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  • The Re-Humanization of Art:Pictorial Aesthetics in John Fowles's The Ebony Tower and Daniel Martin

"Art is a form of speech. Speech must be based on human needs, not abstract theories of grammar. Or anything but the spoken word. The real word."

—Henry Breasley in "The Ebony Tower"

The opposition between visual and narrative representations of reality has remained a constant theme in the fiction of John Fowles, whose comments in essays and interviews have encouraged the critical impulse to expose the vices of the one and extol the virtues of the other. Fowles has all along implied, however, that his aesthetic principles cannot be so simply defined.1 In later nonfiction works such as Islands (1978), The Tree (1979), and Land (1985), his interest in reconciling image to word [End Page 217] is readily apparent in his commentary on a certain mode of landscape photography, whereas his more recent fiction equally attests to the ambiguous overlapping of visual and narrative art. Robert Alter's and Katharine Tarbox's conflicting accounts of the opening chapter of Daniel Martin (1977) provide a case in point: does "The Harvest" reproduce a primarily cinematic (Tarbox) or narrative (Alter) vision of nature? However one may read this scenario, it is well to remember that the novel culminates with the description of a Rembrandt self-portrait—as if this particular genre of visual art offered the unique possibility of mediating between filmic and narrative representation. I will consider the significance of this allusion at the end of my essay.

This location of painting at the intersection of the visual and verbal in Fowles's fiction has gone largely unnoticed by critics, who have over-looked its importance altogether or failed to distinguish its special significance. This is particularly true of The Ebony Tower (1974), in which Fowles frames his collection of tales with two stories that specifically evoke painterly representation. In order to account for Fowles's admission in "A Personal Note" that the working title of the collection was Variations, critics have often focused on elucidating correspondences between the stories, as well as their connections to Fowles's prior fiction. James Baker and Kerry McSweeney demonstrated early on that situations and characters—including painters and students of the art—have been transplanted from Fowles's previous novels to this collection: Breasley's dependence on his muse Diana in "The Ebony Tower," for example, essentially repeats the relationship between Rosetti and Sarah in The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969), which in turn recalls that between G. P. and Miranda in The Collector (1963). Such thematic variations have caused some to dismiss the title story, as well as the entire collection, in their assessments of Fowles's artistic development;2 but as Frederick Holmes has convincingly shown, repetition of content should induce the reader to look elsewhere for signs of aesthetic innovation. Holmes acknowledges allusions to the history and craft of painting in the title story while exploring the ways in which Fowles's tales displace attention to "metafictional concerns" (25); but betraying the limitations of viewing the collection as a whole, he ignores the painterly discourse in "The Cloud" in favor of focusing on "the story's thematic concern with failures in communication" (36)—the Barthesian topic to which Arnold Davidson does greater justice by discussing this tale alone. [End Page 218]

Taking my cue from remarks made by Peter Conradi and John Mills before him,3 I should like to make a stronger claim for the originality of "The Ebony Tower" and "The Cloud" within the evolutionary trajectory of Fowles's fiction. Not only do these stories indicate his increasing preoccupation with the moral implications of representation but they also complicate issues of aesthetic allusiveness and self-referentiality by striving to attain pictorial status. This distinguishes them from their novelistic predecessors, rendering Fowles's insistence that he was experimenting with a new genre—that of the story or nouvelle—significant.4 For his tales are not simply condensed versions of his novels: because of the brevity essential to the story form, it can more readily represent those intensities of imagistic insight associated with visual art. Art historian Svetlana...


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