Sunday, July 13, 2014

(Not) Being There, or, The Power of Ekphrasis

I had the pleasure of listening to the historian Hayden White last week when he gave a talk at the Hebrew University.  Most of White’s talk was devoted to the writing of another historian --Saul Friedlander, on the Holocaust.  One of the intriguing issues he discussed  made me reflect on the choices that writers make when they introduce a topic. White referred to a decision that Friedlander had made  to describe and explicate a photograph instead of presenting  it in the book as part of the evidence; in short, he chose to tell rather than to show.

White argues : ”We are not shown the photograph in Friedlander’s text; rather—and this is the tropological move—an ekphrasis  (verbal description or “word picture” of an image) is presented in lieu of the photograph. The referent of the passage (the photograph) is withheld (Friedlander certainly could have had it reproduced.”  White adds in an endnote:   “I wrote to Professor Friedlander asking him about the omission of the photograph from his book, and he responded that he had not made a conscious decision not to publish but that his description of the photograph would have been the same even if he had published. From a textological point of view, it is the fact that the photograph was not published and that a verbal description of it is put in its place that makes it a trope.”

The question whether Friedlander made an intentional or unintentional choice in omitting the photo is irrelevant to this discussion,  but we have to remember that either way  he is not a disinterested observer.  His choices of how to describe the photograph, of what to include in the description and what not, are indicative of his agenda.

This anecdote is an opportunity to examine the power of an [absent] picture; it seems to me that the photograph gains most of its power by not being there. Friedlander’s choice indicates that he sees his role as the go-between the photo and the reader, he does not wish to relinquish his power by letting his readers “judge for  themselves.” In theory, the reader has no choice but to accept the writer’s position, but as is the case in any written text, the reader uses his/her imagination.  The writer’s words,and the reader's imagination, work together in creating an almost mythical, larger-than-life, absent picture.

Hayden White showed us the omitted photograph; it turned out that I lacked the necessary background  to appreciate the symbols and the different meanings that Friedlander found in the photograph, and was grateful for his interpretation. In literature we often read descriptions and interpretations of  real and imaginary objects, and upon seeing the real  thing we realize that reality does not measure up to its description. For instance, seeing a Greek vase is nothing like spending time with  Keats’  poem, 'Ode on a Grecian Urn.' 

So to the famous cliché that “a picture is worth a thousand words;” I  answer  that the power of a “word picture” is often stronger than that of “a real picture.”

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