Discussion Group: Ekphrasis


Participants: Pawel Kaliszewskí (Freie Universität Berlin); Lianjiang Yu; Kasia Szymanska (St Hugh’s/MML); Natalie Ferris (Queen’s/English); Rey Conquer (Somerville/MML); Andrea Selleris (Warwick); Céline Sabiron (Wolfson/English) Rosie Lavan (St Anne’s/English)


 Valentine Cunningham, 'Why Ekphrasis?', Classical Philology 102:1, January 2007

 Ruth Webb, Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Practice (Abingdon: Ashgate, 2009), Ch. 4, 'Making Absent Things Present'.


Introduction (Rosie Lavan/Helen Slaney)

 Both texts cohere around the idea of presence: how writing/language negotiates absence and suggests presence

 Whereas Cunningham examines ekphrasis in the traditional sense of a work of art embedded in a fictional text, Webb examines it as a rhetorical device or linguistic feature: vivid description with the ability to generate mental images (phantasiai). This ability is termed enargeia in ancient writings on oratory

 Ekphrasis in the sense of describing art is a subset of ekphrasis generally, which involves verbal description of any scene in such a way as to make it seem present to readers or auditors: a landscape, a set-piece event (such as a shipwreck or battle) or a person can all be ekphrastic subjects.

 Function of enargeia in poetry versus its function in forensic oratory: poets can convince their auditors of the existence of the fantastical (eg the Furies) but orators need to maintain verisimilitude: ‘a narrative needs to conform to an audience’s expectations of what is likely’ (Webb 103). [But cf. C17 dramatic theory, e.g. Corneille’s Trois Discours sur la poème dramatique, in which vraisemblance is the most important factor in creating theatrical illusion.]

 Why is vividness persuasive? It gives a sense of autopsy, i.e. that you were present at the event and witnessed it first-hand, by bringing specific sensory details to mind; and it arouses emotion.

 Enargeia taps into the auditors’ memories. Do you need to be a skilled listener to appreciate this poetic / oratorical device? The ability to conjure phantasiai in your own mind can be cultivated by practice. Does training in public speaking therefore paradoxically make you more susceptible to its persuasive effect?

 Dominance of the visual paradigm, the “mind’s eye”; but Webb notes that at times, ‘the mental image itself is almost superfluous. Its function is to arouse the desired feeling in the listener.’ Relationship of enargeia and emotion. Can language bypass the visual and go straight for the visceral? Is the term “mental image” misleading, if the verbal description appeals to senses other than sight?

 There is also a pervasive assumption in ancient authors that the phantasiai of auditors will be the same as those in the mind of the orator; this could be because these images come from a common stock of trained responses (?).

 Cf. Cunningham: What is the difference between depicting an actual object (eg the Vatican Ariadne) and an imaginary object (eg the Shield of Achilles)? To him it doesn’t matter.  Note his emphasis on thereness: the ekphrastic moment in a text gestures deictically towards what is there, what is present

 When a real art work is described in a text it functions as a guarantor of the writing – but there is always the “as if” factor: that’s to say, a description appears in place of what it describes. The silence of the object described – its absence – creates the space for interpretation



 Both critics bring back the etymology of ekphrasis – literally, to speak out

 There is an argument which posits language itself as ekphrastic because it decribes things which are non-verbal

 Can we see ekphrasis as an ethical or political act, because it’s a process which enables something which does not exist or which is voiceless to speak? But if we do, how is this any different to what a novelist does in creating a character?

 There’s a certain pessimism in the examples Cunningham brings because we know they are doomed to failure

 It seems Cunningham has difficulty describing the what and the how of ekphrasis within a text – he uses the words encounter, commentary, description, meeting…and also the idea of a pause in the text. But is the ekphrastic encounter always a pause or break in the narrative/text? If so, surely it’s entirely artificial: it’s to do with how the reader receives it, because its presence in the narrative is entirely by the design of the author

 Some discussion of the materiality of language and the extent to which it is possible/helpful to conceive of language in this way (cf Concrete poets etc; cf also writing which has a double representative function – Chinese calligraphy. And Guadier-Brzeska’s claim to be able to read Chinese without ever having studied it).

 Cunningham doesn’t distinguish between the different kinds of texts he cites: e.g. it’s important to think about the differences between the photographs inserted into a Sebald novel versus the descriptions of paintings in a Murdoch novel. You would pause for the former; you wouldn’t for the latter.

 Consider also the e.g. of some of Sebald’s descriptions which don’t match the photograph to which he apparently refers: which emphasises that there is not always going to be the same marrying of subjectivities in the apprehension of the ciausl

 Important to note 19th C shift in the way the visual object/artwork is written about – from ‘objective’ description of early century when it could be assumed that the majority of readers may not have seen the artwork under discussion; to e.g. Pater in the 1870s and onwards – highly subjective responses to art works.

 But isn’t any description going to be subjective? What guarantors are there of objectivity?

 Questions about the extent to which ekphrastic description is faithful connect to Sontag’s famous assertion from ‘Against Interpretation’ that every act of interpretation is an act of translation

 Important to remember the implication of physical effect/affect in enargeia – and perhaps to get away from the modern/post-romantic sense of memory and imagination as being individual or subjective faculties

 The double-myth of painting/the visual which Matthew Reynolds has recently discussed in his introduction to Likenesses: why should the visual be any more complex than the verbal? And why do we presume the visual to be at once more direct and yet more complex a form of representation? Cunningham’s idea of the pause seems to rely on that.

 Memory and the difficulty of describing it: cf. Robbe-Grillet’s kerbstone in Labyrinth…a protracted pause.

 Another interesting text to consider here might be T. J. Clark’s The Sight of Death – when he returned to the same Poussin painting every day for a year and recorded his responses. At one stage he’s driven to writing a poem which he feels is the only form adequate to conveying the experience of this seeing – yet paradoxically this is where the text is least successful. What he claims is the best form of ekphrastic criticism actually forces the text to fail: another pause.

 But what Clark also achieves in that book is a certain undermining of the professionalisation of ekphrasis, through art criticism: so much contemporary art criticism is sustained by that encounter, that conjuring into being, that a creative way of talking about it has been adopted.