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Seeing Things: literature and the visual

Peter Vernon


Peter Vernon

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1I am delighted to introduce this volume of GRAAT comprising a selection of papers given at "Seeing Things: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on Literature and the Visual" jointly organised by the British Council and the Université François Rabelais de Tours on 8 to 14 September 2001. The conference brought together almost eighty delegates from twenty-four countries, and was intellectually enormously rich. We were blessed with good weather at the conference centre in the beautiful surroundings of La Croix Montoire carpeted with autumn cyclamen. And, a personal epiphany, walking back and forth to town in the evening surprising thousands of Herring Gulls and Terns roosting under the old stone bridge across the Loire. However, no matter what other memories we retain, none of us will ever forget the conference because it was during our visit to the Château de Chenonceau that we first became aware of the tragedy of the Twin Towers, now known as Nine-Eleven. There is nothing one could say that would not trivialise such an experience - such unforgettable horror mixed with "terrible beauty". The way an experience, the seeing of something, is held and transformed in the memory is wonderfully captured by Seamus Heaney in the title poem of his collection Seeing Things. He writes of water and then, in the second movement of the poem, the representation of water in a baptism of Christ carved on the façade of a cathedral:

  • 1 Seamus Heaney, Seeing Things, London: Faber and Faber, 1991, 17.

Nothing else.
And yet in that utter visibility
The stone’s alive with what’s invisible:
Waterweed, stirred sand-grains hurrying off,
The shadowy, unshadowed stream itself.
All afternoon, heat wavered on the steps
And the air we stood up to our eyes in wavered
Like the zig-zag hieroglyph for life itself.1

2The conference was four years in the planning and began in a conversation with Malcolm Bradbury and Kate Bostock during the Milan Conference at the Villa Monastero, overlooking Lago di Como. Malcolm should have been with us in Tours, and this volume of conference papers is dedicated to his memory.

3"Seeing Things" was the Fifth in a series of International Conferences organised in various European Universities by the British Council. The previous Conferences, in Salamanca, Milan, Solothurn and Potsdam were all inter-disciplinary, but "Seeing Things" with its sub-title " An International Symposium on Literature and the Visual " was particularly so since it brought together Academics, Artists, Filmdirectors, Theatre-directors, Novelists and Poets in an endeavour to explore the relations between literature and the visual media. The symposium thus concentrated on Literature and photography, painting, film, video, theatre, travel writing amongst others. The four seminars: "Theatre/Text/Poetry"; "Painting, Photography and Literature"; "Shakespeare, Film and TV"; "Travel, Identity and Place" examined, in their various workshops, such questions as "How are the new media changing texts?" "How do images get transformed by writing?" "What does the reader see?" "What do the unfamiliar landscapes of travel writing and new literatures do to our visual and our social conventions?" " How dark is the inside of an artist’s head?"

4The Papers collected here are representative of the four seminars of the symposium, and, in their various ways, explore many of the concerns of the conference in dealing with literature and various aspects of the visual: painting, cinema, television, theatre, travel writing and photography.

5Nancy Pedri contrasts Dervla Murphy’s Tibetan Foothold and Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia to corroborate, or not, the writers’ truth claims. Murphy’s commitment to truth is coupled with a commitment to provide visual evidence for the truth; whereas Chatwin’s interest in the mythic dimension of the places he visits points to a dubious authenticity of the visual texts he provides. The differing modes of these authors, with regard to visual documents such as Maps and Photographs, as Pedri writes, "illuminate [s] the epistemological flexibility of common models of accuracy".

6Jennifer Kilgore begins with a suggestion from Anthony Hecht, to the effect that a good painting persuades us that everything relevant is contained within the borders of the painting, and proceeds to examine the framing of Charles Péguy in Geoffrey Hill’s The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy. Kilgore examines in detail the various visual allusions in Hill’s Poem and concludes that Hill has framed Péguy; in Hecht’s use of the term, Hill has presented everything relevant.

7Claudine Raynaud, meanwhile, reflects on the place of photographs in contemporary autobiographies. Using, as a theoretical base, Barthes’s Camera Lucida and Roland Barthes by roland barthes, Raynaud analyses the role of photographs (and sometimes their absence) in Hélène Cixous’s and Mireille Calle-Gruber’s, Rootprints: Memoirs and Life Writing and Dorothy Allison’s, Two or Three Things I Know For Sure. Cixous searches for the genesis of the writing self; whereas Allison records an author’s life as story teller. Raynaud asks of both what the photograph adds or subtracts from the linear narrative of autobiography.

8In "The Scene and The Off Scene: Staging Gender, Race and Sexuality", Elizabeth Sakellaridou analyses contemporary Feminist Theatre with a view to discovering how both theorists and practitioners attempt to sensitise the spectator’s gaze to issues of gender, race and sexuality that have hitherto remained practically invisible in mainstream, white, patriarchal theatre. Drawing on a theoretical base of Berthold Brecht, Martin Jay and Stanton Garner, among others, Sakellaridou examines the work of three ethnically and culturally different playwrights, together with the performance practices of the American feminist group Split Britches. Whilst these four examples of feminist theatre represent different strands of the feminist inquiry, Sakellaridou concludes that they all have awareness of contemporary theory’s ambiguous position with regard to vision and visuality.

9Hélène Catsiapis examines the Queen’s Christmas Messages over the past fifty years within the context of the messages as a whole from their inception in 1932. Catsiapis is particularly interested in the way in which the medium of television has changed the form of the message. She claims that these messages are the constitutional monarch’s only limited freedom of public self-expression, and she concludes that the messages will be an important documentary source for future analysts of the monarchy.

10In "Seeing Things and Being Seen", Ewa Keblowska-Lawniczac focuses on several plays by Tom Stoppard, including Artist Descending A Staircase, After Magritte and Arcadia. She attempts to relate them to the rich historical debate on the prevalence of either hearing or seeing in the theatre. Keblowska-Lawniczac concludes that Stoppard’s plays, in their various ways, undermine the autonomy of the viewer. This leads, finally, to a dissolution of subjectivity and thus a dislocation of the subjective integrity of the focalising viewer.

11Derval Tubridy in "Loose Signatures: Samuel Beckett and the Livre d’Artiste" turns her attention to the relationship between Beckett’s writing and various friends and artists such as Avigdor Arikha, Jasper Johns and Delias Henke. Beckett’s texts collaborate with these artists to produce limited editions of great power. Concentrating particularly on Foirades/Fizzles, a book which contains five texts by Beckett and thirtythree etchings by Johns, Tubridy points out that both artists re-utilise, appropriate, and transform themes and motives drawn from their previous work. However, the media of words and images do not simply illustrate or represent each other, since significance is drawn from the interplay between both. Drawing on Derrida, Tubridy points out that in Foirades/Fizzles the texts and images are signs marked by their reiterability, and circularity. In Beckett’s late prose his figures are more and more indistinguishable; his places more and more the same. However, Tubridy concludes, both figure and ground are ghosted by traces of previous texts from Beckett’s own work, and also from the greater corpus of Western literature.

12In "The Pleasures of the Eye: Landscapes of otherness in Ann Radcliffe’s The Italian", Soňa Nováková examines the representation of place in Radcliffe’s novel. Beginning with the importance of the visual in eighteenth-century aesthetics, Nováková underlines the fact that in Radcliffe there is no Nature-Landscape is always taken from secondary sources. Nováková develops the idea of Sameness and Otherness as exemplified in the English gaze of the hero and heroine onto the world of Schedoni-the sublime Other. The power of the Other, however, is to return the gaze: Schedoni’s eyes are unsettling, the Inquisitor’s gaze is penetrating. The English Eye, an invasive organ, attempts to penetrate the Italian Sublime, whereas the Italian Other attempts to swallow the representatives of Englishness. At the end of The Italian, Nováková argues, it seems as though the English aesthetic has triumphed as the protagonists retire to their villa, where the sublime seems to have been domesticated. However, Schedoni’s Sublime, in the shape of tall trees, casting a gigantic loftiness of shade, still lurks at the borders of the representation.

13Tatjana Jukic in "Dressed up to the Eyes: The Optics of Pre-Raphaelite Keats" continues the notion of Italy/the Other seen by English artists, this time by concentrating on Pre-Raphaelite interpretations of Keats's "Isabella or the Pot of Basil" and "The Eve of St. Agnes ". Jukic perceives Pre-Raphaelitism as a representative of Victorianism because it constructs a frustrated vision of the Other and also because of the excessive visibility of the Pre-Raphaelites in contemporary critical revisions of Victorianism. Jukic looks at Hunt’s "The Flight of Madeline and Porphyro"; Millais’s "Lorenzo and Isabella", both from the 1840s, and Hunt’s later painting of "Isabella or the Pot of Basil" (1860s). Examining these paintings, Jukic perceives a general predicament of literature encountering the visual, but also a disturbing potential in Keats’s own view. The Pre-Raphaelite paintings of Keats’s poetry and Keats’s own poems are seen as the contained other-the representation of the colonial territory of the Orient.

14In organising such a conference I am conscious of the debt I owe to a number of people, and it is a real pleasure to acknowledge them here.

15To my friends and colleagues of the Group de Recherche Anglo-Américaine de Tours (GRAAT) Claudine Raynaud and Michel Bitot for unfailing support and assistance; to Michel in particular for giving us a fine Jazz Concert with his group "Sweet ’Ol Jazz" on the last evening of the conference. To Emma Escaravage, Agnès Gault, and Emilie Houliez who worked tirelessly on the accueil with never-failing grace and humour. To the Boîte à Livres de L’Etranger for organising the book exhibition. To the Mairie de Tours particularly to the Mayor of Tours, M. Jean Germain, and the Chargé d’Affaires Culturelles, M. Jean-Pierre Tolochard for giving us a reception in the Salle de Mariages at the Mairie de Tours and helping to subsidise the concert. To Marie-Anne Pottier (Clavecin), and Noémie Rime (Soprano), for an unforgettable concert of French music from the seventeenth-century French Court. To the then president of Université de Tours M. Jacques Gautron and to the then Vice-President chargé de la Recherche, now the president of the University, M. Michel Lussault for their financial aid, and to their enabling us to receive a grant from the Conseil Général d’Indre et Loire.

16The conference was greatly aided by the help of the British Council in Paris: particularly the representative, John Tod who organised the opening reception, and the extraordinarily efficient Sarah Hickson and Michelle Appleton who worked tirelessly to enable the conference to take place in France. In addition various delegates were able to attend the conference due to grants from their local offices of the British Council.

17The British Council in London were in over-all charge of the Conference, and my debt to a number of people over a number of years is inestimable. In chronological order they are: Kate Bostock, Hilary Jenkins, Alastair Niven, Naomi Clift and Margaret Meyer.

18However, my greatest debt is to my co-chair and friend Gillian Beer and the team of plenary speakers and leaders of seminars: academics, artists, writers, film-directors that she enabled to come to Tours. In alphabetical order these are: Isabel Armstrong, Catherine Belsey, Julia Darling, John Drakakis, Rod Edmond, Terence Hawkes, Martin Kayman, Jim Latter, Jean-Jacques Lecercle, Alan Marcus, Ruth Padel, Tom Phillips, Michèle Roberts, Lindsay Smith, Frances Spalding and Marina Warner.


1 Seamus Heaney, Seeing Things, London: Faber and Faber, 1991, 17.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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