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Ekphrastic Conceptualism in Postmodern British and American Novels

Don DeLillo, Paul Auster and Tom McCarthy


Jarosław Hetman

The relationship between the arts has fascinated people for centuries. Discussing the ancient notion of ekphrasis, this study examines the interpenetration of literary and non-literary art. Traditionally, ekphrasis is defined as a rhetorical device for the poetic description of a painting or a sculpture that has been steadily gaining attention in literary studies since the mid-twentieth century. Taking a close look at the works of Don DeLillo, Paul Auster and Tom McCarthy, the author demonstrates how ekphrasis is useful for reading contemporary novels that feature non-representative, conceptual works of art.
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Chapter One: Towards Conceptual Ekphrasis: Evolution of the Term


Chapter One:  Towards Conceptual Ekphrasis: Evolution of the Term

1.  Ekphrasis – the evolution of the term

The notion of ekphrasis is a problematic one. Due to the lack of an undisputed set of characteristics, it has often been dismissed as insufficiently grounded. It has been argued that since it is semiologically indistinguishable from not only literature, but any other form of linguistic utterance, it is pointless to make artificial distinctions. The fact that ekphrasis originated not as a literary device but a didactic exercise has been brought up to undermine its legitimacy. Claims concerning its exceedingly broad spectrum of thematic scope have been made as convincingly as those that accused it for application limited to the relationship of poetry and painting. It has been replaced with terms such as “painting in poetry,” or it has remained unnamed in discussions of literary depictions of works of art. For centuries ekphrasis has been mostly an obscure term applied exclusively to the ancient tradition, despite the fact that numerous canonical poems, today classified as ekphrastic poems, were composed during the time.

Ekphrasis as a literary device began to resurface in scholarly papers as late as mid-twentieth century, and toward the end of the millennium, it has started to enjoy considerable attention. Nowadays, ekphrasis is used in both historical studies and accounts of contemporary literature. It finds application in representational and non-representational works of art alike. In order to answer questions related to the relatively sudden reestablishment of...

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