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13.01.12, Barbetti, Ekphrastic Medieval Visions

13.01.12, Barbetti, Ekphrastic Medieval Visions

Recently ekphrasis has been a topic of some interest to scholars of medieval literature. Yet there has been little truly innovative work on the subject of the ekphrastic Middle Ages. Ekphrasis has generally been understood as a visual representation of a material object. This simplistic definition establishes a visual/verbal binary whose manifestation is rare in the literature of the Middle Ages. However, recent developments in the field of ekphrasis studies have begun to question the validity of this binary, thus allowing for a broader definition of ekphrasis.

Claire Barbetti's Ekphrastic Medieval Visions: A New Discussion in Interarts Theory is the first text that has completely turned the definition of ekphrasis on its ear. Unlike current trends, represented by critics like Andrew Becker, that posit new theories based on established structures, Barbetti begins with a tabula rasa when it comes to defining ekphrasis. In the introduction of her book, Barbetti declares boldly that ekphrasis is a verb, rather than a noun. By looking at ekphrasis as a process, rather than a composition, Barbetti wishes us to see ekphrasis as tendency toward contemplation and mediation rather than a description of a concrete form.

Barbetti questions all preconceived notions of ekphrasis. By moving away from ideology and toward capturing the purpose of ekphrasis, Barbetti dismisses what she has called a "masculine" definition of ekphrasis in order to propose a new, more feminist perspective, although Barbetti admits that even feminist definitions of ekphrasis are guilty of focusing on cultural binary oppositions. By focusing on the binary, Barbetti explains, Western medieval literature has been ignored as a rich source of ekphrastic works, since "the assumption that visual representation--art--is necessarily material does not work with the medieval process of ekphrasis" (7).

Barbetti rightly points out that most medieval literature does not describe concrete works of art. Rather, most is representative of an imagined work of art, what John Hollander has termed "notional ekphrasis." This highly stylized, didactic form of ekphrasis is less concerned with "physical manifestations of art than with exploring the spaces in which the human intellect and soul are formed" (9). It is by examining these spaces, this " memoria", where Barbetti finds her primary examples of medieval ekphrasis.

The two genres that Barbetti analyzes are the dream-vision text and the mystical vision text. These texts exemplify Barbetti's expanded definition of ekphrasis: a composition translating a composition. Barbetti recognizes that some examination of these texts has been done through the lens of ekphrasis. Barbetti acknowledges Murray Krieger's belief that the self-reflexivity of the vision texts is enough to categorize them as ekphrastic, yet she insists that this self-reflexivity is only one characteristic of ekphrasis. A second argument Barbetti makes against Krieger's definition of ekphrasis is his idea of the "still moment." By allowing readers to believe that there is one moment of contemplation that allows them to arrive at the natural sign--to "sidestep the signifier in order to arrive at that which one desires" (26). Krieger's theory, argues Barbetti, hearkens back to the theories of Lessing, Burke and Horace, which demand mimesis. Instead, she believes that we must follow Aquinas's injunction that "art imitates nature in its operation," which allows for an escape from mimesis (8). Barbetti demonstrates that much of ekphrasis is not still, meaning that it is not merely description, but rather a relationship between compositions that could prove contemplative or even critical.

The theoretical introduction of the text ends with a note about the dynamism and the polytemporality of ekphrasis. Ekphrasis demands not only that the reader bring along the past, but also that the reader be drawn toward a future. Highly allegorical, ekphrasis is wrongly interpreted as a fixed moment in time. Barbetti's study works tirelessly toward disabusing the reader of these archaic notions.

Part I of the book includes Barbetti's principle theories of ekphrasis as well as critical analyses of Pearl and Piers Plowman (in chapters two and three respectively). In her analysis of the ekphrastic dream vision in the Pearl poem, Barbetti emphasizes the ethical poetics or poethics within the text. This element of analysis is probably one of the most innovative in the text. The scope of the poem is broadened by its regard of social truths. Much criticism has been focused on the notion of the dream vision as an individualized experience. Barbetti claims that the ekphrasis of the dream vision within the poem allows the audience to participate in the cultures "image stories" (40). By using images from Revelation that were very common in the Middle Ages, the poem "becomes a composition of cultural compositions," which incorporates the personal into the public conception of the history of salvation (57). The ekphrasis of the dream-vision closes the gap between art and life.

The gap between life and art, between representation and experience is explored further in the third chapter of the text that focuses on Piers Plowman. It is in this chapter that Barbetti defines another element of her theory of ekphrasis: the ability to revise the viewed object by portraying it anew. Through this revision, the process of ekphrasis both makes the object accessible and defamiliarizes the object or composition. It is this element that Barbetti claims makes Piers Plowman ekphrastic. The love-dream that is depicted in Piers Plowman takes place in a setting that both reminds the reader of the Garden of Eden and allows the reader to conjure the popular gardens of the romance. The past and present seem to merge through the ekphrastic process. Barbetti emphasizes the polytemporality of the Piers Plowman text, explaining that ekphrasis exists in more than one time frame and in more than one place. There cannot be a "still moment" since ekphrasis is a dynamic process. And it is this process that reflects the pilgrimage toward virtue that appears in the dream vision of Piers Plowman.

Part II of Barbetti's text focuses on the mystical-vision text. Barbetti analyzes the visions of both Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich. In Chapter Four, she discusses the rhetoric of memoria, which she will use as a touchstone in her discussion of the mystics in the following chapters. Barbetti writes that memoria "connects rhetoric and purpose, performance and theme through its manipulation of cultural and social memory preserves" (84). The scores of memoria's visual images that are presented in the mystical vision can only be represented through ekphrasis. And it is the question of presentation or representation that Barbetti chooses to focus on in this chapter. The binary of the unmediated/mediated vision, which is related to the gender binary, is a problem that has plagued scholars. If the vision is unmediated, than it cannot be taken seriously. If the vision is mediated than it cannot be sacred (87). Barbetti believes that these are not questions that need to be discussed: it does not matter whether the vision is "authentic." Rather, what is important is the mystical union itself. According to Barbetti, we lack the vocabulary to explain the mystical union, thus we must rely upon ekphrasis, which allows for the filtering of the vision into memory and then into a verbal representation.

Barbetti outlines some differences between the dream-vision and mystical-vision texts: the mystical-vision text not only tries to relate with more urgency a "transcendent truth", but it also employs many rhetorical devices like synaesthesia and apophasis. These rhetorical devices allow for a richer and more sensory ekphrastic translation of the vision texts. This leads Barbetti to the conclusion that ekphrasis is not simply visual. Rather, ekphrasis includes perception, feeling and thought. (101) Barbetti hopes that her redefinition of ekphrasis will erase the visual bias and allow critics to recognize that ekphrasis may contain an array of sensual elements.

In Chapters 5 and 6, Barbetti focuses on two of the great medieval mystics: Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich. In Chapter 5, Barbetti discusses the tension between the private vision and Hildegard's public representation of the vision. The mystical-vision text challenges both the visual/verbal binary and the public/private binary (118). It is the transcription of the vision that is ekphrastic. However, by virtue of the ekphrastic process, the text provides a glimpse of the sociohistorical moment. It is in this chapter that Barbetti disagrees with Andrew Becker's assertions that ekphrasis is like mise en abîme, arguing that the very nature of the ekphrastic process changes the object itself. Ekphrasis may alter content or reception of the object (117). Therefore the static repetition of mise en abîme does not take into full account the ekphrastic process of revision.

In Chapter 6, Barbetti makes a foray into inhuman art as defined by Jeffrey Cohen. She claims a connection between ekphrasis and inhuman art through the natural world. The material world repeats itself in the visions of Julian of Norwich. Although I find this chapter to be the least convincing, Barbetti makes a good point about the role of grace in Julian's texts. Barbetti claims that grace is "the place from which composition springs" (137). Grace, a gift to humans, is an inhuman force in that it defies logic.

Barbetti demonstrates in the conclusion of her book that ekphrasis is alive and well in modern poetry. The three poets she discusses, Barbara Guest, Ciaran Carson, and Kathleen Fraser, are kindred spirits to those whose work can be considered ekphrastic. In their poetry, they resurrect not only the medieval dream-vision, but also the representation of consciousness that the mystics demonstrated in their texts. Barbetti concludes with some general thoughts about the vast array of critical and pedagogical uses of ekphrasis. She points out that not only are there many new ways of thinking about art and space, but also that there are many ways to try to understand the past, present and future. Barbetti's book is innovative in so many ways. By forcing ekphrasis out of the shadows of the binaries of verbal and visual, of masculine and feminine, of seeing and feeling she has given us a powerful new tool to examine texts in a different and intriguing light.