English 430: Literature & the Visual Arts

September 3, 2009

Down the Ekphrastic Rabbit Hole

Filed under: Uncategorized — chs79 @ 1:56 am

I was at a concert at the Hollywood Bowl over the summer where I witnessed an occurrence that has since been much fodder for both thought and conversation. It was a world music concert and while the ceremony of the concert itself was certainly an event worth witnessing, it was decidedly the music that brought the audience to the amphitheater with the exception of one patron who witnessed the concert in silence. The patron was deaf. I know this only because there was a sign language interpreter to the left of the stage who was illuminated during the entire concert by a large pool of light so that the patron could watch the lyrics being translated into meaningful hand gestures.

I was reminded of the paradox that this sight presented as I read through the discussion of ekphrasis and the debate surrounding the ability of one creative format to accurately represent that which exists in a very different creative format. While my experience at the Bowl was the first of its kind in my extensive concert-going life, the struggle between forms that it presented is familiar. In fact, the battle waged by the word to represent that which it is not can be seen in everyday life when a storyteller gives up on trying to recount an event with an exasperated, “You had to be there.”

Gertrude Stein said, “A writer should write with his eyes and a painter paint with his ears.” The concept of ekphrasis seems to be captured by the first part of this Stein quotation. However, the idea of ekphrasis, even as delineated by Mitchell’s tripartite indifference/hope/fear model, is still inadequate. The question of whether a picture is worth a thousand words may very well be answered with yes but this answer only serves to further complicate the question by necessitating even more questions. Which thousand words are being represented by the picture? And given that both images and words can have multiple meanings and can elicit multifarious responses, can one group of words accurately capture every nuance of a visual, and can the author control the connotations carried by particular words effectively enough so that the visual itself – and nothing more or extraneous – is conveyed?

Both Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts” and Williams “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” use words to describe the Brueghel painting they are viewing and yet the words they use vary both in and of themselves and in quantity. Auden and Williams each speak of the farmer in the painting but only Auden mentions the ship and neither goes into any detail about the landscape or other figures that appear in the painting. Williams chose to speak only of the painting but Auden devotes only a portion of his poem to the painting and instead begins with generalizations about “The Old Masters.” Are they both guilty of reading both more and less into the painting than what appears or was intended?

The same questions can be posed about Homer’s description of the Shield of Achilles. Is ekphrasis possible when two people can read the same words and yet exit the experience with a different visual? By way of example here are four very different renderings of the shield:





Is one more correct than the other? Does Auden, who we may accuse of imposing more on Brueghel than intended, fall short in his description of the shield since there is so much less detail included in his ekphrastic attempt? Or is Auden perhaps more credible since with Homer’s version the reader must rely not only on the author but also on the translator and so finds yet another intermediary imposed between himself and the object?

The interplay between word and image also begs questions about the reader and what is to be expected. For example, is ekphrastic writing to be judged so harshly that each word must individually accomplish the impossible task of making the whole image leap forth or is it sufficient for the writing as a whole to gives life to that which it is describing? And if it is the writing as a whole that must be taken into account then is it the responsibility of the reader to read and re-read until he has gained such familiarity that he is able to hold each word in his mind simultaneously in order to duplicate the full experience of standing before the subject of the ekphrastic piece? Yet this begs further questions because if the responsibility falls on the reader then is the reader’s failure to envision what has been described or his failure to envision it accurately the fault entirely of the reader such that fault cannot be imputed to the author? This seems to make sense except for the conundrum that it allows for an argument that all attempts at ekphrasis are successful and that the shortcomings fall not with the writer but with the reader. Such a result seems absurd.

Perhaps ekphrasis cannot hope to be more than “the intersection of verbal and visual” with the emphasis on intersection. The value of ekphrasis might lie in the ability of the verbal and visual to find exactly one point at which they collide in perfect unison while allowing for the idea that both the verbal and visual each extend beyond that point of intersection.


  1. Ah, I very much appreciate the links to the four different visual interpretations of the shield! (I went ahead and made the links active so that all could easily follow them.)

    Also the Stein quotation, A writer should write with his eyes and a painter paint with his ears, which will definitely be relevant to our discussions in the weeks ahead!

    Comment by charleshatfield — September 3, 2009 @ 1:59 pm | Reply

  2. In fact, the battle waged by the word to represent that which it is not can be seen in everyday life when a storyteller gives up on trying to recount an event with an exasperated, “You had to be there.”

    Yes, very well observed. I had meant to express my appreciation for your example of the deaf concert-goer as well. This reminded me of the fabulous concert percussionist and composer Evelyn Glennie, who is in fact deaf. Check out her website, http://www.evelyn.co.uk, if you’ve never heard of her.

    I am told that deaf concert-goers are often able to feel vibratory sensations from the music. On that note, check out this article about music interpreter Sean Forbes, at Weekend America: http://weekendamerica.publicradio.org/display/web/2008/09/20/music_for_deaf/

    Comment by charleshatfield — September 3, 2009 @ 2:09 pm | Reply

  3. you guys should start a google wave…

    Here’s a thought: consider visual illusions such as the picture seen by some to be an old witch, by others to be a young woman. When given to a random audience, there is a certain percentage choosing for one interpretation, and the rest for the other. Now, *when you accentuate certain tiny points/features in the drawing* you will see that there will grow a bias for one interpretation above the other.

    Thus, some features in the drawing are more linked to one interpretation than the other, and by stressing these the audience can be guided to that interpretation. It seems to me that ekphrasis can be just that. A picture says more than a thousand tiny points, but marking the more essential ‘points’ does go a long way in capturing the power of the picture…

    Comment by wouter( belgium) — November 21, 2009 @ 7:03 am | Reply

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