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  • Ekphrasis: The Illusion of the Natural Sign
  • John B. Vickery
Murray Krieger. Ekphrasis: The Illusion of the Natural Sign. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1992. 288 pp. $38.00.

In this book Murray Krieger returns to a subject which has long held his attention. Put most simply, this study assesses historically and logically "the picture-making capacity of words in poems" challenged by the recognition that words are not pictures and "do not, even illusionarily, have 'capacity.'" Krieger's focus is on literary theorists from Plato to the present and their main formulatory paradigms concerning the ability of language to perform as sign, "as a visual substitute for its referent."

The central problem faced is how to reconcile the apparent human desire for the natural sign with its apparent impossibility of establishment through rational and logical arguments. The impossibility and the contradictory nature of the ekphrastic impulse generates two polar feelings in the poet and the reader: exhilaration and exasperation. The former arises from the desire for the spatial fix and the latter from the temporal flow of language. Over the centuries, critics have alternated between one pole and the other and in the course of their struggles to defeat or explain away the other they have mounted several ingenious but essentially similar positions. In discussing these positions, Krieger is mindful that he is dealing with representative figures only and that there are many other individuals who have contributed over the centuries to this complex and shifting dialogue. Even more important, he is equally scrupulous in indicating the mixed emphases, particularly of Aristotle and Shelley, existing within a single critic's statements. As a result, he clearly conveys the dispositional (as opposed to the categorical) nature of various positions and critics so that they appear more like locations on a spectrum than logically autonomous units.

The first phase of the dialogue involves Plato who takes as his paradigm the pictorial art of the eye to which the verbal arts are made to conform through uncritically metaphorical language which requires them to take on spatial and visual traits which they possess only analogically. The polar [End Page 433] opposite of this view is found in Renaissance Neo-Platonism (especially Mazzoni) which pushed the artist further from the world of the senses or imitations of it. It stressed esoteric symbols which were seen as an allegorical code allowing access to a purely intelligible reality available solely to the mind.

Mediating between these views is the emphasis found in Lessing on drama's uniquely constituting a literary semiotic of the natural sign. Drama's role as the interaction of apparently real people becomes a species of natural sign through its illusionary immediacy. This resulted in the increased recognition of enargeia, the use of words to provide such a vivid description that they place the represented object before the inner eye of the audience. In the course of the study, Krieger reveals two senses of the term: the first involving transparently clear representation and the second intensely empathy-provoking presentation. In so doing, he testifies to contemporary suspicions concerning the slipperiness of language as a medium for thought and simultaneously shows that neither the rejection of language nor the ascription of non-interpretability to it is necessary for the critic.

Lessing follows Plato's general view while stressing the greater primacy of dramatic poetry as a natural sign. The distinctions between Plato and Lessing are captured by Krieger in a logical rather than historical movement from epigram (of the early Greek variety) to ekphrasis (as embodied in Keats's Grecian urn) to emblem (as found in certain species of Renaissance poetry). The effect of this movement is to work a complete reversal in the relationship between visual image and word from a given, immediate reality to a visual companion to language which leans on a verbal text as an explication of its image(s).

The balance is once again tipped between natural and arbitrary sign aesthetics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Addison is Krieger's exemplar of a reinterpreted semiotics of the natural sign in which poetry is considered to be a sort of verbal painting (enargeia I). Over against him...


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pp. 433-435
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