English 430: Literature & the Visual Arts

August 30, 2009

Ekphrasis

Filed under: Ch. 2 (ekphrasis),OUR JOURNAL — alyale51 @ 11:05 pm

When I read the definition of ekphrasis from the University of Chicago, I thought immediately of Anne Carson’s experiment in transferring performance practices to paper, Decreation, which, in addition to poems and essays, contains a screenplay, a documentary, an opera, and description of/commentary on another experimental dramaturgical presentation, Beckett’s Quad.  The inclusion of illustrations (still photographs of Quadrat I & II, and Monica Vitti in Il Deserto Rosso, as well as Betty Goodwin’s 1988 Seated Figure with Red Angle) serves to complete the implication that as a whole, Carson contrived the work Decreation as ekphrasis, literally translated from Greek as “speaking out,” or calling inanimate objects by name.  This specific speech act recalls the operation of logos speaking the creation into existence, or calling everything into being. 

            Utilizing the literary genres of poetry and essay, Carson reflects on experiences (treated as objects) ranging from her mother’s late life illness (possibly dementia), to a filmmaker’s visit to an asylum, to solar eclipses, to the ecstasy of Sappho, Marguerite Porete, and Simone Weil, ostensibly to illuminate what the eye may have overlooked in the original, to elevate the experience, surpassing the mundane “first look” of physical sight.  Going a step beyond mere ekphrastic description, however, Carson manufactures poetry in forms (synonymous, in this case, with structures) not traditionally thought of for poetic art: oratorio, screenplay, opera, and a shot list billed as Longing, A Documentary.  Working through these structures, or rhetorical constructions, she ventures to reveal the spirit of the original object (or experience) to locate the original, unmanifest, in the purely mental realm of Plato’s Ideal forms, and reconstruct (re-speak) it onto the page, filtered through her own sublime artistic vision. 

It is clear, then, that Carson, a Greek scholar,  uses “ekphrasis” in the original (rhetorical) definition of the term, which, in my opinion has a much broader application (and implication) than the later special usages of the term.  The problem I see is that the narrowing of the definition does not allow or account for what I see happening in its application: not just the description of a visual image, but the artistic (poetic, narrative) interpretation of a visual image.  For example, Homer says in line 526 that the two shepherds Hephaestus wrought are “piping at flutes in perfect innocence.”  How does he know the shepherds are innocent?  On the other hand, Auden mentions athletes (which aren’t depicted by Hephaestus), but makes no mention of shepherds.  In fact, Auden’s poem seems to underscore the issue of interpretation, and suggest that there are (at least) two differing interpretations of the shield: that of Hephaestus and that of Thetis.  Thetis looks for (but does not find) images that Hephaestus (according to Homer at least) has wrought.

This brings us to the two poems on the Brueghel painting.  That each of the poems creates a different narrative in response to one painting further underscores the issue of artistic rendering or interpretation as the image finds its way into words.  For Auden, Icarus’ fall is unremarkable; the ship has places to go, things to deliver, people to see, deadlines to meet.  For Williams, however, the farmer busy plowing his field (as well as perhaps any other witnesses) don’t even notice Icarus’ fall.  In other words, he (they) are totally oblivious to the incident.

With regard to the Keats poem, the speaker’s interpretation (and by association, the poet’s) is again betrayed by the use of adjectives: “happy, happy boughs!” (can trees be happy?), “peaceful citadel….this pious morn” – Keats is “reading” emotion into a narrative he creates about the scene depicted on the vase.

I believe that this tendency to create a story in response to and as an interpretation of an image is an inborn, or hard-wired human function.  Barthes says that captions serve to limit our interpretation of an image, and I believe that is true, because without an accompanying bit of text, we, by nature, would be happy to supply some.

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