How to See Past Things with Words


by Leonid Bilmes

1. Metaphor tends to cling to memory, like profuse algae filming over promisingly pristine water. Getting ‘at’ memory, we thus get out conceptual hands coated all over in figures, in figurative language. 

1.1. St Augustine is one of the first to write memory, and his language finds itself swimming through tropical seas (in the sense of trope, of course): ‘I come to the fields and spacious palaces of my memory. Lying all about are the treasures of innumerable images that have been collected from among impressions of all sorts, perceptions of the senses … Finally what I wished for is uncovered and appears in sight from its secret place.’i

2. The figure that perhaps most forcefully links memory and mimesis (memory’s verbal representation) is the ancient metaphor of painting. As we find in Horace’s poetic letter, Ars poetica, wherein he uses the famous Latin phrase beloved by poetry and art criticism: ut pictura, poesis (‘a poem is like a painting’). Horace there also observes, however: ‘the mind is less actively stimulated by what it takes in through the ear than by what is presented to it through the trustworthy agency of the eyes.’ii

2.1. Ekphrastic poetry is the specific poetic genre that tries to capture in words the seeing spectacle of painting and sculpture, as in poems such as John Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn,’ W.H. Auden’s ‘In the Musée des Beaux Arts,’ or May Swenson’s ‘The Tall Figures of Giacometti.’ Ekphrasis is hence the rhetorical term used to describe prosodic verbal painting, but, as we already see in Horace, it starts off with a disadvantage: it requires some effort to get the mind to see things through the ear.

2.2. Since at least as early as Gustave Flaubert, certain memory narratives written in prose are distinguished, in part, by their intensely visual mode of description, which we might call ‘prosaic ekphrasis.’ A partial (i.e. incomplete but also favoured) list of writers who have made most use of prosaic ekphrasis in narrating memory’s visions (whether their own or that of their fictional memoirists) would include: Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov and W.G Sebald.

3. Writing for the eye or writing for the ear? Writers themselves are seldom helpful in answering this question.

3.1. Hélène Cixous: ‘Writing, in its noblest function, is the attempt to unearth, to find the primitive picture again … The picture is not there without a reason. Those who have been in contact with this opening door perceived it in the theatrical form of a scene. Why a scene? … Because we are the audience of this scene: we are not in the scene.’iii

3.1.1. Hélène Cixous: ‘I always privilege the ear over the eye. I am always trying to write with my eyes closed.’iv

4. Roland Barthes, on prosaic picture framing: ‘Every literary description is a view. It could be said that the speaker, before describing, stands at the window, not so much to see, but to establish what he sees by its very frame: the window frame creates the scene.’v

4.1. An example of a writer’s flaunt of such prosaic framing, from Speak, Memory. It is one of Nabokov’s key memories of his beloved mother, here playing solitaire:

With great clarity, I can see her sitting at a table and serenely considering the laid-out cards of a game of solitaire: she leans on her left elbow and presses to her cheek the free thumb of her left hand, in which, close to her mouth, she holds a cigarette, while her right hand stretches towards the next card. The double gleam on her fourth finger is two marriage rings – her own and my father’s, which, being too large for her, is fastened to hers by a bit of black

5. What do we see when we read this verbal memory painting, and do we see it with ‘great clarity’? Whatever we see changes, shifts and morphs as we read, and indeed as and when we reread.

5.1. Reading’s promise: that which you have failed to see during your reading you might never see, unless you go back. But nothing is certain, only the promise.

6. Description is constantly under pressure from the demands of time, of narration: absolute stasis is impossible to language (Nabokov’s mother’s right hand is already, eternally stretching towards the cards. Language tense and grammar is itself haunted by movement, displacement, slippage on time’s surface.)

7. There is a tug-of-war between stasis and motion in every reading, and this struggle is exacerbated, or made all the more evident, in highly descriptive writing.

7.1. As book cover designer Peter Mendelsund observes: ‘The best book for me: I drive through it quickly, but am forced to stop on occasion, to pull over and marvel.’vii

7.2 Indeed, it is precisely the nature of this marvelling that is so difficult to articulate. Just what is it that we are seeing when we pause and contemplate through the inky characters before our eyes the visions imparted, vocalised for our comprehension?

8. Another example of seeing things with words, taken from Flaubert’s apprentice work (but one which already foreshadows Proust’s work of memory to come), his early novella, November. It is a tale of doomed romance, full of arduous frustration and imbued with memory’s autumnal tints. What distinguishes this story from Flaubert’s 19th century contemporaries is its minimal plot, and its maximal effort to describe the past vividly, as the narrator seeks to arrest time and linger over his memories.

Then I found myself on a plateau in a mown field; I had the sea ahead of me, it was bright blue, the sun shed over it a profusion of gleaming pearls, and furrows of fire ran through the waves; between the azure sky and the dark blue of the sea the horizon shown in flaming splendour; the vault of the heavens rose over my head and then sank behind the waves that rose to meet it as if to close the circle of an invisible infinitude.viii

This verbal painting might conjure up any number of mental images during its readings, and these images tend to blend into and displace one another in turn. In my mind’s eye, I picture this scene as an amalgam of a painting by Caspar David Friedrich – one of his Rückenfigur works, where a solitary figure is depicted with his/her back to the viewer, contemplating a grand spectacle of nature – as well as those images of fiery, swirling colours of the sunset found in Turner, or perhaps in Eugène Delacroix. These painterly images – or their vague approximations, their colourful shadows – aid me in visualising the ‘furrows of fire’ and ‘flaming splendour’ of the vault of sky. And then, when I reach the verb ‘rose’ referring to the waves, the waves begin ‘to move’ in the static image I am visualising; the static image has already, imperceptibly, become moving image. Painting has elegantly metamorphosed into cinema. (And my reading of this passage is already covered all over in tropical algae!)

9. It takes an act of faith to seek after the visual, after vision with/through/alongside language. For the writing of memory, this faith is constitutive of the very act of writing. Faith in the visualising powers of language is not optional, even if one always writes in blindness. As Derrida says here of drawing, which applies also to writing, to every act of trait making: ‘faith, in the moment proper to it, is blind. It sacrifices sight, even if it does so with an eye to seeing at last.’ix

10. Did Balzac lack the writer’s blind faith when he failed to adequately describe (and when, after all, does a description become adequate?), and thus to let us see clearer, the mysterious painting in his short story, ‘The Unknown Masterpiece’? For all we really see of the artist Frenhofer’s painting is the ‘tip of a bare foot emerging from [the] chaos of colors, shapes, and vague shadings, a kind of incoherent mist.’x The lesser painter in the story, Porbus, goes so far as to claim ‘there’s nothing on his canvas!’ – nothing there on the canvas that he, Porbus, can see, his eye blind to what the ‘chaos of colours and shapes’ is showing him.

10.1. And yet we know that Balzac let his successors in art see just enough, indeed more than enough: this is why his ‘painting’ – I should say his fictional artist Frenhofer’s elusive masterpiece – had inspired so many living artists, from Cézanne to Picasso. They could ‘see’ too well what Frenhofer’s painting was about, unlike the academicians in the story, Poussin and Porbus.

11. Ben Lerner, in his short story ‘The Polish Rider,’ thinks through these aporias of ekphrastic seeing. Visual media, such as painting and sculpture, leave Lerner’s fictional avatar with an ‘unsophisticated but unshakeable sense that a work of visual art is more real, more actual, than writing.’ But, he then adds: ‘I felt literature’s lack of actuality relative to the plastic arts as a power, not a weakness, and that was new to me.’xi His final affirmation of literature is haunted by an anxious subtext:

And isn’t it really true of all ekphrastic literature, fiction and poetry, that even when it claims to be describing or praising a work of visual art it is in fact asserting its own superiority?xii

11.1. Superiority cannot be merely assumed, asserted with impunity. The real question is: why is superiority even an issue here, why refer to it at all? One answer is that Lerner’s narrator is here measuring language against the immediacy of the visual, its directness, and suggesting that ekphrastic description, by its very nature, by the very gesture/act of writing about the visual, is already an assumption of superiority over the visual. And yet, ‘a work of visual art is more real, more actual, than writing.’

11.1.1. Writing visually is constitutively aporetic, not for the faint of heart and sight.

11.2. Maurice Blanchot, a writer never deaf to anxiety’s loud nagging: ‘It seems comical and miserable that in order to manifest itself, dread, which opens and closes the sky, needs the activity of a man sitting at his table and forming letters on a piece of paper.’xiii In ekphrastic writing, dread, in opening and closing the sky, is also an effort to keep open(ing) writing’s eye.

12. Two attitudes to writing are voiced above by Lerner: ekphrastic hope and ekphrastic fear. Their imbrication may be illustrated by the following image (again, we find ourselves playing the chess knight move of metaphor). Visualise a traditional barber’s pole (in evoking/invoking the visual verbally, a common cultural frame of reference is essential: one does not see what one does not know). The white stripe on the pole corresponds to anxiety (the painter’s panicked dread of an empty canvas; the writer’s fear of a blank page gazing back blindingly white); and the red stripe corresponds to hope, to the passion for colour and visualization. If one imagines this pole turning, then both stripes seem to chase one another, without ever mixing together. The one leads naturally to the other, and then returns back to itself.

12.1 My example, of course, is itself an illustration of ekphrastic writing, for although I am anxious that the reader will recognise and visualise my image (and find it not entirely frivolous), I still write in the hope that my language is adequate to the demands of making this illustration become ‘visible,’ which also always means ‘meaningful.’

12.2 Ekphrastic hope is perpetually haunted by its other, its shadowy double: ekphrastic fear (finally, the fear of blindness), which is the silent acknowledgement that language can never fully recover presence of the visual absent. The visual immediacy of the past is lost to time. It is precisely this ekphrastic fear (fear of descriptive writing being insufficient to live up to the visual) that so often compels writers of memory to call to their aid visual media – specific or general examples taken from painting, photography, film, etc. – to lend greater semantic weight to their verbal descriptions of the past. Ekphrastic hope and ekphrastic anxiety are, in this sense, the site/sight from which writing memory issues (a sentence from Maurice Blanchot that sights similar vistas: the literary work, he writes, is kept in suspense, ‘in such a way that it can choose to take on a positive or negative value and, as though it were pivoting invisibly around an invisible axis, enter the daylight of affirmations or the back-light of negations’).xiv

12.3 Perhaps we (both as writers and readers) go astray most whenever we attempt to exorcise either term of this double, for then we either deny language its powers to depict the absent, or we grant language too much power and blind ourselves to language’s blind-spot.

13. This spiralling drama of hope-cum-anxiety, vision-cum-blindness, encompassed by the concept of ekphrasis, is also spotlit here, by Jacques Ranciere: ‘Speech makes visible, refers, summons the absent, reveals the hidden. But this making visible operates through its own failing, its own restraint … Speech ‘makes visible’, but only in accordance with a regime of under-determination, by not ‘really’ making visible.’xv

14. The fictional and nonfictional writing of memory after Flaubert, alongside Proust, Nabokov and their successors, the specific performance of writing memory that I have called prosaic ekphrasis, is a writing that cannot help but operate in/out of this spiral of ekphrastic hope and ekphrastic anxiety.

15. Prosaic ekphrasis in memory writing also alerts us to the ready slippage between the real and the imaginary, the mimetic and the aesthetic, that inheres in, to greater or less degrees, every language act of describing memory’s contents.

15.1. Barthes says as much in his canonical essay, ‘The Reality Effect.’ Barthes here describes the function of ekphrasis as being twofold: it was intended, as it was originally practiced in Antiquity, not only to describe and record reality (mimesis), but it also had a purely decorative, rhetorical function (aesthesis). There is, in short, an ‘aesthetic purpose’ to all description. In practical terms, this means that when, for instance, Flaubert continually redrafted his description of the city of Rouen in Madame Bovary, the amendations and corrections he made did not ‘in any way issue from a closer consideration of the model [the real city]’; instead, Flaubert’s descriptive changes, most notably his choices of metaphors, resulted from the aesthetic demands he set for his prose. Barthes: it is ‘as if Rouen were notable only by its substitutions (the masts like a forest of needles, the islands like a huge motionless black fish, the clouds like aerial waves silently breaking against a cliff).’xvi The implication of this aestheticising and metaphor-producing aspect of ekphrasis for the reading of memory narratives is that the imaginary always becomes embedded onto memory images in the very process of their becoming language. Memory images thus tend to come dressed in the costume of figurative expression, whenever they enter the world of story. Barthes concludes that Flaubert’s depiction of Rouen in his novel is much more a construction of it out of a medley of metaphors than it is its accurate mimetic representation: ‘we see that the whole description is constructed so as to connect Rouen to a painting: it is a painted scene which the language takes up (“Thus, seen from above, the whole landscape had the motionless look of a painting”).’xvii

15.2. Reading prose ekphrasis we cannot but marvel at language’s ability, however impossible it may be to adequately account for it, to bring before our mind’s eye the pictures of memory. These pictures, moreover, only ‘come to be’ with their writing, despite having ‘existed’ as memory images before their transcription. That is to say, when reading these narrative scenes, we cannot unseen what the verbal description is showing us, and this means that the ‘original’ memory image becomes forever out of reach (even for the writer!). This is partly what Nabokov meant, when he said that images of the past ‘are apt to fade from exposure’xviii: they fade for the writer, in order to shine in language for others.

15.3. Wittgenstein does not say quite the same thing here, but his example is suggestive of what I am trying to say about the inexactness and the ‘fuzziness’ of memory images-become-literary description: ‘Is a photograph that is not sharp a picture of a person at all? Is it even always an advantage to replace a picture that is not sharp by one that is? Isn’t one that isn’t sharp often just what we need?’xix

16. Ekphrastic writing, writing which promises to let us see the most, is in fact the mode of writing that is most blind to its own limit. This limit is what actually compels writers of memory to invent novel ways of writing about the past, and by these efforts to capture the memory images so alive and yet so ephemeral before their mind’s eye.

16.1. And, conversely, we as readers become most blind to writing in its ekphrastic dress: when we read intensely visual description (such as this image in Nabokov: ‘the figure of my father in his wind-rippled white summer suit would be displayed, gloriously sprawling in midair … reclining, as if for good, against the cobalt blue of the summer noon, like one of those paradisiac personages who comfortably soar, with such a wealth of folds in their garments, on the vaulted ceiling of a church’xx), and then try to catch the prose in its operation before the mind’s eye, to understand just how it is showing us what we are seeing, we are soon enough left looking at ink. We find ourselves like scuba-divers who get too eagerly close to an octopus, a canny creature wise to our approach, and which suddenly disappears, in a flash, and all we see is a rude billow of black ink.

17. A cryptic remark from Derrida, which I shall repeat shortly, and which shall be seen clearer, it is hoped, with the aid of an example: ‘Language is spoken, it speaks to itself, which is to say, from/of blindness. It always speaks to us from/of the blindness that constitutes it.’xxi

18. The example, the best example I have ever encountered in literature, that lets us see language speaking out of its own blindness comes from Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai’s prose masterpiece, Satantango. More accurately, it comes from Krasznahorkai’s own cinematic adaptation of his novel for the auteur filmmaker, Béla Tarr.

18.1. The opening sentence of this novel is repeated at its conclusion, when we come to realise that the third person narrator is no omniscient author, but one of the inhabitants of the Hungarian village being depicted, namely, the doctor, who is also a writer. This is the opening sentence, the sentence that first lets us see, that lets us see in hearing: ‘One morning, near the end of October not long before the first drops of the mercilessly long autumn rains began to fall on the cracked and saline soil on the western side of the estate (later the stinking yellow sea of mud would render footpaths impassable and put the town too beyond reach) Futaki woke to hear bells.’xxii

18.2. We then read all about this apocalyptic seeming post-communist dystopia, we lose ourselves in this novel’s bleak and yet mesmerising world as we lose ourselves in this writer’s long, patient sentences, until we reach the final chapter, entitled: ‘The Circle Closes.’

18.3. We here find ourselves in the doctor’s house, as he takes up hammer, nails and planks and boards up his door against unwonted visitors. He then pours himself yet another measure of pálinka (a potent alcoholic beverage), lights yet another cigarette, and sits down at his writing desk facing the window. ‘He gazed and thought, then suddenly his eyes brightened and he took out a new notebook.’xxiii

18.4. He abandons his first attempt at writing, and then suddenly he sees his way to writing the story we are about to complete reading:

‘He saw before him, as clear as if by magic, the path prepared for him, the way the fog swam up from either side of it and, in the middle of the narrow path, the luminous face of his future [hope], its lineaments bearing the infernal marks of drowning [fear]. He reached for the pencil again and felt he was back on track now: there were enough notebooks, enough pálinka, his medication would last till spring at least and, unless the nails rotted in the door, no one would disturb him. Careful not to damage the paper, he started writing: ‘One morning near the end of October not long before the first mercilessly long autumn rains began to fall on the cracked and saline soil on the western side of the estate …’xxiv

19. For the film adaptation, however, Krasznahorkai, by a stroke of genius, makes a vital change to this final scene, this final scene of writing that takes us back to the story’s beginning. In the film version, the doctor nails up not only his door, but boards up all of the windows in the house too. Having covered up everything, even the smallest cracks letting in stray rays of light, the doctor sits down in utter darkness, takes up his pencil (we can hear the scribbling), and begins to narrate the sights we saw in the film’s opening scenes.

19.1. What we now see on the screen looks a little like this:

19.1.1. (Every black picture calls out to words, eventually. Even a black screen is not blank to the verbal eye; ditto Kasimir Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ (1913). I’ve always thought that what the black paint portrays in Malevich’s painting is the actuality of its future interpretation: the black paint is really language in reserve, in the form of all the ink, print and writing that continues to stream out of the gallery space and out onto the pages of journals and monographs, and all the reviews, essays, and endless cogitations that it continues to produce, as the question remains just what the hell Malevich was trying to say – or not to say.)

19.2. As we see blindness, as we gaze on nothing but darkness in the film’s final two minutes, we hear the doctor’s bass, gravel voice begin his narration (quoted from the novel), and we soon realise that he is retelling the story we are about to conclude watching. We now hear language, as the sense of hearing displaces the sense of accustomed seeing (the film, until this final scene, had no narrator). It is here that we, as it were, witness the very process of verbal creation issuing out of the darkness, a darkness towards which we remained blind in our viewing.

19.3. Seeing thus blindness, and hearing narration, it seems as though Krasznahorkai has to rely on the visual medium of film to illustrate language’s vision-cum-blindness, by letting the viewer see nothing while hearing everything.

19.4. Perhaps we now see clearer Derrida’s sense: ‘Language is spoken, it speaks to itself, which is to say, from/of blindness. It always speaks to us from/of the blindness that constitutes it.’

20. I believe Krasznahorkai made this change to the novel’s final ‘scene of writing’ for the film screenplay precisely in order to show the viewer the experience not so much of the writer, but of writing itself. The black screen (it lasts for two minutes which feel much longer) shows the viewer the reader’s experience of seeing again the language of narration at novel’s end, where, over two whole pages, the novel’s opening is repeated, word for word. This experience becomes a confrontation with writing itself: writing, the inky seer.

20.1. As we reread the novel’s opening pages in this manner, witnessing writing’s recitation, we catch a glimpse of writing itself take place: how the story originally took place in its very becoming writing, as we temporarily forget the memory of what we have read. That is to say, in realising that we have read these words already, we become conscious of the words themselves and how they are being said: we suddenly gaze upon the writing, which is black, and it is suddenly looking back at us. Derrida: ‘Writing is itself written, but also ruined, made into an abyss, in its own representation.’xxv

21. Reading any narration, but especially reading prosaic ekphrasis, we see with language. Yet by the end of Satantango, we come to see what the writer had been doing, what every writer is always doing – trying to see through blackness, as though gazing ahead of the graphic black of his medium. And to see with language you have to forget it (it will always return before your gaze soon enough, it is already returning).

21.1. In rereading the opening scenes of Satantango at novel’s end, with the visual aid of the film’s closing shot of darkness, we see more clearly what we had forgotten, indeed, what we cannot but forget while reading narrative, while immersed in prosaic visions: language’s blindness, even as and when we take for granted its blind belief in its possibility to make seeing happen with words.

22. Krasznahorkai’s translator and poet George Szirtes has memorably described Krasznahorkai’s prose as ‘a slow lava flow of narrative,’xxvi a metaphor which might also be used to describe prosaic ekphrasis itself: literary language consisting of semantically dense, often lengthy sentences, language that both (and often at the same time) seeks to draw attention to itself, seeks to be read aloud, but also which seeks to efface itself, to recede and to disappear, so that what it is seeking to make present and visible will be all the more immediate.

23. Derrida: ‘I’ll have you observe that reading proceeds in no other way. It listens in watching.’xxvii

24. Every memory text is a blindness that must suffer (v. endure the stress of; v. allow or permit; v. wait patiently)xxviii to let us see. Every text is a cooled lava flow that glows again with its reading – when seeing, not quite impossibly, somehow happens.


i Own emphasis, Augustine, Confessions, ed. Warren W. Wiersbe, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2005, pp. 143-144.
ii Horace, “The Art of Poetry”, in Classical Literary Criticism, trans. Penelope Murray and T.S. Dorsch, London: Penguin Books, 2000, p. 103.
iii Cixous, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, trans. Sarah Cornell and Susan Sellers, NY: Columbia University Press, 1993, p. 9.
iv Verene Andermatt Conley, Hélène Cixous: Writing the Feminine, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984, p. 146.
v  Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990, p. 54.
vi Nabokov, Speak, Memory, London: Penguin, 2000, p. 29.
vii Mendelsund, What We See When We Read, New York, Vintage Books, 2014, p. 96.
viii Flaubert, Memoirs of a Madman and November, trans. Andrew Brown, Richmond: Alma Classics, 2013, p. 105.
ix Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007, p. 30.
x Balzac, The Unknown Masterpiece and Gambara, trans. Richard Howard, New York: New York Review of Books, 2001, p. 40.
xi Lerner, ‘The Polish Rider,’ New Yorker, June 6 &13, 2016. Online access:
xii Ibid.
xiii Blanchot, The Station Hill Blanchot Reader: Fiction and Literary Essays, trans Lydia Davis, Paul Auster, et al., ed. George Quasha, Barrytown: Station Hill, 1999, p. 346.
xiv Ibid., p. 397.
xv Ranciere, The Future of the Image, London: Verso Books, 2009. p. 113.
xvi Barthes, S/Z, p. 144.
xvii Ibid., p. 144-145.
xviii Nabokov, Strong Opinions, London: Penguin, 2011, p. 122.
xix Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, Oxford: Blackwell, 2009, § 71, p. 38.
xx Nabokov, Speak, Memory, p. 15.
xxi Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind, p. 4.
xxii Krasznahorkai, Satantango, trans. George Szirtes, London: Atlantic Books, 2012, p. 3.
xxiii Ibid., p. 271.
xxiv Ibid., p. 272.
xxv Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass, Abingdon: Routledge, 2001, p. 79.
xxvi James Wood, ‘Madness and Civilization: The Very Strange Fictions of László Krasznahorkai,’ New Yorker, July 4, 2011. Online access:
xxvii Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind, p. 2.
xxviii Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

How to See Past Things with Words