Nov 12, 2015
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, a podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and, ah, here I am in my newly redecorated research cube. I’ve taped grey and yellow chevron wrapping paper over the old horrific 90s wallpaper and the books that completely fill my bookshelf are organized—somewhat. The tiny red and green Loeb editions look like Christmas decorations among the others and one whole shelf of books is tattooed with library barcodes. My door is propped open by the extra hard wood chair and is scrubbed clean—you almost can’t see the faint traces of pen from all of the strange graffiti, including one sloppy invitation for a previous occupant to get sushi. I’ve hung an orange-and-white abstract painting on the outside of the door and you can just see the corner of it from my seat. Why am I telling you about my cube in such detail? Because today we’re talking about Ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is the Greek term for description, a rich description that makes you see a scene before you in such detail that you feel like you’re actually there. Did it work? Did you imagine yourself in my cozy little cube?
Last week I talked about a how there was a sculpture of kairos that someone had written a poem about and I called it ekphrasis, but I may have given a very short definition of just what ekphrasis is. I’ve been thinking about ekphrasis for a long time, largely because of a 2009 book called Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Practice. In this book, Ruth Webb seeks to rehabilitate ekphrasis from its long misuse. We think of ekphrasis as a describing a subject matter—art—in poetic practice rather than a method—bringing something “vividly before the eyes”—used for a variety of rhetorical purposes (1). When I first learned of ekphrasis, it was in a poetry class. The teacher showed us several poems that were written to describe pictures and then challenged us to find works of art that we could transfer into words. There are several famous poems that are ekphrasis. For example, do you remember Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn? Or William Carlos Williams’ poem about Landscape with Fall of Icarus ? Perhaps one of the most famous examples of ekphrasis, for ancient and modern students, is the description of the achilles’ shield in Homer. In fact, Webb figures that shield led to this confusion of describing an artifact rather than just describing something.
Webb doesn’t just tell us what ekphrasis is not; she describes how Progymnasmata series of educational practices and other student handbooks influenced use and understanding of this tool that permeated rhetorical life from the arts (168) to the law courts (89) to the forum (131). Ekphrasis, then, isn’t just an ornament or a figure of speech—Webb claims that it is a “quality of language” (105), something that allows listeners and readers to become what she calls “virtual witnesses” of people, places, and events (95). You can imagine how it would be useful to bring your listeners in to become “virtual witnesses” if you were, say, a lawyer painting a picture of the crime, or if you were a politician petitioning for more military spending by describing a pitiful defeat. Through ekphrasis, your listeners become shared participants in an experience. You recreate an experience so we’re all together for a moment, seeing the same thing, feeling—maybe—the same way. Ekphrasis brings people in with you.
Because ekphrasis is more than just an occasional strategy, Webb has to cover a lot of ground in her book. She begins by describing the context in which ekphrasis was named, admired and taught, back in ancient Greece where memory was always connected with imagery (25). “Seeing” something was critically connecting with how you think and remember. For example, do you remember in a previous episode on canons, where we talked about how classical rhetors would create a place, say a palace, and then place facts around that palace so that they could visualize walking around to encounter the facts? It’s the same practice that popped up recently in an episode of the BBC series Sherlock. When you have a clear visual reminder of a place, an object, you can better remember the abstract principles or facts. Another reason why ekphrasis was central to the Greeks was because of the way people encountered composition: whether or not a speech was written down, it was almost always spoken aloud (26). When you’re listening rather than reading, it can be difficult to pay attention to long abstracts, but being invited into a visual scene is refreshing and entertaining. No TV, remember? This understanding of literacy may seem alien to modern readers, so Webb has to explain them explicitly
Then she introduces ekphrasis to us the same way it was introduced to Greeks and Romans: through the Progymnasmata and other handbooks of instruction. In the pedagogical explanation, Webb emphasized that ekphrasis was seen as formative for young learners, a tool to advance socially, and as an absolutely transferable skill (47-51). Remember when we talked about the progymnasmata? The exercises that young Greek students went through? Well, ephrasis was part of the progymnasmata exercises and Webb sais it was “the exercise which taught students how to use vivid evocation and imagery in their speeches” as “an effect which transcents categories and normal expectations oflangauge” (53). She then gives readers a complete chapter discussing the subjects of ekphrasis that go beyond just descriptions of works of art, and, in fact, often focus on narrative aspects (68-70). She really has to define the term because we have several hundred years of misdefinition of the term as only associated with art.
Webb also introduces us to two versions of ekphrasis: Enargia which makes “absent things present” and Phantasia which she links to “memory, imagination and the gallery of the mind” (v). Here’s an example of enargia from Theon: “When I am lamenting a murdered man will I not have before my eyes all the things which might believably have happened in the case under consideration? […] Will I not see the blow and the citicm falling to the ground? Will his blood, his pallor, his dying groans not be impressed on my mind. This gives rise to eneragia,[…] by which we seem to show what happened rather than to tell it and this gives rise to the same emotions as if we were present at the event itself” (qtd 94). Phantaias on the other hand, is creation, which might include “mythical and fantastic beats […] imagines through a process of synthesis, putting together man dna horse” (119) for example, or it might just be creatively expanding on the details of what we aren’t told. Quintilian describes this in terms of a quote from Cicero: “Is there anyone so incapable of forming images of things that, when he read the passace in [Cicero’s] Verrines ‘the praetor of the Roman people stood on the shoes dressed in slippers, wearing a purple cloak and long tunic, leaning on this worthless woman’ he does not only seem to see them, the place [..] but even imagines for himself some of those things which are not mentioned. I for my part certainly seem to see his face, his eyes, the unseemly caresses of both” (qtd 108). So there you have it. Ekphrasis can be about things that were or things that can be imagined To use an example, enargia would describe a scene that was distant, like a visit to Disneyland, while Phantaisa would create a scene that was fictional, like developing a new Disney movie adaption.
Webb’s book is certainly readable and her argument is very thorough, taking in a very large range of Classical civilization, spanning several hundred years and including both Eastern and Western Roman Empires. She’s also made the convincing argument that ekphrasis was a little bit of the sublime that could be made an effective argument in almost any situation. Many texts that talk about rhetoric of poetics make the “audacious” claim that poetics can be rhetorical; Webb’s book seems to be claim that the rhetorical was often, poetic.
I’m especially interested in this ancient idea that one thing a rhetor needs to do is make the audience see it, to be there and experience the event or object—existing, historical, hypothetical, or fantastic—to be “virtual witnesses” of it for themselves. This seems to be an interesting link between a logos-centered viewpoint that admits only one clear interpretation of objective facts and the obvious realization that the audience was being brought into “worlds […] not real” (169). The audience readily give themselves up to the “willing suspension of disbelief” to order to feel, and experience, the fictive ( and no matter its veracity, the ekphrasis is always fictive, even when the object is before the audience) world the rhetor carefully creates through word choice and selective description. There’s something potentially deceptive about ekphrasis. And to make a clean breast of it, I’ve bamboozled you, because when I’m writing this, I’m not actually in my cube—I’m flying in a window seat with an orange sunset lighting up the cabin from over the north Pacific Ocean. Even worse, I haven’t even redecorated my research cube—yet. And I’m not sure where I’ll be when I actually record this episode. Right now, the scene I described so convincingly was a bald-faced…phantasia. But I made you a witness with me. Ekphrasis is so immersive that it can be hard to challenge it It’s too bad that we don’t know more about how audiences were trained to read these ekphrasis: the handbook information is wonderful for describing the theory and practice from the rhetor’s side, but what might be the equivalent for readers? How does an audience respond to ekphrasis? Should they be skeptical or allow themselves to be swept away in the description and become willing witnesses? Hey, I don’t have the answer to this question. If you have thoughts on the proper way to respond to the ways that words create worlds, drop us a line a email@example.com? Until then, I’ll be enjoying my nicely redecorated research cube. Maybe.