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The Poetics of Sight


John Harvey

«Ut pictura poesis», Horace said, but through the two millennia in which «the sister arts» have been compared, little has been said about the nature of sight itself. What we see in «our mind’s eye» as we read has not been explored, though by following the visual prompts in texts, one can anatomize the process of visualization.
The Poetics of Sight analyses the role of sight in memory, dream and popular culture and demonstrates the structure of a complex sight within the metaphors of Shakespeare, Pope and Dickens; and within the visual metaphors of Picasso, Magritte and Bacon. This book explores the difference between the great and the failed works of the supreme poet-painter, William Blake, and tracks the migrations of the Satiric muse between verbal mockery and scabrous images in Persius, Pope, Gillray and Gogol. It records the rise, and partial decline, of the vividly «seen» novel in Dickens, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Proust and Hardy.
The key concept throughout this book is visual metaphor, which in the twentieth century acquired overarching importance: in art from Picasso to Kapoor, in poetry from Eliot to Hughes, in aesthetics from Pound to Derrida. The book closes with a far-reaching definition of visual metaphor and with the great visual metaphor of the human body.
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CHAPTER 5: Metaphor and Modernism


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Metaphor and Modernism

Since we think of metaphor as a verbal device – something we say, not something we see – there is a question as to what, exactly, a ‘visual metaphor’ would be. I want to review the different senses this phrase could carry, but because the subject of metaphor is in many ways fraught it seems best to advance by stages. So I shall first attempt a brief history and definition of metaphor in general, before considering specifically visual metaphor, and the role of visual metaphor in modernist art and letters. Prior to that, it may helpful to recall the attack which metaphors can have, especially since, in theoretical discussion, the specimen metaphors are often innocuous.

In 1989 the Egyptian Interior Minister Zaki Badr let it be announced that he would, in public, call the Ayatollah Khomeini ‘a dog’ and ‘a pig’. And shortly afterwards he said, in public, ‘Khomeini is a dog. Pardon me, no, he is not a dog, he is a pig, for a dog is faithful’.1 The statement was not literally true, and it is possible that Zaki Badr did not believe it was even figuratively true, in an absolute sense – that is, that the Ayatollah was as foully soiled and unclean as a pig is for Muslims, and even more so than a scavenging dog. For his purpose was less to describe than to injure, damage and degrade.

The words of Zaki...

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