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  • 7/27/2019 Hefferman, Ekphrasis and Representation


    Ekphrasis and RepresentationAuthor(s): James A. W. HeffernanReviewed work(s):Source: New Literary History, Vol. 22, No. 2, Probings: Art, Criticism, Genre (Spring, 1991),pp. 297-316Published by: The Johns Hopkins University PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/469040 .

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  • 7/27/2019 Hefferman, Ekphrasis and Representation


    Ekphrasis and Representation*James A. W. Heffernan

    N THE AVIARY of contemporary critical discourse, ekphrasis s anold and yet surprisingly unfamiliar bird. The literary represen-tation of visual art is at least as old as Homer, who in theeighteenth book of the Iliad describes at length the scenes depictedon the shield of Achilles. According to the OxfordClassicalDictionary,the use of the word ekphrasis o denote this kind of description datesfrom about the third century A.D., and the OED tells us that by1715 the word had entered the English language.' Now it hasentered the world of academic conferences. In November 1986, itwas the topic of the Tenth International Colloquium on Poetics atColumbia University, and just a few months later, it was the topicof a session at the first International Conference on Word andImage in Amsterdam. Nevertheless, this ancient term is still strug-gling for modern recognition. The Princteon Encyclopediaof Poetryand Poetics, for instance, offers articles on the eclogue and the elegy,but nothing on ekphrasis even in the enlarged edition of 1974. Andwhile ekphrasishas finally found its way into the subject headingscovered by the MLA International Bibliography,only six items haveappeared under this heading since 1983.This does not mean, of course, that scarcely anyone is writingabout the literary representation of visual art; it simply means thatscarcely anyone is using the word ekphrasisto do so-even in thediscussion of such paradigmatically ekphrastic poems as Keats's "Odeon a Grecian Urn." Thirty years ago, shortly after Earl Wassermanpublished The Finer Tone, Leo Spitzer took him to task for writingfifty pages on the ode without ever identifying it as an example ofekphrasis, and a dozen years later Murray Krieger saluted Spitzerfor having "profitably taught us" to see the ode in this way.2 ButSpitzer's lesson has not been very well learned. Helen Vendler's

    *My thanks to Stuart Curran and George T. Wright, who made helpful suggestionson an earlier version of this essay, and also to Michael Riffaterre, who invited meto deliver the original version of it at the Columbia colloquium mentioned in theopening paragraph.New LiteraryHistory, 1991, 22: 297-316

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    thirty-six-page commentary on Keats's poem in her book on hisodes makes no mention of ekphrasis, and the same is true of anotherwise thoroughgoing essay on Shelley's "Ozymandias" that ap-peared a few years ago in Studies in Romanticism.3Most surprisingof all, perhaps, the word ekphrasiscan scarcely be found in a specialissue of Word and Image that was wholly devoted to the topic ofpoems on pictures.4All right, it may be asked, so what? Why should the fate of aword disturb us? If critics like Helen Vendler can write splendidlyilluminating pages on the poetic treatment of visual art withoutusing the word ekphrasis, why do we need it at all? Why not leaveit with the ancient Greek rhetoricians who first gave it to us? Myanswer to these questions is that ekphrasisdesignates a literary mode,and it is difficult if not impossible to talk about a literary modeunless we can agree on what to name it.5 I use ekphrasisas the nameof a mode that I want to define and survey before considering tworemarkable specimens of it in detail. As a prelude to specific ex-plications, I want to formulate a definition of ekphrasis itself, or-more presumptuously--to sketch out a comprehensive theory of it.In the past twenty years, the single most influential attempt toarticulate a theory of ekphrasis is Murray Krieger's essay of 1967,"Ekphrasisand the Still Movement of Poetry; or, LaokodnRevisited."6Krieger's essay might also have been called Joseph Frank revisitedor W. J. T. Mitchell anticipated, for in the face of Lessing what itseeks to demonstrate is the "generic spatiality of literary form."' Tothis end, Krieger elevates ekphrasis from a particular kind of lit-erature to a literary principle. The plastic, spatial object of poeticimitation, he says, symbolizes "the frozen, stilled world of plasticrelationships which must be superimposed upon literature's turningworld to 'still' it" (5). Almost inevitably, Keats's "Ode on a GrecianUrn" serves as Krieger's prime example, but he also finds ekphrasisin rather different poems, such as in Marvell's "Coy Mistress," wherethe ball, he says, is a "physical, spatial . . . emblem of [the speaker's]mastery over time" (20). In Krieger's essay, then, ekphrasis becomes"a general principle of poetics, asserted by every poem in theassertion of its integrity" (22).Krieger's theory of ekphrasis seems to give this moribund terma new lease on life, but actually Krieger stretches ekphrasis to thebreaking point: to the point where it no longer serves to containany particular kind of literature and merely becomes a new namefor formalism.8 So it has appeared, in any case, to critics of Hei-deggerian persuasion, to those who believe that only a hermeneuticsof contingent historicity and existential temporality can explainliterature to us. In the eyes of such critics, as Michael Davidson has

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    EKPHRASIS AND REPRESENTATION 299recently observed, Krieger's theory of ekphrasis would hermeticallyseal literature within the well-wrought urn of pure, self-enclosedspatiality, where the ashes of new criticism now repose (ashes stillglowing, I should probably add).' So Krieger's ekphrastic principlehas been shaken. According to Davidson, it has been underminedeven by certain kinds of poems about paintings-specifically by whatDavidson calls "the contemporary painterly poem." This Davidsoncontrasts with what he calls the "classical painter poem," a poem"about" a painting or work of sculpture which imitates the self-sufficiency of the object. "A poem 'about' a painting," Davidsonwrites, "is not the same as what I am calling a 'painterly poem,'which activates strategies of composition equivalent to but not de-pendent on the painting. Instead of pausing at a reflective distancefrom the work of art, the poet reads the painting as a text, ratherthan as a static object, or else reads the larger painterly aestheticgenerated by the painting" (72).Davidson's formulation helps him to explain such postmodernpoems as John Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," whichis based on Parmigianino's painting of the same name but whichquestions the ideas of stability, self-sufficiency, and authentic self-representation that Parmagianino's work ostensibly tries to convey.Yet Davidson hardly formulates a new theory of ekphrasis. Havingthrown out Krieger's ekphrastic principle and replaced it with adiachronic polarity between "classical"and "contemporary," he leavesus with no coherent sense of the synchronic mode that might containthem both, as well as with an oversimplified view of classical ekphrasis,which often treats the work of art as considerably morethan a staticobject. In Homer's account of the scenes depicted on the shield ofAchilles, for instance, many of the scenes turn into narratives.

    The weaknesses of these two theories of ekphrasis--the one toobroad, the other too polarized-help us to see what we need. Ifekphrasis is to be defined as a mode, the definition must be sharpenough to identify a certain kind of literature and yet also elasticenough to reach from classicism to postmodernism, from Homerto Ashbery. What I propose is a definition simple in form butcomplex in its implications: ekphrasis is the verbal representationofgraphic representation.This definition excludes a good deal of what some critics wouldhave ekphrasis nclude-namely literature about texts.'o It also allowsus to distinguish ekphrasis from two other ways of mingling literatureand the visual arts--pictorialism and iconicity. What distinguishesthose two things from ekphrasis is that each one aims primarily torepresent natural objects and artifacts rather than works of rep-resentational art. Of course pictorialism and iconicity may each

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    300 NEW LITERARY HISTORYremind us of graphic representation. Pictorialism generates in lan-guage effects similar to those created by pictures, so that in Spenser'sFaerie Queene, for instance, John M. Bender has found instances offocusing, framing, and scanning." But in such cases Spenser isrepresen