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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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1 I have wondered whether our visual memory is a tool we use to docket and store key pieces of experience in summary form. My memory then would resemble those trays of tiny photos which the Greek border police would thumb through when I visited Greece during the military dictatorship of the Colonels (I was bespectacled, bearded and loosely Afro-haired): each of the little faces represented a life and a politics, but they were stored as tiny pictures which could be sifted at a glance. To an extent our visual memory may serve this function, but if so the system is subject to decay, like a filing cabinet where the tabs survive though the photocopies within it have faded.

2 Proust, Marcel, In Search of Lost Time, trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised D.J. Enright (London: Chatto and Windus, 1992), I, 49 (madeleine); I, 198 (steeples); I, 343 (trees).

3 On Ames rooms, with illustrative photograph, see Gregory, Richard L., Eye and Brain: The Psychology of Seeing, 5th edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997 [1966]), 177–80. The classic discussion of invention and self-deception in visual perception is in the works of Richard Gregory. See also his The Intelligent Eye (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970), or, for a brief but essential account, his article ‘Knowledge in perception and illusion’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 352/1358 (1997), 1121–7.

4 On the complexities of visual perception, and...

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