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  • Perspective and Historical Knowledge:Magris, Sebald, and Pamuk
  • Rosa Mucignat

A great deal of twentieth-century critical thought has been based on a pessimistic view of truth and rationality that achieved its classic expression in the denigration of vision and its hegemonic role in the modern era. One of the main targets of what Martin Jay has called "antiocularcentric discourse" has been the idea that it is possible to achieve an objective, totalizing, and rationalized view of the past. Historicism recognizes that any understanding we develop of the past is conditioned by our own particular historical situation. Post-structuralist theories raise a similar point by drawing attention to the role of discourses and systems of power in producing knowledge. Finally, deconstruction is even more radical in arguing that the objects of the past, as all other objects, have no stable meanings or identities. Yet the fact that we have no access to a stable past does not in itself imply that we must give up the possibility of objective knowledge. A powerful pragmatic answer to the modern form of skepticism exhibited by, among others, Hayden White, came from Arnaldo Momigliano: "As we cannot do better than studying change from a changing point of view," he wrote, "there is a point in doing it well" (67). Sound historical practice, and not some transcendental idea of truth, is the only defense against a debilitating relativism. The realization that no single point of view can embrace the complexity of a historical narrative should lead to a recalibration of perspective and not to its wholesale rejection. Momigliano here employs a visual metaphor that has become [End Page 1254] emblematic of the "scopic regime" of modernity: perspective and the attending concept of point of view. From its inception in the Italian Renaissance, perspective has stood both for the possibility of seeing the world as an objective whole, and for the inevitable fact that we can only view things from a particular angle. The success of perspective as a cognitive metaphor has perhaps outstripped even its impact on the arts. Pervasive to the point of being commonplace, perspectival metaphors today might seem entirely naturalized and neutral. This article shows how three recent narratives of place and memory by Claudio Magris, W.G. Sebald, and Orhan Pamuk challenge and revise the centuries-old association of vision with thought in response to the postmodern debate on historical hermeneutics.

Since antiquity, artists were well aware that faraway objects could be shown smaller than those nearer at hand to give an illusion of depth, but this principle was not applied systematically, following geometrical principles, until the Renaissance. Renaissance artists thought of perspective as a series of rules and techniques for constructing images, which, as Erwin Panofsky states, relied on "rather bold abstractions from reality." This is because linear perspective assumes that we see "with a single and immobile eye," and that a picture constructed in this way as an open window "can pass for an adequate reproduction of our optical image" (Perspective 29). Yet, as James Elkins has shown, this understanding of perspective privileges aspects of systematic ordering of space and realism of representation, obscuring the self-conscious constructedness and indifference to geometrical precision of much Renaissance and later practice. In particular, Elkins draws attention to the "fossilization of perspective" since the sixteenth century, noting how its devaluation as an artistic practice made it more malleable to metaphorical use, particularly in the new philosophical discourse of subjectivity which posited vision as homologous to thought (217–60). Indeed, throughout the modern period, the central assumption about perspective was that "the science of geometrical optics corresponded in a real way to the central facts of the visual process" (Kemp 165). The rigorous application of the laws of perspective was taken to guarantee a truthful and coherent field of representation that could replicate and even improve our visual experience of nature. The "truth" of perspective, however, depended on an increasingly strict discipline for viewing that fixed the location, direction, and mobility of the gaze and used framing devices to cast an artificial grid or plane of delineation over the blur of light, shade, colors, and curves of natural perception. Subsequently, linear perspective became...


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