BY Ben Lerner in Profiles | 16 JUN 13
Featured in
Issue 156

The Actual World

Are objects more real than words? Or, how poet and novelist Ben Lerner stopped being jealous and learned to love the virtual

BY Ben Lerner in Profiles | 16 JUN 13

I’ve spent a lot of time being jealous of artists who work with something other than words. I know language is a material, that it can be thingly, that the book is a specific medium, and so on, but when I see an artist who gets to work with paint or foam or metal or whatever, I often wish I practiced a more tactile art. My jealousy has various sources, but one is the unsophisticated yet unshakable sense that a work of visual art – even a photograph or film installation – is more real, more actual, than a machine made out of words.

Instead of talking myself out of this (largely indefensible) distinction between the actuality of visual art and the virtuality of the literary, I’ve come to embrace it; I’ve come to think that one of the powers of literature is precisely how it can describe and stage encounters with works of art that can’t or don’t exist, or how it can resituate actual works of art in virtual conditions. Literature can function as a laboratory in which we test responses to unrealized or unrealizable art works, or in which we embed real works in imagined conditions in order to track their effects. 

Jules Bastien-Lepage, Joan of Arc, 1879, oil on canvas, 2.5 x 2.9 m. Courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York / Art Resource, and Scala, Florence.

The traditional literary response to a nonverbal work of art is the ekphrastic poem – a poem that uses verbal art to engage a visual one. While the ekphrastic poem is in part judged by its powers of description, the thing it describes can be fiction. The classic example of ekphrasis, for instance – the description of Achilles’s shield in Homer’s The Iliad – is so elaborate as to cease to be realistic; no actual shield could contain all that detail. (This makes sense, since the shield was made by a god.) The verbal, while pretending to give life to the visual, often transcends it: words can describe a shield we can’t actually make, can’t even paint. (Just don’t take a shield made out of words into battle.) Or consider another canonical example of ekphrasis, John Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ (1820), wherein we encounter a description of an impossible music prompted by a meditation on a plastic form: ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on: / Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d / Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.’ My point is that ekphrastic literature is often a virtual form: it describes something that can’t be made given the limitations of the actual world.

For me, at least at the moment, the novel, not the poem, is the privileged form for the kind of virtuality I’m describing. I think of the novel as a fundamentally curatorial form, as a genre that assimilates and arranges and dramatizes encounters with other genres: poetry, criticism and so on. (In my novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, 2011, for example, I incorporated passages from an academic essay I’d written about John Ashbery and a poem from my first book of poetry; the novel I’m working on now involves encounters with Donald Judd’s boxes in Marfa, Texas, as well as passages from a new ekphrastic poem engaging Jules Bastien-Lepage’s 1879 painting, Joan of Arc.) Most ekphrastic poetry – although certainly not all – focuses on how verse can vividly describe a particular work of art, even an impossible one; I’m drawn to an ekphrastic prose that operates at a greater remove, less concerned with detailing the object than the total environment in which the artistic encounter takes place. Prose fiction can allow you to offer a robust description of all the epiphenomena and contingencies involved in a particular character’s encounter with a particular work: it allows you to place that encounter in a character’s life, time, day, describing not only a quality of light in a gallery, but what the character has read or eaten or smoked, what was on his or her mind on that morning or evening, what protest they passed on the way to the museum, etc. (I’m hardly claiming poetry can’t do this; Ashbery’s 1975 ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ – inspired by Parmigianino’s early 16th-century painting – certainly does.) The novel is an art work in which you can embed other art works – real or imagined – in a variety of thickly described artificial environments in order to test a character’s responses. And it can follow the way an art work enters the memory and spreads out into other domains of a character’s experience, as in Marcel Proust’s mention of ‘Le petit pan de mur jaune’ (little patch of yellow wall) in À la recherché du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time, 1913–27). (As to whether or not it corresponds to any particular detail in Johannes Vermeer’s 1660–61 painting View of Delft, I’m told there’s still no consensus among critics.) The absorptiveness and virtuality of the novel make it a testing ground for aesthetic experiment and response. 

Parmigianino, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, c.1524, oil on board, 24 cm diameter. Courtesy: Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna

I think this makes the novel a great vehicle for art criticism, and much of the best art criticism seems to have learned something from fiction. A brilliant book like T.J. Clark’s The Sight of Death (2006) – ‘an experiment in art writing’ in which he chronicles his encounters with two of Nicolas Poussin’s canvases over the course of six months at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles – has as much in common with novels as it does with most conventional art criticism.

I think of Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters (1985), in which the critic Reger returns again and again to Tintoretto’s Portrait of a White-Bearded Man (c.1545) at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna; or Javier Marías’s A Heart So White (1992), in which a museum guard, driven mad by guarding a Rembrandt in the Prado for decades, decides to burn it. Clark’s The Sight of Death is a compelling work in part because it dispenses with the fiction that an image can ever be seen all at once, or seen objectively – the fictions on which much ‘non-fiction’ art writing is based – in order to present a museum encounter in and over time. (Clark’s diaristic book also contains several ekphrastic poems as if to acknowledge the absorptiveness of prose).

Clark is rigorously involved with two real canvases, of course, but the novel is a space wherein such an experiment in art writing can take place before the existence of the art itself, where an encounter can be staged between individuals and/or art works that are not or cannot be made actual. Fiction that describes encounters with artificial objects that don’t yet or can’t yet exist is usually called ‘science fiction’ – a prose that attempts to make discernable the shape of an unrealizable technological culture. But we could also organize a genre of ‘speculative fiction’ around virtual arts: Keatsian music; a painting that never dries. Writing is particularly suited to figuring what we can desire or fear but can’t (now) make, especially relative to those arts that depend on seeing. 

Tintoretto, Portrait of a White-Bearded Man, c.1545, oil on canvas, 92 x 60 cm. Courtesy: Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna

Banishing the ‘literary’ – the temporal, the representational – from visual art was a major (if unsuccessful) 20th-century critical project. And those artists – like Judd – who moved away from traditional media altogether to real objects and real space further made the kind of virtuality I’m describing the domain of the literary. We’re often told that the figure within the work was replaced with the viewer standing before it. Ejecting the virtual from the object increased the former’s power: now it could reabsorb the object along with is viewer. Literary virtuality became the ghost of the actual, driving certain artists crazy, driving them conceptual. Perhaps we can think of contemporary artists’ increasing interest in literary techniques in part as a desire to reincorporate the power of the virtual back into their work.

So what is the power of the virtual? Michael Clune, a brilliant young literary critic, argues in his book, Writing Against Time (2013), that certain writers ‘invent virtual techniques, imaginary forms for arresting neurobiological time by overcoming the brain’s stubborn boundaries’. This isn’t something literary form can actually accomplish – Keats’s imaginary music can’t be played. Instead, Clune writes, ‘the mode is ekphrastic. These writers create images of more powerful images; they fashion techniques for imagining better techniques.’ ‘Like an airplane designer examining a bird’s wing’, the writer of the virtual ‘studies life to overcome its limits’. Clune is particularly focused on representations of works that defeat time, but we can say more generally that the virtuality of literature allows it to produce images of impracticable techniques – to open a space where the visual artist can desire and think beyond the stubborn boundaries of her materials. Instead of grounding the (often competitive) relationship of verbal and visual art in their similarity – Ut pictura poesis – I think the relationship is most fecund when writers concede the actual to artists.

Ben Lerner is a poet, critic and author of the novels Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) and 10:04 (2014). In 2018, he published two artist collaborations, The Polish Rider (with Anna Ostoya, Mack) and The Snows of Venice (with Alexander Kluge, Spector).