: “Sometimes they entirely
forget that we exist.” With this, Draifa’s earlier comment, “Time stopped
here when your father was murdered,” gains new weight. The final images
suggest that Athos has indeed ended up locked into the past. There is no
way out of the story for him, however hypothetical it may be.
The Spider’s Stratagem is a masterpiece of intermedial adaptation. By
means of a subtle and highly intertextual filmic style, suggestive change of
historical setting and a fairly high degree of narrative transformation,
Bertolucci has created a cinematic counterpart to the literary excellence of
Borges’s “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero.” Bertolucci has succeeded
in transposing the extraordinary hyperhypothetical mode of narration of
the original text into his own medium, thus creating a work of art that is
fascinating in its own right.
Henry Bacon 157

Works Cited
Bordwell, David. [1985] 1988. Narration in the Fiction Film. London:
Borges, Jorge Luis. [1964] 1970. “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero.” Pp.
103–105 in Labyrinths. Trans. André Maurois. London: Penguin.
Branigan, Edward. 1992. Narrative Comprehension and Film. London:
Ellis, John. 1982. “The Literary Adaptation: An Introduction.” Screen 23
(1), May/June: 3–5.
Herman, David. 2002. Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narra-
tive. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
—. 2009. “Beyond Voice and Vision: Cognitive Grammar and Focaliza-
tion Theory.” Pp. 119–142 in Point of View, Perspective, and Focal-
ization: Modeling Mediation in Narrative, eds. Peter Hühn, Wolf
Schmid and Jörg Schönert. Berlin: de Gruyter.
Kolker, Robert Phillip. 1985. Bernardo Bertolucci. London: BFI.


Bertolucci, Bernardo, dir. 1970. Strategeia del ragno [The Spider’s

Stratagem]. Italy.
Visconti, Luchino, dir. 1954. Senso. Italy.

This account of different types of focalisation is by no means exhaustive and it
only serves the purposes of the present case study.
For a Formalist analysis of the flashback structure see Bordwell 1988: 90.
One is reminded of a line Alida Valli has in Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1954): “I
like opera. But not when people behave outside the scene as if they were characters
in a melodrama.”
Actually, the words are virtually impossible to discern, as there is significant
dialogue going on at the same time.


Intermedial studies has often concentrated on parallels, transpositions or
translations between different media. However, in the century after Wag-
ner, many of the artists, poets and composers whose reputation stands
highest today have refused this dynamic. They would never allow a strict
parallel between the work they create and work in any other medium.
They reject the possibility of translation—of meaning being transmitted—
between the arts. Stravinsky provides a particularly complex, subtle and
fascinating illustration of this refusal. He repeatedly asserted that music is
solely music, and has no function analogous to that of either words or
pictures. But how can one square this stubborn refusal of interart transla-
tion with Stravinsky’s lifelong interest in word-setting, and with the unde-
niable fact that much of his vocal music is consistently received as sup-
porting and expressing the sense of the words being sung? This paradox is
at the heart of Stravinsky’s “musical poetics.”

Keywords: expression in music, meaning in music, musical poetics,

rhythm, Igor Stravinsky

The subject of this article is Igor Stravinsky’s obstinate refusal to ac-

knowledge any possibility of artistically valid interaction between music
and poetry, or indeed between music and image. In fact, that refusal is so
obstinate that I think he would have simply rejected as wrong the basic
premise of the call for papers which gave rise to the present volume:
Theories of intermediality have explicitly introduced the idea that a sig-
nificant aesthetic change takes place when one form of art is described in
another form of art. For example, when a work of literature depicts a work
160 Intermediality in Stravinsky’s Music

of visual art/music, the literary narrativity becomes (so to speak) enriched

by aesthetic qualities of visual art or music.

Stravinsky consistently suggests, on the contrary, that music is not en-

riched by describing any other form of art. In fact, he appears to believe
that music simply cannot describe any other form of art; and conversely,
that music cannot be enriched by anything outside it. This point of view
has always irritated critics, as a kind of hypocritical aberration, since most
of Stravinsky’s music was clearly written in association with art in other
media, usually either dance or literature. Why did Stravinsky court and
accept these associations if they are unable to enrich the music? Stravsinky
always refused to answer this question. Nor did he ever accept that he
ought to be able to answer it. In fact, his most fundamental and constant
aesthetic principle was that one must not look for an answer. My aim, in
this article, is to explain why.
I shall begin from the most famous of all Stravinsky’s pronouncements
on the relationship between music and non-music. It is from his autobi-
ography, Chroniques de ma vie, which he published in French in 1935 to
1936. He recounts how, just before the beginning of the First World War,
he had visited Russia for what turned out to be the last time before fifty
years of exile. He stopped in Kiev on his way back home to Switzerland,
and there he collected some Russian popular poems, which later became
the basis for several of his musical works, including Renard, Les Noces
and a number of songs. This is how he describes his pleasure in reading
that Russian poetry:

Ce qui me séduisait dans ces vers, ce n’est pas tant les anecdotes, souvent
truculentes, ni les images ou les métaphores toujours délicieusement im-
prévues, que l’enchaînement des mots et des syllabes, ainsi que la cadence
qu’il provoque et qui produit sur notre sensibilité un effet tout proche de
celui de la musique. Car je considère la musique par son essence, impuis-
sante à exprimer quoi que ce soit: un sentiment, une attitude, un état psy-
chologique, un phénomène de la nature, etc. L’expression n’a jamais été la
propriété immanente de la musique. La raison d’être de celle-ci n’est
d’aucune façon conditionnée par celle-là. (Stravinsky 2000a: 69–70)

[What seduced me in this verse was not the anecdotes, savoury though they
often were, nor the images and metaphors, always deliciously unpredic-
table; rather, it was the concatenation of words and syllables, and the sense
of cadence it produced, which affects our sensibility very much in the same
way as music. For I consider music, in its essence, powerless to express
anything at all: a sentiment, an attitude, a psychological state, a natural
phenomenon, etc. Expression has never been the immanent property of

Peter Dayan 161

music. The “raison d’être” of the latter is absolutely not determined by the

Literally dozens of critics have quoted and worried over the second of
these sentences. Why should the composer of The Rite of Spring and The
Soldier’s Tale say that music is powerless to express anything? Is that not
outrageous? It would indeed be outrageous. However, it is worth pointing
out that although readers have always assumed Stravinsky is here ex-
pressing the opinion that music cannot express anything, this is not exactly
what he says. What he actually says limits that generalisation in two vital
ways. It is that he considers music by its essence powerless to express
anything. Which implies firstly that he is giving us his point of view,
which may not be the only one (and there he is certainly right); and sec-
ondly, that while music has a non-expressive essence, it may also have
non-essential properties which do allow it at least to appear to express.
That latter possibility is something he later took up when commenting on
this passage; he is perfectly willing to admit that music almost always
appears to the listener to express something, and furthermore that music
certainly can, indeed generally does contain pegs on which listeners hang
their conviction that they are hearing something expressed. What
Stravinsky is concerned to do is to maintain that there is an essential
quality of music which is not dependent on that sense of expression. And
if I may allow myself to jump forward a few steps in the argument before
returning to the above text, the reason for this is as follows.
It is quite plain, and Stravinsky insists on this, that different listeners
will hear different expressions, often completely different expressions, in
the same piece of music, and that in cases where people all hear roughly
the same expression, this is normally because they have all been told in
words—in words, not in music—what to listen for. Examples of this are
well known to music historians. Most notably, there are many pieces of
purely instrumental music, from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to Cop-
land’s Appalachian Spring, whose titles were given by people other than
the composer after their composition, and yet which are generally taken as
descriptive of the scene to which that title alludes. Someone who does not
know those words will not hear the same expression. The expression,
therefore, cannot define the essence of the music, cannot tell us what gives
the musical work its unique and proper identity. So what does constitute
the identity of the work? According to Stravinsky, it is not what it says,
but what it is; not what it signifies, expresses or communicates, but itself
as object within the musical medium. We should not look, in music, for
what it represents or imitates outside it; we should look for what it consti-
tutes as a unique reality.

162 Intermediality in Stravinsky’s Music

Well, my objection to music criticism is that it usually directs itself to what

it supposes to be the nature of the imitation—when it should be teaching
us to learn and to love the new reality. A new piece of music is a new re-
ality. (Stravinsky and Craft 1962: 102)

And perhaps one could say the same about poetry. Returning to our first
quotation: If one reads the whole passage carefully, one can see that the
point Stravinsky is trying to make actually concerns poetry, not music.
The well-known sentence about music’s essential inability to express be-
gins with “Car,” a word which indicates that its function is to explain what
has been said in the previous sentence. And what had Stravinsky said in
that previous sentence? That the poetry he had been working with affected
him in the same way as music. He knows that in this he is different from
most readers, but the fact is that for him it is the material and formal fea-
tures of words, their physical presence as organised sound that matters; not
their meaning, which could perfectly well be nonsense. As a matter of fact,
a good proportion of the Russian popular poetry in question did indeed
belong to the genre generally known as nonsense. Stravinsky was very
fond of nonsense poetry, as we shall see; and that is hardly surprising
given his inclination to look in poetry, just as in music, not for what it
says, not for what it expresses, but for what it is. It cannot be enriched by
what it refers to, any more than music can.
Unfortunately from Stravinsky’s point of view, not all composers
realise this, though all the good ones do. Some nineteenth-century com-
posers committed the crime of trying to write music that expressed the
sense of words. In Stravinsky’s opinion, this meant that what they wrote
simply was not music. He thus describes the deplorable evolution of vocal
music since the golden days of polyphony:

Le chant, de plus en plus lié au mot, a fini par devenir une partie de rem-
plissage, affirmant ainsi sa décadence. Dès lors qu’il se donne pour mis-
sion d’exprimer le sens du discours, il sort du domaine musical et n’a plus
rien de commun avec lui. (Stravinsky 2000b: 91)

[The vocal line, increasingly tied to words, came to purely serve to fill a
pre-defined space, thus demonstrating its decadence. When it conceives of
its mission as expressing the meaning of words, it leaves the realm of
music; it no longer has anything in common with music.]

Stravinsky often expressed his contempt for the nineteenth-century com-

posers who committed this sin, chief amongst them Wagner. But there
were other nineteenth-century composers of vocal music whom he ad-
mired very much—chief amongst them, Beethoven. Beethoven associated

Peter Dayan 163

words with music most famously at the end of his Ninth Symphony, where
he set, of course, a poem that was already well known: Schiller’s “An die
Freude.” I think I can safely say that Beethoven’s music has always been
seen by the general public as magnificently expressive of the poem’s
meaning. Stravinsky, of course, cannot accept this. Which leaves him,
logically, with two possible approaches to that music. Either he says that
the music does not really express the meaning of the poetry at all, in which
case it may remain essentially musical; or else he maintains that the music
does express that meaning, in which case it cannot really be music at all.
In fact, he takes advantage, alternately, of both these possibilities. He
writes that “the words even of the Ninth Symphony can be reduced to
nonsense without affecting the meaning of the music” (Stravinsky and
Craft 1972: 290). If the meaning of the words has no connection with the
meaning of the music, then the music plainly does not express the meaning
of the words, and it is safe. But Stravinsky is equally capable of saying
that this same music, the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, indeed
attempts to express the meaning of the poetry; in which case, like all music
that follows poetry or expresses meaning, it must be bad music: “[T]he
greatest failure is in the ‘message’; hence, if you will pardon the expres-
sion, in the ‘medium.’ For the message of the voices is a finitude greatly
diminishing the message of the wordless music” (Stravinsky and Craft
1972: 169).
In sum: Beethoven’s setting of “An die Freude” is either a failure be-
cause it expresses the message of the words it sets, or else it is a success
because it does not express the message of the words. In practice,
Stravinsky can see it as either. This confirms that music is only music
when it is taken as essentially non-expressive. It also implies that the per-
ception of the quality of Beethoven’s music is not a given; it depends on
point of view. Music has an essence that no expression can reach; but that
essence is not necessarily what a listener hears, even when that listener is
Igor Stravinsky.
In the musical tradition of the century in which Stravinsky was born,
word-setting was not the only way in which poems were associated with
music. There was another, and for Stravinsky even more pernicious, way
of pegging one to the other: the tone poem, or “poème symphonique.” This
was of course anathema to Stravinsky. Here is what he has to say about the
“poème symphonique”:

ce genre de composition, dont la carrière fut d’ailleurs assez brève, ne sau-

rait être pris en considération au même titre que les grandes formes sym-
phoniques, puisqu’il se veut entièrement dépendant d’élements étrangers à
la musique. A cet égard, l’influence de Berlioz est plus esthétique que mu-

164 Intermediality in Stravinsky’s Music

sicale; quand elle s’exerce sur Liszt, Balakirev et le Rimski-Korsakov des

œuvres de jeunesse, elle ne touche pas à l’essentiel. (Stravinsky 2000b:

[this type of composition, whose career was quite short, cannot be taken
into consideration in the same way as the great symphonic forms, because
it presents itself as entirely dependent on elements foreign to music. In this
respect, the influence of Berlioz was more aesthetic than musical; in Liszt,
Balakirev, and the youthful Rimsky-Korsakov, that influence does not af-
fect the essence of their works.]

Here, again, Stravinsky, just as he did in the famous passage from Chro-
niques de ma vie with which I began my argument, distinguishes carefully
between the essential quality of music, which expresses nothing and is
unrelated to literature, and other qualities, undefined by him, which, he
allows us to believe, may be related at least provisionally by the listener;
and just as he can save Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by asserting that the
connections between poem and music do not essentially concern the
music, so he saves the tone poems of Liszt and Rimsky-Korsakov by tell-
ing us that they are not in essence tone poems. Essentially, they are music.


How, then, can one sum up the relationship between poetry and music, as
it appears in Stravinsky’s writings? From one point of view, the two arts
are fundamentally similar; from another, they have nothing to do with each
other. They are similar in that both a poem and a piece of music are, for
Stravinsky, to be valued as formal constructs whose dynamics operate
within their own concrete medium, and not as expressions of anything
outside that medium. But precisely for that reason, there can be no com-
munication between them. Music and poetry cannot lend meaning to each
other, nor can they borrow meaning from each other. An understanding of
poetry cannot help us to understand music, and vice versa.
Nonetheless, in the famous passage from Chroniques de ma vie that I
would like to quote once again, Stravinky does suggest that poetry can
affect us in a way that might be considered analogous to music:

Ce qui me séduisait dans ces vers, ce n’est pas tant les anecdotes, souvent
truculentes, ni les images ou les métaphores toujours délicieusement im-
prévues, que l’enchaînement des mots et des syllabes, ainsi que la cadence
qu’il provoque et qui produit sur notre sensibilité un effet tout proche de
celui de la musique. (Stravinsky 2000a: 69)

Peter Dayan 165

[What seduced me in this verse was not the anecdotes, savoury though they
often were, nor the images and metaphors, always deliciously unpredic-
table; rather, it was the concatenation of words and syllables, and the sense
of cadence it produced, which affect our sensibility very much in the same
way as music.]

Cadence is a crossover term between poetry and music. In saying that

poetry can produce the effect of cadence, Stravinsky is unmistakably im-
plying that if poetry can affect us in a way similar to music, that is because
there is a certain similarity in the way the two arts work. We might, per-
haps, consider this to be an effect of what is traditionally called rhythm;
after all, music and poetry have both always been considered rhythmical.
In that case, might we not be allowed to hope that, after all, music and
poetry can share something, can have something in common, that would
allow a toehold for interdisciplinary analysis? But no; that would be, quite
literally, too simple. Stravinsky cannot allow the identity of a piece of
music to be determined by reference to anything at all outside it, not even
poetry. And his strategy for protecting music from the rhythm of poetry is
clear from the careful wording of this passage. He never says that any
specific cadence in poetry is musical, or transposed into music. He says
that the sense of cadence which the verse produced affects our sensibility
in a way which is like music. The analogy remains a loose one. This
looseness is a fundamental principle of word–music relations in
During the First World War, Stravinsky spent most of his compositional
energy writing music to accompany the Russian popular poetry which, as
we have seen, he had brought home to Switzerland from Kiev. But he
needed money. There was no money to be had from Russia for his music.
There was money from Paris and from French-speaking Switzerland; but
to gain access to that money, he needed French versions of those poems to
go with his music. It was the Swiss writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz who
helped him to translate the Russian poetry into French. In his book Sou-
venirs sur Igor Stravinsky (Ramuz 1978), Ramuz provides an unforgettable
description of the two of them working together on the task of finding
French words which would both translate the Russian originals and fit
Stravinsky’s music. It was certainly not a straightforward process.
French verse, like verse in every language known to me, depends on an
awareness of rhythm. One of the main components of that rhythmic
awareness is stress, or accent, which in French depends very much on the
length, sense and shape of phrases. One could doubtless say much the
same about Stravinsky’s music: It too is very aware of rhythm, and has
stresses and accents which are inseparable from the shapes of phrases. So

166 Intermediality in Stravinsky’s Music

one might have thought that in fitting words to music, Stravinsky and
Ramuz would have aimed to make the verbal accents fit the musical ac-
cents. That, however, is precisely what they did not do. They were aware
of the issue; but they carefully avoided straightforward correspondence
between the rhythm of words and the rhythm of music. Ramuz describes
them deliberately not resolving:

la fameuse et insoluble question de l’accent tonique et de sa coïncidence ou

de sa non-coïncidence avec l’accent musical. Une trop continuelle
coïncidence est ennuyeuse; elle ne satisfait en nous que l’esprit de mesure
ou métrique. Elle eût été tout à fait contradictoire avec la nature intime de
[cette] musique […]. (Ramuz 1978: 34)

[the famous and insoluble question of word stress and its coincidence, or
non-coincidence, with musical accents. When coincidence is too regular, it
is boring; it satisfies in us only the spirit of measure and metrics. It would
have been completely opposed to the intimate nature of this music (…).]

Poetry and music thus stay carefully out of phase, and it remains impos-
sible to say how or why the one fits with the other. Stravinsky described
his discovery of this principle of non-coincidence of accents with a rather
splendid metaphor:

One important characteristic of Russian popular verse is that the accents of

the spoken verse are ignored when the music is sung. The recognition of
the musical possibilities inherent in this fact was one of the most rejoicing
discoveries of my life; I was like a man who suddenly finds that his finger
can be bent from the second joint as well as from the first. (Stravinsky and
Craft 1962: 121)

However, this non-coincidence of accents between words and music de-

pends crucially on an appreciation of the meaning of words. Stravinsky’s joy
in discovering the possibility of ignoring the accents of spoken verse in his
music would have meant nothing had he not known where those accents in
the spoken verse occurred in the first place. If one does not understand the
meaning of the words, one cannot see what is happening to the accents.
For me, Stravinsky’s setting of The Owl and the Pussycat gives a powerful
sense of this non-coincidence of accents, and that sense is indissociable
from my appreciation of the song and its rhythm. However, when I listen,
for example, to his Tilimbom, which sets Russian poetry, I cannot hear the
displacing of the accents, because I do not know Russian, so I cannot
appreciate where the accents in the poetry would have been before
Stravinsky’s music disturbed them. This effect is even more pronounced in

Peter Dayan 167

French, where accents are created by the meaning of words more than
anything else. So there is a limit to the extent to which one can take
Stravinsky at his word when he says, as he so often did, that he was not
interested, musically speaking, in the meanings of words, but only in their
sounds. The fact is that the most important element of that sound, the
rhythm, depends on the meaning. And Stravinsky indirectly recognises
this when he comments that the work Renard, for example, is “phoneme
music” (Stravinsky and Craft 1962: 120–121). A phoneme is not merely a
sound; it is a sound considered as a structural element of a language. It is
in point of linguistic fact defined, not just by its sound, but by its role in
the construction of signifiers. Thus meaning creeps back into poetry, after
having been cast out. However, this meaning, as it returns to poetry, ac-
quires no direct access to music. On the contrary: Stravinsky’s pleasure is
in keeping the musical rhythm deliberately non-coincidental with the rhy-
thm that the meaning of the words dictates. At the same time, the very
non-coincidence ineluctably depends, in turn, on the composer of the mus-
ic being aware of the meaning of the words, and taking that meaning into
account as he composes his own musical rhythms.
The relationship between words and music that this compositional dy-
namic sets up is not a static one. It constantly enacts a small-scale drama.
We see words and music brought together. Stravinsky’s instinct is to deny
that there is any relationship between the meaning of the words and the
meaning of the music. This, however, turns out to be untenable: The truth
is that, in the process of composition, verbal meaning indeed plays a part.
Having acknowledged this fact (usually as tangentially as is compatible
with honesty), Stravinsky then engages in a manoeuvre designed to save
music from words, a kind of move which I shall henceforth refer to as the
Stravinsky gesture. He allows for a relationship between music and verbal
meaning on the level of the individual’s interpretation of the music, whe-
ther the individual concerned be the composer, the translator or the listen-
er; but he then distinguishes between that level of individual interpretation,
and what the music essentially, unchangingly, is, its objective identity,
independent of interpretation; and it is only the latter quality that he allows
to be strictly musical.
This little drama is played out particularly clearly when Robert Craft
confronts Stravinsky with the plain fact that the composer associated cer-
tain passages of his Symphony in Three Movements with images of war,
images that Stravinsky is perfectly well able to describe in words.

R.C.: You have at times referred to your Symphony in Three Movements

as a “war symphony.” In what way is the music marked by the impression
of world events?

168 Intermediality in Stravinsky’s Music

I.S.: I can say little more than that it was written under the sign of them. It
both does and does not “express my feelings” about them, but I prefer only
to say that, without participation of what I think of as my will, they excited
my musical imagination. (Stravinsky and Craft 1968: 50)

We should not be surprised by the “does and does not,” nor by the “scare
quotes” around “express my feelings.” We have seen how Stravinsky
describes music as essentially powerless to express, but in practice always
caught up with a provisional sense that it does express something. Nor
should we be surprised to hear that, of the two ways of considering music,
as provisionally expressive or essentially inexpressive, he prefers to talk
about the latter, the inexpressive. He gives the clear impression that he
does not want to enter into details of the associations that clearly exist in
his own mind, independently of what he thinks of as his will, between his
music and the events of the war. And yet, having said he can say little
about them, and that he prefers not to talk about them, he does talk about
them, for a page and a half. Particularly, he talks about a number of films
of the war that he had seen, which had left him with images in his head
that he associated with various parts of the symphony. This clearly con-
stitutes what one might call intermedial enrichment between cinema and
music. For example, Stravinsky tells us that a documentary film about
“scorched-earth tactics in China” “inspired” the first movement of the
symphony, and that the middle part of that movement: “was conceived as
a series of instrumental conversations to accompany a cinematographic
scene showing the Chinese people scratching and digging in their fields”
(Stravinsky and Craft 1968: 52). We should note that even in his remarks
here, Stravinsky is careful to allow for a certain distance between the mus-
ic, and the scene from the film. The music does not describe, illustrate,
translate or express the scene; it is a “series of instrumental conver-
sations”—so the essential dynamic remains internal to the music, between
the instruments—to “accompany” the scene. But even this indirect assoc-
iation, allowing for no rigorous analysis of intermedial transfer of meaning
between music and cinema, cannot be allowed to stand. The Stravinsky
gesture sweeps it away:

But enough of this. In spite of what I have said, the Symphony is not pro-
grammatic. Composers combine notes. That is all. How and in what form
the things of this world are impressed upon their music is not for them to
say. (Stravinsky and Craft 1968: 52)

This might seem to be sheer hypocrisy. Stravinsky says it is not for com-
posers to say how the “things of this world” are impressed on their music.

Peter Dayan 169

But has he not done just that? Perhaps not. He has admittedly told us what
images were in his head. But he has not told us that there is an essential
link between those images and the music. He has admitted that the two ex-
isted together, the images and the music, and in his own head at the time
there seemed to be a link. However, how and in what form that link oper-
ated, he cannot and does not say. The association may exist in his head,
but that is personal to him. It is merely his interpretation. It does not con-
cern the essence of the music. The Stravinsky gesture initially allows that,
for individuals including himself, associations exist between music and
phenomena outside music. Then it dismisses the association as something
that does not touch the essence of the music. The invariable conclusion to
the gesture is: “Composers combine notes. That is all.”
Once one has learnt to identify that gesture, one finds it, sometimes
entire, often very compressed, and frequently fragmented, everywhere in
Stravinsky’s writings. Its logic explains many well-known Stravinsky lines
that might otherwise appear baffling. Why, for example, should a man
who composed many songs, and more than one piece that is at least in
some sense an oratorio, say “vocal recitals are torture for me” (Stravinsky
and Craft 1962: 55) and “Lent and oratorios, they deserve each other”
(Stravinsky and Craft 1962: 63)? Why did the composer of so many ballets
say that “The Firebird did not attract me as a subject”? He goes on to
claim: “Like all story ballets it demanded descriptive music of a kind I did
not want to write” (Stravinsky and Craft 1962: 128). These are all
examples of the latter part of the Stravinsky gesture, the part that says
“Composers combine notes. That is all.” But that latter part of the gesture
would be unthinkable without the first part, which acknowledges that to
any human being taken as an individual, music does, on an unavoidable
surface level, appear to express something.
Certainly, there is a paradox at the heart of the Stravinsky gesture. It is,
however, one that Stravinsky himself fully assumed. Indeed, he affirmed it
as a principle in the following interview:

R.C.: Do you think of “art” and “nature” as two realities, Mr Stravinsky,

and is there any act of transformation of the one in the other?

I.S.: [As far as regards] transformation, I do not admit the idea because I
am unable to understand what the cognates would be. Obviously the phen-
omenal world is refractable in music, or represented in it. The point is
simply that I don’t understand the mirroring (or the transforming) chem-
istry. (Stravinsky 1968: 69–70)

170 Intermediality in Stravinsky’s Music

Let us be clear: The point is not that Stravinsky is trying and failing to
understand “the mirroring (or the transforming) chemistry.” The point is
precisely that he does not understand. It is certainly not because of any
lack of critical intelligence that he does not understand. It is because this
must not be understood. That is difficult for critics to accept, because
critics, like academics and students, always want to understand everything.
But Stravinsky’s point is that there is something that has to escape our un-
derstanding for art to function; and he situates the borderline of what we
do not understand precisely in that place where the musical meets the
“phenomenal” world. The two are related; but we must not understand
how, or music itself would cease to exist. The paradox, then, is not a prob-
lem; it is the very structure that preserves music.
As far as I know, there is not a single piece of music by Stravinsky that
is not linked by Stravinsky himself, via title, anecdote, description or some
other way, to something outside music. There is no absolute Stravinsky
music in that sense; nothing like Beethoven’s Second and Eighth sympho-
nies, which Stravinsky so much admired, and which remain so purely
musical, so uncontaminated by words. The very composer who most reso-
lutely maintained that music is essentially only itself, incommensurate
with any other medium, constantly associated it with other media. Why?
The answer is given by the necessity of the drama behind the Stravinsky
gesture. Music is essentially only itself. But it is never initially perceived
as only itself. We all, like Stravinsky himself, lend it meanings. To allow
music to return to its essential purity, Stravinsky must not ignore this fact;
he must actively engage with it. He must do battle with the meaning in
music, and vanquish it. He must allow the enemy to enter the citadel be-
fore he can conquer it.
Intermediality thus becomes a necessary dynamic component of
Stravinsky’s art. It allows him to perceive meaning as a property not of
music, but of the other media associated with it. He can then deny that the
association signifies any essential identity between music and the other
media; and through that denial, meaning can be cast out, to allow music to
remain in its inexpressive purity. Certainly, this gesture is not without its
duplicities. But it defines with extraordinary clarity, it seems to me, an
aesthetic which one recognizes as more widespread the more one thinks
about it, and which therefore deserves careful consideration. Within that
aesthetic, interdisciplinarity as a critical strategy is of very limited useful-
ness. Intermediality, on the other hand, plays, as we have seen, a decisive
role. That role, in the end, however, is a tragic one: The other media are
destined to die in music, to be dismissed by Stravinsky when he becomes,
not himself as an individual, but a composer of music. I will allow myself

Peter Dayan 171

to conclude by once more quoting the statement that sums up the final,
irredeemably monomedial stage of the Stravinsky gesture: “Composers
combine notes. That is all.”

Works Cited
Ramuz, Charles-Ferdinand. [1929] 1978. Souvenirs sur Igor Stravinsky.
Lausanne: L’Aire.
Stravinsky, Igor. [1935–1936] 2000a. Chroniques de ma vie. Paris:
—. [1942] 2000b. Poétique musicale. Paris: Flammarion.
Stravinsky, Igor, and Robert Craft. 1968. Dialogues and a Diary. London:
Faber and Faber.
Stravinsky, Igor, and Robert Craft. 1962. Expositions and Developments.
London: Faber and Faber.
Stravinsky, Igor, and Robert Craft. 1972. Themes and Conclusions.
London: Faber and Faber.




New media technologies of the nineteenth century such as the phonograph
offered a way to reconceptualise one’s relation to time and space in the
shrinking globe of modernity. Far from being instruments that neutrally
carried voices, electricity and sound, the “speaking machines” were me-
diators that, in their very alteration of how one conceived one’s own voice,
seemed to suggest the potential of bridging not just two persons on either
end of a continent but of joining those in other realms as well. Through a
reading of Emily Dickinson’s poem “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—”
as a figuration of the rupture of ordinary time and space, I would like to
suggest that Dickinson, though scarcely published in print form in her
time, was someone deeply attuned to the potentialities of media that could
store voices and sounds and release them at a later time, detached from
their authorising bodies. Although Dickinson composed her work before
the commercial rise of Edison’s phonograph, this article will suggest that
certain of her poems about death and dying inscribe a phonographic logic.
Sound takes on phonographic traits, becoming something which momen-
tarily ruptures ordinary experience and produces an excess which alters the
way in which history, memory and understanding might organise the rela-
tions between past, present and future.

Keywords: media theory, 19th-century poetry, performative sound, Emily

Dickinson, “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—”

Death and dying in much of Emily Dickinson’s writing are states that
never seem quite finished or complete. Her poems often stage such mo-
ments as being both in proximity and simultaneously far away, a happen-

174 Emily Dickinson and the Phonograph

ing that is both charged with the present and yet also already aware of
itself as something with a radical finitude. Mortality as well as the sense of
time, space, and presence were on the one hand all phenomena being re-
conceptualised in nineteenth-century America by media such as the tele-
graph, the telephone, and the phonograph. On the other hand, these media
were themselves bound up with already existing social desires. In the case
of the phonograph, at a moment of increasing industrialisation and the
separation of leisure from labour time, phonographic recording seemed to
enable the reversibility of time with its ability to play back sounds that had
previously been fleeting and to play them at will, separated from the
objects and bodies that had produced them in the first place. Thus the
phonograph offered a manipulable media archive for preserving memory,
personality, and ideas; for a vast ideal archive of sounds that could shore
up cultural memory against the ephemerality which sound usually repre-
sents—conceptualisations that shaped the ways in which such technologies
of sound communication could be imagined in the first place. I maintain
that Dickinson’s writing, starting with her very particular and constantly
changing approaches to composing, often stages a kind of “sonic excess”
in order to draw attention to the radical possibilities of communication—
for example, across the realms of the living and the dead—seemingly
embodied by media such as the phonograph and thereby stages her own
poetics as the intermedial process in-between.
In discussing the reconceptualisations of media in nineteenth-century
America, I argue that it was the capacities of the phonograph, in particular,
for recording sounds and preserving them for transmission at a later point,
regardless of whether the owner of the voice was present, which contri-
buted to the development of new concepts of presence, temporality and the
relationship to one’s own mortality. However, these new subjectivities
were not purely a result of new media technologies so much as an intensi-
fication of already existing ideas in nineteenth century America. Using the
example of the 1862 poem “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—” (Dickin-
son 1999b), I would like to suggest that Emily Dickinson uses tropes of
technological hearing in a way that foreshadows Edison’s “speaking ma-
chine.” In doing so, I also hope to demonstrate ways in which her poetic
practice relies on a performative notion of sound as something which
changes the ways in which we can think of media processes; i.e., as events
which escape ordinary notions of time and space.

Sabine Kim 175

Composition as Intermedial Gesture

During the momentous upheavals of the American Civil War (1860–
1865), Emily Dickinson’s poetic practice shifted from composing pri-
marily fascicles—hand-written manuscript pages bound, with stitches, into
something resembling books—to using mainly single sheets of letter paper
and to notating phrases, lines and single words on paper scraps—such as a
small square of wrapping paper or a section torn from an envelope. The
“late fragments,” as these writings have come to be known by Dickinson
scholars (see Werner 1995), were initially ignored for posthumous publi-
cation by Dickinson’s many editors; when they were taken into consider-
ation, starting in the 1950s, they were often subsumed within a larger cor-
pus in an effort to render them legible and to gloss them as parts of a co-
herent whole.1 As Marta L. Werner has noted, the editorial problem of
how to treat the fragments in relation to the fascicle bundles and to Dick-
inson’s letters and their enclosures2 was likely influenced by the cultural
climate of the United States during the 1950s: “[T]he ‘Cold War’ attention
to national borders may thus be reflected in a similar attention to textual
borders—a need to define and contain texts—and, ultimately, to privilege
the finished text over the turmoil of the compositional process” (Werner
2007: 28).
Whereas the fascicles have a certain seriality that encourages a loose
association among the poems thus bound together in groups of forty or so
poems, the fragments are much more difficult to reconcile into definitive
forms of groupings. For one thing, some fragments are adjoined to each
other or to a page by means of pins; yet certainly to pin paper together
draws attention to the possibility (and indeed perhaps the threat) of unpin-
ning and rearranging. In addition, the temporariness suggested by the pin
has a deeply ambivalent vulnerability, given the demonstrated sharpness of
the tip and the strength of the steel. If the pins seem to represent a chal-
lenge to permanent ordering, the recycled or repurposed status of the paper
itself represents a challenge to hierarchical ordering. Many of the frag-
ments are taken from paper already pressed into service for other pur-
poses; these traces of other uses and other users indicate on the one hand
the embeddedness of Dickinson in her social world—on the other hand,
given that the paper is taken out of one context and put into another, the
repurposing mirrors Dickinson’s writing practice itself, in which parts of
poems were embedded in letters and vice versa, to the point where it be-
comes difficult to say which is the vehicle for which. Moreover, the pal-
impsestic fragments, in which time can be seen as layers, highlight the
materiality of Dickinson’s writing practice even more strongly. 3

176 Emily Dickinson and the Phonograph

The radical nature of the fragments, some not much larger than the
space of a postage stamp, produces questions about how they “fit” in rela-
tion to the poems and letters as such. Some fifty years after Thomas H.
Johnson included some of the fragments as footnotes in the Harvard Uni-
versity Belknap Press edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Marta L.
Werner’s approach in Radical Scatters, her digital archive of Dickinson’s
fragments, is more akin to “critic and translator” than editor (see Werner
2007: 45). She reads the fragments as Dickinson’s final and most radical
rejection of print publication and its attendant fixing of textual meaning:
[N]either residents nor aliens, neither lost nor found, these trace fragments
are caught between their attraction to specific, bounded texts and their re-
sistance to incorporation. […] [T]hey require that we attend to the mystery
of the encounters between fragments, poems, and letters, listening espe-
cially to the ways in which, like leitmotifs, the fragments both influence
the modalities of the compositions in which they momentarily take asylum
and carry those leitmotifs beyond the finished compositions into another
space and time. (Werner 2007: 29–30, my emphasis)

It is perhaps not coincidental that Werner refers to listening as a way of

approaching the fragments. Although sound shares the ephemerality sug-
gested by the fragments as being moments torn from time, when figured as
something written that can be (over)heard, sound also gains a performative

The Sonic Event

Sound can have a quality of excess, in that the noise or disruption it intro-
duces poses a problem of integration. Some media theorists have con-
tended that the ability to hear differs so sharply from visual perception not
only because the body is more permeable to sound than to vision (while
one can close the eyes, the ears are always open), but also, as German
cultural historian Thomas Macho has argued, because sound contains the
potential to make itself heard without revealing its source:
What we see finds itself in the field of vision even if the essence or mean-
ing of the phenomenon is not immediately clear. What we hear, on the
other hand, often cannot be identified, or even localized; the status of what
is heard remains, in confusing—and sometimes frightening—ways open.
Hence hearing is much more closely related to illusion than is seeing; what
is heard does not have a necessary connection to agents, bodies or material
objects. (Macho 2007: 130)

Sabine Kim 177

This inability to fix the source or nature of the sound can lead to a vague
irritation, as Macho furthermore contends, linked to the anxiety arising
from the fact that the sound seems to be emanating from a non-place, and
is not attached to a specific body.4 This irritation, I would like to suggest,
lends sound the nature of an event.
When sound is located in a specific body, or can be traced as originat-
ing from a particular place, or can be conceptually located as part of a
larger meaning, the threat of autonomy is contained, but sound neverthe-
less always carries with it an unexpectedness, which might be called its
character of “eventfulness” as that which introduces newness or the un-
known. Sound can be obstreperous, both contributing to semantics but at
the same time hinting at an “outside” that makes meaning precarious.
Sound has the potential of introducing something unknown. Conceptuali-
sations of sound, from theorists as various as Aristotle (see Connor 2007),
psychoanalytic cultural critic Mladen Dolar (2006), and film scholar Mary
Ann Doane (1980) nevertheless agree in this respect: that sound has a
threshold quality that causes it to be capable of mediating across states that
otherwise and under normal circumstances are taken to be oppositions.
Roland Barthes conceptualised “idyllic communication” as the trans-
fers of memory which take place without anything disrupting the process
of transformation which occurs between an event and its remembrance
(see Barthes 1974: 145). In this ideal situation, an utterance passes directly
from the one speaking to the one listening, without anything outside this
frame of perfect communication. Yet this scenario does not account for
temporality, much less for the workings of accident, misfortune, chance or
creativity and hence Barthes refers to what he calls “noise” as the privi-
leged form of certain literary texts, which is always a process of mediation
with the constitutive possibility precisely of interference, also understood
as “counter-communication” (contre-communication, Barthes 1974: 145).
Here the concept of voice brings oppositions into a dialogue of pleasurable
friction. Rather than the disturbance of noise being alien to reading and
writing, Barthes conceives of literature as precisely this kind of jouissance
associated with voice itself. Thus the effect of counter-communication
produced by such ever-revisable texts
results from two voices, received on an equal basis: there is an interference
of two lines of destination. [. . .] In relation to an ideally pure message (as
in mathematics), the division of reception constitutes a “noise,” it makes
communication obscure, fallacious, hazardous: uncertain. Yet this noise,
this uncertainty are emitted by the discourse with a view toward a com-
munication: they are given to the reader so that he may feed on them: what
the reader reads is a counter-communication; and if we grant that the

178 Emily Dickinson and the Phonograph

double understanding far exceeds the limited case of the play on words or
the equivocation and permeates, in various forms and densities, all classic
writing (by very reason of its polysemic vocation), we see that literatures
are in fact arts of “noise”; what the reader consumes is this defect in com-
munication, this deficient message; what the whole structuration erects for
him and offers him as the most precious nourishment is a counter-
communication; the reader is an accomplice, not of this or that character,
but of the discourse itself insofar as it plays on the division of reception,
the impurity of communication. (Barthes 1974: 145)

Dickinson’s poetry, I argue, points to the pitfalls of poetic “voice” as

“idyllic communication.” Because it seems to issue from the interior of the
body, voice seems to act as the material promise of the immaterial pres-
ence of a unified subject and to subsequently point to an authority behind
the utterance. Dickinson’s poetic strategies, therefore, both recall and
disrupt the traits of speech: colloquial language mixes with Latinate
phrases; repetition and parataxis create an orality but it is undercut by the
punctuation, especially the dashes, which in many cases create visual gaps
that disturb the rhythm when scanned; perhaps the most famous disjunc-
tions are the semantic gaps which may or may not offer recoverable
meaning. Moreover, the voice in Dickinson’s writings operates rather as
“Bolts—of Melody” which “stun,” as Dickinson puts it in Poem 348,5
“speaking” in a dramatic, astonished way, at once intimate and public,
both identifiable within a “here and now” and also distributing itself across
more than one time and space.
Cultural theorist Mladen Dolar writes in his 2006 study, A Voice and
Nothing More, that “[t]he acousmatic voice is simply a voice whose source
one cannot see, a voice whose origin cannot be identified, a voice one
cannot place. It is a voice in search of an origin, in search of a body, but
even when it finds its body, it turns out this doesn’t quite work, the voice
doesn’t stick to the body, it is an excrescence which doesn’t match the
body” (2006: 60–61). Dickinson’s unsettling effects, I would argue, do not
emerge solely as a result of her disjunctive images, her deliberate mis-
spellings, her unconventional capitalization and the visual and aural hesi-
tation caused by her use of the dash as punctuation.6 It is productive to
think about how Dickinson stages the voice itself and its effects in order to
think about the possibilities of such unsettling. The frequent thematization
of voice and acousmatic acts of hearing and speaking7 suggest that such
communicative gestures lead not only to sense, but often produce an ex-
cess of meaning that is difficult to place. As suggested above, the result of
not being able to “find” a voice underscores the power of the voice, which
does not have to show itself in order to produce its effects—while also
symbolising the omnipresence of its control. In “I heard a Fly buzz—when

Sabine Kim 179

I died—,” a poem probably composed during the American Civil War,8

Dickinson stages a voice speaking from a strange zone between the body
and language, an intermedial voice which links the two but belongs prop-
erly to neither:

I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—

The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air—
Between the Heaves of Storm—

The Eyes around— had wrung them dry—

And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset—when the King
Be witnessed—in the Room—

I willed my Keepsakes—Signed away

What portion of me be
Assignable—and then it was
There interposed a Fly—

With Blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz—

Between the light and me—
And then the Windows failed—and then
I could not see to see—
(Poem 465, Dickinson 1999b)

A first reading of Dickinson’s poem “I heard a Fly buzz—when I

died—” suggests a development from the trivial to something momentous;
from the fact of the fly buzzing to the uncertainty of facticity at the end. It
is difficult to establish what has happened or what is happening. The
synaesthesia of the senses means that hearing becomes the dominant
sense, even as the poem describes the effects of that displacement in visual
terms. Though the suggestion is that the light is failing, it is not eyesight
which grows dim but the windows which “fail”; there is yet another dis-
placement in that the windows are blocked not by something barring the
field of vision but by an intrusion of sound: “Blue—uncertain stumbling—
Buzz.” The predominance of the sound, which fills up the field of vision
as well as the sense of hearing, seems more terrible than something that
blocks sight alone because it prevents not only vision but also the
consciousness of the senses, “I could not see to see—”. The Fly’s pres-
ence, made known through both sound and (synaesthesized) vision, is not
only telling at the end of the poem, however, but from the very first line.

180 Emily Dickinson and the Phonograph

The poem opens with the statement “I heard a Fly buzz—when I

died—”, using the figure of a sonic excess that presents a logical impasse
which cannot be resolved as the poem continues. Where exactly is this
voice located? The voice appears to be speaking despite the impossible
condition of having died. That the voice is not necessarily locatable be-
comes a lesser question during the development of the poem. On one hand,
the matter-of-factness of the reportage lends the death scene a casual and
informal air which belies the momentous passage of life into death. Ulti-
mately, however, the more urgent question perhaps concerns the reader
and where he or she is located within this address from the grave. The
poem anticipates the arrival of “that last Onset—when the King / be wit-
nessed—in the room—” a figure who could be either God, Christ, or
death: to witness his power, the poem suggests, will be the revelation of
divine truth. Yet the reference to “that last Onset” suggests a paradox
which Christian belief must overcome: eternal life which is granted by
dying; the divine truth is known only after death. The King’s replacement
at the end of the poem as a sacred powerful figure by the sound of the
banal and mundane Fly suggests a devastating scepticism about the ortho-
dox hope for salvation. To be able to hear the uncanny voice suggests
either that the voice is not speaking from the grave (which the first line
clearly rules out as possibility), or that the reader is also dead, or, and this
is the most radical but also the interpretation that the poem’s logic itself
seems to suggest: that the poem attempts to constitute a medium for com-
municating across the radical distance which death interposes.

Speaking Machines, Media Archives

Death as an event close to life was a familiar concept to nineteenth-century
America. Religious movements such as Spiritualism, which believed in the
continuing presence of the dead in the lives of those left behind and sought
confirmation of this connection through spirit communication, found some
of their assumptions supported by the distance-shrinking, time-capturing
and voice-projecting possibilities opened up by new media technologies
such as the telegraph, the telephone, photography, and the phonograph. As
Jeremy Stolow, a scholar of religious and media studies, puts it:
The succession of inventions that came to the fore in the latter half of the
nineteenth century radically expanded the terms of human contact, labour,
knowledge, and imagination along the axes of transmission and recording:
new technologies for erasing distance (such as telegraphy, telephony, and
radio), and new forms of mechanized inscription and reproduction (such as
photography, phonography, radiography, and cinema). These revolutions

Sabine Kim 181

in mediated communication had deep and globally extensive repercus-

sions, animating such diverse phenomena as the setting of new standards
for measuring world time and space, an increasingly bureaucratic mode of
capital accumulation, the ideal of “objectivity” in journalism and other
professions, the consolidation of new, gendered distinctions between pri-
vate and public, or the success of new popular cultural forms. (Stolow
2006: np)

As one of the successful new cultural forms, the phonograph played a

particular role in the cultural practices of remembering the dead, not just in
the so-called phonographic funerals, where the dead person’s voice could
suddenly be heard issuing forth from the coffin, but as what media histor-
ian Jonathan Sterne calls “the ideal-typical instance” of preserving the
voice for the future. The phonograph enabled, in the words of one of its
inventors writing in 1878, “the gathering up and retaining of sounds hi-
therto fugitive” (Edison 2002: 69). It is open to debate whether the phono-
graph was first invented by the French scientist Charles Cros in the 1850s,
who conceived of a speaking apparatus but did not develop it, or some two
decades later by the American inventor Thomas Edison. Certainly Edi-
son’s apparatus differed from Cros’s because the former had the capacity
not only for sound recording but also for playback. It was in fact the
possibility of listening to ephemeral sounds, until then “captured” only by
memory in the form of oral history and poetry, that contributed to the later
commercial success of the phonograph, which Edison eventually patented
in the 1890s. The phonograph worked by inscription: even sound as soft as
speech, felt as vibration of the air, was still forceful enough to cause a
sharp object, when set up to capture the material trace of sound, to pierce a
surface.9 In recording sound, a stylus was used in conjunction with a cylin-
der covered with tinfoil (and later wax) which would “store” the sound in
grooves that would, on being later retraced by the stylus at the proper
speed, would “give up” their sound again; hence phonographs can be con-
ceived as “machines for writing and reading” (Gitelman 1999: 14).
Thomas Edison envisioned the phonograph as a means of shoring up
memory and cultural continuity against the inroads which the body’s
mortality represents, its “radical finitude”10 in contrast to the capacities for
thought, speech, memory, and desire which, it was believed, would be
everlasting if freed from the body. As Victorianist John M. Picker has
argued, “Victorians in their scientific and technological discoveries and
literary innovations went a long way toward dispelling, or at least refining,
the mysteries of hearing and sound” (2003: 10). Accordingly, the ephem-
erality of sound, which characterized the Romantic conception of the
hearing act and which seemed to conjure the fleeting mortality of humans,

182 Emily Dickinson and the Phonograph

was displaced in the late nineteenth century by a concept of sound as “a

quantifiable and marketable object or thing, a sonic commodity, in the
form of a printed work, a performance, or, ultimately, an audio recording”
(Picker 2003: 10). Noise to the nineteenth-century ear was not merely
background sound: “Victorians interpreted sound in newly amplified
forms, as voice, noise, vibration, music, and electric echo” (Picker 2003:
13). Seen as someone whose work consisted of adapting and transforming
perceptual tendencies, “Edison is a prominent sign of the transition to
corporate capitalism in the late nineteenth century” according to art his-
torian Jonathan Crary. Edison was someone who had no interest in the
aesthetic content of media, but rather saw technologies in terms of “the
endless stream of ways in which a space of consumption and circulation
could be dynamized, activated” (Crary 1999: 31).
Thus Edison’s invention did not so much introduce decisively new
ideas about storing sounds in relation to cultural memory as it itself was a
reflection of social desires already existing. As French economist Jacques
Attali has pointed out, the power to record sound has always seemed like a
mythic power and goes as far back as the earliest societies, “regardless of
technologies”: “Stockpiling memory, retaining history or time, distributing
speech, or manipulating information has always been an attribute of civil
and priestly power, beginning with the Tables of the Law” (Attali 1985:
Both photography, which depicted men and women alike, and phon-
ography, which allowed previously recorded voices to be played back by
anyone at any time, were initially seen as dangerously mixing the sanctum
of the private sphere with the rough-and-ready world of public life.
“[N]ew technologies of reproduction and distribution enabled the trans-
mission of potentially dangerous and infectious information” (Enns 2010:
82).11 Suddenly, outside and inside were no longer clearly demarcated,
making it impossible to properly police boundaries between domestic and
public, female and male spheres, and even the living and the dead.
Another aspect of the shift in aural sensibilities between the Romantic
and the late nineteenth-century subject concerned the way in which sounds
became an index of the physical world. Affect, for instance, was not un-
important, but if it provided the passage between external world and poetic
consciousness, the late nineteenth-century impulse was to record and ob-
jectively understand the process. This attitude can be seen in the experi-
ments and writings of physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894),
who, for example, combined exacting and precise work on pitch and har-
mony with rather Romantic poetic metaphors—comparing sound waves to
ocean waves seen from a cliff top, for example. Another paradigmatic

Sabine Kim 183

work was the 1837 treatise on “natural theology” by English mathemati-

cian Charles Babbage. Babbage’s treatise was “perfectly representative of
the anxious and industrious Victorian desire to apprehend every incident
and accident of the physical world” (Brophy 2011: np). In a chapter enti-
tled “On the Permanent Impression of our Words and Actions on the
Globe we Inhabit,” Babbage proposes that time and space hold the key to
the events of the future, if only our perceptual abilities were acute enough
to pick up on their transmissions. Babbage hypothesises that the physical
force of speaking leaves behind tangible traces or marks that can be en-
countered long after the sound itself is no longer audible, with the result
that “[t]he waves of air thus raised perambulate the earth and ocean’s
surface” (Babbage 1838: 110). Babbage’s theory envisions the world as
potentially containing, as Victorian studies scholar Gregory Brophy puts
it, “an exhaustive and precise archive of past events [that] would give us
an exact vision of our future (to the extent that the latter unfolds as the
accumulated consequence of the former)” (Brophy 2011: np). In Bab-
bage’s conception of “‘[t]he earth itself [as] one vast library, on whose
pages are forever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered’”
(qtd. in Picker 2003: 16), it is apparent that, using the science of natural
theology, it becomes possible to read the world as a book of nature in a
quite different and much more secularised sense than previous ages.
In an essay called “The Telegraphic System of the Universe,” from his
1853 study The Religion of Geology, the American geologist and theo-
logian Edward Hitchcock (1793–1864) similarly investigates the ever-
lasting nature of the universe as found in such things as words and actions.
Hitchcock attempts to bridge the two competing nineteenth-century meta-
narratives of science and religion. To do so, he introduces a theory of
sound that bears some distant relation to the ways in which Edison would
later imagine his phonograph as a parallel to the visual memento mori of
the Victorian photo album. Hitchcock proposes that what was suggested in
the Old and New Testament as metaphoric allusions to the power of
inanimate things to bear witness to truth can be demonstrated with the help
of science as indeed having left records of all that was spoken or done.
Hitchcock presents the world as a registry of not only past events that can
be retrieved and re-sounded, but also of thoughts. Thus sounds, thoughts
and actions transmit information about the world; they also make physical
processes apparent as culturally rehearsed intermedial processes: “crea-
tions” of humans convert nature into not only a “vast picture gallery and
[…] universal telegraph” but also into a “vast sounding gallery” (qtd. in
McCormack 2003: 588).

184 Emily Dickinson and the Phonograph

Poetic Transfers
Voice has been called the paradigmatic example of performativity. For one
thing, just as in a performance, the event is finished the moment that the
voice stops uttering. Yet writing itself acts as a sort of media archive, and
Dickinson’s writing stages this transfer of cultural memory—from the oral
to the written and back again—as the intermedial operation of poetry
itself. The fragments, writes Werner, are “Dickinson speaking-writing in
extremis. The seminal readings of Dickinsons’s language—her broken
grammar and syntax, her strange use of the sonic qualities of language—
are evident in her late manuscripts, whose visual qualities underscore,
even double, her verbal experimentation” (2007: 32). The palimpsestic
condition of such writing, in which Dickinson’s words literally overwrite
other words or are overwritten by them, suggests the ways in which her
writing underwent a change in compositional practice towards an inter-
mediality that grasped media not as transparent vehicles for carrying over
meaning but rather as modalities of radically other possibilities.
To pursue this idea of communication across impossible distances, it
would be helpful to consider the work of contemporary German media
philosopher Sybille Krämer. In a recent study of mediality, Krämer refers
to the figure of the messenger (der Bote) to conceptualise the sense of both
mediating presence (such as the voice and writing) and of process; she also
proposes a type of mediality in which the media are invisible as mediating
agents, namely in the case of viruses, post, money, and the witness. In
either case, the fundamental characteristic of the medium is that it
disappears once it has successfully “delivered” the thing with which it has
been entrusted. In a sense the very obsoleteness of the figure of the
messenger in the current preponderantly digital age underscores two
important propositions, namely, that “there is always an outside to media,”
and “much of our communication is not dialogic” (Krämer 2008: 10, my
translation). In other words, messengers are in principle figures who arrive
from outside; they are heteronomous and directed towards that which is
foreign, strange, and unfamiliar. For Krämer, media always have an
exteriority to them, and in that sense, they should not be regarded as
autonomous agents. Moreover, the concept of media as messengers puts
the popular communication model into question, since the nature of mess-
aging tends not to be dialogic but rather (“at least initially”) “unidirec-
tional and asymmetrical,” i.e., carried out by one party (Krämer 2008: 10).
The non-dialogic tendency is partly a result of the fact that messengers are
needed precisely in those cases when dialogue fails, is overly mediated, or
is otherwise impossible.

Sabine Kim 185

In Krämer’s philosophical thought, to think the media together with

philosophy means estranging the culturally familiar idea of communication
and thus it critiques a widely accepted theory that assumes that commun-
ication constitutes a transparent process of semantic exchange. Jürgen
Habermas’s theory of communication as social reciprocity between per-
sons enabled by meaningful and logical signs, usually spoken language, is
especially debateable, according to Krämer. In Habermas’s model, the
goal is not only establishing a connection but ensuring that understanding
and agreement are reached: “Wherever dialogic communication is attained,
the parties who are communicating with one another have become, in a
sense, ‘one’: As long as the goal of understanding is reached, they share
something with one another and speak as if with a single voice” (Krämer
2008: 15). Addressed to the increasing multiculturalism of Europe, Haber-
mas’s concept of communication attempts to mediate cultural difference
on the basis of enlightened reason but Krämer argues that communication
is much more often monologic.
An implicit normative basis in the Habermasian idea of community is
therefore critically figured by Krämer in the concept of the metaphor of
the voice as that which can signal perfect obedience by mouthing back the
words received, a form of copying that foregoes deviation or adaptation to
particular circumstances. This can be related to the disciplinary effect that
listening as a special, focused type of hearing implies, as Mladen Dolar
and others have noted. To hear is to obey, even in cases where one resists
or protests the contents of what is heard. Arguably, there is an “always-
already” element of submission in hearing, which depends on the fact that
the listener is subject to the act of listening, a link which is apparent in
many different languages in the paired etymologies of the two words: to
listen, to obey. Thus the voice itself is very often correlated to authority
(see Dolar 2006: 75–76; Attali 1985: 92).
Deviation can thus wreak havoc on the message, since it not only
makes it difficult to know what has been transmitted but also subversively
foregrounds the process of communication as something with a problem-
atic potentiality. This double nature of language is something that Emily
Dickinson’s writing makes much of.

In “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—,” voice becomes detached from its
body not only in space but also in time, creating a temporality which
unsettles time and appears capable of playing events in reverse. That the
body is not left behind is fully clear from the presence of the fly, which

186 Emily Dickinson and the Phonograph

cannot be overlooked as a reference to the Civil War maimed and dead,

and from the sense of worldly possessions, “Keepsakes,” asserting their
spiritual, economic and domestic obligations right up to the moment of
dying. The poem stages a sonic excess in that what seems to be the trivial
and obstreperous sound of a fly can neither be ignored nor fully accounted
for, since it raises a number of questions concerning, for example, how a
sound can be “Blue” and how it blocks out not only vision in the sense of
eyesight but also vision in the sense of cognitive perception. These ques-
tions circulate around the central cultural narratives concerning the bodies
of the dead in terms of how the dead should be remembered, how the
identity of the dead can be preserved, and what possibilities for contact
remain even after the seeming finality of death. Dickinson’s poem, al-
though it preceded the rise of the phonograph, prefigures the operations of
that apparatus, which promises to “write” ephemeral noise as permanent
archive and retrievable sound. Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly Buzz—when I
died—” traces the sonic excess which both threatens and enables every
communication, working as a trace of the contingent in the intermedial
sense of a medium that bridges or makes two worlds visible to each
other—disappearing into the working of memory and historical reflection
once the transaction is over, once the voice stops speaking and the phono-
graph record finishes.

Works Cited
Attali, Jacques. 1985. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Trans. Bri-
an Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Babbage, Charles. [1837] 1838. The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise. 2nd ed.
London: John Murray.
Barthes, Roland. 1974. S/Z. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Farrar.
Brophy, Gregory. 2011. “Writing the Disaster: Babbage and the
Black Box.” The Floating Academy: A Victorian Studies Blog. Posted
by Gregory Brophy on 10 May 2011. http://floatingacademy.
black-box/ (accessed 25 May 2011).
Cameron, Sharon. 1992. Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson’s Fascicles.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Christensen, Lena. 2008. Editing Emily Dickinson: The Production of an
Author. New York: Routledge.
Connor, Steven. 2007. “Whisper Music.” Symposium paper. Take a Deep
Breath. Tate Modern. (Text available at http://www.stevenconnor.com
[accessed 7 Jan. 2011]).

Sabine Kim 187

Crary, Jonathan. 1999. Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle,

and Modern Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Derrida, Jacques. 1996. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Trans.
Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Dickinson, Emily. [Comp. 1862] 1999a. Poem 348 [Bolts—of Melody]. P.
157 in The Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Ralph W. Franklin.
Cambridge, MA: Belknap.
—. [Comp. 1862] 1999b. Poem 465 [I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—].
P. 591 in The Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Ralph W. Franklin.
Cambridge, MA: Belknap.
Doane, Mary Ann. 1980. “The Voice in Cinema: The Articulation of Body
in Space.” Yale French Studies 60: 33–50.
Dolar, Mladen. 2006. A Voice and Nothing More. Cambridge, MA: MIT
Edison, Thomas. [1878] 2002. “The Phonograph and its Future.” Pp. 69–
75 in Thomas Edison and Modern America: A Brief History with
Documents, eds. Theresa Mary Collins and Lisa Gitelman. New York:
Enns, Anthony. 2010. Rev. of Ghosts of Futures Past: Spiritualism and
the Cultural Politics of Nineteenth-Century America by Molly Mc-
Garry. Leonardo 43 (1): 82–83.
Gitelman, Lisa. 1999. Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines:
Representing Technology in the Edison Era. Stanford: Stanford Uni-
versity Press.
Jackson, Virginia. 2005. Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading.
Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Johnson, Thomas H., ed. [1951] 1955. The Poems of Emily Dickinson.
Cambridge, MA: Belknap.
Krämer, Sybille. 2008. Medium, Bote, Übertragung: Kleine Metaphysik
der Medialität. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Lindberg-Seyersted, Brita. 1968. The Voice of the Poet: Aspects of Style in
the Poetry of Emily Dickinson. Uppsala: Almqvist and Wiksells.
Macho, Thomas. 2007. “Stimmen ohne Körper: Anmerkungen zur
Technikgeschichte der Stimme.” Pp. 130–146 in Stimme, eds. Doris
Kolesch and Sybille Krämer. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
McCormack, Jerusha Hull. 2003. “Domesticating Delphi: Emily Dickin-
son and the Electro-Magnetic Telegraph.” American Quarterly 55 (4):
Messmer, Marietta. 2001. A Vice for Voices: Reading Emily Dickinson’s
Correspondence. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

188 Emily Dickinson and the Phonograph

Picker, John M. 2003. Victorian Soundscapes. Oxford: Oxford University

Smith, Martha Nell. 1987. “‘To Fill a Gap’: What of Dickinson’s Has
Been Erased, Cut Away, and Disguised?” San Jose Studies 13: 3–25.
Smith, Martha Nell, with Jarom Macdonald. 2000. “Mutilations: What was
Erased, Inked Over, and Cut Away.” Dickinson Electronic Archives.
http://www.emilydickinson.org/mutilation/index.html (accessed 20
April 2011).
Sterne, Jonathan. 2003. The Audible Past: The Cultural Origins of Sound
Reproduction. Durham: Duke University Press.
—. 2006. “The MP3 as Cultural Artifact.” New Media and Society 8 (5):
Stolow, Jeremy. 2006. “Techno-Religious Imaginaries: On the Spiritual
Telegraph and the Circum-Atlantic World of the 19th Century.” Glob-
alization Working Papers. Hamilton: McMaster University.
(accessed 10 March 2009).
Werner, Marta L. 1995. Emily Dickinson’s Open Folios: Scenes of Read-
ing, Surfaces of Writing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
—. 2007. “‘A Woe of Ecstasy’: On the Electronic Editing of Emily Dick-
inson’s Late Fragments.” Emily Dickinson Journal 16 (2): 25–52.


Thomas H. Johnson, for example, appended some of them as footnotes in the
1955 Belknap Press edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson.
Dickinson’s letters create an interesting problem of genre, since the letters were a
means of sharing her poems with correspondents, and also because the notes often
contained objects to which the lines made reference, including “ads, dead crickets,
valentines, stamps, Poetess verse, pressed flowers, printed paper cut-out birds”
(Jackson 2005: 235).
Because Dickinson chose to circulate her writing via letters rather than print
publication, the materiality of the manuscripts has drawn much critical attention,
especially concerning Dickinson’s handwriting, her dashes, and her alteration of
standard spellings. See Cameron 1992 on Dickinson’s variants; Werner 1995 on
the fragments; Smith 1987; 2000 on the way in which Dickinson’s correspondence
was edited by her brother before publication in order to excise references to her
relationship to Susan Dickinson Gilbert.
My translation. See Macho 2007: 130.
Dickinson did not give titles nor did she number her poems but I follow the
convention of many Dickinson scholars who refer to the poems by the order given

Sabine Kim 189

by either Johnson, who in the 1950s eliminated the rather Victorian titles created
by other editors and for the first time published the poems in chronological order,
or Ralph W. Franklin, who re-ordered the poems in the sequence in which they
appear in the fascicle groupings. For an overview of the editing history, see
Christensen 2008. Here, I refer to Franklin’s 1999 reading edition.
For a brilliant reading of Dickinson’s orthographic poetics as a telegraphic mode,
understood not only as metaphor but as ontology, see McCormack 2003; for an
argument about how Dickinson’s misspellings are part of a strategy of double-
voiced quotation, in which Dickinson simultaneously pays homage to her literary
forebears and also “frames” them within her own contexts, see Messmer 2001, esp.
Chapter 5.
Voice in Dickinson’s poetry is often a means of address: Brita Lindberg-Syersted
calculates that the “I” or other references to the first person occur in about one out
of every five of Dickinson’s texts (see Lindberg-Seyersted 1968: 32).
Dickinson did not date her poems, so the composition dates are rough and in this
case are based on an analysis of her various handwriting styles.
Edison was working on research relating to the telephone and electric telegraph
when he developed the principles of phonography. Being hard of hearing, he was
aware that sound is “heard” not only by the ears but by the entire head, as
vibration. Working from the idea of sound as a force striking the air, he tested the
transmission capacity of sound by using his own head as resonating chamber, and
used wooden sticks held between his teeth, which would “register” sounds through
impression. Thus “Thomas Edison’s bitemarks” can be seen on many of his early
phonograph prototypes (Sterne 2006: 834).
This phrase is Jacques Derrida’s in his discussion in Archive Fever: The
Freudian Impression (1996).
See Enns 2010.



Over the last thirty years, the university has shifted away from the field of
humanities, and the priority it accorded to national literatures, to turn
towards interdisciplinary studies of emergent media practices and technol-
ogies. This article analyses the concept of intermediality as both symptom
of and participant in this historical shift through a comparison with the lit-
erary figure of ekphrasis. I ask how these distinct ways of associating vis-
ual and textual arts speak of the historical difference separating them:
While intermediality is gaining steam in the new interdisciplinary land-
scape, ekphrasis belongs to a discipline that is increasingly marginalised in
today’s university. These lines of continuity and difference will allow us to
give greater historical density to intermediality’s emergence.

Keywords: interdisciplinarity, anachronism, G.E. Lessing, Laocoön, John

Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

If it seems premature to trace the history and geography of the concept of

intermediality some twenty years after its emergence, such an affirmation
of academic legitimacy and societal pertinence may also be an indication
that it is running late.1 Such a revision of the concept invites the question
of why scholars should invest in intermediality, if at all, and analyses its
prospects for enhancing or significantly changing models for research in
the humanities (see Gumbrecht 2003). At this stage, the impact it may
have on established forms of knowledge is difficult to predict, while its
potential intervention into future methods and questions is by no means
certain. Vestiges of other disciplinary problems persist in the way the con-
194 Remains to be Seen: Intermediality, Ekphrasis and Institution

cept is circulating, and it remains to be seen whether it will prevail over

this institutional inertia.
Revising the concept’s history warrants a consideration of its place
within a disciplinary landscape and, more generally, of its appearance in a
modern university that has undergone a sea change in the last twenty
years. Indeed, thinking the history of intermediality implies considering
this metamorphosis as a condition of its emergence and analysing the con-
cept as a symptom of an institutional shift whose greater horizon stretches
from the university to the social collective. For while intermediality is
clearly a concept that is designed to explain the shifts in the socio-cultural
field, it may also be a sign of how the change has affected our conception
of knowledge. Although this dual movement has not been fully explored in
relation to intermediality and institutional knowledge, the organisers of an
interdisciplinary conference on intermediality expressed an intuition of its
importance as follows:

La recherche et les pratiques intermédiales sont-elles en mesure de traquer

les traces de ces changements à l’œuvre, ou se constituent-elles elles-
mêmes comme traces, points de cristallisation, lieux d’expression des
enjeux de notre modernité?2

[Can intermedial research and practice follow the traces of these ongoing
changes, or do they constitute yet other traces, moments of crystallisation,
places of expression for these stakes of our modernity?]

Lying latent in this question is a moment of self-reflection that turns the

concept back upon itself. We can only resolve the question of its vacilla-
tion between being both symptom and description of a social state if we
study the degree to which it reflects that condition; that is, if we analyse
the degree to which its description of the social state includes a description
of itself. Making the concept come full circle to its point of departure im-
plies meditating on its material conditions of possibility, its institutional
origins and the corollary problem of its disciplinary place. If we follow
either Virginia Woolf’s observation that the simple term “poetry” presup-
poses a room of one’s own or Michel de Certeau’s claim that the place
from which one speaks is partially constitutive of “culture,” then we would
not be amiss to survey the locus of the rarefied compound term “interme-
James Cisneros 195

Towards the Corporate University

The university, as one of the material conditions of thought (it is a milieu
d’action, a space of and for action, a kind of medium), is undergoing a
sudden switch after long years of stability. One of the most important
books written on the subject comes from the late Bill Readings, whose The
University in Ruins (1996) evaluates the change taking place within the
institution as well as the shift in its relationship to society and the state. In
discussing the forces that make evident the modern university’s decline, he
stresses the proliferation of electronic and virtual media as well as the re-
cent hypertrophy of interdisciplinary work, two factors that are of particu-
lar interest to intermediality’s place “entre les savoirs.” Readings’s book
has the added advantage, like Michel Freitag’s Le naufrage de l’université
(1998), of having been conceived and written in Montreal, where I elabo-
rated these thoughts on the concept of intermediality. In the brief summary
that follows, I outline Readings’s understanding of the university’s role in
reproducing society by generating culture for the state, emphasising those
parts of the argument that elucidate the division of the field of knowledge
into disciplines and its organising role in the institution.
The university took on its modern form at the turn of the nineteenth
century, when debates in Germany culminated with the founding of the
University of Berlin according to a model designed by Wilhelm von Hum-
boldt. Under the tutelage of the nation-state, but with relative autonomy,
its purpose has since been to negotiate between society’s conflictive ele-
ments and to incorporate them into an integrated identity structure. The
guiding force reconciling the individual to the collective and the traditional
to the modern is the notion of Bildung, a specific idea of culture that es-
pouses the transmission of knowledge between generations to personal
development and the cultivation of character. Culture thus conceived im-
plies both identity and progress, moving between a national language and
a historical ethnicity. Readings underlines the nation-state’s fundamental
bond to the university, which ensures continuous traditional legitimacy for
the state’s modern project and its transcendence over society. In his words,
“The state protects the University; the University safeguards the thought of
the state. And each strives to realise the idea of national culture” (Read-
ings 1996: 69).
Its cultural function gives the university a relation of privileged reci-
procity with the state, a specular relation that places knowledge and gov-
ernance on a closed circuit and, significantly, reproduces itself in the in-
stitution’s formative task of producing subjects for the state. Its pedagogy,
emphasising Bildung, gives less stress to positive and empirical informa-
196 Remains to be Seen: Intermediality, Ekphrasis and Institution

tion than to a process of learning that inculcates the subject with rules of
thought so that “knowledge acquisition becomes a freely autonomous ac-
tivity, part of the subject” (Readings 1996: 67). University teaching im-
plies a specific temporality and spatial system, a chronotope where the
state projects itself as a nation to produce subjects and/as citizens. This
teaching ethos organises itself around national literature, the central disci-
pline that at once distinguishes itself as the safeguard of an organic iden-
tity, binding individual and nation, and demonstrates progress in the ac-
quisition of knowledge (for the subject) and power (for the state). Taking
over from philosophy, national literature becomes the ordering principle
for the university’s cultural purpose, attaining disciplinary status once it
occupies “a museal or canonical space of rational historical understand-
ing” (Readings 1996: 73) that offers a unified account of linear progress.
While the call for national literature’s preeminence was first articulated
by Friedrich Schlegel, it was in England, under the influence of Matthew
Arnold, that culture would become a primarily literary undertaking. Ar-
nold, and F. R. Leavis after him, presented a notion of culture by which an
organic community conceived along ethnic lines could overcome the op-
position of technology, whose growth had greatly exacerbated industriali-
sation’s threat of fragmentation and “anarchy.” Culture was to be a ram-
part against the external effects of industrial civilisation and was meant to
slow the professional slide towards mechanical specialisation. Further-
more, Readings adds, culture would make technology a centralising force
around which a greater expanse of (colonist or colonised) people could
assemble: “Culture turns technology into the mode of self-knowledge of a
people, and it turns the organicism of the lost community into a living
principle of identity rather than a closed system” (1996: 82).
This university is now in ruins. With the nation-state in decline and
national culture on the run, the university has been divested of both its
privileged relation to institutionalised power and its mandate of cultural
transmission. Instead of the guiding ethos of culture, the university now
devotes itself to what Readings, in a fine study of current university ad-
ministration-speak, refers to as “excellence.” This catchall term indicates
that the university has lost its idea, or that its purpose is an idea without
content. “As a non-referential unit of value entirely internal to the system,
excellence marks nothing more than the moment of technology’s self-
reflection” (Readings 1996: 227). Gone, then, are the external referent of
the state and the pedagogy of subjective development, and in their place is
a reference to “nothing more than the optimal input/output ratio in matters
of information” (Readings 1996: 227); instead of an idea of cultural
knowledge, information efficiently circulated. Readings attributes the
James Cisneros 197

principal cause of this change to the transnational global economy, which,

with technology’s unfettered expansion, spells the end of the community’s
organic identity.
Globalisation and virtual communication are two principal factors—
both closely related to the electronic media’s vigorous upsurge—in re-
drawing the university’s mandate and, more fundamentally, its function,
orientation and very constitution. The first, economic, factor has several
relevant dimensions. Capital reproduces itself in a global economy that
oversteps the borders of individual states that are now partial players in a
series of transnational networks. This new power’s local neoliberal re-
forms have pressured privatisation in all sectors including education, with
the result that the university has increased its ties to corporate funding
networks and its commitment to the rhythm (and ethos) of the information
economy. Evidence of this new alliance has been extensively doc-
umented—Masao Miyoshi’s detailed report in “The Ivory Tower in Es-
crow” gives a sense of its staggering scale—and shows convincingly that
the university either functions like a corporation or has in fact become a
corporation. According to Michel Freitag (1998), this situation reproduces
itself within the university, where each interdisciplinary research group
instrumentalises a theoretical premise to vie for funding.3
The second factor—virtual communication—is changing the organisation
and circulation of knowledge. Virtual media have opened the university’s
self-contained spaces, as Samuel Weber’s commentary on Readings shows
(Weber 2001), supplementing its static library with digital archives and its
classrooms with teleteaching to alter the pedagogical chronotope that par-
tially defined the modern university.4 Each university extends its virtual
reach to improve the input-output ratio that measures the level of excel-
lence that the university “technocracy” (Freitag 1998) pushes its profes-
sors to pursue, encouraging the teaching staff to maintain web pages and
give classes online.5 Summing up, each of these factors furthers the
destabilisation of the Arnoldian culture-technology balance, forcing the
once organic community into virtual networks that redraw borders on all
levels of collective knowledge.
The concept of intermediality surfaces at this institutional juncture.
Placed at the crossroads of information, media and technology, it deploys
to advantage the transnational networks’ fundamental elements and inter-
ests. Research of the concept, at least in Montreal, has resulted in con-
siderable funding from the government as it invests in the information
superhighway and from corporate foundations as they patronise related
activities with financial or in-kind support.6 And while Freitag’s descrip-
tion of research centres as “lobby groups” jockeying for funds may be un-
198 Remains to be Seen: Intermediality, Ekphrasis and Institution

generous, it is difficult to imagine the emergence of the concept of inter-

mediality under other circumstances. This is of course no coincidence, as
the concept was invented to explain emergent technologies in the context
of social mediations. But one takes pause at its semantic proximity to the
wave of self-consciously interdisciplinary movements that Readings inter-
prets as further symptoms of globalisation’s growing influence. Interme-
diality’s prefix refers as much to these material disciplinary stakes as it
does to conceptual precursors like intertextuality and interdiscursivity.
The emergence of inter- and transdisciplinary movements are another
sign of the demise of the idea of the university. With different modalities
of conceiving identity and the corollary attacks on literary traditions, and
with subjective orientations that question not only the canon’s contents but
also its function, these movements have opened significant breaches in the
walls of the institution’s literature departments. The canon has become an
arbitrary delimitation of a field and literature has become one discipline
among others, instead of the guiding principle of the national spirit. While
in many ways salutary, giving visibility to minorities, for example, this
disciplinary shift also signals, according to Readings, the decline of the
nation-state. Interdisciplinary methods surface with the erosion of the
paradigms that organise the relationship between individual disciplines,
suture individuals into the institution and subject them to the nation-state.
They are a symptom of “the end of the reign of literary culture as the or-
ganising discipline of the University’s cultural mission, for they loosen the
tie between the subject and the nation-state” (Readings 1996: 87).
If the new inter-disciplines are a symptom of the end of a model whose
organising principle was a national literature that produced subjects for the
nation-state, it is also, according to some, the form of knowledge that
ideally projects the new forms of economic domination. Diagnoses from
various sources concur on this point: Cultural studies signals the end of the
idea of culture as the social field’s guiding force, since its application to
everything without discrimination reflects the absence of content proper to
the value of “excellence,” an empty measure of corporate efficiency and
performance. They are an alibi for “complicity in the TNC version of neo-
colonialism” (Miyoshi 1993: 751, cited in Readings 1996: 203). Other
interdisciplinary ventures like postmodernism and postcolonialism may
also unwittingly collude with emergent strategies of rule, coinciding in
their espousal of difference with a global market that seeks to create mar-
ket niches based on differentials of identity.7 In short, they belong to the
transnational framework that caused “le naufrage de l’université,” placed
“the ivory tower in escrow” and led to the “university in ruins.”
James Cisneros 199

To consider the history and geography of the concept, then, we should

revise it both as a symptom of changes in its institutional setting and as a
tool created with the present socio-historical juncture in mind, one that can
help explain and partially mould the shifting cultural field. If my initial
question asked whether intermediality was a symptom or an explanation of
a historical juncture, and if I am correct in saying it is both, we now find
ourselves before a second, more pressing question: How can we use inter-
mediality to think through and to explain a situation of which it is a
symptom; or how can intermediality explain itself as a symptom at the
same time that it explains the situation of which it is a sign? In the histori-
cal context outlined above, it is perhaps this dual status as sign and ex-
planation that makes intermediality appropriate for tracing “technology’s
self-reflection” (Readings 1996: 227). Indeed, this turning back on itself
within heterogeneous dimensions may be inherent to the concept, as a
certain reflexivity binds the term’s components inter- and media. Such a
movement would in fact allow us to meditate on the supplementary thres-
hold between the two terms; the limit where the symptom, explaining it-
self, modifies what it explains and hence its own status as symptom. The
threshold’s density derives from its resistance to closure and completion,
ever forcing open the concept’s sense and effectiveness as it comes round
to consider itself. Thought drags behind itself in this irreducible and
anachronistic lag, ever chasing after what will always remain between two
institutional moments.8

The Haunting of Ekphrasis

In the context of our discussion, intermediality’s reflexivity and focus on
technology can help us to see the university’s ruins, yet only if we turn it
towards its institutional origins and, inevitably, towards ourselves. If we
translate this circling back into Readings’s terms, it means installing “dis-
ciplinarity as a permanent question” (Readings 1996: 177), a necessary
step for those who are committed to thinking from within an institution
that is “legible to us only as the remains of the idea of culture” (Readings
1996: 172).9 Ruins are always in some manner circular (Jorge Luis Borges
knew this well, haunting us with an open invitation to interpret) and hence
particularly apt to the permanent questioning that Readings recommends.
But unlike other uses of the trope of the ruins, his aim is not to replace
epistemological uncertainty with nostalgia’s aesthetic plenitude or an illu-
sion of instrumental mastery. Rather, the ruins allow us to think the uni-
versity “as the sedimentation of historical differences that remind us that
Thought cannot be present to itself. We live in an institution, and we live
200 Remains to be Seen: Intermediality, Ekphrasis and Institution

outside of it” (Readings 1996: 171). Intermediality can make legible those
anachronistic remains, allowing us to think our place within them and their
place between us. It can, in Simon Wortham’s words, help us think the
university while “letting the remains remain, letting them survive as re-
mains” (1999: 175).10
This calls for anachronistic thinking that projects intermediality be-
yond the institutional juncture of which it is a symptom, uses it to explain
situations once removed from those it confronts and takes the explanation
as a sign of thought. It means making it turn back on its own purpose as
the sign of a ruin it can make legible, a task for which the reflexive figure
of intermediality seems particularly apt. It is in this sense that we might
consider ekphrasis as a possible precursor to the concept of intermediality:
Both figures hover around the interface of text and image, both situate the
media in an inter- or transdisciplinary space and both carry a reflexive
delay in their respective movements. The parallel, itself anachronistic, can
illustrate how intermediality might help make the ruins come into view.
Ekphrasis, after all, comes to us through classical rhetoric, a disciplinary
branch that is quite obviously in ruins. It also holds an unexpectedly
privileged place in the history of the university, having been in high cir-
culation when the modern disciplinary division first began to develop, and
thus occupying a place vis-à-vis a nascent disciplinary landscape that is
similar to intermediality’s place before the shifts that herald its end. Its
apogee with the Romantics coincides with the beginning of the modern
university whose end is now signalled by intermediality.
A comparison of the two figures will bracket the historical poles of the
university’s disciplinary divide, marked at one end by ekphrasis and at the
other by intermediality. It is of course not my intention to overlook their
differing history in relation to disciplinary knowledge, as if the kind of
ekphrasis cultivated by the Romantics at a time when it held greater ap-
plicability could be equated to today’s intermediality. Instead, I would like
to suggest that the comparison can open a potential site of resistance for
intermediality insofar as it emphasises a temporal tendency proper to the
rhetorical figure. This involves relaying two senses of anachronism: the
first is historical, oscillating between the beginning and the end of the dis-
ciplinary divide; the second is figural, exploring a peculiar temporal dy-
namic shared by ekphrasis and intermediality. The first allows us to think
of ekphrasis as a kind of ruin that marks one of intermediality’s own exte-
rior limits. Thinking back to ekphrasis hence implies accounting for the
changes in the disciplinary landscape and the ruined university, and adds
urgency to a reflection on the rise of inter- and transdisciplinary move-
ments as symptoms of greater changes that intermediality’s place “entre
James Cisneros 201

les saviors” might resist. The second, figural sense allows us to think of
intermediality in terms of an inner difference which, in the manner of ek-
phrasis, points to what remains before or beyond a single medium.
According to its etymology, ekphrasis originally means to make an
object “speak out” and has since come to refer to a literary imitation of a
plastic work of art. Its specificity comes from the extra-discursive refer-
ence, which is no more than the literary trace of a foreign element that
maintains a degree of autonomy from the discourse conveying it, and is no
less than a mark of exteriority and temporal precedence that the described
object transfers to the verbal images. These are the qualities that constitute
ekphrasis and not, as is sometimes assumed, the written text’s supposed
relation to an actually existing object, which remains a mere pre-text—in
every sense of the word—for the verbal rendition. The peculiar relation
that ekphrasis holds to its own limitations explains why it has been closely
bound to the trope of the ruins, which also derives from a temporal interval
that lags between reference and referent. This relation to its own boundar-
ies has also set it apart from other devices of discursive description, mak-
ing it a key term in the debate on artistic limits.
G.E. Lessing’s famous argument on the sister arts pivots on a case of
ekphrasis that it handles with the gloves of incipient disciplinary know-
ledge. His rejection of this figure in favor of well-defined artistic fields
anticipates the disciplinary division of the modern university that, accord-
ing to Readings, organises a national culture whose decline coincides with
the rise of interdisciplinary concepts such as intermediality, another figure
that oversteps a single field or medium. As is well known, Lessing’s Lao-
coön divides the cultural field into the arts of time and the arts of space,
arguing against all hybrid artistic forms and arguing for a strict internal
coherence for each art within limits that are defined by its neighbouring
media. Lessing articulates this aesthetic position with a geo-political dis-
course that divides the sister arts into distinct “provinces” or “realms” that
are clearly separated by “borders” (Mitchell 1986: 95–115).11 This dis-
course is evident in the opening pages of Lessing’s seminal work. Re-
minding his readers that the Greeks subjected art to a civil code, Lessing
claims that during his own time the “plastic arts in particular—aside from
the inevitable influence they exert on the character of a nation—have an
effect that demands close supervision of the law” (Lessing 1984: 14–15).12
Although one could argue that the priority he attributes to national char-
acter is of a general nature, and that he is referring to the social force of art
in collective organisation, E.H. Gombrich has shown (1958: 142) that a
similarly directed geo-political ethos informs the criticisms that Lessing
202 Remains to be Seen: Intermediality, Ekphrasis and Institution

levies against other art theorists, particularly the French, who could also be
the target of his attack on religious motifs or intentions in art.13
Without lingering on the implied national chauvinism, it is perhaps not
surprising that this parcelling into realms and provinces should lead to a
hierarchical organisation of the arts. Poetry not only has “a wider range”
than painting, having “beauties at its command that painting is never able
to attain,” but can also handle “inartistic” as well as “artistic” beauties
(Lessing 1984: 50). Following the parallel that Lessing crafts between
politics and artistic media, poetry’s greater reach can only be interpreted in
terms of a national culture’s intrinsic complexity. Within this discourse of
national character, the priority he gives to poetry amounts to the privileg-
ing of linguistic specificity for the elaboration of a “wide range” sensi-
bility that transcends artistic beauty. This greater reach is also temporal, of
course, since the national character hinges on a history that shows the per-
sistence of indigenous characteristics. Images, meanwhile, can comple-
ment the grand narrative but, being universally accessible and thus more
volatile, finally remain bound to the space of “art.”
Lessing’s firm rejection of ekphrasis should be understood within his
parallel preoccupation with national character and each art’s intrinsic nature,
where artistic hybridity would be correlative to the blurring of national
identity. This is confirmed in a suggestive reading by W.J.T. Mitchell,
who studies how Lessing’s interpretation of the prototype of ekphrasis, the
excursus on Achilles’s shield in the Iliad, rejects its descriptive mode by
subsuming it to the epic’s greater narrative movement. The rhetorical fig-
ure endangers the narrative’s bond to a specific and restrained image of the
community. Ekphrasis shows, within a privileged topos, everything that
remains outside the epic poem’s own delimited universality, making visi-
ble the social difference and heterogeneity that fissure the total space and
time of the epic community’s identity. Instead of narrative linearity, ek-
phrasis presents circularity or cyclicity, and instead of a seamless com-
munity that is evenly integrated into a single identity, ekphrasis presents a
model where the inside and outside are reversed, making visible what re-
mains beyond the epic’s scope—what Achilles will never see.14 Narrative
identity’s organicity and linearity15 correspond to the epic image of a total
community, both of which are endangered by ekphrastic description.16
The priority Lessing gives to the community’s integrity in his treatise
on artistic limits thus in important ways anticipates the modern university:
a secular national space within which artefacts are produced and evalu-
ated, and where cultural production takes on meaning according to a hier-
archy of arts or disciplines. This space would eventually host the national
literatures as conceived by the Romantics and especially by Schlegel, for
James Cisneros 203

whom nothing was so necessary as a “national poetry.” Laocoön also ex-

erted influence over the modern conception of art that arose after the break
with notions of ut pictura poesis and the Belles Lettres system. It was a
key text for the development of the German Idealist aesthetics that culmi-
nated with Schiller, particularly with its clarion call to “legislate” the arts
and to curb the incontinence of expression through an (as yet) inchoate
modern faculty of judgment (see Jimenez 1997: 104–113). Given the place
of aesthetics in the later debate on the modern university—in “the conflict
of the faculties,” to cite the title of Kant’s contribution—Lessing holds a
genealogical precedence for the division of knowledge into delimitated
fields. The surest signs of his influence are the implementation of his divi-
sion within the university and, at the other end of its historical trajectory,
the recent upsurge of interest in his work. If his divide remains relevant
today, as Grant Scott argues (Scott 1994), this is to some extent due to its
incorporation into an institution whose mandate has been to forge and
protect a national culture that is primarily defined by its literary production
(see Scott 1994: 36). Now this disciplinary complex is changing, which
partly explains the renewed attention turned to the figure of ekphrasis that
Lessing rejects.
If we now turn to examples that embrace ekphrasis, the anachronism
inherent in the figure becomes discernible as a temporality that circum-
vents the divisions Lessing wished to impose. As we have seen, for the
author of Laocoön, ekphrasis indicates what remains when discourse
places limits on identity, whether artistic, spatial, temporal or political.
When with the English Romantics the figure enters an important period of
its own history, it takes on an anachronistic quality that refers these limits
to subjective identity and (self-) knowledge. Unlike the modern univer-
sity’s model of personal growth progressing on a parallel course with the
national cultural identity that interpellates the individual subject, the ana-
chronism of ekphrasis offers a pedagogical time that has very different
implications for subjectivity. It posits a kind of knowledge acquisition that
differs from what Readings discusses under the rubric of Bildung, which
inculcates a way of learning that becomes “part of the subject” (Readings
1996: 67). Instead, it truncates this form of assimilation to make the sub-
ject aware of its own partial agency for progressive knowledge production,
indicating the limits where the subject’s attempts to absorb the mute object
only produce a belated echo of its own projected voice.
Ekphrasis suits this Romantic meditation on subjectivity and its resist-
ance to the institution’s linear models. Like their classical predecessors,
who preferred circular objects such as shields and cups, the Romantics
direct the figure towards globular vessels—vases, jars, urns—that act as
204 Remains to be Seen: Intermediality, Ekphrasis and Institution

the poem’s formal cause, the source of its structure and shape.17 The urn
has been shown particular favour and is perhaps, as Murray Krieger notes
(Krieger 1992), the ekphrastic object par excellence. At once a nativity
and burial vessel, it expresses cycles of creation and temporal complexity
that raise it beyond “the linear chronology of life’s transience.”18
To better understand this difference in repetition we turn to John
Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” possibly the most studied example of
ekphrasis. Its scenes unfold as an observer circles the urn to gradually per-
ceive a “mad pursuit” and a “struggle to escape” from an eternal time of
suspended amorous and ritual action. In a perpetual spring, the acts of lov-
ers forever young are ever begun and never accomplished. In the opening
stanza the observer questions the urn about its images and stories, and,
with particular interest, about the written legend that circles the vase:

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,

Thou foster-child of silence and slow time
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady? (ll. 1–7)

Met with silence, the seeker circles the “still unravish’d bride of quietness”
and describes her images, wondering who is depicted and what town they
have emptied with their departure. By the final stanza, the observer has
completed the circuit around the vessel and, having deciphered the legend,
manages to make the urn speak:

When old age shall this generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. (ll. 46–50)

The epigram on truth and beauty comes into view in the poem’s closing
moment, when love passes into death. Opening with the eve of marriage
and sexual union followed by images of frolicsome courtship and wild
ecstasy, the ode gives way to scenes of sacrifice and desolate towns, to
wilted love and the overwrought maidens of a “Cold Pastoral.”
The famous closing aphorism is as circular as the urn itself, curling
around the objet d’art with exemplary order and symmetry. Its inverted
repetition encapsulates ekphrasis’s circularity, while its neoclassical bal-
ance deliberately introduces an anomaly into the poem’s dominant Ro-
James Cisneros 205

mantic style, an “anachronistic” quality that sets apart the phrase as though
in a museum.19 The figure is constituted by this differential temporal pull
where a generation wastes between Eros and Thanatos, while the urn,
“sylvan historian,” remains. As the poem’s climactic moment, the differ-
ence in the closing stanza braids together the three variations of “the re-
mains” that develop independently throughout the narrative. The ode first
shows us the ruins of another era, a cultural artefact that will remain after
time’s inexorable advance. It then considers the urn as a historical agent
that can be made to speak, a mute witness around which historical dis-
course gravitates, a historical remain that engenders stories. Its ekphrasis
finally culminates when the urn speaks and when the vessel, now ravished,
unveils the secret that was still borne in its quietness—it climaxes when
we penetrate the urn’s virginal outer casing and de-crypt its inner burial
contents, making legible or visible the remains within. If, as Krieger sug-
gests, the poem seeks “to perform in a way similar to the way the urns
themselves, as sepulchral receptacles, sometimes sought to perform”
(1992: 269), its legibility hinges on the reader’s sensitivity to a specific
kind of historicity and on a receptive performance that can hear and see
the object’s anachronistic remains.
Reading the remains pivots on a questing movement that leads the
subject back to itself. The questioning with which the ode begins brings
the observer full circle. The answer, which comes into view once the urn is
orbited, is as circular as the vessel it dresses. Upon returning to the point
of departure, the observer has gained nothing more than the experience of
posing questions and an enigmatic phrase that repeats the object’s form, a
reversible epigram that echoes the inquiring voice in the hollow of the
vase. This echo, a trace of exteriority that is proper to the ode’s imitative
structure, indicates that the poem can repeat but will never coincide with
the object. Like the observer who circles the urn to return to the point of
departure, the experience of the trajectory makes this repeated position an
echo of the first, thereby giving a distant origin to the speaker’s own voice.
“What wild ecstasy?” we hear in the first stanza, a question that anticipates
how the last stanza will project the subject outside of itself, its voice be-
coming confused with that of another—an other’s voice that is made visi-
ble to the reader in the quotation marks that retain the oral breathing
rhythm originally signalled by the commas they invert (see Agamben
1998: 93). Like the shield that ekphrasis turns inside out to show what
remains beyond the epic community’s narrative, the urn turns inside out to
show what escapes the subject, presenting the remains to be seen. The re-
mains inside the vessel, and the urn itself as a ruin come into view simulta-
206 Remains to be Seen: Intermediality, Ekphrasis and Institution

Balance, symmetry and circularity in form and style are the primary
qualities that ekphrasis makes evident before pointing back to the funda-
mental imbalance between the linear text and the circular object. If the text
takes its shape from the images it describes as it circles the vase, the in-
stance of hermetic closure, when we return to the point of departure,
nonetheless includes a delay that accounts for the observer’s trajectory.
Something remains, before or beyond the verbal vessel’s threshold, that
ekphrasis indicates without articulating and shows without saying. Some-
thing besides the “leaf-fring’d legend” is still “haunting about” the ode’s
shape, a lingering doubt about the message it conveys. The subject, inhab-
ited by doubt, also haunts about the vessel.
Although the subject who asks the questions and the one who receives
the answer occupy an identical space, the delay produces persistent ves-
tiges of another time. This returns us to our discussion on the university’s
role in inculcating individuals with a kind of knowledge acquisition that
institutes them as subjects of (and for) the nation-state. Ekphrasis trumps
this process, as its questioning haunts the progressive, parallel course
which binds the state to the subject. Samuel Weber, through a close analy-
sis of Readings’s University in Ruins within the greater context of mod-
ernity (Weber 2001), describes the delayed movement of this questioning
as a splitting and doubling undertaken by the subject. Weber argues that
the non-referential “excellence” which is thought to mark nothing but
technology’s self-reflection nevertheless “remains […] a form of refer-
ence” (Weber 2001: 230, his emphasis), and hence fractures the informa-
tion network’s closed system of mirrored inputs and outputs. This frac-
tured reflection echoes the form of reference that surfaces with Descartes,
where a similar epistemological fault line runs through the ground of cer-
tain knowledge. The Cartesian ego at once splits off from and reflects on
itself, attaining certitude through a process of doubting that, undertaken by
the subject, remains without any determinate content concerning that
which is being doubted; this kind of performativity is, for Weber, “not so
very different from that ascribed by Readings to the notion of ‘excel-
lence’” (Weber 2001: 231). Yet this movement of splitting and doubling
can only be imagined to come “full circle,” he continues, “if its circularity
is supposed to transcend distinctions of space and time and thereby to
move around the timeless center of a pure Ego, an instance of pure and
immediate presence that does not require memory, recollection, repetition
in order to be present to itself.” If this “enables an I to doubt everything
except the fact that it is ‘I’ who am doing the doubting,” Weber adds, then
the temporal sediment of repeated mediation can potentially problematise
the center, pointing back to a differential fracture, referring to something
James Cisneros 207

that remains. Weber returns to his gloss on Readings in the following

phrase: “It is precisely this dimension of temporality, however, that returns
to haunt the fantasy of pure-identity and, with it, the conception of a uni-
versity that would be its institutional expression” (Weber 2001: 231). This
comes very close to the way Readings himself articulates the matter when
he writes that the ruins “haunt” the university.
The trope of the ruins as it surfaces in our reading of ekphrasis and the
university underlines an anachronistic sediment that “haunts” (self-) cer-
tainty. Both serve to remind us that thought cannot be present to itself, in
Readings’s words, and invite us to think of intermediality along a circular
trajectory that forces it back upon itself, repeating the mediative process
that imbues the identical point of arrival and departure with a sense of al-
terity. This implies thinking of intermediality as both a symptom and an
explanation of our modernity within the concrete temporal context of our
own questioning. In these pages, I attempt to reorient us towards the con-
cept’s institutional origin, towards a specific history and geography that is
often overlooked. In other words, I have followed the lessons of those
whose concern over the way we produce knowledge has led them to think
of their own place within the institution; of Readings, who claims that we
dwell in the ruins and “that we live in an institution, and we live outside of
it”; and of Freitag, who says that we should not be mere programmers
within the university but that we should “live, cultivate, and develop the
life of the spirit there” (“y vivre, y cultiver, y développer la vie de
l’esprit”, 1998: 67). If we recall that the etymology of “to haunt” comes
from “to lead home, pull, claim” of the old Norse heimta, itself derived
from heimr, meaning “home,” then the ruins that haunt the university take
us in and out of that dwelling place, and bring us home along a trajectory
mediated by what remains, persists, lingers. In short, working or living in
the university’s ruins calls for a critical practice that consistently turns
towards its own conditions of production.
To sum up, I have traced the decline in the modern university, whose
historic role has been to institute subjects for the nation-state through a
cultural pedagogy, crystallised in the notion of Bildung that links personal
development to subjective formation. This coincides with the eclipse of
disciplinary divisions first anticipated in the Laocoön, where Lessing uses
a discourse of national borders and identity to defend artistic limits and
reject the figure of ekphrasis. This figure exceeds limits to question the
subjective formation they impose, introducing an anachronistic time that
haunts the universal subject. Intermediality holds the same reach beyond
disciplinary limits, and offers a similar possibility of critical anachronistic
thinking. The corporate university manifests itself in the concept of
208 Remains to be Seen: Intermediality, Ekphrasis and Institution

intermediality, a symptom of this emergent institution that can nevertheless

think its own status as sign. Its reflexivity, in historic context, can return to
haunt today’s university.
The movement from ekphrasis to intermediality and back again draws
a full circle around the modern university. It is in this sense that a con-
junction of intermediality and ekphrasis can develop an intellectual prac-
tice that acknowledges its place in an institution in order to make the uni-
versity accessible as the remains of a culture. Applying Readings’s pro-
posed project to these figures can make the university legible and its ruins
visible, since looking at the disciplinary designs that have dressed it over
time allows us to penetrate into its remains and make them speak. The
future of this questioning is of course precarious, for, as Weber has shown,
the “future” of the university itself is uncertain and, as Freitag laments, the
very notion of projecting towards a “future” in research is at best quixotic.
Whether this glimpse of the institution’s remains will be pedagogically
beneficial, encouraging researchers to look at themselves looking, or
whether it will be lost somewhere between the new corporation’s in-
put/output ratio and the university’s old inertia, remains to be seen.

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Jimenez, Marc. 1997. Qu’est-ce que l’esthétique? Paris: Gallimard.

Keats, John. [1819] 2007. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Pp. 191–192 in Select-
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—. 1994. Picture Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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Ricœur, Paul. 1985. Temps et récit III: Le temps raconté. Paris: Seuil.
Scott, Grant F. 1994. The Sculpted Word: Keats, Ekphrasis and the Visual
Arts, Hanover: University of New England Press.
Spitzer, Leo. 1962. “The ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn,’ or Content vs. Meta-
grammar.” Pp. 67–97 in Essays on English and American Literature,
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An earlier version of this paper was published in Intermédialité et socialite: His-
toire et géographie d’un concept, edited by Marion Froger and Jürgen Müller (see
Cisneros 2007).
This citation comes from the call for papers for the fifth international conference
hosted by the Centre de Recherche sur l’Intermédialité (CRI) (“Histoire et géogra-
phie d’un concept. L’intermédialité entre les savoirs,” Montreal, 1-4 October
2003), organised by André Gaudreault, Livia Monnet and Yvonne Spielmann, as
does the suggestion that ekphrasis is a “concept” that “gravitates around the
question of intermediality.”
Readings describes this in terms of the ethos of ‘excellence’: “quality is not the
ultimate issue, but excellence soon will be, because it is the recognition that the
210 Remains to be Seen: Intermediality, Ekphrasis and Institution

University is not just like a corporation; it is a corporation. Students of the Univer-

sity of Excellence are not like customers; they are customers” (22). On globalisa-
tion and the university see Miyoshi 2000, which should be read in conjunction with
his “A Borderless World?” (1993). Michel Freitag observes similar tendencies:
“Mais comment voir la différence entre le steak et le bœuf quand GM ou Ford
vendent des nouveaux ‘concepts’ et que l’UQAM ou l’Université de Montréal
planifient des nouveaux ‘produits ,’ offrent des nouveaux ‘services à la clientèle,’
planifient la conquête de nouveaux ‘marchés’?” (1998: 67; see pp. 72–73 for his
comments on research groups). For a perspective from France, see Del Buono,
Gaubert et al. (2003).
Weber, “The Future of the University” (2001: 220–235).
In his opening chapter, “La gestion technocratique du social,” Michel Freitag
insists on the effects of technology, coming close to the Arnoldian call for the uni-
versity to keep it in balance with an organic community. He shows how corporate
affairs have been imposed on the university from outside, “techniquement, tech-
nologiquement, technocratiquement” (1998: 11).
The CRI is funded by the FQRSC, and holds close ties to the Fondation Langlois.
That private and public corporate funding holds influence over the orientation of
research is evident in the recent choice of ‘electricity’ as the conference topic for
2005, in the hopes of attracting the interest of corporate giant Hydro Quebec.
On “excellence,” see Readings, especially the chapter “Culture Wars and Cultural
Studies,” 1996: 89–118. On complicity, see Miyoshi 1993: 751. On postmodern
and postcolonial theory, see Dirlik 1997: 52–83; and Hardt and Negri 2000: 137–
159 (“Symptoms of Passage”). Most of these criticisms acknowledge the salutary
effects, as we do, of recent changes in the relation between disciplines, the canon’s
contents, and humanities curricula; however, as Readings shows, the concomitant
claims to an oppositional politics are often based on an outdated view of the rela-
tionship between the university and the nation-state.
Méchoulan 2003, see especially pp. 26–27. Éric Méchoulan argues that the con-
cept of intermediality can potentially resist the specific kind of economic exchange
and temporality in which it arises by indicating the vestiges of another time he
calls “restes anachroniques.” I suggest that the corporate university is one such
instance of the concept’s economic context, and explore its potential anachronistic
resistance in the pages that follow.
Or again: “What I am calling for, then, is not a generalized interdisciplinary space
but a certain rhythm of disciplinary attachment and detachment, which is designed
not to let the question of disciplinarity disappear, sink into routine” (Readings
1996: 176).
Wortham 1999: 175. Wortham finds inspiration in Jacques Derrida’s “Mochlos.”
Mitchell 1986: 95–115. See the chapter entitled “Space and Time: Lessing’s
Laocoön and the Politics of Genre.” Mitchell, one of the few readers to have stud-
ied the Laocoön’s political discourse, points out that the proper translation for
Grenzen is “borders” rather than “limits,” in this case.
Lessing 1984 [1766]: 14–15.
James Cisneros 211

Gombrich (1958: 142); he shows how Lessing weaves various traditions with
“the classic distinction between the sublime and the beautiful, and these categories
in turn are seen in terms of political and national traditions, liberty and tyranny,
England and France. Shakespeare is free and sublime poesy, Corneille rigid if
beautiful statuary.” Cited in Mitchell (1985: 106), who extends this reading to
Lessing’s secular attack on religion as a place for either art or artistic knowledge:
“‘Religious painting’ is a contradiction in terms for Lessing.”
Mitchell 1994: 180. See the chapter “Ekphrasis and the Other.” The shield
“shows us the whole world that is ‘other’ to the epic action of the Iliad, the world
of everyday life outside history that Achilles will never know. The relation of epic
to ekphrasis is thus turned inside out: the entire action of the Iliad becomes a
fragment in the totalizing vision provided by Achilles’s shield.” Mitchell shows
that the everyday life is one that depicts conflict within the community.
On narrative identity see Ricœur 1985. Ricœur sees excessive description as a
danger—“une mise en péril”—for narrative action.
Again anticipating Schlegel, who saw in the Greeks the pure origin of literature,
one that represents an organic community to itself and gives it continuity over
time, Lessing ties a form of narrative identity to the image of a collective group.
As Readings points out, the Greeks were to the Germans what Shakespeare was to
the English: “[F]or Arnold […] Shakespeare occupies the position that the German
Idealists ascribed to the Greeks: that of immediately representing an organic
community to itself in a living language. […] Schlegel praised the Greeks as the
pure origin of literature, as the people who created literature ex nihilo without any
historical antecedent […]” (Readings 1996: 78).
Spitzer 1962. On the differences between classical and Romantic ekphrasis see
Scott 1994: 1–28.
Krieger 1992: 269. Krieger culls his many examples from Brooks 1947.
Scott 1994. “For many critics, [the] phrase’s incongruity is an impediment to the
poem’s successful conclusion. Its language cannot be reconciled with the language
in the rest of the ode. Yet this anachronistic quality is precisely the point. The
epigram is meant to be anomalous, a rhetorical trump Keats has kept up his sleeve
all along” (148).

Henry Bacon is professor of film and television studies at the University

of Helsinki. He is especially interested in the poetics of cinema, relation-
ships between the arts and the ways in which the perception and under-
standing of audio-visual representation interacts with the perception and
understanding of the real world. Among his major publications are the
monographs Luchino Visconti: Explorations of Beauty and Decay (1998),
Audiovisuaalisen kerronnan teoria (Theory of Audiovisual Narration,
2000), Elokuva ja muut taiteet (Film in Relation to Other Arts, 2005) and
Väkivallan lumo (The Enchantment of Fictional Violence, 2010). He has
also published articles on film, fictionality and cognition.

James Cisneros is associate professor at the Université de Montréal. His

research interests include Latin American literature and film, cultural
studies and urban cultural production. He has lectured and published
extensively on media studies in specialised journals, and has guest-edited
two issues of Intermédialitiés: histoire et théorie des arts, des letters et des
techniques, one about transmedial storytelling techniques, “Raconter,” and
another, “Bâtir/Build,” about urban space and architecture.

Nuno N. Correia is a Portuguese new media artist, researcher and

musician currently finishing his doctorate at Aalto University, School of
Art and Design—Media Lab, Helsinki, where he also teaches. He is
engaged in various audiovisual and multi-sensorial projects. Correia’s
work, mainly as part of the new media art duo Video Jack, has been
showcased in more than 15 countries, in such festivals and venues as
Electro-Mechanica (St. Petersburg), FILE (São Paulo), Le Cube (Paris),
Mapping (Geneva), NAME (Lille), Optronica / British Film Institute
(London), PixelAche / Kiasma (Helsinki) and SXSW (Austin, Texas).

Peter Dayan is professor of word and music studies at the University of

Edinburgh. His book Music Writing Literature, from Sand via Debussy to
Derrida (2006) showed how music and poetry worked together, in the
nineteenth century as well as in poststructuralist theory, to produce art.
Dayan’s present book, Art as Music, Music as Poetry, Poetry as Art: From
Whistler to Stravinsky and Beyond (2011), considers painting in addition
214 Intermedial Arts

to poetry and music, and focuses on the twentieth century. Much of

Dayan’s recent work has been on how Stravinsky views the relationship
between music, words and images.

Leena Eilittä is adjunct professor of comparative literature at the University

of Helsinki. Her current research focuses upon intermedial relations,
particularly in Romantic literature. Eilittä is on the board of the
International Federation for Modern Languages and Literatures and has
been a visiting scholar at the universities of Leipzig (2004), Zurich (2006),
Mainz (2007) and Poitiers (2010). Her publications include the mono-
graphs Approaches to Personal Identity in Kafka’s Short Fiction (1999),
Ingeborg Bachmann’s Utopia and Disillusionment (2008) and, more
recently, articles and conference papers on text/image relations.

Helena Eskelinen is a postgraduate at the University of Helsinki. She is

currently working on a dissertation on ekphrasis and the role of visual arts
in Gabriele D’Annunzio’s novels.

Mari Hatavara is professor of Finnish literature, and vice director of the

School of Language, Translation and Literary Studies at the University of
Tampere. Her research interests include narrative theory, relations between
verbal and visual arts, historical fiction and nineteenth-century aesthetics.
She has held visiting positions at the University of Oregon and the Univer-
sity of Uppsala and was fellow-in-residence at the Swedish Collegium for
Advanced Study in the spring of 2011. Hatavara’s most recent articles in
English include “The Rhetoric of Narrating Communal History in the
Nineteenth-Century Finnish Historical Novel” in Intertexts (2010).

Tommi Kakko is a doctoral candidate at the University of Tampere. His

dissertation examines early eighteenth-century British criticism and satire.
He has published essays and reviews in Finnish and English journals.
These include “Hallucinatory Terror: The World of the Hashish Eater” in
Cannabis: What Were We Just Talking About? (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010)
and “Grotesque Knowledge in Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year”
in The Grotesque and the Unnatural (Cambria Press, forthcoming).
Intermedial Arts 215

Sabine Kim teaches at Mainz University. She is working on a cultural

history of sound and media from the nineteenth century to the present. Art-
icles include: “Haunted Listening: Spiritualism and Techniques of Hearing
in 19th-Century America”; “For the Birds? Poetry, Bird-Watching and
Ethical Attentiveness”; and “Trans-ing the Nation: Re-Reading Ethnicity
in Fred Wah” (The Canadian Mosaic in the Age of Transnationalism).

Markku Lehtimäki is postdoctoral researcher at the University of

Tampere and in the Academy of Finland. He is the author of The Poetics
of Norman Mailer’s Nonfiction (2005) and co-editor of Intertextuality and
Intersemiosis (2004), Thresholds of Interpretation (2006), and Real
Stories, Imagined Realities (2007). He has also written articles on
narrative theory, visual culture, and American literature.

Liliane Louvel is professor of British literature at the University of

Poitiers. She specialises in contemporary British literature and word/image
relationships. Her publications include L’oeil du texte (1989), Texte/
image : images à lire, textes à voir (2002), Le tiers pictural: pour une
critique intermédiale (2010), Poetics of the Iconotext (2011), and, edited
with Henri Scepi, Texte/image: nouveaux problèmes (2004), as well as
numerous articles on text/image relations. Liliane Louvel has chaired the
French Association of English Studies in France (SAES); the Poitiers-
based research centre FORELL; and SAIT, the French association for the
study of intermedial relationships.

Raluca Lupu-Onet teaches French and Francophone literature in the

Department of Language and Literature at Collège de Valleyfield. Her
main fields of research are Belgian surrealism and post-surrealism, Quebec
literature and the contemporary French novel. She wrote a PhD thesis on
Christian Dotremont’s logograms (La poétique de l’illisible chez Christian
Dotremont) and has published numerous articles on Dotremont, Paul
Nougé, Pascal Vrebos, Marie Darrieussecq and the European avant-garde.
From 2005 to 2008, she was chair of student activities at the Centre de
recherche sur l’intermédialité at the Université de Montréal.
216 Intermedial Arts

Jarkko Toikkanen is postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tampere.

During 2011, he was visiting research fellow at the University of
Westminster, UK, developing his monograph on the experience of horror in
literature as an intermedial phenomenon. Toikkanen, who wrote his
dissertation on Paul de Man, has also published on the horror of Heinrich
von Kleist and on Robert Frost in the collection The Grotesque and the
Unnatural (forthcoming from Cambria Press).

Mette-Marie Zacher Sørensen is a doctoral candidate in the Department

of Aesthetics and Culture at the University of Aarhus, Denmark. She is
currently writing her dissertation on digital poetry and intermedial

Addison, Joseph, xi, 111, 112, 113, Benjamin, Walter, 15

115–117, 119–120, 123 Berg, Dirk J. van den, 21–23, 26, 30
Agamben, Giorgio, 5–9, 205 Berger, John, 22
Agee, James, x, 63–77 Berkeley, George, 122 n. 2, 123 n. 4
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Berlioz, Hector, 163–164
63–74 Bertolucci, Bernardo, xii, 147–157
Althusser, Louis, vii The Spider’s Stratagem, 147–148,
Andrew, Dudley, 130, 143 152–156
D’Annunzio, Gabriele, xi, 97–109, Blanchot, Maurice, 4, 6
214 Bootz, Philippe, x, 51, 54–44
The Child of Pleasure 97–107 “La série des U,” 54–57
Triumph of Death 99, 105 Bordwell, David, 157
The Innocent 99 Borges, Jorge Luis, 147–157, 199
Arasse, Daniel, 18 Borsuk, Amanda, and Brad Bouse
Aristotle, 114, 127, 177 Between Page and Screen, 60 n. 4
Arnold, Matthew, 196, 211 Braque, Georges, 130
Ascott, Roy Brennan, Teresa, 31 n. 2
‘Gesamtdatenkunstwerk’, 128 Breton, André, 39
Attali, Jacques, 182, 185 Broodthaers, Marcel
Auden W.H., 21–32 Gedicht/poem/poème,
“Musée des Beaux Arts,” 21, change/exchange/Wechsel, 7–8
24–30 Brooks, Cleanth, 211
Azeredos, Ronaldo Brophy, Gregory, 183
“Como o vento,” 55 Brown, Bill, 69
Bruegel, Pieter the Elder
Bakhtin, Mikhail, vii, viii, 79 Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
Bal, Mieke, 82, 86, 92 6, 21, 25–29, 31, 32 n. 3
Balakirev, Mily Alexeyevich, 164 Bruhn, Jörgen, 57
Bann, Stephen, 104, 107, 108 Bryson, Norman, 22
Barthes, Roland, vii, 77 n. 5, 81, 85, Bulgakov, Mikhail, xi, xii, 127–146
177–178 The Master and Margarita,
Batchen, Geoffrey, 70 129–146
Beethoven, Ludwig van, 161–164 Bürger, Peter
Eighth Symphony, 170 Theory of the Avant–Garde,
Moonlight Sonata, 161 33–34
Ninth Symphony, 163, 164 Burke, Edmund, 112
Second Symphony, 170 Burroughs, Floyd, 73
Belting, Hans, 22
218 Index of Names

Campen, Cretien van, 127, 128 Evans, Walker, x, 63–77

Carrier, David, 105 Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,
Carrilho, André, 146 64–74
Caws, Mary Ann, 27, 28, 32 n. 5, 48
de Certeau, Michel, 194 Fédida, Pierre, 15
Chesneau, Ernest, 103, 104 Finlay, Ian Hamilton
Clüver, Claus, 18 n. 7, 82 “Little Sparta,” 57
CoBrA, 34–35, 41 Fludernik, Monika, 32 n. 7, 82
Collingwood, R. G., 90 Foucault, Michel, vii, 5, 64
Connor, Steven, 177, 186 Fragonard, Jean–Honoré
Craft, Robert The Lock, 11
interview with Stravinsky, 163, Freitag, Michel, 195, 197, 210 n. 5
166, 167, 168, 169 Freud, Sigmund, 7, 19 n. 8
Crary, Jonathan, 182 Frost, Robert, 216
Cros, Charles, 181
Genette, Gérard, 41, 44, 148
Damisch, Hubert, 7, 14, 19 n. 8 Giacomo, Franco Di, 153
Danto, Arthur C., 25, 28, 91 Gitelman, Lisa, 181
Derrida, Jacques, vii, 189 n. 10, Gombrich, E.H., 12, 105, 201,
210 n. 10 211 n. 13
Dickinson, Emily, 173–189 Granacci, Francesco
“I heard a Fly buzz—when I Rest on the Flight into Egypt with
died—”, 173–186 the Infant St John the Baptist
Didi–Huberman, Georges, 7, 19 n. 8 (formerly The Holy Family with
Dijkstra, Bram, 100, 101, 108 n. 8 St John in a Landscape), 9, 10,
Disney, Walt, 128 12, 14
Doane, Mary Ann, 177 Greenblatt, Stephen, 64, 76 n. 2
Döhl, Reinhard, 51–60 Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich, 193
“Apfel” 52–53, 57–58
Dolar, Mladen, 177, 178, 185 Hall, Stuart, 23
Dotremont, Christian, x, 33–50 Hardt, Michael, 210 n. 7
Logogrammes II, 43–44 Hayles, N. Katherine, 57
Dryden, John, xi, 113–115, 119–121 Heffernan, James A.W., 31 n. 1, 82,
“To the Pious Memory,” 111, 120 108 n. 1
Du Fresnoy, Charles Alphonse Heidegger, Martin
De arte graphica, 113 “On the Origin of the Work of
Durcan, Paul, ix, 3–19 Art,” 71, 74, 75, 76 n. 4
Crazy About Women, 3–17 Helmholtz, Hermann von, 182
Herman, David, 89, 148–152
Edison, Thomas Alva, 173, 174, Hirsch, Marianne, 75, 76, 85, 89, 90
181, 182, 189 n. 9 Hitchcock, Alfred
Elleström, Lars, ix, 51, 56, 57 The Wrong Man, 150
Ellis, John, 147 Homer, 117
Enns, Anthony, 182, 189 n. 11 Horace, 114

Intermedial Arts 219

Horstkotte, Silke, 75, 83, 85, 87, 90 Louhimies, Aku

Hume, David, 122 Tears of April, 80
Humboldt, Wilhelm von, 195 Louvel, Liliane, ix, 13, 88
Hutcheon, Linda, 81, 90
Huysman, J.K., 97 Macho, Thomas, 176, 188 n. 4
Magritte, René, 50 n. 3, 147, 155
Jameson, Fredric, 76, 77 n. 4 Empire of Light 153
Jay, Martin, 31 n. 2 Human Condition 153
Jordaens, Jacob Marshall, David, 112
The Veneration of the Eucharist, Maxwell, Richard, 80
9, 10–11, 12, 13 McCormack, Jerusha Hull, 183,
189 n. 6
Kant, Immanuel, 203 McHale, Brian, 65, 66, 90
Keats, John, 193, 204, 211 n. 19 McLeish, Archibald
“Ode on a Grecian Urn,” 204–207 Land of the Free, 76 n. 1
Kittler, Friedrich, 58 Méchoulan, Éric, 210 n. 8
Klimowski, Andrzej, 129, 143 Michetti, Francesco Paolo
Kolker, Robert, 153 The Vow, 105, 107, 109
Krieger, Murray, 204, 205, Mikkonen, Kai, 31
211 n. 18 Miller, J. Hillis, 120
Kristeva, Julia, vii, viii Milne, Lesley, 129, 130
Krämer, Sybille Milton, John, 117
Medium, Bote, Übertragung, Mitchell, W.J.T. 22, 56, 66, 82, 87,
184–185 106, 109 n. 18,
re intermediality of modes, 70, 80,
Lacan, Jacques, vii, 14 83, 92
Lakoff, George, 82 re G.E. Lessing, 201, 202, 210 n.
Lander, Leena, xi, 79–95 11, 211 n. 13, n. 14
The Order, 80–93 re mixed media, 112, 120, 121
Lange, Dorothea, and Paul S. Taylor Miyoshi, Masao, 197, 198, 210 n. 3
An American Exodus, 76 n. 1 Moritz, William, 127, 128
Latham, James Morrissey, Lee, 115
Portrait of Bishop Robert Clayton Mukherjee, Neel, 129
and his Wife Katherine, 9, 11– Müller, J.E., viii, 209 n. 1
Leavis, F.R., 196 Negri, Antonio, 210 n. 7
Lee, Vernon, 108 n. 13 Nencioni, Enrico, 109 n. 15
Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm, Newton, Isaac, 128
122 n. 2 Noble, Andrea, 70
Leighton, Frederic Sir, 102, 103 Nougé, Paul, 50 n. 3
Lessing, G.E., 4, 7, 51, 112, 193,
201–203, 207, 210 n. 11, O’Brien, Nelly, 102–104, 106
211 n. 13 Ong, Walter J., 56
El Lissitzky, 130, 133
Liszt, Franz, 164
Locke, John, xi, 111–123

220 Index of Names

Palmer, Alan, 79 Shakespeare, William, 211 n. 13,

Parmigianino [Girolamo Francesco 211 n. 16, 151, 152
Maria Mazzola], 3, 18 Shklovsky, Viktor, 38
Pater, Walter, 104–105, 106, Sidney, Philip, 120
109 n. 15 Simanowski, Roberto, 53
Paul, Christiane, 128 Sontag, Susan, 85, 86, 90
Pedri, Nancy, 69, 83, 85, 87, 90 Spitzer, Leo, 204, 211 n. 17
Peirce, C.S., 70 Steinbeck, John, 76 n. 1
Picard, Michel, 15 Sterne, Jonathan, 181, 189 n. 9
Picasso, Pablo, 130 Stolow, Jeremy, 180, 181
Picker, John M., 181–182, 183 Storaro, Vittorio, 153
Piles, Roger de, 5 Stravinsky, Igor, xii, 159–171
Plato, 127 Chroniques de ma vie, 160–161,
Plutarch, 117 164
Pope, Alexander, 122 Les Noces, 160
Pythagoras, 127 The Owl and the Pussycat, 166–
Rajewsky, Irina O., viii, 52, 53, 58 Renard, 160, 167
Ramuz, Charles–Ferdinand Russian poetry, 165–166
Souvenirs sur Igor Stravinsky, Symphony in Three Movements,
165, 166 167–169
Rancière, Jacques, 123 n. 5 Tilimbom, 166
Readings, Bill, 195–200, 203, 207, Sturken, Marita, and Lisa
208, 210 n. 9, 211 n. 16 Cartwright
Reed, T.V., 65, 69, 71, 74 Practices of Looking: An
Reid, Thomas, 112 Introduction to Visual Culture,
Reynolds, Joshua Sir, 102–104, 106 23, 24, 28
Richardson, Jonathan, xi, iii, 117–
121 Tagg, John, 64, 71, 74
Essay, 117–118 Tisseron, Serge, 6
The Art of Criticism, 117–119
The Science of the Connoisseur, van Gogh, Vincent
117 A Pair of Shoes 71, 73, 77 n. 4
Ricoeur, Paul, 211 n. 15 Verdi, Guiseppe, 152
Rimsky–Korsakov, Nikolai, 164 Attila, 152
Rodchenko, Alexander, 130 Ernani, 152
Rose, Gillian, 28, 32 n. 6 Il Trovatore, 152
Rousset, Jean, 7 Rigoletto, 152
Video Jack [Nuno N. Correia and
Schiller, Friedrich, 203 André Carrilho]
“An die Freude”, 163 Heat Seeker, 146 n. 2
Schlegel, Friedrich, 196, 202, Master and Margarita, 127–144
211 n. 16 Vinci, Leonardo da, 128
Scott, Grant, 203, 211 n. 19 Mona Lisa 103–105, 106

Intermedial Arts 221

Virgil, 117 Williams, William Carlos, x, 21–32

Visconti, Luchino “Landscape with the Fall of
Senso, 157 n. 3 Icarus,” 24–30
Voilloux, Bernard, 19 n. 10 Wittgenstein, Ludwig, 112, 120
Wolf, Bryan, 105, 106
Wagner, Peter, 66, 83 Woolf, Virginia, 194
Wagner, Richard, xii, 128, 144, 162 Wright, Richard, and Edwin
Waldman, Diane, 130 Rosskam
Warburg, Aby, 7 Twelve Million Black Voices,
Watten, Barrett, 76 n. 2 76 n. 1
Weber, Samuel, 197, 206–208,
210 n. 4 Yacobi, Tamar, 19 n. 11, 80, 82, 83,
Werner, Marta L., 175, 176, 184 85, 91


Achilles’ shield, 202, 205 digital art, 51, 54–58, 60 n. 4, 127–

acoustic, the 144, 184
as signifier, 38, 167
as trace, 183 economy of the visible, 6
integration of sound and image, ekphrasis, xi, 5–9, 10–17, 21–30,
127–128, 130–131, 136, 144 79–93, 97–108, 114, 118,
in video art, 138, 140, 143 202,193–208
listening, 56, 144, 155, 176, 177, definition of, 24, 80, 82,
181, 185 108 n. 1
media, 56, 58 erotic, the, 8–15, 99–102, 106, 204–
musical interpretation of, 161, 205
163–164, 167
outside the representational Gesamtkunstwerk, 128, 144
frame of the visual, 86–87
poème symphonique, 163–164 iconotext, 6, 36, 37, 39, 44, 49,
voice, theory of, 173, 174, 178, 63–69
184 definition of, 66
adaptation image
in cinema, 80, 95 n. 2, 147–156, anachronism of, 200, 206–207,
in video art, 127–144 210 n. 8, 211 n. 16
theories of, viii, xii, 38, 127–128, and historical interpretation, 80,
130 81–83, 85, 86, 88–89, 91, 92,
aesthetics of the everyday, 69–74 151, 152, 208 n. 14
animation, 131–143, 144 and memory, x, 5, 7, 15, 76 n. 3,
88, 89–90, 102, 173, 174, 177,
cinema, 58, 80, 128, 129, 147–156, 181, 182, 184, 206
168, 180 and music, 160–161, 162–164
collage, 15, 33, 34, 44, 97, 130 (see and the spectator, 7–8, 10, 15–17,
also montage; palimpsest) 29–30, 40, 45–46, 47, 52–53,
56–57, 60 n. 4, 71, 92–93, 105–
defamiliarisation, 38 107, 114, 116, 148
Depression, the Great, and verbal representation, 65–69
representation of, x, 63–64, 65– and word (see word and image)
74, 71, Figs. on 68, 72
224 Subject Index

cinematic anachronism of, 155– narration and mediation (see

156 also novel)
indexical, 70, 73, 182–183 Borges’s “The Theme of the
temporality of, 4–5, 6–7, 8, 13, Traitor”, 147–148, 150–152
23, 27, 29–30, 39, 46, 51, 52, fictional embedding, 80, 79–93,
57, 58, 71, 83, 89, 90, 173–174, 202, 205
177, 185, 196, 201, 202, 203, hypothetical focalisation, 147,
204–205, 207 148–150, 154
imitation narration and photography, 65–69
‘borrowing’, xi, 97–107, 127–144 National Gallery of Ireland, 4–6, 9,
esp. 130, 132, 152 16
copying, 185, copy theory, 112, novel, the
118–119 adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov,
of image, 16, 52–53, 58, 79, 80, 127–144
91, 92, 103, 113–115, 201 and collage, 97 ff.
plagiarism, 151 cinematic narration, 149–150
interdisciplinarity, xii–x, 159–171, fin de siècle, 97–107
193–208 historical fiction, xi, 79–93
storyworld, 79–83, 86, 89, 90, 91–
media theory 92, 149
and archives, 180–183
master medium, 111, 120–121 painting, 6, 21, 25–29, 31, 32 (see
media ‘apparatus’, 5–8, 15–17 also ekphrasis)
media combination, viii, 12, 54– palimpsest, 41, 44, 184
59, 128, versus transformation photography, 16, 63–74, 80–81,
52–53 82–90, 130, 134, 180, 182, 183
mixed media, 16, 26, 34, 51–55, pictorial third, ix, 3, 13–14, 17
56, 70, 112, 120, 127–144, poetry
175–176 18th century theories of, 111–121
memory 19th century, 58, 175–176, 179–
and image as ‘survivor’, 7 180, 200–208
and institution, 193–208 20th–21st centuries, 3–17, 21–30,
as event, 15 33–49, 51–58,
cultural, 76 n. 3, 180–184 and music, 162–167
of audience–viewer–reader, 47, and painting (see ekphrasis)
98–107 and recording media, 45, 174
‘postmemory’, 89–90 concrete, 36, 51–53, 57–58
montage, 15, 33, 130 digital, 54–55, 56, 57
and photography, 34, 130, 133, iconopoem (see iconotext)
136 logograms, 33–47
sound, 133, 136 tone poems, 163–164
music, viii, 54, 56, 67, 127, 130, ut pictura poesis, ix, 112, 203
135, 140, 143, 144, 152, 155, visual, x, 33–49
156, 159–171, 182
phoneme music, 167
visual music, 128

Intermedial Arts 225

poetics translation, ix, xii, 38, 47, 159, 165-

cultural, 63–74, 23, 31 n. 2 166, 167-168, 176
cognitive, 29, 82
musical, 162–171 word and image
of cinema, 147–150 Agee on photography and
of the novel, 89–91 textuality, 65–69
theories of Didi–Huberman’s ‘picturing
Joseph Addison, 115–117 culture’, 7, 19 n. 8
John Dryden, 113–115 Dotremont’s materiality of
Jonathan Richardson, 117–119 language, 33, 38–41, 45–46,
simulacrum, 7 (see also imitation) Stravinsky on ‘word–setting’ in
surrealism, 34 music, 159, 163, 166–167
and anti–Formalism, 35 theory of, 5–8
disruptive objects, 44–45,
50 n. 3 video art, 127–144
materiality of language, 39–40