Ravishing Atrocities

Patrick Maynard

  • Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane by Michael Fried
    Chicago, 215 pp, £23.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 226 26210 3
  • Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology by W.J.T. Mitchell
    Chicago, 226 pp, £7.25, October 1987, ISBN 0 226 53229 1

I said, I once heard a story which I believe, that Leontius the son of Aglaion, on his way up from the Piraeus under the outer side of the northern wall, becoming aware of dead bodies that lay at the place of execution at the same time felt a desire to see them and a repugnance and aversion, and that for a time he resisted and veiled his head, but overpowered despite all by his desire, with wide staring eyes he rushed up to the corpses and cried. There, ye wretches, take your fill of the fine spectacle!

I, too, he said, have heard the story.

So have we, and this was already an old sort of story by the time Plato told it. He has made it seem more real by telling a local, recent version, but he would have known the mythic one quite well: for in the story of Perseus, the king and his court, who had sent the hero for the head of Gorgon Medusa, had to look when he took the disfigured thing from his bag, and were turned into stone. What goes for seeing also goes for imagining we are seeing. We do a lot of such imagining, and many of the books, news pictures, films and television images we enjoy are designed to stimulate this. By this means we are often drawn to see things in imagination which we say we would not wish actually to see. There exist for this purpose whole industries of Medusa media.

It seems reasonable to explain the point and workings of such media by the word ‘realism’. Catastrophe, atrocity, difficulty need to be known as they really are, and such images help us to know them by making us imagine that we see them. Where reality is shocking, realism of representation may entail shock. Realistic devices such as perspective, highlight, colour and motion are sometimes seen simply as devices for letting reality come through into the picture. But we know by now that the situation is not so simple. That a camera is present, that it is so placed, with this focus and field, and how the result is edited – these are factors not entirely dictated by the events themselves, and all these variables may be controlled for effect. There can be art in this, and Michael Fried argues that within Western painting there is a special tradition of realism, stemming at least from Caravaggio (who, he reminds us, painted a Medusa). In such pictures it is not that a shocking effect is due to reality being let in through pictorial devices, but rather that the manipulation of devices unsettles our sense of being safe in front of what is just a picture. Fried imagines ‘the definitive realist painting would be one that the viewer literally could not bear to look at,’ but that is ‘all but impossible, hence painful, to look away from’.

Just such a conflict, lying behind the realism of Thomas Eakins’s large portrait The Gross Clinic, forms the main topic of the first of the two essays which constitute Realism, Writing, Disfiguration. The picture was presented at Philadelphia in 1876, the year of the second Impressionist exhibition, which represented artists of a different sort of realism (a sort in which the Paris-trained American showed little interest). Eakins’s portrayal of a noted surgeon of the time shows him at work in an operating arena before a full audience, including the intently absorbed artist who was often present at such events. It would be obvious to remark that what gave offence then and disturbs still was not the operation shown (not at all a radical one) but the manner in which Eakins shows it. Here, as usual, no one is likely to find Mr Fried an obvious writer. Indeed, the sets of associations by which he pursues two explanations of precisely how this picture recovers Caravaggio’s lapsed ‘esthetic of implied affront to seeing’, one formal and one psychoanalytic, will have most readers grasping gratefully at anything that looks obvious.

Besides being difficult to read, many will find the book hard to look at, for, estimating our eye for such detail, the University of Chicago Press has isolated on its dust-jacket a colour image of the blood-filmed fingers of the surgeon and the likewise bedewed, glinting scalpel. Around the offending hand Eakins portrayed in black and white flecked with red the retracted thigh incision of a prostrate charity patient, the activities of five surgical assistants, and the recoiling mother of the abject, foreshortened figure. Some would say that such perspective foreshortening with some degree of obscurity would be dictated for realism by the depicted event itself. But the question is who is operating on whom. Mr Fried argues rather that the painter attains a realism of effect by contriving with such devices to ‘wound’ the beholder’s sight. Should the painter so arrange it, figures cut up by legitimate application of perspective may produce the unconscious, unsettling impression of being otherwise cut up. Contrasted perhaps with Moreau’s 1876 vision of John the Baptist’s head, we see in The Gross Clinic how perspective may be arranged – to disfigure figures more traumatically – by making them difficult for the beholder to figure out.

A modern account of the Medusa attraction is that of the ‘sublime’, whereby we can enjoy painful sights if we feel safe from harm. Perseus, after all, safely saw the Gorgon’s image in his shield, and, judging from one tradition with that theme, liked it so much he kept it there. Our shield is only to imagine seeing such sights: our Medusa media are designed to stimulate this. More recent theories of the sublime (predictably) put such delight on a sexual basis, and Mr Fried is at some pains to demonstrate this for The Gross Clinic, where he locates an oedipal castration anxiety. The patriarchal Gross is then fantastically identified with Eakins’s dominant father, his teachers, his artistic predecessors. The figure on the table is of course Eakins himself – possibly also inviting homoerotic attack; the distraught mother is his own disturbed one; but (here the sublime’s safe haven from harm) the surgeon with wet scalpel may also be seen as Eakins again, flourishing his brush, master of the situation. Eakins, we learn from other sources on the subject, was forced from his post as head of the Pennsylvania Academy because of complaints about his interest in nudity, and if Mr Fried is right about what this picture has us imagine sensing, he has found a new basis for the complaint of the parent of one student there: ‘No possible art can restore her lost treasures of chaste and delicate thoughts.’

Mr Fried’s other essay, ‘Stephen Crane’s Upturned Faces’, offers no respite from such ‘ravishing atrocities’. While bypassing (though not dismissing) psychoanalytic analysis of the works of the author of The Red Badge of Courage, Fried focuses on some motifs in that work, but mainly in a number of lesser-known stories, in order to present an extraordinary reading of Crane’s literary preoccupations. A passage from one novella includes lines describing the effects of a fire upon vials of chemicals: ‘Suddenly the glass splintered, and a ruby-red snakelike thing poured its thick length out upon the top of the old desk ... At the angle it waved its sizzling molten head to and fro over the closed eyes of the man beneath it. Then ... it moved again, and the red snake flowed directly into Johnson’s upturned face.’ Mr Fried says that such passages conform to the intentions of Crane’s friend Joseph Conrad: ‘My task,’ wrote Conrad, ‘is, by the power of the written word ... before all, to make you see.’ What we actually see are words upon a page, but normally reading these words will induce us to imagine we are seeing something else, such as a man’s face being burnt away. But more, Fried detects in Crane’s images a reflex action back upon the written words, which they in turn portray. For Crane unconsciously wished ‘to make the reader see, by which I mean visualise in his imagination ... those things that ... actually lay before Crane’s eyes: the written words themselves, the white, lined sheet of paper on which they were inscribed, the marks made by his pen ... even perhaps the movements of his hand wielding the pen’. Disfigured upturned faces would, for example, depict the pages on which Crane described them, and so present metaphors of writing as itself an act of disfiguration. Thus the ‘defacement in the burning laboratory may be read as imaging the very act of inscription’ of the passage. For Crane, the distorted, rather horrible visual image of his material ‘scene of writing’, including even that of his own hand seen close up, rises through his defences as a metaphor of unease with the methods of vivid imaginative representation by which he achieved the fame he sought.

Here again, as with Mr Fried’s psychological reading of Eakins’s painting and as with another thesis about the painter which we have not considered – that his work, too, expresses a compulsive ‘thematisation of writing’ – many readers will doubt that an interpretation ‘becomes virtually irresistible’ or that ‘we can scarcely avoid the inference’ drawn. Like a conversation with a bright and intense friend, Realism, Writing, Disfiguration is something either to avoid or to hear through with occasionally raised brows, in the expectation that the works discussed will be made more interesting and certainly not seem the same again.

Eakins and Crane both produce unsettling images and – since one was a painter and the other a writer – images of different kinds, which we would normally call pictorial and verbal. Mr Mitchell’s Iconology is an attempt to understand what we think such images are, which we take as basic, and why we do so. Possibly the glowing testimonials on the dust-jacket were composed before the manuscript was edited toward incoherence, for a book which purports to represent advanced theoretical thinking is to a large extent introductory, consisting of run-ups and six essays, some quite introductory, on the accounts of imagery of a number of writers from Wittgenstein to Marx, via bridging sections that fail to close the gaps between them.

Mr Mitchell’s general questions concern ‘the difference between images and words’ or ‘the text-image difference’. By this he means visual depictions and verbal descriptions, though he often (as in an essay on Lessing’s Laocoön) speaks of the aesthetic differences between ‘poetry and painting’ as though this came to the same thing. The strategy of the book, subtitled ‘Image, Text, Ideology’, appears to be to raise questions of the natures and difference of the first two items, give up quickly on finding an answer, and then get on to the third item, as an explanation why certain sorts of answer may have been given at different times. Asked about the generic difference between, say, a half-tone print of The Gross Clinic in the Fried book and the page of print (80) which closes upon it, most of us will be amazed to find this considered an intractable question. Mr Mitchell indeed recommends ‘a standpoint which begins with scepticism about the adequacy of any particular theory of the relations of words and images, but which also preserves an intuitive conviction that there is some difference which is fundamental’. Although its author notes at one point a seeming necessity for eyesight with pictures, the message of Iconology is that, on the basis of ‘verbal and pictorial signs,’ ‘there is no essential difference between poetry and painting, no difference, that is, given for all time.’

I suggest that this finding, which is not these days an extraordinary one, is motivated by several prevalent errors: Medusa has her snaky locks, and today’s ‘Laocoön’s’ wrestle more than a single serpent. There is first the assimilation of pictures and texts under the heading ‘signs’: a heading quite useful, for example, to anthropologists, but meaning little more than marks made with a view to being considered as marks made, followed by a catastrophic conflation of the multitude of purposes which might thereby be served into one mythical essence which somehow has to be speciated. It is as though, noticing that our coins, keys, handkerchiefs and pens all go in our bags and pockets (and could not work for us otherwise), we were to try to understand each as a species of ‘the pocketable’. A second, compounding error is to approach such ‘signs’ as things rather than in terms of processes and activities – always what we see rather than in terms of what we do. Given that Mr Mitchell everywhere writes of images but explicitly disdains imagining, it is no wonder he feels stymied by his own questions about what images are and how they differ.

Perhaps this second point also explains his maltreatment of the ideas of Ernst Gombrich, who has done much to draw out similarities between verbal and pictorial signs while refusing to deny their obvious differences. Mr Mitchell criticises him for approaching picture perception in terms of biological or natural processes. He thereby seeks transition to the topic which most concerns him: a critique of the political ideologies behind theories of the ‘text-image difference’, a purpose which he says Nelson Goodman cannot serve – maybe try Paul? Now Gombrich has always been one for stressing pictorial functions and a perceptual activities for the understanding of pictures, and it is by these means that we can find simple answers to Mr Mitchell’s leading questions.

To see this, let us go back to our examples of imaginative literature. Mr Fried writes that Conrad wished to make us ‘visualise with special acuteness scenes and events which are not literally on the page but which the letters, words, sentences and paragraphs that are on the page somehow contrive to evoke’. We have two kinds of ‘visual’ task here: one actually to see and read words on a page, and another thereby to imagine seeing (or to ‘visualise in imagination’, as Mr Fried puts it) the things described, which of course we do not actually see. Readers may judge, for example, whether these activities occur with the brief passage from Crane quoted above. Eliciting the second kind of activity (spontaneous imaginative visualisation) is of course only sometimes our purpose with words, even where they are used for art. It is more typically our purpose with pictures, and it would be hard to look at the 52 square feet of Eakins’s canvas and not be compelled to imagine we are seeing things we did not particularly wish to see. But whereas with the picture we spontaneously imagine our very acts of looking at the canvas to be those of beholding a surgical procedure, with the writing we do not imagine our own visual action of reading the letters, words, sentences, paragraphs to be the action of seeing a man defaced.

I do not know whether this difference qualifies as the ‘essential’ one, but it seems good enough to capture a distinction we all observe. It also suggests why Gombrich can, without the slightest difficulty, maintain the conventional nature of pictorial styles and still stress a natural or biological basis for picture perception not shared by the activity of reading texts. The notion that Gombrich is thereby in contradiction is not today confined to Iconology.

Since in looking at the picture, unlike reading the novella, we imagine our real acts of seeing the ‘signs’ before us to be those of seeing the things represented, the painter has resources not available to even the most ‘impressionist’ writer. Eakins, unlike Conrad and Crane, can attempt to mobilise mechanisms of environmental perception shared by all viewers as they look upon the marks he made, for direct application to perception of those same marks, eliciting thereby imaginative visualisation. The trick is to provoke people to imagine they are doing with a picture what they actually do with an environment, by means of cues that work in analogous ways. It is a trick of getting people to do similar things, not that of getting them to notice that things seem similar. And the fact that for cultural or ‘conventional’ reasons Eakins is not able to achieve this equally for all viewers has no bearing upon the question of the ‘naturalness’ of the activities which he, successfully or not, would exploit. No more than the fact that proficiencies at smoking cigars or drinking through straws are culturally relative proves the same of the breathing and sucking abilities they exploit.

In any event, whether or not Gombrich is right in his analysis of a second way in which Eakins’s painting is normally thought to be realistic does not affect the basic distinction between imagining seeing with pictures and imagining seeing with words. Gombrich’s theories are additional, empirical ones which we need to test in the company of Helmholtz, Pirenne, Gibson etc, far from Mr Mitchell’s ‘institutionalised discourses’ and slurs about rhetorical slipperiness, sociobiology, Hobbism, capitalist ideology.