In a multi-genre writing unit I taught last year at Monash University,
students were required to submit a draft of a piece of work before the
final piece was handed in to be graded. My role was to provide suggestions
to help students improve their draft pieces. One of the pieces submitted
to me at this draft stage came from a student who had taken up an interest
in Salsa dancing. She wrote a non-fiction article which, together with
insightful nuggets of information about the language and history of the
dance, recounted an evening out taking a beginners Salsa dance lesson
at the Copacabana Club in Melbourne's Smith Street. Attached to the piece
was a sheet of A3 paper folded in half so as to resemble an open magazine.
The page had been divided up into sections with labels. Text. Photo. Text.
Photo. etc. In my comment on the draft I indicated to the student that
presenting the layout was unnecessary, as the only element of the assignment
to be graded was the text, the writing - the important bits. The student,
perhaps wisely, did not comply. The final version included a reasonable
mock-up of a magazine spread complete with photographs of the student
in various states of dance and (I assume) drunkenness at said bar. As
I considered the piece, I was left with the feeling that indeed the text
was somehow enhanced by the photographs of the student, and not just in
the literal illustrative way that the student had intended. Despite the
amateurism of the photographs, and probably because of it, the piece appeared
to be more aesthetically complete than had been intended and I wished
I could have taken this into account when grading it. But there were two
reasons I couldn't: there was no indication in the explanatory notes accompanying
the piece that the student had actually intended this level of sophistication;
and nowhere could I find any sense that I had the scope or expertise to
judge the quality of the images and their contribution to the meaning
of the text.
It also struck me that in the student's resistance against my suggestion
about the value of using images, I was coming across a writer, the type
of whom might be becoming increasingly common, for whom the first impulse
is toward image rather than text; the same neonate who figures in Jonathan
Franzen's equation of generations when he writes in his essay 'The Reader
in Exile' that 'For every reader who dies today, a viewer is born' (Franzen
2002: 165); the product of a culture that has absorbed
into itself the centrality of the image in the way Urry articulates in
his seminal study of the culture of tourism The Tourist Gaze:
'Our memories of places,' he writes, 'are largely structured through photographic
images and the mainly verbal text we weave around images when they are
on show to others,' (Urry 1990: 140). Image
first. Text second.
Of course the use of images, and by this I mean images in the broader
sense of photographs, drawings, paintings and the like, in concert with
text, that is words, linguistic messages in the form of narrative and
stories, is by no means a novel practice. Consider the work of the medieval
illuminators of holy texts, and the renaissance woodcuts carved for the
version of Aesop's Fables produced on Gutenberg's press. Perhaps it is
of prime importance to remember that there was a time even further past
when the image and the text were not yet separate. Recorded history is
defined by the rise in Sumer 7000 years ago of cuneiform impressions in
clay, falling somewhere between representaion of linguistic utterance
and visually apprehensible objects. But, like Plato's original four-legged
two-headed humans in the Symposium, words and images seem to
have fallen foul of the gods and been rent asunder forever, flung into
a mad dance, whose irregular beat searches in vain to restore their long-lost
unity. And now, long after the split, any permanent reunion seems impossible.
Image and text have metamorphosed independently, along lines of technology
that have seen the image come closer and closer to the illusion of the
real, the photographic theft of light and time, while the word has been
cut off, fixed in abstract characters, undecipherable outside a connection
with spoken language. But words are still said to evoke images, and every
image's meaning hangs on a wall of words. What remains between the image
and the text is the old yearning for unity.
What does this mean for the writer? Are we agents of this yearning? Is
it our duty to make good the promise of the image as Berger puts it: 'In
the relation between a photograph and words, the photograph begs for an
interpretation, and the words usually supply it.' (Berger
& Mohr 1982: 92) Must we be bound to the image,
to serve its desire for many-sided, free interpretation?
In some quarters I think it means that the writer has come to envy the
image. Jonathan Franzen again, identifies this envy as being manifested
in a kind of resentment. He points to Bickerts' argument in The Gutenberg
Elegies which presents reading as an internal activity and viewing
an image as external, that the loss of the internal life represented by
the decline of reading is to be mourned (Franzen 2002: 172). An ocularcentric
culture, one images the writer complaining, hijacks the imagination of
its erstwhile readers. The result is that some writers feel uncomfortable
in the presence of the image. They feel that to engage with the image
is some kind of guilty pleasure, an indulgence in the sinful world of
eye candy. Franzen confesses his sin and repents by giving away his television
Of course I am casting the tension between text and image in too melodramatic
a light. But it makes the point that the writer, the literary writer,
even the student writer in a course of study in Creative Writing at a
tertiary institution, need not be puritanically warned away from engaging
more directly with the image. Rather, it might be useful to explore avenues
of experimentation, to engage with the ways in which the text and the
image are being used in tandem in the practice of contemporary literary
fiction and explore how it might be possible to deduce something about
the writing process and how images contribute to the aesthetic effect
of the work as a whole.
Brian Castro and W.G. Sebald, whose writings are similarly attuned and
traverse some of the same melancholic - if hemispherically opposite -
ground, illustrate perfectly to me the generation of a particular aesthetic
effect which is achieved when the text and, in this case, photographic
images are presented as a contiguous whole. They present what seems at
first to be a seemingly literal and unified message (image as simple illustration
of text) but which, in my reading, come to appear as being purposely disconnected.
The following examples describe some of these images and the contexts
in which they appear.
Brian Castro's Shanghai Dancing is a self-described fictional
autobiography. The opening pages present two family trees culminating
in the union of the Castro and Wing families in the persons of Arnaldo
Castro and Jasmine Wing and the production of their offspring António.
António, it would appear, is the 'I' and the 'he' of the shifting
narrative point of view. Of course this immediately presents the reader
with an uncertainty. We recognise that as autobiography this is meant
to be the life of Brian, but because we cannot find any Brian on the family
tree, it is also not the life of Brian. Instead the narrator is António
Castro, a fictional vehicle for Castro's autobiography. An autobiography
at liberty to graze on the paddocks of invention, but fixed to the real
with the evidence of photographs. The photographs are placed in the text
un-captioned and without attribution.
In one photograph a man stands on a beach, holding in his stomach, puffing his chest out, and rippling his biceps à la Charles Atlas. The adjacent text, continuous with the narrative, reads:
A few pages along a photographic/photocopied reproduction of an advertisement
for Sunlight Soap appears in which a demure woman possibly in a touched-up
photograph (possibly coloured in the original?) sits smiling on a bench
in an elegant Chinese dress that hugs her crossed knees beneath her folded
hands. Above it the conclusion of an episode about the narrator's mother:
'To think that she once did advertisements for Sunlight Soap' (Castro
W.G. Sebald's four works of prose fiction Vertigo, The Emigrants,
The Rings of Saturn and Austerlitz all use photographic
and other images in a similar vein. The images again are unattributed
In The Rings of Saturn (Sebald 1998) we read to the bottom of page 59:
When the page is turned, instead of the continuation of the sentence,
we are faced with what John Banville describes as 'a two-page spread showing
bodies piled at random in a pine wood' (Banville 2001).
The quality of the image however is poor, the bodies
could easily be mistaken for lumpy earth, or collapsed tents.
In Vertigo, the narrator, a close fictional version of the author, has his passport inadvertently spirited away while in a hotel on Lake Garda. He presents himself at the German consulate in Milan.
The date is the 4th of August 1987. On the same page is a reproduction
of W.G. Sebald's passport, issued on 04 August 1987 in Milan; the photograph
identifying the author is partially obscured by a thick black line.
It seems almost self-evident that the photographs presented by both Castro and Sebald should be described as illustrations of the text. Indeed, Banville writes that the pages of Sebald's books are 'illustrated with blurry, anonymous, and yet curiously affecting photographs' and that these photographs when
Tess Lewis writing in The New Criterion describes the use of photographs in Sebald thus:
Evelyn Juers in her essay on Sebald 'W', wonders a little plaintively,
whether, after his sudden success, there might emerge a host of Sebald
imitators. 'It's not difficult,' she writes, 'to illustrate prose with
photographs' (Juers 2002: 112).
The term illustration is a misleading one here. An illustration
suggests a clarifying link between the image and the text, that light
is being cast on how the text ought to be visualised. This is not exactly
the case. And to give them their due Banville and Lewis, despite their
reliance on the term illustration, both identify this uncertainty.
Banville makes light of their near absurd literality and Lewis engages
with the question of the reliability of the narrator. It seems clear that
the very purpose of these images is to elicit this sense of doubt about
their final status, that they engage in an aesthetics of discontinuity.
This is a similar discontinuity as experienced between the image and text
In the light of this aesthetic of discontinuity, what do we make in Shanghai Dancing of the image of a child perhaps three, maybe four years old - ostensibly the narrator, Antontio-not-Brian - standing in the place on the roof of his childhood home where a Chinese bandit had been beaten half to death and then beheaded beside the water tank?
Is this Brian Castro the author in a photograph lifted from his family
album which has been recast in a skewed ficto-autobiographical light?
Surely it must be. This is a fictional-autobiography after all. If there
is a slippage between fiction and biography in this text then how does
this apply to the image?
A naive reading allows us to read the 'I' of the photograph and the 'I'
of the text as being of the same substance, existing on the same plane.
But in this case we know they are not. Both the text and the photograph
become unreadable, their message cannot surmount the unresolvable wall
that Castro has erected between them. The photograph emerges from the
world of non-fiction, it is the product and evidence of the observable
world. If the work we are reading is fiction - a novel - a misrepresentation
must be taking place. The image cannot be a simple illustration of a passage
in the text.
Similarly with the Sunlight Soap advertisement mentioned earlier. Whose
mother is this in the image? Brian's or Antonio's? We read for a connection
between image and text. That link appears literal. The advertisement could
be real. It looks authentic. And even if it is a real advertisement, not
digitally mocked-up by the author himself, we still have no proof that
this really is the narrator's mother.
And further on, the voice of the narrator's father, Arnaldo Castro, speaks:
'I was to play the clarinet in a dance band with Billy 'The Kid' Souza
on drums, and Mickey Rocha on bass and Jaime Guimereis on piano. The Shimin
Syncopators.' (Castro 2003: 318). The photograph set into the text shows
a drummer, a saxophonist (not a clarinettist) and a man obscured by the
drummer and kit, with his head bowed. It couldn't be the double bass he
is playing. Surely that would protrude above the drum kit. Perhaps it
is the piano? Is this the Jaime Guimereis who in the narrative of Shanghai
Dancing was run through by a Japanese sentry with a bayonet over
a petty lapse in etiquette during the occupation of Hong Kong? Is this
really the Shimin Syncopators? Did they ever exist?
We read for a connection. The man on the beach in the photograph looks
like he might be in Miami. Is this the narrator's father? If it is Miami,
then this couldn't be him in his retirement. We've just been told this
is not what he is doing. Is it an imagined version of the father's foregone
life in retirement? No. This is a photograph after all and the photograph
does not lie. There is no connection.
Sebald makes like gestures in his similarly quasi-autobiographical novels.
Have we been told the true story of how the author came to have his passport
issued in Milan on this day, or has there been a misrepresentation? What
are those strange grainy lumps in the forest contextualised by reference
Jacques Austerlitz, the eponymous hero of Sebald's final work of prose
fiction, escapes Europe on the Kindertransport and suffers the erasure
of his identity, submerged in the deeply religious world of a Calvinist
minister and his wife in rural Wales. Despite having known the fact of
his hidden identity for many years, it is only late in life that he engages
in an active reconstruction of his past, and searches for clues about
his mother Agáta. John Banville claims that '[t]he movement, toward
the close of the book, when we are finally shown a photograph of a woman
who is almost certainly Agáta, is one of the most moving moments
that the reader is likely to encounter in modern literature' (Banville
2001). Why so moving? Is it because of the uplifting pathos built into
the naive reading that connects son and long-perished mother? I think
there is something more, something darker going on here. There is also
a sense that we know that the woman in the photograph is real (Sebald
2002a: 353). Whoever she is, she once existed. She
may well be someone's mother. A photograph lifted by Sebald from a family
album somewhere. Not the mother of Jacques Austerlitz at all. The same
gap, the same disconnection, that pervades the relationship between image
and text in Castro's Shanghai Dancing is at work here.
In her study of post-War West German literature and the Holocaust, The Language of Silence, Ernestine Schlant describes this trait of Sebald's work. She writes that it is spoken in
The mourning and melancholia do not serve to atone for the past, the
dead cannot be retrieved, just as between the images and the text a profound
unalterable silence is maintained.
Between the literal illumination of the texts and these texts' uncertain
status, somewhere between fiction and autobiography, there remains an
uncanny semiotic gap - a silent no-man's land that plays with Barthes'
understanding of photographs as being 'a message without a code' (Barthes
1977: 17). Unless they have been labelled, or captioned
(even in the way Breton captions the photographs and drawings in his surrealist
novel Nadja) photographs are silenced. The linguistic aspect
of text is the vocal, articulate element - the photograph is silent, enigmatic
- it must be voiced by the text. In both Castro and Sebald the photograph
is allowed to do what Castro himself describes is at work in Sebald, he
is 'resisting the vortex while speaking the vortex.' (Castro
This silence is related to Barthes' idea of the text (the linguistic
message) acting as a technique 'intended to fix the floating signifiers
in such a way as to counter the terror of uncertain signs' (Barthes 1977:
39). The photograph is always an uncertain sign - in this case the text
too is uncertain. Just when we believe, naively, that one speaks literally
to the other, we must in a more sophisticated reading realise that the
message collapses. Silence remains. It is in this silence that we find
an aesthetic effect - the effect, the emotion it generates, is one of
discomfort, disappointment, sadness, loss, melancholy. As Castro has it
in his elegy for Sebald, 'Blue Max', 'the photos...form the border between
life and death, signifying silence, but possessing a mnemonic power in
their textual spaces. They are, in some sense, a mental self-portrait,
more personal than the text' (Castro 2002: 124).
So we come to the question of how all this might benefit the student
in a creative writing course apart from equipping them with the ability
to identify and possibly use an aesthetic device by throwing a few obscure
photographs into the mix. The answer lies in how the introduction of images
into text in this Castro/Sebald model actively exposes something about
the writing process.
It acknowledges that the act of writing is not a mimetic act, but one
of artifice - something relatively new writers are prone to forget. Castro
recognises this idea. 'Facts,' he writes in an essay on Shanghai Dancing
as a work-in-progress, 'are always constituted, like history. Put together
with gaps.' (Castro 1999: 209)
It seems obvious in the works of Castro and Sebald that the photographs
they use must be collected and culled, ordered and made to relate to the
text. They become part of the text themselves. Words too must engage with
the same process, the words must speak to each other, but to achieve depth
and texture, must also participate in the active rendering of silences,
gaps must be allowed to remain.
Schlant says on Sebald's The Emigrants that, 'The narrator describes
the circumstances of his own life at the time he becomes interested in
the lives of these "others"; he describes the note-taking and
the travels necessary for his research, so that the narratives are also
works-in-progress constructed in front of the reader' (Schlant 1999: 225).
There is a layering of fiction and fact here again in which the photographs
- as evidence of the real - participate. The process of writing the novel
is fictionalised within the novel.
It reminds us finally of the idea that writing is a type of performance, a shaking together of disparate elements that, with craft, love, intellect, persistence and risk, can be moulded into good writing. I think this is what I identified in my Salsa dancing student's work. A clear laying bare of the rough foundations. The end result is a kind of exposition of something about the process of writing that presentation of text alone often seems to leave unarticulated, a kind of raw performance of the text's very materiality and an echo of what Sebald says about his writing process in relation to the photographs in his work:
David Sornig is a graduate of the doctoral program in writing at Deakin University where he now teaches and acts as a research assistant for Network: Image Text and Technology. His latest short story 'The Gift to Sebastiano' will be published in Griffith Review in June 2004.
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Vol 8 No 1 April 2004
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady