The proliferation of (copies of) images in recent decades facilitates viewing the image to which an ekphrastic text responds. Typically, I have argued previously (Poetics Today 33, no. 1: 27–57), whenever readers of an ekphrasis view the visual artwork to which the ekphrasis is a response, they become aware that the ekphrasis they would have written would be different from the one they are reading. I do not think that this response to an ekphrasis and the image it re-represents is new. But in addition to the increasing availability of images, something else occurred during recent decades. Theorists in several fields investigated the complex cognitive process of looking at a visual artwork and responding to it verbally. The resultant findings about visual representation and cognitive responses to visual representation are new. We now know, I argue here, that ekphrasis unavoidably misrepresents the image to which it responds — largely as a result of the polysemy of the image, the dissimilarity of images and words, and the perspectival montage in ekphrasis. With this knowledge, we read ekphrases with a new sophistication. And once readers understand that ekphrasis misrepresents, writers, in response, can institute new effects.
Ekphrasis as Misrepresentation: From Balzac’s Sarrasine to Cortázar’s “Graffiti”
Emma Kafalenos is the author of Narrative Causalities (2007) and was the guest editor of Narrative 9, no. 2 (2001), a special issue on contemporary narratology. Her work on narrative and narrative theory, often in relation to music, painting, photography, and cinema, has appeared in numerous journals including Comparative Literature, 19th-Century Music, Narrative, and Poetics Today. She is honorary senior lecturer in comparative literature at Washington University in St. Louis