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  • Thirteen Ways of Looking at Images: The Logic of Visualization in Literature and Society
  • Kirsty Bell (bio)
Mervyn Nicholson. Thirteen Ways of Looking at Images: The Logic of Visualization in Literature and Society Red Heifer. 246. US $29.95

Mervyn Nicholson's love for literature and his firm belief in its power to move and to communicate shine through in this study. Nicholson argues that it is specifically by evoking mental images that literature can shape our perception of the world. The author's self-stated goal in this analysis is to illuminate the force of mental images within literary and social contexts.

The title of the book is promising, as it suggests that the author will present thirteen different methods of considering images. As Nicholson clearly states, he seeks to examine ways of thinking about mentalimages, rather than iconic images. However, although there are indeed thirteen chapters in his book, most of their titles (such as 'Unknown,' 'Objects?' and [End Page 336] 'Proliferating') do not correspond to any possible process of perception. While the headings do indicate the main thrust of each chapter and often describe various characteristics of mental images, such titles neither evoke clear mental images for Nicholson's reader, nor describe a method, a process, or a 'way' of looking. Furthermore, while the author defines his use of 'image' at the outset, there is no satisfactory definition of 'logic.' The reader struggles with the question: What is this 'logic of visualization' that is such a key part of the work's title?

Despite this lack of definition, Nicholson's concept of 'imagethinking' deserves attention. He introduces this term to underline the fact that images are a fundamental component of our thought processes. Inspired by Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, Nicholson proposes that mental images are condensations, that they are enfolded within other images and that even the seemingly minor details can have metaphorical importance. However, while Nicholson makes interesting use of Freud's analyses, he neglects to ask how (waking) mental images are different from dreams. Certainly they must be; otherwise, all studies about dreams would also be about mental images and vice versa.

Although Nicholson's 'imagethinking' is pertinent to research in such diverse areas as the psychology of art, the study of literature, visualization, and word-image studies, it is certainly not original. A fruitful addition to the book would have been a consideration of Rudolf Arnheim, whose groundbreaking work Visual Thinking, first published in 1969, continues to be one of the most important studies on the characteristics and the significance of mental images and visualization. However, Nicholson does not refer to Arnheim, not even to question the latter's arguments or conclusions. In fact, although Nicholson is unquestionably erudite and demonstrates a keen interest in extremely diverse literary and theoretical concepts, his study lacks a comprehensive bibliography and seems to ignore previous work in the field. His hypotheses would certainly have been strengthened by a thorough discussion of theories of perception and of imagination, but he makes few references to such fundamental precursors as Arnheim, Ricoeur, or Merleau-Ponty.

At the same time, Nicholson obviously realizes the importance of examples and refers to Mayan architecture, Renaissance literature, cosmology, physics, Shakespeare, and Blake to illustrate his reflections on the significance and power of mental images. Unfortunately, despite the appeal of such interesting examples, the vital parts of Nicholson's discussion are scattered, rather than organized into one coherent and logical argument. It would have been satisfying to see Nicholson delve more deeply into any one of these fascinating examples.

This study also suffers from stylistic problems. Sentences such as 'Images ... do not argue, and so argue without arguing that there is more to thought than abstract reasoning' would have benefited from further [End Page 337] clarification and less redundancy. The circular reasoning expressed in many such sentences is also accompanied by disjointed transitions or links between paragraphs. The result is a study which lacks a decisive focus and which is unnecessarily difficult to comprehend.

In sum, Nicholson's work presents a number of insights and perspicacious observations. It also raises many questions worthy of further exploration. Unfortunately, however, the present study does...