The Devil’s In Gogol’s Portrait

I have been enjoying — very much — reading a variety of works about portraiture (but who has time with a newborn baby?!).  My intention has been to write a series of posts about this theme in literature.

While reading, however, I wanted to pause and address a thread from a past series of mine: the devil in literature.  I find, not surprisingly, that there are many intersections between the portrait and the devil in the texts I have read.

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About Face: Cranley’s Bust

One topic that interests me in literature is portraiture. I’d like to kick off a new series about portraits in literature with some snippets from an essay I wrote a few years ago about James Joyce’s Portrait.

The “portrait” in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Irish, 1916) is upheld by Joyce as textual, communicating meaning through words and associations. His denotative question, “Why own a thing when you can say it?” reveals his bias; instead of upholding the visual quality of the art, shown through ocular imagery and aesthetic, Joyce uses the intangible word to create mental pictures and manifest beauty.

Balzac’s Take on Pygmalion

Either the picture portrays the core of a man or it is not a picture.

– William Carlos Williams, A Recognizable Image

In the “The UnKnown Masterpiece” (French, 1831) Balzac takes up the age-old debate about where nature ends and art begins.  He does so, not surprisingly, through the most classic medium: the nude female form.  Or, more precisely, he enters the debate of art versus nature by writing about the painting of the nude female form.  This in itself — before I considered the plot or the style or the significance of the short story — already had me thinking of Etienne Gilson’s argument that “true painters know full well that, while they are painting, they are neither writing nor talking,” in conjunction with Foucault’s theory that “either the text is ruled by the image […] or else the image is ruled by the text.”  Gilson and Foucault stress that language and image can never peaceably coexist on the same plane of meaning.  But I found myself questioning this basic assumption when reading Balzac.

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