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Paradoxical Ekphrases in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas

Abstract : A choral novel transporting us through time and space, from the early stages of colonial history to a rediscovery of the world after the downfall of technological civilisations, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004) explicitly confronts us with boundaries and their potential transgression. The presence of ekphrasis seems to confirm the colonial thread that runs through the narrative. In his travelogue, Adam Ewing recounts his discovery of the Chatham Islands. His epiphanic encounter with Moriori culture takes place when he comes face to face with dendroglyphs carved generations ago. An extinct people, the Moriori quintessentially refer us to colonial violence, which Ewing’s description of the carvings seems to reflect in the antagonistic meeting of verbal and visual art. To the violence of colonial powers decimating minor cultures, the trope of ekphrasis offers an analogue in the guise of verbal violence, as speech imposes a voice where sacredness was preserved by silence and secrecy. This interpretation of the relation between words and images in the ekphrastic mode finds an echo later in the book. The obliteration of the visual by the dominant order of speech seems at play again in the convocation of the motif of ekphrasis through the intertextual reference to Virgil’s Aeneid I. At the point where the phrase “sunt lacrimae rerum” appears, words seem to take over, all the more as the quotation is literally used as a “phrase”, with no reference to its original function in response to the murals in Juno’s temple. A closer study of the role of ekphrasis in the novel, however, signals the disappearance of images as paradoxical in its consequences. Indeed, the more definite the absence of the visual object, the more the reader is meant to respond to words themselves in visual terms. The quotation from Virgil, appearing at various points in the novel, becomes a motif, the visuality of which is stressed by its variety of typographic appearances. As we are made to connect the instances where it appears, and see how it binds the characters together as much as the comet-shaped birthmark they all bear, our reading becomes a performance: we lend our body to the book, and allow it to guide our memory, our eyes and fingers. The reading subject is reminded of his position as a seeing subject, and as the potential object of another’s gaze. Indeed, in one possible interpretation of the quotation, the “tears” are those of the world itself for mankind, as embodied in the work of art. The murals bear witness to the misery of human condition: they “see” it as they remind us of it, and our tears, like Aeneas’s, come in response to theirs, to their silent appeal to us. The emblematic reference to ekphrasis, instead of eschewing the visual image altogether, reminds us of the dialectical nature of sight: as a reading/seeing subject, we are to be seen and read by books and paintings. By looking at the trope in this new light, we are encouraged to see in it the possibility of a transaction, of a cooperative interaction between the visual and the verbal. If, like W. T. Mitchell, we are to analyse the ekphrasis as the locus of an encounter with a paradigmatic other, we can think of this encounter not as an effort to overcome otherness, but as the promise of meeting it and being informed by it. Far from bringing about the final disembodiment of visual works of art, the text suddenly presents itself as a visual object, and demands that we respond to it as such. Reflecting on the way in which the verbal and visual media shed light on each other, and inform our perception of the other, I try and show that an intermedial approach need not find its legitimacy in the generic hybridity of the object it focuses on. Here, ekphrasis seems to finally obliterate its visual anchorage, and to confirm the “purely” textual status of a novel that will not comprehend visual objects. Yet the absence of an image, rather than consecrating the victory of the symbolic and semiotics over visual experience, pragmatically reminds us of the visual dimension of our physical encounter with the text, as we look at it and respond to it. This transaction of the visual and the verbal within the text, and within pictures, is what allows intermedial criticism to help us see them anew.
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Submitted on : Wednesday, September 30, 2020 - 4:33:08 PM
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Diane Leblond. Paradoxical Ekphrases in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. ESSE international conference (European Society for the Study of English). (Re)defining Intermediality., Sep 2012, Istanbul, France. ⟨hal-02954019⟩



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